The Gods of Pegana by Lord Dunsany

Lord Dunsany by MJEIn 1903, at the age of 25, four years into his title, Lord Dunsany went to see a play called The Darling of the Gods, written by David Belasco and John Luther Long. Long’s 1898 story, “Madame Butterfly”, had made use of his sister’s stay in Japan as the wife of a missionary (though apparently it bears too many similarities to an 1887 French novel, Madame Chrysanthème, for this to be the entire inspiration), and had been adapted by Belasco for the stage in 1900. The Darling of the Gods, a success in New York and newly transplanted to the London stage (where it was produced by the wonderfully-named Beerbohm Tree, and starred Lena Ashwell as Princess Yo-San), was also set in Japan, or, rather, a fantasticated version of Japan that was the sort of place an early-20th century Western audience wanted it to be — a storyland of escape, exoticism and picturesque tragedy, an embodiment of all the lingering dreams of the Decadent and Arts & Crafts movements of the late 19th century, that had so fallen in love with the aesthetics of imported Japanese prints and lacquered wood. In a further act of what Harold Bloom might have called a ‘creative misreading’, Dunsany, watching the play, was overtaken by the poetic possibilities of creating a pantheon of gods, and the result was his first published (and only self-funded) book, The Gods of Pegāna, brought out in 1905. (Online text here.)


cover to Oriental Stories, Winter 1932

This is a situation that recurs throughout the history of fantasy: one culture, encountering another, becomes overwhelmed by fantasies of that distant place and creates its own version of it, a version that becomes increasingly stylised and storyfied, till it enters the realm of pure invention. At the start of the 18th century in France, for instance, the first translations of The Thousand and One Nights were followed by increasingly creative ‘translations’ of other, obscure, ‘newly-discovered’ collections of Eastern tales, footnoted to varying degrees of veracity, till finally the whole thing becomes a convention and people openly pen invented ‘Oriental Tales’ using all the pre-existing backdrops, props and costumes of this imagined version of a distant culture, with no relation to the facts at all. (And when William Beckford wrote Vathek, he was doing the same thing at a double remove: he wrote his mock-Oriental Gothic tale in French, as though it were a ‘genuine’ French imitation Oriental tale, rather than a poor English one.) A similar thing happened in the 19th century, with a different meeting of cultures, this time when the Brothers Grimm began to investigate the folk tales of the peasant classes. Which is why, when Victorian England fell in love with fairy tales, they pictured their heroes and heroines in Germanic peasant dress and dark, endless forests.

Lord Dunsany’s Pegāna, then, is mock-mock Oriental. But it’s also, thanks to its prose style, mock Biblical, and perhaps it’s by being pulled in two separate directions that it breaks free from any definite cultural associations and starts to seem like a wholly new thing. Which is why it’s regarded as one of the first books of truly modern fantasy. Pegāna, though, is not a separate, invented world. The name refers to a sort of Olympus, a dwelling place for Dunsany’s invented gods, though one that exists ‘Before there stood gods on Olympus, or ever Allah was Allah’.

Before our world was created, two forces, Fate and Chance (like Moorcock’s Law and Chaos) cast lots ‘to decide whose the Game should be’. Nobody knows which of these two won, only that the winner went to the primal creator, MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ (whose name is always shouted like that), and told him to create the gods.

In the Land of Time by Lord Dunsany (Penguin Classics)Dunsany’s world is founded on the fact that Man can never know the answer to the important questions. Whichever one it was who won that initial casting of the lots — Fate or Chance — as far as we’re concerned, our fate is decided: Man was created by Kib, and each man will be killed, in time, when Mung (Death) makes ‘the sign of Mung’ to him, and between those points he must follow the path set out for him by Dorozhand (Destiny), who alone knows the ‘reason and purpose of the Worlds’. In the face of this, all a man can do (and it is ‘man’, because there are no women in Dunsany’s first book) is distract himself in the works of Limpang-Tung, ‘the God of Mirth and Melodious Minstrels’. The gods, meanwhile, enjoy nothing more than to laugh at their creation, all the while knowing that, when their own maker MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ wakes from this sleep (which will end the world), he will laugh at them for their pettiness in creating it.

We poor humans, meanwhile, have nothing but fatalism for our solace:

‘All that is is so because it was to be. Rail not, therefore, against what is, for it was all to be.’

Dunsany has a lot to say about ‘Prophets’. There are prophets who speak the truth, and there are those who lie. Those who speak the truth speak the one and only truth any honest man can: that he knows nothing of the gods, and has no influence over them. This sort of prophet is not very popular. The people would rather have a prophet who gives them a comforting lie, and The Gods of Pegāna has its fair share of such false prophets: Yug, who claims to know all things, but dies all the same; Alhireth-hotep, who claims to speak with Mung (Death), so Mung comes calling; Kabok, who goes so far as to say he advises Mung, but does a runner when Mung starts lurking in his garden at night; and Yun-Ilara, who genuinely does not fear Mung, to the point that he spends his days in a high tower shouting insults at the god of Death… Only, in his weary latter years, to regret this, and instead spend his time begging for Mung to visit.

