Saturday, 14 September 2013

Defeated Dogs by Quentin S. Crisp, Eibonvale Press / Lost Tales Vol. 1 by Lord Dunsany, Pegana Press

Four characteristic approaches to the tale emerge from a close reading of at least two of Quentin S. Crisp's original collections, of which this is the fifth. The first is the personal metaphysical travelogue, where the author is the roving outsider contemplating his disquieting responses to place and time with an ominous observation of minutiae most of us otherwise take for granted. (Here, in 'The Gay Wolf' and 'The Gwyllgi of the Lost Lanes').
  Next comes the fictional (though, one senses, not entirely fictitious) memoir, where elements of autobiography are re-evaluated and extrapolated to fantastical, yet still credible, conclusions spawned by long-held and internalised fears.  ('Sado-ga-shima,' 'The Broadsands Eyrie'). There is the Eastern epic myth, where Crisp's knowledge of Japanese history is drawn upon to portray beautifully circuitous plot-driven fables, quite on a par with the likes of his academic ancestor, Lafcadio Hearn. (As in 'The Temple'). 
  Finally, there are the straight horror and SF tales where Crisp, alone on such occasions, excuses himself to become the third-person or character narrator. (In 'The Fairy Killer,' 'Dreamspace,' 'Tzimtzum,' 'Lilo' and 'Non-Attachment').
  While I hope I'm open-minded enough to enjoy all four approaches, it is in this last (pardon me) 'category' where Crisp's literary discipline truly shines.  In the first three there is often the sense that he is trying too hard to involve the reader in the ongoing, as-yet-unresolved issues, tensions and hang-ups of his youth.  Whether there is a worthwhile resolution for himself in writing these out in this format only he, as author, can know. The reader can be left hanging, since the unresolved memories are, seemingly, real and not those of a completely fictitious character whose story arc can always be neatly concluded. Personally, I like this involved introspection although the uninitiated should be in sympathy with the darkly melancholic mood to so willingly follow.
  Alongside 'The Temple,' other favourites include the aforementioned 'The Fairy Killer,' where one man's smug, taunting assertions of unbelief reap a broad and terrible cost. A lighter fantasy with a darker underbelly is unlikely to be found.  While 'The Gwyllgi of the Lost Lanes' features one of the most credible evocations of a haunting I've read in some years; cool, journal-style observations adding greater chills than the usual overwrought descriptions.
  This is an equally diverse, but less wilfully idiosyncratic, collection than All God's Angels Beware!, and all the better for it. (Although 'Ynys-Y-Plag' from that release is - in this reviewer's eyes - fast becoming a classic).  Yet, I wonder if Crisp finds his more linear tales easier to write than the personal travelogues.  Then again, I also wonder if they afford him less closure.

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In Brendan O' Connell's enjoyable introduction to Defeated Dogs, he alludes to Crisp's "myth-forging fantasy haunted by more than the ghost of Lord Dunsany." The man himself has now reappeared in rare form - in both meanings of the term - in a hand-stitched, mauve-covered, limited edition chapbook of Lost Tales, in what Michael Swanwick describes as being sourced "from microfiche copies of the magazines they were published in for the first and only time." In this case, between May 1909 and March 1915.
  In the past I've made it clear that, in the field of fantasy, Dunsany's surface exotica has left me cold. His apparent influence, that spawned the sword n' sorcery epics of Le Guin, Tanith Lee, Tolkien, Moorcock, etc., ensured I'd be giving this particular sub-genre a wide berth.  His non-SNS work (such as The Blessing of Pan and The Charwoman's Shadow) being more welcome but all too rare.
  Lost Tales, however, is a revelation in the former field. Its beauty - swiftly apparent - is the distilled essence of what made his longer, more elaborate work charm so many for so long. Shorn of the interminable asides, musings and epic descriptions of sand-blown travel across vast oasis, what remains here is the poetry, wry wit and child-like wonder at their source.
  From when the 'diaphanous figure of 'Romance' enters with the night draughts of a darkened house lit by a solitary candle in the first tale, to a foreign agent's search for field gun metal from an unlikely source (in the pre-WW1 'The German Spy') to Man's ingratitude after a sardonic contest of wills between God and Satan in the last, ('The Eight Wishes'), this is a precious blueprint of the ambitious fables to come. It is also a laudable starting point from which the initiate Dunsany novice should depart.
  Mike & Rita Tortorello, Pegana's publishers who recovered and reprinted these century-old tales, state there will be a second volume  - entitled The Emperor's Crystal - very soon. This slender but vital collection of little gems would justify its purchase.

1 comment:

  1. Insighful review. Your observations about Crisp's approcahes are on target.