Arthur Machen - The Novel of the Black Seal, The Novel of the White Powder (1895)
The Novel of the White Powder by Arthur Machen (1895)
Leicester’s brother Francis lives like a hermit, although a good-looking man; and although quite well persists on taking Dr Haberden’s prescription daily, which he has made up for him by an old-fashioned chemist in the neighbourhood. “I am not very well today,” he tells Leicester after Leicester has become concerned about him one day. In fact, he doesn’t look well at all:

I had glanced up at the window of my brother’s study, and at that moment the blind was drawn aside, and something that had life stared out into the world.

Nay, I cannot say I saw a face or any human likeness; a living thing, two eyes of burning flame glared at me, and they were in the midst of something as formless as my fear, the symbol and presence of all evil and all hideous corruption.

Leicester’s room is below his brother’s, and one night:

I glanced up at the ceiling, and saw a patch, all black and wet, and a dew of black drops upon it, and a pool of black liquor sinking into the white bedclothes.

But as you can see, he is quite recovered.

The Novel of the White Powder
A Fragment of Life
The Great God Pan

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Online Books by Arthur Machen

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The Novel of the White Powder by Arthur Machen (Corgi, 1965)

The Novel of the Black Seal by Arthur Machen (1895)
Like The Novel of the White Powder and The White People, this story uses a female viewpoint, Miss Lally the housekeeper; and also like those other stories, the female viewpoint is indistinguishable from that of the male. Machen seems quite uninterested in characterisation, and not particularly interested in telling a story (in this case, at any rate); his writing is almost entirely absorbed in detailing his very private inner landscape and peopling it with menaces taken from myth and viewed through a distorting glass. The idea that he might be better able to view that landscape through a female viewpoint, like Lewis Carroll, through Alice, is an attractive one. The descriptions of the Welsh landscape are suggestive of dreams that follow meditation, often nebulous and vague, the edges uncertain, but with sudden bright splashes of colour, like a painter picking out details at the centre of landscape after crudely blocking in the background. Like a painter, clearly he needed to visualise his setting before placing figures in it. The narrative here is usually pedestrian, there are moments when the storytelling gains pace and certainty then wallows about again. The end is vague and personally I found it irritating. Miss Lally seems to know just what happened to Professor Gregg, but beyond a vague awareness that ‘they got him,’ we don’t know what happened; he hasn’t turned into a black puddle or drunk from a pool containing hallucinogens in its waters. So is it worth reading?


A synopis for those as wants it:

Following the deaths of her parents, Miss Lally comes up to London, looking for work. During a walk through the countryside, her view of the surrounding land takes on an almost hallucinatory quality: In a confused vision I stumbled on, through roads half town and half country, grey fields melting into the cloudy world of mist one side of me, and on the other comfortable villas with a glow of firelight flickering on the walls, but all unreal; red brick walls and lighted windows, vague trees, and glimmering country, gas lamps beginning to star the white shadows, the vanishing perspectives of the railway line beneath the high embankments, the green and red of the signal-lamps – all these were but momentary pictures flashed on my tired brain and senses numbed by hunger.

Then she meets Professor Gregg who invites her to confide in him and offers her a position as his housekeeper, needing someone to take care of his children.

Gregg is occupied with the mystery of some runic symbols on a black seal. The same pattern of symbols have been found on a limestone outcrop, which baffles him as the two patterns are separated by about 4000 years. He believes that the symbols are in some way connected with some mysterious disappearances. Then Gregg decides that they must move to the south, into the Welsh hill country. Miss Lally is entranced by the countryside, but there’s little excitement there, and in a bored moment she finds an old Latin volume with an account of some strange people and a stone “which they call sixtystone, for they say that it displays sixty characters on its surface.” The Professor gets quite excited by this as the stone seal has exactly sixty characters on it. Soon after this he bewilders Miss Lally by insisting that he take a local boy into his employment, although there is no need for any more help around the house. The boy is apparently an idiot, with olive skin and a queer, harsh voice which Miss Lally observes “…caught my attention; it gave me the impression of someone speaking deep below the earth.” He is also given to strange fits. The boy’s name is Jervase Cradock. It is believed locally that the death of the boy’s father sent his mother off her head, as she was found weeping on the ground in the Grey Hills, about eight months before Jervase was born.

Gregg hints one day that he is about to make an astounding revelation. And then Miss Lally notices that a heavy bust of Pitt has been moved unaccountably from its place on top of a cupboard, fifteen feet above the floor, to the Professor’s desk. She knows that there is no ladder in the house, and when she asks the Professor, he replies flippantly at first, but then she sees his expression of utter horror. The housemaid tells Miss Lally: "I looked at the bust, and I saw a great mark where the dust was gone, for I don't think it can have been touched by a duster for years and years, and it wasn't like finger-marks, but a large patch like, broad and spread out." The rest of the story is taken up by the Professor’s disappearance and Miss Lally’s discovery of a letter which the Professor has left for her, explaining his fate.

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Online Books by Arthur Machen

The Novel of the Black Seal by Arthur Machen (Corgi, 1965)

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