The Three Impostors "is the story of three men too absorbed by their own literary interests to realize the truth, or otherwise, of the events unfolding around them. These are Dyson, in thrall to his own imagination, Phillipps, an adherent to science, and Russell, who simply considers himself a realist," writes critic Mark Anderson.
I noticed that this man was leading my brother rather than walking arm-in-arm with him; he was a tall man, dressed in quite ordinary fashion. He wore a high bowler hat, and, in spite of the warmth of the day, a plain black overcoat, tightly buttoned, and I noticed his trousers, of a quiet black and grey stripe. The face was commonplace too, and indeed I cannot recall any special features, or any trick of expression; for though I looked at him as he came near, curiously enough his face made no impression on me -- it was as though I had seen a well-made mask. They passed in front of me, and to my unutterable astonishment, I heard my brother's voice speaking to me, though his lips did not move, nor his eyes look into mine. It was a voice I cannot describe, though I knew it, but the words came to my ears as if mingled with plashing water and the sound of a shallow brook flowing amidst stones. I heard, then, the words, "I cannot stay,"....
In Things Near and Far, Machen wrote:
It was in the early spring of 1894 that I set about the writing of the said Three Impostors, a book which testifies to the vast respect I entertained for the fantastic, New Arabian Nights manner of R. L. Stevenson, to those curious researches in the byways of London which I have described already, and also, I hope, to a certain originality of experiment in the tale of terror.
The novel incorporates several inset weird tales and culminates in a final denouement of deadly horror, connected with a secret society devoted to debauched pagan rites. The three imposters of the title are members of this society who weave a web of deception in the streets of London—retailing the aforementioned weird tales in the process—as they search for a missing Roman coin commemorating an infamous orgy by the Emperor Tiberius and close in on their prey: "the young man with spectacles".
Two of the novel's inset tales, "The Novel of the Black Seal" and "The Novel of the White Powder," have been cited as major influences on the work of H. P. Lovecraft. In his survey Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft suggested that these stories "perhaps represent the highwater mark of Machen's skill as a terror-weaver." They have been frequently anthologized.
"The Novel of the Black Seal" has been cited as a model for some of Lovecraft's best-known stories: "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Dunwich Horror," and "The Whisperer in Darkness". "The Novel of the White Powder," which Lovecraft said "approaches the absolute culmination of loathsome fright," is pointed to as an inspiration for Lovecraft's stories of bodily disintegration, such as "Cool Air" and "The Color Out of Space".
The story "Rx... Death!" in Tales from the Crypt #20 is an adaptation of "The Novel of the White Powder," with the change made that the poisonous "medicine" contains digestive enzymes, rather than a witch's brew.
Mark Anderson looks for clues to Machen's message in the novel he released in the wake of The Three Imposters:
The novel The Hill of Dreams (1897) may be the longest suicide note in history, in its part-autobiographical depiction of a failing writer whose talent and unique personal vision is overlooked to the point where madness fatally perverts whatever it was he’d earlier harboured. Here, the author seems to be predicting his own fate; what may – and may yet – happen to him if he listens to all those who think he should give up his art and get a ‘proper job.’
Arthur Machen (March 3, 1863 – December 15, 1947) was a Welsh author and mystic of the 1890s and early 20th century. He is best known for his influential supernatural, fantasy, and horror fiction. His novella The Great God Pan (1890; 1894) has garnered a reputation as a classic of horror (Stephen King has called it "Maybe the best [horror story] in the English language"). He is also well known for his leading role in creating the legend of the Angels of Mons.
Machen was born Arthur Llewelyn Jones in Caerleon, Monmouthshire, though he usually referred to the county by its Welsh name Gwent. The house of his birth, opposite the Olde Bull Inn in The Square at Caerleon, is adjacent to the Priory Hotel and is today marked with a commemorative blue plaque. The beautiful landscape of Monmouthshire, with its associations of Celtic, Roman, and medieval history, made a powerful impression on him, and his love of it is at the heart of many of his works.
In 1887, the year his father died, Machen married Amy Hogg, an unconventional music teacher with a passion for the theatre, who had literary friends in London's bohemian circles. Hogg had introduced Machen to the writer and occultist A. E. Waite, who was to become one of Machen's closest friends. Machen also made the acquaintance of other literary figures, such as M. P. Shiel and Edgar Jepson.
In 1899, Machen's wife Amy died of cancer after a long period of illness. This had a devastating effect on Machen. He only gradually recovered from his loss over the next year, partially through his close friendship with A. E. Waite (famed for his Tarot card deck today). It was through Waite's influence that Machen joined at this time the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Arthur Machen's influence may have waned today, but his influence remains in modern horror writers, and myths and motifs he created, from partially the Men in Black to the Angel of Mons.
The way we view Pan today may have as much to do with Machen as it does with the Greeks. "The Great God Pan" is a novella written by Arthur Machen.
In Supernatural Horror in Literature (1926; revised 1933), H. P. Lovecraft praised the story, saying: "No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds"; he added that "the sensitive reader" reaches the end with "an appreciative shudder." Lovecraft also noted, however, that "melodrama is undeniably present, and coincidence is stretched to a length which appears absurd upon analysis." The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993) notes "The story begins with an sf rationale (brain surgery) which remains one of the most dramatically horrible and misogynistic in fiction."
The story's depiction of a monstrous half-human hybrid inspired the main plotline of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, which refers by name to Machen’s story. According to Lovecraft scholar Robert M. Price, "'The Dunwich Horror' is in every sense an homage to Machen and even a pastiche. There is little in Lovecraft's wonderful story that does not come directly out of Machen's fiction." It also inspired Peter Straub's Ghost Story.
The book was translated into French by Paul-Jean Toulet (Le grand dieu Pan, Paris, 1901). It was a major influence on his first novel, Monsieur du Paur, homme public.
Stephen King wrote in the endnotes for his story collection Just After Sunset (2008) that his newly published novella N. was "strongly influenced" by Machen's piece, which he noted, "surmounts its rather clumsy prose and works its way relentlessly into the reader's terror-zone. How many sleepless nights has it caused? God knows, but a few of them were mine. I think 'Pan' is as close as the horror genre comes to a great white whale." In another interview he stated: "Not Lovecraft; it’s a riff on Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan,” which is one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language. Mine isn’t anywhere near that good, but I loved the chance to put neurotic behavior—obsessive/compulsive disorder—together with the idea of a monster-filled macroverse."