Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at Lord Dunsany’s “Poor Old Bill,” first published in A Dreamer’s Tales in 1910. Spoilers ahead.
“Once when the sun had set and it was twilight, and the moon was showing clearer and clearer in the sky, and we stopped our work for a moment because Captain seemed to be looking away from us at the colours in the sky, he suddenly turned and sent our souls to the Moon. And it was colder there than ice at night; and there were horrible mountains making shadows; and it was all as silent as miles of tombs; and Earth was shining up in the sky as big as the blade of a scythe, and we all got homesick for it, but could not speak nor cry.”
Unnamed narrator goes to a sailor’s tavern to glean rumors about a fleet of old Spanish galleons still afloat in the South Seas. Disappointed by the drinkers’ lack of loquacity, UN’s about to leave when a sailor with gold earrings starts talking. Declaiming, actually, staring straight at the wall before him. When a thunderstorm rattles the leaded panes, he effortlessly raises his voice and goes on; the darker it gets, the clearer his wild eyes shine. Our narrator hears a much stranger tale than he expected.
The sailor tells of a ship with sails of the “olden time,” which nears fantastic isles. The crew hates the captain, who hates them in turn and all alike. He speaks to them only when he chats each evening with the bodies hanged on the yardarm. The crew would mutiny, but Captain sleeps with two pistols, and he can shoot as straight when drunk as when sober.
The strange islands are small and flat, as if just emerged from the sea, but grass clothes them and they bear queer cottages with low upturned eaves (maybe gambrelled?) and windows too thick to see through. Captain enters one and lights come on, giving the windows an evil cast. When Captain returns aboard, he gives the crew a look that frightens poor old Bill.
Captain’s learned to curse, see. He has only to point at men to send their souls out of their bodies, up atop the masts in the frigid night air or down into the terrible seaweed forests of the sea. Once he even sends the men’s souls to the Moon, where horrible mountains make shadows in a silence like miles of tombs. These experiences are terrible enough, but most of all the sailors fear Captain will send their souls to Hell. They’re chary of speaking the place’s name, lest he think of it. The cabin-boy whispers that when Captain is drunk, he can’t curse. Next time Captain’s in his cups, they lose three fellows to his pistols, but the sailors capture the hated tyrant. Some mutineers want to kill him, but poor old Bill persuades the crew to leave Captain on a bare rock of an island with a year’s provisions, just to be fair.
The sailors head home, feasting every day. To their chagrin, they discover they can sail into no harbor, for the wind blows against them while all other ships scud by to safety. It’s another of Captain’s curses. He must still be alive in his exile, thanks to poor old Bill’s mercy. When their provisions run out, they start drawing lots to decide who must feed the rest. Captain must be eating frugally, for he lives out the year of food they left him. On ship, the cannibalism continues until only Jakes and poor old Bill are left. Poor old Bill does Jakes in and dines alone. Captain must finally die then, because his soul comes cursing over the sea and the next day the ship is cast ashore.
Well, Captain’s been dead over a hundred years, but he hasn’t finished with poor old Bill yet. Poor old Bill doesn’t age. Poor old Bill doesn’t seem to die. Poor old Bill!
The story done, the sailor’s fascination over his listeners snaps, and UN and the rest jump up and leave. More than the revolting tale, it’s the sailor’s fearsome eyes and indomitable voice that convince UN never again to enter that particular tavern of the sea.
What’s Cyclopean: Today’s adjective threat level is green. Dunsany manages to be poetic without crossing the line into florid.
The Degenerate Dutch: N-word alert: All the sailors/meals get names, except for the black guy.
Mythos Making: Never trust anyone who consults with the unseen inhabitants of new-risen islands.
Libronomicon: No books—it’s all oral history this week.
Madness Takes Its Toll: That captain has issues. Maybe what he really needs is a change of career.
I’m not, generally speaking, a Dunsany fan. But I liked this one—too slight to get bogged down in description, and too nasty to get bogged down in Elvish delights.
