Written by Arthur Machen in 1894 and originally published in a magazine, The Great God Pan is known for being one of the prototypes of the Cosmic Horror Story. It was a huge influence on H. P. Lovecraft, who used it as the basis for his own story The Dunwich Horror, as well as for the deity Shub-Niggurath. It is worth noting that the main themes of the story - the idea that there are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know and horrors outside of our reality that we do not understand - are very Lovecraftian in nature, making these tropes older than you think.
The Great God Pan is also considered by Stephen King to be "one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language." He has stated that the 2008 novella N. was a "riff" on it.
Deep in the countryside of Wales, an occult scientist named Dr. Raymond invites a friend, Mr. Clarke, to witness an experiment he intends to perform on a teenage girl, which he claims will allow her "to see the god Pan". The experiment is a success, however the procedure destroys the girl's mind, and she is left in a permanent catatonic state. Horrified, Clarke disavows Dr. Raymond and occultism.
Several years later in London, a man called Villiers runs into an old friend of his who's been brought to ruin by his wife, Helen Vaughan. Villiers, piqued by his friend's story, begins to look into the woman's past. Meanwhile, an alarming number of wealthy, prominent men are being driven to madness and suicide after encountering a mysterious woman known only as Mrs. Beaumont. Villiers' investigation eventually leads him to Clarke, who has answers about Helen and Mrs. Beaumont that are beyond his wildest ken.
You can read it here.
Provides examples of:
- Ambiguous Situation: It's never clarified how Villiers convinces Helen to hang herself, given that his plan to call the cops on her if she doesn't oblige seems feeble considering that her "murders" left no proof that a Muggle police would buy. However, given that there's at least one transcription of what Helen's "parties" had going on in them, it's possible Villiers had planned to denounce her for her occult practices and hope it would make at least enough of a mess to end her reign of terror.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Helen (when she doesn't have the Uncanny Valley effect going on) often appears to be a beautiful and charming woman."Yes, I married, Villiers. I met a girl, a girl of the most wonderful and most strange beauty, at the house of some people whom I knew... My friends had come to know her at Florence; she told them she was an orphan, the child of an English father and an Italian mother, and she charmed them as she charmed me. The first time I saw her was at an evening party. I was standing by the door talking to a friend, when suddenly above the hum and babble of conversation I heard a voice which seemed to thrill to my heart. She was singing an Italian song. I was introduced to her that evening, and in three months I married Helen. Villiers, that woman, if I can call her woman, corrupted my soul."
- Body Horror: The description of Helen's corpse changing sex, transforming into a beast and then melting definitely has shades of this.
- Break the Cutie: It was what got everyone into that mess.
- Break Them by Talking: Although Helen's horrors are widely considered to be related to sexual or physical experiences, the only time we have a glimpse of what happens in her bedroom she is simply sitting in the bed while telling something to her soon-to-be-dead husband. What was she saying, of course, is unrevealed.
- Campbell Country: Takes place in Britain, though it predates the Trope Codifier.
- Child Of Rape: Helen is born after her mother Mary is raped by the cosmic entity called Pan.
- Cosmic Horror Story: As mentioned above, Lovecraft cited this story as one of his main influences.
- Death by Sex: The unspeakable horrors that drive Helen's victims to suicide are strongly implied to be sexual in nature, although Victorian propriety prevented Machen from elaborating - probably for the better, as Nothing Is Scarier, and changing attitudes towards sex would probably make a lot of what he would come up with fairly tame by today's standards.
- Did You Just Romance Cthulhu?: More like "were you just raped by Cthulhu?" and "did you just romance Wilbur Whateley?"
- Disposable Vagrant: What Dr. Raymond regards Mary as (see the Values Dissonance entry).
- Don't Go in the Woods:
- "Ah, mother, mother, why did you let me go in the forest with Helen?"
- "The man in the wood! Father! Father!"
- Driven to Suicide: Both Helen's victims and herself.
- Eldritch Abomination: This version of Pan is definitely very different from the merry satyr god of Greek Mythology. In addition, it is strongly implied Pan is also the Celtic god Nodens, who would later join Lovecraft's works as one of his eldritch deities...
- Gone Mad from the Revelation: What happens to Mary, who is rendered "an idiot" after her encounter with Pan, as well as all of Helen's victims.
- Half-Human Hybrid: Though somewhat implied to be less of a hybrid and more an avatar.
- Have a Gay Old Time: Take a shot every time "queer" is used instead of "weird" or "strange". Also: "gay curtains".
- Humanoid Abomination: Helen was probably one of the first in modern literature.
- I'm Melting!: A variation in which the person becomes a blob after dying.
- Leave Behind a Pistol: A non-firearms variant.Austin said nothing, but nodded his head slightly; he still looked white and sick. Villiers pulled out a drawer in the bamboo table, and showed Austin a long coil of cord, hard and new; and at one end was a running noose.
"It is the best hempen cord," said Villiers, "just as it used to be made for the old trade, the man told me. Not an inch of jute from end to end."
Austin set his teeth hard, and stared at Villiers, growing whiter as he looked.
