One of Machen’s most anthologized stories – and certainly his most gruesome – “The Novel of the White Powder” is an excerpt from The Three Imposters – a novel written in the style of Robert Louis Stevenson, but with the pure, burning mysticism that only Arthur Machen could bring to the slums, parks, and townhouses of Edwardian London. The novel concerns three suspicious strangers – a woman and two men – who accost a pair of bohemian dandies, ostensibly in search of a nervous young man wearing spectacles.
The two playboys – Dyson and Phillipps (who will appear in several of Machen’s works) – don’t seem to know the fellow, but the eponymous imposters press them for information, telling them strange and horrific stories as they bide their time. The bespectacled gentleman in question, we later learn, has stolen a golden Tiberius (a Roman coin struck to commemorate one of Tiberius’ ghastly orgies) – a relic worshipped by the eldritch cult to which the three pursuers belong. Desperate to recover the token, they are assured that Dyson and Phillipps have some connection to their prey (without ruining the ending, I can assure you that their intentions for the young man are anything but civil). Three of the stories – or “novels” – that the imposters entertain their guests with have been profoundly influential to the development of the weird tale in literature.
Lovecraft was especially impressed with “The White Powder” and “The Black Seal,” referring to them as “perhaps the highwater mark of Machen’s skill as a terror weaver. He incorporated several elements from the following tale into his own fiction, especially “Cool Air” and “The Thing on the Doorstep.” Told by the woman, the story – like all the rest – is subject to doubt (she is hardly a reliable narrator), but Machen was untroubled by editors who printed the “novel” out of context, implying that he was comfortable with a straight reading that interpreted the events without suspicion or doubt.
The story is told (within the framing device of the novel The Three Imposters) by a woman named Miss Leicester and concerns the grim fate of her late brother, Francis, a devoted law student who completely devoted himself to his studies, forsaking all pleasure and riding himself ragged by fasting from sleep and food in order to better absorb his law books and prepare for his exams. At first the wear doesn’t show outwardly, but eventually he becomes wan, dizzy, and prone to horrible nightmares and icy sweats.
Worried, she calls on their family doctor – Dr. Haberden – who assures her that his only problems are digestive (due to his frantic eating of his short lunches) and further calms her by asserting that he has written a prescription for the disorder, which will soon relieve even these symptoms. Francis agrees to have the drugs made, but only if they are compounded by a local chemist whom he knows and likes – an aged, old-fashioned man in a strange little shop, which Francis respects because it lacks the polish and organization of a conventional pharmacy: more authentic and economic, he believes. The chemist provides him with a white powder and Francis begins stirring the doses into cold water, which seem to immediately improve his condition.
Indeed, as his health waxes, he quietly admits to his sister that he has been wasting his time obsessing over law and suggests that he will slow down and take a vacation with her soon. That night he drinks his medicine and takes a long walk, after which he decides to forgo the vacation entirely, and to simply stay put in London: to put down roots with his friends and become a man of leisure. Truly, he begins to fatten up, avoids his studies, and grows strangely idle. But something about this latest transformation concerns his sister, who distrusts his newfound joie-de-vivre.
Unfortunately, she was correct to worry: he begins to seem like a stranger to her, and one evening as they watch a particularly vivid sunset burning over the city (which, in highly poetic language, she compares to “lurid whorls of writhed cloud, and utter depths burning, grey masses like the fume blown from a smoking city, and an evil glory blazing far above shot with tongues of more ardent fire, and below as if there were a deep pool of blood”), she first notices a strange, livid mark on his hand. About the size of an American nickel and the color of a nasty bruise, it strikes her as concerning: the color oddly makes her think of a black fire.
Days later, he has bound his hand up in a dirty bandage and shakes off her questions by saying that he had cut himself, but refuses to let her re-dress it in clean bandages. He deflects by asking for breakfast and claiming to be hungry, but secretly feeds it to the dog. Disturbed, she goes to Haberden, who had previously written off her anxiety, and her most recent report concerns the physician. Together they go to the strange little pharmacy where the drugs have been compounded, and ask the little man about it. With palsied hands and thick glasses, he squints at the prescription and agrees to let the doctor examine the compounds, which he claims to be “rather … uncommon.”
