Monday, May 28, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath was one of the first stories by H.P. Lovecraft I ever read and it baffled me. It baffled me not because its content was difficult to understand -- though it does ramble quite a bit -- but because it was not at all what expected from Lovecraft. Prior to entering the hobby, I don't believe I'd ever heard his name. Once I had, many of the older fellows with whom I'd become acquainted sang his praises as an unsurpassed "horror" writer and a huge influence on many of gaming's early designers.

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.
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.
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.

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.
"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.
 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.

34 comments:

  1. Good comments!

    I've always thought the disjointed nature of the story seemed appropriate for a dream story.

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  2. I have a little lucid dreaming ability and keep a dream journal - I like "DQUK." I also tend to read all Lovecraft's stories as somewhat dreamlike and surreal before they work as horror. 

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  3. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath was the very first Lovecraft story I ever read, and likewise, I found it to be not at all what I was expecting.  My understanding of Lovecraft was 'cosmic horror in 1920's New England,' and so the weird fantasy of the Dreamlands really took me aback.  So much so that I didn't even finish the story, and I was put off the Dreamlands for many years.  I moved on to At the Mountains of Madness, which was much more to my liking.  

    It was not until just a few years ago that I re-read Dream Quest and found I loved it.  I think my initial dislike for it was like the reaction you have when you bite into something salty when you were expecting something sweet.  The salty snack might be delicious, but if it can make you recoil if it isn't what you were expecting.

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  4. Geoffrey McKinneyMay 28, 2012 at 3:54 PM

    I've read The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath twice, and both times it has left me cold. Here's how I look at it:

    When I want to read Lovecraft, I read "The Colour out of Space" and "The Music of Erich Zann". If I want more, I read the four authors whom Lovecraft said were incomparably better than himself:

    M. R. James
    Arthur Machen
    Algernon Blackwood
    Lord Dunsany

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  5. Thanks a lot for your post, James. "The Dream-Quest..." is absolutely my favorite HPL story, and, while it certainly surprised me - like you and other people here, I was rather expecting some HPL-style horror - it has instantly won me over by its unique, very dream-like, atmosphere. I know HPL often wrote stories inspired by dreams - "The music of Erich Zann", for example - but this one is peculiar because it so accurately captures the feeling of a dream, its changing tempo and unreal reality...  I remember when I bought the Dreamlands supplement for CoC and was severely disappointed when it all suddenly became a tangible, "real" world, with maps and fixed ways to get in and out (though the authors didn't tell precisely where in the Black Forest in Germany was one of the entrances located - what a pity... ;-) ). Plus the fact that DQUK doesn't quite fit with the Cthulhu mythos and its unthinkable non-euclidian horrors was even more clear when it came to playing "Dreamlands" in CoC... 

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  6. Considering black holes expand forward and backwards through time from point of origin I see H.P. Lovecraft expressing ideas that reflect the change in possibility that is inherent in the exposure of humanity to a singularity - The perception of one reality when another is really happening - the insanity inherent in the super-positional life form (where all life is the same life).

    He is for me a Beacon that all hell has broken loose in the past thanks to science of the future.

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  7. I'm much more of a fan of Lovecraft's horror work, but even so The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is one of my favourites. There's so much going on, so much imagination at work.

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  8. I've never read the story, but I can see why it's called a dream-quest: the quoted paragraphs ramble on so much that they nearly put me to sleep. If I were Randolph Carter, I would have had to cut Nyarlathotep off halfway through. "Okay, okay, I get it,  it's my memories. Shut up already." Dictating a guy's own memories to him strikes me as the worst kind of "as you know" exposition.

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  9. A French company has released a gorgeous book called Kadath, le guide de la cité Inconnue. It more or less describes the city and includes 4 short stories based on Carter's tales. The web site is: http://www.kadathguide.fr/

    There is also a RPG based on the same book: http://les12singes.com/sousrubrique.php3?id_rubrique=47

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  10. I only read "Kadath" a couple of years ago for the first time. I, too, was powerfully moved by that final passage: I so often associate HPL's stories with anti-humanism that I was both surprised and impressed that he pulled off the humanist sentiment of that passage so well.

