Wednesday, January 20, 2016

4. What About the Zebras?

This is the fourth and last post in a series about H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943), an important midcareer work of fantasy and horror.  Lovecraft assimilated the style and trappings of his idol Lord Dunsany, using them to express his uniquely dark view of the cosmos.  In the novel, Lovecraft translated the despair and anxiety he experienced in the mid to late 1920s into powerful dream imagery.  The story also served as a workshop in which the author began working on ideas he would develop further in later stories.  What follows are some concluding remarks about this interesting, multifaceted work.

It is no surprise that Randolph Carter, Lovecraft’s alter ego, does a lot of flying—typically via Night-Gaunt—in the second half of the novel.  He spends much of this time looking down, seeing the big picture, taking in the shape of the land he is travelling over.  As Carter gets ever closer to the dark and frozen heights of Kadath, he is captured by the “slant-eyed merchant” and his hideous Shantak-birds, and for a while is forced to ride one of the monsters over the towering peaks.  There is this haunting passage: 

Far above the clouds they flew, till at last there lay beneath them those fabled summits which the folk of Inganok have never seen, and which lie always in high vortices of gleaming mist.  Carter beheld them very plainly as they passed below, and saw upon their topmost peaks strange caves which made him think of those on Ngranek, but he did not question his captor about these things when he noticed that both the man and the horse-headed Shantak appeared oddly fearful of them, hurrying past nervously and shewing great tension until they were left far in the rear.

Compare this to the passage below, which describes a similar scene, near the South Pole, in Lovecraft’s later work, At the Mountains of Madness (1936):

It was young Danforth who drew our notice to the curious regularities of the higher mountain skyline—regularities like clinging fragments of perfect cubes, which Lake had mentioned in his messages, and which indeed justified his comparison with the dreamlike suggestions of primordial temple ruins, on cloudy Asian mountaintops…I felt, too, another wave of uneasy consciousness of Archaean mythical resemblances; of how disturbingly this lethal realm corresponded to the evilly famed plateau of Leng in the primal writings.

When Randolph Carter is taken captive into the windowless stone monastery on the Plateau of Leng, he is much impressed by the “morbid bas-reliefs” and “archaic frescoes”.  These depict the history of the “almost-human” inhabitants of Leng and their eventual enslavement by the moon-beasts.  About a decade later, this material is much more elaborated in Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.  Here the narrator deciphers the tragic primordial history of “the star-headed Old Ones” from very similar archeological ruins. 

It seems as if Randolph Carter’s observations in the dream land prefigure the Antarctic discoveries of the Miskatonic University Team.  Lovecraft—perhaps inadvertently—has used his character’s dreams in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath as a workshop in which to develop ideas he put to use later in his mythos stories of the late 1920s and 1930s.  There are probably other examples of this that readers can find.

Another striking aspect of the novel is its overt religiosity.  This is a very temple-ridden, priest-ridden, prayerful adventure. In the very beginning, Carter “prayed long and earnestly to the hidden gods of dream” and asks for a formal blessing from two priests, whose advice—essentially: ‘Don’t mess with Great Ones’—he ignores. 

His struggle to climb Mount Ngranek to see the massive carved face of one of the gods amounts to a religious pilgrimage, one regrettably cut short by the interference of Night-Gaunts.  In his search for Kadath, where he hopes to consult the elder gods about the location of his “marvelous sunset city”, Carter employs an interesting strategy.  If he can determine what the gods look like, he can search for their resemblance among the inhabitants of the dream lands.  Assuming that the gods have intercourse with the local mortals, the stronger their image appears among the faces of the people, the closer he must be to their home on top of Kadath.  This is an ancient idea, a very literal interpretation of the Biblical “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” 

Finally, after a sojourn in the underworld and a battle between cats and Zoogs, Carter makes his way to the holy metropolis of Inganok, built entirely of onyx.  It is the Great Ones’ equivalent of Vatican City, judging by all the priests, temples, statuary and praying going on.

But when from its high tower the great bell shivered over the city, and the peal of the horns and viols and voices rose cryptical in answer thereto, all ceased their songs or tales and bowed silent till the last echo died away.  For there is a wonder and strangeness on the twilight city of Inganok, and men fear to be lax in its rites lest a doom and a vengeance lurk unsuspectedly close.

The author lovingly depicts Inganok in all its twilight glory, creating an exotic, mystical and disquieting locale.  It is the most visually and aurally realized setting in the whole story, and remarkable given Lovecraft’s famed materialism and atheism.  This is not to say that Lovecraft ‘got religion’ or became interested in religious ideas during a difficult time in his life.  He was a man of considerable integrity and maintained his perspective until the end of his life, not unlike Christopher Hitchens more recently.  Nevertheless, it is striking that an author like Lovecraft would dwell so much on religious imagery and ideas—a feature that pervades much of his fiction.  The dream-quest is essentially a religious quest, mediated by religious images, ideas and rituals.

There are some elements in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath that make it unique among Lovecraft’s work.  For example, there is drinking in various taverns and even worse, nudity.  Pickman advises Carter at one point to wallow naked in the mould and lope about like a ghoul in order to disguise himself from the ferocious Gugs—a bit of uncharacteristic sensuality.  There are several battles in which the lead character actually dispatches the attacking horrors instead of fainting or being overwhelmed by anxiety.  Carter makes an effective commander and negotiator, which is not typical of a Lovecraftian protagonist.

Sadly, if The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath were a movie, the credits could not contain the familiar disclaimer ‘No animals were harmed in the production of this movie.’  Carter is warned by the lava-gatherers of Baharna not to tether his Zebra near an ancient ruin, but he does so anyway.  The next day the poor animal is found completely exsanguinated, an unusual wound on its throat.  Carter also leaves another zebra tethered to a stunted ash tree on Mount Ngranek and never returns for it.  Lovecraft realizes this mistake later on, and has Carter express remorse and a hope that the local lava-gatherers will release the zebra and give it food and water.   Later on, Carter’s trustworthy yak is terrified by a Shantak-bird and flees terrified over very hazardous terrain, never to be seen again.  But the unfortunate treatment of Zebras is the only significant flaw in the novel, and a minor one.  (Unless you are a Zebra.) 


The development of the character of Randolph Carter was discussed in a series of earlier posts in the summer of 2013.  See also:

1. What Happened to Randolph? (The Statement of Randolph Carter)
4. Randolph Carter alias Thomas Olney (The Strange High House in the Mist)




  1. A rewarding look at the novel, especially its rehearsal for parts of "At the Mountains of Madness".

  2. Much more interesting the second time around, after I had read some of his other "Dunsanian" tales. Thanks for your comment.


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