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The Dunsany Horror

Dunsany4,608 words

Lord Dunsany (Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany)
The Curse of the Wise Woman
London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1933
Richmond, Va.: Valancourt, 2014 (Valancourt 20th Century Classics, with a new introduction by Mark Valentine)

“How would some townsman feel who loved his city, and knew that a band of farmers with their ploughs threatened his very pavements and would tear his high buildings down? As he would feel, fearing that turnips would thrive where his busses ran, so I felt and feared for Lisronagh.”

“Inventor of a new mythology and weaver of surprising folklore, Lord Dunsany stands dedicated to a strange world of fantastic beauty . . . unexcelled in the sorcery of crystalline singing prose, and supreme in the creation of a gorgeous and languorous world of incandescently exotic vision. No amount of mere description can convey more than a fraction of Lord Dunsany’s pervasive charm.” — H.P. Lovecraft

Every reader of H. P. Lovecraft, at some point, comes across an encomium of and recommendation to read this Lord Dunsany chap. Some, like myself, may have actually made the attempt to run down some of his “unexcelled” writings so as to take in some of that “pervasive charm.” More than a few, I console myself, have had the same reaction: boredom.

Speaking for myself, the problem lies right there in the “new mythology” angle. Dunsany, or His Lordship, or whatever you’re supposed to call him,[1] seemed to think that his new mythology called for an old idiom,[2] and availed himself of the mode I’ve dubbed Biblical Misunderstood (or, in its more modern version, Hemingway Importance), in which the idiom of the King James Bible is emulated,[3] not by imitating or reproducing the admittedly impressive literary work, but by aping the more easily mimicked tropes arising concerns not literary but theological—the desire to not “take away a jot or tittle” from God’s Word by literally reproducing the archaic and, frankly, poverty-stricken surface structure of Hebrew and Koine (or Greek Ebonics). The most obvious example being the use of “and” as an endlessly reiterated conjunction, without understanding that the Hebrew vav needs to be translated by any number of English conjunctions and syntactic structures (such as merely marking a shift from perfect to imperfect in form with no change of meaning).[4]

So you get stuff like this, the opening of the Gods of Pegana that impressed Lovecraft so much:

And it has been said of old that all things that have been were wrought by the small gods, excepting only Māna-Yood-Sushāī, who made the gods and hath thereafter rested.

And none may pray to Māna-Yood-Sushāī but only the gods whom he hath made.

But at the Last will Māna-Yood-Sushāī forget to rest, and will make again new gods and other worlds, and will destroy the gods whom he hath made.

And the gods and the worlds shall depart, and there shall be only Māna-Yood-Sushāī.

And on and on, reams of the stuff. You can read it for yourself for free online.[5] As always, your mileage may vary. But I say it’s spinach, and I say to Hell (or Pegana) with it.[6]

Strangely enough, I don’t feel the same ennui with Lovecraft, even in his explicitly “Dunsanian” tales, nor Clark Ashton Smith’s prose poems.[7] Perhaps it’s not so much the prose style as the sense that Dunsany is just swanning around, writing portentous stuff without anything serious to say.

Mr. de Camp’s definition of Dunsany a tales as “children’s fairy tales but on a sophisticated adult level” is a very apt one. What saves Smith’s tales from becoming such, despite their outward trappings, is the extraordinarily intense conviction of belief and the depth of feeling they carry. Such conviction of belief and such depth of feeling are usually lacking in Dunsany, who seems to have the air of a worldly-wise and ingenious raconteur relating agreeable entertainments to a sophisticated audience. This is true not only of Dunsany’s later Jorkens tall tales but even of much of his earlier and more sincerely intended prose, wherein Dunsany’s creation of an elaborate mythology often appears to be an ingenious game, a game which doesn’t evoke deep emotions in the reader.[8]

After all, even Lovecraft became bored with it. As usual, Joshi gives us the skinny:

I think Lovecraft saw in Dunsany what he wanted to see. In 1917, he had initiated (albeit in a tentative and sporadic fashion) a literary career emphasizing supernatural horror in the manner of Poe. In 1919, he encountered in Dunsany a writer who appeared to be in many ways antipodal to Poe in his focus on an otherworldly realm. Lovecraft, to be sure, sensed that that otherworldly realm was in large part a symbol for real-world concerns, but at that time in his life he (Lovecraft) was seeking an “escape from life” (as he would term it much later)—perhaps because his own life had had a number of shakeups (his inability to graduate from high school, the illness of his mother, his inability to secure gainful employment). The pure, pristine exoticism of Dunsany was just what he sought at the time.

