Arthur Machen’s “The White People”

While drinking my beer in an empty bar this weekend I read Arthur Machen’s “The White People”. That’s a creepy book. CREEPY. Once you get past the standard Machen frame of two Victorian weirdoes talking about “evil” and get into the found manuscript, the story gets weird.

Very, very weird.

That part, The Green Book, is written by a girl remembering her encounter with “the White People”. (And yes, haha, I get it, funny funny, but even that joke might make for an interesting postcolonial story riffing on this story.) Who or what the White People are is left confused. Maybe they’re fairies, maybe they’re Roman statues hidden away in the English woods, or maybe they’re her nurse and others using/abusing the girl. You don’t know, and the girl isn’t specific. But something happened, and, what’s more unsettling, the girl is in collusion with it. She’s not a passive victim, nor a dupe, but a willing victim, working with these unknown forces, and you’re swept along by her rambling, run-on narrative, and lost within it.

All these are most secret secrets, and I am glad when I remember what they are, and how many wonderful languages I know, but there are some things that I call the secrets of the secrets of the secrets that I dare not think of unless I am quite alone, and then I shut my eyes, and put my hands over them and whisper the word, and the Alala comes. I only do this at night in my room or in certain woods that I know, but I must not describe them, as they are secret woods. Then there are the ceremonies, which are all of them important, but some are more delightful than others–

It’s a disturbing little story no matter how you read it. You can see it as mundane sinister (the nurse “corrupting” the girl) or as supernatural sinister. Either way it’s well worth a Halloween read.

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7 responses to “Arthur Machen’s “The White People””

  1. Rick Bowes says :

    I hate to break it to you but old AM was seriously disturbed. Even for a horror writer even for a 19th century British horror writer.

  2. Gord Sellar says :

    Finally got around to this story earlier today, and, yeah. It’s CREEPY. And quite bananas, really. And in a good way: I really got a kick out of it, even if, obviously, it’s yet again a corrupted female. Somehow it also made me think of The Turn of the Screw, in its overt ambiguity: there may be nothing supernatural at all, or it may be the White People are real. Machen doesn’t really clarify, just as Henry James refuses to clarify in his novel.

    I don’t know if Rick will see this, but if you, Rick, I’m curious about details on Machen’s “seriously disturbed” condition, or advice on where to read more about it.

    I ask because I haven’t seen anything online that suggests he was more crazy than the other loonies of the late 19th and early 20th. (Kensington even as late as 1920-something was crammed with occultist literati: Blavatsky devotees, people attending events put on by Crowley and his “Order”, economic radicals who bought into a whole conspiracy theory of Western history, and so on. Even many literati who mocked spiritualism were tied up in other forms of occultism.)

    • rickbowes says :

      Hi Gord: It’s almost two years ago that I wrote that. And I don’t know what was pissing me off at that moment, Machen’s nuttiness doesn’t stand out amidst the company he kept. But I do think of him as a creepiness addict and somehow (like Lovecraft) a writer who never quite hauled his ass over the invisible fence that separates chills consumer from producer. This particular story somehow reminds me of those “recovered memory” scandals in which thirty years later and under hypnosis people told of day care operators sacrificing small children on altars in the woods.

      All unfair and gratuitous I know
      Rick

      • gordsellar says :

        Thanks for the quick clarification, Rick… no worries on the fuzzy memories, I just thought there might be, you know, details behind singling out Machen as extra-nutty. I mean,

        Opinions are opinions, but I’d say “The White People” would be more like those “recovered memory” scandals if the people under hypnosis remembered *themselves* participating in the sacrifices (to, I don’t know, dryads or something) out in the bush… and then confessed to suddenly having an overwhelming urge to go back out into the bush and finish the job. 🙂

        Come to think of it, that may be one reason more I got a kick out of it: I overdosed on recent horror films of the sort trying to resurrect 70s horror, and sadly they’re attempting it by including all the Catholics vs. devil/demons stuff, which bores me. Machen’s stuff has the same creepy sense of ubiquitous, eternal forces vying for control of us, but it’s never quite as nailed down as in the Catholic stuff. It was somehow refreshing for that reason.

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