When life is busy but seems drab and grey I prescribe myself a quick trip to an imaginary world, so this week I’m recommending the fantasy short stories of Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany. Though he sounds like a character from a Gothic novel, Lord Dunsany was a real person who lived from 1878-1957. On the surface, he was a typical Anglo-Irish aristocrat who served in the British army and spent much of his time hunting, shooting and fishing. His inner life was very different. He was a romantic who dreamed up worlds of fabulous beauty. He loved coining exotic names and he invented a whole pantheon of deities and the myths to go with them (see `The Gods of Pegana’).  Many aspects of the era in which he lived made him sad but he kept a subversive sense of humour. If I could invite anyone in space and time to a dinner party, Lord Dunsany would be high on my guest-list (I’d seat him between Lady Murasaki and Eleanor of Aquitaine).

Dunsany wrote plays, poetry, novels and collections of short stories. The best of these collections, such as `Time and the Gods’, `The Book of Wonder’  and `The Sword of Welleran’, have been reissued in paperback in the last few years. The website of the Dunsany family (www.dunsany.net) has a section about the range of reprints currently available.  If at all possible, get hold of editions which have the original, marvellously sinister, illustrations by S.H.Sime. For `The Book of Wonder’ the pictures were done first and Dunsany then wrote tales to fit them. I’m going to recommend two specific stories for anyone who hasn’t yet given Dunsany a try, but first a few general points. Dunsany deliberately uses archaic language, which won’t please everyone. It works better in his short stories than it does in his full-length novels.  Many of Dunsany’s stories are very short indeed, some less than a page. They can be fleeting impressions of imaginary places, such as `many-gardened, beautiful Istrakhan where the lilies float that give delectable dreams’ (`The Dream of King Karna-Vootra’) or brief  fables, such as a story about a rich woman who wants a sphinx because no-one else has one,  where the moral is revealed in the last lines. Dunsany often leaves much to the reader’s imagination. We never do find out exactly why `The Milkman Shudders When He Perceives The Dawn’ or the precise fate of  the thief Neepy Thrang when he tries to take emeralds from `The Bird of the Difficult Eye’ but there are gruesome hints. The gods in Dunsany’s pantheon are rarely kind or forgiving and there are few happy endings in his stories.

Much of Dunsany’s work inhabits the borderlands between Fantasy and Horror. What distinguishes him from writers such as William Hope Hodgson and H.P.Lovecraft (a great admirer of Dunsany) is his playful use of black humour. A number of his stories fall into the category of `Awful Warnings’ to those who enter the realms of myth and magic for the wrong reasons.  The example I’m recommending is `The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller, and of the Doom That Befell Him’ (from `The Book of Wonder’).  It has a wonderful opening sentence – `When Thangobrind the jeweller heard the ominous cough, he turned at once upon that narrow way.’ Thangobrind is a thief who has agreed to steal the `Dead Man’s Diamond’ from a spider-idol in return for the soul of a young girl. Things don’t go as planned but if you want to find out who coughed and what the consequence was you will have to read the story.

Other tales are about a different kind of traveller, a poet or dreamer anxious to escape from the mundane world into a realm of beauty and strangeness.  The most characteristic of these stories have very little in the way of plot. They are simply accounts of journeys` beyond the edge of the world’ by a `dreamer’ who is a version of the author.  Dunsany’s `Tales of Wonder’ was published in the middle of the First World War. In the preface he suggested that people might be glad to turn away from `a world of mud and blood and khaki, and to read for a while of cities too good to be true.’ I’m a sucker for mysterious ancient cities and no-one does them better than Dunsany, especially in the second story I’m choosing `Idle Days on the Yann’ (from `The Book of Wonder’ and reprinted with two sequels in `Tales of Three Hemispheres’). A traveller from Ireland boards a ship called `Bird of the River’ to sail along the mighty Yann. He records the customs of the sailors and the exotic wildlife he sees and visits strange places such as mossy Mandaroon where everyone is asleep or Astahahn where the citizens constantly repeat ancient ceremonies to `fetter Time’.  It is all curiously convincing just because it isn’t part of a conventional narrative. The traveller is entranced by the wondrous city of Perdondaris until he realizes that its massive gate is made from a single piece of ivory. Then he flees back to the boat in case the beast who shed the ivory comes looking for its lost tusk. In another story (`The Avenger of Perdondaris’)  we learn that the city was later destroyed  by a giant elephant.  Most authors would have made a major scene out of this violent episode. Dunsany doesn’t need to. The moment where he has the narrator imagine `that I heard far off on the hills behind me the tramp of the fearful beast’ chilled me when I first read it and has haunted me ever since. `Idle Days on the Yann’ ends on a melancholy note as the traveller fears he will never meet the friends he has made again because he is losing the power to enter `the Lands of Dream’.

The struggle against Time is a constant theme in Dunsany’s work. In one of his stories (`The Long Porter’s Tale’), Dunsany wrote, `Yet it may be that the devastation wrought by Time is merely local and that outside the scope of his destruction old songs are still being sung by those we deem dead. I try to hope so.’ I hope so too. Until next week.