So, naturally, I made my way to library to grab any book by Lovecraft that I could. Among those volumes was the book pictured here, a 1943 Arkham House-published collection of some of Lovecraft's tales, including The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Though completed in 1927, Lovecraft never submitted it for publication in his lifetime and, indeed, felt "it isn't much good," as he admitted in a letter to Wilfred Talman. Consequently, the version that appeared in 1943 was based on a largely-unedited rough draft, which may explain some of its disjointedness.
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is an odd tale -- "a picaresque chronicle of impossible adventures in a dreamland," as HPL himself described it in the same letter quote above. At over 40,000 words, it rivals At the Mountains of Madness in terms of length. I'd also argue that it rivals At the Mountains of Madness in terms of being one of Lovecraft's greatest -- or at least, most ambitious -- works. That's not an opinion everyone shares. Many critics consider The Dream-Quest to be without much merit, seeing it as yet another ape of Dunsanian fantasy without many redeeming features. I won't deny that it owes much to Lord Dunsany, as all Lovecraft's dreamlands tales do, but I think it's a mistake to see it only as yet another knock-off of the Irish writer. That's because I consider the novella to be a valedictory tale, where Lovecraft not only bids farewell to Dunsany but lays the groundwork for the next phase of his writing career.
For this tale, Lovecraft brings back his dreaming hero and alter ego, Randolph Carter, who'd appeared in three previous stories.
What follows is a record of Carter's attempts to find the "majestic sunset city" of his dreams. This quest includes visits to the Enchanted Wood, to Oriab Isle aboard a black galley, to Celephaïs, and, at last, to the Cold Waste, where Kadath lies. Along the way, he meets the rodent-like zoogs, the cats of Ulthar, ghouls, fellow dreamer King Kuranes, moon beasts, and many, many wondrous and terrifying creatures. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is a veritable catalog of the beautiful and the weird, often coming so quickly, one after the other, that it's difficult to really appreciate any of them, or the care with which Lovecraft describes them. That's probably the biggest fault of the novella: it contains so much that it demands a more coherent narrative structure from which to make sense of it all. Without, the reader is left reeling.Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvelous city, and three times was he snatched away while still he paused on the high terrace above it. 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. It was a fever of the gods, a fanfare of supernal trumpets and a clash of immortal cymbals. Mystery hung about it as clouds about a fabulous unvisited mountain; and as Carter stood breathless and expectant on that balustraded parapet there swept up to him the poignancy and suspense of almost-vanished memory, the pain of lost things and the maddening need to place again what once had been an awesome and momentous place.
Yet, I can forgive that, partly because I like catalogs of the beautiful and the weird, especially when drawn so artfully as Lovecraft does here. However, the ultimate reason for my forgiveness is the conclusion of the tale, when the messenger of the gods, Nyarlathotep himself, explains to Carter the true identity of the city he has seen in his dreams:
"For know you, that your gold and marble city of wonder is only the sum of what you have seen and loved in youth. It is the glory of Boston's hillside roofs and western windows aflame with sunset, of the flower-fragrant Common and the great dome on the hill and the tangle of gables and chimneys in the violet valley where the many-bridged Charles flows drowsily. These things you saw, Randolph Carter, when your nurse first wheeled you out in the springtime, and they will be the last things you will ever see with eyes of memory and of love. And there is antique Salem with its brooding years, and spectral Marblehead scaling its rocky precipices into past centuries! And the glory of Salem's towers and spires seen afar from Marblehead's pastures across the harbour against the setting sun.
"There is Providence quaint and lordly on its seven hills over the blue harbour, with terraces of green leading up to steeples and citadels of living antiquity, and Newport climbing wraithlike from its dreaming breakwater. Arkham is there, with its moss-grown gambrel roofs and the rocky rolling meadows behind it; and antediluvian Kingsport hoary with stacked chimneys and deserted quays and overhanging gables, and the marvel of high cliffs and the milky-misted ocean with tolling buoys beyond.
The world of Randolph Carter's dreams is not in some faraway place, but right before him, in the familiar places he loves and has loved since his childhood. Perhaps it's because I know so much more about Lovecraft's life that I find this passage so powerfully moving, erhaps it's because I, too, feel the pull of my past and an attachment to the places of my youth or perhaps it's because I'm middle-aged and feel more keenly than ever the weight of the past, I don't know, but I consider it one of the truest things Lovecraft ever wrote and enough to earn The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath a place among the pantheon of my favorite stories."Cool vales in Concord, cobbled lands in Portsmouth, twilight bends of rustic New Hampshire roads where giant elms half hide white farmhouse walls and creaking well-sweeps. Gloucester's salt wharves and Truro's windy willows. Vistas of distant steepled towns and hills beyond hills along the North Shore, hushed stony slopes and low ivied cottages in the lee of huge boulders in Rhode Island's back country. Scent of the sea and fragrance of the fields; spell of the dark woods and joy of the orchards and gardens at dawn. These, Randolph Carter, are your city; for they are yourself. New England bore you, and into your soul she poured a liquid loveliness which cannot die. This loveliness, moulded, crystallised, and polished by years of memory and dreaming, is your terraced wonder of elusive sunsets; and to find that marble parapet with curious urns and carven rail, and descend at last these endless balustraded steps to the city of broad squares and prismatic fountains, you need only to turn back to the thoughts and visions of your wistful boyhood.