By 1926, after two hellish years in New York culminating in a glorious return to Providence, he was ready to reaffirm his devotion to historical realism. Lovecraft creatively misread Dunsany at this time as one who himself sought an “escape from life,” when Dunsany’s own work was moving in a largely realistic direction in which the fantastic element was reduced almost to the vanishing point, as in The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933). Paradoxically, Lovecraft’s statement that “Dunsany is myself” would have been more true in 1933 than in 1923, when he made the statement.[9]

Why looky there, The Curse of the Wise Woman; I bet you thought I’d forgotten about the book under review. We’ve emphasized in our own writings on Lovecraft that the horrific effects in his later, post-Dunsany work arise, paradoxically, precisely from his “historical realism” or rather the suffocating accumulation of such precise detail.[10] It would appear that, ironically enough, Dunsany himself was moving away from his gormless airy-fairy toward a more “this-worldly” kind of writing.[11]

Thanks, once again, to Valancourt Books’ dedication to reprinting now-obscure works of Gothic, horror, and all-around mid-century Brit Lit, we can now see if Dunsany, like Lovecraft, became more readable at last. The Curse of the Wise Woman is indeed a fine work recommended to all of us here who are more interested in the real issues of politics, religion, and the return of the pagan past than escapism.

Apparently, Yeats — himself no slouch in the airy-fairy department — had challenged Dunsany to write something really “Irish.” The result was the book under review, which was suitably “Irish” enough to win the Harmsworth Award for the best work of imaginative prose by an Irish author, as well as raising him from associate to full Member of the Irish Academy of Letters.

This is of some significance, since Dunsany, like Swift or Beckett, belonged to the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, and was somewhat suspect in the Irish Free State; although these were the people who settled North America (the “Scots-Irish” of the milk carton Presidents cards of my youth), later immigration, along with IRA propaganda, has led most Americans to think of the Irish as one big group of jolly lads persecuted by the horrible Brits, with a few homegrown quislings to be dealt with later.

Here’s how an earlier publisher sums it up:

After his father’s interference in Irish politics ends with a band of killers arriving on Christmas night to assassinate him, young Charles Peridore finds himself master of the estate. During idyllic school holidays, Charles enjoys riding to hounds and hunting geese and snipe while his friend Tommy Marlin tells stories of Tir-nan-Og, the land of eternal youth that lies just beyond the bog. But when Progress arrives in the form of an English corporation determined to convert the landscape into factories and housing, it appears that an entire way of life is destined to vanish. Only one thing stands in the way: the sorcery of an old witch, whose curses the English workers do not even believe in.

About a little over a third of the way through Dunsany – or his narrator – stops to ruminate on what kind of task he’s set for himself:

I had set out to write down memories of an Ireland fast passing away, so that something might remain of it, if only on shelves where books sleep, and are seldom disturbed, and dust gathers softly as the days and the years go by; of hunts that led a field of over two hundred and a hundred men in red coasts where now there are twenty or thirty out at the most, and five red coast to be seen; and of the life of an Irish gentleman on his estate. Briefly, I meant . . . to do the little that a wandering pen may do to check the flight to oblivion of pleasures and occupations that Ireland knew once so abundantly.

The difficulty is that,

I wondered if all that dome of sky, just washed, as it seemed to have been, with liquid gold, and the moon and its mountains, and the dark hills of Earth, and all the awe and the mystery that seemed floating between the two, were the real and vital things, as every emotion seemed to be telling me, or whether truth walked only in paths that the reason could follow. Well, I never worked it out and I cannot now. I’ll write down facts instead, there is never any difficulty with them.

