This review will spoil the plot in full
Machen could only have disappointed. Praised by Lovecraft and Stephen King, Arthur Machen’s story will be known by horror fans, though rarely read. And if read, better left unread, if The Novel of the White Powder indicates his oeuvre. Machen writes competently, but he cannot justify the label ‘horror’.
Helen Leicester’s brother does nothing but study law. His idea of recreation involves sitting idly in a chair between case law binges. But even lawyers grow sick, and he requires a special medicine. Too special it turns out. The prescription he gets from Dr Haberden changes him – Francis wants a holiday! More than that he wants to give up the law altogether. He starts slumming around London. Helen doesn’t know what’s happened, or what she can do. Her brother rots in front of her, and the very weather seems to degenerate alongside him. Eventually, he shuts himself in his room, saying he’s studying law again. When Helen and Haberden knock down the door, they find a oozing mass. Haberden leaves England, never to return, but sends Helen his colleague’s analysis of the medicine. This white powder, left on the shelf so long, with the temperature rising and lowering, had become something… other. And it has something to do with medieval pagan devil-worshiping cults.
This is less a horror story than a story with horrified characters. We must take their word for how scary this all is. Dr Haberden flees Francis’ room, saying, ‘I, who have dealt with death all my life, and have dabbled with the melting ruins of the earthly tabernacle. But not this, oh! Not this.’ Machen does attempt showing the horrific, but his descriptions can fall into diabolic platitudes which evoke no image. Some time into his transformation, Helen describes Francis as ‘the symbol and presence of all evil and all hideous corruption’. What is that? What does evil or corruption look like? Even at the climax, when Machen’s description of Francis reads like the special-effects brief for a 1980s creature-feature, Machen slips into vaguery. Francis ‘seeth[es] with corruption and hideous rottenness’. Rottenness is at least material. I can imagine it. But corruption?
Machen’s descriptions, at times, get specific, but these images do not terrify. The most powerful image goes:
‘[A]s I lifted my face the blind was being drawn back, and I had had an instant's glance of the thing that was moving it, and in my recollection I knew that a hideous image was engraved forever on my brain. It was not a hand; there were no fingers that held the blind, but a black stump pushed it aside, the mouldering outline and the clumsy movement as of a beast's paw had glowed into my senses before the darkling waves of terror had overwhelmed me as I went down quick into the pit.’
‘Black stump’, ‘beast’s paw’, Helen sees in her own house, in her own brother, the human act of pushing back the blinds done by inhuman limbs.
In comparison, Machen’s other attempts at horrific images seem so much duller. Helen thinks something’s up with her brother when she sees on his hand – Horror of horrors! – a spot. Machen’s melodramatic style makes this even more ridiculous. ‘Oh! If human flesh could burn with flame, and if flame could be black as pitch, such was that before me.’ (There’s no ‘if’ about flame burning, and burns can be black.) Great horror writing can make the unthreatening terrifying. A child’s ball can be terrifying. But if you just show me a child’s ball, I’m not scared. Even if you blare a load of scary music around it, I won’t scream. I’ll laugh. This ‘small patch about the size of a sixpence’ could be terrifying, but from another writer’s pen.
The climax fares better:
‘I looked, and a pang of horror seized my heart as with a white-hot iron. There upon the floor was a dark and putrid mass, seething with corruption and hideous rottenness, neither liquid nor solid, but melting and changing before our eyes, and bubbling with unctuous oily bubbles like boiling pitch. And out of the midst of it shone two burning points like eyes, and I saw a writhing and stirring as of limbs, and something moved and lifted up what might have been an arm. The doctor took a step forward, raised the iron bar and struck at the burning points; he drove in the weapon, and struck again and again in the fury of loathing.’
But it’s not scary, is it? Earlier I said it was like a 1980s creature-feature, with their moistly grotesque practical effects. They were rarely scary; they were merely repellent. As an image, this climax doesn’t achieve what Machen wants it to. As the climax of the story, it doesn’t either. This last shot of gruesomeness, after a long time of relatively subdued stuff, feels like the twist from a pre-Comics’ Code horror comic.
