The Lovecraft Reread

Friendly Ghouls and Truant Gods: “Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath,” Part 2

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories.

Today we’re looking at the second half of “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” written in 1926 and 1927, and published posthumously in 1943 by Arkham House. You can read the story here and get caught up with our previous post—this week we pick up at “One starlight evening when the Pharos shone splendid over the harbour the longed-for ship put in.”

Spoilers ahead.

“For another minute suspense was keen, and then the brief instant of full silhouette and revelation came; bringing to the lips of the ghouls an awed and half-choked meep of cosmic fear, and to the soul of the traveller a chill that has never wholly left it. For the mammoth bobbing shape that overtopped the ridge was only a head—a mitred double head—and below it in terrible vastness loped the frightful swollen body that bore it; the mountain-high monstrosity that walked in stealth and silence; the hyaena-like distortion of a giant anthropoid shape that trotted blackly against the sky, its repulsive pair of cone-capped heads reaching half way to the zenith.”

Summary: From Celephais Randolph Carter sails to the twilight land of Inquanok. There he tours the wonders of the capitol and talks with onyx miners about the lands to its north, where he hopes to find Kadath in the cold waste. Indeed, a cold waste lies in that direction, beyond the most remote of Inquanok’s quarries, but people don’t like to talk about it. Nor do they like to discuss the gaunt gray mountains that supposedly guard the hideous plateau of Leng.

Undeterred by their reticence or by the sight of a certain squat merchant he remembers from Dylath-Leen, Carter hires a yak and heads north. The farther he goes, the more the people resemble the gods. He passes an onyx quarry so vast no human could have delved it. His yak bolts; chasing it, Carter hears hoofbeats behind and realizes he himself is chased. He blunders through a rocky plain, toward onyx hills caved into enormous double-headed sentinels. Shantak birds, hippocephalic and scaly, flap around the statues. More accompany the merchant, who comes up behind Carter and takes him prisoner. Aboard a Shantak, they fly over the plateau of Leng. Crude villages dot the barren land, inhabited by the horned near-humans enslaved by the moon-beasts.

The merchant takes him to a low and windowless monastery, fabled lair of the High-Priest of the Other Gods, who hides behind a yellow silk mask. Passing through labyrinthine corridors lit only by his captor’s lamp, Carter observes murals depicting the history of Leng. The horned men ruled it before the coming of the moon-beasts, whom they now worship as gods. Their capitol was the great port Sarkomand, where winged stone lions guard the stairs to the Great Abyss. Noden is its lord, and master of the night-gaunts that even Shantaks flee.

The merchant brings Carter before the High-Priest, who plays a noxious flute by way of speech. Silk mitts slip from its hand, revealing a gray-white paw. Panicked, Carter shoves the merchant into a pit and flees through the labyrinths. When his lamp gives out, he gropes in the dark until heslides down a long tunnel that spits him out in — Sarkomand! Better there than with the High-Priest, but in the ruined city he sees moon-beasts torturing three ghouls, the very ones who helped Carter escape the underworld. Carter creeps to the stairs of the Great Abyss, and summons ghouls and night-gaunts to rescue his former companions. The Sarkomand moon-beasts exterminated, the ghouls and Carter sail their black galleon to the lunar monstrosities’ island stronghold. After a mighty battle, they take the place.

In gratitude for Carter’s generalship, the ghouls agree to lend night-gaunt steeds to bear him to the cold waste guarded by double-headed colossi. The ghouls themselves will go with him as an honor-guard, even into the halls of Kadath, where Carter will petition the gods of Earth for access to his sunset city. They fly over the squatting gargoyle-mountains, which rise to stalk after them, eerily silent. Carter’s party flies higher to elude them, into darkness lit only by stars that seem to stream toward the same point, a mountain higher than any other. Carter realizes that the night-gaunts are no longer flying — he and his companions are being sucked to the peak, helpless, falling like Barzai into the sky. An onyx castle of incalculable vastness crowns Kadath, and a pshent of unknown stars crowns the castle. Carter and company are deposited in a vast throne room. Three blasts from daemon trumpets make the ghouls and night-gaunts vanish. Alone, Carter watches twin columns of trumpet-sounding slaves approach. Down the wide lane between them strides a tall, slim man crowned with a golden pshent. This young Pharaoh has the mien of a dark god or fallen archangel, its eyes sparkle with capricious humor, and its mellow voice ripples with the music of Lethean streams.

Randolph Carter, it says, the gods of Earth have excluded you from your sunset city because they covet it for themselves and have indeed forsaken Kadath to sojourn there. Carter has dreamed too well, building from his boyhood fancies a city more lovely than all the phantom-cities dreamt before. But it’s not good for the gods of Earth to desert their posts. Carter must go to the place that amalgamates all his beloved memories of New England, and send the truant gods home.

