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This is a fascinating read. Some would consider it a loosely-connected string of short stories rather than a novel. It is also hard to categorize: is it gothic horror, fantasy, or a satire of London life with the bite of a Hogarth cartoon? What is certain, however, is the episodes almost invariably need to be revisited for clarity and further brooding. And, although the expository prose can be quite troublesome at times, the bewilderments contained therein are certainly worth the effort.

The story meanders loosely with two friends and the acquaintances they meet while strolling the city streets. If you relish the arcane cipher, read very carefully, as every detail is important and every character is a further clue. Most have stories to tell, which usually follow the pattern of the innocent being duped to his demise. Dyson, probably the main protagonist, is a dilettante who “flatter[s] himself with the title of artist, when he [is] . . . but an idle and curious spectator of other men's endeavours” (Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, ISBN 345026438125, c.1972, p.7). While witnessing a fracas, he retrieves a gold Tiberius coin of priceless worth. Later, he is put upon the trail of “a dark young man with spectacles” (Ibid, p.93). These two events cook up the mystery meat of the main narrative, but it is in the digressions that the prime rib is to be really savored.

All involve various excursions into occult subjects. They are further complicated by questionable narrations, whereas the speaker is either scheming for some unknown purpose, hopelessly naïve, or just downright misinformed. It's like “using a kaleidoscope instead of a telescope in the view of things” (Ibid, p.39). Through these views are slivered glimpses of phantasmagorical and mesmerizing occasions, abominable transformations, and noble quests turned grisly. They are rare, skewered glances into an ominous realm quite possibly intertwined with our supposed earthbound security. The ambiguities of these presentations heighten their sense of veracity.

Machen devised a style that ingeniously matches his content. It is elliptical, in that the curiosities and intrigues that motivate the characters are placed into the experience of the reader while under the author's spell. And, “don't you think it is much more amusing to sit in front of the house and be astonished than to be behind the scenes and see the mechanism? Better tremble at the thunder, believe me, than see the man rolling the cannon ball” (Ibid, p.145).

© copyright 09/13/2005 by Larry Crawford