“I have been grinding away at facts for thirty years; it is time for fancies.”
The Three Imposters is Arthur Machen’s best work and a classic of Gothic horror.
As the novel opens, we are introduced to the three imposters, two men and one young woman, who are grinning evilly at each other upon completing their greatest heist. The three imposters are con artists extraordinaire who, throughout the novel, adopt various pseudonyms and personas to deceive other unsuspecting characters in their pursuit of ancient treasure. Their ultimate goal is the Gold Tiberius, which is in the possession of “the young man with spectacles,” the main target of their scheme.
The Three Imposters has a layered structure of stories-within-stories-within-stories-within-stories (yes, up to four layers deep). Machen builds layers of mystery and intrigue, pulls back on them, and builds more layers along different threads. This may be disorienting for some readers, but I found the layered structure to be an effective means for assembling the various levels of mystery that drive the main plot of the book.
We know that the story is told by a trio of liars. As the layers of intrigue are alternately constructed and deconstructed, the reader is left wondering which of the tales are pure legends and which are real clues about genuine history, artifacts, and treasures being pursued by the imposters.
Arthur Machen ingeniously incorporates fantasy and horror elements throughout the book. The Three Imposters is a classic of fae horror, first revealed in one of the embedded stories in the middle of the novel:
“I became convinced that much of the folk-lore of the world is but an exaggerated account of events that really happened, and I was especially drawn to consider the stories of the fairies, the good folk of the Celtic races…Just as our remote ancestors called the dreaded beings ‘fair’ and ‘good’ precisely because they dreaded them, so they had dressed them up in charming forms, knowing the truth to be the very reverse.”
This particular story is buried four layers deep. Within the main novel of The Three Imposters, there is the “Adventure of the Missing Brother.” Within that story is the “Novel of the Black Seal.” And within that story is “The Statement of William Gregg, F.R.S.,” which finally gives the account of the fae, ending with an H.P. Lovecraft-style tentacle horror scene.
The novel ends where it begins, with the three imposters discarding their fake personas. Machen successfully brings together the many disparate plot threads, although we are left wondering which of the stories are real and which are pure fabrication by the imposters. In retrospect, many important clues are buried in the opening prologue, available right up front for the clever reader-detective.
The Three Imposters is surprisingly fresh for something written in 1894-1895. The plot is convoluted and full of misdirection, but it works effectively to convey a sense of horror and build the layers of mystery to be solved.