Unlike one of those horror comics, Machen can’t just leave us with this image. He must explain it. The denouement gives us a pseudo-scientific, pseudo-pagan mythology explanation for all that happened. We read a letter verbatim from one of Dr Haberden’s associates, a man who only exists for exposition. He waffles on about how science doesn’t know everything, and how the universe is more than material, and that evil rituals were carried out in medieval Europe. I’m not expecting philosophical, scientific, or historical rigour from a story ending in an oozing demon corpse. I would be fine if Machen glossed over this explanation in three sentences. He takes three pages. My tolerance for bad arguments does not last three pages. And does this fluff add anything to the story? Not much, only a snippet towards the end, which I shall get to later.
As a literary horror writer, it would be wrong to judge Machen on his scares-per-word count. Let’s see if the story’s subtext can make it interesting. I’ll first dismiss an obvious, but boring, interpretation of the story. The Novel of the White Powder is a drug addiction allegory.
We have Francis, a man so establishment he does nothing but study law. One day, without his knowledge, he ingests a drug, which is dangerous. And pleasurable. He seems happier than ever, and at first only his closest family can see what’s wrong. But Francis’ ‘recreation’ soon becomes hedonism. His break from the study of law becomes a full rejection of it, a fall from the establishment to bohemianism. His personality changes, until he becomes a stranger. His body degenerates, until even his own sister can only look at his ruin in horror. He is undone by his addiction.
A valid interpretation, but accepting it would do a disservice to Machen. Although I don’t much like this story, it is more than a didactic moral allegory. Judging this as a drug story, lowers it. The supernatural exaggerations do not enhance, but blunt the story of a drug addict. Were it drug story, it would have done better as a realist one.
And now for the more interesting interpretation, the one which Machen spells out in expositional letter at the end. The powder makes Original Sin flesh:
‘[A] few grains of white powder thrown into a glass of water, the house of life was riven asunder and the human trinity dissolved, and the worm which never dies, that which lies sleeping within us all, was made tangible and an external thing, and clothed with a garment of flesh. And then, in the hour of midnight, the primal fall was repeated and re-presented, and the awful thing veiled in the mythos of the Tree in the Garden was done anew.’
Adam and Eve fell from the perfect order of paradise. Francis fell from absolute law. He sins, but his sins do not merely tear his soul, they tear reality:
‘the sky began to flush and shine … in the gap between two dark masses that were houses an awful pageantry of flame appeared – lurid whorls of writhed cloud, and utter depths burning, grey masses like the fume blown from a smoking city, and an evil glory blazing far above shot with tongues of more ardent fire, and below as if there was a deep pool of blood.’
Machen makes this more complex than a black and white fall from paradise to sin. Francis rots in an extreme of sin, but his extreme of law was never virtue. What is the law when not applied to humanity? Francis studies the law like a hermit. All well and good, if he were in any other field, whose education did not decide the fate of others. As a student of the law, his education will never be complete if he only studies the law, and not the society which the law governs.
Although the pagan ritual of the white powder has the ‘primal fall … repeated and re-presented’, it is not the primal fall. The primal fall has happened; we have the Original Sin to show for it. Francis’ lawful beginnings parody Eden. He cannot live in pure law, because Original Sin already debases him.
Although this interpretation grabs me more, it also leaves me less scared. Lovecraft’s critique of Machen holds: he believes in sin. For Machen, sin is not merely socially undesirable acts. Sin is an affront to the foundation of the universe. Immorality takes on a supernatural fascination. A fascination I, and other atheists, cannot share. This story about reality tearing around this sinner interests me only as much any curious belief system does.
Aesthetically and thematically, The Novel of the White Powder does not scare. Its images either lack definition, or, where they have definition, lack impact. As I’ve heard of Machen’s greatness, and of the mark he left on Lovecraft, I hope this story is one of his weaker efforts.