Hammett: And Machen

Around Xmas, as I was in the midst of that big reread of H. P. Lovecraft I alluded to a couple of times, I got the urge to do yet another reread on the Dyson stories by Arthur Machen — for me, for some reason, Machen is evocative of Xmas, with that whole London vibe he conjured up. And who knows, maybe there abides some ghost of a memory from my copy of The Three Impostors, which I’ve had since the mid-1970s, inscribed on the half title, “To Vee from Carlito/Christmas 1924/Venice, California” — a Knopf yellowback Machen, second printing dated August 1923.

Dyson is the Machen equivalent of Sherlock Holmes, more or less, and is featured in the novel The Three Impostors — the version in the novel a bit more a parody of the idle London bookman in search of esoteric adventure than the Dyson of the stories “The Red Hand” and “The Shining Pyramid.” It always seems as if there are more Dyson adventures than these, but like all Machen they blend in the mind with his other stories, with his autobiography. If you get into Machen, then you want the whole works. If you don’t get into Machen, well, it’s your loss, but then he’s not for every taste.

I only had time to reread the Dyson exploits this time, and was struck by a bit in the novel. There is a missing object, “a curious coin” — a gold Tiberius:

“I know about it. It is one of the comparatively few historical objects in existence; it is all storied like those jewels we have read of. A whole cycle of legend has gathered round the thing; the tales goes that it formed part of an issue struck by Tiberius to commemorate an infamous excess. You see the legend on the reverse: ‘Victoria.’ It is said that by an extraordinary accident the whole issue was thrown into the melting-pot, and that only this one coin escaped. It glints through history and legend, appearing and disappearing, with intervals of a hundred years in time, and continents in place. It was ‘discovered’ by an Italian humanist, and lost and rediscovered. It has not been heard of since 1727, when Sir Joshua Byrde, a Turkey merchant, brought it home from Aleppo, and vanished with it a month after he had shown it to the virtuosi, no man knew or knows where. And here it is!”

“Put it in your pocket, Dyson,” he said, after a pause. . . .

Reading that capsule summary of the history of the mysterious coin, I couldn’t help but wonder if Hammett had read it at some point and been inspired, even sub-consciously, to come up with something similar of his own, and landed on the idea of a jewel-crusted gold statue of a falcon from Malta.

Certainly Hammett was familiar with Machen, and gives him the nod for the idea behind the church cult in The Dain Curse, Chapter XII The Unholy Grail:

“They . . . rigged up a cult that pretended to be the revival of an old Gaelic church, dating from King Arthur’s time, or words to that effect.”

“Yes,” said Fitzstephan; “Arthur Machen’s. But go on.”

Machen was bigger on the Holy Grail than Chandler was on sleep.

While today Machen may not be on the radar of most readers, in the 1920s he himself became a cult of sorts, the many Knopf yellowback editions making him something of a bestseller, and a writer known to other writers. I once did a small piece for the fanzine Crypt of Cthulhu where I pointed out how Anaïs Nin wrote about how she and Henry Miller discussed the Machen novel The Hill of Dreams in bed, after sex. Trust me, in the years before Hammett began writing his own novels, Machen was generally well-known, and I’d bet that Hammett read more than just one or two of his books. And of course also ended up with Alfred A. Knopf when his own novels went to hard covers.

My own collection of Machen’s work is somewhat ragtag, acquired to have reading copies on hand. I have thirteen of the small hardbacks Knopf published in yellow boards. None have dustjackets. On some the blue pastedown title label on the spine is still blue, on most it is sun-faded to a brownish grey, on one it is scraped off entirely. Some are first edition Knopfs, but if I landed a fourth or sixth printing, that served.

As mentioned above, the novel The Three Imposters, which also includes “The Red Hand” to fill out the volume, is marked as a second printing. But my Knopf of The Shining Pyramid is a 1925 first (I also have the 1923 Covici-McGee The Shining Pyramid edited by Vincent Starrett, on my Starrett shelf).

It had slipped my mind that the Knopf of Pyramid once belonged to a circulating library in the Mark Hopkins Hotel, which made it that much more interesting an item when I bought it — personally, I enjoy stamps and bookplates in used books. No question that at least this one copy, among no doubt hundreds more, was floating around San Francisco when Hammett was living here:

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