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.



The Fruit of Passion: Chapter 1


cover the fruit of passion

That’s the first chapter from my fantasy novel, currently titled The Fruit of Passion. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Does it grab your attention? Do you find it intriguing enough? Do you want to find out what happens in the next chapter? All constructive criticism is welcome.

Chapter 1–The Lost Queen

What hath night to do with sleep?

John Milton, Comus

Deep into the forest the white she-wolf howled, tearing the midnight quiet into pieces. Anna’s eyes flew open in a heartbeat, her mouth awash with the taste of blood. She jerked up from her chair like a spring popping out of a watch. Disoriented, she struggled to suck air into her lungs, burning with such agony as if someone thrust her under water, slowly drowning her.

She glanced at the balcony doors only to find the cream-coloured curtains half drawn. The sky’s blackness was dyed in pastels, oozing a summer sweetness uncharacteristic of April. Charcoal clouds sailed across. As they passed in a fleeting promenade, a vista of dim light and shade flooded the bedroom. The moon shimmered with full brilliancy, the hands of the clock in the wall striking half past twelve.

Anna’s spine chilled as if an icy wave crashed against her back. A horrible sense of unease stole over her, a feeling of dangerous emptiness all around her. With trembling arms, she darted across to the bed. She felt for the queen but her fingers touched only the sheets in a cool heap on the mattress. Broad awake now, an all-consuming dread seized her mind.

The door was shut but not locked. She tried to open it but her cold, sweaty hands missed the knob the first time. Running across the hall, she made a mad dash downstairs and looked in the rest of the open rooms. Nobody in sight. A few seconds slipped and she stood outside the Council Room. She pushed the double doors with all her strength, but they didn’t budge. A vague despair, unlike anything she had ever experienced before, forced her to breathe in long, heavy gasps; her throat smarted with the effort.

Pulling herself together, she marched towards Myrina’s room. Anna let herself in, lit a match and approached her friend’s bed. She grazed her shoulders so as not to scare her. Within seconds, she stirred. With drooping eyelids and constricted pupils, she tried to focus her mist-covered gaze. She blinked in rapid succession until she discerned a slender figure half-reclining over her.

”Anna, what’s going on? Why are you here?” Her voice reached the pitch of a hoarse mumble.

”She’s gone.”

”Who’s gone?”

”The queen.”

Myrina perked up straight, taking in Anna’s crushed, pale face and disordered hair. Her long, honey blonde tresses looked wild as if wind-blown. ”I thought you stood watch over her, didn’t you?”

Anna’s cheeks turned a ghostly hue. She hung her head and covered her face with her palms, shrinking back to half her bodily size. ”And I made a royal mess, didn’t I?” A swaying smile, tipping towards a bitter edge, distorted the fullness of her lips.

”Let’s just cut to the chase then and be quick about it.”

”Well, there’s not much to tell. And I can’t even spew an excuse to save my hide. I fell asleep. End of story. It was the she-wolf’s howling that brought me back from the dead. I’ve combed every nook and cranny. She’s vanished into thin air, and my mind’s too feeble as to how she did it. After all, the castle at nights is as wide shut as a clam.” Anna crammed all her words in a single blow.

‘Ah, to enter is arduous and might take centuries, but to leave is effortless and takes only minutes.”

Anna knelt on the floor between Myrina’s thighs, her hands turned upwards in a supplication. You’re our enchantress, cognizant of ways far beyond the scope of mortal knowledge. If you cannot stir up heaven, burn to cinders the spirits of Erebus! But help me find her before all hope perishes. It might not be within our power to drive away her sleepwalking habits, but we’re more than capable of turning danger out of the door in his trembling tatters.

Myrina blanched. The floodgates of her memory burst open with a bang and she found herself swimming in stormy waters. Ice pierced her veins as the events of the previous weeks assaulted her mind with brutal violence. The shattering of the mirror in the corridor still reverberated in her ears; the queen’s bloody feet and sleep-bound face still mocked her eyes, and her almost fall from the staircase still made her heart shrink within her chest.

Some nights, images of the deflected catastrophe gained on her like ghosts, dogging her with arrows daubed on with the venom of doom. The queen lying lifeless at the bottom of the staircase, her beauty and freshness, instead of vibrating with sweet energy, withered like dry leaves in winter.

”There’s only the Goddess to cry to now, Anna. So pray that all our wishes move Olwen to shed her golden tears or else woe to us all!”

Quick on her feet, Myrina dressed herself with her cloak, seeing as her friend had already donned her own. ”Come along. We’ll travel below the castle where nobody can restrict our movements. My lips are sealed tight and so are yours. Nobody needs to be alerted.”

Anna nodded, seized the burning torch outside the bedroom and hurried towards Myrina. The lower part of the building was equally divided into several cloisters. Hands interwoven tightly like a pair of frightened fugitives who had to remain hidden from view, the women found the door that led straight to the cavern. They trod lightly, shuddering every time the doors they left behind grated on their rusty hinges, and entered the vault. From the sunk in roof a few rays of moonlight glided through the clouds into the dismal space, bathing it in an opalescent glow.

”Why does it feel like we’re the Oceanids attempting to retrieve Persephone back to the land of the living?”

A muffled laughter tinged with anxiety tumbled from Myrina’s mouth. ”Each to their own queen. And we have ours to awaken to life.”

They advanced further, a single goal crowding all of their thoughts. The dark labyrinth into which they descended curved into chaotic twists and turns that appeared to go on and on forever. The last one funneled into a subterranean passage ending in a trapdoor. Myrina faced no difficulty in lifting it up it since it was already ajar.

Anna gripped her from the elbow. ”Where’s the key? And why’s the trapdoor unlocked? Someone has walked down here before us.” Her features brightened in a strange fashion. ”It seems our queen’s very intimate with the secrets of her home.”

