Tuesday Terror! Poor Old Bill by Lord Dunsany

The Captain’s curse…


Now the nights are drawing in and the spooks are stirring in readiness for their annual shindig, it’s time to indulge in some soul-harrowing, blood-freezing and raising of hair like quills upon the fretful porpentine. So to start the season nicely, here’s one you might not want to read while eating, for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Poor Old Bill
by Lord Dunsany

Lord Dunsany
Lord Dunsany


On an antique haunt of sailors, a tavern of the sea, the light of day was fading… Talk was low and seldom, and I was about to leave, when a sailor, wearing ear-rings of pure gold, lifted up his head from his wine, and looking straight before him at the wall, told his tale loudly…

The sailor tells of how he and his companions were on a sailing ship in exotic, far distant seas. Their captain was a cruel man, and a strange one…

We all hated the captain, and he hated us. He hated us all alike, there was no favouritism about him. And he never would talk a word with any of us, except sometimes in the evening when it was getting dark he would stop and look up and talk a bit to the men he had hanged at the yard-arm.

One day, the ship arrived at some low nasty-looking islands, on which were little cottages with thatch reaching almost to the ground and small, queer dark windows…

And no one, man or beast, was walking about, so that you could not know what kind of people lived there. But Captain knew. And he went ashore and into one of the cottages, and someone lit lights inside, and the little windows wore an evil look.


The night after he returned to the ship, the men became aware that the Captain had acquired a new skill…

Next night we found that he had learned to curse, for he came on a lot of us asleep in our bunks, and among them poor old Bill, and he pointed at us with a finger, and made a curse that our souls should stay all night at the top of the masts. And suddenly there was the soul of poor old Bill sitting like a monkey at the top of the mast, and looking at the stars, and freezing through and through.

From then on, the cruel Captain made the men ever more miserable, casting their souls into the green water or to the top of the masts, or even to the cold, cold Moon…

It was quite dark when we got back, and we were very respectful to Captain all the next day, but he cursed several of us again very soon. What we all feared most was that he would curse our souls to Hell, and none of us mentioned Hell above a whisper for fear that it should remind him.

At last the men decided to mutiny, but poor old Bill talked them into partial mercy – rather than killing the Captain, they would leave him on a desert island with enough supplies to last him for a year. Poor old Bill! Little did they know that, even at a distance, the Captain would still have the power to curse them, preventing them from making landfall on any shore. And the Captain’s food would last longer than theirs…

It was horrible to us to think what a frugal man Captain really was, he that used to get drunk every other day whenever he was at sea, and here he was still alive, and sober too, for his curse still kept us out of every port, and our provisions were gone.

Well, it came to drawing lots, and Jim was the unlucky one. Jim only kept us about three days, and then we drew lots again…

Jim may have been unlucky, but not as unlucky as poor old Bill…


* * * * * * *

This is a great little story to bring the porpentine out of hibernation! Despite the hanged men and the cannibalism, it’s actually quite humorous because of the way Dunsany tells it. “Poor old Bill” becomes like a refrain running through it, just to keep you aware that however bad things seem, they’re going to get much, much worse. The language is perfect for this kind of tale, ornate and a little overblown. I understand he was a major influence on the porpentine’s old pal, HP Lovecraft, and there are certainly some similarities in style; but, in this one at least, Dunsany keeps to the point better than HPL usually does, and keeps his descriptions brief, though they’re no less effective for that.

I could imagine it as a campfire story, read aloud to bloodthirsty children, with them all gradually joining in each time poor old Bill gets a mention. In the story, the teller of the tale’s “wild eyes shone” the darker it got. I can imagine that Dunsany’s eyes may have had more of a twinkle while he wrote it – or perhaps a wicked glint. My first introduction to Dunsany – won’t be my last!

If you’d like to read it (approx 2000 words), here’s a link.


Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

28 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! Poor Old Bill by Lord Dunsany

    • Haha! Sorry about that! I hope you weren’t eating a sailor though… 😉 I only heard of him as an influence on Lovecraft so I thought I’d track him down. On the basis of this one, he seems worth investigating further…

  1. This is brilliant!! It is quite hideous, but there is a splash of dark humour that I love. And I love love love his style. And – isn’t Lord Dunsany a dashing chap? He could be a new favourite of mine. Also – your ‘currently reading’ list looks very interesting!

    • It’s great isn’t it? Yes, I love that kind of humour that’s so subtle you’re not quite sure if it’s intentional or not. Poor old Bill! (When I put poor old Bill into Google search images, I got a zillion pics of Hillary… so cruel!) The Echoes of Sherlock Holmes book is fab so far – every single story has been a winner. And the Horowitz is shaping up to be great…

      • It is quite masterful, even! I am most impressed. (Very funny about the Google search – but oh how nasty! The internet is so cruel… 😉 ) I have high hopes for the Horowitz, he is one of my favourites 🙂

            • The book inside the book (this isn’t a spoiler) is a traditional Christie-style murder mystery and it’s done brilliantly. It left me wondering why her estate didn’t give the task to him to do a new Poirot rather than Ms Hannah, especially after him doing the Holmes follow-ons so well.

            • I know!! I thought that myself, he used to write on the TV show years ago I think. He would have been perfect! Maybe he turned it down. I am very much looking forward to this book now – he rarely disappoints!

            • Did he? I didn’t know that! Well, that makes it even more silly if they didn’t pick him. Maybe he’s done this one specially to show how well he could have done it…

  2. Well, hello, Porpentine! Nice to see you again. And I can see how this story lured you out of hibernation. Those old tales can be deliciously eerie and, therefore, so satisfying, don’t you think? And there’s just something about seagoing (mis)adventures that really lend themselves to creepy stories. Glad you thought this was not just creepy, but also a solid story.

    • The porpy is glad to get out and stretch his legs! I do – horror is one thing that I think the oldies did much better than newer writers. Maybe because they can get away with that highflown langauge more than a modern writer could. Must investigate Dunsany further…

  3. Ooh, the Porpentine’s back — glad to see you, good sir!! And this looks like a most delightful tale — though definitely NOT for the dark of night when the wind is howling and a storm is afoot! I’m going to have to go back and read it when I get a break this afternoon.

    • He’s happy to be out of that box for the winter! Haha! Ooh, this one would be perfect for a strom – especially near the sea. Hope you enjoy it… but eat first! 😉

    • Wise decision! 😉 Thank you – I enjoyed it more than I was expecting, to be honest. Knowing that Lovecraft had been influenced by him meant I was expecting something more waffly and weird, but this is straight horror.

  4. I’m sure we – or perhaps I – had an anthology that included a couple of Dunsany stories in it, but not this one, which I must admit I enjoyed. It would be great story to read to teenagers at an evening sausage sizzle………..

    • My memory’s so bad it’s more than possible I’ve read some of his stuff before, but certainly not recently. This is just my kind of horror really – that kind of tongue-in-cheek approach. Yes, even as I was reading it I was thinking of campfires and torches…

  5. I’m off to read this now and hear more about Poor Old Bill! You had me at “despite the hanged men and the cannibalism, it’s actually quite humorous….” It’s not everyday I read a line like that!

  6. Ooh dear.. *shivers* ..reminds me of the Ancient Mariner a bit..though thankfully they don’t seem to have eaten anyone.. 😐 I have read Dunsany’s King of Elfland’s Daughter, but it’s definitely not like this in any way..proper fairytale it is..gets a bit boring in the middle though..I had to force myself to finish it.. 😛

    • Yes, it is a bit like The Ancient Mariner – mad old sailor tells his tale of horror! But this one’s much more fun – and shorter! Hmm – I think this kind of writing style work’s better in shorter stories – it can become too much if it goes on to long. I’ll definitely be checking out more of his horror though…

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