Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at Arthur Machen’s “The White People,” first published in Horlick’s Magazine in 1904. Spoilers ahead.
“I must not write down the real names of the days and months which I found out a year ago, nor the way to make the Aklo letters, or the Chian language, or the great beautiful Circles, nor the Mao Games, nor the chief songs. I may write something about all these things but not the way to do them, for peculiar reasons. And I must not say who the Nymphs are, or the Dôls, or Jeelo, or what voolas mean. All these are most secret secrets, and I am glad when I remember what they are…”
A friend brings Cotgrave to a mouldering house in a northern London suburb, to meet the reclusive scholar Ambrose. Evidently Cotgrave’s a connoisseur of eccentricity, for he’s fascinated by Ambrose’s ideas about sin and sanctity. Good deeds do not a saint make, nor bad deeds a sinner. Sin and saintliness are both escapes from the mundane, infernal or supernal miracles, raptures of the soul that strives to surpass ordinary bounds. Most people are content with life as they find it—very few try to storm heaven or hell, that is, to penetrate other spheres in ways sanctioned or forbidden. Necessary as they are for social stability, laws and strictures have civilized us away from appreciation of the ideal natural who is the saint and the ideal unnatural who is the sinner. Still, if roses sang or stones put forth blossoms, the normal man would be overwhelmed with horror.
Cotgrave asks for an example of a human sinner. Ambrose produces a small green book. It’s one of his chief treasures, so Cotgrave must guard it carefully and return it as soon as he’s read it.
The Green Book turns out to be an adolescent girl’s account of strange experiences. It’s a book of secrets, one of many she’s written and hidden. She begins with words she must not define, the Aklo letters and Chian language; the Mao Games and Nymphs and Dols and voolas; the White and Green and Scarlet Ceremonies. When she was five, her nurse left her near a pond in the woods, where she watched a beautiful ivory-white lady and man play and dance. Nurse made her promise never to tell about seeing them. Nurse has told her a great many old tales, taught her songs and spells and other bits of magic that Nurse learned from her great-grandmother. These are all great secrets.
At thirteen, the girl takes a long walk alone, so memorable she later calls it “the White Day.” She discovers a brook that leads into a new country. She braves clawing thickets and circles of grey stones like grinning men and creeping animals. As she sits in their midst, the stones wheel and dance until she’s giddy. She travels on, drinking from a stream whose ripples kiss her like nymphs. She bathes her tired feet in a moss-encircled well. She passes through hills and hollows that from the right vantage point look like two reclining figures. Stumbling into one hollow reminds her of Nurse’s story about a girl who goes into a forbidden hollow, only to end up the bride of the “black man.” A final crawl through a narrow animal trail brings her to a clearing where she sees something so wonderful and strange she trembles and cries out as she runs away. Somehow she finds her way home.
For some time she ponders the “White Day.” Was it real or a dream? She recalls more of Nurse’s tales, one about a huntsman who chases a white stag into faery, where he weds its queen for one night; another about a secret hill where people reveled on certain nights; another about the Lady Avelin, white and tall with eyes that burned like rubies. Avelin made wax dolls to be her lovers or to destroy unwanted suitors. She called serpents to fashion for her a magical “glame stone.” She and her beloved doll were burned at last in the marketplace, and the doll screamed in the flames. And once Nurse showed the girl how to make a clay doll and how to worship it afterward.
At last the girl realizes that all Nurse taught her was “true and wonderful and splendid.” She makes her own clay idol and takes a second trip into the new country. Before entering the ultimate clearing, she blindfolds herself, so that she must grope for what she seeks. The third time around she finds the thing and wishes she didn’t have to wait so much longer before she can be happy forever.
Once, Nurse said she’d see the white lady of the pond again. That second trip, the girl does see her, evidently in her own reflection in the moss-encircled well.
The manuscript ends with the girl’s account of learning to call the “bright and dark nymphs.” The last sentence reads: “The dark nymph, Alanna, came, and she turned the pool of water into a pool of fire….”
