Arthur Machen is receiving a respectable release in a Penguin edition, with a selection of his stories including “The White People.” Well, it’s been out for a few months in the US, actually, but is only coming out in the UK next month. I’m not very good at playing favorites, but I think if I had to choose one favorite supernatural story, it might be “The White People,” a long tale which consists largely of a young girl’s rambling diary entries describing her encounters with something evil yet numinous. I often feel that there is a vein of “The White People” running through a lot of what I write, invisible though it may be to anyone else; I love that sense he evokes–Algernon Blackwood and H.P. Lovecraft do it as well, but surely nowhere quite so well as Machen does in “The White People”–of otherness, and of awe in the face of that otherness. (It might be interesting someday for someone–not me–to contrast the religious/spiritual leanings of the three writers in light of that evocation of awe, and to consider how they wrote about the experience of encountering that other: Machen, the devout; Lovecraft, the atheist materialist; and Blackwood, the mystic.)
One day, I remember, we were in a hazel brake, over-looking the brook, and we were so snug and warm, as though it was April; the sun was quite hot, and the leaves were just coming out. Nurse said she would show me something funny that would make me laugh, and then she showed me, as she said, how one could turn a whole house upside down, without anybody being able to find out, and the pots and pans would jump about, and the china would be broken, and the chairs would tumble over of themselves. I tried it one day in the kitchen, and I found I could do it quite well, and a whole row of plates on the dresser fell off it, and cook’s little work-table tilted up and turned right over “before her eyes,” as she said, but she was so frightened and turned so white that I didn’t do it again, as I liked her. And afterwards, in the hazel copse, when she had shown me how to make things tumble about, she showed me how to make rapping noises, and I learnt how to do that, too.
To me, “The White People” feels like all the fairy tales, all the forbidden books and deep dark woods and doors into other worlds together in one strange story. It also seems to me a story about the amorality of childhood, of “innocence” in the William Blake-ian sense of lacking any sense of right and wrong, good and evil.
This edition is edited by S.T. Joshi, which means the scholarship surrounding it will be meticulous, although I wonder why one of Machen’s most famous and effective stories, “The Great God Pan,” wasn’t chosen for inclusion.
There is a society devoted to Machen, The Friends of Arthur Machen, which has some good resources to learn more about him.