The Collected Jorkens. Volume One . By Lord Dunsany. Edited by S. T. Joshi.
Night Shade Books. ISBN 1-892389-56-8. $35.

Reviewed by Henry Wessells

A brief taxonomy of the Club Story
O Best Beloved ! In the High and Far-Off Times, when people gathered and stories were told  . . .
The path from the Arabian Nights and the coffee houses of Cairo through “ The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ” to the postprandial conversations of Edwardian clubmen and London yachtsmen is one that can be traced; by someone else. When I use the term “ club story ” I refer to a form in the literature of the English-speaking world that flourished from the late Victorian period to the middle of the twentieth century. These stories are incidents of story-telling, written works recording a narrative told  by another, generally at a small gathering. The Season of the club story is Edwardian autumn, rain and hideous palls of smog we can hardly imagine ; the setting is frequently but not exclusively indoors ; the narrators and audiences are almost invariably men (the Larger Question this raises is duly noted, to be considered below) ; there is, equally invariably, an element of the Exotic involved ; an important convention of the form is that paradox is involved — whether as part of the story or merely to prompt the story-teller's recollection and resolve. The club story is, finally, a particular species of the frame story : what is crucial is the central idea, the tale within the tale.
The club story attained its apotheosis early : Conrad’s “ Heart of Darkness ” (1899) and Lord Jim  (1900), tales of “ dark places of the earth ” and courage arising from cowardice, define and transcend the form. It quickly became a cornerstone of detective and thriller fiction : note In the Fog  by Richard Harding Davis (1904), The Man Who Knew Too Much  by G. K. Chesterton (1922), and The Runagates Club  by John Buchan (1928). P. G. Wodehouse’s stories of Mr. Mulliner and the Angler’s Rest or the Oldest Member’s golfing memories are humorous manifestations of the same form. Buchan includes tales with fantastical and supernatural elements, and there is a long line of club stories in science fiction. These are, however, chiefly successors to the tradition, set in bars and pubs : Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp’s Tales from Gavagan's Bar  (1953); Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart  (1957), and Spider Robinson’s Callahan stories. Sterling Lanier’s two volumes of Brigadier Ffellowes stories (1972 & 1986) are late but entirely in the voice and style of the club story.

Dunsany and the Club Story
The signal omission from the preceding overview of the club story is Lord Dunsany, a contemporary of Buchan whose travels and accomplishments might easily have qualified him for a seat at the Thursday Club (the official name of the dining club in Buchan’s collection). The 18th Baron Dunsany (1878-1956), an Anglo-Irish peer of ancient lineage, was educated at Eton and Sandhurst, a veteran of the Boer War, and a sportsman and chess-player. The milestones of his first quarter century give no indication of the literary career he followed thereafter. Beginning in 1905, he published hundreds of fantastical short stories in an elaborately high literary style, and went on to become a widely produced playwright associated with the Abbey Theatre and the Irish Renaissance. “ The Glittering Gate ”, written and first produced in 1909, about two Irishmen waiting before the gates of heaven, must be counted among the precursors to Beckett. At one point in 1916, he had five plays running simultaneously in New York.
With the devastation of the Great War, Dunsany wrote no more stories in the tone of his early fantasies. He published a novel in an archaic mode, The Chronicles of Rodriquez  in 1922, and then soon thereafter wrote The King of Elfland's Daughter  (1924), one of the classics of fantastic literature. Darrell Schweitzer’s review on the occasion of a modern reprint (in NYRSF  137) touches upon many interesting aspects of the book, to which I would add the observation that its magical, sonorous prose is intertwined with passages employing the natural rhythms of English ; and that is part of its magic. The novel is a departure from his earlier work ; there are signs pointing to his under-appreciated novel of Ireland, The Curse of the Wise Woman  (1933) and his later fiction. The path from Elfland to Ireland is to be found in the Jorkens stories, written beginning in 1925.
The narrator (unnamed but clearly Dunsany), a member of the Billiards Club, records the travel tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens, who is fond of a refreshing glass and whose truthfulness is questioned but never quite impeached. Having discovered this form, Dunsany once again became prolific and eventually published five Jorkens collections ; the first two are reprinted in the present volume.

In the Fog
The Collected Jorkens, Volume One  collects The Travel Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens  (1931) and Jorkens Remembers Africa  (1934). Jorkens's putative travels are often in the Sahara and the East, but just as often (and with quite as exotic an effect), there are recollections of incidents in England. The frame story totters a few times in the early stories, but as with the occasional lubricating whiskey-and-soda, these are “ remarks that may be likened to little dead twigs that one throws down to keep a fire going ” (35). Once the fire gets going, Jorkens tells of magical objects, travellers to distant lands, strange treasures, unusual animals, a mermaid, a tormented capitalist and a visionary one, an African tribal chief turned cricketer for Cambridge, a circus showman, and several unusual women.
I will address (briefly) the Larger Question noted above. The membership of the Billiards Club, and thus Jorkens’ listeners, is exclusively male ; there is an occasional misogynistic flavor in certain asides (79-80) that is repulsive as an aged relative's dusty attitudes. One may, indeed must question (as Virginia Woolf did) the social and economic reasons why the dinners at the men’s college were more convivial than those at the women’s college ; but one cannot fault Dunsany for accurately recording the tones and ideas of an age. (We might all be interested to read stories from the women’s club : Le Guin’s “ Sur ” is surely and subversively one. But that is another matter.) Dunsany’s female characters have innate dignity and genuine autonomy ; the great issue of his later work was empathy with other sentient beings. And now to move on.
It is often a dismal London afternoon in early winter, and yet what Jorkens talks about is sunlight : the Sahara, the headwaters of the Nile, the Veldt, the eastern Mediterranean, the Himalayas. or the English countryside in spring and summer : “ I told of the difference between weeds and flowers, a knowledge so slowly come by, so hard to accept ; for who could believe at first that that glowing light the dandelion, that proud exuberance of colour, was only a weed ? ” (218). Close observation of the natural world is inseparable from Jorkens’ recollection of events. “ Grass of parnassus was flowering in such abundance that I wondered if those smooth lawns were not too marshy for golf ” (324) ; that afternoon Jorkens wandered into the grounds of the Elysian Club. He has a digressive tendency, and Dunsany the narrator occasionally records the conversational tactics he employs to keep Jorkens on topic.

