Arthur Machen’s The White People, Jo Walton’s Among Others

Arthur Machen’s “The White People” is one of the true masterpieces of short fantasy fiction, one that never fails to surprise me with its downright weirdness whenever I read it. Its main portion purports to be the journal of a young girl initiated by her one-time nanny into a strange world of rural magic and skewed faerie folklore. Its narrative veers from fragmentary dark fairy tales to the narrator’s exploration of the weirder, wilder regions of the surrounding countryside, all written in a breathless stream-of-consciousness style that predates the experiments of the Modernists by almost a decade.

Machen wrote the core part of “The White People” in the 1890s, but (quite understandably) didn’t know what to do with it, and it remained unpublished till 1904, when he packaged it up with an explanatory prologue and epilogue and submitted it to Horlick’s Magazine. Or was it Ovaltine Monthly? Either way, some magazine with far too cosy a title for such a twisted little tale. Perhaps because it was the only way it could be published, Machen’s prologue and epilogue try to turn the tale into a decadent horror story, with two gentlemen aesthetes discussing the young girl’s journal as an example of “sin”, and concluding with the information that the young girl was found dead, probably poisoned by an overdose of whatever had been giving her all these weird visions. This, perhaps a necessary defensive manoeuvre on Machen’s part to fend off the criticisms of literary conservatives, has always struck me as a false note. The narrator of “The White People” is just too full of vitality, and of magic, to be the mere victim of a horror story. “The White People” touches the genuine twilight world of early adolescent imagination gone weird, blurring the dividing line between childhood games and magic ritual, fairy tales and ecstatic religious vision.

This is a whole favourite sub-genre of mine: stories of the superheated twilight world of adolescent imagination, particularly where fantasy is used to make the distinctions all the more explicit. Examples include Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Steve Cockayne’s The Good People, (is Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory one? I can’t remember, now) and films such as Spirit of the Beehive and of course the superb Pan’s Labyrinth. The most obvious thing to do with this sort of story is to equate the fantasy/magical aspects with childhood imagination, and to have the adolescent narrator come to terms with the loss of their childhood by having them lose the magic. This is the Peter Pan approach, where the only way to retain the magic of childhood is to remain stuck as a “Lost Boy”, an eternal child, regressed and cut off from adulthood. But the best of these stories see through this rather obvious use of fantasy-as-metaphor for childhood, and do something different. The best of them take the magic through to the adult world. Doing this convincingly, and meaningfully, is difficult, which is why a good example can be hard to find.

Jo Walton’s Among Others does it marvellously. Like Machen, Walton is Welsh, as is her narrator, Morwenna. (I did my best to sound the story in a Welsh accent as I read it. It probably wouldn’t have convinced a native speaker, but what would a native Welsh speaker be doing in my head, anyway?) Written in the form of Mor’s diary when she is fifteen (and set quite specifically in 1979 and 1980), Among Others starts soon after a terrible event in its young heroine’s life. She was born with a twin, with whom she shared the intensely imaginative world of her childhood life. Like Machen’s heroine, the pair rambled the Welsh countryside, naming its ruins and hidden pockets with fantasy-tinged names (many of them lifted gleefully from The Lord of the Rings), and quite naturally interacting with the wonderfully imagined faerie folk they find there. But Morwenna and Morganna’s mother is a witch; she is also insane (the two may go together), and has dark plans. The girls go against their mother. The story of exactly what happens is spread out through the novel, so I won’t say any more on it, but by the time Among Others begins, Mor is living in the aftermath. Her twin is dead, she herself has a badly injured leg, she has run away from her mad mother, and her childhood is over forever.

