Friday, April 8, 2016

Guest Post: A Face at the Window in Two Arthur Machen Stories, by Dale Nelson

I would doubt the judgment of anyone who, having read a few of them, didn’t like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s early Sherlock Holmes stories.  Arthur Machen is on record as liking the Holmes stories somewhere, though I can’t find the reference now.

“The Adventure of the Yellow Face” was published in an 1893 issue of The Strand and in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes the next year.  Mr. Grant Munro tells Holmes and Watson about the little suburban “’villa at Norbury… very countrified, considering that it is so close to town,’” where he and his wife live, and of how, on an evening stroll, he idly inspected a cottage across a field from his home, and glancing up at a window, was chilled by the sight of a face regarding him, a face with “’something unnatural and inhuman’” about it.  The face suddenly disappeared.

Perhaps this image stuck in Machen’s mind, since something very like it probably becomes, for most readers, the most memorable thing in two of his stories, “The Inmost Light” (published in 1894 with “The Great God Pan”) and “The Novel of the White Powder” (published in 1895 in The Three Impostors).  

I must not be the first reader who has sometimes muddled the stories together in memory, because in each someone looks up at a window to be shocked by the sight of something unnatural and inhuman.  In “White Powder,” it’s an amorphous darkness in which two eyes glare forth, and a hideous paw; in “Inmost Light,” it’s the “’face of a woman, and yet it was not human,’” hellish, manifesting ‘”a lust that cannot be satiated and … a fire that is unquenchable.’”  This situation sticks in the memory when one has forgotten the elements of “Powder” that are a bit too close to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or the rigmarole about “Once around the grass, and twice around the lass, and thrice around the maple-tree” in the other Machen story. 

“The Inmost Light” strongly recalls “The Yellow Face,” with its suburban setting and strolling and then horrified narrator, to someone who reads the two stories close together.

The main persons in the Doyle story (aside from Holmes and Watson) and in “The Inmost Light” are a husband and wife.*  Something is much amiss with each couple.  There’s thus a painful discrepancy between the wholesome intimacy that ought to be and the actual situation, and in each case a ghastly face at the window is the portentous sign of that discrepancy.

In Bob Shaw’s “Light of Other Days” (1967), two couples appear.  Tension seethes between Garland and his wife Selina until, on their Scottish holiday, they encounter the slow glass farmer and his wife and child.  Something about the farmer’s manner puzzles them.  The house itself proves to be empty of wife and child, and is sordid and forlorn inside.  Garland and Selina learn that the serene woman and child they saw at a window of the farmer’s house died tragically, six years ago, but, due to the bizarre properties of slow glass, their moving images are now visible to someone looking at the outer side of the window. 

All of these stories have an element of pathos, none being simply a diverting shocker.**

*In “The White Powder,” the pair is a brother and sister who live together.

**In Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), the most frightening apparition is probably that of Quint staring in through a window with his “white face of damnation”; but this will have been displaced, in the memory of anyone who has seen the 1961 movie adaptation, by the sight of haggard Miss Jessel in the reeds across the lake, the most haunting image of them all in the cinema of the ghostly.

© 2016 Dale Nelson


  1. Here's Machen in a letter saying he is always interested in Sherlock Holmes:

    However, I hope to verify Machen's liking specifically of the early Holmes tales.

    Dale Nelson

  2. Speaking of Machen and early Conan Doyle... there's a non-Holmes story by Doyle which I suspect may have in part inspired Great God Pan: 'John Barrington Cowles', first published in 1884 Kate Northcott seems a bit Helen Vaughanish; there's also the theme of the 'ruined friend'; and a few other resonances.