Monday, July 7, 2014

The Sixtystone: A Web of Deceit and Illusion – Arthur Machen, the Black Seal, and the Nesting Story of The Three Imposters

The background of the short story, The Novel of the Black Seal is a lot older, a lot weirder, and a lot more fun than I expected.
Arthur Machen is not as well known now as he was originally, but he was a highly influential author of the Weird Fiction genre.  His important short story, The Novel of the Black Seal is a portion of an elaborate overstory or nesting novel, The Three Imposters, published in 1895.  I’d like to leave the rest of the book alone and focus on just one story, The Novel of the Black Stone in this blog article.  

My first exposure to the Machen’s book, The Three Imposters was from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series of books when it released an affordable reprint in 1972.  The series was a real boost to average fans that wanted above average fantasy books but couldn’t afford or find costly, rare editions.

Arthur Machen’s works have had a powerful influence on many writers and quite strongly on H. P. Lovecraft, who cites Machen in his Notes on Writing Weird Fiction as a great author along with Lord Dunsany, Edgar Allan Poe, Montague R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and Walter de la Mare.   

As you will note in HPL’s Notes on Weird Fiction, he states:
One cannot, … present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel.”

The careful placement of the “single marvel” in this particular story (which is part of a larger story) is a small black stone, which cannot to be taken casually by any means.  One way to do this is to embed your single marvel, in this case a seal stone of great antiquity and evil, into the fabric of reality and history by having it written about by previous authors, preferably real, but they can be fictional as well.  In some cases, the reference book itself is the marvel, such as the Necronomicon.

The Sixtystone or Black Seal in the story is very masterfully borrowed from the 2nd century Roman writer Solinus, who refers to a stone called the Hexecontalithon in his writings.  Machen carefully misquotes the original work, Caii Julii Solini de Mirabilibus Mundi to add depth and to move locality of the story from Libya to England.  This embeds the historical cited Sixtystone with accompanying text and author into Machen’s universe quite deftly.  Machen makes no secrecy about the lifting, giving the original author’s name and the source.  It’s all in good fun anyway.*

Machen’s rework of Solinus is quoted from The Novel of the Black Seal:
 "This folk," I translated to myself, "dwells in remote and secret places, and celebrates foul mysteries on savage hills. Nothing have they in common with men save the face, and the customs of humanity are wholly strange to them; and they hate the sun. They hiss rather than speak; their voices are harsh, and not to be heard without fear. They boast of a certain stone, which they call Sixtystone; for they say that it displays sixty characters. And this stone has a secret unspeakable name; which is Ixaxar."

Along with the Sixtystone being taken from ancient writings, the title of the main book itself, The Three Imposters, may be a direct reference to another book of great age, the Treatise of the Three Imposters, itself a hoax book, which (in many modified forms) has been circulation for centuries.   Both Solini de Marabilibus Mundi and The Treatise of The Three Imposters had been in circulation for centuries and available in a number of print editions in England.  I have to wonder if anybody sees the possible connection between the two books called The Three Imposters, one published in 1895 and the other circulating in manuscript form since at least the 1200s. 

Did Machen use the title The Three Imposters as a nod to the earlier esoteric book of the same name?  It certainly looks likely, although I have not downloaded or read the medieval version of The Three Imposters.  Like the Necronomicon, The Treatise of the Three Imposters is considered an imaginary or spurious book in a blog post at

While considering all the in jokes, the transparent borrowings, and the scholarship required to spot them, consider that the Sixtystone is referred to as a black stone by Machen, but not Solinus – which may be an oblique reference to another black stone, which is real and located in the Middle East.  But also consider it may be a play on the name of a contemporary writer of weird fiction with Machen (and also cited by HPL in Notes on Weird Fiction) Algernon Blackwood.  It’s hard to say for sure, but it is interesting to note the multiple use of layers in Machen’s The Three Imposters, especially looking at the stories within The Novel of the Black Seal.  It’ll certainly take a some scholarship to unravel the puzzle. 

Consider also that IXAXAR, may be a play on ΙΧΘΥΣ (fish in Greek) which was a secret symbol from early Christianity, dating to the first century, the same period as Solinus wrote.  But I don’t want to jump too deeply into religious waters for concern about offending and a lack of serious scholarship on my part in this matter.  Machen would appear to be both serious and playful at the same time.  Another idea that may just be coincidental is that there are sixty stones at Stonehenge.  Once you start the association game, it’s hard to stop.

Another anchor into history for the story and the Sixtystone is the Sumerian’s and later the Babylonian’s use of a sexagesimal, (base 60) numeral system.  This works well linking the Sixtystone into another culture and body of researchable data.  Interestingly, we still use many of the Babylonian’s base 60 concepts like the 60 minutes in an hour & etc.  Solinus would have been quite familiar with the system himself.  The great thing is that with a well-imbedded artifact is that the more you dig, the more associations or coincidences you find.  The accidental associations weave themselves automatically into the body of works, supporting the whole, even though the author may not have been aware of the association.  Coincidence can be an author’s friend, as long as it doesn’t become a forced literary cliché.+

As a side note, Robert E. Howard did a short story called the Black Stone (pub Nov 1931), which is supposedly set in the Lovecraftian universe.  So everybody has had a shot at the title.   For Howard fans, here’s a nice article about Howard’s debt to Lovecraft.

