The secret cult in a remote town is a common element in many folk horror stories and movies. In weird tales, particularly in the genre of cosmic horror, there is another dominant motive: The pagan temple or shrine deep in the forest. Some stories use it as a backdrop or the setting where the secret cult meets in the middle of the night but there is more to it.
The pagan shrine in the forest is often a prerequisite. The old powers are still there. It is a place of power, a place of transformation and often a gate to the otherworld. The place is the center of the story. It is more important as it appears at first sight.
Arthur Machen’s short story The White People published 1904 is a good example to approach this subject. H.P. Lovecraft appreciated this extraordinary storyteller and named him one of the four modern masters of the weird tale. Arthur Machen stands in the tradition of other British writers as Algernoon Blackwood and M.R. James.
Arthur Machen, a Welsh writer, was born March 1863 and died December 1947. He is best known for “The Great God Pan”. Machen influenced the writings of many other writers in the genre.
The White People is also considered as an outstanding example of the supernatural fiction genre. The premise is pretty much what the genre is essentially about Michael Dirda, a book critic for the Washington post, wrote: “If I were to list the greatest supernatural short stories of all time, I would start with Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People,’ about a young girl’s unknowing initiation into an ancient, otherworldly cult”.
One interesting thing here is the epilogue. In the end this girl is dead. They find the girl in the woods near a Roman statue. This relict is a crucial element even it appears only as a detail in the story and it is not a big temple. But it is the ancient site in the forest which makes things happen (in the story there are of course other elements as a nurse as a guide-character, too.) The statue is obliterated in the end.
Machen grew up in Caerleon on Usk, in the county of Gwent, South Wales. This region is full of ancient sites from the Roman-British era and provided a lot of inspiration. In the 1870s archaeologists dug up Roman sculptures and inscripted stones in the area.
The Friends Of Arthur Machen write on their website: “Machen’s grandfather had found Roman inscriptions and carvings in his own Caerleon churchyard, and the boy’s imagination was captured early by the sense that the ground itself was haunted with a tangible and pagan strangeness”
And the Wales Arts Review emphases the otherworldliness of this extraordinary landscape: “He (Arthur Machen) also possessed a singularly strange vision of Gwent – regarding the landscape, with his birthplace of Caerleon at its spiritual centre, as some form of portal in which all time could be collapsed and all concepts of space exploded”.
Furthermore Machen regarded the landscape of Gwent in a way which is at the bottom of the whole genre of cosmic horror: “.. a means by which the universe beyond the obscuring veil of our perceived ‘real’ world might be glimpsed – one in which Keats’ notion that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ was an objective and eternal law.”
The ancient sites are the symbol of a haunted landscape. And it seems they are generators where otherworldly energies concentrate. We find this concept in literature, film, for example the pagan statue in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and in reality itself. Janet and Colin Bord wrote a whole series of books about these places, for example Ancient Mysteries Of Britain. They give not only an impressing overview about this unparalleled heritage of mysterious sites but write also about experiments to grasp the so-called earth energies as the dragon project 1979.
The ancient sites seem a place where the elder gods still reside. Arthur Machen also referred to Nodens, a celtic God in his influential “The Great God Pan“. Again there is a “reference” in the British Landscape, the Lyney Park Roman Park (close to The Forest Of Dean). A Roman-British temple is dedicated to Nodens there. J.R.R. Tolkien did some research here. We can be sure that this work deeply impressed Tolkien.
Of course, there is a much deeper dimension when it comes to these ancient shrines and their reputation as power places and gates to the otherworld. One author which created the idea of the cult site in the forest is certainly Tacitus.
Tacitus delivers the connection to the woods which becomes a stable premise for many writers, artists and historians. Tacitus writes: “The Germans do not think it in keeping with the divine majesty to confine gods within walls or to portray them in the likeness of any human countenance. Their holy places are woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to that hidden presence which is seen only by the eye of reverence”.
Historians later find everywhere impressing remains of the old religion. An example is the Gamla Uppsala, a pagan site where there was a temple was dedicated to Thor, Odin and Freys. The difference to ancient Roman and Greek culture is obvious: Often the greek temples were inside the cities and close to civilisation.
In the northern latitudes it is a different story. Here, the lonely forested landscapes with huge mountains and the cult site within become an echanchted and often haunted landscape. The elder gods still roam these forests and the ritual sites are the place to meet them.
Gothic literature and painters make plenty use of this heritage. See the ruins in Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings or the setting in the literature of European romanticism (for example: Der Runenberg, Ludwig Tieck). Of course, it has not always a pagan temple. Friedrich’s paintings depict ruins of a cloister. Churches and cloisters are often placed at former pagan cult sites.
