Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The White People and Other Weird Stories (1894-1916) by Arthur Machen

   Arthur Machen believed deeply in a very personal form of mystic Christianity. For Machen, powerful forces lurked behind the material world, forces that were dangerous to disturb. He deeply resented the growing secularism of his time and had a bitter hostility toward the results of scientific thought in society. For him the world was, and needed to stay, full of awe-inspiring mystery. Because he was an immensely talented writer he was able to infuse his fiction with this unique view of the world. The results were some of the weirdest and most unsettling stories in all of horror fiction.
   For the past few decades most of Machen's fiction was pretty hard to find outside a couple often-reprinted stories in anthologies. It was good news for horror and fantasy fans when Penguin published this edition of his stories. We can thank the editor, S. T. Joshi, for pushing for its publication. Nobody knows weird fiction of this era like Joshi and he understands Machen's importance. Machen, after all, was a major influence on H. P. Lovecraft and figures prominently in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature.
   The title story, The White People, is the book's stand-out. It is by far his weirdest and most disturbing work. It is a "found diary" story creepier than any of the "found footage" horror films that have been churned out during the past few years. The diary belonged to a fourteen year old girl whose ignorance of the true meaning of her experiences amplify their horror. I hesitate to give any details for fear of spoiling the story for those who have not read it. It is enough to say that it is one of the most powerful and disorienting stories in all of horror literature.
   Another very good story is The Novel of the Black Seal, one of Machen's many meditations on the consequences of seeking knowledge best left unknown. It is one of the stories to feature his "little people"; a race of ghastly creatures that live in the wild hills of Wales. These creatures have survived from ancient times and are the dark basis for the lighter legends of elves and fairies. They have control of evil forces long forgotten by human beings. A Professor Greg goes looking for conclusive proof of the existence of these creatures. That turns out to be a very bad idea.
   I also must mention The Novel of the White Powder, if only because it is so gloriously revolting. An unfortunate man gets the wrong medicine from the druggist with nightmarish results. His mental and physical transformation is particularly ghastly.
   If there is any failing to this volume it is that Machen's best known story, The Great God Pan, is inexplicably not included. For the life of me I cannot understand why this is so. Not only was it Machen's first critical success, it is also one of his best stories. It can't be because of space, as it is a better story by far than some that were included. The Terror, for example, is a decent enough story but it is not close to being as good as Pan. Perhaps Joshi was looking to make this more of a well-rounded book, including works where the supernatural is only touched upon such as A Fragment of Life, than a book of his "best" work. To make its exclusion even more frustrating we have that beautiful painting of Pan right on the cover.
   If Machen had a major fault in his work, it was his reliance on coincidence. The coincidences in his stories were a crutch that he often relied on to get his plots where he wanted them to go. Sadly, they often stretched credulity to the breaking point. However, this fault is a forgivable one when balanced out against the atmosphere and uniqueness of his work.
   If you have any interest in weird fiction this book is very rewarding.



  1. Another great post! I appreciate your insight into Machen's worldview and how it informs his work. I picked up this book myself a while back and was disappointed to find 'The Great God Pan' missing. Maybe there's another volume coming soon?

  2. Hmm, I'm not sure that Machen's reliance on coincidence was a crutch but a deliberate stylistic choice. The Red Hand, for instance, makes it clear that it is just another facet of his metaphysical vision. In many respects, it anticipates Jung or Koestler's work on Synchronicity and Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently novels.