Machen later wrote in his autobiography, Far Off Things (1922): "I shall always esteem it as the greatest piece of fortune that has fallen to me that I was born in that noble, fallen Caerleon-on-Usk, in the heart of Gwent... anything which I may have accomplished in literature is due to the fact that when my eyes were first opened in earliest childhood they had before them the vision of an enchanted land."
His father was the rector of Llanddewi Fach arranged for him to be educated at Hereford Cathedral School (1874–80). He did not enjoy this experience describing it as "an interlude among strangers". Machen's financial circumstances meant he could not afford to go to university. He considered a career in medicine but this idea was abandoned when he failed the preliminary examination of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1880. He later admitted that the reason he did so badly was his "complete incapacity for arithmetic".
In 1881 he moved to London where he found work as a tutor and a publishers' clerk. Machen wanted to become a full-time writer and in 1884 he published The Anatomy of Tobacco. He also published a translation of The Heptameron (1886). The following year he married Amelia Hogg of Worthing, a woman thirteen years his senior. Godfrey Brangham has argued that his wife played an important role in writing and that she "glides ghost-like through the paragraphs and pages of his works".
Machen's father died in 1887. He received a small inheritance but he still needed to earn a living. For the next three years he worked as a cataloguer and translator. Machen also had some reviews and articles published in various journals and periodicals. He also translated The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova, a book of over 5,000 pages.
In the summer of 1890 Machen sent Oscar Wilde some examples of his work. Wilde was impressed with the material and invited him to dinner. Machen later recalled: "He (Wilde) was a man of distinguished appearance. He was not handsome - there was something mis-shapen about his mouth - but he was impressive in a high degree... He would say ridiculous things, but he expected you to laugh at them, not to take them as prophetic utterances... I may say that so far as I knew him there was nothing of depth in his talk. He glided fantastically, whimsically, over the surface of things."
Later that year he had another meeting with Wilde: "He dined with me once again.... And on this occasion, I do remember being struck with the fact that there was a certain sameness in Wilde's talk. It was not that he repeated himself or said over again the things that he had said before: rather, the mould of his conversation remained the same, the manner was the same, the turns and tricks and quips were all in the one vein. No new mood was indicated, no different angle of vision was manifested. But this, very unlikely and for all I know, may have been due to the fact that Wilde saw that there was no real sympathy between us, no vital common ground, as it were; and so he set himself to be politely - and delightfully - entertaining in his usual manner."
David Clarke has pointed out: "His literary output during the 1890s concentrated upon what were very racy subjects at the time: paganism, sexuality, transcendental horror and the supernatural. For inspiration Machen drew upon his own experiences of waking visions and the folk traditions he absorbed from his native Gwent... The intermingling of this world and the other world was a recurring theme in his work... The fairies of Machen's stories are not the tiny, benevolent creatures depicted in Victorian children's fiction, but malevolent, elemental forces who haunt and abduct humans who fall under their spell."
In 1894 Machen published The Great God Pan. The author, H. P. Lovecraft, later commented: "No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds". Stephen King was also very impressed with the novella and argues that it "Works its way relentlessly into the reader's terror-zone. How many sleepless nights has it caused? God knows, but a few of them were mine.... It is one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language."
The Three Impostors was published in 1895. Machen later recalled: "It was in the early spring of 1894 that I set about the writing of the said Three Impostors, a book which testifies to the vast respect I entertained for the fantastic, New Arabian Nights manner of R. L. Stevenson, to those curious researches in the byways of London which I have described already, and also, I hope, to a certain originality of experiment in the tale of terror." Jerome K. Jerome, was very impressed with the book and sent a copy to Arthur Conan Doyle. He replied: "Your pal Machen may be a genius all right; but I don't take him to bed with me again." John Betjeman later recalled: "The Three Imposters frightened me more than any book I read."
In April, 1895, Oscar Wilde was charged with offences under the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885). Machen saw Wilde at this time and he was shocked by his appearance: "Wilde was a shocking sight. He had become a great mass of rosy fat. His body seemed made of rolls of fat. He was pendulous. He was like nothing but an obese old French-woman, of no extraordinary fame, dressed up in man's clothes. He horrified me."
After the death of his wife from cancer, in 1899. According to David Clarke: "Machen was devastated and suffered a near breakdown. During this period he experienced a series of mystical experiences that were to have a profound influence upon his writings." Although he never went into detail about the nature of these visions he claimed that they led to "a singular rearrangement of his world." He also developed a strong interest in the occult. This involved joining the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a society that had been established by William Robert Woodman, William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers. Other members included Maud Gonne, William Butler Yeats, Florence Farr, Evelyn Underhill and Aleister Crowley.
