Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Book Review: Arthur Machen - The White People and Other Weird Stories

Machen has been hovering around my attention for a long time now but as I've been so busy I didn't think I had the head space for him. Recently a gap in my schedule decided for me though that the time was right and what a treat it turned out to be.

Now, I realised long ago that my heart was in the pulps but I do like to occasionally stray into other waters as the tides takes me and of late I've been thoroughly enjoying some older work whist taking the opportunities afforded me by both free time and good weather for some outdoor reading.

There are moments of sublime beauty here, particularly the little title piece which is a perfect realisation of , entirely fictitious, Welsh folktales as filtered through the diary of a young girl who may or may not be experiencing the world they report first hand.

Alongside this are several stories relating similar sorts of Welsh related folkloric horror and some, for me less successful, World War One inspired tales.
Machen was obviously a devotee of the stories of his childhood but he was obviously not afraid of bringing these tales up to date as he does on The Terror. Truthfully though, this was the story I found least satisfying.
What let things down though (particularly on The Terror) were the notes by S.T. Joshi. Machen uses Welsh place names throughout which Joshi seems committed to attributing to actual places. Now, I grew up near (and still live close to) many of the places he claims are the ones mentioned and they just do not fit the descriptions given in the stories. For instance, Llantrisant which, in 'The Great Return' Machen describes as 'the little town by the sea [...]' is certainly not the one Joshi claims it to be due to the simple fact that it is nowhere near the sea. Indeed the nearest sea to the town is on the other side of Cardiff (Wales' capital city). This was only one of several claims that drove me to distraction but equally it must be said that there were many notes that I found both interesting and essential.

The notes aside though this was a wonderful and resonant read for me as a Welsh man reading these tales sat under a tree on the Welsh coast.

Beautiful, lyrical and inspirational.

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