Book Review: The White People

Penguin cover

Arthur Machen’s The White People had been on my reading list for a long time.

The story starts as a singular, philosophical study on the nature of good and evil and evolves into a chillingly delightful tale brimming with dark, paganistic rituals, weird occurrences and sorcery only to break off abruptly on the cusp of some kind of supreme revelation.

The beginning of The White People offers to the reader an intriguing intake on the topic of saints and sinners. Cotgrave and Ambrose discuss the nature of sin. According to the second,

”So you see that while the good and the evil are unnatural to man as he now is—to man the social, civilized being—evil is unnatural in a much deeper sense than good. The saint endeavours to recover a gift which he has lost; the sinner tries to obtain something which he was never his. In brief, he repeats the Fall.”

To better illustrate his point and make his companion understand, Ambrose gives Cotgrave to read The Green Book, a pocket book written by a 16-year-old girl he once knew.

The girl, whose mother is dead and whose father leaves her on her own to take care of the affairs of his profession, is raised by her nurse who dedicates most of her time in initiating her into a queer, dark world through the narration of songs and fanciful stories.

The girl drinks the stories in, and the more she surrenders to the secrets she’s exposed to, the more she descends into another dimension through waxen idols, mounts and hills, pits and wells. And all this, as she spends most of her time sauntering into the black woods, uttering bizarre rhymes.

She refers to odd things like the Aklo letters, the Chian languages, the great, beautiful Circles, the Mao Games, the chief songs, the Nymphs, the Dôls, Jeelo and voola. Did the girl suffer from bouts of a superactive imagination? Did she have a mystical power to conjure the universe that haunted her imagination into the real world? Perhaps. As Ambrose hints,

”A child’s imagination always makes the heights higher and the depths deeper than they really are; and she had, unfortunately for herself, something more than imagination. One might say, perhaps, that the picture in her mind which she succeeded in a measure in putting into words, was the scene as it would have appeared to an imaginative artist.”

Was the girl ever truly touched by the White People and the fairies? It is never made clear. Ambrose remarks that,

”Powerful and sovereign medicines, which are, of necessity, virulent poisons also, are kept in a locked cabinet. The child may find the key by chance, and drink herself dead; but in most cases the search is educational, and the phials contain precious elixirs for him who has patiently fashioned the key for himself. She had poisoned herself—in time.”

Machen is not a writer who employs blood and gore to horrify the reader. No, he has an uncanny ability to freak out the reader by painting a creepy, unnerving atmosphere through allusions and cryptic references which are never fully explained.

The White People reads as a misty, dream-like, stream of consciousness tale sprung from the depths of childish imagination. It’s a dark triumph of fantasy and horror bound to excite and intrigue the mind.

 

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Book Review: Clarimonde or The Dead Leman

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Clarimonde is the tale of love between a young priest, Romuald, and a beautiful vampiress, Clarimonde. Gautier’s short story offers plently of food for symbolism and analysis as it functions on multiple levels. As it happens with most gothic fiction of that kind, Clarimonde blurs the boundaries between life and death. As a vampiress, she comes and goes, travelling between the two worlds while not fully belonging to either. However, the same applies to Romuald. Dead during his duties as a priest, alive while being Clarimonde’s lover.

Clarimonde shares a common trait with Edgar Alan Poe’s Ligeia as it plays heavily with the idea that love can break the confines of death. In a scene of incomparable beauty and profound romanticism, Romuald brings Clarimonde back from the dead with a single kiss. Both have to fight against obstacles. Romuald against God and the Chrurch and Clarimonde against Satan and the carnal pleasures. Nonetheless, their love is able to transcend both the physical and the metaphysical.

The night advanced, and feeling the moment of eternal separation approach, I could not deny myself the last sad sweet pleasure of imprinting a kiss upon the dead lips of her who had been my only love. . . . Oh, miracle! A faint breath mingled itself with my breath, and the mouth of Clarimonde responded to the passionate pressure of mine. Her eyes unclosed, and lighted up with something of their former brilliancy; she uttered a long sigh, and uncrossing her arms, passed them around my neck with a look of ineffable delight. ‘Ah, it is thou, Romuald!’ she murmured in a voice languishingly sweet as the last vibrations of a harp. ‘What ailed thee, dearest? I waited so long for thee that I am dead; but we are now betrothed: I can see thee and visit thee. Adieu, Romuald, adieu! I love thee. That is all I wished to tell thee, and I give thee back the life which thy kiss for a moment recalled. We shall soon meet again.’

Her head fell back, but her arms yet encircled me, as though to retain me still. A furious whirlwind suddenly burst in the window, and entered the chamber. The last remaining leaf of the white rose for a moment palpitated at the extremity of the stalk like a butterfly’s wing, then it detached itself and flew forth through the open casement, bearing with it the soul of Clarimonde. The lamp was extinguished, and I fell insensible upon the bosom of the beautiful dead.

Clarimonde employs one of the oldest tropes, that of the femme fatale. Brimming with eroticism and sensuality, it reads as a tale of repressed passions and frustrated sexual desires. Romuald, through his dreams, enters into a realm where reality melts into fantasy and the boundaries that separate each are extremely foggy. Clarimonde becomes ”the other”, the Devil incarnate that sets out to seduce the young priest and make him stray from God’s path. Romuald answers her call, gaining the life his vocation deprives him of.

And that’s where Clarimonde’s originality stems from. The vampiress is not presented as a lifeless, soulless corpse but rather a red-blooded (no pun intended) creature full of life and vitality which she passes on to her bloodless (again no pun intended) lover along with pleasure and hedonism.

The story ends once again with one of the most common tropes in gothic literature: those involved with the supernatural are unable to go on with their life the way they did before the incident. What they lived haunts them forever. Romuald once again represses his desires and stifles his sexual wishes with the death of Clarimonde. However, the vampiress holds a place in Romuald’s mind for all eternity as her final words to him turn out prophetic.

But once only, the following night, I saw Clarimonde. She said to me, as she had said the first time at the portals of the church: ‘Unhappy man! Unhappy man! What hast thou done? Wherefore have hearkened to that imbecile priest? Wert thou not happy? And what harm had I ever done thee that thou shouldst violate my poor tomb, and lay bare the miseries of my nothingness? All communication between our souls and our bodies is henceforth for ever broken. Adieu! Thou wilt yet regret me!’ She vanished in air as smoke, and I never saw her more.

Alas! she spoke truly indeed. I have regretted her more than once, and I regret her still. My soul’s peace has been very dearly bought. The love of God was not too much to replace such a love as hers. And this, brother, is the story of my youth.