Lord Dunsany Re-Read: A Dreamer’s Tales, Part 3

dreamer's talesThis Friday brings us the third installment of our read through of a Lord Dunsany short story collection, A Dreamer’s Tales. My friends Bill Ward and C.S.E. Cooney have joined me once again to share thoughts. You can join in too — this book’s stories not only are quite short, they’re freely available as a Kindle download or through Project Gutenberg. It won’t take very long to catch up if you haven’t read them yet, so you might want to do so before you read any further.

This week we tackled four stories, “The Idle City,” “The Hashish Man,” “Poor Old Bill,” and “The Beggars.” We have a pretty simple review scale. One star is a standout and two stars is truly great.

I wish I could say I deliberately planned the creepiest stories from Lord Dunsany we’ve yet encountered to fall on Halloween, but it is just a happy chance. Unfortunately, this is my least favorite batch so far. Of the four, I felt like only “The Hashish Man” truly stood out, and I accordingly award it one star.

hashish man“The idle City” is a neat idea, but short as it is I thought it a trifle long, an interesting little experiment that could surely have been improved if it had more of a story. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like reading masses of cool description that don’t build to anything. That said, I think the final paragraph is first class, and I wish it concluded a better tale.

“The Hashish Man” is a weird little sequel to “Bethmoora” from our first week. It’s set in the real world, with Lord Dunsany himself appearing as the narrator. He has a perfectly rational conversation with a complete lunatic. It’s bizarre and funny and horrific and a little weird, and just the right length. I absolutely love that the hashish man politely excuses himself before hopping out the window.

“Poor Old Bill” is probably the first straight-up horror story we’ve read in the collection, complete with pirates, cannibals, curses, and eternal life. With all that in a few short pages you’d think I’d have remembered it better. I’m afraid, though, that it just didn’t really like it much. I’m probably not being fair to this one, but then I’ve never been much of a straight horror reader. Perhaps one of you will explain to me why it’s a classic or call out bits of brilliance I missed.

Despite having read it only a few days ago, I’m finding myself having to flip through the pages to even remind myself what happened in “The Beggars,” which is a pretty bad sign. I will say that on review I do very much like this: “Blessed be the houses, because men dream therein.” Likewise I enjoy the greeting “Be wonderful. Be full of mystery.” But as a story… it does little for me.

lorddunsany3Bill, what’s your take?

I would have to agree with you, Howard, about this latest batch. Some effective and interesting weird fiction, but I suspect we both prefer Dunsany in secondary world mode. How about you, Claire?

Claire: Bill, I think I prefer Dunsany when he tells stories. In either world!

Bill: “The Idle City” * I really liked the premise of a city that charges stories as tolls for entry, all so that a grieving King could find some consolation. I share the frustration that all of the interesting elements herein could have built a better story, but I’m not totally convinced the several nested tales we are treated to are necessarily unrelated to the larger story — but it seems more of a tantalizing promise. I at least could make no real connections. I am a sucker for stories within stories however, and I feel like this one will benefit from a second reading.

“The Hashish Man” * Dunsany getting a bit metafictional, confronting a lunatic who has visions of one of his own stories or, at least, into the mutual world of dream that inspires both fiction and madness. I really like the hashish-related countermeasures the Bethmoorans take against the ethereal visitor: gobbling hash by the spoonful in order to enter the same visionary state and scare him off.

“Poor Old Bill” Nautical weird tale, with some great descriptive passages. The premise of a crew trying to out-survive their former Captain and his lingering curse is great. Enjoyable enough, but not memorable by Dunsany standards.

“The Beggars” I suspect would reward a second reading, but I found it hard to enjoy and somewhat ambiguous. Some great imagery (all the beggars in the colored cloaks) and weirdness, but nothing about the piece really elevated the idea beyond sort of the standard weird fiction approach.

hashishman2Still, even minor stuff from a major talent feels satisfying, and mostly any comparison I’m making with these pieces is between Lord Dunsany and himself.

Howard: I think I’m doing the same thing, Bill. All of it’s of interest; it’s just some of these tales succeed better than others. Claire?

“The Idle City”: Howard, I can totally see what you mean about this story being a little experiment gone, if not wrong, then LONG. I myself would have snipped every reference to “cloud vapors” and “earth mist” right out. My eyes started to cross at that point. But you know what? I liked the cats. I like how they consider a miracle of fish falling from the sky their miracle. (More like their right.)

Lord Dunsany has this ineffable way of building up worlds I want very much to play in, and then just sort of leaving them empty, or populated with extras. No main characters. He’s more of a travel documentarian of his own internal dreamscapes than he is a storyteller. And the two things that got me most about this story occurred at the beginning and the ending, and were sewn of the same gut, I think. I loved that this indolent, idle city, where people waited at the gate to tell stories, was in fact not so idle as it seemed. That the great machinery of this city operated solely so that its grief-stricken king might sleep and forget, a while, his dead wife. That stories were, in fact, medicine. And that the city and its citizens so loved their king that it would take as tribute tales from near and far, and turn them into something healing.

ozyThe second thing, then, was, as you stated, the very last line. It centered around the King of Thebes, and called to mind (though Dunsany is bit gentler in phrasing) Shelley’s poem Ozymandias: “‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.” For these two kings, I give this story one star.