According to his biographer, Roger Dobson (Oxford Dictionary of Biography): "Machen joined Frank Benson's Shakespeare repertory company as an actor in 1901, and subsequently toured with several theatrical companies. He resumed writing between stage engagements. His literary theories were trenchantly expressed in Hieroglyphics (1902), and his supernatural tales were collected in The House of Souls (1906)."
Machen was a member of the New Bohemians drinking society that used to meet at the Prince's Head in Buckinghamshire Street, London. Members included Alfred Douglas, Arthur Ransome, Hilaire Belloc, Richard Barham Middleton, Edgar Jepson, Edwin Pugh and Cecil Chesterton. The author of Arthur Machen (1995) has argued: "The group met each Thursday around a long table, and an old cigar box was passed around for members to place what money they could through a slot in the lid. The drinks were ordered, the coffer emptied, and the process repeated for subsequent refreshments."
Machen married for a second time on 25th June, 1903. His new wife was Dorothie Purefoy Hudleston (1878–1947), the daughter of Colonel Josiah Hudleston. She was an actress who shared his Bohemian tastes. Over the next few years she gave birth to Hilary and Janet. During this time he worked on The Hill of Dreams. It was rejected by several publishers. As he later recalled that he was told "it was so poor and weak and dull".
The book was finally published by Grant Richards in 1907. Machen argued that he had adapted his style since the publication of The Three Impostors: "With some assistance from reviewers it was borne in on me that I must smash this borrowed manner to bits and build up another manner, which should be more worthy of being called a style, an expression of individuality." The novel tells the story of a young man, Lucian Taylor, who has strange visions while visiting an old Roman fort in Caerleon, a town where Machen lived as a child.
In his review of the book, Alfred Douglas argued that: "Machen's prose has the rhythmic beat of some dreadful Oriental instrument, insistent, monotonous, haunting; and still the soft tone of one careful flute sounds on, and keeps the nerves alive to the slow and growing pain of the rhythmic beat... It is like some dreadful liturgy of self-inflicted pain, set to measured music: and the cadence of that music becomes intolerable by the suave phrasing and perfect modulation. The last long chapter with its recurring themes is a masterpiece of prose, and in its way unique."
In 1910 Machen managed to obtain employment with the London Evening News. Owned by Lord Northcliffe, it had a circulation of over a million copies. He worked as a staff writer and mainly reported on the arts and religion. His biographer, Roger Dobson, has pointed out: "Although he detested journalism, his Johnsonian manner and compelling character established him as one of Fleet Street's most charismatic figures."
Arthur St John Adock was a fellow journalist who worked in London at the time: "You might run across him any day of the week at Ludgate Circus, in Fleet Street and the purlieus of Whitefriars, and his very unlikeness to the multitude round about him gave you a feeling that he belonged there ... his sturdy form and gait are vaguely reminiscent of Dr Johnson, but, instead of a wig, from under his small felt hat his thick iron-grey hair streams down stiff as wire. To set eyes on him thus, especially if the weather was not too mild for him to be enveloped in his great cape-overcoat, warmed you with a feeling that life had not yet been reduced quite to a dead level, that the free Bohemian spirit which quickened the world of literature in its golden age was not yet extinct, nor the glorious individuality of Fleet Street wholly departed from it."
Another journalist, Oliver Warner, who knew him during this period recalled that Machen had: "A deep and resonant voice... and a Johnsonian aspect. Voice and aspect are the resolution, the synthesis of a rare personality. Johnson would have approved his conversation. It is full of erudition, borne without a trace of pomposity, and embracing a wide and various range of subjects; it is kindly; it is humorous and it is opinionated."
Machen shared Northcliffe's views on the First World War and was willing to support the anti-German propaganda. Gwilym Games has argued in Machen's Legend of the War (2011): "Ardent wartime patriotism might be expected from someone like Arthur Machen, a man with a Tory and Royalist background. Like many other conservatives, Machen had expected war with Germany for years, hut when it came his attitude towards Germany appears to become exaggerated and absurd... The reason for this depiction is not only an ingrained patriotism, but stems from the reports of Germany violating Belgian neutrality, and of atrocities committed."