Haberden sniffs the bottle he is handed and is immediately taken aback, asking where it came from: the label is the correct drug, but the contents are wrong. The old chemist apathetically retorts that he got it long ago. Gloomy and serious, Haberden confiscates the bottle with the justification that he is afraid that “something wrong has happened.”
When questioned by the understandably horrified Miss Leicester, Haberden admits that he has no idea what the drug is, but that it is not something that her brother should have been taking twice a day for over a month. It resembles sulphate of quinine, but the smell is “sickly … and overpowering, like some strong anaesthetic.”He immediately orders it to be analyzed by a chemist friend.
Mr. Leicester does not dine out with his friends that night, as was his newfound habit, claiming instead that he was going to study the law. His hand was entirely bandaged. He stays inside for three days. Finally, Haberden returns, but his chemist friend is out and has not yet provided an analysis. Instead, the doctor asks to see her brother. He goes up the stairs and is admitted into his study where they seem to chat for an hour. When the physician returns, however, he is stricken with disgust and horror, saying – in “a dry whisper” – “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 … do not send for me again, Miss Leicester … I can do nothing in this house.”
Shortly after he leaves, she hears her brother call her in an unrecognizable voice, requesting that his food be left at his door and that he not be disturbed. Terrified, she agrees, and they go on this way for some time. One day, however, as she is pacing back and forth outside of their house, her eyes pass over his study window, and she is traumatized by the sight of an otherworldly being glowering at her from inside it: two burning eyes set in a shapeless, black mass of corruption.
She rushes inside and pounds on his door, demanding that he expel whatever Thing is in the room with him, but his garbled words dismiss her vision as a flight of fancy; as for himself, he is unwell and wishes to be left undisturbed. Soon after, one of the maids comes tearing down the stairs, terrified, waving her hand which is covered in a loathsome, black slime. She had been changing the bedding in Miss Leicester’s bedroom when a blob of tarry ooze fell on her hand, and looking up, she beheld a noxious, black stain seeping through the ceiling from the room above: Francis’ bedroom.
Absolutely petrified, Miss Leicester pounds on her brother’s door asking what has happened to him, but is only met with a “noise like water bubbling and regurgitating.” At her last wit, she defies Dr. Haberden and asks for his help. Reminded of his history with their family, he agrees to go, although he notes that he “can do nothing.” Rushing back through the dreary, gaslit streets, they climb the stairs and after giving notice to the presence in the room that they are about to break down the door with a poker, they crash into the fetid room and are greeted by an animalistic screech.
At first the room looks empty, but as they shine a lamp around it, Haberden catches his breath and points to a corner, saying “there it is.” Indeed:
“There upon the floor was a dark and putrid mass, seething with corruption and hideous rottenness, neither liquid nor solid, but melting and changing before our eyes, and bubbling with unctuous oily bubbles like boiling pitch. And out of the midst of it shone two burning points like eyes, and I saw a writhing and stirring as of limbs, and something moved and lifted up what might have been an arm. The doctor took a step forward, raised the iron bar and struck at the burning points; he drove in the weapon, and struck again and again in the fury of loathing.”
Miss Leicester is bedridden for nearly two weeks, but recovers in time for Dr. Haberden to visit before he leaves England forever, after selling his practice and buying a small lot in California. His only real consolation, before he nervously leaves, is to hand her the chemist’s report on the drug which caused her brother’s body to transform into the putrid blob that Haberden beat to death.
The chemist, Chambers, begins by apologizing for his delayed response. His findings have both shaken and embarrassed him as a rationalistic scientist, for, as he puts it: “To tell you the truth, I have hesitated for some time as to what course I should adopt, for there is a bigotry and orthodox standard in physical science as in theology.” Even more, however, he confesses that Haberden’s zealous spite, disgust, and hatred for scientists who dabble in the metaphysical – a passion for which he is famous – gave him great pause.
Going forward with these caveats, he grimly admits that he – once also a spiteful skeptic and atheist – had lost his faith in “the ironbound theory” of materialism some years ago previous following a series of undescribed events, and that he now feels that he stands in a world:
“…that seems as strange and awful to me as the endless waves of the ocean seen for the first time… what I tell you is the truth, nay, to adopt our common language, the sole and scientific truth, verified by experience; and the universe is verily more splendid and more awful than we used to dream. The whole universe, my friend, is a tremendous sacrament; a mystic, ineffable force and energy, veiled by an outward form of matter; and man, and the sun and the other stars, and the flower of the grass, and the crystal in the test-tube, are each and every one as spiritual, as material, and subject to an inner working.”
