I enjoyed this ‘remembrance day’ episode of Elder Sign. The Netherlands is one of few countries in Western Europe that were barely touched directly by WW 1, but of course our land is also affected by this horrific war (though it’s overshadowed by WW 2). Some four musings I want to share about this tale:
First of all, war literature isn’t in the first instance 'my cup of tea', though it is impossible as a serious reader to NOT read it, as most 20th century (European) literature is, as you’ve said, about or influenced by war. And reading for school and university (Dutch language and literature) and my own book club I read some war literature that really affected me, like ‘Im Westen nichts Neues’ and de Bernieres’ ‘Birds without Wings’ (but I’m guilty of not liking Hemingway). Accidentally, I’m reading Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ at this moment for my book club (a great book, I think it is). The subtitle of this book, ‘or The Children's Crusade’ is something that strongly relates to the emotions of WW 1: that soldiers are only innocent children, used as cannon fodder, lured into war by some great tale of adventure and victory.
Second, I read many books of Machen, but only the titles of which S.T. Joshi said ‘[they] are all the Machen fiction that anyone need read.’ And this book of tales wasn’t among them. He only mentions this tale (in ‘The Weird Tale’) to illustrate the journalistic style of Machen in some of his work, which is (to Joshi) a strange amalgam of fiction and non-fiction (coincidentally something which one will see later on in postmodern fiction).
Thirdly, there’s an element in Machen that’s very important when put opposite to Lovecraft. Although Lovecraft worshipped Arthur Machen, Machen was as religious as Lovecraft was atheistic. In The Bowmen, Machen uses his piety, I think, to deepen the patriotic and propagandistic message of the story. Lovecraft was (annoyingly) nationalistic, so I think he wouldn’t mind (in a tale) to send the ghosts of medieval soldiers to the front, but it remains a strange contrast: the religious Machen as an example to Lovecraft. I also found it a strange combination in this tale: the horrible sufferings of the soldiers next to the propagandic and dehumanizing of the enemy (very different than, say, the negation of enmity between the soldiers in ‘Im Westen nichts Neues’).
Finally, The Lord of the Rings was mentioned (because of the ‘not going home anymore’-part), but I also thought about this book when compared to the wave of ghost soldiers from Agincourt. Likewise, in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, the ‘good ones’, when facing total annihilation, are helped (deus ex machina) by the Dead Men of Dunharrow, who in doing that delivered their broken oath. The ghost soldiers from Agincourt, of course, had patriotic reasons, they didn’t have any oath. The Lord of the Rings of course can be (and often is) read as war epic. But, like The Bowmen, there is this strange combination of the realistic horror of war and dehumanizing the enemy (Germans are literally monsters) and the war is between Good and Evil. Unlike Machen, Tolkien did fight in WW 1 and used his experience to write his epic, but it is no ‘im Westen Nichts Neues’, but a tale of Good versus Evil and victory.
Some last aside: when I was about fifteen, I found a little (translated) book with tales of August Derleth in my mother’s book case (a mystery on itself: my mother hates horror and such). Through this book I heard about Lovecraft, and that’s when it all began for me (though I play Lovecraftian board games nowadays, all that came later on). I mention it, because there is a tale in this little book, which I found to be originally titled ‘Death holds the post’, a tale about zombie soldiers, and which intrigued me when I was about fifteen. And now I ask myself: can Derleth himself be recognized as weird tale writer? Or can it only be recognized as Lovecraftian pastiche without the real weird (cosmicistic) feel?