Monday, May 3, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: The White People

Were there not already over two hundred entries in the Pulp Fantasy Library series, I might consider re-naming it to something a bit broader, since, strictly speaking, not all of the works I cover in it can be called "pulp fantasy," even by a liberal definition of the term. That's particularly true of many of those written in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, which transcend narrow literary categories, despite being foundational to later genres that, in turn, influenced the creators of the first roleplaying games. 

The tales of Arthur Machen are good examples of what I'm talking about, particularly "The White People," which first appeared in 1904 in the pages of Horlick's Magazine but was much more widely read in the 1906 anthology of his fiction, The House of Souls. H.P. Lovecraft famously judged the story second only to Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows" in the annals of weird fiction and there can be little doubt that it exercised a powerful influence over his imagination. He called it

"a triumph of skilful selectiveness and restraint, [which] accumulates enormous power as it flows on in a stream of innocent childish prattle … less famous and less complex in plot than The Great God Pan, but definitely finer in atmosphere and general artistic value … a dimly disquieting chronicle."

It's easy to understand why HPL felt so strongly about it. "The White People" begins a prologue in which two men – Cotgrave and Ambrose – engage in a rambling discussion about the nature of morality and sin. Ambrose, a theologian by training, suggests that saints and sinners are not all that different from one another. His argument is that, while most people "are just indifferent, mixed-up creatures [who] … muddle through the world without realizing the meaning and inner sense of things," saints and sinners are like in experiencing "ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life." Ambrose adds that both saints and sinners were rare, especially nowadays.

The materialism of the age, which has done a good deal to suppress sanctity, has done perhaps more to suppress evil. We find the earth so very comfortable that we have no inclination either for ascents or descents. 

To some extent. Ambrose is voicing Machen's own opinion, or something close to it. He a possessed a strong streak of Christian mysticism that was nevertheless joined to a deep interest in paganism, the occult, and Hermeticism, as well as an earthy sensuality. I bring this up to point out that Machen is a difficult writer to pigeonhole and stories like "The White People" reflect a similar ambiguity.

Eventually, the discussion between Cotgrave and Ambrose reaches an impasse, with Cotgrave demanding "a concrete example" of it from his interlocutor. It's at this point that the story begins in earnest, as Ambrose hands him a "green pocket-book" with a faded binding. Ambrose explains that he :knew the girl who wrote this" and that, once he has read it, Cotgrave "will see how it illustrates the talk we have to-night."

But for a short epilogue, the remainder of "The White People" consists of the contents of the Green Book (as it is called in the text), which is more than two dozen uninterrupted pages of hallucinatory, stream-of-consciousness writing – "a Lovecraft plot told by James Joyce," in the words of S.T. Joshi. Ostensibly the diary of a girl "thirteen, nearly fourteen," this section describes the unnamed girl's "very singular adventure" about a year after the death of her mother. On that day, which she afterwards called White Day, the girl went for a walk in the countryside, as she had many times before.

I walked a new way, and a little brook led me into a new country, but I tore my frock getting through some of the difficult places, as the way was through many bushes, and beneath the low branches of trees, and up thorny thickets on the halls, and by dark woods full of creeping thorns. And it was a long, long way. It seemed as if I was going on for ever and ever, and I had to creep by a place like a tunnel where a brook must have been, but all the water had dried up, and the floor was rocky, and the bushed had grown overhead till they met, so that it was quite dark.

I think the section quoted above gives a good sense of the style of the Green Book, whose text is written as nearly a single, pages-long paragraph, filled with run-on sentences and dizzying imagery. As a result, the reader is sometimes left wondering precisely what is happening, a situation made worse by the diarist's omissions and circuitous way of describing sights and events that she herself does not seem to comprehend fully. 

