Decadent Magic in Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams (1907)

Gossling, Jessica. 2020. 'Decadent Magic in Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams (1907)'. In: Magickal Women & Company (Summer Salons 2020). Online, United Kingdom 13 September 2020. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

This talk will explore the novel The Hill of Dreams (written between 1895-97 and published in 1907), written by Welsh mystic Arthur Machen. In this semi-autobiographical work, we follow the development of the protagonist Lucian Taylor, an aspiring writer, as he is seduced into an aesthetic realm of supernatural creatures, sado-masochistic rituals, and bibliophilia. Books are an obsession for Lucian, as they were for Machen, and like a sorcerer’s apprentice in the occult tradition, he develops his magical practice through literature. This is not a new obsession in decadent writing. Notably, in J.-K. Huysmans’s quintessential decadent novel À rebours (1884), Des Esseintes surrounds himself with an extensive collection of arcane and occult texts. In Machen’s novel, however, magical books are not just collectors’ curios. Instead, through the creation of a grimoire, Lucian is able to express his decadent tastes and escape his provincial neighbours. Central to his magical book is Annie Morgan, a farmer’s daughter who comforts Lucian after a panicked supernatural experience with a dark-eyed and scarlet lipped visitant. Annie becomes his ‘religion’ and his baroque adoratory rituals to her form the contents of his ‘secret work’ – ‘a wonderful ritual of praise and devotion’ for which ‘No common words … would suffice’. Lucian’s inability to articulate his mysticism runs parallel to his recurrent, awkward interactions with figures who embody the qualities of the Divine Feminine, culminating in a meeting with a bronze-haired prostitute at an orgy in a London pub. These encounters are inseparable from the paradoxes of his life as a tormented decadent artist and form part of ‘the vague, dreaded magic that had charmed his life’. Machen labelled his novel a ‘Robinson Crusoe of the soul’ and his intention was, like Huysmans, to explore the inner mystical workings of the mind – tastes, attitudes, ideals, dreams, desires, and downfalls. Magical practices and occult rituals become a method of decadent self-expression for Lucian. His search for more exquisite sensations, takes him away from nature and “normal” everyday experiences, towards artificiality and the preternatural. “Magic” and “decadence” have both been used as pejorative terms, but in Machen’s novel they become synonymous with artistic rebellion and revolt against secular authority.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Talk)


Arthur Machen, The Hill of Dreams, Magic, Decadence

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature > Decadence Research Unit


13 September 2020Completed

Event Location:

Online, United Kingdom

Date range:

13 September 2020

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

18 Jan 2022 09:56

Last Modified:

18 Jan 2022 09:56


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