Poor Bill’s ship seems like one that might sail the more sordid seas of the Dreamlands. It’s kin to the white ship, and Nodens’s shell, and the various doubtful merchants that Randolph Carter sails with on his Quest. If Captain’s curses had kept up, Bill would have met moon-beasts for sure.
The influences on Lovecraft are obvious. In fact, “Poor Old Bill” feels a bit like Howard himself on a quiet day. The unnamed, second-hand narrator, the dread island new-risen from the sea. (Although it does seem weird that a brand new island would have grass—the muck-covered plain of “Dagon” seems considerably more likely.) And who lived in those huts, to teach a villainous captain new methods of human resource management? I’ll bet they had gills, and were just a little bit batrachian.
But Lovecraft would have gone further. Those curses! Much as I appreciated the lack of extended Dunsanian descriptive passages, I yearned for Lovecraftian description of what it’s like to have your soul cast beneath the ocean, or to the far side of the moon. The separation of mind and body is so deliciously disturbing in stories like “Whisperer in Darkness” and “Shadow Out of Time,” and I wanted more of that here. “Bill” is a psychologically shallow story, and the non-consensual astral travel serves mostly to motivate the more traditional sea-horror tropes of marooning and cannibalism. Enough eating each other! More disembodied souls floating among the stars!
Speaking of “enough eating each other,” was there some reason not to go back to the deserted island and shoot Captain Bligh? From a distance, obviously, but they could have at least tried. (Okay, there’s the risk of your soul ending up in hell, fair enough. I hear that’s a risk of killing and eating your buddies, too.)
The language here is very fine, dependent less on vocabulary and more on cadence. “When later on a storm of rain arose and thundered on the tavern’s leaded panes…” Most of the story isn’t such straight-up iambic pentameter, but meter of one sort or another glimmers through many lines. Overtly, the story takes place in the prototypical tavern where sailors exchange gossip and tall tales. But in its bones, it’s set where sonnets and sestinas gather for late, sordid nights, exchanging rhymes and eyeing the limerick at the corner table.
I’m surprised that Lovecraft himself never did use the frame of a tavern tale. It involves absolutely no parchments or tomes, but it’s an excellent way to get a story told at a remove, by people with every reason not to share names. And the men of action who so intrigued him do tend to frequent such places. Heck, academics can be found at bars after hours, if you look in the right place. There must be one frequented by the senior Miskatonic professors—right? Somewhere in Arkham, there’s a monstrous hybrid of faculty lounge and adventurers’ club that only lets in men of distinguished lineage and reputation. And the stories told there are truly spine-tingling. Probably have their own copy of the Necronomicon, too.
Discussing Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany, in Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft waxes more violently (and violetly) eloquent than his subject. Dunsany is “unexcelled in the sorcery of crystalline singing prose, and supreme in the creation of a gorgeous and languorous world of iridescently exotic vision.” “Inventor of a new mythology,” he “stands dedicated to a strange world of fantastic beauty, and pledged to eternal warfare against the coarseness and ugliness of diurnal reality. His point of view is the most truly cosmic of any held in the literature of any period.” Whoa. That’s going some, but Lovecraft fearlessly sidles out farther along his critical limb. Though “beauty rather than terror is the keynote of Dunsany’s work,” though “humor and irony, too, are often present,” yet “as is inevitable in a master of triumphant unreality, there are occasional touches of cosmic fright.”
One of the stories touched by cosmic fright is today’s offering, the innocuously titled “Poor Old Bill.” If I saw the name in isolation, I’d fear it referred to a dog or horse who died after much undeserved abuse and neglect. Fortunately, no. Dunsany jerks no tears here. Instead he provokes wry smiles paired with shivers and compels admiration for the simple language with which he does indeed make his prose sing. No purple to see here, folks, move along. The frame narration is straightforward. The bulk of the tale is told by Bill himself, in a third-person that can’t fool any close listener for long. His common sailor’s diction is clear but subtle, with no obtrusive reliance on jargon or slang or apostrophe-studded accent simulation.