After this philosophical preamble, his findings are described briefly: he estimates that the powder has been left in the bottle for several decades, where exposure to dynamic temperatures between 40 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit have caused it to morph and reactivate. The compound is indeed a rare one, little seen in pharmacies for over two hundred years, and was historically used to create the “wine” (really an alchemical potion intended to transform the natural and supernatural elements within those who drank it) used in the Satanic eucharist for the Black Sabbath of European witch cults:
“Men and women, seduced from their homes on specious pretences, were met by beings well qualified to assume, as they did assume, the part of devils, and taken by their guides to some desolate and lonely place, known to the initiate by long tradition, and unknown to all else… There, in the blackest hour of night, the Vinum Sabbati was prepared, and this evil gruel was poured forth and offered to the neophytes... And suddenly, each one that had drunk found himself attended by a companion, a share of glamour and unearthly allurement, beckoning him apart, to share in joys more exquisite, more piercing than the thrill of any dream, to the consummation of the marriage of the Sabbath.”
In conclusion, Chambers – relying on accounts from long-dead sorcerers and alchemists found in rare, esoteric books – states that “By the power of that Sabbath wine, a few grains of white powder thrown into a glass of water, the house of life was riven asunder and the human trinity dissolved, and 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.” Or, put more plainly, the potion was used – not unlike Dr. Jekyll’s – to liberate the demonic side of the human soul from its angelic side and its mortal, physical vessel. The end process is a foul corruption of all three, taking the form of a hellish worm.
Dr. Haberden includes a note at the bottom which speaks to his belief in Chambers’ analysis. He admits that when he met with Francis, he asked to see the small, grey lesion on his hand, but was unnaturally repelled by the sight of it in a way that – for a physician of many decades who has seen people rot away from syphilis, gangrene, and cancer – suggested something well outside of his range of comprehension. Although Haberden has also lost his faith in materialism, he finds that he cannot believe in “Eternal Goodness” either, after this experience, and feels that he has not much longer to live, although he hopes that, as Miss Leicester is young, she may survive and “forget all this.”
Haberden’s intuition proves prophetic: two months later she learns that he had died shortly after his ship left port, although whether by illness, suicide, or visitation of some otherworldly power, she does not say.
Aficionados of horror fiction will immediately recognize the influence of Machen’s literary muses: Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson. In particular, Poe’s “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” has been an unquestionable influence (just as both Poe and Machen would inspire Lovecraft’s similar usage of body horror in “Cool Air”). Like Poe, Machen was fascinated with the duality of the human essence – the polarity of the Self, torn between body and spirit. Poe depicted man as drawn to worshipping either physicality or spirituality (material being or mental being), but being horrifically confronted by the interconnectivity of the two – usually in graphic ways.
In “Masque of the Red Death,” Prince Prospero revels in his physicality, but is brutally reminded of his mortality; in “Ligeia” and “Morella,” a mourning husband worships his wife’s spiritual essence so ardently that it overwhelms and possesses the body of the living woman closest to him (a second wife in “Ligeia,” a daughter in “Morella”); in “M. Valdemar,” the eponymous eccentric agrees to be hypnotized just before his death, stalling his bodily decomposition while his soul is suspended in his dead shell. Eventually Valdemar must be woken from his trance, and in a matter of seconds his soul is severed from his body, which dissolves, famously, into a “nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putrescence.”
Parallels between “Valdemar” and “The White Powder” are obvious, and both share a subtler theme of exploring the liminal spaces between life and death, good and evil, damnation and salvation.
Perhaps just as strong is the bond between “The White Powder” and “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” Machen has frequently been accused of virtually plagiarizing Stevenson, particularly his New Arabian Nights (an anthology of bizarre mysteries set in London), and no work was more Stevensonian than The Three Imposters, with its decadent frame narrative and arabesque horrors. Like “Jekyll and Hyde,” “The White Powder” concerns the steady devolution of a man who has secretly become overwhelmed by the influence of a diabolical potion, and whose horrific condition is first suspected as foul play (before being graphically discovered by breaking down his door).
