The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath by H.P. Lovecraft
We all know what to expect from a story by H. P. Lovecraft. It’ll be a tale of cosmic horror, in the which the Old Ones, such as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, seek to reclaim the world and annihilate man; where strange, isolated New England towns and villages are haunted by demons; where over-inquisitive protagonists investigate too far into matters that should be left untouched and, if they’re lucky, merely pay with their lives.
What we don’t generally expect is a quest across a fabulous world of dreams, through beautiful landscapes, enchanted oceans and exotic cities, to seek justice from the gods in their hidden citadel. But that’s what he gives us in the short novel, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, and died there in 1937. His father was committed to a mental hospital when Lovecraft was very young (as was his mother some years later), dying a few years later, and he was brought up by his mother and her family, who were proud of being able to trace their time in America to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631.
Lovecraft was a precocious but sickly child – some of which may have been psychosomatic – and suffered from night terrors, a condition that profoundly influenced his later writing. He only attended school sporadically, although he was passionately interested in subjects from astronomy to poetry. Most of his early writing was poetry, but from 1917 he began to produce macabre fiction, much of which was published in the great pulp magazine Weird Tales.
He was influenced by a number of writers in his chosen field: Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and especially Edgar Allan Poe, with whom Lovecraft identified. Around 1919, however, he began to read the Irish fantasy author Lord Dunsany and was enchanted by his tales of strange, dreamlike worlds and their bizarre pantheons of gods.
Lovecraft began to write stories in imitation of Dunsany set in the dreamland, a place that may be visited by dreamers from our world, yet has its own reality and continuity apart from dreams. Some of these stories have a macabre side, even anticipating the Cthulhu Mythos – The Other Gods, for instance, in which two priests spy on the gods on a forbidden mountain and are punished by “the gods of the outer hells that guard the feeble gods of earth”.
In others, though, Lovecraft concentrated instead on a surprising level of beauty and emotion, though often ultimately tragic. Perhaps my favourite is The Quest of Iranon – one of the handful of stories I’m completely incapable of reading dry-eyed.
By 1927, however, Lovecraft’s Dunsanian period seemed to have run its course. The Call of Cthulhu had been written the year before, and he wrote little after that which wasn’t part of the Cthulhu Mythos. Nevertheless, he made one last visit to the dreamland in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.
This is normally described as one of Lovecraft’s three novels, along with The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and At the Mountains of Madness, but at a hundred pages, it’s perhaps better described as a longish novella. It draws together many of Lovecraft’s early stories, both fantasy and horror.
The protagonist, Randolph Carter, appeared first in a horror story, said to have been based on a dream, called The Statement of Randolph Carter, in which he serves as little more than the token survivor who relates the macabre events that claim the life of his companion. He also appeared in The Silver Key, an uncharacteristic tale that fits comfortably in neither the horror nor fantasy group. It’s perhaps best described as a cross between contemporary fantasy and a diatribe against twentieth century life. Lovecraft would revisit Carter one more time in Through the Gate of the Silver Key, which attempts to blend the Dunsanian stories with the Mythos – there’s even a cameo appearance by Yog-Sothoth.
It’s well worth reading the Randolph Carter stories together, including The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, where Carter is presented as a seasoned traveller in the dreamland, who undertakes a bold and reckless journey. At the start, he’s dreamt three times of a beautiful city, and then been denied any further access by the gods of the dreamland:
“All golden and lovely it blazed in the sunset, with walls, temples, colonnades and arched bridges of veined marble, silver-basined fountains of prismatic spray in broad squares and perfumed gardens, and wide streets marching between delicate trees and blossom-laden urns and ivory statues in gleaming rows; while on steep northward slopes climbed tiers of red roofs and old peaked gables harbouring little lanes of grassy cobbles.”
Against all advice, Carter determines to find the home of the gods on top of “unknown Kadath, in the cold waste where no man treads”, to demand restitution, even though he’ll be risking punishment by the fearsome Other Gods.
There’s an even more fundamental problem, though: no-one in the dreamland (not even the bearded priests of Nasht and Kaman-Thah) has the slightest idea where Kadath and the cold waste might be found.
Even this doesn’t put Carter off. He travels around the dreamland, gathering clues and calling in favours from his many friends and dubious allies. After descending the seven hundred steps to the Gate of Deeper Slumber, he visits the Enchanted Wood, the city of Ulthar (where the law strictly forbids anyone to harm a cat), the basalt port of Dylath-Leen, the far-off city of Oriab (where may possibly be found an image of the gods), the marble city of Celephaïs, and the evil northern land of Leng.
Randolph Carter’s enemies grow ever more alarming, from the robed merchants of the black ships that trade with Dylath-Leen, who appear not entirely human, to the disgusting toad-things from the moon, who feed on humans, to his ultimate foes from:
“the awful voids outside the ordered universe where the daemon-sultan Azathoth gnaws hungrily in chaos amid pounding and piping and the hellish dancing of the Other Gods, blind, voiceless, tenebrous, and mindless, with their…hideous soul and messenger, the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep.”
On the other hand, his allies seem little better. The Zoogs of the Enchanted Wood are essentially mischievous, though dangerous, and there’s nothing wrong with the warrior cats of Ulthar, who can travel between earth and moon. By the end, though, Carter’s loyal followers are ghouls and other nightmare creatures of the underworld. As the object of his quest comes closer, it’s evil and darkness, which offers his best hope of success. But the purposes of the gods, and of the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep, aren’t entirely what either Carter or the reader expect.
Lovecraft gives nods, and sometimes considerably more than nods, to many of his short stories in the course of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and the tale seemed a deliberate attempt to forge the dreamland stories into a unified mythos. Besides the Carter stories and The Other Gods, as already mentioned, The Cats of Ulthar has told us how cats became so revered and protected in Ulthar; The White Ship sails the same seas that Carter crosses on his way to Oriab; Celephaïs is the story of the dreamer who comes to rule the marble city, and whom Carter consults; and Pickman’s Model is the horror story about the artist who deals with ghouls. Here, Pickman has become a ghoul himself and provides a crucial link in Carter’s dealings with the various underworld creatures.
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath veers between the beautiful and the grotesque to such an extent that at times it almost threatens to tip over into absurdity. Almost. Ultimately, Lovecraft remains in control, whether he’s telling us of:
“the marble cloud-city of Serannian, that lies in ethereal space beyond where the sea meets the sky…Shining still is the bronze of the great gates, nor are the onyx pavements ever worn or broken.”
Or of creatures that:
“were not men at all, or even approximately men, but great greyish-white slippery things which could expand and contract at will, and whose principal shape – though it often changed – was that of a sort of toad without any eyes, but with a curious vibrating mass of short pink tentacles on the end of its blunt, vague snout.”
It had been two or three decades since I’d last read The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath – or much Lovecraft at all – and, while I enjoyed it, it’s not the easiest read, despite its shortness. Lovecraft never got around to revising the story, perhaps feeling he’d left that phase of his writing behind and wanting to get on with the Cthulhu Mythos. It’s certainly excellent for a first draft, but the prose is somewhat repetitive and the plot rambling in the extreme.
I found two specific difficulties that made it hard going, both of which might have been improved by revision. For one thing, the story’s hundred pages are not only not divided into chapters, but don’t even contain a single scene-break. There’s also almost no dialogue – there’s never a great deal in Lovecraft’s work, but here every single conversation is reported, other than a long speech towards the end.
Nevertheless, the alternating wonders and horrors kept me reading eagerly. Despite its flaws, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is an enjoyable story, and well worth reading for a less stark Lovecraft, willing to see the beauty, as well as the horror, in the world.