The Great God Pan

In: Gnosis: Journal of Gnostic Studies
Sarah Iles Johnston The Ohio State University

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This essay starts from the premise that ghost stories of the late 19th and 20th centuries often engaged the same issues as older ‘gnostic’ treatises did (taking a particular line from Emanuel Swedenborg), but had the advantage of being able to describe encounters between humans and higher entities far more vividly than the treatises, and the corollary advantage of suggesting new ramifications of such encounters. It focuses on how such stories explore the possibility that, through encounters with higher entities who emerge as negative, protagonists discover that the divine world is either corrupt and ill-intended or (worse) completely meaningless. The first case, Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1890), is contextualized not only within contemporary reactions to Darwin’s theories of evolution (developing Adrian Eckersley’s study) but also contemporary conceptualizations of the debt that modern civilization owed to ancient Greece and Rome. The second examines how H.P. Lovecraft developed Machen’s ideas in ‘The Dunwich Horror’ (1929), where mastery of ancient languages unleashes horror. The third case, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story (1979)—an homage to Lovecraft and Machen—delivers an even darker ‘gnostic’ message: entities whom we assume to have purposes (even if dark purposes) have none at all; only the well-skilled narrative can bring them into order and save himself from perdition.

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