“Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” (2011) by Naomi Novik

In September [1917] I went to the 7th 8th Battalion of the Inniskilling Fusiliers. we used to be in front of Croisilles, when we were in the line, and in a sunken road through the village itself when we were in reserve. When we were out of the line we lived at a place that had been Ervillers, four miles back, where the bombing planes used to call us every morning, but never hit us. That was in the desert of the Somme.  We never saw any animals there except mice, and an army horse or two; and, when the rooks flew over at evening, they passed out of our sight before they could find trees. There was something melancholy in watching this flight over a land that for centuries had been fertile: it was pleasanter to look at our aeroplanes returning at about the same hour, like adventurous mountaineers descending cloud-mountains. Sometimes we met American soldiers there, who for some while had been arriving in large numbers, men with red healthy faces.
—Lord Dunsany, Patches of Sunlight (1938) 296

The success of The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases (2003) led to a sequel: The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (2011). The first book is essentially a standalone volume similar to The Starry Wisdom Library (2014): a collection of short fictional works done in the style of a reference guide, with all the fantastic, science fiction, weird, and supernatural ailments and symptoms pretending to co-exist in the same setting. The Cabinet of Curiosities is nominally framed along the same lines, as items in the fictional Thackery T. Lambshead’s eccentric collection, but the guidelines on what constitutes an “entry” are less rigid…so what it really turns out to be is a collection of disconnected pieces of various lengths and styles. Some resemble actual write-ups like one might find in a good SCP wiki entry, and others are simply short stories with, perhaps, a note at the end that explains how it got to be part of Lambshead’s collection. Some of them don’t even have that.

The trench had scarcely been dug. Dirt shook loose down upon then, until they might have been part of the earth, and when the all-clear sounded at last out of long silence, they stood up still equals under a coat of mud, until Russel bent down and picked up the shovel, discarded, and they were again officer and man.

But this came too late: Edward trudged back with him, side by side, to the more populated regions of the labyrinth, still talking, and when they had reached Russell’s bivouac, he looked at Edward and said, “Would you have a cup of tea?”
—Naomi Novik, “Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities 118

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, was one a writer’s writer. Never a bestseller, he was still highly esteemed by many as one of the greatest fantasists to ever live, and one of the most influential. His stories of “beyond the fields we know,” written briefly around the turn of the century, would provide the inspiration for H. P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands and for “The Call of Cthulhu.” During his service in the British Army during World War I, the 39-year old Anglo-Irish peer was appointed a Captain in the Royal Inniskilling Fusilliers, and spent time in the trenches in France, where this story is set.

After the war was over, Lord Dunsany would travel on a tour of the United States. In Boston in 1919, a 29-year old H. P. Lovecraft would be too self-conscious to ask his idol for an autograph.

You come to the trenches out of strangely wasted lands, you come perhaps to a wood in an agony of contortions, black, branchless, sepulchral trees, and then no more trees at all. The country after that is still called Picardy or Belgium, still has its old name on the map as though it smiled there yet, sheltering cities and hamlet and radiant with orchards and gardens, but the country named Belgium—or whatever it be—is all gone away, and there stretches for miles instead one of the world’s great deserts, a thing to take its place no longer with smiling lands, but with Sahara, Gobi, Kalahari, and the Karoo; not to be thought of as Picardy, but more suitably to be named the Desert of Wilhelm. Through these sad lands one goes to come to the trenches. Overhead floats until it is chased away an aëroplane with little black crosses, that you can scarcely see at his respectful height, peering to see what more harm may be done in the desolation and ruin. Little flashes sparkle near him, white puffs spread out round the flashes: and he goes, and our airmen go away after him; black puffs break out round our airmen. Up in the sky you hear a faint tap-tapping. They have got their machine guns working.
—Lord Dunsany, “A Walk to the Trenches” in Tales of War (1918)

For all that Dunsany’s fiction has been lauded by the likes of Lovecraft & co., the writer himself never quite developed the same mythology about him. There are fewer stories about Dunsany the man than there are about Lovecraft. This may in part be due to the fact that Lord Dunsany himself was around for quite a bit longer: his writing career of 50+ years was longer than Lovecraft himself was alive, and Dunsany produced several volumes of autobiography…much of which, perhaps strangely, failed to touch on his inner life. He had been a sportsman, who hunted game big and small all over the world; chessmaster; heir to an old title in the British peerage; a soldier, a husband and father, a writer of poetry, fiction, wartime propaganda, plays…he corresponded with a young Arthur C. Clarke, and if her didn’t invent the club story with his Jorkins tales, he may well have perfected it.