The Pharaoh lends Carter a Shantak bird to take him to the sunset city, cautioning him not to fly so high he’s enraptured by the music of the outer spheres, for then he’ll be drawn into the horrors of the black gulfs, to the central void in which the Other Gods dance blind and mindless. And who should know more about that ultimate danger than the young Pharaoh, who is Nyarlathotep himself!

Alas, as the Shantak bears Carter off, he realizes it means to take him into the very void he’s been warned to avoid–as Nyarlathotep meant for it to do all along. But Carter counters the black glamor of the outer spheres by concentrating on the sunset city which is the apotheosis of his memories. He leaps from the Shantak and falls through interminable space, a whole cycle of existence, to wake with a cry in his Boston bed. Birds sing outside. His own black cat rises from the hearth to greet him.

Infinities away, thwarted of his vengeance upon Carter, Nyarlathotep snatches the gods of Earth from the sunset city to Kadath and taunts them insolently.

 

What’s Cyclopean: The quarry of the gods, steps in the tower of Koth, pedestals bearing giant sculpted lions in Sarkomand, and the cliffsand corridors of unknown Kadath. For bonus simile points, the night-gaunts attack the moon-beasts like a flock of “cyclopean bats.” But our word of the day is the delightful “hippocephalic,” used no less than 7 times to describe the shantak-birds. Their eggs may be delicious, but the adults are far too terrible to be merely horse-headed.

The Degenerate Dutch: In Inquanok they keep squat, slant-eyed slaves—without getting torn apart by cats for doing so. And in Kadath the gods keep “giant black slaves with loin-clothes of iridescent silk.”

Mythos Making: Nyarlathotep is behind everything, at least until he steps out where you can see him. Night-gaunts don’t serve him, though, but Nodens, who we know from “Strange High House in the Mist” is a pretty awesome guy. Also we finally see Leng, and learn why its location seems so variable in other references.

Libronomicon:Inquanok follows the ritual rhythms of the Great Ones, as set forth in scrolls older than the Pnakotic Manuscripts. Azathoth is described several times as the daemon-sultan “whose name no lips dare speak aloud,” which goes under this heading because it’s very bad news for audiobooks.

Madness Takes Its Toll: No mortal can face Azathoth and the mindless other gods and survive with mind intact. This is why you should never accept shantak rides from strange deities.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Oh yeah, here’s one of my favorite avatars of Nyarlathotep in all his faux-Pharaoh glory. He’s as far as you can get from being blind and mindless, with his wit and deceptively soothing voice and capricious malice. Benedict Cumberbatch will play him in the mini-series.

What, then, exactly are the Dreamlands? Are they all in Randolph Carter’s head, or are they a communal invention, an amalgamation of all the Earth’s dreams and a sum greater than the parts contributed by individual dreamers? It seems meant to be a communal invention, a dimension created and sustained by multitudinous psyches. However, not all contributors are equal. There are archdreamers like Carter (of course), who can not only navigate the shared realm with aplomb but who can conjure new and highly personal annexes to it. And Carter’s annex is so awesome that the very gods want it for themselves. Spoiled brats, they’d bar the maker from his own sunset city. In the end, though, not even Nyarlathotep can keep the city—his memories, his emotions, his accrued being—from saving Carter.

And yet….

The Dreamlands don’t read like a patchwork, a committee effort, a diverse production. The whole complex is consistent and idiosyncratic—idiosyncratic to Carter and, by extension, to Lovecraft. This is probably an inevitable product of the fictive process; who’s writing this story but Lovecraft? Again, by extension, who’s dreaming this dream but Carter? Are we back to it’s all in Carter’s head?

At any rate, it’s all filtered through Carter’s head, interpreted through his knowledge and experience, colored by his sensibilities and prejudices. Huh. Isn’t that how people perceive all given worlds, whether in “reality” or “dream?”

Either way, the Dreamlands exist but are individually interpreted or each person’s Dreamland is a separate creation: They must afford intriguing chinkholes into the dreamer’s psychology.

Intriguing. Troubling?

Couple examples. First, slavery. Many cities (or city-states or nations) in the Dreamlands have slaves. Ulthar’s the exception that strikes me, but that may be more a reflection of its bucolic nature or its comparatively modest wealth than of any political/moral system. Carter seems to find slavery a matter of course in Dylath-Leen, where the black men of Parg are the slave class, often sold to the hump-turbaned merchants who are themselves slaves to the moon-beasts. The same in Inquanok, where he notes that the slaves of the region are squat, slant-eyed folk, supposedly from valleys beyond Leng. Also squat and slant-eyed is the merchant who eventually captures Carter and brings him to the High-Priest. Could be he’s of the Inquanok slave race, too. Free and allied now to the Other Gods? Or just a slave with bigger masters? On Kadath the slaves are black humans of Earth, gorgeously appareled but chained. Race seems to determine social status—in each place, there aren’t any slaves of the dominant races.

