This story was originally published in 1895, as part of The Three Impostors. Of the several Machen stories which I have read so far, I find it the most atmospheric and grotesque. I'm afraid that whatever the framing device of The Three Impostors may add, it will diminish these qualities in particular, so I am treating of it as a standalone work.
It's a first-person account couched as a tale told to several other characters, and starting with a verbal autobiography of the narrator. If you've ever read one of Doyle's Holmes stories, or one of W.H. Hodgson's Carnacki stories or even certain works by Rider Haggard, you will recognize the device. It seems to be quite emblematic of Victorian literature. I am in the minority, I think, in finding this old-fashioned introductory device charming, especially among the #PulpRev crowd, who want things to happen on the first page. I would rather get “grounded” with a character first, and be given some reason to care about them, right at the outset. Stories that start in medias res tax my patience.
The speaker is a young woman (this is not revealed for several pages, autobiography notwithstanding; the framing device which introduces the character has been removed for the standalone edition of the story), one Miss Leicester, whose law-student brother drives himself to a nervous breakdown with his studies, and whom she finally persuades to get a diagnosis and receive treatment. He agrees to take the proscribed medicine, but only from a little hole-in-the-wall chemist whom he frequents for reasons amounting, more or less, to hipster-ism. Immediately he begins to not only seemingly feel better, but also to immerse himself in society—which had formerly never interested him. He rapidly transforms into a social butterfly, his behavior verging on the dissolute. His sister begins to feel uneasy, then, as he seems more and more unlike himself, she is frightened.
The atmosphere is the best element, and Machen's main strength. It comes in heavy dollops of lurid prose, passages that inspire jealousy; the sort of prose that makes you want to bang your head against the wall because someone else used it first; prose that is just crying out to be imitated.
“...it seems a pleasant evening. Look at the afterglow; why, it is as if a great city were burning in flames, and down there between the dark houses it is raining blood fast, fast.”
“"Oh, Francis!" I cried; "Oh, Francis, Francis, what have you done?" and rending sobs cut the words short, and I went weeping out of the room, for though I knew nothing, yet I knew all, and by some odd play of thought I remembered the evening when he first went abroad to prove his manhood, and the picture of the sunset sky glowed before me; the clouds like a city in burning flames, and the rain of blood.”
And the best scene I have yet read from Machen's pen:
“We had dined without candles, and the room had slowly grown from twilight to gloom, and the walls and corners were indistinct in the shadow. But from where I sat I looked out into the street; and as I thought of what I would say to Francis, the sky began to flush and shine, as it had done on a well-remembered evening, and in the gap between two dark masses that were houses an awful pageantry of flame appeared. Lurid whorls of writhed cloud, and utter depths burning, and gray masses like the fume blown from a smoking city, and an evil glory blazing far above shot with tongues of more ardent fire, and below as if there were a deep pool of blood. I looked down to where my brother sat facing me, and the words were shaped on my lips, when I saw his hand resting on the table. Between the thumb and forefinger of the closed hand, there was a mark, a small patch about the size of a sixpence, and somewhat of the color of a bad bruise. Yet, by some sense I cannot define, I knew that what I saw was no bruise at all. Oh, if human flesh could burn with flame, and if flame could be black as pitch, such was that before me! Without thought or fashioning of words, gray horror shaped within me at the sight, and in an inner cell it was known to be a brand. For a moment the stained sky became dark as midnight, and when the light returned to me, I was alone in the silent room, and soon after I heard my brother go out.”
What is a masterpiece of a scene! This image haunts my mind's eye. I will work my own ideal of this image, as I see it, into some scene of my own, beyond question. The prose is almost purple, but I believe there is a place for purple. If you're going to paint a picture with words, you needn't skimp on the color. A less sensitive reader might find it overwrought. Machen's prose is already floridly Victorian-horror throughout, but these wonderfully intense passages are responsible for building the atmosphere.
