Recently, I purchased The Century’s Best Horror Fiction, a beautiful two-volume set of short horror stories, edited by John Pelan and published by Cemetery Dance Publications. I feel like something this epic deserves special treatment, and so I’m challenging myself to read one story a day for the next 100 days, posting reviews as I go. Tonight, I read a tale chosen from the year 1904: Arthur Machen’s “The White People” …
Arthur Machen’s more familiar to me as the author of “The Great God Pan,” which Stephen King claims is one of the best horror stories ever written. Since that story was originally published in 1890, I guess it just missed the cut for the collection of the twentieth century’s best horror fiction. It turns out, that’s okay, because “The White People” is another excellent Machen story.
The story starts with a conversation between two men, Ambrose and Cotgrave, about the nature of evil. Ambrose details his theory that true evil is a rare thing and that most people are as incapable of it as they are incapable of being considered saints. Evil, to him, is something rare and lonely and transformative. To further explain his argument, he lends Cotgrave the diary of a young girl, which then serves as the bulk of the narrative.
The story the girl tells is quite bizarre, and I’m still coming to terms with it. The girl is caught up in a mystery surrounding a place she has found where there are a great many strange stones and a large round mound of earth. Odd things happen when she visits, and it almost seemed to me that she was eventually going to turn into the old woman in Samuel Beckett’s Ill Seen Ill Said, wandering around rocks in the gloom until she died. There’s also an echo of Machen’s tale in Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy film, Pan’s Labyrinth, as both stories have a lot to do with the power of a young girl’s imagination.
Ultimately, “The White People” seems to relate somehow to witchcraft, although to claim that that’s all the story is about is to reduce it too much. Visionary, artistic, and troubling–this one really worked for me, and I think it’s one I’ll come back to again and again.
Giving it 5/5 stars, for being extraordinary.