That last bit must be Dunsany’s ironic touch; for the narrator constantly finds that the “facts” keep mutating, or rather, that the more attention you pay to them, the more likely Something Else seems to rise out of them, or burst through them. That was what Lovecraft eventually discovered, explaining the “weirdness through thoroughgoing realism” method of his classic, post-Dunsany works.

Near the very end, our narrator summarizes his tale as containing

Only three things that, if I could sketch, I could sit and draw to-day in detail just as exact as any artist with this model before him. And the first of these three things is Laura standing in her rock garden, and the second is the four men kneeling before me, covering me with their pistols, when I held up the crystal cross, and the third is the dark outline of Mrs. Marlin kneeling in the dark night and stretching out her hands to the bog and beseeching it, but proudly, as though she and it and the North wind and the storm were four equal powers. If I wrote any more of my life I should have to exert a tired memory . . .

Now, Laura’s story is a somewhat incidental to the story’s interest, if not the narrator’s, of course. The main events are what lead up to and from the four men kneeling, and Mrs. Marlin, the titular Wise Woman.

For a book written eighty years ago, in the United Kingdom, during the Great Depression, it seems to be surprisingly up to date. It starts with a literal bang, as the young protagonist’s father, an Irish politician, is subject to an assassination attempt. Admittedly, the Irish Troubles seem to be over, but such events are still common enough in the world, and post-911 Americans are supposedly on edge about terror, at least of the fictional kind.

This supplies a kind of conventional, “thriller” aspect to the novel; it also supplies a thread that connects the two great concerns, and corresponding literary set-pieces — hunting (first Charles out shooting snipe and such on the bog with his peasant friend, Tommy Marlin, and then a grand fox hunt of all the community), which eventually shifts to the confrontation of pagan ritual and modern industrialization, in the person of Mrs. Marlin.

The literal thread itself is the unidentified “man in the black coat,” one of the four gunmen who seems to take an interest in Charles, giving advice on shooting (men and birds) when leaving Charles in search of his father, and popping up periodically to offer advice and offers of help, eventually determining Charles’ later career; he’s sort of a combination of Emil Sinclair’s two contrasting mentors, Fritz Kromer and Max Demian.

But even here Dunsany is having some fun with the “fantasy” genre. The boy home from school and soon to take over a narratively convenient large estate and fortune is a frequent Gothic or fantasy trope; MacDonald’s Lilith opens baldly thus:

I had just finished my studies at Oxford, and was taking a brief holiday from work before assuming definitely the management of the estate. My father died when I was yet a child; my mother followed him within a year; and I was nearly as much alone in the world as a man might find himself.

Only the weight of a literary convention could justify the conception of such an un-simpatico protagonist.[12] Dunsany toughens things up by having the gunmen confront the boy; and while there’s even a magical mirror – one can imagine what MacDonald or William Morris would do with that – it’s a thoroughly prosaic mechanical contrivance of escape. In any event, his father’s disappearance and/or death seem to matter little to Charles, as he has more important things to attend to: hunting.

Here, as several reviewers point out, is where Dunsany will lose or infuriate some of his modern, Whole Foods readers, as he belongs to that earlier generation whose love of their locale and its inhabitants was manifest in both protecting the former and taking pleasure in hunting the latter for what Dunsany bluntly terms “meat.”

I used hollow-pointed bullets, which by expanding do the work of a much larger bullet and are more merciful, if one can use such a word of any of the means whereby man procures meat for himself, than a solid bullet, and the ricochet does not travel so far.[13]

More particularly, its is the hunt which keeps Charles in touch with the still-living past, bluntly embodied by the nearby peat bog, a liminal space that may, perhaps, still provide access to the ancient pagan Land of Youth (Tir-nan-Og), and, in a remarkable material image of such archeofuturism, is filled with corpses of unwary travelers, as well preserved as the day they sank.

Officially dead and buried in the past by the Christian conquest, talk or even thought of it a guilt-inducing sin, the Land of Youth, Ireland’s pagan past, keeps breaking through, causing the narrator periodic concern over the state of his Christian soul.[14]

“Let us not speak of that land” (he would never name it), for if a man’s heart turn towards it and he comes to die in bed he dies in moral sin.”[15]

“Hell would have him then,” I said.

