Guillermo del Toro‘s influences are varied enough that it doesn’t feel odd for him to be a big fan of Arthur Machen ; he provides an introduction to Penguin Classics’ selection of Machen’s stories, “The White People and Other Weird Stories.” The intro is a fairly standard contextual history of “weird fiction,” with some cool bio bits: Did you know Machen was the celebrated, (though badly renumerated) translator of Casanova’s memoirs and Marguerite de Navarre’s “Heptameron”? That Machen’s wholly made up story about angels aiding British soldiers during the Battle of Mons in 1914 got mistaken by the gullible for a factual account that had been “covered up by the government”? (Much to Machen’s bemusement.)
“The White People” contains Machen’s best stories: the titular one, “The Inmost Light,””The Novel of the White Powder,” “The Novel of the Black Seal” (as in Apocalyptic seal, not as in the barking pinniped). They’re all fine trips by themselves, but potential ODs when taken in bulk. That’s because their rigid structure rarely varies: some gentlemen meet; they discuss odd events from newspapers or documents; some mysterious item from a sinister culture is produced; then some final, ambigous, indescribable thing happens. And by indescribable I mean that Machen demurs in his story-telling obligations. Evidence from this volume: “I heard bursting from his lips the secrets of the underworld, and the word of dread, “Ishakshar,” the signification of which I must be excused from giving.” Sure, you’re excused, no need to tell us THE COOL PART!
Machen incurs in all of the sins from “The Great God Pan” over and over again. Add to them truly overwrought diction: “I have seen once or twice a laden ’bus bound thitherwards.” Machen is not from the 1700s; “Bound thitherwards” should have made his eyebrows temporarily migrate in a northerly direction. Or enjoy this other line:
“You interest me intensely,” said Phillipps. “Would you mind continuing your story? The circumstance you have mentioned seems to me of the most inexplicable character, and I thirst for an elucidation.”
That’s a howler. But take this moment:
“I will not weary you with a description of the savage desolation of that tract of country, a tract of utterest loneliness, of bare green hills dotted over with grey limestone boulders, worn by the ravages of time into fantastic semblances of men and beasts.” It’s a perfect summary of Machen’s syle, its flaws and triumphs in one sentence. He begins with that stiff, overly polite narration – then he can’t help but give us the very description we have JUST been told we weren’t going to get – and yet in the end he achieves enough evocative eeriness to disturb us anyway.
RATING: GOOD ENOUGH for me, COOL! for Guillermo del Toro.