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  11. My feels about this story are very similar. It is a bit hard when you read it for first time, but later  you enjoy it because Lovecraft play with many concepts, old characters and his own feelings. If you are a Lovecraft fan or a weird fantasy geek, you enjoy this.

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  12. Maybe it helps to be a certain age before you can really enjoy Dream-Quest. I read it for the first time a few years ago at 40 and the ending was absolutely stunning. As you said, it is one of the truest things he ever wrote and it was revelatory to find that a weird tale could be both incredibly weird and deeply emotionally resonant.

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  13. S.T. Joshi couldn't have cracked the nut as cleanly as you have, and that is meant as no disrespect to him. Elegant and true.

    Well done!

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  14. Dreamlands stories are my favorite Lovecraft stories, Dreamquest is easily my favorite.

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  15. Written like a true Ritalin Ranger of the ADHD Generation...

    "What, it's going to take 30 more seconds?!!?  I can't wait that long, I've got to text about this cat video I just watched on my phone..."

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  16. Written like a true presumptuous, condescending snob.

    It has nothing to do with attention span. It has to do with repetition of redundant information. The first quoted paragraph, although its prose is sickeningly purple, can be forgiven because it's presenting new information to the reader. The last three paragraphs, however, cannot be forgiven. The audience has long since grasped what's going on (Nyarlathotep explicitly spells it out in the very first sentence of his monologue) but Lovecraft continues to assault us with an adjective-laden geography lesson about New England. It feels as if he is intentionally padding the word count, although I can't figure out why he would do so, since the story was never submitted for publication.

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  17. I've only read a couple of Lovecraft stories.  While the horror stories left me unmoved, Dream Quest fascinated me.  It was like pure imagination in printed form. 

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  18. SMITH Mike SmithMay 29, 2012 at 11:39 PM

    Ya wanna step in it a third time?

    Tales like this are kind of like single malt scotch... not right for everyone, but for those with the taste and patience - the time spent in the moment is magic itself.

    While we can speculate whether or not a final, submitted, version would have been edited down a bit - I myself enjoy seeing this much raw material for its own value.

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  19. Could you please be more clear... Did you actually forgive HPL for his prose or not? Not that it matters much, anyway...

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  20. Step in it a third time? What is that even supposed to mean?

    Obviously people have different tastes--but apparently Bobc thinks anyone with different tastes than his is mentally deficient somehow. Go back and read my first post, I was simply giving my opinion and insulted no one. His reply was hostile and uncalled-for.

    Back to the matter at hand, I'll concede that the message behind the story is uplifting. But even after being clearly stated, that message is immediately lost in a sea of what I consider to be completely unnecessary rambling. I'm glad others can take enjoyment from it, though. To each his own.

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  21. It's true - some like it hot, some like it cold... But complaining that Lovecraft's writing style is a "sea of unnecessary rambling" is like complaining that sugar is sweet. To me, this kind of baroque logorrhea full of archaic words ("nitrous", anyone?) is what contributes to the atmosphere of his stories. But you're absolutely free to dislike it, of course. Just remember to bar your windows, bolt your door and watch out for strange-looking sailors in the street, if ever you go outside... ;-)

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  22. Don't get me wrong, I'm not some kind of Lovecraft-hater. His wordy style is indeed part of his charm. But he's so over-the-top here that it almost seems like he's parodying himself. I just don't think that does anything to advance the message he's trying to convey.

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  23.  When Mike wrote about you stepping in it a third time he was pointing out that you'd already made a fool of yourself twice and wanted to know if you'd care do to it a third time.

    And stepping in it a third time is exactly what you did.

    Getting back to your incomprehension regarding the Lovecraft passage, you need to realize you're complaining about Lovecrafts' writing style.  You might as well complain that Shakespeare writes in iambic pentameter or that e.e. cummins doesn't use punctuation.  The very things you're moaning about are what make Lovecraft Lovecraft.  As Mikolaj wrote, you're complaining about sugar being sweet.  Instead of merely saying "I don't like sugar because it's sweet", you're suggesting something is wrong with sugar because it is sweet.

    You don't need to like Lovecraft, plenty of people don't like him.  You do, however, need to recognize that he has a certain style, that his style is central to his work, and that he never wanted to publish the piece you're whining about.

