“The White People,” by Arthur Machen

“Sorcery and sanctity,” said Ambrose, “these are the only realities. Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from common life…” [Etext]


If you’re a fan of H.P. Lovecraft but have never heard of Arthur Machen, then you’re in for a treat. A Welsh author, actor, and practicing member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Machen’s weird fiction was a major influence upon Lovecraft, who pays homage to him by name in The Call of Cthulhu. Lovecraft, in fact, regarded him as “a Titan—perhaps the greatest living author.” “There is in Machen,” he wrote, “an ecstasy of fear that all other living men are too obtuse or timid to capture, and that even Poe failed to envisage in all its starkest abnormality.” 

It may be an accident of literary history that Lovecraft developed a cult following while Machen fell into relative obscurity. Many aficionados of weird fiction prefer Machen to Lovecraft; your preference may come down to whether you prefer science fiction or fantasy. Whereas Lovecraft’s cosmic horror looks to the stars for its eldritch abominations, Machen’s holy terror delves into the pagan lore of his native Wales to unearth the decadent rites and strange gods that our ancestors tried so desperately to erase.

Arguably his best story, The White People was the partial inspiration for Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth. Following a dialectic upon the true nature of good and evil, the story is narrated by a young girl writing in her diary of strange stories and secret games that she is learning from her nurse. Machen’s prose is lyrical and inspired, peppered with tantalizing allusions to obscure magical rites and ancient lore, many of which were drawn from his own historical research; other, fictional elements, like the “Aklo letters,” have been expanded upon by the likes of Robert Shea, Robert Anton Wilson, and Alan Moore. While The White People is sublime in its first, superficial reading, you may find yourself returning to it again and again for insights into the deeper story of a lost fairy queen that lingers within the subtext.