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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Arthur Machen's The Novel of the White Powder: A Two-Minute Summary and Literary Analysis

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