Subsequently there was already a long tradition there which the masters of the modern supernatural story made plenty use of.
The cult site in the forest is a place for secret gatherings. The White People for example contains some detailed descriptions of these playful and dionysian rituals. There are very obvious parallels with beltane festivities and we see that connection between an ancient temple or a ruin in the forest very often also in movies, as the folk horror classic Blood On Satan’s Claw. It is indeed more or less an essential part in these stories.
The Place Is Alive
Gatherings in the forest might be a very common motive. However, after a somewhat dry philosophical prologue, The White People offers a unique visionary experience at a big bare place in the mountain forest, which is not only interesting as an extraordinary supernatural tale. From a modern point of view this an archetypical encounter with the otherworld.
Any words of the protagonist, a thirteen-fourteen year old, that describes a journey into an otherworldly realm, are far from any folklore or fairytale. She labels her live-changing experiences in the “green book” (an old book which serves as a sort of diary) as the white day. On one afternoon the girl walks into an unknown forest landscape where an incredible adventure awaits her. She follows narrow trails and ends up on a big bare place.
Machen does not describe the place as an ancient temple or cult site in an explicit way but we get that impression. The visionary experience that follows bears similarities of reports of alien-abductees or shamanic journeys. Already the journey to that places has the typical qualities of a transition from the ordinary into an otherworldly realm. The girls crosses a forest dark, where the woods are an ominous threatening place: “I looked out from them and saw the country, but it was strange. It was winter time, and there were black terrible woods hanging from the hills all round; it was like seeing a large room hung with black curtains, and the shape of the trees seemed quite different from any I had ever seen before”. Nothing seems like an ordinary forest here.
Machen now describes something which is similar to people who went missing and were found later and then told rescuers an unbelievable story: “Then I sat down on the stone in the middle, and looked all round about. I felt I had come such a long, long way, just as if I were a hundred miles from home, or in some other country, or in one of the strange places I had read about in the “Tales of the Genie” and the “Arabian Nights,” or as if I had gone across the sea, far away, for years and I had found another world that nobody had ever seen or heard of before, or as if I had somehow flown through the sky and fallen on one of the stars I had read about where everything is dead and cold and grey, and there is no air, and the wind doesn’t blow”. Note the mention of “another world” which is obviously on another plane of reality.
We don’t know if what happens belong to the imagination of the storyteller or if it is real. First, she sees something, which could be a sort of a cult-site: “… I could see nothing all around but the grey rocks on the ground. I couldn’t make out their shapes any more, but I could see them on and on for a long way, and I looked at them, and they seemed as if they had been arranged into patterns, and shapes, and figures.”
A moment later it happens. The place becomes alive and what happens is somewhere between the supernatural and a psychedelic trip: “I got quite dizzy and queer in the head, and everything began to be hazy and not clear, and I saw little sparks of blue light, and the stones looked as if they were springing and dancing and twisting as they went round and round and round. I was frightened again, and I cried out loud, and jumped up from the stone I was sitting on, and fell down”.
This weird experience serves as a call to adventure for the girl which doesn’t end well. She is found dead under mysterious circumstances.
Another remarkable element in the story is the White people and other inhabitants of the forests. We think immediately about the parallel with Referent Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth about the fairy kingdom, and from a modern point of view, there is something alien about these creatures. The encounter with the White People bears many similarities with stories of encounters with the little greys from the Ufo-folklore.
From a modern point of view there might be some critical points about this classic story of Arthur Machen. One of the subplots transport cliches about witches and (maybe unintentionally) it sounds like there is a misogynist tendency here. But, nevertheless we find that one specific quality here which makes a true story of cosmic horror compelling. It is a story which feels strangely familiar.
Ancient sites as temples in the woods or ritual sites seem to have an important place in our minds in many aspects. Perhaps it is a cultural heritage, perhaps the secret place in the woods is indeed a common archetypical image. But the ancient place is also not only connected with arcane rituals but as a point of transition into the otherworld and where men encounters the phenomenon of the others (the elves, the white people, the little greys) which does accompany us from the very beginnings. It is also a theme in The Forest Dark movie project where there is also an ancient plays which become an important setting in the story.
There was an interesting moment in regard of The White People. I wondered if I had read Arthur Machen’s short story perhaps a long time ago, because it felt so familiar. But I am sure this is not the case. It felt more like we come automatically across the same building blocks for stories if it comes to otherworldly journeys. Sure, we read all the same genre books and see the same movies, but there seems more to it. It is like connecting to the Otherworld itself, which in a sense is a storehouse of images. From time to time writers enter that storehouse of images and borough valuable images from there.
Peter Engelmann, 11.29.2022