Aside from plot similarities, both stories explore the idea of identity, the relationship between purity and corruption, and the fragility of mankind’s lordship over Nature. Presaging the (later debunked) theories of Margaret Murray (who postulated that a pagan witch-cult had secretly survived in Europe from pre-Christian paganism, through the witch trials, and into the modern day), Machen used the witch’s brew as an instrument to illustrate the limits of science and human learning when pitted against the instinctive and the mystical.
A few mistakes, a few misunderstandings, and a well-meaning chemist turns an overworked law student into a demonic slime mold. That’s all it takes, Machen suggests, to shift us from the world of bourgeois comfort to that of existential horror. While Machen isn’t trying to discredit the sciences or turn us away from college-educated pharmacists and into the hands of anti-vaxxer, herbalist shamans, he IS trying to challenge our sense of comfort and control in the world. We have unshakable faith in the power of science to make humanity impervious to everything from polio and cancer to wrinkles and baldness.
Eventually, we seem to intuit, everything will bow to our will. Machen doesn’t distrust the research of scientists, but he does distrust their egos. He doesn’t disbelieve in science, but he does disbelief in human sovereignty over the cosmos. Science, he warns, has taken away wonder, fear, and awe, and while its conclusions may be true, the comfort we take from it is dangerous. We are only one or two missteps away from encountering the Void that hangs all around us – the darkness the broods between the stars and in the pit of every human soul.
A brilliant exercise in body horror (fiction which heavily features the mutilation, decomposition, or corruption of the human body for dramatic effect), “The White Powder” is a poetic treatise on the whims of fate and the innate corruption of the human soul. While Stevenson was heavily influenced by his Calvinist upbringing – one of its core tenets being the “total depravity” of the human self – Machen’s worldview was shaped by Anglicanism, Catholicism, and the paleo-Christianity (of the Dark Age Celts).
All of these traditions celebrate sainthood and heroics alongside tales of sin and damnation, placing a premium on free will over the predestination favored by Calvinists. Catholics and Anglicans in particular celebrate grace as a gift of God offered freely to every human being – a gift which can be accepted or rejected. But once a human soul has made a decision concerning this free gift, fate begins to take wheel, and free will becomes increasingly overwhelmed by destiny: the sinner who turns it down finds his life beginning to align with a trajectory towards destruction and corruption while the sinner who embraces it finds his life ascending into peace and acceptance.
The course of your life, Machen’s worldview espoused, was yours to navigate, but the further you veered off course, the less control you had. One sin may be all it takes to doom you, and with each step you take towards damnation, you sink deeper into corruption and misery. While “The White Powder” is by no means a theological treatise, it does ponder the instability of the human soul – its tendency for infection, corruption, and decay – and the escalating gravity of destiny.
Like a boat being slowly sucked into the gyrations of a whirlpool, or a spacecraft being pulled into the orbit of a nearby planet, a single misstep in life and turn the choice of a free will into the trajectory of destiny. Obvious parallels exist in this story between the overwhelming nature of the white powder and the all-consuming power of drug addiction. In this era, the parallels are even stronger, with opioid addictions turning self-respecting pain patients into desperate slaves of prescribed medicines.
Machen seems to be deftly weighing the powers of free will against those of fate – fate whose whims and caprices can transform a hard working law student into a pathetic addict who casts away his future, content with the numbness his drugs bring him. The corruption of his body – from healthy youth, to a single spot on the hand, to a putrefied black monstrosity – is a tidy metaphor for the gradual possession of the soul by an unhealthy mania.
Ever annoyed with (and disgusted by) humanity’s increasing self-deification, and its increasing self-trust and self-reliance, Machen points a shaking finger to the tarry jelly in the corner of a locked room to remind us that our free will and god-hood can be bartered away very easily: a mistake in a prescription, an unintended decision to drive home from the bar, a wrong turn into a bad neighborhood, a whimsical choice to have unprotected sex with a stranger, a capricious decision to participate in a fraud scheme that you would normally have rejected outright – and suddenly your life is not your own, and your destiny has been prescribed by the laws of cause and effect.