Written one year after “The Turn of the Screw,” the story which many consider Machen’s masterpiece shared several elements with Henry James’ chef d’oeuvre: both concern found manuscripts retelling the exploits of an unreliable female narrator who is now dead; both are spurred forward by the idea of a child’s sexual violation and the imperilment of a young girl monitored by an exploitive servant; both explore a naïve female’s erotic awakening; both are fascinated by the motif of children wandering off to do “bad” things (which are never entirely described); and both reap a harvest of terror from the way that their youthful characters’ lack of worldliness prevents them from fully understanding (or articulating) the experiences they undergo – experiences which may either be entirely harmless, or utterly depraved. There are also elements of Lewis Carol’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”: a young girl, on the cusp of puberty, goes into the countryside by herself, discovers a tunnel that leads to an alternate dimension of awe and strangeness where she is forced to grow up amid the chaotic forces of magic.
All three works – by Carol, James, and Machen – have undergone stringent Freudian psychoanalysis, and all three have become infamous for their erotic undertones and hidden messages. All three have also been critiqued (mostly by casual readers) for the opaqueness and reading difficulty. In Machen’s case – as you shall see – it is the lack of paragraphs in the story-within-a-story, “The Green Book,” which raises the ire of readers. Machen seemed to almost write in a frantic stream of consciousness (there are only three paragraph breaks in “The Green Book,” creating a dynamic, fluid gush of poetic prose), that sounds very, very much like the meditations of a patient on a psychiatrist’s couch. In one moment she recalls a fond memory from when she was eight, then suddenly slips into a recollection of watching her nurse fornicating in the woods at an earlier date, before returning to a hypnotic description of her explorations of the hidden witch country, after which she sashays into a vivid retelling of her nurse’s favorite ghost legends.
The story flows and drips and splashes with lyrical language that easily distracts the unobservant reader from the outrageous violations and insidious indoctrinations that this girl is undergoing. It has attracted virulent criticism from some feminists for demonizing Wicca, female sexuality, and the natural maturation of little girls to women. I very seriously disagree with such a reading: Machen does not demonize the curious child so much as he builds fear and mystique around her exploitative nurse and the unknown, Outer Powers that she eventually worships (to whom she is a vessel to be exploited and sacrificed). Lovecraft adored the story, calling it his second favorite horror tale (after Blackwood’s “The Willows”), and “a triumph of skilful selectiveness and restraint, 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 continued to attract attention well into the 20th century. In his 1986 Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, T.E.D. Klein declared it ‘…the purest and most powerful expression of what Jack Sullivan has called the “transcendental” or “visionary” supernatural tradition. Most other tales in that tradition … merely describe encounters with the dark primeval forces that reign beyond the edge of civilisation; The White People seems an actual product of such an encounter, an authentic pagan artefact…’ Some of Machen’s biographers would agree quite literally with that analysis, and some have read this story – widely considered his masterpiece – less as a piece of fiction and more as a childhood memoir – and a confession.
The story begins with a fairly academic framing device: a mutual friend introduces the intellectual bon vivant Cotgrave to the moral philosopher and professional eccentric Ambrose. Both men quickly get along well as they discuss morality, ethics, and the nature of sin. Something of an iconoclast, Ambrose challenges the notion that saints are defined by goodness and sinners by badness. In his estimation, sin and saintliness are so closely related (each being a means of escaping a tediously unspiritual life mired in the duldrums of materiality) that they can be confused for one another. While the mass of men are content to live the unstudied life, some – saints and sinners – risk everything to experience the awe and beauty of a spiritual life, and do so by violating the established laws of society. The only difference he recognizes is that saints live lives of ideal naturalism while sinners are idealists who break with the natural order. But sin can be beautiful, he argues, and sainthood austere: if roses began singing or stones began to bloom, the human mind would recoil in terror, regardless of its beauty.
Fascinated, the younger Cotgrave wonders what a sinner would look like, and Ambrose accommodates him by loaning him a diary – one of his most prized possessions – which tells the story of a preteen girl’s induction into sin. Here we are submersed into the girl’s luscious, hypnotic, and even psychedelic world, illustrated in dreamy prose which (barring a few exceptions) is told in one massive, unbroken paragraph.