Howard: That happens to be one of my favorite poems, and perhaps the only one I still have memorized. Both of you paid more heed to an important feature of this tale than I did — that the tales are meant to console the king. You have me wondering if I could reconsider my own evaluation. Anyway, back to you, Claire.

“Hashish Man:”   For that little glimpse of Dunsany as a writer, as he’s groping to find a gracious way to acknowledge a fan who’s been “drinking from the bowl of dreams” a bit too deeply, I sort of love this story. “I said, ‘Oh, yes,’ and slowly searched in my mind for some more fitting acknowledgement of the compliment that his memory had paid me.” (JE T’AIME, DUNSANY!)

pooroldbillWhat I loved too was this idea of two kinds of dreamers: natural dreamers and (in a way) artificial dreamers. Dunsany visits Bethmoora through the active exercise of imagination; the hashish man through his drugs. I loved the idea that these two kinds of dreamers can come to a consensual imaginary world, though to one it is a reality that needs to be revisited, that concerns the dreamer enough that he’ll take hashish two days in a row, even knowing it’s not good for him, and rush out of his job at the insurance agency, and even leave his door unlocked “in case of accidents” just to return there and check up on things. His description of hashish is also marvelous–and funny. It made me snort, though there was sadness in it too. “It takes one literally out of oneself. It is like wings. You swoop over distant countries and into other worlds. Once I found out the secret of the universe. I have forgotten what it was, but I know that the Creator does not take creation seriously…”

And then, I loved this–probably more than any other passage in the story: “And I met a huge grey shape that was the Spirit of some great people, perhaps of a whole star…” That fired up my imagination. A great star-dwelling people. Or stars as people. The spirit of a dead sentient star. I mean, JEEZ! I feel I ought to give this a star because of the aforementioned star.

“Poor Old Bill:” It was difficult for me to pay proper attention to this one, but little phrases flashed out. The opening line. “On an antique haunt of sailors, a tavern of the sea, the light of day was fading.” Doesn’t that just SLAM you into place. Except, once he gets you there, you just sit about and listen to another Ancient Mariner tell his wild-eyed tale. I suppose there’s a fine tradition of this sort of thing, but dang. I was ready to DO something. Seduce mermen or battle sea ghosts. Something vital. Something RIGHT THEN. But instead, Dunsany keeps us in a tavern and then tells a tale, putting us at a remove from the action of the story. We’re in the tavern. The STORY is in the sailor’s mouth.

Rainbow-Parrot-Fish.jpgOh, but don’t you love this? “Both stars and fishes went about their businesses with cold, unastonished eyes.” I couldn’t give a rat’s patooty about Poor Old Bill himself, but I’d give something for a Captain with the superpower of sending the souls of his mutineers to the moon. If only that had been LITERAL instead of poetic device. The part about turning into cannibals and drawing lots was nicely understated, in a way that I found funny rather than horrific. But then, there could be something terribly, terribly wrong with me. I always preferred my horror to have the humorous element to it. It’s why I liked The Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy so much. No star, Lord Dunsany, dear. No offense.

“The Beggars:”   You know, I wasn’t even looking forward to reading this one, but then… Then that opening line again! Dude, this guy has the power. The punch. Or maybe I just recognize a kindred spirit when I meet him. “I was walking down Piccadilly not long ago, thinking of nursery rhymes and regretting old romance.” KILLER! Possibly I’ve been melancholy recently, what with fall and old romances and all, but this one really got me.

The colors of the text are autumnal. “The merchants of London, they wear scarlet” contrasted with the next line “The streets were all so unromantic, dreary. Nothing could be done for them, I thought–nothing.” And then, a second slam into the story. “All the beggars had come to town.”

dreamer's tales oldI love the narrator imagining the kind of coin he’d like to give this colorful array of beggars, thinking it unfitting to “offer the same coin as one tendered for the use of a taxicab (O marvelous, ill-made word, surely the pass-word somewhere of some evil order.)” HA! That was delightful. As was the description of the beggars, and this lovely end-cap, “And they begged gracefully, as gods might beg for souls.” Wham. That sent me straightway into story-brain. Gods as beggars of the soul. Wham.

