Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The White People and Other Weird Stories by Arthur Machen (2011); edited by S.T. Joshi

The White People and Other Weird Stories by Arthur Machen (2011); edited by S.T. Joshi, containing the following pieces:

Foreword: The Ecstasy of St. Arthur by Guillermo Del Toro: Nice, brief appreciation of Arthur Machen by the film-maker, whose works often refer directly or indirectly to Machen's work and concepts.

Introduction by S. T. Joshi: A usual excellent historical overview from Joshi.

The Inmost Light  (1894): Pseudo-science based horror with ties to the longer, creepier "The Great God Pan.".

Novel of the Black Seal  (1895): 'Novel' meaning 'Nouvelle' here and below, and not a matter of length. One of several Machen stories dealing with a survived, malign race of 'Little People.'

Novel of the White Powder  (1895): Another piece of pseudo-science based horror. As with the above 'novel,' this was also published as part of the actual 'novel'/short-story cycle The Three Impostors. The 'science' moves into the realm of the occult at the conclusion.

The Red Hand  (1895): A fine piece of horror which uses the style and structure of the mystery story.

The White People  (1904): A towering achievement in first-person narrative in the horror genre, framed by a somewhat wonky but necessary philosophical discussion of the nature of good and evil. One of the most unnerving stories ever told.

A Fragment of Life  (1904) : A slightly weird tale of a young couple chafing at life in a London suburb really grows on one as it builds to a climax reaffirming Machen's love/hate relationship with cities.

The Bowmen  (1914): That famous piece of accidental 'journalism' (it's a short story mistaken at the time for being real) that spawned the World War One legend of ghostly bowmen coming to the rescue of British soldiers.

The Soldiers' Rest  (1914): Another of Machen's brief newspaper short stories meant to buoy spirits during the early days of the Great War.

The Great Return  (1915): A weird tale without horror -- instead, it's a faux-journalistic piece on the Holy Grail in the Welsh countryside.

Out of the Earth  (1915): Very minor piece concerns Machen's underground, malign, and apparently foul-mouthed little people. 

The Terror  (1916): Written in a straightforward journalistic style that's unlike Machen's earlier works of weird fiction that include "The White People" and "The Great God Pan," The Terror is instead the great-grandfather of Max Brooks' World War Z. The Terror depicts its events as real, investigated by the unnamed narrator.  Those events aren't zombie attacks -- they're mysterious deaths breaking out in various locations throughout Great Britain during World War One. Have the Germans landed some sort of hidden force on the British Isles? Is someone using a mysterious 'Z-Ray' to smother people or send them running off cliffs to their deaths? Or is there something wrong with the animal kingdom Machen was writing furiously at this time in his life, forced into newspaper work in order to pay the bills. The Terror isn't the imaginative and literary triumph that the aforementioned stories were, but it's still an enjoyable and often weird book. It's also an important permutation in horror's long love affair with the pseudo-documentarian style. Where 'letters' and 'journal entries' once told us that what we were reading was 'real,' now the journalistic voice does. It's also a mutation of something going back to at least Daniel DeFoe's A Journal of the Plague Year. In that early 18th-century work, DeFoe told a fictional 'you-are-there' story about a real event. Machen embeds The Terror in the real, early events of the Great War and then, like DeFoe, tells everything as a piece of actual reportage. It's a major stylistic leap. There are many fine moments of horror and pity throughout The Terror, along with some marvelously weird images. Machen captures the way fear can travel through gossip when the official channels are trying to hide the problem. A late-novel tableaux of horror at an isolated farm is especially well-managed through the description of the aftermath and through a dead man's journal describing the mysterious and terrible events that led to that aftermath. There are a couple of flaws to note. One isn't so much a flaw as a relative lack of closure. Things just sort of stop. This first flaw is exacerbated by the second, which is the narrator's jaw-dropping, climactic theory about why what happened, happened. It's an explanation totally in keeping with Arthur Machen's beliefs about society. But it's a moment of political and social commentary that will leave a sour aftertaste with anyone who doesn't long to live in a medieval fiefdom. I kid you not. 

Overall: A selection that includes non-horror pieces makes for an interesting overview of Machen's career. Those interested only in Machen's horror output would be better served by seeking out a collection that includes "The Great God Pan" and "The Shining Pyramid." The end-notes to the stories are extremely useful. The cover is the only oddity, as it seems to have been commissioned for a collection that did include "The Great God Pan." Highly recommended.

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