[This is an expanded, updated reprint of a column which originally appeared in the July 22, 2004, issue of Hellnotes.]
Though the Irish writer, Lord Dunsany, was known more for fantasy than horror, H.P. Lovecraft considered him to be one of the four modern masters of horror of Lovecraft’s time. He wrote that Dunsany was “[u]nexcelled in the sorcery of crystalline singing prose, and supreme in the creation of a gorgeous and languorous world of iridescently exotic vision …”
Dunsany, whose full name was Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany, was born in London on July 24, 1878, to a family whose roots extended far back into Irish history. His father, John William Dunsany, was a scholar, a mechanical engineer (who installed the first telephone system in Ireland and invented an x-ray machine), a sportsman, and a politician. His mother was Ernle Elizabeth Ernle-Erle Drax, née Grosvenor. Dunsany had one brother, Reginald, who became an admiral. The family home, Dunsany Castle, dates from the 1180s and is located in Dunsany, County Meath, Ireland. The Plunkett family lived there since the 1400s.
Dunsany went to school at Cheam, Eton, and Sandhurst, all in England. He inherited his title in 1899 upon his father’s death. He fought in the Boer War around 1900 and also saw active service in both World Wars. His interests included drawing, pistol-shooting, cricket, tennis, big-game hunting, and chess. In 1904, Dunsany married Lady Beatrice Child-Villiers, daughter of the Earl of Jersey. They had a son, Randal, on August 25, 1906. Dunsany had an uncle, Horace Plunkett, who was prominent in Ireland. Dunsany’s and Plunkett’s social circles brought many distinguished visitors to Dunsany Castle, including William Butler Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, James Stephens, Isabella Augusta (Lady Gregory), and Oliver St. John Gogarty.
Dunsany wrote short stories, novels, poems, and plays. His first book was published in 1905, a short story collection entitled The Gods of Pegana. The tales therein told of the gods of that mythical kingdom. With Pegana, Dunsany was one of the first writers to construct his own mythology, and he influenced later writers to create their own worlds and supernatural beings. He published several more collections through 1919, including Time and the Gods (1906), The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories (1908), A Dreamer’s Tales (1910), Selections from the Writings of Lord Dunsany (1912), The Book of Wonder (1912), Fifty-one Tales (aka The Food of Death) (1915), Tales of Wonder (aka The Last Book of Wonder) (1916), Tales of War (1918), Unhappy Far-Off Things (1919), and Tales of Three Hemispheres (1919).
In the 1920s, Dunsany began to write stories featuring his best-known character, Joseph Jorkens. Jorkens was a good-hearted fellow who would gladly, for the price of a drink, tell a tale drawn from his extensive travels, which were in the “gentlemen’s club” style of preposterous tales. From 1931 to 1954, Dunsany published five collections of stories narrated by Jorkens: The Travel Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens (1931), Jorkens Remembers Africa (1934), Jorkens Has a Large Whiskey (1940), The Fourth Book of Jorkens (1947), and Jorkens Borrows Another Whiskey (1954). A sixth volume, The Last Book of Jorkens, was published posthumously in 2002. He also published two other later collections: The Man Who Ate the Phoenix (1949) and The Little Tales of Smethers and Other Stories (1952).
Three of Dunsany’s stories were published during his lifetime in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. These were “Told Under Oath” (August 1953), “Misadventure” (October 1954), and “The Ghosts of the Heaviside Layer” (April 1955). The most widely known of his short stories is “Two Bottles of Relish,” which is what the killer, ahem, used while disposing of a corpse. This story originally appeared in Time & Tide (November 12, 1932) and was reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (March 1951).
Dunsany’s first novel, Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley, published in 1922, is an adventure set in a fantasy version of Spain. His other novels included The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), a fantasy novel rich with lyrical prose. The Charwoman’s Shadow (1924) is a tale of a sorcerer’s apprentice and shadows stolen by his master. In The Blessing of Pan (1927), weird music calls Kentish villagers to a pagan rite. The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933) is set in Ireland and was influenced by Dunsany’s life on the Emerald Isle. My Talks with Dean Spauley (1936) and The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders (1950) are “tall tale” books. The Last Revolution (1951) describes a revolt by machines. His other novels include Up in the Hills (1935), Rory and Bran (1936), The Story of Mona Sheehy (1939), Guerilla (1944), and His Fellow Men (1952).
The Glittering Gate, Dunsany’s first play, opened in 1909 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and was well received by both critics and the public. His first London production, The Gods of the Mountain, was produced at the Haymarket Theatre in 1911. Several of his plays ran on Broadway, and at times, he had as many as five plays running simultaneously. He published about 30 individual plays and several collections, beginning with Five Plays (1914). In the 1920s, his writing output consisted mainly of plays.
Dunsany wrote three autobiographies: Patches of Sunlight (1938), While the Sirens Slept (1944), and The Sirens Wake (1945). He also published a volume of lectures, The Donnellan Lectures 1943 (1945), and a collection of essays, A Glimpse from a Watch Tower (1946).
His poetry publications included four collections, Fifty Poems (1929), Mirage Water (1938), Wandering Songs (1943), and To Awaken Pegasus (1949); a narrative poem, The Journey (1944); and a poetic cycle, The Year (1946).
A multimedia master, Dunsany also made radio broadcasts and television appearances, and he lectured extensively in both Europe and the United States.
In October 1957, Dunsany suffered an appendicitis attack. He did not regain consciousness after an appendectomy and died in Dublin on October 25, 1957. Dunsany wrote to the end and had several pieces published shortly before his death, including the final Jorkens tale, “A Meeting of Spirits.” Lady Beatrice handled his literary estate until her death in 1970.
Many of Dunsany’s books are available from Wildside Press, which also has Pathways to Elfland, by Darrell Schweitzer, a guide to the life and work of Dunsany. Necronomicon Press has Verses Dedicatory, a chapbook of 18 previously unpublished poems. Night Shade Books published The Collected Jorkens, a three-volume set of the Jorkens stories. Hippocampus Press issued The Pleasures of a Futuroscope, Dunsany’s previously unpublished last novel, which was written in 1955.