Arthur Machen’s Dr. James Lewis — and His Mr. Dyson

Unearthing the UnearthlyLet it be remembered, again and again, that, all the while that the terror lasted, there was no common stock of information as to the dreadful things that were being done.  The press had not said one word upon it, there was no criterion by which the mass of people could separate fact from mere vague rumor, no test by which ordinary misadventure or disaster could be distinguished from the achievements of the secret and awful force that was at work.”

Arthur Machen, The Terror

As I was reading Arthur Machen’s The Terror (1917), I wavered on whether or not to add its central character, Dr. James Lewis, to my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. I had read Michael Dirda’s comment that this work “is structured like a short detective novel,” and I knew that the American publication presents it with the subtitle: A Mystery. There’s also a first-person narrator, apparently someone who knows Dr. Lewis well enough to tell his story, hinting at something like a Watson/Holmes relationship.

Add to that the story’s series of odd deaths, some of which suggest murder’s been done. Theories are posited, and the narrator brings the focus back to Dr. Lewis’s rejection of those theories and the development of his own. In the end, readers are led to believe that the doctor’s own final theory is the closest we can come to knowing what really happened — despite that theory’s basis in the occult. Since he solves the mystery, then, Dr. Lewis must be our occult detective . . . right?

the-terrorWell, amid all the theorizing, he doesn’t do much investigating or clue-gathering. Dr. Lewis is a country doctor, so he’s called in to determine the cause(s) of death in some local cases, and that’s a form of investigating . . . right? Sure, but a lot of information simply falls into his lap, for example, when his brother-in-law arrives with stories of the odd things happening in another part of Wales. At one point, Lewis himself even says, “if one is confronted by the insoluble, one lets it go at last. If the mystery is inexplicable, one pretends that there isn’t any mystery.” That’s not at all something a good detective should say . . . right?

Despite my mental ping-pong game, I ultimately decided that, yes, Dr. Lewis does qualify as an occult detective. Towards the end of the novel, he very actively joins an investigation of the Griffith farmhouse. We’re told that the doctor “had heard by chance that no one knew what had become of Griffith and his family; and he was anxious about a young fellow, a painter, of his acquaintance, who had been lodging [with them] all the summer.” Finally, some legwork along with the brain-work!

And then the last chapter confirms that Machen was borrowing from the detective genre to tell his supernatural tale. Someone’s who’s read the C. Auguste Dupin stories knows that how a detective’s thinking works is one of Poe’s chief interests. Read the first few paragraphs of “The Murders of the Rue Morgue,” and you might feel like you’re reading an expository essay on the analytical thought process. How Dr. Lewis finally arrives at a satisfactory solution to the mystery — despite multiple hurdles, such as those noted in the passage at the top of this post — is at the heart of Machen’s last chapter.  As the narrator says regarding Dr. Lewis:

He told me that, thinking the whole matter over, he was hardly more astonished by the Terror in itself than by the strange way in which he had arrived at his conclusions.

In the end, the process of what Poe would have called ratiocination plays a pivotal role in The Terror. In fact, building upon detective fiction, Machen explores how his doctor managed to expand the limits of his thinking to arrive at an occult solution to the mystery. As such, Dr. James Lewis has joined my list of early occult detectives (and can confer with the many other doctor-detectives among them there).

dyson-chroniclesMeanwhile, the cases of Machen’s more famous occult detective, Mr. Dyson, are available in The Dyson Chronicles, published by Coachwhip Publications and introduced by myself. This anthology was born of my surprise in learning that these works hadn’t been previously collected into a single book. So I pitched the idea to the publisher, and now all of the Dyson stories — three short stories and one novel — are together at last.

My introduction explores Machen’s penchant for writing nontraditional supernatural fiction by making his occult phenomenon ring as much of weird science as of the supernatural.

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