Myrina shrugged. ”The key would be enclosed in one of the bricks around us, I suppose. Doesn’t matter though. Unconsciously, she made our work less difficult.”

”The route of her escape is too calculated and secretive to be unconscious in her current state, don’t you think?”

”Indeed. I can’t fool you on this, Anna. I’ll let you in after we get her back to safety. But now let’s not waste another second here.”

Myrina let the trapdoor fall back soundlessly as they climbed up their way to the sacred temple, bringing a slice of human breath in the peaceful place. Slithering like serpents along the centuries-old shrine, they supported their weight against the stone façade. With half of the ridge built out of glass, streaks of starlight smeared out across the nave, the arches and the proud pillars.

Myrina circled around Caledfwlchthe altar in the form of a crystal swordbefore lacerating her palm as well as Anna’s on its keen rim. The sword’s surface soaked in their blood drops and the crystal shook furiously in a luminous explosion of amber ribbons as the sun was reborn and rained down on it its light.

Flashes swirled and unwound before her at a blistering pace like someone unrolling a thread from around a spinning top: green and blue, leaves and the gargling flow of water, a petite shadow stumbling in the night, scraps of crimson fabric and naked feet sinking in the soil, boats rocking in the peaceful port, the sense of sharpness and the foreboding of a vague threat.

Myrina snatched one of the twin, blazing torches from the altar and, careful not to squash the pure white lilies that sheathed its base, scooped up a couple of the oval, crystal dice that bolstered the mirror-bright weapon. With Anna’s help, she repeated the sacrifice, chanting thrice, ”By blood written, unwritten by blood. May Olwen turn the wheel for the rise of the sun.”

Myrina then handed one to Anna and caged the other within her still open palm. ”The Goddess unlocked the portals, and I stole a glance into the arcs of the recent past. Here we split. I’ll take the forest. The dock is yours. If you spot her first, press your wound on your crystal once more. The magic will take over on its own from there.

They scattered, each to her destination. Anna disappeared from sight, her movements as swift as a feline, while Myrina took off at a gallop, parallel to the trail of the long line of the sacred grove channeling directly to the clearing. Oak leaves along with pine needles wedged under the sole of her black boots. The moonbeams cast faint shadows from the thick foliage of the nemeton to the earth and, every time a sliver of light drove out the darkness, her heart pounded in her mouth in hopes of catching a glimpse of the queen’s silhouette.

Her anticipation bore no fruit. The nightingales had fallen dumb, the vigilant owls fixed in an unnatural thrall, the crickets quiet. Even the giant oak tree in the centrea millennium-oldthat usually hummed with a vortex of shunnache was sleeping the sleep of the enchanted. Only the white she-wolf that prowled high upon her cliff after every sunset, now rested on her hind legs, watching her with flaming eyes. Head raised, ears flat against her neck, she let loose her piercing howling endlessly as if possessed.

Seconds went by in a blur as Myrina hustled along the assorted, broad-leaved trees. The river bubbled, its song ever-changing, jouncing between murmuring in hushed tones and resounding with vivacity; now and then the outflow doubled its volume, boomed against the rocks on each bank and swept down the ravine.

It was because of the call of this wild siren that she missed at first the crystal’s vibration. Only when the water sank lower within its natural barriers, did she register the slight tremors that run through her fingers. Her hair stood on edge. She picked up the hem of her nightdress and hurtled like a Dahl’s whip snake towards the sea.

Meanwhile, Anna passed through the streets, crossed the purple bridge and went down the stairs. She lingered at the edge of the cliffs above the salt-encrusted pier and looked across the coastline. The Port of Cayo was slumbering and so was the rest of the island of Rumia. Only the wash of the restless waves on the shore echoed around.

Her gaze roved up and down the landscape as if she were about to leave her homeland behind and wished to brand everything to memory. Dispirited, she turned to leave when a narrow strip of golden glimmer from the lighthouse hit her straight on the face. Momentarily blind, she tried to shield her eyes. After a few seconds her vision adjusted and she lowered her hands. It was then that the band of light scattered upon the rocks below and on the left side of the pier.

Among the alternating shadows, she discerned a lithe figure, crouching and crawling on all fours like a toddler. ”Morella!” Anna uttered a cry of joy as tears sprang from her eyes. At once, she pressed the crystal deep into her open wound, delighting in the fresh jolts of pain that suffused her flesh, and flew down the steep path to the pier.

Time was suspended; the distance seemed to widen with each step she took. Legs quivering, ribcage hurting from her laboured breath, she bucketed over the lightweight, wooden structure until she came to an abrupt halt at the edge of it.

Morella was still on her knees as if praying in ecstasy before the lifted veil that revealed the great god Pan himself. Writhing, crumpled against the valley of the night, her back naked and arched downwards, her dark head splashed under the heavenly fountain of southern stars.

Anna stared at the queen, seeing a face carved out of oblivion. Her glassy eyes housed the deepest folds of a dream, and the universe in its totality was shut in the stream that flowed from her mouth with unbridled lust.

”…the fire i’m the fire of the world the invisible bridge i shall cross to see where the walking shadow rests when the dusk falls yesterday today tomorrow creep along running in words unrecorded water doesn’t soothe but burns my soul love’s a bloody sky and i’m its beating heart and the stars those lovely stars fall from her mouth no more it’s the great deep calling to me beyond sunset sunrise deserts hillsides mountaintops vineyards gulfs cool shades of green forests oceans tides…”

Soon, she fell into silence as if someone erected a dam before the torrent of her unmarshalled thoughts. She nestled herself on the smooth surface of the rocks upon which she had shinnied, and continued with her much fitful sleep. Anna snaked close, took off her cloak and flung it over the young queen, patiently waiting.