The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft has become something of a geek staple over the years for his “sanity blasting” horror stories. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, on the other hand, is a fantasy classic:

Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvellous city,
and three times he was snatched away while still he paused
on the high terrace above it. All golden and lovely it blazed in
the sunset… Mystery hung about it… the poignancy and suspense
of almost-vanished memory, the pain of lost things…
When for the third time he awakened with… those hushed sunset
streets still untraversed, he prayed long and earnestly to the hidden
gods of dreams… But the gods made no answer and shewed no
relenting, nor did they give any favouring sign when he prayed to
them in dream… [A]fter even the first [prayer] he ceased wholly
to behold the marvellous city; as if his three glimpses from afar
had been mere accidents or over-sights, and against some hidden
plan or wish of the gods.
At length, sick with longing for those glittering sunset streets… nor able
sleeping or waking to drive them from his mind, Carter resolved to go
with bold entreaty whither no man had gone before, and dare the icy
desert through the dark to… unknown Kadath

— H. P. Lovecraft, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

The only fantasy novel from an author not known for his subtlety, this bizarre, witty, elegant little gem is an odd tale with an odd history. That we have the story at all is amazing, since Lovecraft wrote it for his own amusement and never submitted it to any publisher, refused to circulate it among his friends (contrary to his normal practice), and did not even bother to type it; it was not published until years after his death.[1] Written in deliberate imitation of another author (the inimitable Lord Dunsany), it is nonetheless distinctly, even quintessentially Lovecraftian. It never mentions Cthulhu, yet paradoxically it’s fair to say it’s the best Cthulhu Mythos novel ever published.

“When Barzai the Wise climbed Hatheg-Kla
to see the Great Ones dance and howl above the clouds
in the moonlight, he never returned. The Other Gods were there,
and they did what was expected. Zenig of Aphorat sought
to reach unknown Kadath in the cold waste, and his skull
is now set in a ring on the little finger of one
whom I need not name.”

Lovecraft himself — a pulp horror writer who ironically earned his living as a ghost writer — is mainly remembered today for his creation of the Cthulhu Mythos, an idea for an open-ended shared universe which continues in popularity today, a good seventy-five years and more since it first took form.[2] As a horror writer, he suffered the major handicap that none of his stories are actually frightening. However promising an idea might sound in the abstract, any tension is sabotaged by his deliberately quaint style (marked by overuse of a few favorite words, such as “foetor” and “eldritch” and a tendency to end the last line of his story in italics),[3] an assumption the readers share his phobias (about foreigners and anything that lives in the sea), and the ease with which his all-powerful fiends are defeated (Wilbur Whateley, the precocious half-human half-alien who plans to open the way for his alien kin to swarm into the world and eliminate mankind, is killed by a dog while sneaking into a library; Great Cthulhu himself, a godlike being whose advent will usher in the End Times, is sent packing by being rammed with a yacht). But read as fantasy, his stories have more appeal, especially the idea of a secret history (which strikes a cord in these paranoid, conspiracy-theory-ridden times) and another world that underlies our own and occasionally threatens to flood over into it — in his horror or science-fiction/horror stories, always with tragic consequences; in his fantasies, with moving poignance. His early work reads as imitation Poe, but without the immediacy and psychological insight that has kept people reading Poe for over a century and a half. His later work became a pastiche of motifs borrowed from his favorite contemporaries (ironically this is a major part of its appeal today; reading Lovecraft is like reading an anthology of the best horror writers of his times). In between the two, he wrote a series of otherworldly fantasy stories that mark the unappreciated high point of his literary achievement. Fans of his horror tend to disparage his fantasy because it is so very different from his other work; fans of fantasy rarely discover it because they only know of him through his reputation as an eccentric hack. Only relatively few have discovered its merits on their own, making the Dream-Quest paradoxically a seldom-read classic by a much-read author.

The Dreamlands

By noon, after a long uphill ride, he came upon
some abandoned brick villages of the hill-people . . .
Here they had dwelt till the days of the old tavern-keeper’s
grandfather, but about that time they felt that their presence
was disliked. Their homes had crept even up the mountain’s slope,
and the higher they built the more people they would miss
when the sun rose. At last they decided it would be better
to leave altogether, since things were sometimes glimpsed
in the darkness which no one could interpret favourably.

Lovecraft’s Dreamlands sequence, of which the Dream-Quest forms the core and capstone, consists of no more than a dozen or so stories and fragments written between 1919 (when he first discovered and began imitating Dunsany’s work) and 1926-27; the sequence ends with “The Strange High House in the Mists” (his single best story) and the Dream-Quest itself, the culmination of all that had gone before.[4] For while the concept of the Dreamlands and whole mode of writing is borrowed directly from Dunsany’s masterpieces, [5] Lovecraft also looted his own earlier stories for motifs, locations, and characters in a way that was new to him. While he was fond of reusing locations (e.g., Arkham, Miskatonic University), items (The Necronomicon), and of course the gods of his evolving Mythos (which he called “Yog-Sothothery”), aside from the Dream-Quest it was rare for Lovecraft to use the same character twice: the chief exceptions were Herbert West (whose six stories had explicitly been commissioned as a series) and Randolph Carter, who appears in five tales altogether [6] and seems to have been an idealization or projection of Lovecraft himself.

