“Nurse must have been a prophet like those we read of in the Bible. Everything that she said began to come true, and since then other things that she told me of have happened. That was how I came to know that her stories were true and that I had not made up the secret myself out of my own head. But there was another thing that happened that day. I went a second time to the secret place. It was at the deep brimming well, and when I was standing on the moss I bent over and looked in, and then I knew who the white lady was that I had seen come out of the water in the wood long ago when I was quite little. And I trembled all over, because that told me other things. Then I remembered how sometime after I had seen the white people in the wood, nurse asked me more about them, and I told her all over again, and she listened, and said nothing for a long, long time, and at last she said, ‘You will see her again.’ So I understood what had happened and what was to happen.” – Arthur Machen, “The White People”
In 1906, Grant Richards published a collection of four novellas by Welsh author Arthur Machen called The House of Souls. It contains the two stories for which Machen is best known today: “The Great God Pan” (which caused an uproar for its supposed decadence and sexual content) and “The White People.” This latter tale was described by H. P. Lovecraft in his seminal essay Supernatural Horror In Literature as “less famous and less complex in plot than The Great God Pan, but definitely finer in atmosphere and general artistic value.” Reading the story today, it is hard to argue the point.
First, a quick summary: Two men are discussing the nature of evil. One of them produces the diary of a dead girl, which describes in vivid detail her slow entry into an ancient world of ritualistic magic. During her account she cryptically references “Dôls,” “voolas,” “White, Green, and Scarlet Ceremonies,” “Aklo letters,” the “Xu” and “Chian” languages, “Mao games” and a game called “Troy Town.” Finally, she encounters a real nymph and the diary abruptly ends. Returning to the two men, the owner of the diary claims the girl’s death was due to being “poisoned – in time” by her exposure to this magic world.
Like many reviewers, I found the framing device to be the weakest part of the story. The philosophical debate on evil that opens the tale is only mildly interesting and the final assertion that the girl was metaphorically poisoned doesn’t really make much sense. I suspect that there were two reasons for its inclusion:
- Machen did not think he could publish the girl’s diary – called the Green Book in the story – on its own. This is not surprising; the Green Book was written in a stream-of-consciousness style that predates the Modernist movement of writers like Virginia Woolf by almost twenty years. Simply publishing the diary as is would likely have baffled readers of the time.
- Machen did not want to be seen as endorsing witchcraft by the predominantly religious public. It should be noted that Machen was descended from a long line of clergymen and therefore held Christian beliefs, but he was was also deeply versed in mystical literature and his interest in paganism and the occult figure prominently in his early work. In fact, some of his stories were required reading for students of the famed mystic Aleister Crowley (though Machen himself detested the man).
In the end, this is easy to forgive, as the framing device is a standard trope of fantastical literature, and the diary itself is so astounding that it more than makes up for it.
As previously noted, the Green Book anticipates stream-of-consciousness by several decades and reads like a kaleidoscopic hallucination, containing all sorts of diversions and stories-within-stories. Machen is ingenious in the way he layers tiny cryptic details on top of each other in a stream of “childish prattle” (as Lovecraft describes it), innocent at first but growing ever more ominous, hinting at a larger picture that never quite comes into focus. While several of these details are actual occult terms, most were invented by Machen. His descriptions of the wild landscapes the girl explores are strange and beautiful. However, he is careful to never reveal too much. Indeed, the diary ends right as a supreme revelation seems imminent. I hold to the belief that whatever this revelation is is irrelevant; the real twist of the tale is that this magic world of nymphs and witchcraft is actually real. Though this notion may hold less horror today than it did in 1906 (I personally found the story more unsettling than outright frightening), the idea of stumbling onto an unknowable world just outside the boundaries of our perception is a recurring theme in weird fiction.
Since its publication “The White People” has been tremendously influential. Sci-fi/fantasy scholar E. F. Bleiler wrote that the narrative in the Green Book is “probably the finest single supernatural story of the century, perhaps in the literature,” while Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi calls it “a masterpiece of indirection, a Lovecraft plot told by James Joyce.” Lovecraft himself considered it “a masterpiece of fantastic writing” and would later borrow the concept of Aklo letters for his 1928 story “The Dunwich Horror,” as would renowned comic book writer Alan Moore for his 2003 mini-series The Courtyard. Author T. E. D. Klein expanded the ideas presented in “The White People” for his 1970 novella “The Events at Poroth Farm,” which he later adapted into a novel called The Ceremonies. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro cited Machen as an influence on his 2006 film El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth), about a young girl who escapes the horrors of war by retreating into a fantasy world hidden in the nearby hills. Unlike Machen’s story, however, del Toro’s film neither confirms nor denies the actual existence of this world.
To sum up, this is a brilliant story and essential reading to anyone even remotely interested in weird fiction. I loved it. Expect to see more of Machen on this blog in the future.
Next time: “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. Stay tuned!