During her peregrinations in the woods, the girl sees many strange things – weirdly shaped rocks, stunted trees, shadowy shapes – before finding a valley containing a stream whose water "tasted like bright, yellow wine" and made her giddy. The place reminded her of a memory from when she was very small and her mother was still alive. Her nurse had taken her out and into the forest, where the nurse had met a tall man. The nurse then left her alone beneath a tree, while she and the man went off together deeper into the woods. While she was alone, the girl "two wonderful white people [who] … began to play and dance and sing." 

One was a beautiful lady with kind dark eyes, and a grave face, and long black hair, and she smiled such a sad strange smile at the other, who laughed and came with her. They played together, and danced round and round the pool, and they sang a song till I feel asleep.

Her nurse tried to tell the girl she had been dreaming, "but I knew I hadn't," she says. The nurse then makes her promise not to say a word about what she had seen or she "should be thrown into the black pit." The girl never forgot what she saw, which is why she remembered them on White Day. Frightened – but also enchanted – by what she saw, the girl finds her way back home and is determined to find out more about all she had experienced.

Exactly what the Green Book recounts in "The White People" is unclear. The confusing narrative seems to suggest that the girl who wrote it is being initiated into some sort of secret society or cult, one that has contact with another realm or reality inhabited by the eponymous White People. But who and what are the White People? Are they ghosts? Fairies? Something else entirely? Machen does not elaborate, leaving a great deal to the reader's imagination. This is a technique that Lovecraft used often in his own stories and is likely device her learned – or at least honed – after reading Machen. 

Like many weird tales, "The White People" is a large an exercise in evoking mood and feeling rather than in presenting a clear or coherent plot. Due to the way it's written, the reader is never sure of what is being described, let alone how he is supposed to take it. For some, this might prove frustrating, while for others, it contributes to its success. Until recently, I'd been somewhat indifferent to the tale, but, lately, after reading it aloud, I found it much more captivating and powerful. It's definitely an acquired taste and I cannot blame anyone for being unmoved by it, even as I have come to appreciate it more fully and understand why it was so well regarded in the early 20th century.


  1. "Were there not already over two hundred entries in the Pulp Fantasy Library series..."

    Wow. You're doing the Lord's work here. Congrats and thank you.

    Seeking the inspirations of our inspirations reminds me of the unending delve of artistic ancestry depicted in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. After exploring Howard's and Lovecraft's muses, we can then seek Haggard's and Machen's, and on and on and on. :)

  2. Machen is absolutely one of my favorite weird writers. Oft overlooked, too, is the profound impact he must have had on Algernon Blackwood, whose work exhibits many of the same themes. I have long wanted to run a CoC-style game but modified to mechanically reflect Arthur Machen's universe, with the same themes and happenings. Lately, we've had a King in Yellow game, an MR James investigative game (both of which I am eager to try out) but I do not know of a Machen game...

    1. If you ever do a game like that, I'd love to hear about it.

    2. That is an intriguing proposition! What modifications would you suggest for such a game, compared to ordinary CoC?

  3. Machen's "The White People", while definitely an acquired taste, is the finest weird tale I have ever read (even better than Blackwood's "The Willows"). All other weird tales try to tell you about something weird, whereas "The White People" presents to the reader an artifact (the Green Book) that is itself a chunk of the weird. It's all the different between "let me tell you about..." and "let me show you..." It's the difference between A) hearing about someone's Bigfoot sighting and B) seeing an intact Bigfoot corpse.

  4. I love Lovecraft and his weird predecessors, but I was never able to finish The White People; I almost fell asleep on the bus where I was reading it (and before any wag asks, no, I didn't dream of White People) and couldn't find the interest to take it up where I left off later . . . . Maybe I'll try again sometime . . . .

    1. Don't feel bad. It's definitely an acquired taste and I don't mean that in the condescending way it's usually meant. I can't fault anyone for not enjoying it.

    2. I don't know; I read Bulwer-Lytton's "The House and the Brain" with little trouble, so, yes, I do feel somewhat justified in being a bit miffed at myself for falling asleep over TWP.

  5. Using the literary device of the diary in that way reminds me of The House on the Borderland, although as that was published later it's really the other way round.