Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath

"The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath", first published in Beyond the Wall of Sleep, 1943.

This is the the thirty-third entry in my read-through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.

Because of the way the Necronomicon volume is ordered – by publication date rather than writing date – this comes right at the end of the anthology, rather than where it fits in the story of HPL's development as a writer. On the one hand that's a bit of a shame – immediately after this he wrote The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and embarked on the run of stories on which his reputation largely rests, and this story is clearly a turning point.

On the other hand, it's an interesting coda for all the thinking I've done about HPL the man, and how much of him resides in his fiction. They're both interesting topics and I'll take them in turn.

This is HPL's first serious attempt to write a long, novel-length narrative. He's making use of his “Dunsanian” material here, trying to stitch it all together into something larger than the sum of its parts. It's a curious affair – while Ulthar and Sarnath have previously been hinted to have existed in Earth's distant past, they're now transplanted to an explicit dream world, entered through some kind of a trance or astral projection. The city of Celephais has a more dream-oriented origin – being the dream city of King Kuranes in the story of the same name, another typically poetical tale of a questing boy who seeks his lost youthful paradise – but here Kuranes becomes a waking world associate of Carter who offers aid on his travels. (This story of the same name is not included in this  volume, a key omission as it's probably the best of the Dunsanian stories.)

It looks to me like HPL was attempting to create a fantasy world of the coherent type that Robert E Howard was beginning to make use of in the Conan stories. Randolph Carter comes across at first as an adventurer in a portal fantasy world, not a million miles from that other Carter, John, who sojourned so often in Mars – I suspect HPL had those stories in his sights as well. The time of writing is right – he was desperate to make money and must have been thinking hard about the sort of story that really sold – and there's a lot of adventurousness, in the beginning at least, that feels like HPL's trying to map his poetical style on to the burgeoning swords and sorcery genre.

He keeps the focus on excitement in this story in a way that we haven't seen in his other Dunsanian fantasies – it threatens at times to become action packed, even. The section that begins with Carter's kidnap by the mysterious traders (who turn out to be beast men from Leng) through to the final battle between the ghouls and the moonbeasts is pretty exciting stuff, and written with an eye for action that's rare for HPL.

Even so, it's not HPL's natural metier. There are frequent longueurs and its HPL's eye for the bizarre and outrĂ© that's the chief pleasure here. The exotic world of dreams is well-furnished with languid Orientalist fantasy cities, bizarre creatures and extraordinary happenings ladled on thickly throughout. There's some fine writing around threatening landscapes that approach “The Colour Out of Space”, and the creatures are as exquisitely grotesque as anything HPL has described elsewhere – particularly the abhorrent moonbeasts, which are quite wonderfully repugnant and come with all sorts of unpleasant hints about their habits.

HPL brings back his ghouls from Pickman's Model and adds brilliantly to the ambiguous portrayal in that story. He provides a fine balance between their role as stalwart allies and disgusting corpse eaters that really asks the reader to consider their own visceral reactions and the quiet dignity of the creatures of the night. He also uses them to tease us with the metaphysics of his portal fantasy world, as their tunnels seem to be another route between the two worlds. It's a puzzling idea that HPL toys with, throwing it out there without having to tell us how it works, which adds to the pleasing sense of general unreality.

Personally I'm not a fan of highly developed fantasy worlds of the Middle Earth, the Hyborian Age or Shanara type, but I find HPL's Dreamland really effective. It doesn't aspire to the kind of faux reality of other fantasy worlds, with “realistic” history, geography and philology (that are usually anything but). Instead, it acknowledges its own unreality and the fairytale nature of it all without quite tipping over into the completely allegorical as the other Dunsanian stories do.  It's interesting to note that Brian Lumley wrote a series of more or less straight swords and sorcery novels in the setting (which I read long ago and didn't think much of – they're rather pedestrian compared to HPL's fervid and vivid imaginings).

It's a shame, then, that it doesn't quite work. There are a few problems with it, and they reflect some of the elements that make his contemporaries who did write successfully in this genre so effective.

