Review: Helen’s Story (2013)

By Bobby Derie

Rabinowitz, Rosanne. Helen’s Story. PS Publishing (2013). Hardcover: 146 pages. ISBN-13:1-848635-80-7 (unsigned); ISBN-13:1-848635-79-1 (signed, 100 copies).

Helen Vaughan is the silent antihero of Arthur Machen’s weird classic “The Great God Pan,” a distant cousin of Algernon Blackwood’s Julius LeVallon and Aleister Crowley’s moonchild, the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s Whateley twins and Clark Ashton Smith’s nameless offspring. For a hundred years, she has stood half-way to modern myth as an unwanted demigod and Victorian nightmare. It’s about time she got the opportunity to tell her side of the story – and rumors of her demise have been greatly exaggerated.

In conceit, Helen’s Story resembles Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel Wicked, or even the 2014 film, Maleficent: The female specter at the heart of Machen’s 1890 novelette is given the opportunity to star in her own story, retelling the events from her own perspective, gently (and sometimes ungently) pooh-poohing the unfair treatment of women and female characters. Rabinowitz certainly had ample material to work with, if that was her only goal. Machen, for all of the subtle sexuality implied in his stories, liked to restrict his female characters to familiar Victorian roles: children, nurses, governesses, secretaries, wives, and harlots. The few that aspire to be anything more are reviled and often come to sticky ends – literally, in the case of Helen Vaughan at the end of “The Great God Pan.”

Rabinowitz takes a different path. This Helen Vaughan is alive and well in contemporary London, both more and less than the genderbending changeling that Machen had made of her. A century after the events of Machen’s novella, she has set up as an artist in Shoreditch, seeking through her art to make contact once more with her elusive fey companion. The language is sensual, the imagery vivid, the critical eye on the inhabitants of the art scene perceptive and penetrating, creating caricatures from which characters emerge like blooming flowers, Helen Vaughan the busy honey bee spreading the pollen from one to the next, all while reliving the events of “The Great God Pan” (and, skillfully intermixed, elements of Machen’s “The White People”).

The character and merit of Helen’s Story lies in not being yet another derivation of Machen. Rabinowitz avoids the trap of pastiche, keeping her voice and style her own throughout, except for a handful of quotations. Neither does she feel the need to be pornographic to be explicit, emphasizing the sensual as much as the sexual, reminiscent of the prose of W.H. Pugmire or Caitlín R. Kiernan. No boring mechanical pumping motions or cliche rutting language, only kisses and caresses, tastes and sensations.

The end comes in a bacchanal that would make Lovecraft’s Dunwich orgiasts nod in approval, and brings to the fore some of the simmering unspoken themes of commercialism and status-seeking, the moribund aging of artistic folk into good little consumers, the slow betrayal of creativity and ideals to cynicism, gray apathy, and the death of dreams. Rabinowitz gives Helen Vaughan a better send-off than Machen did, even if, from a reader’s perspective, she still melts away, a creature of fluid gender and sexuality, but this time seeking, not a male-imposed oblivion at the end of a thick, hempen rope, but an escape from all the lesser lights too obsessed with their lives as they are, rather than as they might be.

Bio: Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014, Hippocampus Press) and The Complete Letters of Robert E. Howard – Index and Addenda (2015, Robert E. Howard Foundation). He finds his outlet in nonfiction because his fiction is unpublishable.