This is the third in a series about H.P. Lovecraft’s fascinating and multi-layered novel, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943). So much more should be said about this work, to give it the attention it is due. But this is a task I will soon have to delegate to fellow Lovecraft fans, at least for now. There is no obvious path forward in this novel, and no conventional plot, because Randolph Carter’s adventures are dreamed, and not lived out sequentially or logically in the daylight. As with much of Lovecraft’s fiction, the author has used the poetic coherency of nightmare as his organizing principle. Because of this, the work has unfortunately received short shrift from some critics, who may have found the story impenetrable and overly complex on first glance.
But this is a book that deserves a second and perhaps a third reading to appreciate what Lovecraft was trying to accomplish near the middle of his career. The author consolidated and systematized a great deal of material, fashioning it into a memorable expression of his creative powers and psychological status circa the late 1920s. Not only did he reorganize and interrelate all the material he produced in his various Dunsany-inspired stories, he interjected considerable autobiographical material: his love of cats, astronomy and travel, for example.
Regarding the latter, his vivid descriptions of the fantasy cities of Celephaïs, Ulthar and Inganok recall his talents as an unacknowledged travel writer. This enthusiasm was earlier displayed in the convincing “travelogues” that open The Music of Erich Zann (1922), and Under the Pyramids (1924). It also shows up in much of his voluminous correspondence, and appears in nonfiction efforts like Travels in the Provinces of America (1929), An Account of Charleston (1930), and A Description of the Town of Quebeck (1930-31).
Importantly, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath serves as a kind of workshop, or better, a greenhouse in which the seeds of future ideas were germinated, particularly those that would later comprise his mythos stories. For example, there are a couple scenes that seem to prefigure his 1936 masterpiece, At the Mountains of Madness—see the next post.
The novel opens much like a fairy tale, with its chant-like “Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvelous city…” This is cleverly echoed near the end of the story with a trio of blasts from “a daemon trumpet”, announcing the appearance of Nyarlathotep who is the answer—sort of—to Carter’s fervent prayers. (This Nyarlathotep is in his humanoid “Egyptian” form, about a decade before the entity would take on its amorphous, indeterminate shape in The Haunter of the Dark—which shape was inspired by quantum physics, according to Steadman.) In a wildly different and brighter context, the three dreams and three trumpet blasts reminds one of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (book, 1900, film 1939), clicking her ruby slippers the requisite three times and chanting “There’s no place like home”—which chant sends her back through the whirlwind to her beloved Kansas.
What is it about the number three? It is interesting, at least to me, that the principle players in Lovecraft’s novel occupy three points on a triangle, for Lovecraft has avoided the tiresome dichotomy of good guys versus bad guys in this book. Randolph Carter’s side includes his friends King Kuranes, all the cats of the dreamland, and his friend Pickman, who leads the ghoul army. In opposition are Nyarlathotep and the “slant-eyed merchant” and his colleagues from the Plateau of Leng, along with their principle trading partners, the dreaded and revolting moon beasts. But complicating matters is Nodens, lord of the underworld, ruler of the Night-Gaunts as well as the voracious inhabitants of the darkest reaches of the dream land. Applying family systems theory—admittedly a stretch here—it is well known that “triangular relationships” are the least stable and exhibit the greatest tension among participants.
Home is also where Carter, though he does not realize it at first, most wants to go. He is also thrown into a whirlwind, this one possibly as high up as outer space, from which he plummets back to his bed in his beloved New England. On a more elevated literary plane, it is impossible not to compare Randolph Carter’s adventures to those of Odysseus, another wanderer desperate to return home, in this case to the hero’s beloved Ithaca. Like Odysseus, Carter also visits the underworld, this one filled with ravenous bholes, gugs and ghasts. But whereas Odysseus’ journey is inextricably linked to the mythology and history of ancient Greece, Carter’s is a very personal experience, a close parallel to the imaginative and emotional struggles of his creator.
Lovecraft finished writing The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath in January of 1927. Less than a year before he had returned to Providence from his painful debacle in New York, where his marriage failed and where he was unable to find employment or succeed as a writer. Like the archetypal Odysseus and his alter-ego Randolph Carter—like Dorothy!—Lovecraft discovered at the very last moment that home was where he most wanted and needed to be.
Carter’s itinerary is complex, with some backtracking, and detours. It includes crossing the sea, climbing mountains, ascending and descending dark stairways, wandering around marvelous cities and temples, and flying. From a Jungian perspective, even movement and direction can have significance in a dream or nightmare. The general direction of Carter’s wanderings is relentlessly north, and towards ever increasing altitude. His dream land has multiple levels, and these are arranged in an interesting manner: down is bad, because it leads to the terrifying underworld, midnight caverns and bottomless pits infested with predaceous gugs and ghasts, where an awful death is certain—a zone of hyperconstrictive horror, to use Kirk Schneider’s terminology. However, up is perhaps even worse, bringing Carter face to face with the treacherous Nyarlathotep in the castle of the Great Old Ones atop Kadath, and eventually with Azathoth—a hyperexpansive horror if ever there was one, a metaphor for fearsome insanity.
The middle level, the middle way is best. It is where Randolph Carter’s colleagues and friends are located: King Kuranes, the old priest named Atal, the feline army, and also the beautiful cities of Celephaïs and Ulthar. Yet following him at some distance, nearly out of sight, is one of Nyarlathotep’s agents, the “slant eyed merchant” from the evil Plateau of Leng, a Trickster archetype, the Devil. He aims to convey Carter to a different destination than the longed for “marvelous sunset city.” In Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Hell is “way way up there”.
But there are intriguing exceptions. Richard Pickman, Carter’s comrade in arms, and leader of the ghouls, comes from a darker and lower place in the dreamlands. A mysterious being, the cosmically intelligent “S’gnac the violet gas” gives him helpful direction, and Nodens, the ultimate lord of the underworld and rival to Narlathotep, cheers Carter on when he evades imminent destruction. Throughout the latter half of novel, Lovecraft’s famous Night Gaunts—“But ho! If only they would make some sound/Or wear a face where faces should be found!”—are important allies and means of transportation, allowing Carter and his ghoul friends to fly to Kadath’s heights.
Lovecraft enthusiasts may recall that the origin of Night-Gaunts is in a nightmare that the author had as a child. Near the beginning of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath they are a menace, and thwart Carter’s attempt to climb Mount Ngranek on the island of Oriab. They capture him and deposit him in the underworld, where he is later aided by Pickman and his fellow ghouls. But later the Night-Gaunts are a critical ally in a battle against the moon beasts and the “almost-humans” from the Plateau of Leng. As any Jungian inspired oneironaut knows, it is best not to run from the monsters and predators that chase you in a nightmare—better to turn toward them, confront them, and domesticate them. This is what Randolph Carter a.k.a. H.P. Lovecraft does in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, making him stronger in the fight. More individuated, as Jung would say. What would have happened if Lovecraft had completed this process—had come home to himself?
The next and possibly final post will offer some concluding remarks about this remarkable novel.