Cotgrave returns the book to Ambrose. He has questions, but Ambrose is cryptic. Too bad Cotgrave hasn’t studied the beautiful symbolism of alchemy, which would explain much. Ambrose does tell him that the girl is dead, and that he was one of the people who found her in a clearing, self-poisoned “in time.” The other occupant of the clearing was a statue of Roman workmanship, shining white in spite of its antiquity. Ambrose and his companions hammered it to dust. Ah, the occult but unabated vigor of traditions. Ah, the strange and awful allure of the girl’s story, not her end, for Ambrose has always believed that wonder is of the soul.
What’s Cyclopean: “White People” aims for Epic Fantasy levels on the neologism production scale. On the vocabulary list: Dôls, Jeelo, voolas, voor, Xu, Aklo, and Deep Dendo. (If you speak too much Xu and Aklo, you will be in Deep Dendo.)
The Degenerate Dutch: In spite of the title, this story is less about race than about scary, scary women.
Mythos Making: Machen is one of Lovecraft’s four “modern masters” and a major influence on the Cthulhu Mythos. Many entities that you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley speak Aklo.
Libronomicon: Aside from the Green Book itself, our sub-narrator makes notable reference to (and somewhat imitates the style of) the Arabian Nights.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Subconscious note of “infernal miracles” may “lead to the lunatic asylum.”
I can absolutely see why people love Machen. If I squint, I can even see why Lovecraft thought the man was a genius and this story a masterpiece. But on first encounter, I just want to slap him.
I want to slap him for so many reasons. Where to start? The trivial reason is aesthetics. The Arabian Nights style embedded stories are intriguingly inverted fairy tales that convey a really eerie mood—but alas, they’re embedded in framing conceits that go on, and on and on. The attempt at a girl’s voice simpers and giggles, and reads like someone telling you about their nonlinear dream at the breakfast table before coffee. The opening and closing bits are worse, more like being cornered by That Guy at a party. He tells you about his so-clever personal philosophy; you try desperately to catch the eyes of potential rescuers, but there you are with your diminishing plate of cheese saying “hmm” and “ummm” as his theological opinions get increasingly offensive.
The theology, oh yes. I’ve read enough Fred Clark to recognize arguments about salvation by works when I see them. This is a novel version—it’s an argument against works-based salvation via an argument against works-based sin—but I just have no patience. You know what? You treat people badly, you hurt people, then that makes you a bad person, whether or not you violate the laws of physics in the process. Lovecraft, on a good day, manages to persuade that violations of the natural order truly are intrinsically horrific. But he does it by getting away from standard Christian symbolism, and from pedestrian examples such as talking dogs.
Speaking of Christian symbolism, Machen’s forbidden cults are straight out of the Maleus Maleficarum. I’m not necessarily opposed to a good forbidden cult—but I’m not sure an author can use that tool without spilling out all their squicks and squids for the world to see. For Lovecraft, the cults are an outgrowth of the scariness that is foreign brown people, “nautical-looking negros” and New York immigrants and the great blurring mass of people who just don’t appreciate western civilization’s flickering light in the vast, uncaring darkness.
For Machen, as for the authors of the Maleus, what’s scary is women. Women with sexual agency especially. It’s front and center here: from the female sub-narrator with her coy references to forbidden pleasures, to the more overt stories about kissing fairy queens and clay lovers—and then killing your proper suitors—that underline the point. Women should follow the natural paths laid down for them by god, and marry when their fathers tell them. They shouldn’t listen to secrets told by other women, and they should definitely not find or make lovers who actually meet their needs. That way lies sin. Sin, I tell you, and death by random alchemical poisoning.
Women in this story are, along with children, “natural,” while men are blinded by “convention and civilization and education.” Thanks? I guess that’s supposed to make it worse when child-women violate the laws of nature. This story shows the hard limits of the Bechdel test, which it passes without blinking, and without gaining anything whatsoever from the experience.
And then we’re back to That Guy at the party (everyone else having discreetly made their exits), and men nodding sagely as they rationalize women’s mysteries and explain why they’re objectively horrifying. The ending feels very Podkaynish, the child’s whole life and death simply an interesting philosophical and moral lesson for men—the real, rational people—to discuss cleverly in a garden. Oh, how I wish Charlotte Perkins Gilman had lived to write fixit fic of this story.