On 7th September 1914 Machen wrote movingly about the plight of Belgian refugees in the London Evening News. "We all know why Folkestone has become bilingual or - counting the Flemings - trilingual. The Belgians and the French have fled from the horror that is abroad, from that which destroyeth in the darkness and from the foul friend of noonday. Some of them have seen towns and villages laid waste amid circumstances of incredible cruelty, others have fled before the black legions have come upon them. There are 20,000 French and Belgian refugees now in Folkestone, and many of the exiles have passed on to London. They come, and yet more come each day and all the day."
Machen played an important role in spreading German atrocity stories in Belgium. During the First World War most countries publicized stories of enemy soldiers committing atrocities. It was believed that it would help persuade young men to join the armed forces. As one British general pointed out after the war: "to make armies go on killing one another it is necessary to invent lies about the enemy". These atrocity stories were then fed to newspapers who were quite willing to publish them. British newspapers accused German soldiers of a series of crimes including: gouging out the eyes of civilians, cutting off the hands of teenage boys, raping and sexually mutilating women, giving children hand grenades to play with, bayoneting babies and the crucifixion of captured soldiers.
Machen described visiting Aldershot where British soldiers were being trained before being sent to the Western Front. He went to "the garrison church, dedicated to our patron, Saint George. Above the porch the Saint is sculptured to our patron, Saint George. Above the porch the Saint is sculptured in stone, kneeling very humbly, as befits a gentle knight, beside the horrid monster that he has killed... It is dangerous to be apocalyptic, and the interpretation of the prophecies had led, perhaps, to more frantic absurdities than any other pursuit open to mortals. But, reading the report of those things that have been done to women and children in Belgium, it seems to me that we need not hesitate in identifying the Dragon and the Beast of our age."
On 29th September 1914 Machen published a a ghost story, The Bowman, in the London Evening News. The story tells of a fierce rearguard action, based on the retreat from Mons. During the fighting, a British soldier suddenly remembers dinner plates used in a London restaurant that were decorated with the figure of St George and the motto Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius ("may St George be a present help to the English"). The soldier then sees a "long line of shapes... that resemble archers". The bowmen then "let fly a cloud of arrows at the advancing Germans, who fall dead in their thousands."
Machen later recalled the background of the story: "I looked out of my window one Sunday morning towards the end of August 1914, and saw some newspaper bills in front of the little shop over the way, and saw that the night had come... I have forgotten the detail of the newspaper account of (the retreat); but I remember it was a tale to make the heart sink, almost to deep despair. It told of the British army in full retreat, nay, in headlong, desperate retreat, on Paris.... The correspondent rather pictured an army broken to fragments scattered abroad in confusion. It was hardly an army any more; it was a mob of shattered men ... And I suppose that in the first place it was to comfort myself that I thought of the story of the Bowmen, and wrote it in the early days of September."
It was generally believed that the Angel of Mons myth probably came from Machen's story. However, as Ernest Sackville Turner has pointed out in his book, Dear Old Blighty (1980), It has never been explained how Machen's "long line of shapes, with a shining about them" became "a row of shining beings, and then a company of angels."
It has been argued in The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians (2005) that the Angel of Mons myth was probably developed by Brigadier-General John Charteris, the Chief Intelligence Officer at GHQ, as a covert attempt by military intelligence to spread morale-boosting propaganda and disinformation. Steve MacGregor agrees with this suggestion: "To understand possible motives we need to look more closely at Charteris career and in particular at the significance of propaganda, disinformation and rumour in 1914. At that time the only means for the public to obtain news other than through personal contact with soldiers was through newspapers, magazines and letters from the front. This was often several days out of date, and content was strictly controlled by the authorities (reporters were not allowed near the front and generally had to rely on information provided by the army; censors controlled the content of soldiers letters). As a result there was a huge appetite for information, and rumours spread wildly by word of mouth. People eagerly repeated the most unlikely stories as fact.... This rumour was clearly beneficial to the Allied cause, and had the added advantage of official deniability without any loss of credibility."
Machen later expressed regret that the myth had grown up around his work of fiction and pointed out that the word angels did not appear in the story. As James Hayward has pointed out in his book, Myths and Legends of the First World War (2002): "Machen... blamed religious bodies for exploiting what he considered an unremarkable story, and concluded that any sightings of spectral hosts were explicable as mere hallucinations".
