David McGrogan's Reviews > The White People and Other Weird Stories

The White People and Other Weird Stories by Arthur Machen
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really liked it

Machen, unusually for a weird fiction author of his era, could really write. I know he influenced Lovecraft and CA Smith, among others, but he is a titan in comparison to those writers when it comes to style. The two "flagship" stories in this collection, the eponymous "The White People" and "A Fragment of Life", are really exceptionally good, worth the price of admission alone. I'd read "The White People" itself long ago and it seems to have only got better in the mean time - it's no exaggeration to say it may be one of the handful of true masterpieces of speculative fiction. Joshi described it as a "Lovecraft plot written by James Joyce". Even that does it a bit of a disservice, because the plot is infinitely more subtle than anything Lovecraft could have come up with. It is an absolute tour de force. "A Fragment of Life" was a surprise to me - a story I couldn't believe I'd never come across or heard about before. It is achingly beautiful and, like "The White People", almost impossibly subtle, with the fantasy elements so attenuated and fragile that at any moment you fear they may simply shatter or dissipate entirely. Those two stories by themselves almost make the collection worth 5 stars.

The remainder of the collection, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. The brilliance of Machen's prose style never wavers. And there are moments of greatness in some of the stories - "The Inmost Light", "Novel of the Black Seal", "Novel of the White Powder", "The Red Hand" and "Out of the Earth" spring to mind. I was especially charmed by "The Red Hand", in fact, which is really straight detective fiction with a fantasy twist. But it has to be said that overall these pieces are rather tame - intriguing and well-written rather than genuinely thrilling or chilling. At times they lapse into silliness (the plot of "Novel of the White Powder" is just, well, absurd). And there are some plain old stinkers too - "The Bowmen" and "Soldier's Rest" are pretty throwaway taken out of the context of the time they were written, and I just couldn't see the point of "The Great Return".

A reasonably diverting collection, then, but elevated to an altogether higher plane by "The White People" and "A Fragment of Life".
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Finished Reading
February 11, 2017 – Shelved

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