There’s been quite a bit written about Dunsany, and he himself wrote quite a bit, but he failed to really make that leap into myth that had others write about him in the same way as Lovecraft. Which is one of the things that makes Naomi Novik’s story stand out in the second Lambshead anthology. That rare story that touches on Dunsany the myth.

He lifted off the lid and showed Edward: a lump fixed to the bottom of the post, smooth, white, glimmering like a pearl, irregular yet beautiful, even with the swollen tea-leaves like kelp strewn over and around it.
—Naomi Novik, “Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities 122

The magic of the teapot to me is more that it offers dreams, fantastical ones, and for both of them, in the midst of that dreadful war, to be able to dream and for a little while escape the reality of the grinding machinery of death, that was what brought them both peace.
—Naomi Novik, Year’s Best 2012: Naomi Novik on “Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” (Erin Stocks)

Ironically, if there is a problem with “Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” as a story, it’s not nit-picks about army life or the state of the Somme in the fall and winter of 1917, or any other fact of the real world or Dunsany’s life. It’s the implications of the teapot itself. As totemic artifacts go, 1917 is a bit late in Dunsany’s career to come into possession of the thing. Lord Dunsany had written nearly all of his fantasy fiction before his service in World War I, and relatively rarely ventured back there afterwards. If it had come to him during the Second Boer War (1899-1902), before he wrote The Gods of Pegāna (1905), it would be more fitting to explain his fantasy output.

Of course Novik never suggests that the teapot at all inspired Dunsany’s fantasies—his writing is never actually mentioned in the story itself—and that’s kind of its own little oddity too. It definitely feels like a story where the reader is expected to shoulder a good bit of the narrative heavy lifting: and that is sort of characteristic with many of H. P. Lovecraft’s fictional appearances—Lovecraft works as a character because of the familiarity of his image with fans. Lord Dunsany doesn’t quite have that much exposure. Readers are presumably supposed to recognize the name in the title (Lord Dunsany) and then know or intuit that Edward is Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany. Anything beyond that is presumably getting into the weeds.

Then again, the real hardcore Lord Dunsany fan knows that it should probably have been not a teapot, but a hat:

He cannot explain a flight of fancy, save to call it what it is, and thus can’t tell the “source” for Pegāna, which is probably just as well. But he does put forth a wealth of information about his writing methods,* his artistic credo, his early experiences in the theatre, and his interests in literature.

* One, which he doesn’t bother to mention, but which Lady Dunsany related to Sprague de Camp, was that he always sat on a crumpled old hat while composing his tales. Perhaps it had magical properties; but, alas, some visitor to Dunsany Castle made off with it, so we’ll never know.
—Darrell Schweitzer, Pathways to Elfland: The Writings of Lord Dunsany 139

This is one of those anecdotes that is almost impossible to source, but L. Sprague de Camp does mention his friendly relationship and correspondence with Lord Dunsany’s wife (and later widow) Beatrice, Lady Dunsany, so there’s no reason to discount it out of hand. Like Tolkien’s ashtray, it’s one of those odd real-life artifacts about which the speculation is probably much more fun and interesting than the reality.

“Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” is illustrated with a single picture, which bares a curious caption:

Yishan Li’s depiction of Lurd Dunsany’s Teaport, from the forthcoming Novik-Li graphic novel “Ten Days to Glory: Demon Tea and Lord Dunsany.”
The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities 119

Said graphic novel never came out, although Naomi Novik and Yishan Li did collaborate on another graphic novel, Will Supervillains Be On The Final? (2011). Publishing projects fall apart all the time, but despite the nitpicks above, it’s unfortunate that this didn’t happen. At longer length, with such a talented artist, “Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” could have been a really interesting work—and if there is a paucity of good stories about Lord Dunsany as a fictional character, he and his works are hardly ever adapted to comics or graphic novels.

“Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” was first published in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (2011) and was reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2012 Edition (2012).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Man Who Sold Rope To The Gnoles” (1951) by Margaret St. Clair

A HYMN OF HATE

Margaret St. Clair, of Berkeley, California, writes: “I’ve been a good quiet uncomplainng reader of WEIRD TALES for about ten years—but the prospect of another story by Edmond Hamilton moves me to hysterical outcry. He makes me want to scream and bite my nails—’captured thirty-six suns’ indeed! His style is nothing but exclamation marks; his idea of drama is something involving a fantastic number of light-speeds; he is, in the words of one of my favorite comic strip characters, flies in my soup. He is science-fiction at its worst: all WEIRD TALES needs to make the science-fiction atmosphere perfect is a letter from Forrest J. Ackerman and a story by Hamilton. Oh, and another gripe—I dislike the blurbs you are printing at the first of the stories. They are just a waste of space. I hate vampire and werewolf stories—my blood refuses to congeal for any number of undead clammily hooting about. There was a time when I could be made to shiver by the mention of garlic, but now it’s just something to put in salad. Things like Shambleau are what I like. As long as WT prints stories by Clark Ashton Smith, however, I’ll keep on reading it. His tales have a rounded jewel-like self-containedness that is, artistically, a delight. … And Smith’s drawings are, I think, by far the best in the magazine. … In conclusion, Jules de Grandin is a pain in the neck.”
—WEIRD TALES, June 1934

Margaret St. Clair could be considered a peripheral member of the gang of writers commonly called “the Lovecraft Circle.” She met Clark Ashton Smith while a student at the University of California at Berkeley, and began corresponding with him as early as 1933. (Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 208n1) St. Clair broke into the pulps after World War II, and her stories graced the pages of Weird Tales beginning in 1950, one of the last new voices to find a home at the magazine before its inevitable demise.

“The Man Who Sold Rope To The Gnoles” (first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Oct 1951), is one of Margaret St. Clair’s most famous stories. Her tale is inspired by and directly references Lord Dunsany’s own famous jocular fantasy “How Nuth Would Have Practiced His Art Upon the Gnoles” (The Book of Wonder, 1912). Dunsany was a substantial influence on Lovecraft’s early fiction, and some later writers have worked to tie the Lovecraft Mythos more directly to Dunsany, such as “My Boat” (1976) by Joanna Russ and “Meet Me on the Other Side” (2002) by Yvonne Navarro.

Margaret St. Clair is drawing directly from Dunsany here, pursuing her own homage to the British master of fantasy instead of trying to tie it into anything larger, expanding his Mythos but staying true to the spirit of the original story. There is something essential of Postwar America in the piece, a lightness of tone and a focus on money and its pursuit, with an ironic dark twist at the end reminiscent of Charles Addams’ The Addams Family and Robert Bloch’s light-hearted Mythos story “Philtre Tip” (1961).

Nuth looked on for a while from the corner of the house with a mild surprise on his face as he rubbed his chin, for the trick of the holes in the trees was new to him; then he stole nimbly away through the dreadful wood.
—Lord Dunsany, “How Nuth Would Have Practiced His Art Upon The Gnoles”

The gnoles were watching him through the holes they had bored in the trunks of trees; it is an artful custom of theirs to which the prime authority on gnoles attests.
—Margaret St. Clair, “The Man Who Sold Rope To The Gnoles”

Dunsany has inspired any number of writers, Lovecraft not least among them. The error most writers make is trying to write like Dunsany, to capture something of his style. Like pasticheurs who ape the cosmetic aspects of Lovecraft’s prose and miss the deeper stylistic structures, themes, and philosophical underpinnings which make his fiction work. St. Clair here does not attempt pastiche, but homage: she pays reverence to Dunsany’s story and the details he gave, while writing her own, in her own voice.

Which is why this is one of the few “Dunsanian” stories which works.

It is not by any stretch of the imagination a story that Dunsany would have written, which is half the point. J. R. R. Tolkien once criticized Dunsany’s story “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller”, also published in The Book of Wonder, lamenting:

Dunsany at his worst. Trying so hard for the shudder. But not for a moment making the tale ‘credible’ enough

Whether or not Dunsany was trying for a shudder or a chuckle, readers can decide for themselves. St. Clair by contrast was militantly angling for the lighter side, and the way in which she does so showcases, perhaps, how closely allied some of Lovecraft’s style of hinting was to Dunsany’s:

It was the parlor the gnole led him to. Mortensen’s eyes widened as he looked around it. There were whatnots in the corners, and cabinets of curiosities, and on the fretwork table an album with gilded hasps; who knows whose pictures were in it?
—Margaret St. Clair, “The Man Who Sold Rope To The Gnoles”

The juxtaposition of the Gnoles, strange and terrible as they are, having a very British or American-style parlor full of knickknacks and an album is the same sort of intimate contrast of “the fields we know” and the exotic and impossible which is such a hallmark of Dunsany’s early work. St. Clair’s leading question is in line with the unspoken horrors which Tolkien was so displeased with and which Lovecraft often used to such great effect: letting the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks.