Critical enthusiasm for “The White People” must have hit its zenith with E. F. Bleiler’s contention that it’s “probably the finest single supernatural story of the century, perhaps in the literature.” In Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft names Machen one of the “modern masters.” Today’s tale he calls a “curious and dimly disquieting chronicle” and a “triumph of skilful selectiveness and restraint [which] accumulates enormous power as it flows on in a stream of innocent childish prattle.” He also relishes the occult neologisms and the vividly weird details of the girl’s dream-not-dream journey.
“Dimly disquieting,” hmm. That was my first impression. I enjoyed the frame story opening as much as Cotgrave but frequently floundered while traversing the Green Book. It may be psychologically astute for Machen to couch the girl’s narrative in breathless long blocks of text, but really, paragraphs—specifically fairly frequent paragraph breaks—are among a reader’s best friends. The second read, like a second trip through difficult terrain, went much more smoothly. For one thing, I decided that the narrator’s name is Helen, based on the lullaby Nurse sings her: “Halsy cumsy Helen musty.” Names, for me, ground characters in fictive reality. For another, I began to appreciate Helen’s consciousness-stream; like the brook in the story, it leads into a strange new world, its current sometimes shallow and meandering, sometimes deep and profoundly tumultuous. It floats or sweeps us from Helen’s personal experiences into Nurse’s teachings and Nurse’s cautionary yet alluring folktales. I liked the interpolated stories the same way I like the copious footnotes in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (or in Lake Wobegon Days, for that matter.) They enrich the main story. They broaden the mysteries of the White People and White Lands beyond Helen’s own trickle into a river of tradition, both dark and bright like the nymphs that occupy it—or, as “processes,” unlock it?
Nurse is a fascinating character, a true sinner as Ambrose defines the term. She comes from a line of witches, a community of women passing down the old lore and its secrets. Her great-grandmother taught her, and she teaches little Helen, possibly with the sanction of Helen’s mother, whom Nurse summons when the infant speaks in the “Xu” language. Helen’s father, on the other hand, fences Helen in with lessons and disbelief. He’s the perfect representative for that civilized mundanity Ambrose deems the foe of sin and holiness, for he’s a lawyer who cares only for deeds and leases. Whereas wise and powerful women, or at least bold ones, dominate Nurse’s stories: the eventual bride of the Black Man who ventures into a forbidden hollow; the fairy queen; Lady Avelin of the wax images.
Yet men can join the more “natural” gender (per Ambrose) and revel in the Ceremonies. Both a white lady and a white man astonish little Helen by the forest pond. The land of hills and hollows resolve at a distance into two human figures, both Adam and Eve. This story is a psychosexual feast, with “mounds like big beehives, round and great and solemn,” with jutting stones like grinning men and creeping beasts, with serpents that swarm over Lady Avelin and leave her a magic stone with their own scaly texture. Ripples kiss; well water is warm, enveloping Helen’s feet like silk, or again, nymphish kisses. I’m thinking that it’s the magic of menarche that allows Helen to put aside doubt and accept Nurse’s teachings as true, after which she lies down flat in the grass and whispers to herself “delicious, terrible” things, she makes a clay doll of her own and returns up the narrow, dark path to the clearing of the white statue too beautiful and awful to glimpse a second time.
Lovecraft supposes this statue represents the Great God Pan, father of another Helen. Ambrose hints that on a subsequent visit to the clearing, the author of the Green Book poisons herself—saves herself—in time. Or does she? Is the infernal ecstasy she craves attainable only through death, the sole possible escape from all the living years she’ll otherwise endure before she can be happy forever and ever?
So, does Helen die a sinner or a saint, or a Saint or a Sinner? I wonder if we can really guess what Machen thought, or whether he could decide himself.
This may come as a shock, but next week marks our hundredth post! To mark this very special occasion, we’re watching something very special: Haiyoru! Nyaruani is (we assume) the only neo-Lovecraftian story ever to feature elder gods in their incarnations as anime schoolgirls. We’ll watch at least the ONA flash series (which runs about a half hour total), and possibly continue into Remember My Mister Lovecraft as whim and schedule permit.
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint on April 4, 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.