The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Novel of the White Powder" (1895)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Novel of the White Powder” was written by Arthur Machen and first appeared in The Three Imposters: or, The Transmutations. Arthur Machen (née Arthur Llewellyn Jones, 1863-1947) was a Welsh novelist, short story writer, and translator. He is well-regarded by connoisseurs of horror and supernatural fiction but not as well-known outside the field as he deserves to be. While not Machen’s best, “The Novel of the White Powder” is still quite good.
Miss Leicester is the only brother of Francis Leicester. Francis had a brilliant career at university and after graduation he returns home to study law. He becomes a hermit in doing so, growing increasingly haggard and worn. Concerned, Miss Leicester prevails upon Francis to submit to an examination by Doctor Haberden, the family doctor. Doctor Haberden sees Francis’ problem as only digestive and “a little mischief to the nervous system”1 and prescribes for him a white powder, which Francis acquires at a local chemist. The powder does its job, and Francis becomes merry and outgoing. But the powder does its job too well, and Francis begins to change. The change begins early, with a most un-Francis like statement: “...it seems a pleasant evening. Look at the afterglow; why, it is as if a great city were burning in flames, and down there between the dark houses it is raining blood fast.”2 But as time passes and he continues taking the white powder he becomes a “lover of pleasure and merry idler of western pavements.”3 Then he begins changing physically. The changes are at first visible only to Miss Leicester’s eyes, but a black mark soon appears on Francis’ hand. Miss Leicester finds the mark particularly terrifying:
...by some sense I cannot define, I knew that what I saw was no bruise at all; oh! If human flesh could burn with flame, and if flame could be black as pitch, such was that before me. Without thought or fashioning of words gray horror shaped within me at the sight, and in an inner cell it was known to be a brand.4
Frightened by what is happening to her brother, Miss Leicester goes to Doctor Haberden, who examines the white powder, discovers that it is not what he prescribed, and sends it away to be analyzed. Doctor Haberden then visits Francis in his room, only to flee from the house:
“I have seen that man,” he began in a dry whisper. “I have been sitting in his presence for the last hour. My God! And I am alive and in my senses! I, who have dealt with death all my life, and have dabbled with the melting ruins of the earthly tabernacle. But not this, oh! Not this,” and he covered his face with his hands as if to shut out the sight of something before him.5
After Doctor Haberden’s visit Francis does not leave his room, and when his sister glimpses him through the window of his room she is horrified at the monstrous thing he is becoming. When Francis stops eating the food the servants leave out for him and stops responding to his sister’s calls, she gets Doctor Haberden to break down the door to his room. They find Francis transformed into something nasty, which Doctor Haberden then kills. A week later Doctor Haberden departs on a long sea journey, leaving Miss Leicester a letter from the chemist who analyzed the white powder. The chemist reveals that the powder is not the “uncommon salt” which Haberden prescribed for Francis, but rather the powder from which the wine of the Witches’ Sabbath is prepared, and that in the Middle Ages the powder was used in those Sabbaths so that “the worm which never dies, that which lies sleeping within us all, was made tangible and an external thing, and clothed with a garment of flesh.”6
In “The Novel of the White Powder” Machen seems to have been afflicted with the Bulwer Lytton syndrome (see: The Haunted and the Haunters), so that Machen interrupts an otherwise fine story of horror with a long explanation of exactly what is happening to Francis, accompanied by a lecture about the folly of strict materialism. Unfortunately, lectures like that no longer hold a reader’s interest as well as they once did, and even good writers, which Machen was, can’t make such lectures better than tedious. This is a shame, since “The Novel of the White Powder” is otherwise entertaining. Most of the story has Machen’s conversational dialogue, his descriptions, which imply more than they say, and his well-turned phrases. Machen’s ideas, which are of the cosmic horror variety, make for a good, chilling story. “The Novel of the White Powder” has all of these features. But Machen’s explanation, which is much too long, spoils the momentum of the story. Machen was probably trying to create an intellectual and moral terror in his reader at the idea of “the awful thing veiled in the mythos of the Tree in the Garden”7 being reincarnated in Francis’ flesh. Machen likely intended to pair the intellectual and moral horror with the more visceral horror of Francis’ body changing in a ghastly manner. But the lecture preceding the revelation of the white powder’s true substance fritters away the horror and ill-prepares the reader for the terror.
It’s no coincidence that Francis Leicester becomes an epicurean and flâneur as his body devolves; Machen was making a comment not only on the reality beneath what we see, the unseen world as “a quickening and adorable secret,”8 but on the theory of evolution and on fin-de-siècle decadence, as a sort of response to Oscar Wilde: “While Dorian Gray’s epicurean appetites act as a reminder that what serves the senses may slay the spirit, Leicester’s prove that what initially seems to minister to the body may in fact hasten its corruption. The former reads his portrait for external signs of his spiritual malaise–‘the visible emblem,’ as he puts it, ‘of conscience’–whereas the latter actually becomes the embodiment of physical corruption.”9
Print: Arthur Machen, The White People and Other Weird Stories. New York: Penguin, 2017.
1 Arthur Machen, “The Novel of the White Powder,” in The Three Imposters: or, The Transmutations (London: J. Lane, 1895), 209.
2 Machen, “White Powder,” 211.
3 Machen, “White Powder,” 212.
4 Machen, “White Powder,” 214.
5 Machen, “White Powder,” 222.
6 Machen, “White Powder,” 238.
7 Machen, “White Powder,” 238.
8 Qtd. in Susan Jennifer Navarette, The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin de Siecle Culture of Decadence (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1998), 179.
9 Navarette, Shape of Fear, 179-180.