The White People and Other Weird Stories
by Arthur Machen
Edited by S.T. Joshi
Cover Artist: Sam Weber
Review by Benjamin Wald
Penguin Classics Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780143105596
Date: 27 September 2011 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Arthur Machen's influence on the horror genre has been immense; his work was a significant influence on such central figures as H.P. Lovecraft, James Branch Cabell, and Clark Ashton Smith. The White People and Other Weird Stories collects a variety of Machen's stories in which the supernatural features, to one degree or another. While Machen's influence has been mainly on the horror genre, not all of his stories fit this mode. Several of the stories collected in this book feature the supernatural in a more beneficent form, from the spectral bowmen who come to the aid of the British army in "The Bowmen" to the visions of the Holy Grail in "The Great Return". Even in the more horrific tales, such as "The White People" or "The Inmost Light" the horror is often tinged with awe. Encounters with the supernatural, for Machen, show us a realm beyond our own, whose wonders and dangers are far more vivid then our everyday life.
This collection begins with a foreword by Guillermo Del Toro, which I found a bit meandering and not terribly helpful. This is followed by an excellent introduction by S.T. Joshi, a noted scholar of weird literature. Joshi does an impressive job of putting Machen's writing in its historical context, and drawing attention to Machen's recurring themes and general worldview. Joshi also does an excellent job with the notes scattered throughout the text; he helpfully explains unfamiliar words and allusions without providing so many notes that they become distracting.
The stories themselves are a joy to read. Machen's writing is descriptive and evocative, and his rich prose is a welcome break from the sparse style that seems almost ubiquitous today. He is particularly good at evoking the simple routines of everyday life, the better to show how this normalcy collapses when the supernatural intrudes. Indeed, one of the longer stories in the collection, "Fragments of life", is almost entirely taken up with the charming descriptions of the life of a young couple, while Machen cleverly shows how the numinous makes itself subtly known even among this humdrum setting. This is not to downplay Machen's ability to evoke terror. There are moments in several of these stories that match the sense of cosmic strangeness of any of Lovecraft's stories.
This book was my first exposure to the writing of Arthur Machen, and I was greatly impressed. The language is a touch archaic at times, but this only adds to the atmosphere of the tales. The excellent introduction and broad mix of stories make this an excellent collection to start with in exploring Machen's work, and the stories themselves show why Arthur Machen has had such enduring influence.