Following this scene, Francis seems now not only to be no longer himself, but perhaps no longer human. Miss Leicester goes to see the Doctor, who in turn gets a sample of the medicine from the chemist. He cannot identify it, and sends it to be tested. The brother has now shut himself up in his room. The doctor goes in to see him, and comes out in utter terror, begging not to be called again. Then Miss Leicester catches a glimpse:
“I had glanced up at the window of my brother's study, and at that moment the blind was drawn aside, and something that had life stared out into the world. Nay, I cannot say I saw a face or any human likeness; a living thing, two eyes of burning flame glared at me, and they were in the midst of something as formless as my fear, the symbol and presence of all evil and all hideous corruption.”
Soon black ichor leaks into the room below Francis'. There are gurgling sounds from above. Miss Leicester calls the Doctor one last time, and he agrees to return and deal the the situation, though he tells her it is hopeless. The Doctor was a minor character before, but I found myself rooting for him almost as a protagonist when he comes to stand by Miss Leicester as she confronts the presence that her brother has become, despite being utterly overwhelmed himself. He provides masculine support in response to her feminine appeal. It is chivalrous, brave, and elevates him to the closest thing to a hero that this sort of horror can accommodate.
The pair break into the occupied room and see:
“There upon the floor was a dark and putrid mass, seething with corruption and hideous rottenness, neither liquid nor solid, but melting and changing before our eyes, and bubbling with unctuous oily bubbles like boiling pitch. And out of the midst of it shone two burning points like eyes, and I saw a writhing and stirring as of limbs, and something moved and lifted up that might have been an arm. The doctor took a step forward, and raised the iron bar and struck at the burning points, and drove in the weapon, and struck again and again in a fury of loathing.”
Now this is grotesque, but not quite enough for me. In my opinion Machen undoes just a little of his earlier effect here. This is the reason horror writers tell you not to show your monster, and yet a reader such as myself would have felt let down had we not finally gotten to see it. Perhaps it would have been better to leave it at the haunting earlier glimpse, but that would still be a disappointment to me. I believe it is the "glowing eyes" specifically which I find trite. It was entirely within his capabilities to deliver something properly nightmarish, but he chose to focus on the "demonic" aspect, and therefore neutered a fine piece of body-horror.
It might also be said that it is dispatched too easily, but can see why Machen chose to gloss over its end. The presence has done it's job already—it is there to scare us with the sheer horror of its existence, not by posing a threat to the protagonists. The climax of the story is breaking into the room and facing the horror head on, not dealing with it afterwards. It's rather like a very nasty job of pest-removal, no more.
I said that Machen's strength was his atmosphere, but the end of the story shows his weakness, which is a reliance on contrivance. The report on the eponymous substance comes back, and the Doctor's medical buddy who sends it just happens to be interested in the occult (not as incredible in 1895, but still smacking of deus ex machina). Contrivance is Machen's crippling crutch, and some form of coincidence is present somewhere in every one of his works that I have read so far.
This other Doctor explains that the medicine was somehow aged into an unholy substance while it sat for years on the chemist's shelf, and that this substance was used in Witches' rituals during ancient times, to summon forth their dark inner natures to partake in their debauched rituals, or something like that. It's a clever and creative idea. But I still found it jarringly out of place after the—shall we say, “naturalistic” nature of the buildup, marring what would otherwise be a horror masterpiece. I think it would be more chilling if the white powder had chemically transformed, not into a magical substance, but into a natural yet unknown substance that has the effects described. If the story had been published thirty years later in the company of Lovecraft rather than that of M.R James, it might have been just that. This would also allow the involved explanation that the story now ends on to be pruned, allowing the more evocative passages such as the following to be delivered as speculations rather than assertions, better preserving their mystique:
“By the power of that Sabbath wine, a few grains of white powder thrown into a glass of water, the house of life was riven asunder, and the human trinity dissolved, and the worm which never dies, that which lies sleeping within us all, was made tangible and an external thing, and clothed with a garment of flesh.”
Reliance on the supernatural elements hold the story back. Not a masterpiece, and I wish it was; but still a great horror story. The quoted text is from the version of The Three Impostors available on Gutenburg, which is not identical to the text in the Penguin Collection on my shelf. Read it, with my recommendation, at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/35517