Certainly Machen’s association with mysticism, theosophy, and neo-romanticism and it’s associated interest in pagan and pre Christian beliefs lends some credence to these theories of literary association.  Eventually, Machen purposeful mistranslantion of Solinus’ work made its way into texts of modern esoteric teachings, bringing the farce full circle.  It’s much like Lovecraft’s imaginary Necronomicon becoming esoteric canon.  See the article by Christopher Josiffe in the links section at the end of this post for more information.

One more quick aside:  If you are still following this, you prop making fans might check into the Cyrus Cylinder, as fodder for thought, although that is clay not stone.  

The power of Machen’s mythmaking power is quite evident in his creation of The Angels of Mons from a 1914 story, The Bowmen, later released as a book of short stories, The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War.  Machen explained the story was fictional, but the more he protested, the more people believed it was real.  I have to wonder if there is a link between this WWI story of ghostly protectors and the raised dead protecting Britain from invasion in WWII in the movie, Bedknobs and Broomsticks of 1971.  But that’s for someone else to ferret out.  Additionally, see this article on about Machen’s mythmaking and the Angels of Mons:  

What really got this whole thing rolling was a Sixtystone prop posted on Propnomicon’s outstanding Cthulhu Mythos prop making site a good while back.  It got me interested again in Machen and rekindled my old interest in cylinder seals.  I did a little digging and as usual, things got wonderfully out of hand.  The result is this blog article.      

Arthur Machen’s writing prowess continues to influence readers, writers, makers of props, and esoteric authors.  His works influenced writers from Lovecraft to Steven King, as well as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, and James Branch Cabell.  By the way, most of these authors had stories and books appear in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.  Machen also influenced other authors outside of the genre such as Jorge Luis Borges with his magic realism and even writers of mysticism Aleister Crowley and Kenneth Grant owes a debt of gratitude to the writings of Machen. 

Machen was also an originator in what would be later called psychogeography,^ due to his writing about the interconnectivity between landscape and imagination.  Along that line, you might also check out my previous post on William Hope Hodgson who was another influence on Lovecraft and his Dreamlands.  The problem with imaginary lands is that you introduce the great possibility of unreliable narrators, in which The Three Imposters is rife at multiple levels.  But that's part of the fun.

Hopefully this information dump will make you want to follow the links and enjoy the ride or do some follow-up work in places I have only touched.  Many of these referenced authors were contemporaries and friends so cross pollenization is inevitable.  They certainly influenced each other and molded our ideas about fantasy and horror today.  I hope you will be intrigued to enough read a few of the different cited authors’ works.  The great thing is that many of them are available for download for free.  See the links below.
*More contemporarily, take a page from NCIS Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs’ Rulebook:  Rule 7, "Always be specific when you lie.”  
+(Op Cit) Keep in mind Gibb's Rule 39 and of course, while writing Weird Fiction, remember his Rule 45 also applies.  Good detective work has much the same rules as being a good writer. 
^Psychogeography has strong links to ley lines, earth mysteries, and chaos magic.  It also is linked to magic realism and other techniques used in fiction writing. 

          Additional links of interest
Download these books for free from Project Gutenberg by Arthur Machen
The Three Imposters, (1895) which contains the story The Novel of the Black Seal
The Great God Pan (1894)
The House of Souls (1906)
The Hill of Dreams (1895, pub 1907) 
The White People (1899, pub 1904) by Machen
Also Famous Modern Ghost Stories (1921) with Machen stories inside 

An article about Machen in the Spanish language

A link to a good article by Christopher Josiffe is just below, about the Sixtystone and Machien’s use of Solinus’ writings.  Josiffe’s makes use of Arthur Golding’s English translation of Solinus from the late 1500s makes for really good reading, but also note in this article, tracing of the Machen of Solinus mistranslation making its way into modern esoteric writing.   Fun stuff.  or 

A Latin language downloadable copy of the 1847 edition of Solinus’ Caii Julii Solini de Mirabilibus Mundi  The part you want is XXXI for the Sixtystone hexecontalithon reference used by Machen.  Prop makers, this would be a great source for text for your prop books and documents.  Alas I could not find the Arthur Golding late 1500’s English translation quoted so colorfully by Christopher Josiffe in the above article.  

For those interested in a 1904 English translation of the 1716 French edition of De Tribus Impostoribus, (1230), AKA The Three Imposters, a download is available here:

Robert E. Howard's The Black Stone, available for free download:  


  1. Any idea who the "Professor Lodge" that Mr. Phillipps referred to as being interested in Prof. Gregg's theories? The best I can figure out is Oliver Lodge, who was a physicist rather than a professor of some relevant field such as biology or archeology, but was deeply interested in the occult.

    1. I really don't know the answer and I'm certainly not a Machen scholar. But my personal guess is that "Professor Lodge" refers not to a person but to a theosophist lodge or other occult gathering/community. Additionally the term "professor" here may refer to the head of the lodge or just there to throw people off. Machen was well read in esoteric works and had a good sense of humor as well.

      I do appreciate the input.

    2. UPDATE: On rethinking over your question tonight, I might have a less esoteric answer than the previous. We might consider Sir Oliver Lodge, a famous British physicist who might be the Lodge Machen is referring to, although I find to be a bit obvious for someone as mischievous and intelligent as Machen. Then again, Oliver Lodge was fairly well known as a spiritualist and interested in telepathy. He was also supposed to be a member of The Ghost Club starting in the 1880s, so it’s possible that Machen may be referencing a real person after all, but it it’s just a bit too obvious, or perhaps I am just wanting things to be more complex than they really were. Nonetheless, it’s fun stuff.