She tells of how her nurse first lead her to a clearing when she was five, introducing her to the White People: fairy folk, other dimensional creatures, spirits, or elementals – we know not which – whom she witnesses (we suspect) having sex in the woods. The nurse is aware of what the girl saw, and commands her to keep it a secret in exchange for fantastical tales and legends which illuminate the experience. She tells her of spells and folk magic which she learned from her grandmother, and of stories of witches and covens.
At the age of thirteen – a day she calls the White Day – she journeys into the woods and finds a strange brook which snakes its way through a bizarre valley populated by heavy thickets and carved monoliths representing grotesque heads and monsters. Sitting amongst them, they start to spin and dance overhead, enchanting her. As she walks further through the strange land, she finds a golden river, the water of which tastes like sweet wine, and washes her feet in an ancient well. As night falls, she senses that she is being watched, and sees the shapes of men in the hills around her. She finally winds her way to a clearing where she witnesses something which is so beautiful but confusing that she shudders and runs off, unconsciously stumbling back home.
She isn’t sure whether the experience is real or not, but compares it to her nurse’s strange fairy tales about witchcraft, sex, and Celtic voodoo. One memorable episode describes how a beautiful witch would go to the woods and mate with hordes of serpents, and how she used wax dolls to manipulate her suitors. When she was discovered, both her and her dolls were burned at the stake. Shortly after this story, the nurse teaches her how to form and worship a clay man.
Eventually it becomes clear to the young diarist that her nurse has been inducting her into some kind of coven – or at least a tradition of magick – and decides to answer the spiritual call that she has been hearing all these years; she makes a clay doll and returns to the strange valley. This time, as she approaches the clearing where she had first shaken and run, she blindfolds herself and feels her way around. On the third pass, she locates what she is seeking and is overcome with euphoria. Earlier the nurse had prophesied that she would see the White People again, and this appears to be accomplished as she views her own reflection in the ancient well. The diary ends shortly after, with the girl describing how she met a dark nymph who transforms the water into fire.
Stunned and perplexed, Cotgrave returns to Ambrose for clarification. Ever the Socratic tutor, Ambrose doesn’t answer his disciple’s questions directly other than to point to the symbolism of alchemy for clues to its meaning. What he can say, though, is that the girl commited suicide (barely “in time”) and that she was found in a clearing with a Roman statue which Ambrose had destroyed.
So what just happened? This is the question lingering with most readers when they finish “The White People.” In his dissertation, “Man is Made of Mystery: the Evolution of Arthur Machen’s Religious Thought,” Geoffrey Reiter notes that the story has become infamous for its opaqueness: ‘“The White People” leaves its readers with many questions, even after it ends. The most obvious is simply, “What just happened?”, and even after several readings, one cannot be certain of everything that has occurred.’ The story does not seem to hold a key to its unravelling, and Machen – it would seem – did not appear to have one in mind. There is heft and import in Ambrose’s solemn response to Cotgrave’s request for clarification: “No, you must remain unconvinced.” The rituals and vocabulary of the White People are nonsense because it doesn’t matter what they mean: it doesn’t matter what the material shape of the evil is, only that it is clearly evil. I believe that Machen is speaking here to his perplexed readers. “You miss the point,” he seems to say, “if you think that you will be comforted by having it explained; you miss the point if you think that this has been about the arrival, not the journey.” Ambrose says as much in the closing lines: “No, for me, it is the 'story' not the 'sequel,' which is strange and awful, for I have always believed that wonder is of the soul.”
