Thursday, March 12, 2015

Century-old stories can sure creep me out



The White People – Arthur Machen (1899)

            Horror stories are such strange beasts.  Some seek to shock the reader with descriptions of carnage and depravity.  Others are like long jokes, but with a horrifying twist at the end instead of a punchline.  Arthur Machen wrote horror of a different kind.  His stories are more like long looks into a hidden world that exists right beside the one we live in every day, much like his friend and admirer H.P. Lovecraft’s tales.  They have influenced so many writers through the years, even though Mr. Machen himself is overshadowed in the public eye these days by Lovecraft and Poe. 
            The White People is constructed as a story within a story.  The whole thing takes place one late night as two recent acquaintances discuss the kind of heavy ideas that one discusses upon going home after an evening of food and drink.  The topics they explore are Sin and Evil, with one character describing his very odd views on the matter.  He essentially tells the other gentleman that true Evil, much like true Saintliness, is an exceedingly rare thing.  He explains how most of us choose to view those that do us wrong or harm as evil, or as sinners, but his definition of Sin is not the doing of bad things, but the exploration of realms of consciousness which go against God.  It is after explaining himself that he digs up a small handwritten volume out of a locked bureau and hands it to his guest.
            The main part of this story is the contents of this book.  It was written by a young lady, and describes her experiences being taught the long-forgotten Old Ways by her childhood nurse.  What begins as seemingly harmless fairy tales soon reveals itself to be a slow and steady education in the Old Ways.  The girl describes various experiences she had, and also recounts several of the stories told to her by her nurse.  It may sound very innocuous, but Mr. Machen is a master of the slow unfolding of what most writers consider true horror.  That is, he leads you down a path which slowly reveals itself to be so far removed from the reader’s day-to-day reality that a creeping sense of doom just grows and grows.  By the end of Machen’s stories one’s mind begins to question what exactly it has been shown, and whether this is fiction or some sort of educational treatise! At least that is the feeling I get. 

Maybe it is best sometimes to NOT know?

            I also got that feeling the first times I read Lovecraft, and his Cthulhu stories.  It is a truly horrific thing, when done well, and sticks with you for days.  The very best horror writers have this ability to hide their horror in the commonplace, forcing one to question what they feel is “reality.”  I, for one, love being creeped out this way!  Mr. Machen, you have done it again!


(This story can be read or downloaded here:  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25016/25016-h/25016-h.htm#Page_111 )

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