"Mung and the Beast of Mung", by Sidney Sime

“Mung and the Beast of Mung”, by Sidney Sime

Most of these tiny tales are poetic parables mocking false hope and the empty promises of religion. Dunsany’s invented names — one of the hallmarks of his writings — are at first of two types. There are the brutal-sounding single syllables, which he gives to most of his gods: Skarl, Kib, Sish and Mung. And there are the overblown, overlong names, like MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ, or Yoharneth-Lahai. I get the feeling these names started off as basically comic: the short names are meant to emphasise the primitive, nonsensical nature of some of the gods of Pegāna; the long names emphasise the over-grand nature of others. In a similar way, the mock-Biblical language is used to satirise religious writing with its entirely tautological way of enforcing belief:

‘Kib is Kib. Kib is he and no other… Because this is written, believe! For is it not written, or are you greater than Kib?’

But a sort of poetry creeps in, both into the invented names, and into the prose:

‘Then Mung went down into a waste of Afrik, and came upon the drought Umbool as he sat in the desert upon iron rocks, clawing with miserly grasp at the bones of men and breathing hot.’

The first section to really read like modern fantasy — evoking wonder for wonder’s sake — is ‘The Eye in the Waste’:

There lie seven deserts beyond Bodraháhn, which is the city of the caravans’ end. None goeth beyond. In the first desert lie the tracks of mighty travellers outward from Bodraháhn, and some returning. And in the second lie only outward tracks, and none return.

The third is a desert untrodden by the feet of men.

The fourth is the desert of sand, and the fifth is the desert of dust, and the sixth is the desert of stones, and the seventh is the Desert of Deserts.

In the midst of the last of the deserts that lie beyond Bodraháhn, in the centre of the Desert of Deserts, standeth the image that hath been hewn of old out of the living hill whose name is Rānorāda — the eye in the waste.

About the base of Rānorāda is carved in mystic letters that are vaster than the beds of streams these words:

To the god who knows.

Now, beyond the second desert are no tracks, and there is no water in all the seven deserts that lie beyond Bodraháhn. Therefore came no man thither to hew that statue from the living hills, and Rānorāda was wrought by the hands of gods…

The penultimate chapter, ‘The River’, is perhaps Dunsany’s best prose-poem in the book, about silence, sleep, dreams, and the end of all things:

‘It hath been said that when Skarl ceases to drum, and MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ awakes, and the gods of Pegāna know that it is the End, that then the gods will enter galleons of gold, and with dream-born rowers glide down Imrana (who knows whither or why?) till they come where the River enters the Silent Sea, and shall there be gods of nothing, where nothing is, and never a sound shall come. And far away upon the River’s banks shall bay their old hound Time, that shall seek to rend his masters; while MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ shall think some other plan concerning gods and worlds.’

Le Guin, The Language Of The NightIt’s strange to think that, in her 1973 essay ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’, Ursula Le Guin would call Dunsany ‘the most imitated’ writer of fantasy, whose archaic prose style, and mode of poetic invention through fantastic names evoking distant, story-misty cities and hinted-at magics, made him ‘the First Terrible Fate that Awaiteth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy’. This style of fantasy, heavy on magic and imaginative invention, can be found in, for instance, Michael Moorcock’s method of writing Elric books with a list of fantastic-poetic concepts like ‘The City of Screaming Statues’ by his side. But nowadays (and things may have come to an end starting with Terry Brooks’s Sword of Shannara), the dominant mode of fantasy, as typified by George R R Martin, is at the opposite extreme: minimal magic, minimal poetry, maximal grit. But perhaps the outlook on life is basically the same: both share a cynicism about the promises of religion, and an insistence on the inevitability of death (not to say Death working overtime, in Game of Thrones).

The final word, as ever, belongs to Mung, who will always have the final word:

And Mung said: ‘Were the forty million years before thy coming intolerable to thee?’

And Mung said: ‘Not less tolerable to thee shall be the forty million years to come.’


Pinhead & The Scarlet Gospels

scarlet-gospels-uk-coverClive Barker’s new novel may open with the resurrection of a magician, but its primary purpose is not to revive the magical past, it’s to lay a ghost. Or, rather, exorcise a demon. For here, in a literary kill-off move that’s surely been played out too many times for anyone to believe it’ll work, Barker does a Reichenbach Falls on his most famous creation: the Hell Priest.


That’s Pinhead, to you and me — or the Lead Cenobite, if you’re a purist, as that was how he was credited in the first Hellraiser film (while in The Hellbound Heart, he wasn’t even the lead) — but apparently the entity in question prefers to be addressed as the Hell Priest. At least, until he slaughters the rest of his order and embarks on a new career as would-be King of Hell. (The Devil, in this version of Hell, having been absent for some time.)

