Review: “The Shining Pyramid”, Arthur Machen, 1895, 1926.
It’s not only the last of Machen’s stories about writer and pseudo-detective Dyson, but it also decisively ends an era of Machen’s literary career.
Like all the Dyson stories, it’s told in a series of episodes. The story was first published in 1895 and slightly revised for a 1925 publication. As usual in this series, editor S. T. Joshi went with Machen’s preferred version.
In “The Arrow-Head Character”, Dyson and his friend Vaughn are discussing the latter’s recent trip to the country.
They haven’t seen each other in three years, and Vaughn came to see Dyson right after getting off his train in London. He speaks of a haunting and invites Dyson out to the country. Dyson likes London in September. It’s exciting, and he doesn’t want to leave.
Vaughn says the country isn’t always peaceful. It has its mysteries. For instance, Annie Trevor, a beautiful girl, disappeared walking to her aunt’s house about five or six miles away. There were no pits to fall into or cliffs to fall off along the way. The villagers, “bad as the Irish” in their superstitions, have an explanation involving fairies.
Vaughn thinks Annie fell in with “scoundrels” since Castletown, a port, is not that far away. Some of those sailors are “hardly human”. However, Vaughn admits no stranger was found in the area.
But Vaughn isn’t there to talk of Annie. His mystery is something that happened to him about a month ago. (Reference is made to Vaughn’s last visit when Dyson discovered the importance of some “peculiar yellow spectacles” in a police matter. This is the only time in the series we ever hear anything close to Dyson acting like a regular or occult detective.)
One day, while out walking, Vaughn found “twelve little stones neatly arranged in lines and spaced at equal distances” on the path. He saw the stones, arrowheads, again the next morning, but they were then arranged like a wheel with the points all directed to the same place. The next day, the stones were in the form of a pyramid. When he returned later, they were arranged like a half moon.
There were children in the area, but they didn’t seem to pay any attention to the stones. Vaughn thought the rocks were some kind of signal, and he was uneasy and feared someone was after his valuable silver plate. He thought maybe the wheel symbol referred to it, and that the pyramid might point to the shape of the cabinet where his valuable punch-bowl is.
Dyson doesn’t have a clue what was going on though asks about the area’s geology. Limestone and old red sandstone, Vaughn tells him so there are no local sources for the flint arrowheads Vaughn saw.
Dyson looks at one of the arrowheads. The design is unlike any he’s seen. (This would seem a logical place to bring in Phillipps, a character in earlier Dyson stories, given his interest in arrowheads, but Machen doesn’t do that.) Dyson agrees to go with Vaughn to the country.
In “The Eyes on the Wall”, Vaughn takes Dyson to where he found the stones. Dyson notices a block of limestone rising out of the turf beneath a nearby wall and also a deep red mark on the wall. It looks like an eye (the evil eye was a motif in the earlier Dyson story “The Red Hand”). However, the eye is almond shaped. It seems unlikely a child would draw an eye like that though it is at the right height for a ten-year old child to draw.
Dyson rejects the notion anyone is after Vaughn’s silver plate. Asking about gypsies in the neighborhood, he’s told gypsies never show up there.
The next morning, there is another drawing of the eye on the wall. Dyson points out that both the drawings and the arrangements of the arrowheads had to be done at night. That would require good night vision since both areas are shaded by trees.
The next section is “The Search for the Bowl” and those arrangements of rocks have become symbols. It begins with Dyson and Vaughn happening to pass Trevor, Annie’s father.
Dyson spends a day mulling over some suspicions and announces to Vaughn that he’s going to look for the Bowl, and he doesn’t mean a punchbowl, and the next day he sets off.
Walking several miles into the country, taking the path Annie did the day she disappeared, Dyson comes across a depression. It seems to be the remains of a Roman amphitheater with the “ugly crags of limestone rimmed it round”. Dyson has found the Bowl. Now he wants to find the Pyramid.
Appropriately, the next section is “The Secret of the Pyramid”.
One night, Dyson takes Vaughn for a stroll at about 9 PM.
He thinks he’s solved the puzzle, but, in the typical way these things work, Dyson isn’t going to tell Vaughn his conclusions yet.
They walk some distance and then suddenly Dyson urges quiet, and they leave the path to conceal themselves.
Vaughn recognizes where they are. He calls it a supposed “fairies’ castle”. It’s the Bowl.
They lay quiet in the dark for a long time until they finally hear a soft noise from the Bowl. They look down into it.
It seems to “stir and seethe like an infernal cauldron”, and it’s filled with vague forms hissing like snakes in some language. They have human like faces and limbs, but Dyson knows “no fellow soul or human thing” is there. It is almost described in terms of an orgy where limbs “writhe and intertwine”.
The forms seem to cluster around something in the middle then move off to the side. A fire is started, and the voice of a woman screaming in “utter anguish and terror” is heard, a pyramid of fire forms in the bowl.
Around it are
. . . 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 . . .
That, says Dyson, is the Pyramid.
In the concluding section, “The Little People”, Dyson shows Vaughn a brooch and confirms it was Annie’s. Vaughn asks him if he’s found the girl.
“You have not forgotten about last night already?”, replies Dyson.
Vaughn doesn’t want to think about they saw, says it was all a delusion. The mystery is over as far as Vaughn is concerned. The drawings on the wall are gone.
Dyson tells Vaughn it’s no use pretending last night never happened, “we have gone too deep”. Dyson found the brooch in the Bowl among a heap of ashes.
He had the idea the symbol of the bowl might refer to a place of secret assembly. If this was Ireland, China, or the American west he would have suspected a secret society or vigilantes (hearkening back to “Novel of the Dark Valley” in The Three Impostors). But this is a quiet part of England so Dyson thought of local fairy lore.
He thinks it probable fairies “represent a tradition of the prehistoric Turanian inhabitants of the country, who were cave dwellers”. He put that together with the probable height of the people drawing those pictures. That limestone stub around Vaughn’s house may have been part of a meeting place “before the Celt set foot in Britain”.
Dyson doesn’t regret they couldn’t rescue Annie, and the two don’t seem to report her fate to the authorities or Annie’s family. Thus
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.
The little people have returned to “the places beneath the hills”.
Are we to think Annie was raped? Possibly, but killing her right away wouldn’t reproduce the little people. Perhaps she was mutilated.
It’s an effective story, better structured than Machen’s “The Red Hand” and more convincing. Unlike that story and the “Novel of the Black Seal”, we actually get to see the Little People here.
It should be noted that Machen depicts the little people differently in all three tales. In “Novel of the Black Seal”, it is implied they have some very inhuman abilities and can possibly alter their shape greatly given the evidence in Professor Gregg’s study. We get no physical description of them and little about their actions in “The Red Hand”.