The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The White People" (1904)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The White People” was written by “Arthur Machen” and first appeared in Horlick’s Magazine (Jan. 1904). “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. “The White People” is Machen’s supreme triumph, and “is probably the finest single supernatural story of the century, perhaps in the literature.”1
“The White People,” its long framing sequence aside, is a
diary-like document written by an adolescent girl, telling of her half-witting initiation by her nurse into the ancient supernatural traditions and rites of the countryside. It tells of her own spiritual experiences in a heightened mystical reality, and of a weird, hostile universe that is revealed to her. Incorporated are much folklore, genuine and literary, and several brilliant fairy tales. Evil is triumphant.2
“The White People” is a remarkable piece of work, a hallucinatory, stream-of-consciousness trip into a supernatural landscape and a recapitulation and refinement of much of what is best about British supernatural folklore. Superbly narrated, without a word out of place, Machen reaches his peak in “The White People,” both as a teller of horror stories—for beneath the sublimity of the story is a deeply disquieting narrative about child abduction and occult brainwashing—and as a proponent of his twin pet themes of “ecstasy and sin,” as Vincent Starrett labeled them.3 Ecstasy, for Machen was the touching of the numinous, an experience both typical of avant garde fiction of the fin-de-siècle and much older, significantly predating modern Christian doctrine.4
Of course, for Machen ecstasy was about transgression as much as it was an elevation and a retreat from the everyday. As S.T. Joshi notes,
As for “The White People,” in a sense it returns to the theme of “The Great God Pan” (1890) in its emphasis on illicit sex. For Machen, the orthodox Anglo-Catholic, sexual aberrations represented a kind of violation of the entire fabric of the universe…this story—in which a young girl unwittingly reveals in her diary her inculcation into a witch-cult and, evidently, her impregnation by some nameless entity—transmogrifies illicit sex into a cosmic sin that will either lift us up into the ranks of the angels or plunge us down into the company of demons.5
While another of Machen’s themes was degeneration, both physical and mental—as seen in his “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895) and in “The Novel of the White Powder”—and while Machen’s audience responded to his portrayal of degeneration with pleased fear6--Machen himself did not seem to see transgressive degeneration as a wholly or even partially negative phenomenon. “the White Powder” is an excellent example of how, in much of Machen’s work, descents into transgressive degeneration “are sublime and require great effort and feats of self-sacrifice.”7
Print: Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2018.
1 Everett F. Bleiler, The Guide to Supernatural Fiction (Kent State, OH: Kent State University, 1983), 334.
2 Bleiler, The Guide to Supernatural Fiction, 334.
3 Vincent Starrett, Arthur Machen: A Novelist of Ecstasy and Sin (Chicago: Walter M. Hill, 1918), the first serious treatment of Machen and his work.
4 See Nicholas Freeman, “Arthur Machen: Ecstasy and Epiphany,” Literature & Theology 24, no. 3 (Sept. 2010): 1-14.
5 S.T. Joshi, “Introduction,” in The White People and Other Weird Stories (New York: Penguin Books, 2017), xi-xii.
6 See Adrian Eckersley, “A Theme in the Early Work of Arthur Machen: Degeneration,” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 35, no. 3 (1992): 277-297.
7 Kimberly Jackson, “Non-Evolutionary Degeneration in Arthur Machen’s Supernatural Tales,” Victorian Literature and Culture 41, no. 1 (2013): 126.