For a start, despite his willingness to go for adventure, he has neither the talent nor inclinations of Howard in this direction. Carter is an HPL substitute and is thus never going to have the natural exuberance of any of Howard's action men. Carter relies on his allies to do the fighting, and it's usually seen from a distance of time or place. HPL just can't infuse the large scale action with the sort of energy that Howard brings to battles and wars, and it all seems a bit half-hearted.

Clark Ashton Smith, the other of the Weird Tales big three, was a master at the kind of dreamy, woozy exoticism that HPL's aiming for here. While HPL is arguably better at the simply bizarre (Smith has his moments!) HPL doesn't have the same appetite for louche sensuality that Smith brings to his own stories. Despite the weirdness, it's all a bit prim and juvenile. The rivalry between the zoogs and the cats, for example, smacks a little of the nursery and therefore sits uncomfortably with the charnel house horrors of the ghouls and the fleshy unwholesomeness of the moonbeasts.

The key missing element is eroticism – there are no harem girls here, none of the houris and dancers that populate Smith's stories, none of the doomed love affairs. In fact, typically for HPL, there are no females at all and in this setting they are really missed. Howard was like a masturbatory adolescent (only in fantasy fiction could that be considered a compliment!) while Smith's stories revel in an appetite for moth-to-the-flames doomed love. HPL's gynophobia and misogyny worked brilliantly for him in the context of his horror, but it's possible that he was just too uptight to let that out in this context. As a consequence, this story feels a little flat.

More cripplingly it's often quite boring. For all that there are effective passages, there's also a lot of turgid stuff description and flowery prose that does nothing. In fairness, HPL did give up on this story, and perhaps with another draft or two he'd have trimmed the dull sections of stentorian pretend history in the Dunsanian mode and been left with a leaner story, but he didn't and so this is sometimes a trial to read.

It looks to me (and I'm reading a lot into all this, I know) that HPL realises towards the end that this is going nowhere – perhaps at about the time that Carter's grabbed by a Nightgaunt and whisked off to Kadath to meet with Nyarlathotep at the tower of unknown Kadath itself. He abandons the adventurous tale he's been struggling to tell up to now, and instead plunges into an interior journey, articulating recent revelations about his life and his writing.

At the time of writing Kadath, he was in the process of leaving New York and his marriage to Sonia Greene and returning to his old stamping grounds in Providence. It's hard not to read the end of this story as a moment of self-knowledge articulated through HPL's complex scheme of fantasy. In the end, apparently doomed by Nyarlathotep, Carter realises that to escape his doom – in the heart of the primal chaos, Azathoth – he has to merely to wake up. When he does so, he finds himself back in his beloved Providence. He sees the quest for old gods and exotic places as folly and realises that he has everything he needs right there.

Here we have the questing boy truly fulfilled, saved from the horror that meets so many others and yet turning away from the retreat into childhood that they opt for elsewhere (and that, in fact, awaits Carter himself in The Gate of the Silver Key).

It's a hopeful to note on which to leave old HPL. He seems by the end of this story to be in a place that feels right, a man in the place he needs to be to go forward. It wasn't to last, of course, and HPL's demons were never far behind. He was never truly free from the lost childhood of relative prosperity, the scars of neurosis and shame piled on to him by his mother, the cracking horrible panic that gripped him in adolescence, the lingering feelings of self-loathing and his inability to reach out and love anyone or let himself be loved.

He had, by any accounts a pretty miserable life, deserved better, always was his own worst enemy in most respects. He poured it into his fiction, of course, using it seemingly unconsciously to fuel the horrors of his fiction. You've got to wonder if forty-seven years of unhappiness were worth a handful of stories, but I guess he made the best of the hand he'd been dealt.

I've spent a year with him, and I'm going to miss his self-deprecating presence in the months to come. Good night, dreamer – I hope you found Celephais at last!

All that said, I'll be back soon with a look at his essay Supernatural Horror In Literature for a final summing on what we've all learned... won't that be fun!

The header illustration for this post is the cover of a comics adaptation of this story by Jason Thompson which I haven't read but which looks really cool. You can find out more here.

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