It’s here, I think, Barker’s trouble begins. If you’re going to kill someone off, you’ve got to at least get their name right. I don’t even think he gets the location right. The Hell Priest is to be killed off in Hell, right? But Pinhead — the creature who, to me, made his one and only definitive appearance in Hellraiser, and whose name ought to be Pinhead, because it shows the proper degree of fear-hiding-behind-irreverence that such truly terrible monsters are often treated with — doesn’t belong in Hell. The ‘Hell’ in Hellraiser is figurative, not literal. ‘Hell’ is a state you go through — toils and torments raised to religious levels — not a place. (Certainly not as quotidian a place as Barker presents in The Scarlet Gospels: a Hell with uniformed police, bicycles, money, and other much-too-mundane details, far more reminiscent of the Hell of Barker’s mostly disappointing previous novel, Mister B Gone. It does have some glorious architecture, though.)

To me, Pinhead is a far different creature to this troublesome Hell Priest. His origins — along with those of Barker’s first (and best) feature film — lie in an experimental short film, The Forbidden, first glimpsed on The South Bank Show in 1994. Here, Barker presents us with a variant on the Faust myth, in which a lone magician in search of ‘the further reaches of experience’ summons a ghostly lover, then passes onto more esoteric pleasures, culminating in his being skinned alive. The Forbidden is scattered with abstract, purely cinematic sequences (which can be seen sneaking their way into Hellraiser, too — as in the shot of an unfurling, blood-red flower that precedes Kirsty’s waking up in hospital), some of which are of Barker’s ‘nail-board’: a square wooden base, criss-crossed with regular score marks, six-inch nails hammered into each juncture. Moving a light around it, Barker explores this for its abstract visual qualities (as he does the lights-through-slats that precede the appearance of the Cenobites in Hellraiser), but it’s unmistakably the origin of Pinhead:

‘Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jewelled pin driven through the bone.’ — The Hellbound Heart

Contrasted with the Faust character’s visions and torments, the image of the nail-board contains, I think, a sort of boiled-down abstraction of crucifixion: nails (significantly, these aren’t points-upwards, as you’d expect from an image of torture), crosses and wood, simplified and multiplied, as though transcendence were being sold by the yard, and made available to anyone with a DIY temperament.

Moving from the nail-board to Pinhead, you see a man (or creature) who is in his own, permanent, self-crucified state, the very image of pain and transcendence unified. Summoned by Uncle Frank — who’s more interested in a far different meaning of the phrase ‘getting nailed’ — the Cenobites are ‘Angels to some. Demons to others.’ So they are, in Hellraiser, not evil, and do not belong to Hell. Instead, they’re a gateway to extreme experience that transcends the idea of pain being opposite to pleasure, or of evil being opposed to good. Heaven is their Hell, and vice versa; one is reached through the other. Their whole point is that they do not belong in a duality. Which means that, by putting its ‘Hell Priest’ in a very traditional Hell, The Scarlet Gospels, to me, strikes a false note. The Hell Priest that Barker is killing off isn’t the Cenobite known to the rest of us as Pinhead; he’s an imposter.

(Mind you, the Hellraiser movies have been doing just as convincing a job of removing Pinhead from his original ‘beyond good and evil’ meaning and turning him into a standard movie monster since the second film. And this, no doubt, is the version of the creature Barker wants to kill off.)

Scarlet Gospels (US cover)I’ve said before that Barker’s work is all about unifying the divides between, for instance, imagination and mundanity, between day-to-day experience and the transcendent extremes. For much of it, The Scarlet Gospels is too concerned, I think, with a storyline that doesn’t allow any of this deeper theme to come through. It reads like a checklist of what a Clive Barker novel ought to be: a very gruesome beginning, and then a lot of excessive, perverse, blood-soaked demonic goings on after that, but very little of the higher themes like transcendence.

Which isn’t to say there’s no transcendence. As well as being about the Hell Priest, The Scarlet Gospels is about two other characters with a literary pedigree: Harry D’Amour, Barker’s longstanding supernatural PI, and Lucifer. Both of these are transformed by the events of The Scarlet Gospels, in far different (and more convincing) ways than the demise of Pinhead (which can’t help being unconvincing — he’s been offed too many times in the movies).

The Scarlet Gospels isn’t the best of Barker, but that’s not to say it’s not worth reading. If at times it feels a little dated in its constant excess, it also feels like a reminder of the days when major publishers put out stuff that actually seemed dangerous and transgressive but which also had artistic intent. Barker is an artist, and I’d certainly like to read more of him — but moved on, not dwelling on the same old stuff in the same old way. And I wonder if there aren’t signs Barker might want this too:

Now Harry realized with terrifying clarity that he no longer wished to be the witness of such sights. This was not the world in which he belonged.


“I have heard this story. I have seen you. I have seen all of you! In countless incarnations!” the Devil shouted to the crowd who attentively watched his every move. When he spoke again, it was slow and deliberate. “I do not want this anymore.”