“Why wouldn’t it?” Ryan answered.

Charles’ hunting guru, the bog-trotting Tommy Marlin, has never been able to forget the Land of Youth, and has made a grim, paganly Stoic peace with his sure damnation. His mother, always referred to as Mrs. Marlin, is the titular Wise Woman, representing an earlier, entirely pagan mentality, while Charles remains faithful to the new dispensation.

The temptation to take the pagan side reaches its peak with the arrival of the Peat Development (Ireland) Syndicate; their interest in the bog is not harmonious hunting, but ruthless exploitation:

They were there for the purpose of cutting the bog away; not as the turf cutters take it, with imperceptible harvests, slowly, as years go by, a few yards in each generation, but working it out as miners work out a stratum of coal.[16]

Though Anglo-Irish, the family is Catholic, which gives them some connection to the natives, and through them to the remnants of paganism that abide among them as well.[17]

The pagan elements seem naturally to be of the Northern tradition:

“You are come, you are come, great wanderer,” she said. “Your old self, from the ancient ice of the mountains.”[18]

But icy mountains might also suggest Lovecraft,[19] and as the cursing continues, Cthulhu himself seems to be behind it all:

“Oh, ancient one,” she said, “oh, beautiful everlasting, rise now out of sleep.”

Not only does the bog rise, it roars:

For it had begun to roar like a tide. . . . The roaring was louder than a tide; it was like a waterfall. The bog came grinding on, turning over and over . . . It covered the level land, it covered the houses, it rolled the wheel that they had put in the stream to work their machinery[20] for nearly a mile, and still the bog roared on, with the weight of all that mass of water behind it, and all the new road that had been a bohereen lay eight foot under the bog, when at last it rested. And that was the end of the Peat Development (Ireland) Syndicate.

Here Dunsany, at his least Pegana-esque, seems to return to the Lovecraftian theme of the sleeping or hidden god’s return, which produced Lovecraft’s first classic, non-Dunsanian tale, “The Call of Cthulhu.” But perhaps not so odd, after all:

[Lovecraft scholar Robert H.] Price also considers the work of Lord Dunsany to be a major source for Lovecraft’s dreaming god. Lovecraft himself noted that he read some Dunsany, an author he greatly admired, on the day that he conceived the plot of “Call of Cthulhu“; Price points in particular to “A Shop in Go-by Street,” which talks of “the heaven of the gods who sleep,” and notes that “unhappy are they that hear some old god speak while he sleeps being still deep in slumber.” Another Dunsany work cited by Price is The Gods of Pegana, which depicts a god who is constantly lulled to sleep, because if he should awaken “there will be worlds or gods no more.[21]

The climax also seems like an inversion of the climax of “The Dunwich Horror.”

“Fifteen year’ gone,” he rambled, “I heerd Ol’ Whateley say as haow some day we’d hear a child o’ Lavinny’s a-callin’ its father’s name on the top o’ Sentinel Hill. . . .”

In Lovecraft’s tale, Lavinny is long dead and Wilbur Whateley recently killed by guard dogs at the Miskatonic University Library; his twin (who supposedly takes more after his trans-dimensional father) is calling to Yog-Sothoth on the hill, but is defeated by some folklorists (wise men?) who know the proper chants.

Here, Mrs. Marlin, howling her curses on the Peat Development (Ireland) Syndicate from atop a hill, is Lavinny; her son has already disappeared into the bog. Did he, knowing himself to be dying, walk across the bog and sink in, like some bog corpse, or did he, unlike Wilbur’s twin, “open the gate” (Lovecraft) and enter the forbidden pagan Land of Youth (Dunsany)? Did Mrs. Marlin actually raise the bog, or was it simply the effect of the unusual month-long rains?

In short, which is real, magic or the Peat Development (Ireland) Syndicate? Which “wins,” paganism or mostly secularized Christianity?

