Helen’s Story (2013) by Rosanne Rabinowitz

Helen Vaughan did well to bind the cord about her neck and die, though the death was horrible. The blackened face, the hideous form upon the bed, changing and melting before your eyes from woman to man, from man to beast, and from beast to worse than beast, all the strange horror that you witness, surprises me but little. What you say the doctor whom you sent for saw and shuddered at I noticed long ago; I knew what I had done the moment the child was born, and when it was scarcely five years old I surprised it, not once or twice but several times with a playmate, you may guess of what kind. It was for me a constant, an incarnate horror, and after a few years I felt I could bear it no more, and I sent Helen Vaughan away. You know now what frightened the boy in the wood. The rest of the strange story, and all else that you tell me, as discovered by your friend, I have contrived to learn from time to time, almost to the last chapter. And now Helen is with her companions…
—Arthur Machen, “The Great God Pan” (1890)

There had been an unfounded report of my own death many years ago. However, I continue to survive and thrive. I’ve gone by other names—Herbert, Raymond and Beaumont among them. Now there’s no reason I can’t call myself Helen Vaughan again.
—Rosanne Rabinowitz, Helen’s Story (2013) 11

“The Great God Pan” was first published in The Whirlwind in 1890. This was the beginning of the Yellow Nineties; the Decadent movement was gaining ground in literature and art, and to the Victorians of the day, the serialized story was condemned. Many years later, Arthur Machen would collect some of his favorite unfavorable reviews in a volume title Precious Balms (1924), and some of the critiques will be familiar to fans of Lovecraftian literature:

His art has been hampered by the limitations imposed upon it through his having to leave his ingenious horror “indescribable” and “unutterable” from first to last. (2)

There are nameless horrors hinted at in every other page, which make other people turn green and sick, but it is beyond the power of the most susceptible reader to shudder at the shudders of these fictional people. (3-4)

If we may believe Mr Machen, those doings are of the most horrible character; but as he omits to tell us what they are, and leaves us merely with the impression that she is “a bold, bad woman” of a very ordinary description, we are compelled to take her special horrors upon trust. (5)

But note the sex-mania in it all. It is an incoherent nightmare of sex and the supposed horrible mysteries behind it, such as might conceivably possess a man who was given to a morbid brooding over these matters, but which would soon lead to insanity if unrestrained. (10)

So on and so forth. Time has been kinder to Machen’s weird fiction than to his critics, in no small part because “The Great God Pan” was reprinted and anthologized, and provided inspiration for both H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” and Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Nameless Offspring.” Mary became the archetype for Lavinia Whateley, and all the Lavinias that followed her; Helen Vaughan the model for Wilbur Whateley, and Hester Sawyer of “The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978).

It took a century and change for Helen Vaughan’s side of the story to be told.

Though she appears on the page in “The Great God Pan” only briefly, Machen’s story is focused on Helen Vaughan, her whole life from conception in sin to taking her own life. Read as a serial, we can only imagine what the turn-of-the-century Victorians took of the many unspoken horrors at play…because the supernatural in the story is very implicit, until the end. It’s not a story to titillate, exactly. Helen’s mother Mary is an orphan with a too-intimate relationship with the scientist who “adopted her.” There are direct parallels to the conception of Christ, with a diabolic turn. As a child her features are “of a somewhat foreign character,” and plays strange games. Then as an adult Helen Vaughan is the femme fatale, the model for the mad artist, the wife that ruins her husband. All in one Helen Vaughan is layer on layer all these Victorian taboos, and is at last realized as a sexual woman who is not fixed in class, who exists outside the control of any male family member or husband.

…then she dies. Which is the probably the weakest part of the plot:

“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.”
—Arthur Machen, “The Great God Pan” (1890)

It is a very weird build-up to the final climax of the novel because throughout the story, Machen has given no indication that Helen Vaughan is bound by conventional Victorian ideas of morality and propriety and reputation. Why should she fear the police? Why would she commit suicide?

Well, in Rosanne Rabinowitz’ Helen’s Story, she doesn’t. While Rabinowitz keeps most of the essential plot details of Machen’s tale, she also doesn’t attempt to copy his prose. Machen was borrowing the style of Robert Louis Stevenson, with Dr. Raymond made in the mold of Dr. Henry Jekyll of “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” (1886). The chain of evidence style works for the atmosphere that Machen was building, the moralities and assumptions that he was building to. Yet Helen Vaughan in Rabinowitz’ depiction is the embodiment of that Victorian horror of the independent, sexually confident woman. It’s her story, told in her words, and told in later days. It shouldn’t be told in as a Machen pastiche, so it isn’t.

Which is really part of what makes the story work so well. Helen Vaughan becomes something beyond the Victorian imagination’s ability to classify; she doesn’t fit into the roles assigned for her as monster, succubus, or slut. Helen’s Story is that of an artist, an outsider that looks for family, that tries to achieve a particular effect through her work. The kind of individual whose spirituality cannot be contained by any church, whose morality is too fluid for any system of law, who flits in between the systems of the world. Which is very much in the spirit of what Machen sought to convey to his Victorian readers, but done in a way which Machen because of the conventions of the time could not, except through hint and intimation (cf. “Unseen” (2020) by Claire Leslie).