The fantasy elements in Among Others are spot-on subtle. Mor spends a lot of time wondering about the fairies she sees and the magic she does, and how it is different from the way the world operates anyway. The book provides one of the best, most succinct, explanations of faerie nature when it says fairies are as they are because they’re “part of everything”. But for much of it, Among Others could be a non-fantastic novel, merely about an imaginative teenager. One of the best parts of the book is Mor’s passion for science fiction, which she consumes by the bookload. It’s amazing how fun it can be to read about a fictional character’s reaction to a book you yourself have read. It’s not essential to know a bit about late 70s SF, but it would certainly add to your appreciation of the book. (If not, anyway, the internet can provide all the footnotery you need. Not having read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, I had to look up “karass“, for instance, which is a key word in Among Others, referring as it does to a group of true friends who share your interests; one of the main threads of Mor’s story is her wish to find such a group, and what happens when she uses a little magic to do so.)

A wonderful book. I’m amazed it hasn’t yet found a UK publisher, as I think it could well be a mainstream, as well as an SF/fantasy, success over here. Still, perhaps in the current Amazonian age of bookselling, such things matter less. (Actually, now I come to think of it, I got mine through the Book Depository.) (And I should point out that I first heard about the book via the wonderful Notes from Coode Street podcast.)

But to return to “The White People”, Among Others reads more like how Machen’s tale should have ended, with its teen narrator not losing herself in the horrors of a dangerously un-Christian world of imagination, but finding the proper place for magic in a real, adult world. Among Others has a wonderfully affirmative ending. It’s one of those rare books that blends its fantastical and realistic elements seamlessly into a single vision, that manages to seem far more true, and far more insightful, of what it means to be a human being than a merely realistic novel ever could.

Two Films About Childhood

Not really meaning to, I seem to have given myself a themed, mini film festival these last two nights by watching a pair of films, both of which were about the secret, inner lives of children.

spiritofthebeehive

The first was The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), set in a rural nowhere in Civil War era Spain. I’d put it on my Amazon list after seeing it mentioned as a possible influence on Pan’s Labyrinth, but this was my second watching, because after getting it on rental, I liked it enough to buy it. In the film, six-year-old Ana is deeply affected by a showing of the old Universal Frankenstein at her village cinema (where the screen is a rectangle painted on the wall, and everyone brings their own chair), and when her sister tells her that Frankenstein’s monster wasn’t actually killed because he is a spirit that lives in a nearby abandoned house, Ana starts visiting, and talking to, this gentle, invisible monster. But, rather than characterising her as a child, this seems, in the film’s world, to be putting her on her first step to adulthood, individuality, and isolation: Ana’s father, spending all his time in his study with his glass beehive, seems to live in a world of his own; her mother cycles regularly into town to post letters to a man (a brother? a former boyfriend?) who never replies. One day a wounded soldier, fleeing the Civil War, turns up in the abandoned house, almost like a realisation of the spirit of Frankenstein’s monster, and Ana starts to take care of him.

The other film was Kes (1969), which I put on my Amazon list after hearing Mark Kermode praise it, and realising it was another one of those films I’d heard so much about but hadn’t seen. Set in a pretty grim Barnsley, Kes is about a fatherless boy, Billy, pretty much a loner, ignored by his teachers and bullied by his much older brother. Resigned to getting nothing out of life, he’s nevertheless passionate, almost poetic, about a young kestrel he trains to feed from his hand.

kes

Both films encase their young leads in private imaginative worlds, and both get remarkable performances in return. It’s amazing to think Ana in the first film is just six — in some of the later scenes her face seems ageless, almost ancient — while Billy in Kes looks already hardened against all that the adult world can throw at him. (Almost, but not quite.) In both films the kids find an intensely private focus for their burgeoning individuality and imagination, only to have it broken by the cruel harshness of an uncaring world. The difference is that, with Spirit of the Beehive, because Ana’s world was so much of the imagination to start with, even when events in the real world take it away from her, she’s still left with something. Kes is far more brutal and hopeless, but all the same I felt there was hope for Billy despite his obviously grim prospects, simply because he at least had something he felt strongly about, something that would always be there as a refuge against his unremittingly bleak world, which is more than can be said of his endlessly bickering, selfish, mother and brother.