Lovecraft would draw much inspiration from Lord Dunsany. He would create his own pantheons, both in the Kadath-dwelling gods of Earth and the Outer Gods who rule all dreamlands—the Elder Races and Outer Gods of the central Cthulhu Mythos are another “pantheon” altogether, more the creatures of science fiction than fantasy. He would revel in “triumphant unreality,” in gorgeous lost cities to long for and terrible remote lands to dread. Awful fates would descend on his too-venturesome characters. Randolph Carter would loiter in taverns, where he’d collect tales as uncomfortable as the one “Bill’s” narrator hears. Irony would dwell cozy and effective in such works as Dream-Quest, “The Cats of Ulthar,” and “The Strange High House in the Mist.”
The Lovecraft story most similar in tone and language to “Bill” is “The Terrible Old Man.” I smiled at Captain talking to the crewmen he’d hanged, wondering whether the Terrible Old Man had hanged his comrades in the flesh before dangling their—souls? essences?—as pendulums in his bottles. There’s also the oblique coolness with which Lovecraft refers to the deaths of his thieves, similar to Dunsany’s deftness in gliding over the horror of cannibalism by couching it in Bill’s matter-of-fact relation of how long each crewman supplied his fellows with sustenance, of how overstabbing a victim could spoil “the best part of the meat.”
“Poor Old Bill” plays with the ancient and honorable trope of the Cursed Wanderer/Taleteller/Immortal. Cain is the original Biblical example. Others are the Wandering Jew, the crew of the Flying Dutchman, Charles Maturin’s Melmoth. Oh, and my own favorite, the Ancient Mariner, of whom Bill seems a close cousin. Both story-spinning ex-sailors have fascinating (and glittering) eyes. Both leave their listeners sadder but wiser men, if we consider as wise unidentified narrator’s later avoidance of dockside taverns. In general you might better avoid them, at least if you notice that the other patrons speak low and seldom. I bet they’re worried that the creepy old dude at the corner table is going to start talking to the wall again. Loudly. Kind of dissociatively, pitying his poor old self. Because he’s immortal, see.
And that’s another interesting thing. In the Wanderer tradition, immortality is often a curse rather than a blessing, leading to the repetition of the same old “origin” story until people jump up and run if you pause for a breath. Bill’s got no doubt he’s cursed—that he can’t “seem to die” must result from Captain’s enduring vindictiveness. And he’s even got the essential co-condition that should make immortality a good thing, freedom from aging. The assumption, I guess, is that immortals must get bored, kind of worn-out with extended existence, like when Bilbo Baggins feels he’s butter scraped over too much bread. Yeah, lots of these immortals seem to get peculiar, languid, angsty.
But not so much in Lovecraft, as long as they have something to DO. The gods of Earth sneak out of their palace on Kadath and dance around the sunset city. Joseph Curwen has endless scholarship and research to pursue, as do the Yith. The Outsider feels better once he gets out of his solitary hole and can play with other ghouls. Cthulhu may take really long naps, but he eventually wakes up to revel again. The Deep Ones enjoy the underwater glories of Y’ha-nthlei forever. Death seems no blessing to the likes of Herbert West or “Cool Air’s” doctor, who will do anything to conquer it.
I guess it’s a matter of attitude. Poor old Bill. If he would just stop obsessing about the past. Lay off the sauce. Take yoga or ballroom dancing. Something!
Final note: When your soul’s freezing on a mast or lost in the seaweed, neither the stars nor the fishes give a crap. There’s cold cosmic indifference for you—I can see this bit of “Bill” tickling Lovecraft’s darker sensibilities.
Next week, we try out our first work in translation: Anders Fager’s “The Furies From Boras.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint on April 4, 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.