“Ah, mother, mother, why did you let me go to the forest with Helen?” Mrs. M. was astonished at so strange a question, and proceeded to make inquiries. Rachel told her a wild story. She said—
—Arthur Machen, “The Great God Pan” (1890)

Of course I got into trouble. After Rachel left, there was an almighty row in the village.
—Rosanne Rabinowitz, Helen’s Story (2013) 11

There is a lot to be said for how women are often depicted (or not depicted) in both fiction and real life. In some cases, they can give their own accounts, set the record straight. In Lovecraft studies we remember The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985) by Sonia H. Davis and One Who Walked Alone (1986) by Novalyne Price Ellis; readers of wider literature might recognize a precursor to Helen’s Story in Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995) by Gregory Maguire. In all these cases, the accounts of the women have to be taken together with and against that of the other narrative which they are responding to. They tell their stories, but in telling those stories they are instinctively or intentionally shaping them around the stories that are already out there.

Which raises the question: how reliable is Helen Vaughan as a narrator?

The mere existence of Helen’s Story sheds a bit of doubt on Machen’s “The Great God Pan.” If you accept the narrative conceit that Helen Vaughan is alive and well, then the ending at least is a fabrication. That calls into question the events of the rest of Machen’s story: how much of this “really happened” versus being a narrative construction by the people telling the story—Clarke and Raymond. How much is Helen being honest, in painting herself as this misunderstood woman, raised by an uncaring scientist and constantly discriminated against for being different?

This is the kind of textual complexity which is shared by H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys. The conflicts and correlations between the stories force the reader out of the passive role of just absorbing information; now with two conflicting narratives to keep track of, the reader has to decide for themselves how much of each is “true” or accurate. The real story is neither the one or the other, but somewhere in between. The effect is not unlike a historian dealing with different accounts of a battle, or a Bible scholar who has to evaluate a canonical gospel and a newly-uncovered apocryphal gospel.

It’s the kind of approach that the Cthulhu Mythos is built on. Stories written not just as sequels, but as commentary and expansion, to correct old ideas and add new ones. In the case of Helen’s Story, the effect is especially appropriate as Helen’s narrative in Machen’s “The Great God Pan” is always told in someone else’s words. It’s the kind of historical narrative that is built around scraps of evidence and hearsay, and represents the prejudices of the man who compiled and presented the facts of the story to the audience, who were also presumed to be mainly men and to share the same prejudices. Helen’s Story is like a female scholar came along a century later, dug up an account of the woman herself that all the other scholars had overlooked, and presented it to explode the orthodoxy.

The combination of re-examining the essential gender bias in Machen’s “The Great God Pan” and the textual questions that can be raised by this kind of narrative is great. Rabinowitz knocks it out of the park in how she interweaves flashbacks that reflect on the narrative of events in “The Great God Pan” (and another Machen story, “The White People”) with the continuing narrative of what Helen Vaughan is doing in the present day. However, in basing Helen’s Story on “The Great God Pan” in this way, Rabinowitz does inherent a particular narrative necessity: how to end it.

Helen’s Story starts off by negating the ending of “The Great God Pan,” that means that this story has to provide a new conclusion. The ending which Arthur Machen wrote contains the only blatant supernatural elements in the entire story; there are hints and intimations, but nothing like the sudden appearance of “a mountain walked, or stumbled” in “The Call of Cthulhu.” Readers up until that point could have considered that Dr. Raymond had molested Mary, that Helen Vaughan was his child, that “seeing the Great God Pan” was cover for the terrible failure of his experiment that lobotomized his adopted-daughter-in-all-but-name. So without that ending…Rosanne Rabinowitz not only needs to find a fitting conclusion, but a fitting revelation.

What is the Great God Pan in Helen’s Story?

The final sentiment, the last revelation, the apotheosis or ipsissimus that Helen experiences…is utterly apt. It is both an homage to ending in “The Great God Pan” and a negation of it; because it is not an ending at all but a beginning. The crux of possibilities that bridges dream and reality in works like Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams (1907), Lord Dunsany’s “Idle Days on the Yann” (1910), and H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Silver Key” (1929). Sex without guilt, art without compromise, love without jealousy, freedom without boundaries…but with still those roads back to the old fields we know.

Helen’s Story by Rosanne Rabinowitz was first published as a hardback by PS Publishing in 2013, and reprinted as a paperback by Aqueduct Press in 2017, it is also available as an ebook.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

4 thoughts on “Helen’s Story (2013) by Rosanne Rabinowitz

  1. This is a great find. I only just dipped into Machen, with the most oft-cited Weird examples in “The Great God Pan” and “The White People”. I think I get what he’s doing, and there is really that feeling of the eerie, but the angle was very much of men telling the stories of weird women. You point this out too, but I do feel this was very much the angle of the weird in that time. Women were the gateway to the irrational and the strange. Thus, I really love both the old and the modern women writers in this field, and I’m very excited to read this reimagining of one of, the perhaps foundational texts, of the Weird.


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