Have you ever wandered through the British countryside in the early springtime's glory? Or kissed the white lilies that line the pagan hillock paths? Or watched the moon sit upon some crooked autumn branches, bare and baleful like a claw? Or considered a sylvan scene that should never be considered, even if it be, for some, "that wonderful secret in the secret wood"? And who are these some? The some should not be known to you and me, or, in fact, anyone who wishes himself a happy, normal life. For those, however, who long to be reft of the gladsome daytime sun and cast into a realm where every object seems animated towards an ulterior, not in any way beneficent purpose, there have always been methods and means to that end. And hints about that perilous wish are strewn generously throughout this famous work.
All stories of the supernatural or uncanny need a skeptic, and we attach this regrettable agname to the very British and very serious person of Mr. Cotgrave. Cotgrave the Skeptic sounds precisely like a lifelong fool, although this may change with the course of our narrative. As we begin, however, he still counts himself among those allegedly learned minds who will never believe anything their five senses cannot relay within the thin framework of their realities. What is particularly laughable about such types is that they often fancy themselves profound men of philosophy, as if philosophy, like beauty, were only skin and fossil deep. For that reason Cotgrave has strong misgivings about the wisdom espoused by his host, a mysterious man by the name of Ambrose, who disabuses him of his notion of the nature of evil:
I think you are falling into the very general error of confining the spiritual world to the supremely good; but the supremely wicked, necessarily, have their portion in it. The merely carnal, sensual man can no more be a great sinner than he can be a great saint. Most of us are just indifferent, mixed-up creatures; we muddle through the world without realizing the meaning and the inner sense of things, and, consequently, our wickedness and our goodness are alike second-rate, unimportant.
One wonders how rapidly theologians would cavil at this generally accurate statement for fear of then equating great evil with great good, but we can and should put aside these cares. The paucity of true saints, Ambrose argues, implies there are even fewer true sinners because the latter path is considerably more cumbersome. The easy vices of everyday life, sloth, lust, and its merry companions, are just that – easy: the lazy and sensual recourse of those who only care about themselves and their basic terrestrial pleasures. As loathsome as these people can become, they are not terrifying or even particularly flagitious; instead, their lives are shallow, dull, and fickle, a vacuous pendulum swinging between satisfaction and some lack thereof. True evil requires an extraordinary desire to poison life, since the world generally guides minds away if not to good, then to (vicious) indifference. And true evil has already been revealed to Ambrose in, of all things, the diary of a teenage girl with the innocuous title of "The Green Book."
The interpolation of this logbook creases our tale in three, but we should restrict comment on what it contains for the very simple reason that the author herself does not seem to know – at least not yet. Once upon a time, when she was eight or thereabouts, she was taken by her nurse to some lovely country field where she saw something she shouldn't have seen, and it reminded her of something she believes she has always seen, namely "little white faces that used to look at me when I was lying in my cradle." Our narrator informs us that everything about these creatures – their houses, their mountains, and their clothes – had the same colorless hue. That is to say, white is the amalgamation of all color: it is black that has no light. But in "The Green Book" there are also patches of black; take, for example, her twice-told tale about a young local woman:
Once upon a time there was a poor girl who said she would go into the hollow pit, and everybody tried to stop her, but she would go. And she went down into the pit and came back laughing, and said there was nothing there at all, except green grass and red stones, and white stones and yellow flowers. And soon after people saw she had the most beautiful emerald earrings, and they asked how she got them, as she and her mother were quite poor. But she laughed, and said her earrings were not made of emeralds at all, but only of green grass …. And one day she went to the Court, and she wore on her head a crown of pure angel-gold, so nurse said, and it shone like the sun, and it was much more splendid than the crown the king was wearing himself, and in her ears she wore … emeralds, and [a] big ruby was the brooch on her breast, and [a] great diamond necklace was sparkling on her neck …. And she was so lovely that everybody said that her eyes were greener than the emeralds, that her lips were redder than the ruby, that her skin was whiter than the diamonds, and that her hair was brighter than the golden crown. So the king's son said he would marry her, and the king said he might. And the bishop married them, and there was a great supper, and afterwards the king's son went to his wife's room. But just when he had his hand on the door, he saw a tall, black man, with a dreadful face, standing in front of the door, and a voice said:
Venture not upon your life,
This is mine own wedded wife.
Then the king's son fell down on the ground in a fit. And they came and tried to get into the room, but they couldn't, and they hacked at the door with hatchets, but the wood had turned hard as iron, and at last everybody ran away, they were so frightened at the screaming and laughing and shrieking and crying that came out of the room. But next day they went in, and found there was nothing in the room but thick black smoke, because the black man had come and taken her away. And on the bed there were two knots of faded grass and a red stone, and some white stones, and some faded yellow flowers.
I suppose there are more hideous passages in the annals of literature, but not many. Our young narrator seems to comprehend the true meaning of these events, yet believes they could not possibly befall her for one very good reason: she, unlike the bride bedecked in jewels, would be a far more willing mate. Several other anecdotes arise, all of them almost inconceivably wicked, yet all of them inconceivably delightful to our narrator. One involves moonlight dances and "secret things ... brought out of some hiding place," a scene where, "sometimes people would suddenly disappear and never be heard of afterwards, and nobody knew what had happened to them." Another sequence details the hunting of a white stag of boundless energy and ends in what the pursuer believes is a kiss, even though we know otherwise.
Machen's shadowy world has garnered him both recognition and scorn (alas, the two are common companions), but even the most impartial of observers cannot deny the beauty of the English countryside, a beauty that has set off a thousand poets' imaginations. There are numerous moments in The White People of such startling vision, filtered through the diction and imagery extant to a teenage child, that one shudders at what that same child's mind would have produced had she lived long enough to carry out her deeds. A last, unremittingly horrible passage has to do with a woman known as Lady Avelin, although she was also known as Cassup, and her ritual of forging an object called the glame stone. And what can you do with a glame stone? The same thing, one supposes, you can do with a statue "of Roman workmanship, of a stone that with the centuries had not blackened." If you happen to know what to do with that.