The Night Land has developed a notorious reputation over the years as one of the most forbidding and inaccessible works of classic science fiction. Even H.P. Lovecraft, no stranger to purple prose himself, struggled to make his way through it. “I’m a couple of hundred pages into ‘The Night Land,’” he wrote to a friend in 1934, “but it’s damn hard going. God, what a verbose mess.”
Clocking in at a hefty two hundred thousand words, the Night Land is already dated by the contemporary standards of its 1912 publication date, but rendered still more obscure by its intentionally archaic, faux-Elizabethan prose. Even back in the early twentieth century, this was baroque stuff, rife with artificially mannered and semicolon-laden paragraphs. The author himself knew that the work was a tough slog: When William Hope Hodgson failed to find an American publisher for the original British work, he redacted it to a novella of perhaps a tenth its original size. Nor was the this the last attempt to tame The Night Land. Author John Stoddard put forward a complete rewrite of the work as The Night Land, A Story Retold in 2011.
A handful of influential writers cast long shadows over the fantasy genre. The core fantasy reader has always been fond of the familiar trope, eager to revisit comfortable archetypes. The influences of Lovecraft and Tolkein loom especially large in that landscape. Both writers can claim that unique privilege afforded to literary greats–their names have been turned into adjectives. Yet the themes of what define the “Lovecraftian” and the “Tolkeinesque” could not be more different; the despairing cosmic nihilism of the Cthulu mythos is the antithesis of the heroics of Middle-Earth.
Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany
But both authors are united in one thing. They acknowledged the tremendous influence of one writer on their style: Lord Dunsany.
Lord Dunsany is almost unknown today, but in the early decades of the twentieth century he was among the world’s most popular writers. He published at least eighty books in his life, plus eight collections of poetry. At one time he had five different plays running simultaneously on the New York stage. His appeal transcended the modern constraints of genre, and his contemporaries and associates included names like Rudyard Kipling and William Butler Yeats. Yeats was in fact to edit some of Dunsany’s work, and personally solicited plays for the Abbey theater. Dunsany, said Yeats, “transfigured with beauty the common sights of the world.”
Dunsany was born to the Anglo-Irish nobility. The ‘Lord’ was not an affectation but a fact; he held the second-oldest peerage in all Ireland. More rightly named Edward Plunkett, he elected to publish his work under his more poetic-sounding title. His first book’s printing was financed out of his own pocket. Such was its success that he would never again need to foot his own bill.