Unlike Lovecraft’s narrators — who either successfully use magic to overcome black magic (“Dunwich,” The Case of Charles Dexter Ward) or else are given a tantalizing glimpse of evidence (the Antarctic city in the distance, an eons-old manuscript in their own handwriting) that either drives them mad, or shows they were mad already — Charles has refused both secular aid (the man in black offers to provide some Mafia-style persuasion) and what he sees as the illicit, sinful temptations of pagan belief, leaving him, and the reader, with no definitive account.[22]

As a chap on the internets says, “the supernatural seems to be a kind of source from which religion and politics and wider themes are carefully drawn.”[23] Among those “wider themes” I would add both the narrator’s coming of age, and coming to terms with his own age, as well as the archeofuturist touches already noted.[24]

In this way, Dusany’s novel is ultimately a more realistic, and more serious, work than any of Lovecraft’s pseudo-realistic Cthulhu tales. Did the wily Irish master get the better of his Anglo-Saxon disciple at last?

Notes

[1] “You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.” — The Big Lebowski (Coen Bros, 1998).

[2] Just as the Christian sect that triumphed had given their novel cult the sheen of the established Sheenie cult by attaching the “Old Testament” to it, an already established racket which the naïve goyim regarded as old and wise, like the Magic Negro today, unlike the Gnostic sects that rejected Jehovah and thus seemed unseemly arriviste.

[3] In a letter to Frank Harris, Dunsany wrote: “When I went to Cheam School I was given a lot of the Bible to read. This turned my thoughts eastward. For years no style seemed to me natural but that of the Bible and I feared that I never would become a writer when I saw that other people did not use it.” — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Plunkett,_18th_Baron_of_Dunsany#Influences

[4] To grasp the point within English itself, many proverbs, which come from eras when English was a crude as Hebrew, are no longer correctly understood, because ‘and’ is taken to be a mere conjunction. Spare the rod and (therefore) spoil the child; Feed a cold and (as a result) starve a fever (everyone struggles to remember the sequence); Eat your cake and (then) have it (everyone now gets it backwards), etc.

[5] Here, for example: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Gods_of_Peg%C4%81na

[6] Though not as bad as the pseudo-18th century style William Hope Hodgson cooked up for The Night Land, which even Lovecraft abhorred. It basically involves replacing all finite verbs with infinitives, hence supposedly sounding “archaic.” There’s a small cottage industry on the internet of fans (?) re-writing the book. See, for example, http://www.sff.net/people/james-stoddard/The_Night_Land.html. The signal to noise ratio appears to be about 4/1.

[7] “Dunsany’s style, particularly of his earlier and perhaps best work, was modelled directly upon the King James Version of the Bible; Smith’s style, while it may offer some slight affinities with a “Biblical” style, was manifestly not modelled after Dunsany, but after Poe . . . and after Baudelaire. Dunsany’s prose style at its beat achieves a gossamer quality. Smith’s general prose style is one of serious and very stately pomp.” — “On the Alleged Influence of Lord Dunsany on Clark Ashton Smith” by Donald Sidney-Fryer, here: http://www.eldritchdark.com/articles/criticism/14

[8] Op. cit. I suspect I find Tolkien boring for similar reasons; the texts are admittedly, and obviously, written merely to provide a literature for his made-up languages, which were his real interest.

[9] “Gods of the Godless: A Discussion on H. P. Lovecraft with S. T. Joshi” — http://heathenharvest.org/2014/01/12/gods-of-the-godless-a-discussion-on-h-p-lovecraft-with-s-t-joshi/

[10] See the essays collected in The Eldritch Evola . . . & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).

[11] “It is set in Dunsany’s native Ireland, and is written in a very different style to his early books; and different also from the deadpan conversational idiom which he adopted for his more humorous works. Narrated as the first-person memoirs of Charles James Peridore, a Catholic landowner’s son, the book is written in an easy, flowing prose which makes it seem much shorter and simpler than it really is.” — http://thecurmudgeonly.blogspot.com/2010/01/curse-of-wise-woman.html

[12] Although with Dunsany, I suppose it’s a case of “write what you know.”

