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Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., 1924

January 21, 2013

Short Story: Arthur Machen (1863-1947) 

The Shining Pyramid

“I hate a mystery, and especially a mystery which is probably the veil of horror.”

Arthur Machen was a Welsh author and mystic who wrote short stories and short novels about the supernatural, fantasy, and horror. 

Most of his fiction beginning with the novella The Great God Pan (1890) is considered to be a classic. His reputation as one of the world’s most influential writers of horror has been confirmed by many who followed in his footsteps, including Stephen King, who is believed to have called The Great God Pan “Maybe the best (horror story) in the English language.” I have learned that this story, which I haven't as yet read, was criticised for its “decadent style” and “horrific and sexual content.” However, it didn’t stop Machen from writing more of the “degenerate” stuff.

Machen was quite prolific between 1890—when The Great God Pan first appeared in Whirlwind magazine before its publication as a book four years later—and 1936, the year he wrote at least one short story and a novella. He was then 73.

His short story, The Bowmen (1914), is widely believed to be the source of the ‘Angels of Mons’ myth during WWI. The myth pertains to a group of angels who protected British troops in the Battle of Mons at the start of the Great War. Later, this and other similar stories were published as The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War (1915).

Most of Arthur Manchen’s leading stories and novellas have been compiled into two volumes titled Tales of Horror and the Supernatural. Volume I & II have five and nine stories each. I have provided an index towards the end of this post.

I read just one story The Shining Pyramid (1895) in Volume 1. In this story, Dyson, a London-based writer and wannabe detective, accompanies his friend Vaughan to his country home surrounded by “ancient woods” to help investigate the sudden appearance of four mysterious objects and several eyes along the garden wall of the cottage.

The four objects made out of flints exhibit a curious pattern which, according to Dyson, represents the four signs of the Army, the Bowl, the Pyramid, and the Half-moon. Together, they make up an arrowhead and indicate something far sinister than meets the eye. Vaughan is scared. He realises that the signs are not the handiwork of school children passing by his house every day.

Dyson is convinced that the flint arrowhead is pointing toward something. His investigations take him and Vaughan into the deep and ancient woods, to a bowl in the earth, an infernal cauldron stirring and seething with horrors beyond imagination.

The Pyramid of Fire, as Dyson calls it, also solves the mysterious disappearance of a beautiful village girl called Annie Trevor who, a month before, had passed that way on her way to an aunt’s house and never came back.

“I don't regret our inability to rescue the wretched girl. You saw the appearance of those things that gathered thick and writhed in the Bowl; you may be sure that what lay bound in the midst of them was no longer fit for earth.”

Arthur Manchen writes in a style reminiscent of the period he lived in. The prose is smooth and uncomplicated but rich in substance. There is no urgency about the dialogue between Dyson and Vaughan: they might as well be conversing in a coffee house. Yet, neither the prose nor the dialogue diminishes the graveness of the horrific situation as it unfolds. The author’s description of the underworld in the bowl, the Pyramid of Fire, is not too explicit or macabre, but it’s enough to ignite your imagination. A sample:

“Then, it seemed done in an instant, the loathsome mass melted and fell away to the sides of the Bowl, and for a moment Vaughan saw in the middle of the hollow the tossing of human arms. But a spark gleamed beneath, a fire kindled, and as the voice of a woman cried out loud in a shrill scream of utter anguish and terror, a great pyramid of flame spired up like a bursting of a pent fountain, and threw a blaze of light upon the whole mountain. In that instant Vaughan saw the myriads beneath; the things made in the form of men but stunted like children hideously deformed, the faces with the almond eyes burning with evil and unspeakable lusts; the ghastly yellow of the mass of naked flesh; and then as if by magic the place was empty, while the fire roared and crackled, and the flames shone abroad.”

Verdict: highly readable and highly recommended.

Index to Tales of Horror and the Supernatural: Volume 1 & 2

Volume 1

1. Introduction by Philip Van Doren Stern
2. Arthur Machen by Robert Hillyer
3. The Great God Pan (1894), novella
4. The White People (1904,) novelette
5. The Inmost Light (1894), novelette
6. The Shining Pyramid (1895), novelette
7. The Great Return (1915), novelette

Volume 2

1. The Novel of the Black Seal (1895), novelette
2. The Novel of the White Powder (1895), short story
3. The Bowmen (1914), short story
4. The Happy Children (1920), short story
5. The Bright Boy (1936), novelette
6. Out of the Earth (1915), short story
7. N (1936), novelette
8. Children of the Pool (1936), short story
9. The Terror aka The Terror: A Mystery (1916), novel

Most of these stories are available online.

8 comments:

  1. Wow, I love those covers. I wish had those collections. I've read quite a few of these stories in other places but these look very cool together. Gotta see if I can find 'em.

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    1. Charles, I wish I had these collections too. I probably might find them at a used bookstore though I'd have to be incredibly lucky to do so. At least I have access to the stories online. I think there is a biography of Arthur Machen too.

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    2. I read the great god pan a while ago. It is very well done and scary.

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    3. Mel, I have read much about THE GREAT GOD PAN and I intend to read it soon. I believe it is really good.

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  2. Nicely reviewed. Reading Oliver Sachs' HALLUCINATIONS at the moment and noting the hallucinatory quality of the writing.

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    1. Thank you, Ron. I have never heard of Oliver Sachs or his book. I quite like the idea of the hallucinatory quality in writing. In THE SHINING PYRAMID, I wondered if Vaughan was, in fact, hallucinating about the objects in his garden.

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  3. You make a good case for me reading these although this I wouldn't normally give them ago. And unlike your other commenters I think the covers would put me off! I'll see if I can get hold of a copy of one of the books.

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    1. Sarah, I am a fairly new entrant to fantasy and horror fiction though I desist reading the more gory stuff. I enjoy reading the classics in this genre. Most of the stories contained in the two volumes are available free online. I hope you get to read some of them.

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