For better—or sometimes worse, Lord Dunsany was one of Lovecraft’s greatest idols. Several of Lovecraft’s stories from his first decade of publication show the unmistakable influence of this prolific early 20th century Irish writer. Beginning in the 1890s, Dunsany wrote numerous short stories, novels, poems and essays, often with a fantasy or dream world theme. Lovecraft was most influenced by Dunsany’s earlier work, especially a collection of stories that he self-published called The Gods of Pegāna, (1905).
The Gods of Pegāna contains sentences like these: “And about the ending of the day would Yun-Ilara go up to his tower's top and look towards the setting of the Sun to cry his curses against Mung, crying: ‘O Mung! Whose hand is against the Sun, whom men abhor but worship because they fear thee, here stands and speaks a man who fears thee not. Assassin lord of murder and dark things, abhorrent, merciless, make thou the sign of Mung against me when thou wilt, but until silence settles upon my lips, because of the sign of Mung, I will curse Mung to his face.’"
To be fair, Dunsany modified his style considerably over his career. Had Lovecraft been able to complete high school and go on to college, obtaining a broader education, he may have developed a more critical sense of what is possible or desirable in weird fiction, and avoided swallowing Dunsany’s florid early style whole hog.
Over time, it is clear that Lovecraft’s strengths as a writer allowed him to assimilate Dunsany’s influence and move beyond it. Even in Lovecraft’s ‘Dunsanian’ stories, the author’s unique perspective and favorite themes still shine through clouds of overwrought prose. There is some irony here. The inexperienced Lovecraft idolized and emulated the early work of Lord Dunsany, yet it was Lovecraft whose popularity grew the most over time. Dunsany is now a fairly obscure author.
S.T. Joshi provides a helpful classification of Lovecraft’s ‘Dunsanian’ stories. These include Polaris (1918), The White Ship (1919), The Quest of Iranon (1921), The Tree (1920), Celephais (1920), and The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927). The last story is in the ‘Randolph Carter’ cycle of stories, which are loosely associated because of the presence of this interesting character. Joshi feels that among the Randolph Carter stories, only Dream Quest fits the Dunsanian mold; this is characterized by a created mythology, preoccupation with a fantasy dream world, and reference to Greek and Roman mythology. (In my view, the Randolph Carter stories show an interesting progression and maturation in the personality of this character, which makes it difficult to place them in any one category.)
Of the Dunsany influenced tales, Polaris and The Tree seem the best. The first is a powerful metaphor for the author’s alienation from his current life and his desire to inhabit the more glorious dream world of a past civilization. It also contains a feeling of psychic urgency and remorse—important duties and opportunities have been missed, with terrible consequences. The Tree reads like an authentic Greek myth or fable, with just enough weirdness to make it memorable and unsettling.
By far the worst of the Dunsany inspired stories is The Quest of Iranon, a god-awful lament about unappreciated “specialness”. The lead character, after repeated failures on various stages, finally drowns himself in quicksand, and not soon enough. (Iranon would have done much better to keep his day job as apprentice to the town cobbler.)
An example of one of Lord Dunsany’s later stories is How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon The Gnoles, (1912). Nuth, a renowned burglar, plans the heist of some large emeralds from the house of some gnoles, and winds up sacrificing his young apprentice in the process. The plot is so-so; what makes the story a pleasure to read is the subtle and witty use of language—much is merely suggested rather than described in detail. It is primarily a character sketch.
Nuth is amoral and unethical, even as burglars go, but Dunsany holds him in equal esteem with members of other more reputable occupations. If there is any moral at all to this amusing but cynical tale, it is that ‘anything worth doing is worth doing well.’
Lovecraft was never able to capture the subtle use of language nor this sensibility in his Dunsany inspired work, or indeed in the remainder of his work. He comes close in the droll story In The Vault, (1925), with his character of Birch, the lackadaisical undertaker. For him, the world was much more black and white with respect to evil and good, consistent with his Calvinist upbringing.