[13] The narrator is correct, whatever the Whole Foods types may say. “Despite the ban on military use, hollow-point bullets are one of the most common types of bullets used by civilians and police, which is due largely to the reduced risk of bystanders being hit by over-penetrating or ricocheted bullets, and the increased speed of incapacitation. In many jurisdictions, even ones such as the United Kingdom, where expanding ammunition is generally prohibited, it is illegal to hunt certain types of game with ammunition that does not expand.” Wikipedia, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hollow-point_bullet#Legality. Scorsese’s Irish mobster epic The Departed begins with an overture that mixes such items as a Joyce quote and a lecture on hollow-point ballistics, and ends with a veritable fugue of exploding head shots. Nicholson’s Joyce-quoting mobster muses that “Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a fucking job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace.” “Ceannaideach” (Gaelic word for Kennedy) means “wounded head.” See “Preface to ‘King-Kill/ 33’: James Shelby Downard’s Vision” at http://revisionisthistory.org/kingkill33.html

[14] By contrast, there is a sovereign indifference to the evil works of men, such as the workers buildings and machinery of the peat company: “I need hardly describe it. . . . The world is full of such things, little need to describe them; the only concern that this story has with them is to tell that they came down dark upon that spot to which first my memories went whenever I was far from Ireland.”

[15] An interesting remnant of the Aryan’ warrior’s aversion to a “bed-death.” Here’s another: “[Baron Evola] had asked to be led from his desk to the window from which one could see the Janiculum (the holy hill sacred to Janus, the two-faced god who gazes into this and the other world), to die in an upright position.” “Mercury Rising: The Life & Writings of Julius Evola” by Gwendolyn Taunton, here: http://gorish.blogspot.com/2014/12/mercury-rising-life-writings-of-julius.html. Tommy Marlin choses to walk across the bog, either sinking into the bog as an archeofuturistic bog-corpse or finding his way to the Land of Youth, rather than die in bed.

[16] On the equivocal, mainly malefic, nature of mining and minerals in general see René Guénon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (Ghent, NY: Sophia Perennis, 2001), Chapter 22: “The Significance of Metallurgy.”

[17] Dunsany, a Unionist, also seems to be able to see the other side as well, as shown in his “play the game,” jolly good show approach to the four gunmen.

[18] “The wanderer” of course is Wotan. “Ancient ice” as Evola points out, yields an Italian pun: ANGELO = ANtico GELO, i.e. the “Angel = Ancient Ice.” “The character of all heroes – from Hercules through to now – are identical: they are deeply natural, elemental, abysmally cold, and distanced from social compromise. They are the carriers of the abyss of objectivity. Each hero necessarily travels to the Pole, into the heart of midnight. There he learns to love that dark and obscure substance, which is called “our Earth” by the alchemists or the “philosophers’ magnesia.” The urn holding the ashes of Baron Evola is buried in the thickness of an Alpine glacier, on Monte Rosa peak.” “ORION, or the Heroes’ Conspiracy,” by Alexander Dugin, here: http://openrevolt.info/2011/10/18/orion-or-the-heroes-conspiracy/

[19] At the Mountains of Madness, of course, as well as the Plateau of Leng; Lovecraft had a horror of cold.

[20] The bog, then, is ultimately the Chakravartin, He who sits at the center and turns the wheel of existence, here restoring order and right, dharma, to a fallen world at the end of the cosmic cycle. The Buddha, also, “turns the wheel of Dharma.”

[21] http://lovecraft.wikia.com/wiki/The_Call_of_Cthulhu#cite_ref-22, citing Robert M. Price, “The Other Name of Azathoth,” the introduction to The Cthulhu Cycle.

[22] In contrast to Lovecraft’s method in “Call” and elsewhere, in which a simulacrum of “truth” is created by relying on letters, diaries, newspapers, etc., Dunsany’s narrator eschews “consult[ing] old letters, or fragments of diaries that seldom went further than January” or even “exert[ing] a tired memory,” relying only on the aforesaid “three things I could sketch” and “the facts.”

[23] Craig “Slime Beast” Herbertson: http://vaultofevil.proboards.com/thread/4371#ixzz3OXAnVSdh.

[24] “The Irish boys” at Eton “having come by the habit, even thus early, of avoiding talk in public about religion or politics, and so much in Ireland comes under those two headings.”

 

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