Reading on… Things I liked: Lamposts as lighthouses in the tides of night. “There were many wrecks an it were not for thee.” “Blessed be the houses, for men dream therein.” “The smoke that has stifled Romance and blackened the birds.” And I like, too, oh VERY MUCH, that Dunsany’s colorful beggars, Dunsany’s graceful gods of the soul, are walking through this dreary, dirty town and blessing it. The town that has become so vile that Dunsany cannot see its beauty any more, they are making sacred again. There is something very cathartic in their procession, like Morris Men dancing up the dawn on Spring Equinox. “Even thus they blessed the gutter, and I felt no whim to mock.” No, I feel no whim to mock either, Dunsany. There is a sweetness in this story that is more like ritual than narrative. It makes me breathe a little cleaner. It’s as if the story says to me too, the dreary vile me that broods and dwells, “Be wonderful. Be full of mystery.” So, yeah. I’ll give it a star.

Alright, those are our thoughts. We look forward to hearing what any of you have to say on the pieces. Next week we’ll look at only two, another longer one (so don’t wait ‘til the last minute) “Carcassonne,” and a short one, “In Zaccarath.” There are only a few more left after that. As some of my favorite military men said, “we’re getting very near the end.”

10 Comments on “Lord Dunsany Re-Read: A Dreamer’s Tales, Part 3

  1. I’m in agreement with the three of you about “The Idle City”. It didn’t seem to work for me, although I think the basic concept of a city that requires stories as tax in a good one. I especially liked the bit about the stories being used to heal the king of his grief. I wanted to know more about how his wife had died.

    “The Hashish Man” was my favorite. It’s being a sequel to “Bethmoora” was a nice surprise. The way hashish was used as a weapon was a cool and logical use of how hashish had been established. I thought the ending was a bit abrupt, but that was its point. I never found out everything that happened to the hashish man, which left me wanting more.

    “Poor Old Bill” was okay. Claire points out that having the sailor tell the story to a group in a tavern, with someone other than the sailor being the narrator of the opening and closing paragraphs adds a level of removal from the story for the reader. I completely agree. There are some intriguing things happening in this story along with some powerful imagery. Unfortunately the distance Dunsany puts between the events and the reader with the structure he employs weakens the tale.

    “The Beggars”. Not much to say about this one. I wasn’t able to get into it sufficiently to stave off drowsiness. A reread when I’m more alert is probably called for.

    • I think you and Claire are right about “Poor Old Bill” — and I think you both put your finger on one of the central problem. We’re removed from the story, even mores than usual in a Lord Dunsany tale, because of that narrator.

  2. Yeah, Keith, I think coming to The Beggars when you’re alert but in a kind of dismal mood that needs cheering up would be a good thing. It will make you want to put on a red coat and go jumping in leaf puddles maybe, but that’s a danger we all must face after a good Dunsafying.

  3. Like everyone else, I’m in agreement about these stories. I found wonderful writing and images in all of them, but the only one I really liked was “The Hashish Man.” I’m pretty sure if I could determine he was properly bonded I’d use the narrator as my insurance agent. I’m not sure what it says about me but I liked the cut of his jib. 😉

    I appreciated the structure of “The Idle City” as an excuse to present what felt like sketches Dunsany thought were too nifty to discard but too insubstantial to develop further. But, as a story it fails.

    The description of the island in “Old Bill” was unsettling. I loved individual bits of “The Beggars” but they didn’t congeal effectively for me.

    • I agree about the narrator of “The Hashish Man.” If that’s Lord Dunsany playing himself, I think he would have been a fine fellow to sit down with.

      • I meant to the Hashish man himself, not narrator. “I work in an insurance office all day, and I hope you won’t forget me if ever you want to insure—life, fire, or motor—but that’s no part of my story,” is a brilliant line in the midst of the psychedelic reminiscences.

        • Ah! Yeah, that’s a pretty wonderful touch of the mundane mixed in amongst all the madness! Imagine walking in to that fellow’s office to talk to him about some car insurance and have him start babbling about the Madness of Andelsprutz or something.

  4. Maybe its because I’ve had no experience with Dunsany’s work or just that I’m a terrible critical reader anyway, but everything I’ve read thus far is leaving me smitten with the guy. I find myself maybe even liking the ones that arent really “story-shape” better than some of those that are.

    There’s a dreamlike quality to them that is fantastic in every sense. Like I’ve woken too quickly and things are still bouncing around in my head and there gaps and loose pieces and parts that don’t quite fit together, but there’s an undeniable beauty to it, the sense of something wider and deeper that is always just out of reach.
    Also, of all the stories thus far I see the influence on HPL most strongly in these, especially the Dream Cycle stuff.

    • His prose is enchanting, a wonderful mix of half-remembered dream and vague memory of fable. Some people are completely turned off by him and claim his prose difficult, but I think that if you’re open to him you can get swept away.

      There’s something a little amazing in almost all of his short stories. I think Bill said it best, and he certainly speaks for me in this regard. Even minor stories from such a master are a grand experience and I’m really only comparing the stories to others by Dunsany himself. Their excellence is part of the reason we devised such a simple scale. Even “standard” Dunsany is pretty remarkable. You’ll notice we have no minuses, just standouts and ones we think are truly amazing — pieces that honestly every fantasy reader should consume, maybe even everyone who reads…

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