The White People and Other Weird Stories
"Of living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen." -H.P. Lovecraft
Actor, journalist , devotee of Celtic Christianity and the Holy Grail legend, Welshman Arthur Machen is considered one of the fathers of weird fiction, a master of mayhem whose work has drawn comparisons to H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. Readers will find the perfect introduction to his style in this new collection. With the title story, an exercise in the bizarre that leaves the reader disoriented virtually from the first page, Machen turns even fundamental truths upside down. "There have been those who have sounded the very depths of sin," explains the character Ambrose, "who all their lives have never done an 'ill deed.'"
Arthur Machen’s own life is perhaps his greatest creation; for it is exactly the life we might expect a poet and a visionary to have lived. Born in 1863 in the village of Caerleon-on-Usk in Wales (the site, two millennia earlier, of the Roman town of Isca Silurum and the base of the Second Augustan Legion), Machen was fascinated since youth by the Roman antiquities in his region as well as the rural Welsh countryside. He attended Hereford Cathedral School, but in 1880 he failed an examination for the Royal College of Surgeons; he felt he had no option but to go to London to look for work, where he hoped that his ardent enthusiasm for books might land him some literary work. But only poverty and loneliness were his portion. Dragging out a meager existence as a translator (his translation of the Heptameron of Marguerite de Navarre  long remained standard, as did his later translation of Casanova’s memoirs), tutor, and cataloger, he knew at first hand the spiritual isolation that his alter ego, Lucian Taylor, would depict so poignantly in The Hill of Dreams (1907). In his first autobiography, Far Off Things (1922), he speaks of this period with a wistfulness that scarcely conceals his anguish. Consider the description of his attic garret on Clarendon Road:
It was, of course, at the top of the house, and it was much smaller than any monastic “cell” that I have ever seen. From recollection I should estimate its dimensions as ten feet by five. It held a bed, a washstand, a small table, and one chair; and so it was very fortunate that I had few visitors. Outside, on the landing, I kept my big wooden box with all my possessions— and these not many— in it. And there was a very notable circumstance about this landing. On the wall was suspended, lengthwise, a step- ladder by which one could climb through a trap door to the roof in case of fire, and so between the rungs or steps of this ladder I disposed my library. For anything I know, the books tasted as well thus housed as they did at a later period when I kept them in an eighteenth- century bookcase of noble dark mahogany, behind glass doors. There was no fireplace in my room, and I was often very cold. I would sit in my shabby old great- coat, reading or writing, and if I were writing I would every now and then stand up and warm my hands over the gas- jet, to prevent my fingers getting numb.
Although Machen published a few works during this period— The Anatomy of Tobacco (1884), an owlishly learned disquisition on various types of tobacco, and the picaresque novel The Chronicle of Clemendy (1886)— they were commercially unsuccessful and today are not highly regarded. But the death of Machen’s father in 1887 suddenly gave him, for the next fourteen years, the economic independence he required to write whatever he chose, without thought of markets or sales. And yet, one of his first works of fiction of this period— “The Great God Pan” (1890)— created a sensation, especially when it appeared in book form in 1894. It shocked the moral guardians of an enfeebled Victorian culture as the diseased outpourings of a decadent mind; but the reviewers who condemned it as sexually offensive could not know that Machen shared the very inhibitions he seemed to be defying. This tale— as well as the infinitely superior “The White People” (1899)— succeeds largely because Machen himself, as a rigidly orthodox Anglo- Catholic, crystallized his horror of aberrant sexuality by giving it a supernatural dimension. That Machen chose to work in the literature of the supernatural— one branch of what has come to be called weird fiction, which also encompasses fantasy and psychological suspense— is of interest in itself. Canonically, the supernatural in literature commenced with Horace Walpole’s short novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), which ultimately ushered in the age of the Gothic novel, whose most notable exponents were Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis, and Charles Robert Maturin. It is not paradoxical that this literature emerged in a century typified by the rationalism of Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, for the supernatural can only manifest itself in literature when a relatively stable and coherent idea of the natural has been arrived at. In this sense, the supernatural must keep pace with science: Although it draws upon myth and folklore in its exhibition of ghosts, vampires, werewolves, haunted houses, and other such elements, it can only do so at a time when these elements are generally believed to defy what are commonly understood to be the laws of nature; for only in this manner can they constitute the imaginative liberation that many writers and readers seek. At the same time, the best weird writers understood that supernatural motifs could serve as metaphors for the expression of truths about the human condition (the vampire as social outsider, for example) in a more vivid and pungent manner than in conventional mimetic realism.
Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from the introduction of The White People And Other Weird Stories by Arthur Machen. Introduction and notes Copyright © S.T. Joshi 2011
Foreword by Guillermo del Toro: The Ecstasy of St. Arthur
THE WHITE PEOPLE AND OTHER WEIRD STORIES
The Inmost Light
"The pleasure of rediscovering these stories or experiencing them for the first time is sure to be amplified by the insightful foreword by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) and the excellent introduction by S. T. Joshi." — Craig Smith
"As a selection of 'weird' short stories, The White People is a fine example of the precursor to what has become a popular subgenre of fantasy fiction, as well as a window on to the spiritual concerns of the Welsh author Arthur Machen (1863-1947): the veil separating the phenomenal world and the supernal realm is thin. While we may have forgotten the rituals, spells, charms and wards once used to commune with the spirits, the spirits have not forgotten us."— Times Literary Supplement
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