This article has been kindly contributed by Steven Prizeman.

A face glimpsed at a window fills the observer with terror; an unearthly femme fatale triggers a slew of suicides among society men; a dissolute youth takes medicine that has stewed too long on a chemist’s shelves and dissolves into seething black goo!

These are just some of the plot elements that made Arthur Machen briefly notorious as an author of the 1890s’ ‘Decadent’ movement in literature – but that was all long before he came to live in Amersham in 1929. In the intervening years Machen was an actor, a journalist, a dabbler in the occult, a cult figure himself, and the inadvertent creator of a bona fide legend. But, unlike some of his ornately structured stories, let’s begin at the beginning.

Machen (rhymes with ‘bracken’) was born Arthur Llewelyn Jones in 1863, in Caerleon, South Wales, the son of an Anglican clergyman. The family was not wealthy but from an early age Machen found riches in the beauty, history and myths of his birthplace.

These abounded, because that “little silent, deserted village” was for centuries home to the Second Augustan Legion, stamping an enduring Roman presence on the town: walls, baths, a legionary barracks, and the largest amphitheatre in Britain. Caerleon was, some said, the Camelot of King Arthur and the grassed-over mound of the amphitheatre his Round Table.

From his teens, Machen pursued a life of writing in London. In the 1880s this was lonely and poverty-stricken. In the 1890s it inched towards becoming a viable way of earning a living and was far more companionable, thanks to his first wife, Amelia ‘Amy’ Hogg, a progressive young woman who moved in literary circles. She introduced Machen to Jerome K Jerome (of Three Men in a Boat fame) and to Arthur Edward Waite – an American-born writer on the occult. Both became firm friends.

It was during the 1890s that Machen wrote most of the works for which he is now revered by devotees of weird fiction: The Great God Pan (1894), The Three Imposters (1895), his semi-autobiographical novel The Hill of Dreams (1897, published 1907) and The White People (1899, published 1904).

That period of productivity was brought to a painful end by Amy’s death from cancer in 1899. Emotional turmoil beset Machen for about 18 months, after which he became an actor, touring the country with the Benson Company.

There he met Dorothie Purefoy Hudleston, a fellow performer; they married in 1903. In 1910, Machen became a reporter for the London Evening News, covering everything from football matches and Tube extensions to the Sidney Street Siege.

It was while working for the Evening News that Machen achieved his one truly popular success: The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War (1915). The title story created the legend of ‘the Angels of Mons’ – divine beings who appeared on the battlefield to save the British Expeditionary Force during the early days of the First World War.

In 1918 American critic Vincent Starrett published an essay, Arthur Machen: A Novelist of Ecstasy and Sin, hailing the author as a neglected genius.

His efforts triggered a ‘Machen boom’, with popular and collectable editions of his works being printed on both sides of the Atlantic. Subsequent horror authors have also praised Machen, including HP Lovecraft and Stephen King – source of the effusive comment with which we began.

But the boom didn’t last and it was with thin funds that Machen and Purefoy moved to Amersham with their son Hilary (17) and daughter Janet (12). Machen later sent directions to one friend:

Next Tuesday is Amersham Fair; an ancient, noisy, and gaudy business, stretching the whole length of this old street – which has altered little in the last hundred years. Will you come down and look at it, and listen to it? If so, we should be very glad to see you between 6 & 7. There will be a sandwich and a glass of punch. If you come, remember that this house is in the Old Town at the bottom of the hill. Over the door, is the inscription, LYNWOOD, and it is best to knock, not ring.

Machen’s one novel of this period was The Green Round (1933), in which the protagonist visits a Welsh seaside town but is followed home to London and plagued by a disruptive companion he cannot see. The Cosy Room and Other Stories appeared in 1936. Although it contained “things in it, dating from 1890, that make me sick to look at,” Machen contributed a new story, N – in which a garden of unearthly beauty appears in Stoke Newington.

Machen also wrote an entirely new collection, The Children of the Pool and Other Stories (1936), with tales of changelings, sinister children and mysterious rituals. Machen also wrote an anonymous booklet about his new home: Parish of Amersham (1931).

During the Second World War, Amersham was too close to London to be completely tranquil: As Machen wrote to his old friend Waite in December 1940:

Here, we often fall asleep to the drone of German planes; but so far, the old town remains undamaged and untouched. Mass in the morning is said in darkness, save for the two altar candles & the lamp before the Sacrament: there is a solemnity about the scene.

Peace brought relief for Machen with the return of Hilary, who fought in the army and became a prisoner of war. But old age was advancing relentlessly. The sudden death of Purefoy on 30th March 1947 was a shattering blow. Machen died on 15th December 1947 in St Joseph’s nursing home in Beaconsfield. He shares a grave with Purefoy in St Mary’s Cemetery, Amersham, bearing the appropriately enigmatic epitaph: Omnia exeunt in mysterium – “All things pass into mystery”.

A longer version of this article can be found at Amersham Museum is hoping to reopen at weekends from 22nd August with pre-booked slots.

Please check the website for details.