Decades ago, when I first read H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943), I did not know what to make of it. I bought the novel in paperback—it was by far the longest single work of Lovecraft’s I had ever read. At the time it seemed tedious and interminable, and worse, appeared to have been written by a completely different author than the one I was familiar with. As a 10 year old, I had been traumatized by The Colour Out of Space (1927) and later on had my adolescent mind blown away—not really hard to do as I recall—by such classic Lovecraft stories as The Call of Cthulhu (1928), The Haunter of the Dark (1936) and The Dunwich Horror (1929). (Around that time, my father recommended The Rats in the Walls to me, but my more sophisticated teen-aged taste found this one too morbidly decadent.)
How was it possible that the author of innovative tales like The Shadow Out of Time (1936), or chilling homespun horrors like The Picture in the House (1919) or In the Vault (1925) could write about Zoogs, or Gugs, or the Enchanted Wood, or a man rescued by cats from the dark side of the moon?
Lovecraft had this to say about The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath around the time he completed it in 1927, (it was published posthumously in 1943):
I…am very fearful that Randolph Carter’s adventures may have reached the point of palling on the reader; or that the very plethora of weird imagery may have destroyed the power of any one image to produce the desired impression of strangeness…Actually, it isn’t much good; but forms useful practice for later and more authentic attempts in the novel form.
S.T. Joshi concurred with Lovecraft’s evaluation of the novel, which he dismissed as “charming but relatively insubstantial”. However, Lovecraft’s renowned biographer felt that the novel was autobiographically significant in that it served as a snapshot of Lovecraft’s psyche at a particular point in his life, circa the late 1920s. In my view the novel seems to be a kind of culmination or systematization of various ideas Lovecraft had been developing in various stories at that time in his career. The setting of the novel resembles the Hyperborea of Robert E. Howard or the Zothique of Clark Ashton Smith. Like his colleagues, Lovecraft seemed determined to create a fantasy world with its own history and geography, decorated with his fantasy cities of Celephaïs, Ulthar, Leng and others.
Exotic unpronounceable place names, archaic King James Bible-ese, multiple gods and temples, and near constant asking for directions reveal the strong influence of Lord Dunsany on Lovecraft’s novel. This is why it helps to have read all of Lovecraft’s Dunsanian tales first before attempting The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Fortified with these, I was better able to appreciate what Lovecraft was trying to do in his book the second time I read it. For future reference, here are those prerequisite stories:
The Cats of Ulthar (1920)
The Silver Key (1929)
The Strange High House in the Mist (1931)
The White Ship (1919)
The Other Gods (1933)
Settings and characters from these stories are specifically mentioned throughout the novel. But so are elements from several non-Dunsanian tales, including Pickman’s Model (1927), and—obliquely at least—The Temple (1925). Enthusiastic Lovecraft readers will re-encounter an aged priest named Atal when Carter returns to the city of Ulthar. Atal was an apprentice to Barzai the Wise (certainly a misnomer) when the latter made an ill-fated attempt to see the Earth’s gods on the summit of Hatheg-Kla. Atal provides Randolph Carter a copy of the Pnakotic Manuscripts to peruse, but in this story at least the forbidden books are unhelpful.
A sadder, wiser and much less human Richard Pickman also makes a cameo appearance. The activities of Pickman and his helpful peers link The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath with other stories in Lovecraft’s ghoul cycle, among them the afore mentioned Pickman’s Model and The Lurking Fear (1923). Night Gaunts are an ever present menace in some of the regions Carter explores in his journey through the dreamland. Finding all of these connections to earlier or cotemporaneous stories by Lovecraft is what makes the novel more interesting than it might otherwise be.
The next couple of posts will look more closely at this interesting and much maligned work of Lovecraft’s.
A number of Lovecraft’s stories that show the conspicuous influence of Lord Dunsany have been discussed in earlier posts. Interested readers may want to review the following:
3. Randolph’s Mid Life Crisis (The Silver Key)
4. Randolph Carter alias Thomas Olney (The Strange High House in the Mist)
At Sea, But Still Missing the Boat (The White Ship)
The Other Guys (The Other Gods)Ailurophobia (The Cats of Ulthar)