A Line Drawn Round Regent’s Park
Several points about Dunsany’s stories struck me during this reading. The first is one of influence : Lovecraft is an obvious instance (I suspect he would have disliked the Jorkens stories), and there may be many others. I have often wondered whether St. Exupéry knew of “ The Escape from the Valley ” ; and I think the concluding image of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon  has uncanny parallels with “ A Drink at a Running Stream ”. Dunsany was extremely prolific, and sometimes an idea that another writer might use as the cornerstone of a vast structure becomes in the Jorkens stories a peculiar twist in a short short.
Influence may be too forceful a word, but I mention the question because The Collected Jorkens  includes a foreword by Arthur C. Clarke : his appreciation of Dunsany's writings and reminiscences of a meeting with Dunsany. (Their complete Correspondence  was edited by Keith Allan Daniels and published by his Anamnesis Press in 1998.) Consider then Dunsany : “ ‘ Is there anything in this magic that they say they can do in the East ? ’ It very nearly shut him up altogether ; for he thought that I was speaking of magic lightly. But he luckily saw I was serious . . . and, speaking in a quite friendly way, said : ‘ You might, just as well, doubt wireless ’ ” (329). This strikes me as an early formulation of Clarke’s Third Law.
Distance and geography undergo certain evocative transformations during a Jorkens yarn. “. . . all of a sudden, pale and clear on my right, I saw a range of mountains that I did not know were there. . . . he told me they were the Himalayas. The Himalayas ! Imagine seeing a waterfall, and asking its name, and being told that it was Niagara ; or entering a church by chance, and finding it was Westminster Abbey ” (93). “ We had already changed bullocks twice, and done over sixty of the fifty miles that they had said it was to the monastery. I found that distances in India were often like that ” (95). Other ideas, too : in “ The Showman ”, Jorkens describes the workings of another system of justice. “ It depends what you call laws. But if you define them as any organised acts arising out of the deep convictions or feelings of any community . . . ”(122).
The narrative frequently turns upon a change in point of view, or the ability to take another view. The boldest statement Jorkens makes is : “ I deprecate that hard and fast line between fabulous animals and those that you all chance to have seen . . . What does it amount to, practically, but a line drawn round Regent's Park ? ” (222). How wonderful.
Jorkens has a greater capacity for imagination than the stodgier, establishment members of the Billiards Club, and it is this that makes “ The Witch of the Willows ” such a poignant, haunting tale. Jorkens makes a choice he knows to be wrong as he makes it : “ I knew that all would be well if I said yes . . . that she would change as soon as I married her into something lovelier than the folk of the other world know, something only known of in ballad. I knew all this . . . Yes, I made my choice ; I said no to her ” (163-4). Jorkens regretted it as he did so, and never regained the magic he cast off.

S. T. Joshi’s introduction places Jorkens within Dunsany’s long career and touches upon aspects of particular stories, suggesting with relevant examples that the Jorkens tales might be viewed as efforts to prevent thinning (the disappearance of magic from the world). Joshi notes astutely enough, “ Many of the Jorkens tales may seem like nothing more than clever jeux d’esprit . . . but they underscore messages that were very close to Dunsany’s heart ” (xviii-xix). Joshi draws a connection between “ The Witch of the Willows ” and a story from Dunsany’s earlier period, but omits mention of how this story points toward important later works. Again I mention The Curse of the Wise Woman and its complexities : political, environmental, fantastical, historical, and sporting. When asking rhetorically, “ Had his inspiration for short fiction dried up ? ” Joshi omits mention of the catastrophic impact of the Great War : Dunsany simply could not continue in the old mode and said so in Unhappy Far-Off Things  (1919).
And then there was this new thing called modernism. I suspect it may have been a prickly subject for Dunsany, but it is certain that no Irishman (or Anglo-Irishman) of letters in 1922 could have ignored James Joyce. While Dunsany never adopted the formal innovations of high modernism, it is significant that beginning with Jorkens in 1925, Dunsany found a way to integrate the vernacular speech and natural forms of expression into his story-telling. The narrator of The Curse of the Wise Woman  tells his story of the stirrings of Irish revolution in the 1880s from the vantage point of an elderly expatriate living in the eastern Adriatic : surely that is Dunsany employing silence, exile, and cunning.
These are wonderful stories and they were almost unobtainable until now (the 1940 collection I have only read through inter-library loan). I have been waiting for this new edition since Night Shade announced it a couple of years back. A damp drear autumn is the perfect time to read these stories. Don’t read them all at once ; with surfeit, even Wodehouse palls.
“ What a power is curiosity when once awakened ! I might have heard Shakespeare speak. And yet I wasted my time in trying to satisfy my miserable curiosity as to who the secretary was ” (326). Dunsany knew that he was writing entertainments ; and yet he also offers glimpses of strange lands outside that “ line round Regent’s Park ”.


First published in The New York Review of Science Fiction , February 2005. All rights reserved