"You would not do it," he murmured at last. "You would not have blood on your hands. My God!" he exclaimed, with sudden vehemence, "you cannot mean this, Villiers, that you will make yourself a hangman?"
"No. I shall offer a choice, and leave Helen Vaughan alone with this cord in a locked room for fifteen minutes. If when we go in it is not done, I shall call the nearest policeman. That is all."
- Luck-Based Search Technique: Villiers first stumbles upon the notes accidentally.
- Mad Scientist: Dr. Raymond is pretty vocal about using a girl as a test subject for his insight into the supernatural.
- Meaningful Name: Mary has a child with a divine entity.
- Mystical Pregnancy: Mary is impregnated by Pan during the experiment.
- Nature Spirit: A very, very dark version, being an Eldritch Abomination embodying the wilds and the "darkness beyond the stars".
- Noodle Incident: Quite possibly the most skillful and frightening use of this trope ever.
- Nothing Is Scarier: To an artform, since most of the horror is derived from Fridge Horror as you're invited to fill in the gaps of the scant information you're given.
- Occult Detective: Villiers would qualify if he knew what he was investigating was supernatural.
- Platonic Cave: Raymond believes in this, and it is what drove him to perform the experiment.
- Rape as Drama: Or rather, rape as horror. Never spoken outright, but it permeates the story in implication, from Dr. Raymond's creepy possession of and regard of Mary as his property, what Pan does to Mary and of course what Helen does to her victims, which is almost explicitly sexual in nature and traumatizes them to madness and suicide.
- Satan: Clarke comes to believe Pan to be Satan. After witnessing the experiment on Mary, he writes a series of memoirs surrounding Helen's upbringing called Memoirs to Prove the Existence of the Devil. Towards he end of the second chapter, he reaches the conclusion that Helen is an incarnation of the devil."Et Diabolus Incarnatus Est. Et Homo Factus Est." ("And the Devil was made incarnate. And was made man.")
- Semi-Divine: Helen is the child of a god and a female human, which makes her a monstrous and twisted version of a demigod.
- Shapeshifter Swan Song: Apparently, Helen becomes a sort of living, primordial ooze upon dying."Though horror and revolting nausea rose up within me, and an odor of corruption choked my breath, I remained firm. I was then privileged or accursed, I dare not say which, to see that which was on the bed, lying there black like ink, transformed before my eyes. The skin, and the flesh, and the muscles, and the bones, and the firm structure of the human body that I had thought to be unchangeable, and permanent as adamant, began to melt and dissolve.
I know that the body may be separated into its elements by external agencies, but I should have refused to believe what I saw. For here there was some internal force, of which I knew nothing, that caused dissolution and change.
Here too was all the work by which man had been made repeatedly before my eyes. I saw the form waver from sex to sex, dividing itself from itself, and then again reunited. Then I saw the body descend to the beasts whence it ascended, and that which was on the heights go down to the depths, even to the abyss of all being. The principle of life, which makes organism, always remained, while the outward form changed."
- Shout-Out: Helen Vaughan is likely named after Helen from Classical Mythology another demigoddess who was a Child Of Rape whose beauty infamously catalyzed the Trojan War.
- Slime Girl: Helen after dying.
- Take Our Word for It: There's a lot of unspeakably awful stuff that's hinted at or only described off-screen.
- Things Man Was Not Meant to Know:"It was an ill work I did that night when you were present; I broke open the door of the house of life, without knowing or caring what might pass forth or enter in. I recollect your telling me at the time, sharply enough, and rightly enough too, in one sense, that I had ruined the reason of a human being by a foolish experiment, based on an absurd theory. What I said Mary would see, she saw, but I forgot that no human eyes could look on such a vision with impunity. And I forgot, as I have just said, that when the house of life is thus thrown open, there may enter in that for which we have no name, and human flesh may become the veil of a horror one dare not express. I played with energies which I did not understand, and you have seen the ending of it."
- Teen Pregnancy: Mary is 17 when she's impregnated with Helen.
- Uncanny Valley: In-universe. Several characters describe Helen as beautiful but... wrong."Everyone who saw her at the police court said she was at once the most beautiful woman and the most repulsive they had ever set eyes on. I have spoken to a man who saw her, and I assure you he positively shuddered as he tried to describe the woman, but he couldn't tell why."
- The Vamp: Helen.
- Womb Horror: Mary is forcibly impregnated with and gives birth to Pan's daughter (or possible avatar) Helen.
- You Cannot Grasp the True Form: Pan is described this way."We know what happened to those who chanced to meet the Great God Pan, and those who are wise know that all symbols are symbols of something, not of nothing. It was, indeed, an exquisite symbol beneath which men long ago veiled their knowledge of the most awful, most secret forces which lie at the heart of all things; forces before which the souls of men must wither and die and blacken, as their bodies blacken under the electric current. Such forces cannot be named, cannot be spoken, cannot be imagined except under a veil and a symbol, a symbol to the most of us appearing a quaint, poetic fancy, to some a foolish tale. But you and I, at all events, have known something of the terror that may dwell in the secret place of life, manifested under human flesh; that which is without form taking to itself a form."