‘The Book of the Great Dhoul and Hanrahan the Red’ by W.B. Yeats

Off-putting title aside, The Celtic Twilight is a richly entertaining collection of short-shorts; pretend it’s not Ireland and you’ll have a great time. The Golden-Dawn-through-a-glass-darkly fantasies ‘Rosa Alchemica’ and ‘The Tables of the Law’ are worth reading if only as prep for M. John Harrison’s capper, The Course of the Heart. Even in their starched calling-on-Lady-Gregory duds, the first two Stories of Red Hanrahan are memorably grim and funny.

So much for responsible proselytizing.

I was a classic scholarship boy reworked for the late 1970s – Never Mind the Bollocks was unleashed a month or two after I started college — and quickly fell into the role of spoilt oblate, snatching whatever I could reach before the authorities caught on and tossed me out on my scrawny ass. One afternoon while trawling the Bryn Mawr library I noticed an unfamiliar ornately bound book on the Yeats shelves. It included titles I recognized but also some bizarrely skewed prose — “the Brew of the Little Pot”, seriously? — and when I checked the volume out (they let me borrow it!) and compared it to my second-hand Mythologies paperback I found a completely new-to-me installment of Red Hanrahan’s adventures, dropped when Yeats revised and recollected them.

Literarily, Yeats was right to consider the story irredeemable. Even in its 1890s context it’s embarrassing: brew from a little pot of exoticizing condescension, transparently false worldliness, and abjectly timid horniness. I can’t recommend it lowly enough.

Autobiographically, I learned to seek out original sources whenever possible, not so much for scholarly as for amusement value. As for the treasure itself, well, I was plenty embarrassing in my own right, and something about its plotline — crave the book, posture with the book, barely and fitfully comprehend the book, drift from the book, get drunk, fall down — seemed strangely authentic.

Published in The Secret Rose, 1897. Currently shelved as a nasty-to-the-touch forty-four-year-old grey-on-grey Xerox copy clipped to a similar copy of Giacomo Joyce. Available online here