Despite Machen's objections, religious magazines continued to argue the story was true. On 24th April, 1915, Light Magazine argued: "Whether Mr Machen's story was pure invention or not, it was certainly stated in some quarters that a curious phenomenon had been witnessed by several officers and men in connection with the retreat from Mons. It took the form of a strange cloud interposed between the Germans and the British. Other wonders were heard or seen in connection with this cloud which, it seems, had the effect of protecting the British against the overwhelming hordes of the enemy."
Machen explained in the TP's Weekly: "It was all so entirely innocent, nay casual, on my part. A poor linnet of prose, I did but perform my indifferent piping in the Evening News because I wanted to do so, because I felt that the story of The Bowmen ought to be told... and then, somehow or other, it was as if I had touched the button and set in action a terrific, complicated mechanism of rumours that pretended to be sworn truth, of gossip that posed as evidence, of wild tarradiddles that good men most firmly believed."
In December 1915, the Society for Psychical Research, published a report on the Angel of Mons. According to Mark Valentine, the author of Arthur Machen (1995): "It concluded that many of the stories of visions on the battlefield were founded on mere rumour, no first-hand testimony was obtainable and detailed evidence was lacking.... Even if we conclude that some soldiers, in extreme conditions, may have thought they saw extraordinary things on the battlefield - and hard evidence of even that is distinctly lacking - yet no one can deny it was Machen's story that gave resonance and power to an image, an assurance, that many people in Britain wanted to believe in."
The following year, the story appeared in a book that sold 100,000 copies. Machen's popularity revived interest in his earlier books and in 1921 left his post at the London Evening News after he wrote a forthright obituary notice of Lord Alfred Douglas. Unfortunately he was not dead and Machen was made a scapegoat for the resultant libel action.
Machen published two volumes of autobiography, Far Off Things (1922) and Things Near and Far (1923). Mark Valentine has argued that "Machen's prose is at his finest as he evokes a lost golden age in which life was simpler, people were kinder and prouder and the very land, whether in winter or summer, was a great revelation of beauty and wonder." However, the sales of his books declined and this caused him financial hardship.
Machen's work continued to inspire other writers. This included H. P. Lovecraft, one of the world's most important figures in horror stories. The author of Arthur Machen (1995) has pointed out: "Lovecraft discovered Machen's work in 1923 and quickly became an ardent enthusiast, praising him in his many vast letters to friends and working in references to Machen in several of his own stories."
In 1937 he was asked about his views on the Spanish Civil War by the editors of Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War. The vast majority took the side of the Popular Front government but Machen, was only one of five authors who supported the fascist leader, General Francisco Franco. He wrote that "Arthur Machen begs to inform you that he is, and always has been, entirely for Franco."
This opinion reflected how much Machen was out of touch with political life. In all, 131 writers opposed the fascists. This included those writers who dominated cultural life at that time such as W.H. Auden, Cyril Connolly, Stephen Spender, Aldous Huxley, Ford Madox Ford, Hugh Macdiarmid, Arthur Koestler, Rebecca West, Ethel Mannin, Rose Macaulay, Edgell Rickword, Laurence Housman, Victor Gollancz, Cecil Day-Lewis and A. E. Coppard.
Anthony Powell, the future novelist, often saw Machen during this period. Powell wrote about it thirty years later: "When I was a boy I used sometimes to catch a glimpse of Arthur Machen in St John's Wood, with his longish white hair and Inverness cape, every inch a nineteenth century literary man... a type, I think it would be true to say, now entirely extinct."
The novelist, Frank Baker, was a regular visitor to the Machen home: "This exuberant and always jovial pair ... never seemed old; and although with beautiful courtesy they were always able to make us feel we were their contemporaries, they were completely at ease with our own years. In his outward person Arthur presented both the great man of letters and the actor-manager of bygone times: a black topcoat with an ulster cape over his broad shoulders; black wide-brimmed hat; a round and very solid head with brilliant blue eyes, and a tonsure fringed by the silky white hair... Everyone who knew Machen is agreed that he was one of the last great conversationalists... And Mr Machen's views were always strong; or, if he had no views, he would lead into an anecdote, the laughter would be fine, another round of drinks would be called for, tobacco relit, and you were ready for the next act... the tenderness, the all-enfolding gusty humour, the Rabelaisian rumbustiouness which made up the greater part of him very soon came bubbling out."
In 1943 an Appeal Fund, supported by George Bernard Shaw, Siegfried Sassoon, Max Beerholm, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Frank Baker, T. S. Eliot and Water de la Mare, raised enough money to keep the Machens in reasonable comfort for the remainder of their years.