Thursday, March 05, 2020

"The White People" (1904)

The Welsh mystic Arthur Machen has a fair amount of stature in horror and fantasy circles, perhaps best known for his long story, "The Great God Pan," published in 1894, which set off a goat-god theme around the turn of the century that many contemporaries worked with in the same way they did vampires and werewolves (that is, probably for commercial reasons). Stephen King apparently has "Pan" on his short list of the very best. I admit I struggled with it, but this story is something else. Because we need to make the point in a realm dominated by H.P. Lovecraft, the story has nothing to do with race. These white people are more like silver and glowing when they are seen at all, which is rarely, and they are mysterious to the bottom (note the Penguin cover interpretation above). There's a critique to make about sexism, misogyny, and fear of women here, yes, but in many ways I think this strangely stirring story might get past that in certain ways. It comes in two parts—a frame, at beginning and briefly at end, featuring a colloquy between two intellectual men on the nature of sin, and a long middle section, a diary of an adolescent girl, a document one of the men passes to the other to read. The frame is necessary as it articulates the themes and sets expectations for the main narrative, notably the idea that sin is not transgression of moral laws but of physical ones. People who flout laws and norms must be dealt with, of course, but the argument is they are not truly sinners. The second man is intrigued and would like to subscribe to the first man's newsletter. He gets the diary to read.

This is a basic of "weird" fiction, a subset of fantasy and/or horror, distinct by its treatment of the unknown. We may have a fear of the unknown but weird fiction, if I'm understanding, wants to focus more on the unknown than the fear. If you're scared you're on your own, because that's how it is in the irrational world. Weird fiction merely continues to catalog the details. And so to the girl's diary. The critic S.T. Joshi has my favorite observation on "The White People," calling it "a masterpiece of indirection, a Lovecraft plot told by James Joyce." The diary is the longest part of the story but it doesn't have many paragraphs. It's not run-on but lucid and artful, with numerous digressions and embedded stories. It's easy to get lost but not hard to find oneself again, much like the action in the story, a kind of Alice in Wonderland journey through a copse. It's studded with made-up words and terms (Lord Dunsany for one had to be a fan), used so naturally they effectively suggest enormous worlds just beyond. I will say I'm glad I read this with an inline dictionary because that helped separate the made-up from the historical. Historical verity might be in the minority here, but it is here. This girl's adventures with magic and the irrational are practically hypnotic by the rhythms of the language and narrative, with stories within stories within stories, churning well known strokes out of the Bible thrown up like debris, across an unknowable landscape that becomes second nature. In the end her story has nowhere to go and in the end it gets there, abruptly cut off when the diary ends. But the world it details does linger on. My favorite character is the girl's nurse, who the girl remembers but who has disappeared at the time she writes her diary. Nurse taught the girl a good deal when she was younger, even as an infant. The suggestion of these White People, living in their White Lands, is deceptively simple, and penetrating. It somehow turns everything upside down.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

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