And that’s just the way it is, Carter seems to think.

Interesting to note that the ghouls and night-gaunts don’t appear to have a master-slave relationship, more a symbiotic one. They’re the scary ones. Aren’t they?

Plus: Where the hell are the Dreamlands women? Is a female ever mentioned? Could be I missed it, but are there any goddesses among all those gods? Must be there are women in Inquanok for slumming gods to marry. Oh, yeah. “Daughters of men,” they’re called. But we never meet any. Instead we meet lots of merchants, and sailors, and priests, and miners, all presumably male. All male, too, as far as I can tell, are the ghouls and ghasts and Gugs and night-gaunts and Zoogs. Again, we can assume because reproduction that there are females in these species, but only the Shantaks are certain, since they produce eggs. The females, anyhow. Presumably.

Swordswomen and major characters aside. In this sort of fantasy, in this high-pulp era, shouldn’t we get some bar-maids and dancing girls at least? Concubines and courtesans? Exotic beauties, veiled and/or scantily clad? Queens and princesses? Come on, Randolph Carter. Aren’t you he-man enough to leaven your dreams with some feminine pulchritude?

Nope. Carter is singularly chaste in his dreaming. If there are any ladies, they’re hidden in those walled courtyards from which the sounds of lutes and the fragrance of many flowering trees emanate. But Carter doesn’t penetrate those places, for all the depths into which he plunges, tunnels through which he slides, towers (and more towers, and more towers, and mountains, too) he ascends. His biggest sensual thrills are nuzzling Dholes and tickling night-gaunts.

Guess I better stop before the infinite erotic possibilities of the night-gaunt overwhelm me with awed and palpitating loathing.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

The second half of Dream-Quest continues the hodge-podge awesomeness. There are painted murals of Leng, uncannily preserved across aeons, which make Carter shudder and would delight any sensible archaeologist. I will happily read that scene as many times as Lovecraft wants to write it. We ally with night-gaunts and learn that they see with sonar, like dolphins. We gape at the giant double-headed guards of unknown Kadath, who stalk silently through the scene for no apparent reason other than to be gaped at.

But problematic stuff surfaces more in this half as well. The racial judginess, the vaguely silk-roadish exotic cities and ports, have been here all along. But it’s when Carter finds his allied ghouls being tortured by moon-beasts, and turns their rescue into a war of conquest, that the weird colonialist undercurrent really comes to the fore. I think Lovecraft was using a trope that his readers would have associated with half-understood, all-romanticized history and childhood enjoyment of Kipling, but that doesn’t make it less squirm-inducing for this modern reader. What these ghouls really need is a white dude? And then Carter thinks they should be grateful (because he got them, bloodily, out of the trouble he got them into earlier)—and they are “appropriately grateful,” enough to see him to Kadath in state. But none of this means that a human man could really enjoy their company or see them as equals, dog-like and soul-less as they are.

Speaking of weird colonialist undercurrents, did anyone else have Return of the Jedi flashbacks when the ghouls learned to use moon-beast weapons? There’s a remarkable similarity between ghouls and ewoks, really. Though ewoks eat live sapients rather than corpses, so ghouls probably make much more pleasant neighbors.

Dubious politics aside, that’s an awfully interesting battle at the moon-beast outpost, purely for Carter’s character development. When we first met him, he had pretty severe PTSD from World War I. Now, at long last, he’s worked through it—enough to lead troops into battle and to victory. Not just any troops either, but ghouls, who in Pickman’s Model embodied the horrors of war unavoidable even at home. Under Carter’s leadership, they’re no longer symbols of that trauma, just soldiers who kill the unproblematically evil opponent with ease.

Carter’s gained a lot from his second adulthood, maybe the only character in Lovecraft who comes through cosmic horror withincreased sanity and confidence. So why does he yearn for the supposed innocence of childhood? At the end of Dream-Quest, those childhood memories save him from horror and bring him home safe. Nostalgia versus Cthulhu: not a match-up where I’d have bet successfully on the winner.

Maybe because of that, I still can’t decide how I feel about the ending. There’s the mopey nostalgia and drawn out poetic waxing on New England’s glories. But there’s also Nyarlathotep playing magnificent bastard, tricking Carter and taunting earth’s gods. (And that last bit was a test if I ever saw one; I suspect Nyarlathotep would have been pleased and amused either way it turned out.)

But still, would I rather the city were as wildly exotic as it first appears, or can I deal with Dorothy assuring us there’s no place like home? Neither option ultimately seems satisfying, and I’m left wondering what ending would have lived up to the promise set by the rest of the story?

 

Next week, cosmic battles have awkward side effects on earth in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.”

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She lives in a large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection.The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.

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