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  24. A bit over-the-top? I agree, but since DQUK is so much like an oriental tale, this cornucopia of strange adjectives fits very well. If you read the 1001 Nights, you'll often find the same narrative devices. And, as a bonus, this is the only HPL story I know of where the Crawling Chaos not only gets quite verbose, but uses a lot of archaic, poetic language, instead of just the usual "Y'ing'ngah wgah'nagl garglll..." type of speech... :-)

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  25. At no point have I made a fool of myself. You on the other hand, responded to someone stating his subjective opinion (which he has every right to do) by casting personal insults at him (which you have no right to do). So who is making a fool of himself here?

    As for my comprehension of Lovecraft, check my reply to mikolaj kamler below. I admit that I haven't read everything Lovecraft ever wrote, or even a quarter of it, but I have never found him to ramble as much as he does here. So I don't feel that this passage is indicative of his style.

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  26. The Recursion KingMay 31, 2012 at 9:45 AM

    The three unnecessary paragraphs are necessary for depth and detail. Some read only the headlines and some read the full article; those that read only the headlines have (at best) a surface understanding. The rambling, as you put it, are the zooming in on the detail, the detailed strokes in the broadness and the meat on the bones. To know what it is like to miss a place is to get lost in the dizzying detail. As has been said before, this is not for everyone, but for those of us who can relate to it, these are the most important parts.

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  27. Obviously it's a stylistic preference. In the age before movies were super-popular, painting pictures with words was a much more important skill for writers to entertain their audience. Nowadays, people are looking more for what movies can't do--psychological depth and such.

    That said, personally, it gives me an idea of what Carter's remembering. I lived four years in Boston, and it doesn't completely look like that anymore--there are a lot more high-rises and such. It is, nonetheless, still a lot prettier than its big cousin further to the South on the Hudson, if you get my drift. ;)

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  28. How do you at least get interesting ones? I only had a few interestingly surreal ones once, the rest were all nightmares about work. :(

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  29. Yes, a lot of things have changed since Lovecrafts' times... I suppose Innsmouth and Arkham do not look the same anymore, either... ;-)

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  30. Carlos de la Cruz MoralesJune 4, 2012 at 3:33 AM

     I love the "Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath". It's not really the "typical" Lovecrat story, but its dreamlike essence appeals me as much as Lord Dunsany's "Idle Days on the Yann".

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  31. Carlos de la Cruz MoralesJune 4, 2012 at 3:37 AM

    "Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" is a personal favourite of me. This novella, and "Idle Days on the Yann", by Lord Dunsany, had a dreamlike essence that I found really appealing.

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  32. Dream-Quest is definitely my favorite Lovecraft story. Maybe not his best written one, definitely an atypical one, but when I read it -- just wow. Of course, like almost all Lovecraft stories it contains zero characterization and dialogue, but the whole time I read it the first time, at age 13ish, I was wondering "Where is this going? What is happening? Is a human character actually going to get to 'talk to the gods' in an H.P. Lovecraft story?!?" And the ending is great.


    In terms of feel, it reminds me of one of Terry Gilliam's early movies -- Time Bandits, Brazil, etc. This is may seem like a stretch, but it's because of the feeling of 'one lone hero against all the forces of the cosmos', the overabundance of weirdness and fantasy imagery, and the trippy against-all-odds ending.

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  33. The quoted paragraphs are just a descriptive list of places. Providence, Arkham, Truro, Gloucester, etc. etc. This book contains almost zero internal-thoughts-of-the-main-character (like many Lovecraft stories), so of course, if the main character is going to remember something, it's not going to go "Randolph Carter suddenly remembered X and Y and Z and felt real homesick...", instead, some other character is going to have to say to him, in archaic style, "Lo! Dost ye not remember X and Y and Z?" Anyway, the whole book is full of long rambling descriptions of stuff -- again, like almost all of Lovecraft's writing -- so if you don't enjoy them, it isn't for you. (Of course, most of the descriptions are of weird fantasy stuff, and not of New England, but for Lovecraft, the New England was the money shot.)

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  34. I prefer to think of Dreamlands HPL and Cthulhu Mythos HPL as separate universes. They're both scary-ish, but the first one is a lot more fantasy, the second one is a lot more sci-fi. -_-

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