My town is blessed with several fine used book stores that have grown up around the university. Although the internet is a boon for those searching for out of print authors and publications, nothing can match the thrill of finding treasure in some haphazard stack of dusty old books. Proprietors of used book stores by definition are passionate about books. It is nearly impossible to escape conversation with them about this or that author.
On a recent expedition I was able to find an old collection of three novels by George Allan England, containing a wonderfully cynical preface by the author. England brags about all his clever ideas and recent publications circa 1914, and offers readers his ‘tricks of the trade’. Best line: “Let the writer resolve, that for every 100 lies, he shall tell at least one truth of value to the world, and perhaps he can somewhat salve his conscience.”
But I hit pay dirt at a second shop, whose owner turned out to be an enthusiastic fan of the very literature and time period that I love—and indeed is probably a big fan of the literature of any of his prospective customers. From him I purchased two items. The first was Alfred Hitchcock’s Haunted Houseful, which boomers will recall is one of a series of wonderful horror anthologies for children published in the early 60s. (Two other books on my wish list from that series are Ghostly Gallery, and of course, Monster Museum.)
However, it was the second book made the expedition a complete success. Almost entirely hidden in a shelf of horror and science fiction was an ancient copy of Lord Dunsany’s Time and the Gods. This edition was published in Boston probably around 1913, and contains ten black and white illustrations by Sidney Sime. Sime also illustrated one of William Hope Hodgson’s books, (The Ghost Pirates), and is mentioned by H.P. Lovecraft in his story Pickman’s Model—Lovecraft describes Sime’s technique as “exotic”.
The owner of the book store saw the anguish of indecision on my face and graciously reduced the price. This look of anguish, which I have practiced, has served me well in seeking discounts. Judging by the notes written on the inside cover and on an old book mark left in the book (!), it was a gift to a young woman who attended the university in the fall of 1922. Out of respect for the book and its previous owner, I will keep the bookmark in the book, where it has belonged these 91 years.
I have now read about a third of the way through Dunsany’s book, which has turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. I have not read much fantasy, having prematurely dismissed the genre as largely about ‘swords, sandals and sorcery.’ I stand corrected. The book is a loose collection of poetic fables centered on a mythology that Dunsany created. Some of the imagery and ideas seem drawn from Greek mythology and the Hebrew Bible, but the work is strikingly original and ambitious.
The fables are deceptively simple in structure and in the succinctness of the language. What Dunsany has done is to develop and dramatize abstract and subtle insights about divinity, worship, monotheism, idolatry and other aspects of humanity’s relationship with its gods. Dunsany’s fables remind me a little of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which also uses a similar format to convey startling and sophisticated ideas.
In the next few posts I plan to spend some time discussing the work of this author, who had considerable influence on H.P. Lovecraft and other writers.