Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The White People and Other Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, DriveThruRPG, Local Library] by Arthur Machen, ed and introduction by S T Joshi, volume 2 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen.
This second book is far more uneven than The Impostors and Other Stories, editor Joshi’s first volume of collected weird Machen. It begins with “The Red Hand,” a story featuring Machen’s old duo Dyson and Phillips, and consistent with his earlier works. After that, it’s off to very different material. The imagistic “Ornaments in Jade” are described by Joshi as “prose-poems,” and whatever the merits of that description, they are wonderful stuff. None of them is more than a few pages long, and they are nearly plotless, but highly evocative.
The lauded story “The White People” caught me quite by surprise. I had been expecting something more along the lines of Machen’s earlier weird work; in fact I worried that it might be something of a re-tread of “The Shining Pyramid” or “The Novel of the Black Seal.” But it turned out to be more like “Ornaments in Jade”: light on plot, and thick with psychotropic sensory detail. One thing that impressed me was its extreme (yet subtle) nesting of narratives: the interlocutors Cotgrave and Ambrose form the outermost story, but the main tale is in the green MS book full of a girl’s personal reminiscences, which themselves include stories, sometimes containing further stories. E.g. the girl’s nurse recounts having been told certain things by her great-grandmother, which then become a story-within-within-within-within-within… This method of dropping through narrative frames is actually a reliable technique for hypnotic induction, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it literally entrances readers, and possibly has an effect on their dreams! Other trance induction methods prominent in “The White People” include chants and nonsense rhymes, physical spinning and dancing, and solitude. The narrative voice of the girl in the story is surprisingly convincing and effective, considering that Machen seems to have shed none of his earlier misogyny. I was struck by this remark from Ambrose early on:
“We should [feel horror in the presence of true evil] if we were natural: children and women feel this horror you speak of, even animals experience it. But with most of us convention and civilization and education have blinded and obscured the natural reason.” (66)
If “The White People” surprised me, “A Fragment of Life” totally bowled me over. Reading this story on its own seemed to give me all the evidence I could want that Machen had actually attained to some sort of mystical adeptship, in order to be able to relate the experiences he attributes to his protagonist Darnell, who at the story’s outset “lived in the grey phantasmal world, akin to death, that has somehow, with most of us, made good its claim to be called life.” (121)
The wartime fantasies of The Angels of Mons (including “The Bowmen”) had slight literary merit in their own right. But their inclusion was totally necessary because of the odd reflexive impact that the accidental hoax of the “angels” had on Machen’s work as a writer. (People who believed the “urban legend” generated by Machen’s story strongly resisted his attempts to deflate it.) In all of his subsequent fiction, the authorial voice of the fantasist is strangely knotted up with the conscientious journalist. This syndrome is especially apparent in “The Great Return,” but that 1915 story was most interesting to me for its precocious deployment of mescaline effects as a device to explain mystical states (223-224). The brief “Out of the Earth” is in many ways a recreation of Machen’s earlier “The Shining Pyramid,” but in the style of the new, war-era Machen, while “The Coming of the Terror” manages to foster quite an aura of mystery and terror, but lacks the sense of numinous wonder that brings me back to Machen’s work. “The Happy Children” contains elements of “The Great Return” packed into the brief fictional legend format of the stories from The Angels of Mons.
So, while the war-era works were worth reading, they didn’t impress me deeply. But “The White People” and “A Fragment of Life” cemented for me Machen’s status as a literary exponent of true esoteric initiation.