The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

As unpredictable as an out-of-season storm and as elusive as shifting shadows at twilight, the Greek god Pan has maintained a well-earned reputation for being a devil, a tempter of flesh and a sealer of sin.

He’s more than a vicious demon, however. Pan is the guardian of the natural world and spiritual embodiment of nature’s cycle of birth, death and rebirth. He’s a physical deity and occult metaphor, a loving shepherd, sexual liberator, playful trickster and folklore fiend. Like all great gods and monsters, Pan is many things to many people.

According to William P. Simmons, the editor of this short story collection, weird fiction was rich with appearances of Pan during the late 19th century and mid-20th century. The horny god continues to be relevant to hedonists, intellectuals, artists, writers, rebels and horticulturalists today. 

The authors in this volume represent various literary disciplines and sub-genres, from gothic romance and decadence to ribald comedy. Baptisms of Horror & Ecstasy is truly a bacchanalian (dionysian?) orgy of fiction and poetry. 

A handful of stories bear witness to Pan’s influence over comely virgins. “The Moon-Slave” by Barry Pain (1901) is about a princess who enjoys dancing seductively under the full moon. Only later does she realize that she’s inadvertently encouraging the ardor of Pan.

In “Dryas and Lady Greenleaf” by R. Murray Gilchrist (1903) a young lady is raped by supernatural influences that awaken her carnal lust. “Who can say whether I am a goddess or a nymph?” she muses at the story’s end. 

Seduced by the beauty of nature, a 17-year-old girl pines for the embrace of Pan in a story called “In the Woods” by Amyas Northcote (1922). When the lonely girl finally hears the shepherd’s pipes, she quickly realizes the folly of her naive passions. “The piping rose louder and more clear. Beautiful it was, and entrancing, but evil and menacing too. She was like a bird charmed by the serpent.”

There are a couple of duds in this anthology (“Old Pipes and the Dryad” by Frank R. Stockton and an excerpt from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows), but overall Simmons has assembled a terrific batch of prose and verse that “follow Pan’s hoofprints across the soil of myth, folklore and literature.” 

“The Story of a Panic” by E.M. Forester (1911) is probably my favorite story here. Pan doesn’t make an appearance in the narrative but he certainly inspires the “panic” felt by the cast of characters.

Fourteen-year-old Eustace Robinson is a peevish lad, “indescribably repellent,” writes Forester. After a mysterious (sexual?) encounter in the woods, the boy embraces a newfound homosexual lifestyle which represents some sort of erotic freedom. Eustace is last seen running afield, no doubt bleating like a billy goat in heat. 

[Baptisms of Horror & Ecstasy: Supernatural Stories of the Great God Pan / Edited by William P. Simmons / First Printing: January 2023 / ISBN: 9798369909966]