Friday, January 15, 2016

2. Along the Way to Leng

The last post provided an overview of H.P. Lovecraft’s flawed but fascinating novel, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943).  Some reviewers have considered the novel a work of psycho-autobiography, an expression of how Lovecraft perceived his work and his life near the end of the 1920s.  Virtually all of the stories he wrote in emulation of his idol Lord Dunsany are referenced in the novel, as well as others he had completed around that time. 

In this sense The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath culminates and consolidates themes and concepts the author had developed up to this point.  In his 1975 biography of Lovecraft, L. Sprague De Camp describes the novel as “at the same time a dream narrative, a Dunsanian fantasy, and Cthulhu Mythos story, and the ghoul-changeling theme appears in it.” 

Though released several years after the author’s death, the novel was completed before the publication of Lovecraft’s better known mythos stories, beginning with The Call of Cthulhu (1928) and proceeding with The Dunwich Horror (1929), The Whisperer in Darkness (1931), The Dreams in the Witch-House (1933) and others.  Although Nyarlathotep and Azathoth appear, (as well as Night-Gaunts, the Pnakotic Manuscripts and the Plateau of Leng), there is no Necronomicon yet, no Shining Trapezohedron, no Innsmouth.

Newcomers to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, or those who first became acquainted with him thorough his later mythos stories, should not read The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath without some preparation.  Which preparation includes reading all of his Dunsany inspired tales first, with the exception of the dreadful The Quest of Iranon (1935)—far and away the worst thing he ever wrote.  The recommended Dunsanian stories are listed in the previous post—they are relatively short.  In general Lovecraft wrote a lot of very interesting material in the first half of his career, roughly 1919 through 1927—well worth investigating.  There is much more to Lovecraft than Cthulhu and the Mythos!

It is also helpful to know some biographical details about the author’s life.  His love of cats is expressed in several places in the novel, especially in the episodes that take place in the city of Ulthar and on the dark side of the moon, where Randolph Carter is improbably rescued by his feline allies.   A black kitten he befriends works its way up through the ranks of a cat army—this is probably an avatar of the doomed kitten in The Cats of Ulthar (1920), which in turn is a representation of Lovecraft’s own therapy animal, a black cat who shall remain nameless here for the sake of more politically sensitive readers.

Lovecraft’s love of England and of the 18th Century, so obvious in stories like He (1926) and the earlier humorous piece A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1917) is expressed in a poignant episode that takes place near the fanciful city of Celephaïs, where Carter meets an old friend in the dream world, King Kuranes.  It is helpful to know that in the story Celephaïs (1922) Kuranes is actually an impoverished tramp and failed writer in reality, who is delivered via drowning to permanent residence and rulership of this dreamland city.  Here is a passage from that story which describes Kuranes and Lovecraft as he was in the early 1920s:

His money and lands were gone, and he did not care for the ways of people about him, but preferred to dream and write of his dreams.  What he wrote was laughed at by those to whom he shewed it, so that after a time he kept his writings to himself, and finally ceased to write.  The more he withdrew from the world about him, the more wonderful became his dreams; and it would have been futile to try to describe them on paper.

In The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Randolph Carter meets up again with his old companion and fellow dreamer Kuranes, but the king is not in his “rose-crystal Palace of the Seventy Delights” in town nor in his fabulous retreat, the “turreted cloud-castle of sky-floating Serannian”.  Being a dead dreamer, Kuranes now has the power to create entire dreamscapes to reside in—and he has used this power to recreate his boyhood home in an English village.

For though Kuranes was a monarch in the land of dream, with all imagined pomps and marvels, splendors and beauties, ecstasies and delights…he would gladly have resigned forever the whole of his power and luxury and freedom for one blessed day as a simple boy in that pure and quiet England, that ancient, beloved England which had moulded his being and of which he must always be immutably a part.

If one adds “New” in front of England, one can sense Lovecraft’s painful longing for his simpler, more prosperous past, before the loss of the family fortune and his uncertain future as an author. It is one of the more moving sections of the story, of which there are several.  (In The Silver Key, published a couple years after Lovecraft finished the novel, his alter ego Randolph Carter essentially achieves what Kuranes has done, instead using a strange portal to go backwards in time.)  One of the pleasures of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is discovering these and other connections to Lovecraft’s earlier work and to important events in his life.

The next post in this series will take a closer look at the tortuous itinerary Carter follows on his way to Kadath and the much longed for “marvelous sunset city”.

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