Ambrose himself, as many have claimed, may be a living embodiment of evil. In the philosophical prologue he comments on this several times, alluding to the fact that Cotgrave could be cozying up with pure wickedness with no clue to alert him. Ambrose – who seems to know much about the White People, and whose name means “immortal” – the philosophical “lunatic,” would be a perfect candidate for the very theory that he espouses with such pathos and personal sadness. Most scholars believe that it is deeply based in Machen’s own childhood experiences (he claimed to have encountered weird forces in the Welsh hills as a stripling), and in a sort of Freudian free association of fears, delights, and temptations. Machen was ever fascinated by the idea of parallel evolutions of mankind: one ascendant to the spiritual, and one descendent to the carnal. The “Little People” embodied this second force in his Dyson Cycle, and the first force can be recognized in many of his later stories which were more influenced by mystical ecstasy than transmutational horror (“The Great Return,” “The Hill of Dreams,” etc.)
As to the ultimate fate of the narrator, many critics have rejected Ambrose’s remonstrance to Cotgrave, and attempted to interpret the final pages of her diary. As Reiter remarks, the most popular theory is that she has gone the way of the poor mothers of Helen Vaughan and Jervase Cradock: ‘Whether at the nurse’s behest or her own willing 116 involvement, the girl becomes a participant in some such ritual, apparently orchestrated by the eponymous “white people,” who seem to be akin to the “little people” of the Dyson stories. It is not entirely clear what occurs next, though perhaps she is impregnated by some non-human entity.’ She has been selected by the White People as the surrogate mother for a hellspawn, and has been trained – by her corruptive nurse – to be the virgin mother of an Outer Power (demon, alien, elemental, fairy, god, or monster – it does not matter which). Lovecraft, who adored the story wrote to a correspondent who had been confused by the plot, offering his personal interpretation (while I hardly think his interpretation is exact or perfect, there are elements of insight to it which bear sharing – if you can get past his revolting egotism):
"As for the essentials of the plot-you haven’t quite got ‘em yet, though you probably would have if I had sufficiently stressed the relationship between this tale & THE GREAT GOD PAN. This, then, is the dope:
"I. The image found in the woods was that of two entities locked in a monstrous & obscene embrace-from which, had they been living things, would have been born a Thing of non-human horror….like Helen Vaughan in THE GREAT GOD PAN, or the boy in THE BLACK SEAL.
"II. On account of a sympathetic action like that described in the prologue, the now-adolescent child-though without contact with any creative element-became pregnant with a Horror, to whose birth (knowing what she did of dark tradition) she could not look forward without a stark frenzy far beyond the fear of mere disgrace. Thus she killed herself. If she had not, a nameless hybrid abnormality of daemonic paternity would have been loosed upon the world.
"There seems to be very little question about the correctness of this interpretation, since several small allusions towards the end-especially regarding the girl’s age & and the nature of the image-join with earlier allusions to sketch the implications. Most analytical readers get this idea without much difficulty, & others see it unmistakably after being tipped off. This kind of plot was what the 1890’s regarded as the acme of horror-& it certainly does pack a pretty sombre shiver. But as I said before, that isn’t the real crux of the tale. The big thing is the tense, insidious atmosphere-landscape, half-hinted legendry, & all that."
So, according to Lovecraft, that is “the dope.” Alternative interpretations are certainly possible, but it is difficult to deny that – pregnancy or not – the story is inescapably wrapped up in the protagonist’s sexual coming of age. The overt – and at times potent – sensual subtext of the story has divided many feminist critics, some of whom interpret it as a misogynistic demonization of the female libido, while others have seen it as an insightful, (if mansplained) narrative of female victimization, repression, and ecstasy. Reiter notes that the girl, ultimately, is a victim of multiple agents who use and abuse her: “But while the girl is clearly complicit in her own pagan indoctrination, she nonetheless comes across as more of a victim than a malevolent force. She is the victim of a business-minded father who leaves her in the charge of the nurse; a victim of the nurse, who uses her authority to twist the girl’s mind from a young age; a victim of the white people, who seem to be using her for their own enigmatic ends; and, if some critics are correct, a victim of a Pan-like force that impregnates her. The girl does not always willingly accept the nurse’s intents, and her early dabbling with the fairy forces of the country seem more innocent curiosity than active evil.” Machen returns, once again, to a meditation on evil: what is evil? Evil is the desire to transcend – to transmute – from the natural condition of humanity. It is a temptation that he himself felt frequently throughout his life.