There are few supernatural tales that create a really long-lasting chill– a quick glance at the shirt hanging over the bedroom door and a sudden jump at the bark of a fox outside your window–are the usual side effects. Nothing is more voluptuously chilling than Arthur Machen’s The White People. The reader is plunged into a young girl’s claustrophobic world of rituals and coloured notebooks and welcome abuse by unseen creatures. The story makes readers queasy, partly because of the girl’s joy in her corruption: her love of the filthy songs and dances that the stone circles in the surrounding hills inspire. And the story has familiar Machen themes. The myth of fairies is linked to a lost trogladytic ancestor, an earthbound animal of barrows and mud who speaks a different language and is still attuned to the possibilities of enchantment.
The white people remain in the shadows, shadows alive with rumour and suggestion. Pale faces peer into the baby’s cot, faces that recede as the girl grows older. The suggestion is that the girl has been chosen and will in time be compelled to travel to the peculiar rocky country where her initiation will be completed. The white people are the integral part of a great and sinister secret that Machen deliberately withholds.
The young girl in this coming of age tale inhabits that liminal state (so necessary for enchantment) of adolescence, an already unstable zone made more slippery by the lack of male authority. Her widower father (seemingly sapped by grief) is elsewhere and the girl’s education is entrusted to a powerful nurse who excites her with tales of betrothal and magic. The landscape too with its Freudian tunnels and hairy and very pubic thickets is calling to her from her bedroom window. Today, the unnamed narrator’s possession by pagan forces would seem a good thing– a dance of spontaneity leading her from the drabness of her father’s house. Post-Freudian anti-repressive floppiness makes us side with the young girl in a way Machen never intended. We urge her to flee to the woods quick and leave the sad widower far behind.
The story is about the transmission of very secret secrets, secrets so secret that the nurse, when she tells her another, feels it necessary in this wild and uninhabited country to pull the girl through hedgerows and sit in a hawthorn thicket just to be sure of not being overheard. These secrets are not sanctioned by male authority. Rather a line of women transmit the folklore down through the centuries by word of mouth, women of dubious status who have taken plants from burial barrows, bathed wax dolls in wine. The young girl is their initiate:
All these are most secret secrets, and I am glad when I remember what they are, and how many wonderful languages I know, but there are some things that I call the secrets of the secrets of the secrets that I dare not think of unless I am quite alone and then I shall shut my eyes, and put my hands over them and whisper the word, and the Alala comes…
This is the young girl’s register, simple sentences that run on and on a little breathlessly as if she has just remembered something else. And the narrative too is full of breaks and interruptions as she remembers other stories that teasingly reflect on her present predicament. At the crux of the story is a secret too great to entrust to the reader, what she encounters after the country of rotating stones and mounds and great entwined grass bodies can not be said or even acknowledged to herself. It is connected to the dazzling whiteness, the colour of the rocks and the effect of the moon on nearby forests that unmake them into weird silhouettes with dark gulfs hanging between them. A secret so dazzling that when she approaches it she wears a yellow blind fold with red spots. What is the secret of the secret of the secret? I wouldn’t dare to invoke the rage of the trogladytic sprites that uphold their separate state among us. Nor would I agree with the writer S.T. Joshi that it is simply a secret of impregnation.
The story’s dynamics are based on a form of narrative interruptus. Machen builds up a head of steam and takes us to the brink of initiation and then pulls out suddenly, denying the reader release and compounding our neurotic anxiety. As the girl approaches the telling of her own secret and the ‘lovely things’ that have happened to her she is compelled to stop. Instead she tell us tales told to her. Tales that will break off and hint at magical unions.
We hear of the reluctant bride on her wedding night who is taken from her husband by a fearful black man in a puff of smoke. The reader and the king’s son are left outside the bedroom door while the laughing and shrieking occurs in the bedroom. Again a man follows a beautiful white stag who disappears into the mountain and changes into the Queen of the fairies but when the young man awakes in the morning outside the mountain where he danced and feasted and kissed, his horse is tethered by the roadside at the place where he first spotted the stag. He will never again gain admittance or kiss another woman. The secret has been withdrawn. The reader is placed in this eavesdropping position, poised on the threshold of rooms and mysterious mountains on the brink of understanding.
Another secret the nurse tells is of magic and thunder on the hillside which the uninitiated hear but never see what is taking place. A passerby who stumbles upon the noise wakes up by the roadside the next day, where he originally lost his way, and that is the curious position the reader is kept in. We seem to be getting nearer to the secret, hear certain sounds and hints but we never see what the young girl encounters in the woods. At the vital moment 0f transmission the narrative thread is snipped and we awake on the outside of the charmed circle. The transmission of the secret of the secret of the secret will be disastrous for us just as the dazzling brightness of the white people will blind any interloper who looks on. Instead, we are left in our ordinary human darkness, cut off from the sources of magic apparently for our own good. And yet at the tale’s perverse heart is a human desire to know the secret, to stare at the idol in the wooded glade whatever the consequences.