Thursday, May 18, 2023

"The Shining Pyramid" Centenary

    The 1923 Covici-McGee cover
The Shining Pyramid, by Arthur Machen, edited from Machen’s previously uncollected journalism by Vincent Starrett and published in May 1923 in Chicago by Covici-McGee, is a landmark book, both for good and bad reasons. Of the good reasons, it was important in the development of Machen’s popularity in America. Of the bad reasons, it precipitated the end of the friendship between the author and the editor. And as a title, it is easily confused with Machen’s own selection titled The Shining Pyramid and published by Martin Secker of London in 1925, which has very different contents, as is discussed below.

A detailed account of this complicated history can be found in the small press volume Starrett versus Machen: A Record of Discovery and Correspondence (St. Louis: Autolycus Press, 1977), which was limited to 500 numbered copies. (An overview appears online as “Vincent Starrett: Disciple or Thief?” here.) But let me recount here only the burying of the hachet.

After The Shining Pyramid appeared in May 1923 in an edition limited to  875 copies,  for which neither Machen nor Starrett were paid, a second volume, The Glorious Mystery, came out in Chicago from Covici-McGee in April 1924, again composed of similar Machen matieral collected by Starrett.

The burying of the hatchet occurred later in 1924 when Starrett visited England, and Machen left this account of their meeting:

 Mr. Vincent Starrett called on me in London a few weeks ago. I submitted to him three propositions:

1) It was very silly of me to say in 1918: ‘You may do what you like with my old stuff.’

2) It was wrong of me not to recollect this saying in 1924.

3) It was very wrong of you to make two books of this ‘old stuff’ without consulting me as to the contents.

Upon seeing this account, which was an inscription Machen wrote in a copy of The Shining Pyramid, Starrett noted that it was “an accurate statement of what occurred between Machen and me when I visited him in 1924. He added at that time one word: ‘Curtain!’, and we shook hands and drank to the conclusion of our quarrel.” But the two men went their separate ways afterwards, and Machen later expressed some lingering hostility.  

 1923 Wallace Smith illustration

But what of the contents of the book itself?  The Shining Pyramid consists of some twenty-two tales and essays, several of which date from late 1880s and early 1890s, and a few come from the late 1910s. Thirteen essays come from 1907-08, when Machen wrote regularly for The Academy, then edited by Lord Alfred Douglas. One essay (“The Capital Levy”) was even unpublished—it was printed from a manuscript that Machen gave to Starrett. Wallace Smith contributed an interior illustration.

The short stories and fiction are probably the most significant items. These include “The Shining Pyramid” (1895), “Out of the Earth” (1915), “The Lost Club” (1890), “The Wonderful Woman” (1890), and three pieces (1907-08) —“In Convertendo,” “The Hidden Mysery” and “The Martyr” — all  being salvaged from the original ending of The Secret Glory (published in 1922 but written in 1907) and not used in the published book (Machen described such pieces as “wreckage”).  

Starrett’s second volume, The Glorious Mystery, contains twenty-eight pieces, one written not by Machen but by Alfred Nutt, in reply to something by Machen (which also appears herein, along with Machen’s rebuttal to Nutt). Only two items are fiction: “The Iron Maid,” an 1890 version of what became a section in some editions of The Three Imposters (1895), notably omitted from the 1923 U.S. edition; and “The Rose Garden,” a stray 1908 publication collected in Ornaments in Jade (1924), Four essays come from periodicals from 1910-1920, but the bulk of the essays, some twenty in total, come from The Academy, 1907-08, as described above. 

After Starrett’s second compilation was published, Machen made a one-volume selection published by Martin Secker in London under the title The Shining Pyramid, confusing things bibliographically. It was published in an edition limited to 250 signed copies in December 1924, and in a trade edition in February 1925. (A U.S. edition, made from sheets printed in Great Britain, published in April 1925 by Alfred A. Knopf of New York further confuses bibliographical matters.) Machen’s selection amounts to only eight items from Starrett’s two books. The fiction includes “The Shining Pyramid”; “Out of the Earth”; “The Happy Children”; and two of the three pieces aborted from the original ending of The Secret Glory (“In Convertendo” and “The Martyr” but not “The Hidden Mystery”). “The Secret of the Sangraal” is expanded from the version in The Glorious Mystery (itself reprinted from The Academy, 1907). “The Mystic Speech” is a retitling of “A Secret Language” in The Glorious Mystery. The final item (“Educated and the Uneducated”) came from The Shining Pyramid.

So, in the end, we are left to celebrate here Machen’s writings in the context of a confusing controversy from one hundred years ago. The controversy is long dead, but the writings live.


  1. Thanks, Doug, for the concise summary of the Starrett-Machen quarrel. I wonder if Machen was so upset with Starrett because he was already negotiating with Knopf and was worried that Starrett's collections would undermine a deal that would, in fact, leads to his "rediscovery." After all, Knopf went on to publish a half a dozen Machen during the mid to late 1920s.
    By the way, Henry Wessells is chairing a panel at this year's Readercon on Machen in 1923. I hope to be on it. --md

    1. Thanks, Michael. I do suspect Machen's hopes with Knopf were involved in the background of the quarrel. The Readercon panel sounds great. Wish I were heading there.... Doug