Wed
Dec 30 2009 2:00pm

12 Days of Lovecraft: “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”

It’s cold outside, so let’s curl up under the covers and undertake “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”!

The Story:

Randolph Carter, traveler of the dreamlands, decides he wants to find the unknown city of Kadath after dreaming about it, so he undertakes an interminable quest through the world of dreams to find the city. He meets some friendly cats, he sails to the moon, he goes to many places with dumb names and meets creatures and people with dumb names, all in his quest to find Kadath because…he feels like it.

Eventually, maybe he finds it. Or, then again, maybe he doesn’t. I gotta be honest—this defeated me, and there was no way in Kadath I was getting through all 48,000 words. I abandoned the dream quest about halfway through.

What’s Awesome:

I like the way we’re just dropped into the story without a lot of exposition about how stuff works. We have to figure out the rules as we go along. I appreciated that. I guess it’s kind of cool also to see stuff that appears in other, better stories showing up here. I’m stretching.

What’s Horrible:

Let’s just be honest here. Most masters of the short story are not that great at the long form. If they’re smart, like Raymond Carver, they don’t even attempt the long form. If they’re not, they write dreck like this. I’m trying to be kind here, so let me use some “I statements.” I don’t think you can sustain a story over 48,000 words on sense of wonder alone. I didn’t care about Randolph Carter’s dream quest at all because there’s not really any compelling reason for him to undertake it apart from curiosity.

And H.P.’s prose styling, somewhat difficult for me to navigate even when the story is exciting, becomes nearly unreadable here. Don’t believe me? Try this utterly typical sentence on for size:

Then one very ancient Zoog recalled a thing unheard-of by the others; and said that in Ulthar, beyond the River Skai, there still lingered the last copy of those inconceivably old Pnakotic Manuscripts made by waking men in forgotten boreal kingdoms and borne into the land of dreams when the hairy cannibal Gnophkehs overcame many-templed Olathoe and slew all the heroes of the land of Lomar.

Let me just restate that what you’ve just read is a single sentence. Yeesh. With all the goofy names, this resembles nothing so much as a Conan story with no maimings, beheadings, or full-bosomed warrior queens. In other words, completely pointless. I suppose we’re meant to thrill to the fruits of H.P.’s imagination, but the night gaunts gamboling through the dingly dell or whatever got old for me after about a paragraph.

Did I mention there is no dialogue at all? Everything is told, not shown, or, as H.P. would have it, shewn.

Rereading a bunch of his stories has, overall, given me additional respect for H.P.’s work. Many of his short stories are nothing short of brilliant. This, however, is, in my opinion, a great steaming turd of a novella.

Bonus Track!

I must apologize to Chris Meadows, who notes that “Dream Quest” is his favorite Lovecraft and who was also kind enough to send me a copy of Kadath Decoded, a rock opera based on the story by German prog-metal outfit Payne’s Gray.

Since I didn’t care for the story, I suppose it follows that I would not care for the rock opera based on it. I am more of a Ramones kind of guy: 3 chords, 2 and a half minutes, let’s call it a rock and roll song and move on.

I do admire the ambition and the musicianship behind this project, but it’s just fundamentally not for me. Here’s a little quiz to see if it might be for you:

1. What’s your opinion of Rush’s “2112”?:
a) *sings “We are the priests of the temples of Syrinx...”*
b) Neal Peart + Ayn Rand= 2 great philosophers who philosophize great together!
c) Boo! Play “Red Barchetta!”
d) Rush? Are you kidding?

2. What’s your opinion of the Yes album Relayer?
a) Love it. Wish “The Gates of Delirium” were both sides!
b) It’s okay.
c) Yes? Who the hell is that?
d) I can’t answer, as I have never actually listened to the entire thing despite at least 2 attempts.

3. What if the quiet parts of Metallica songs never really started rockin'?
a) I could live with that.
b) Cool! The rockin’ parts rock too hard for me anyway.
c) Not interested.
d) Isn’t that the band that did “Mr. Sandman”?

4. What’s your opinion of Emerson, Lake and Palmer?
a) Great band.
b) I like some of their stuff.
c) It’s a damn shame that a band called Atomic Rooster had to break up for this band to exist. Though I’ve never actually heard that band. But still.
d) Is that, like, a law firm or something?

If you answered a) or b) to any of the above questions, you should probably check out Kadath Decoded. If, like me, you answered 1. C, 2. D 3. C and 4. C, then you should probably skip it.


Seamus Cooper is the author of The Mall of Cthulhu (Night Shade Books, 2009).  His dream quests usually look kinda like this and don’t involve any lost cities, but, hey, he was a boy in the 70s.

This article is part of December Belongs To Cthulhu: ‹ previous | index | next ›
6 comments
David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
What this story actually resembles is not Conan, but rather Lord Dunsany. Like all of HPL's Dreamlands stories, this is heavily influenced by Dunsany's Pegana tales. There is an internal consistency to these stories that provides the background information and some of the motivation. There are also a few mythos references, too. I believe it is this story where Pickman from Pickman's Model makes a cameo and the Pnakotic Manuscripts you cite are a recurring work just like the Necronomicon.

Frankly, I've always quite enjoyed it. Yes, it may stretch your vocabulary (not necessarily a bad thing, really) and some of the sentences may challenge your attention span and confront you with scary punctuation like semicolons, but it is a good story.
Doug M.
2. Doug M.
Where to start.

