The Happy Children
The Welsh author Arthur Machen (1863-1947) is best known as a writer of supernatural and horror fiction. A contemporary of Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde he also influenced the likes of H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen King and Alan Moore. His most famous books include The Great God Pan (1894), The Three Impostors (1895) and The Hill Of Dreams (1907), but it was his work as a journalist for the London paper The Evening News that would lead him to visit Whitby in November 1916.
The visit was arranged ostensibly for Machen to write an article on the town’s resurgent jet industry, which had seen a revival due to the wartime fashion for wearing mourning jewellery. But what really fascinated him was the town itself, regarding it as beautiful and unspoilt, he would later compare it favourably to seeing the view of Avignon from Rhone; ‘It was wonderful, but I do not know it more wonderful than Whitby as I saw it a few days ago’. It was this enthusiasm for the place that inspired him to writing the short story ‘The Happy Children’.
The Happy Children is a ghostly tale set in the town of Banwick, and like all Machen’s war time fiction it is a propaganda piece designed to appeal to the nation’s jingoistic mood at the time. However, unlike his most famous wartime piece ‘The Bowmen’ (a story about invoking the spirit of St George and the Agincourt archer on the blood drenched battlefields of Belgium), The Happy Children is a much more subtle story, involving such wartime tragedies as the sinking of the Lusitania and the believed atrocities committed by the German army in France and Belgium.
Machen would also have been aware that Whitby had suffered it’s own atrocities two years earlier, when it was bombarded along with Scarborough and Hartlepool by two German destroyers, killing 137 people and injuring a further 592.
As was usual for Machen’s writing, the story also has a strong religious undercurrent, referring to the Biblical slaughter of babies by Herod as is celebrated in the feast of Holy Innocents. But what is more prevalent in this piece is Machen’s own personal belief system, which together with detailed and evocative descriptions of nature and the landscape, conjures up a seemingly more magical and ancient time.
Throughout the First World War Arthur Machen was a patriot giving his full support to the war in Europe, believing that the Allied forces were fighting a just war against the evil German Empire. He was less forthcoming with his praise when it came to the battle for hearts and minds back in England though, especially after the publication of The Bowmen and the resultant ‘Angels Of Mons’ myth.
What becomes more apparent with stories like The Happy Children is that his writing takes on a more serene quality, as if Machen himself having become increasingly distressed by the utter devastation the war was causing, wants to escape along with the war’s innocent victims into a more peaceful place.
Written exclusively for OUT ON YE! by RICHARD LOCKER.
Thanks to Gwilym Games and Chris Corner for all their help.