(Featured image: 'Decadent horror' writer Arthur Machen. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Arthur Machen (1863-1947), a descendant of clergymen, was an author of mystic tales, best known for his work with supernatural, fantasy, and horror fiction. Although born in Caerleon, Monmouthshire, Machen often referred to his hometown by its medieval Welsh kingdom name, Gwent–if that tells you anything about the world he often lived.
The Great God Pan was written in 1894 and was Machen’s first major success. The novella caused a furor in London due to its exploration of paganism and sexuality–subjects not neatly discussed at the time. The story opens with an experiment on a young girl named Mary, who is put under the scalpel by a scientist claiming he could open up the mind to the spiritual world and to seeing the great god Pan. After what seemed to be an unsuccessful surgery, Mary was deemed “a hopeless idiot.”
After some time, the witness of the experiment hears of a woman in her town named Helen Vaughan, who is the cause of many mysterious occurrences. Often found wandering in the woods by her house, Helen is to blame for a missing girl and for a young boy gone mad after seeing her in the woods talking to a strange man.
More time passes and the witness runs into an old friend who is distraught, saying he had been “corrupted body and soul” by his wife, who turns out to be Helen. And as horror stories often do–there’s a twist. Helen is revealed to be the daughter of Mary, the subject of the experiment, and the great god Pan, whom Mary was opened up to during the procedure.
Stephen King, the master of modern horror, proclaimed that Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan is “maybe the best horror story in the English Language.”
In the spooky spirit, we caught up with composer Ross Crean to get his take the horror classic.
What inspired you to adapt Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” into an opera?
I am a huge fan of H. P. Lovecraft, who was coincidentally influenced by Machen. It was because of that, as well as Stephen King’s referral to The Great God Pan as one of the best horror stories he had ever read, that lead me to search for Machen’s tale. This was probably in 1994, while I was in undergrad. I read the book several times, and it lingered in my mind for a long time after.
Fast forward to July 2, 2014, when my mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. My mother was my best friend and my biggest supporter, and the news tore me apart. My family and I spent three weeks trying to make her as comfortable as possible, which was an extremely difficult task. When she passed away on July 23rd, not only was my heart broken but so was my spirit. I tried to distract myself by writing, but nothing was coming out. I simply surrendered.
That following October, I was helping out with cleaning my parents’ house, and as I was sitting on the floor in my old bedroom going through boxes, my old copy of The Great God Pan fell into my lap. The strange thing is that there were no shelves above me, and therefore no place from where it could have fallen. I felt like it was my mum’s way of telling me that it was time to get back to composing, and this was the story I needed to work on. From there, it all just laid itself out in front of me. I wrote a journal article about the full story for Faunus, the Arthur Machen quarterly, and also placed it on my website, if anyone is interested in learning more.
— Ross Crean (@RossCrean) October 1, 2017
What is it like working with Chicago Fringe Opera and watching THE GREAT GOD PAN come to life?
We are still in the beginning stages of production, having just wrapped up casting for the live premiere. CFO is one of the most innovative opera companies in Chicago, and when it came to considering who to approach for bringing The Great God Pan to life, I very much hoped I would be able to collaborate with them on this project. Luckily, they approached me while we were in the recording process for the album, and I was more than ready to accept. I am looking forward to seeing the complete production in March 2018.
H.P. Lovecraft was influenced by the writings of Arthur Machen. Have you considered adapting Lovecraft works into operas? If so, which stories? And why?
I have definitely considered it, particularly The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Haunter of the Dark (which would be perfect nowadays with its themes of immigration and xenophobia), but they require a lot of funding, based on their visual elements. The beauty of The Great God Pan was that much of what makes it frightening is the unseen, which obviously translates much better on the live stage. Hey, if any opera companies want to give me the chance and challenge to make something happen, I’m all for it!
— Ross Crean (@RossCrean) October 17, 2017
A lot of your work seems to deal with trauma and horror themes. Why do you find yourself gravitating towards these dramas?
Both were significant parts of my life growing up. Horror was a way for me to cope with some of the grief and trauma that I had faced at an early age. In many ways, it made me realize that you need to embrace the dark aspects of life in order to appreciate and relish the positive, joyful moments. One thing that I get a lot from people who meet me for the first time is that they are surprised that I am a happy and approachable person, and my response is usually that I have been able to be completely open about my life because I have faced traumatic events, and came through it on the other side with a better understanding of how to treat people. Everyone deserves respect and love, and I find that the topics I choose to base projects on end up raising questions to the audience, and hopefully, those questions result in further dialogue and new understanding in the future.
Stepping away from music, what’s your favorite horror film or book?
Oh, so many! As far as books, I love Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Aleister Crowley’s Moonchild, Jonathan Maberry’s Rot & Ruin series, and the Lovecraftian graphic novel series Locke & Key. As far as films go, I will always be a hardcore fan of the original Halloween. The 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead is absolutely fantastic. I also love rewatching What We Do in the Shadows several times over; it’s one of the most brilliant and hysterical horror comedies I’ve seen in ages. Lastly, I have a Christmas Day tradition of watching the original Black Christmas with Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Andrea Martin. I mean, Christmas just isn’t the same without some creepy killer making obscene phone calls to a sorority house! lol
By Samantha Granville, Social Media Specialist