I don’t know what this book is, exactly. That line, or variations on it, seems to come up quite a bit when I discuss books from the fabulously weird Victorian era. However, in this case, it is REALLY accurate. It isn’t really a novel. Several sections can be (and often are) read on their own as short stories. It isn’t a short story collection. Everything is tightly bound together. Many have described The Three Impostors as disjointed or loose. I would BEG to differ. You do get these feelings, sure, but they are a deception, a lie, an…imposture! ( ;
The prose, at times, is achingly beautiful and an aura hangs over the book that reminds me of the finest paintings of all time. The color is visible. Don’t ask me how. It just is. Machen was a prose poet, no doubt about it.
The book has real wit and can be genuinely funny. H. P. Lovecraft, one of my favorite authors, objected to these “jaunty” aspects. He got the point but felt the work was more powerful when it concentrated on the horror. Unusually, I think he was entirely wrong. The light humor and chattiness makes the horror sections (which, by the way, came close to giving me nightmares) all the more shattering and hard to forget. The first work of Machen’s I ever read, his novella The Great God Pan, zeroes in on the horror with single-minded intensity. It is a masterful work but, I found, its effect wears off a bit. I STILL can’t get out from under this book!
Lest you think the horror sections are all old-style Gothic, let me tell you there are one or two moments worthy of any modern slasher film.
Many have called the book a mere imitation of Robert Louis Stevenson. It is inspired by that great author, no doubt. Yet, I feel it is more than that. Machen never leaves Stevenson behind but he pulls in some quirky, elliptical directions Stevenson would have avoided. At times, The Three Impostors feels almost proto-modernist.
What does all this add up to? I have no idea. Why does such a dark and unsettling work make me smile and feel light-headed? Couldn’t tell you. What I do know is that I could not put this book down. I am an expert at putting books down. Whenever possible, I was reading The Three Impostors. The period I was reading it was one of the happiest times of my life, in recent memory. When I finished it, I knew I would look for another like it and I have. I also knew I would fail and I have. I love this book. Love it or hate it, however, there never was nor ever will be one like it.