The word is Zain: Arthur Machen’s The Terror

I stayed up entirely too late last night making this. The funny thing was, I didn’t plan to make it beforehand at all. Not even earlier that day.

…I just up and made it. (While watching Pink Floyd’s The Wall.)

But, I think I can point to the reason I felt so compelled to create this piece in particular. I had an incredibly stressful weekend, coupled with an ever-sharpening sense of my own mortality. Locally, covid-19 cases and deaths continue to break daily and monthly records and yesterday was no exception. People got sick yesterday, plans were cancelled…and then I surprised myself by making a painting based upon Arthur Machen’s story of a deadly force of nature killing a family isolated in their house.

Since I want you to stop looking at this dumb article and go read The Terror right away, I’ll leave you with part of the chapter this scene is based upon:

“Even now I can hear the voice rolling far away, as if it came from the altar of a great church and I stood at the door. There are lights very far away in the hollow of a vast darkness, and one by one they are put out. I hear a voice chanting again with that endless modulation that climbs and aspires to the stars, and shines there, and rushes down to the dark depths of the earth, again to ascend; the word is Zain.

Now, I could be wrong, but in this letter (which is written by a dying, dehydrated, starving man trapped in the cottage below) he first talks about a voice singing Aleph and then refers to an apocalyptic Biblical passage. The last letter in the Hebrew alphabet is Tav, and evidently some people refer to Jesus or God as “the Aleph Tav.” It would be the same as saying “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, says the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.” –Chizayon (Revelation) 1:8

I think in the story, Mr. Secretan is opposing Zain to Aleph. It is, after all, the final word sung by God (or by an angelic voice) in Secretan’s visions, the word heralding the end of the human world.

If that’s the case, I’m personally feeling pretty zain right now as opposed to feeling zen, as I once did in happier times.

I actually used the characters of Aleph and Tav in the painting itself, having been unable to discover a Zain. Aleph is on the angel’s back while Tav rises from the ground to greet the angel and its moth host. They look almost like grave markers for the unfortunate family within.

Arthur Machen wasn’t the only one to include moths in a horror story. H. Russel Wakefield has some scary red moths of his own in his masterful short story Mr. Ash’s Studio. I’d enjoy doing illustrations based upon that soon as well.

The last thing I did last night was painstakingly put this painting up on Teepublic, Redbubble, society6, and Fine Art America. (And I tweeted about it…and shared it on Facebook…and documented the process on Patreon…) And that was a huge pain! But, I had to do it or eat my words.

I’m about to start drawing some tarot cards. Unless I’m so scared by the prospect of uploading them all that I give up first, of course.

In the meantime, tell me about your literary dream illustration project!

Or tell me if you’ve ever had a piece of art just force its way out of your hand without even asking you for permission beforehand.


A many armed angel of death descends from the moon in a cloud of scarlet moths.

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