Arthur Machen was pretty weird, man. I mean, seriously. He talked too much about living in penury in London; he warbled on about religion; he was a weird dude. Wait, sorry, am I channeling my students again? Right, never mind. He wrote weird shit, that’s what I need to tell you. Really weird shit. One of those things was The Three Impostors.
Historically, if you talk to people who care about this kind of thing, The Three Impostors is Machen’s knock-off of The Dynamiters, by Robert Louis Stevenson (yeah, the Jekyll and Hyde guy). But no one really reads The Dynamiters any more. So, fuck that book.
OK, OK, let’s be serious. This novel is a weird mess of a book that turns out really well, but it’s hard to tell how that could happen while you’re reading it. Luckily it’s short. Basically there are two guys, Dyson and Phillips. Dyson is a writer and is fascinated by the weird and obscure in modern life. Phillips is a geologist, and is a straw man for scientists – he’ll believe anything if someone says a scientists said it. He won’t even check, he’ll just buy in immediately. But, hey, its’ not like Machen was biased.
Protip: Machen was super-biased.
Dyson happens to wander down an alley one day, because as a poor writer with a small annuity from his family, he has dick-all to do all day. He sees a young man tear out of a dark building with three thugs chasing him. They young man drops a gold coin and Dyson picks it up after the whole mess runs by. Later we learn it’s the gold Tiberius, a legendarily rare coin. OK, cool, whatever.
Then people begin to crop up, asking Dyson and Phillips both if they’ve seen a young man in spectacles – Dyson never realizes they’re looking for the kid who dropped the coin.
Here’s where it gets weird. Each time they ask, they tell their story, the reason why they need to find this young man. Each story is pretty much bullshit. But each is so good they’re often excerpted. They’re labeled in the novel under their own titles, so they’re basically short stories.
The first one claims the young man was a well to do noble who hired him (the narrator) to be a secretary, dragged him to America, and then never asked him to do any secretarying. Finally some people try to lynch the narrator, because apparently the young man was the leader of the worst bandit gang that side of the Mississippi. He’s rescued just in time.
OK. Weird. Next story is by the one thug who’s a lady. Hers are the most cunning, and the best stories when considered as fiction on their own. In the first, she says she’s waiting on her brother, and then talks about having been the assistant to a well-known scientist who was convinced that the fairy people are real, and are in fact Neolithic people who still remain in the English hills. And he’s right. He finds the half-breed child of one of these tribes, learns from a black seal how to turn him into a half-snake creature, then hares off into the countryside, never to be seen again. The odd thing is that the scientist really did die recently, Phillips attests to it.
Then Dyson meets the young lady, who says she’s in hiding, and tells a story about how her brother accidentally was prescribed a white powder that was a witch-alchemy thing instead of a nerve tonic. He gives up studying, parties all night, then turns into living, intelligent goo. A doctor beats his misshapen head in and that’s that, though he kills himself shortly after, because of the horror of seeing a human being in such a state.
OK, still with me? One of the thugs becomes friends with Dyson, and for no fucking reason tells him a story about a guy who dies because he buys ancient torture devices and accidentally triggers his newest acquisition.
Finally there’s a story that’s the young man’s – they find his journal. He was suckered into this criminal organization, and worked with them for a while, until it was obvious he was helping to murder the old man who owned the Tiberius. He freaks out after the deed and steals the coin.
Shortly after, Dyson and Phillips go for a walk; they find the young man’s body in an abandoned house, with coals on the chest. The thugs burned him to death. The coals have burned halfway through the chest cavity.
OK, that’s fucked up.
Why the hell should you read this? Because I say you should. Technically nothing in it is fantasy. Everything paranormal happens in a story told by a character, who is probably lying. None of it is real. It’s almost as disappointing, if you look at it the wrong way, as Alice in Wonderland can be.
And yes, I went through that phase too, where I was disappointed that Wonderland wasn’t a real place.
But the two works do similar things, but in very different ways. Alice famously interrogates the adult world from the point of view of a child, and finds it absurd. The Three Impostors shows what lies behind the high street (main street) of your town, of any town. These weird things could be happening. There’s no evidence they are not. “The Novel of the Black Seal” is suspiciously accurate, as the scientist did die under mysterious circumstances, and his death was eventually reported as a “drowning,” despite his being nowhere near a large body of water. Perhaps he was drowned in some “fairy” ritual?
So it’s possible, though this is speculation, that everything did really happen, though perhaps not to the speakers. They abduct and steal, replace people with other people (the young man’s job was to get to the old man first and say he was the guide the old man was promised). They take people’s places. Miss Lally, the female thug, says goodbye to her roles at the book’s beginning. So what if all this shit really happened, and they heard about it as they tortured people?
Also, the more obvious thing is that the world of London streets is a fantasy world. Shit is happening just like the disintegration of the young man who took the wrong medicine – the young man with spectacles was disintegrated with fire. No one notices, because it happens outside their view. Just as the fairies could be hiding just outside of view. It highlights how much each person knows about the entire world around them – that being relatively little. Most of what people know about the world is assumption, taken from others.