Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Two works by Arthur Machen

 “Sorcery and sanctity…these are the only realities.”

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I read The White People by Arthur Machen in advance of Halloween, trying to get in the mood for the macabre. It was a good choice. The White People, a short story, was first published in 1904, and Machen crammed a lot of creepy into the 50 or so pages. 

It’s an odd set up. Two men are discussing the nature of good and evil, and one of them tells the other about the “Green Book,” a diary purportedly written by a young girl as she wandered deeper into an occult world of strange creatures, forgotten races, eerie rituals and witchcraft. We, the readers, are then able to read directly from the diary. 

The power of the story lies in tension between the rich, terrifying supernatural world hidden just beneath the surface of everyday life — revealed to the young girl by her nurse who is familiar with all the old legends — and the childish, wonder and naiveté of the diarist as she is drawn deeper and into the world of the White People. The almost casual, earnest descriptions of the scenes of wonder revealed to her are especially unnerving. 

“But I made up my mind I would try again, so I went to the wood where the pool was, where I saw the white people, and I tried again. The dark nymph, Alanna, came, and she turned the pool of water into a pool of fire…”

Machen is a Welsh writer, and ably brings to life the legends and magic of Wales dating back hundreds of years. It’s an era I enjoy, not the least because the thought of a world behind this world is so appealing. 

It was a fun, unsettling read and I enjoyed it enough to purchase another one of his books, The Great God Pan.

“There is a real world, but it is beyond, this glamour and this vision…”

The Great God Pan is focused on an occult world existing in the shadows of this world, hidden and mysterious but also some how more real. 

The novella opens with a young woman willingly participating in questionable medical experiment performed by a surgeon intent on helping humankind experience the mystical realm directly. He has, apparently, found the structure in the brain that prevents easy access to the spiritual realm (what he calls, “seeing the god Pan”), though curiously, he offers no insights as to why nature may have seen fit to prevent the veil from being lifted. 

Machen surgically alters the brain of the young woman to bridge the “unthinkable gulf that yawns profound between two worlds, the world of matter and the world of spirit.” He is successful, after a fashion. 

She awakens from anesthesia, seems to have a flash of mystical insight, but the wonder quickly fades, replaced by terror — she is reduced, in his words to a “hopeless idiot” for life.

The novella flashes forward, and flashes forward again, and from that rocky start, things go progressively downhill. 

There are strange rituals in the woods, children driven insane by the sight of Roman statues, child abductions, orgies (not children, thankfully), suicides (also not children) and an apparent deicide. 

“Though horror and revolting nausea rose up within me, and an odour of corruption choked my breath, I remained firm. I was then privileged or accursed, I dare not say which, to see that which was on the bed, lying there black like ink, transformed before my eyes. The skin, and the flesh, and the muscles and bones, and the firm structure of the human body that I had thought be unchangeable, and permanent as adamant, began to melt and dissolve.”

It’s a cracking good read, and certainly deserves to be included in the library of horror classics of horror, especially because, apparently, the novella influenced HP Lovecraft. 

Equally intriguing is the underlying conceit that evolution or civilization or just plain old ignorance compounded by the passage of time somehow lowered a veil between the two realms — matter and spirit. And that, at least according to this Welsh writer, bridging these two worlds has such dark and tragic consequences.