So, I’ve gotten a few public domain ebooks on my phone to read when I have a spare moment. I’ve always been a fan of the weird tale, which has grown from a smattering of disparate sources, tied together and formalized by Howard Phillips Lovecraft and his group, and cross-bred with numerous other genres to gain a following in modern fiction.
The weird tale often contains an element of high fantasy, glimpses of a region far off and unknowable, and forces beyond understanding. Edward Plunkett, better known by his Irish peerage title, Lord Dunsany, was one of the major developers of this element of weird fiction. Mainly concerned with fantasy and folk tale, Dunsany burst onto the literary scene with The Gods of Pegāna in 1905, a collection of short stories about an invented pantheon in a distant land. Until 1920, he wrote collection after collection of short fiction before shifting gears into different formats, including stage, novels, and poetry. The Book of Wonder (1912) was written near the middle of this period, and is considered one of the high points of his early career. The original was also illustrated by Sidney Sime, a regular contributor to Dunsany’s story collections, but alas, my ebook version did not include the illustrations.
Come with me, ladies and gentlemen who are in any wise weary of London: come with me: and those that tire at all of the world we know: for we have new worlds here.
This is the preface of The Book of Wonder in its entirety, and like it suggests, the stories sketch an image of a world – fantastic lands within grasp of humanity (they are settled by people to varying extents), yet only tenuously connected to the world as we know it. This idea would be recycled into Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle stories, which tell of lands that are physically accessible from Earth, yet are more easily accessed through the simple act of dreaming.
The stories are mainly those of journeys, characters who move throughout the richly described world to find riches or see distant and mysterious lands. Travellers make their way to cities on the edge of the world, in search of beauty, riches, and knowledge. Thieves scheme to get the better of wise creatures, who hoard fantastic wealth. Idols and idolators alike seek fulfillment of their prayers and wills.
While the scenery is beautifully described, the narratives seldom grow past “this is x, he is doing y”. While characters are sketched out, they rarely become more than just a sketch. Instead, the narrative serves as a vehicle to deliver a description of a mysterious area on the map out of reach or unspoiled by the modern world.
Each story is generally around 2000 words long, which isn’t a whole lot of room to develop a plot. Instead, they play out as Dunsany’s dreams reworked into a vaguely narrative format. The stories are beautiful, but they seemed too brief, leaving me wanting something more out of them. There are a handful of stories deviate from this formula and grow into something greater, and I found these to be the best stories of the book.
The first tale on this shortlist is The House of the Sphinx, which seems to incorporate elements of horror into its setting. A man comes to the house of the Sphinx, only to find the Sphinx in a morose state. The attendants are in a state of panic, which is heightened when a knock comes at the mouldering door. The reason for the fear is the imminent arrival of the arch-inquisitor of the forest, bringing with his investigation a mental fog in which reason cannot live. The House of the Sphinx is a short, but effective sketch delving into matters of madness.
The Loot of Bombasharna deals with a pirate captain who has become a master of his craft, so widely known that the fleets of the world have made his capture and execution a priority. Knowing this, the captain tells his crew of a plan to pull off one last heist: stealing the riches of the fabulous city of Bombasharna. After the raid is finished, they will settle down on a flying island that he discovered in the Bahamas. Their raid is cut short by an approaching fleet, but the captain manages to abduct the Queen of the South and escape to the flying island. While the surviving pirates live happily ever after, the captain occasionally laments that he wishes he better knew the ways of queens. Written in the tone of a folk story, the moral seems to be no matter the riches one obtains, it does not guarantee love.
The Quest of the Queen’s Tears recounts the story of a stoic queen who spurns the suitors who seek her hand in marriage. In annoyance, she finally challenges that any suitor that can make her weep will have her hand in marriage, as any person who could bring her to weep, could bring her to love. Dozens of sad stories ensue, but none bring a tear to her eye. One suitor recalls a beast whose tears produce a drunken effect that makes any story or song performed under its influence one of profound, tearjerking sadness. He slays the beast and returns, drunken on the tears and performs a song, to which everyone present begins to cry, even the queen. However, the story hints that because the suitor used magical means to win the challenge, he would not be able to make her love.
The Hoard of the Gibbelins and How Nuth would have Practiced His Art Upon the Gnoles are two tales of thieves and plunderers attempting to outsmart creatures older and wiser than themselves. In each, the plunderer tries a new trick to gain fabulous riches, and yet, each time falls into a trap set by the ingenuity of those holding the wealth. The moral I got from the stories is that there is no new idea under the sun for species older than man.
A couple of other stories that I found of moderate interest were Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men, recounting three thieves’ attempts to steal the most perfect poetry ever written from a sleeping god, The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap, a tale of an ordinary businessman who slowly becomes absorbed in his daydreams of becoming king in a land of his own imagination, and Chu-bu and Sheemish, a story of a rivalry between two idols that leads to their destruction.
In all, I found the collection to be a little uneven. In the couple of days since completing this collection, I found the aforementioned stories are the ones that stuck most with me the most. For the most part the other stories are passable, but somewhat forgettable. However, my eyes glazed over on a couple of stories, such as Miss Cubbidge and the Dragon of Romance and most of How One Came, As Was Foretold, to the City of Never. I will have to read the latter again and hope more of it sticks, but for the most part it seems to be a template used for Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.
Dunsany’s greatest strength is being an ideas man, and his settings are unimaginably lush. However, the stories that he puts forward are little more than vehicles to tell of these settings, seeming to fumble around a bit with the plot when present. Perhaps this is just a quirk of the weird tale in a fantasy setting; Lovecraft, too, fumbled around with plot in his haste to describe setting in many of the Dream Cycle tales. For the most part, I think “scenery porn with a dash of folk tale” is probably the best way to describe many of Dunsany’s tales in this collection.
My focus on books has kind of become schizophrenic in recent days, due to time constraints and illness. In my spare time at home, I am alternating between Asimov’s Nightfall and Other Stories and Haikasoru’s The Future is Japanese, while spare moments at work have afforded me time to read The Book of Wonder. I’ve got a couple of things to say on Nightfall and Other Stories, so maybe an essay on that will be forthcoming on that in a few days.