“Read a Damn Book – 123: Fifty-One Tales”
I’ve been reading a lot of comics lately (which isn’t a bad thing. I enjoy reading comics, and I’m very PRO doing what you enjoy---as long as you aren’t hurting anyone,) but I thought it was time to get back to some serious literature. For today’s review, I’m looking at an author that I think has slipped through the cracks and fallen out of the popular consciousness, which is a horrible shame because his stories are brilliant. I present to you Fifty-One Tales by Lord Dunsany (aka Edward J. M. D. Plunkett.)
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual digital book that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Lord Dunsany – Fifty-One Tales (1915)
I have to admit, first off, that I’ve only recently discovered Dunsany through an interview I listened to with H.P. Lovecraft scholar, Robert Price, who was talking about some of Lovecraft’s influences on an episode of the MonsterTalk podcast. (The BEST podcast, by the way.) According to Price, Lovecraft’s early style, before he bloomed into his full Cthulhu-hood, was cribbed primarily from two author’s, Poe and this Lord Dunsany guy. And I thought, “Of course I know Poe---who doesn’t know Poe?---but who the Hell is this Dunsany person?” Now mind you, I’m a bit of a fan of horror and mythology and early science-fiction stories, especially of the “Weird Tales” variety, so when I hear a name that I’ve never heard before, I make a note and I look that individual up. In this case, Dunsany had a few public-domain works available, and I downloaded this one, Fifty-One Tales, as soon as I spotted it (and I loved it so much, I’ve read it three times already.)
According to a cool, little, animated history I found on YouToob (by “Extra Credits,”) Dunsany was an Irish author, and quite well known in his day, hanging out with the likes of Rudyard Kipling, W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and others… He was apparently also an influence on a BUNCH of famous authors whose writing is still popular today---and so I’m not exactly sure why so few people know about Dunsany himself… (???) Maybe it’s because there haven’t been any major MOVIES made from his work? I don’t know, but it’s a crime against literature, regardless of the reason!
So what is this book about? Fifty-One Tales is a collection of very short stories, usually only a page or two long, sometimes as short as a paragraph or two (one could argue that they could be called “flash fiction,”) which fit somewhat uncomfortably in a number of categories: the ghost story, mythology, prose-poetry, and dream tales. If you enjoy the Twilight Zone or Neil Gaiman’s work or Jorge Luis Borges or Lovecraft, then you’ll find a LOT to love in this book. The stories are very short, as I mentioned, and often have a twist or a poignant moment in them that would eventually become the hallmark of Rod Serling’s stories 40 years later, but here’s Dunsany giving us that solid, freaky twist in 1915!
Dunsany does a lot of personification in these tales: Death, Time, Fame, Nature and so on will often become characters, usually jabbing it to the humans, who all think they’re so great---and even though Dunsany wrote these tales over a hundred years ago, they are very easy to read and completely relatable---unlike, say, James Joyce, whose books are so full of obscure references and word games that most folks can’t make sense of them. Dunsany, on the other hand, is a delight to read, but he can also, certainly, be a trickster, who uses simple language and a barrage of short tales in such a way that the reader is lulled into doubting their own sense of self and the permanence and value of civilization. In a strange way, these are PLEASANT APOCALYPSE tales---stories in which the human race is doomed, but in a good way! Like Lovecraft and Borges and (much later) Philip K. Dick, Dunsany is questioning the very nature of reality in these tales, but the fairy spell he weaves makes this potentially terrifying journey into an almost reassuring train ride across deadly country with a jolly friend distracting you from the fact that the rails are warped, there’s an avalanche heading towards the tracks, and the bridge is out. The mood is a bit like Hawthorne, in which we’re all heading to Hell, but without so much of the Christian moralizing. I don’t KNOW if Dunsany was a pagan or, since he was good friends with W.B. Yeats, maybe influenced by the Golden Dawn (I’ve seen no evidence that Dunsany was a member,) but his integration of mythology and dream and magical practices fits in very nicely with the mystical motifs of early 20th Century occult societies.
Either way, these stories are cool. They have an unearthly, “out of time” feeling to them, and there is a heavy dose of gallows humor to the whole book. The book is also a very quick read, only about 100 pages long. For those folks worried about offensive materials, the book doesn’t have any dirty language or sexually explicit material in it, although there is one scene where a group of worshipers sacrifices a goat to a pair of elder gods, which some folks will definitely find unacceptable---but overall the book is pretty tame by today’s standards. It’s also incredibly rich in imagery and imagination, and not afraid to take multiple, contradictory looks at similar topics, allowing the reader to come at some of these themes (death, the value of “civilization,” what makes a god?, and so on…) from entirely different trajectories. It’s a great book---one that I hope more people will find and enjoy, because it provides a mood and a mindset that is almost completely forgotten today (outside of folks like Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore…) Highly, highly recommended!
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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