Rending the Veil

Illustration from the 1906 edition of Arthur Machen’s The House of Souls
R.B. Russell/Tartarus Press
Illustration by Sidney Sime from the jacket of the 1906 edition of Arthur Machen’s House of Souls

In 1943 some of the friends of Arthur Machen—the last name rhymes with “bracken”—organized a formal dinner to honor the Welsh writer on his eightieth birthday. While many distinguished figures in the arts attended, three of the older guests particularly stood out: Max Beerbohm, W.W. Jacobs, and Algernon Blackwood.

Though obviously very different writers, this trio shared one signal distinction: each, along with the man they had come to celebrate, had written a masterpiece of supernatural fiction. Beerbohm’s best-known work is “Enoch Soames,” in which a seedy 1890s poet—author of Fungoids and Negations—sells his soul to the devil. Jacobs, though primarily a humorist, produced the unforgettable and much anthologized three-wishes story “The Monkey’s Paw.” As for Blackwood, he wrote what H.P. Lovecraft called the supreme tale of cosmic horror, “The Willows.”

Still, Lovecraft sometimes waffled about whether that dark laurel might actually belong to Machen’s “The White People”—which, despite what now seems a provocative title, isn’t about identity politics or social justice or anything like that. It presents a young girl’s diary, in which she naively prattles on about her old nurse’s games, a magical but ominous Other World, strange symbols called Aklo letters about which she dare not say anything, odd-shaped mazes, an entity called Jeelo, and phantasmagoric serpent rituals centered on a witch-queen, who might be herself. In his magisterial Guide to Supernatural Fiction, E.F. Bleiler—no pushover as a critic—describes “The White People” as “probably the finest single supernatural story of the century, perhaps in the literature.” T.E.D. Klein—the former editor of Twilight Zone magazine—aptly summarizes what makes it so extraordinary: “Most other tales of this sort…merely describe encounters with the dark primeval forces inimical to man; ‘The White People’ seems an actual product of such an encounter, an authentic pagan artifact.”

Machen himself deeply admired the macabre work of Poe and Hawthorne and regarded Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw as the finest of all ghost stories. Like these giants of American literature, he wouldn’t have labeled himself a “horror” writer, even if The Three Impostors, or The Transmutations (1895) could scare Arthur Conan Doyle, who called its author a “genius.” In The Great God Pan (1894) and a succession of short stories, Machen hinted at the continued power of pre-Christian deities—such as Nodens, the god of the abyss—or posited the survival of a primordial and malevolent race of hominids, now lurking in Welsh hills and caves. In his later work, however, he often set aside numinous dread to explore instead the spiritual and transcendental.* But whether focusing on the bestial or the beatific, Machen’s fiction always suggests that there’s more to reality than meets the eye, if we could just—to use…

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