The gnoles, it seemed, would be regular customers; and after the gnoles, why should he not try the Gibbelins? They too must have a need for rope. (ibid.)

“The Hoard of the Gibbelins” immediately proceeds “Gnoles” in The Book of Wonder, and St. Clair’s references to it in this story could have been a step toward stitching together some of Dunsany’s standalone stories into something like a larger Mythos, though she never pursued such a design. It is something readers of Lovecraft take almost for granted—didn’t Lovecraft borrow elements from Dunsany, Arthur Machen, Robert W. Chambers (and Chambers himself from Ambrose Bierce)?

Certainly Margaret St. Clair, who was reading Weird Tales so early and so long, knew what she was doing.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Meet Me on the Other Side” (2002) by Yvonne Navarro

Bethmoora,” Paul said. “And no, it’s not Israeli. Actually, the roots aren’t traceable to any specific language or dialect. But it’s still…foreign.”
– Yvonne Navarro, “Meet Me on the Other Side” in The Children of Cthulhu 141

Four million people asleep, dreaming perhaps. What worlds have they gone into? Whom have they met? But my thoughts are far off with Bethmoora in her loneliness, whose gates swing to and fro. To and fro they swing, and creak and creak in the wind, but no one hears them.
– Lord Dunsany, “Bethmoora” in A Dreamer’s Tales (1910)

A few years after the birth of the 21st century, Anglo-Irish aristocrat Lord Dunsany was inspired to create his own artificial mythology⁠—not a substitute national mythos a la J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but something new and largely unprecedented. He combined the love of the commonplace with the desire for the exotic, and wrapped it together in language reminiscent of the King James Bible and ancient Grecian odes. Stories like “Idle Days on the Yann” directly inspired the dream-quests of Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter…and many others besides.

For Yvonne Navarro, the questers are Paul and Macy.

“Meet Me on the Other Side” is smarter than just an update of Dunsany’s old formula where seekers tired of mundane life look for the key of dreams, the path that leads Beyond the Fields We Know, escape from the here and the now. Like many a goof Mythos story, it mixes fact with fiction; Paul first finds reference to Bethmoora in that ancient and terrible tome the Encyclopedia Cthulhiana (1994) by Dan Harms. The questers too are not run down by everyday life—they’re thrill-seekers, adventurers, explorers in their own right.

Bethmoora was out there, all right. Just waiting to be rediscovered.
Revitalized.
And they were just the people to do it.
– Yvonne Navarro, “Meet Me on the Other Side” in The Children of Cthulhu 144

The discoveries and revelations when they come are almost perfunctory; old tropes dusted off and brought out because that’s the cycle of a Mythos story: Macy is the latest Lavinia, destined for a bit of cosmic miscegenation and birthing of eldritch abominations. Yet the response is different, and what makes the story.

Paul and Macy like a challenge.

Navarro is an old pro at genre fiction; she could easily have spun this story off into an entire novel. Urban explorers in the not-quite-abandoned city in the Dreamlands, flashbacks to old adventures, the slow peeling-of-the-onion, one layer of revelation coming at a time as things build inevitably to a climax—instead, she rips the bandaid off in a couple paragraphs of exposition. The backstory is something Mythos fans have read again and again for decades. “Meet Me on the Other Side” seeks to give the readers something new, and it delivers.

The benefit of having tropes and formula is that they’re building blocks, stepping stones and shortcuts that writers can use to go beyond—and one of the great failures of many Mythos writers is that they try to only ape Lovecraft or Dunsany, to regurgitate old ideas rather than to subvert expectations or push forward with fresh takes.

Navarro does make the leap. How many other writers have had their protagonists look on conceiving and birthing tentacled horrors and the inevitable end of the world as a challenge? It is absolutely a subversion of the typical Lovecraftian attitude that humans are so small in the grand scheme of things that there is little they can do…and not an unwelcome one. The Dreamlands stories do not all embrace or express Lovecraft’s cosmicism, nor need every echo of his work embrace nihilistic horror.

“Meet Me on the Other Side” was published in The Children of Cthulhu (2002), and has not been reprinted. Navarro’s other Lovecraftian fiction includes the novelization of the film Hellboy (2004) and “Feeding the Masses” (1992) and “WWRD” (2018).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).