One, this is Lovecraft's most derivative large work. It's mostly a Dunsany pastiche -- the style and tone are almost pure Dunsany -- but with bits of John Carter of Mars and Eddings tossed in. That doesn't excuse the story's flaws, which are large and real, but it does to a great extent explain them. The sentence you cite above, for instance, is pretty pure Dunsany.

Arguably it's a big damn piece of fanfic. In this context, it's worth noting that even in 1927, fanfic already involved large numbers of cool and heroic cats.

Two, it's Lovecraft's one attempt at a picaresque adventure story. I don't think it's a great success, but I wouldn't call it a "great steaming turd" either. The story is lively and barrels along from one wacky adventure to the next. There are bits that are funny, bits that are horrid -- those toad-things at the docks -- and bits that are creepy. I've always liked the bit with the night-gaunts. Carter is clinging to the side of a mountain, caught by nightfall, and must wait for dawn. But:

"Suddenly, without a warning sound in the dark, Carter felt his curved scimitar drawn stealthily out of his belt by some unseen hand. Then he heard it clatter down over the rocks below. And between him and the Milky Way he thought he saw a very terrible outline of something noxiously thin and horned and tailed and bat-winged. Other things, too, had begun to blot out patches of stars west of him, as if a flock of vague entities were flapping thickly and silently out of that inaccessible cave in the face of the precipice. Then a sort of cold rubbery arm seized his neck and something else seized his feet, and he was lifted inconsiderately up and swung about in space. Another minute and the stars were gone, and Carter knew that the night-gaunts had got him."

'A sort of cold rubbery arm' is good.

Mind, even the creepy is, by Lovecraft's standards, toned down. The most Lovecraftian moment in the story is probably when Carter is escaping the bone-crypt and gets chased by the dhole. We're never shown the monster; all we know is that it's large, and seems unpleasantly interested in Carter. But if this was a standard Lovecraft story, Carter would probably have a companion who'd be devoured alive and screaming in the dark... or, worse yet, turn on a light, see the thing whole, and promptly go insane. Instead, Carter just escapes up a rope ladder.

You're perfectly right to say this resembles a Conan story minus the maimings and beheadings. Carter is traveling through a somewhat Conan-like world. (More of a John Carter world, really. Complete with multiple alien races, some friendly, some hostile.) But he's not a thew-loined warrior, so he has to survive on wits, linguistic skills, common sense and good will. I find that neat; YMMV.

(Alan Moore made Randolph Carter a nephew of John Carter, and a sniveling wimp besides. The first part struck me as insightful -- he's clearly a literary relative, so why not a real one? -- the second seemed grossly unfair.)

Three, while I hesitate to use influence as a measure of a work's quality -- some truly dire works have been all too influential -- it's a fact that this is a work that's influenced four generations of creative people in a wide range of fields. To give just one example, Neil Gaiman cites it as an influence on _Sandman_. (Remember "A Doll's House"? Mostly a love letter to Jonathan Carroll, but then Jonathan Carroll was channeling this story when he wrote _Bones of the Moon_. Dunsany -> Lovecraft -> Carroll -> Gaiman, and you can have a lot of fun seeing how each iteration juggles the tropes.) To give another, Gary Gygax thought this story was way cool, and you can see its influence on the cosmology of D&D.

Finally, the language is indeed pretty purple, and the sentences tend long. But there's nothing inherently wrong with long sentences.


Doug M.
Katie Schmidt
3. safarikate
I recently re-read this story, and it surprised me that it was longer than I remembered it to be. I think in my mind I had broken it down into multiple shorter stories, about the average length of an HPL story.

Re-reading it, I noticed that the action broke down much like a video game, progressing through 'levels' loosely tied together by the main quest. Carter gains knowledge and skills as the story progresses, until at the end he fights the 'boss,' Nyarlathotep, on Kadath, and (sort of) achieves his goal of finding the golden city of his dreams that the gods had hidden from him. (Finding Kadath was actually just a means to finding the golden city, which I don't think was given a name.) I didn't really like the ending, where he realizes that the 'golden city' was actually Boston, since it seemed a bit too cliche to me.

Anyway, that's just my thoughts, from a child of the 80s and Nintendo.
Doug M.
4. Angiportus
For me, the memorable part of the story was how Carter gained strength--he encounters these really creepy things like night-gaunts but manages to figure out how to get them to work on his side, and in a while they aren't that creepy after all--it's a lot like "real" life that way. And just like when one is awake, some phenomema like the moonbeasts remain intractable, and abysses still terrorize...but a brave and resourceful person just might win thru. I too didn't quite sit well with the golden city turning out to be "just" a memory of one's hometown, but then I've never been that big of a reductionist.
Not everyone can handle the pseudo-Dunsanian stuff. But by the time Carter does reach Kadath and find out where his vision really came from, it isn't just Dunsany any more. It's me, and anyone else who ever had a wondrous vision haunt them, and scary things lurk in their path.
Russ Gray
5. nimdok
It took me three weeks of increasingly despondent reading to realize I'd never get to the end of this one. Not one of his better stories.
Doug M.
6. PickmansGhoul
This novel requires an intellgent reader to truly appreciate it and understand it. Some people are better off sticking to Dr. Seus books although even Green Eggs and Ham can be really difficult to understand. The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath represents Lovecraft's earlier Lord Dunsany period. I am sure you would fail to understand Lord Dunsany's fantasies too. Perhaps "The Magical Flight to the Mushroom Planet" is more your speed. Hint....don't try to read and review books than are clearly way over your head.

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