By contrast, the Dream-Quest features return appearances by a slew of characters from earlier stories: Carter consults with the aged priest Atal of Ulthar (surviving companion of Barzai the Wise from “The Other Gods”), gains the aid of King Kuranes (the hero of “Celephais”), is rescued from the Dark Side of the Moon by the cats of Ulthar (“The Cats of Ulthar”), and recruits the ghoul who was once the great painter Richard Upton Pickman (“Pickman’s Model”) to lead a ghoul-army on an invasion of Kadath.

There, on a tombstone of 1768 stolen from the Granary
Burying Ground in Boston, sat the ghoul which was once
the artist Richard Upton Pickman. It was naked and rubbery,
and had acquired so much of the ghoulish physiognomy
that its human origin was already obscure. But it still
remembered a little English, and so was able
to converse with Carter in grunts and mono-
syllables, helped out now and then by
the glibbering of ghouls.

All these and many other elements are woven together into a continuous narrative, without any chapter breaks: Lovecraft’s stated model for this was Walter Beckford’s Vathek (1786), a short decadent Arabian-nights novel, but obviously the smooth flow of the story, passing from scene to scene and sequence to sequence with never a pause, perfectly captures the nature of the dreams it imitates; in real nightmares, abrupt breaks are rare (except, of course, at the end) and surprising segues can happen at any time. Sometimes, as in his descriptions of Randolph Carter’s capture by the night-gaunts, HPL drew on actual nightmares of his own and incorporated them into the story, with considerable effect:

[H]e thought he saw a very terrible outline of something
noxiously thin and horned and tailed and bat-winged….
Then a sort of cold rubbery arm seized his neck
and something else seized his feet… and Carter knew
that the night-gaunts had got him . . .
They made no sound at all themselves, and even their
membraneous wings were silent. They were frightfully cold
and damp and slippery, and their paws kneaded one detestably.
Soon they were plunging hideously downward through
inconceivable abysses… He screamed again and again,
but whenever he did the black paws tickled him
with greater subtlety…
[H]is captors… were… shocking and uncouth black beings
with smooth, oily… surfaces, unpleasant horns that curved inward
toward each other, bat-wings whose beating made no sound,
ugly prehensile paws, and barbed tails that lashed needlessly
and disquietingly. And worst of all, they never spoke or laughed,
and never smiled because they had no faces at all…
but only a suggestive blankness where a face ought to be.
All they ever did was clutch and fly and tickle;
that was the way of night-gaunts.

Given the horror they inspire in him, it is all the more surprising that Carter latter allies himself with the night-gaunts; one of the understated themes in the book is the “hero’s” willingness to make common cause with various loathsome beings when it suits his purposes — first with the zoogs (small, vicious, cannibalistic forest creatures), then the ghouls, and eventually the night-gaunts. He has wholesome allies, too — the cats of Ulthar and King Kuranes — but on the whole he seems willing to avail himself of the aid of anyone who can further his quest and feels no remorse about abandoning erstwhile allies once he no longer needs them. He needs such help, because the foes who oppose his quest are fearsome indeed: the not-quite-human Men of Leng, the Moon-beasts, the masked priest of the forbidden monastery (inspired by Dunsany’s Thulba Mleen and in turn later contributing to the Mythos figure The King in Yellow), as well as mindless dangers such as dholes, gugs, ghasts, and shantaks. But the greatest threats he faces are not mortal but divine and wholly malevolent: the sinister guardians of earth’s gods, known as the Other Gods.

The Other Gods

“[Earth's] gods kept from you
the marvellous sunset city of your dreams
… for verily, they craved the weird loveliness of that which
your fancy had fashioned. They are gone from their castle
on unknown Kadath to dwell in your marvellous city
… and walk no more in the ways of the gods.
The earth has no longer any gods that are gods,
and only the Other Ones hold sway on unremembered Kadath.
You have dreamed too well, O wise arch-dreamer,
for you have drawn dream’s gods away from the world
of all men’s visions to that which is wholly yours…
Fain would the powers from Outside bring chaos and horror to you,
Randolph Carter… but that they know it is by you alone
that the gods may be sent back to their world.”

The object of Carter’s quest, while simplicity itself, is startling in its audacity. Once the gods have taken away his vision of the sunset city that so draws him, he vows to find the gods’ dwelling in Kadath and force them to grant his wish (as with Dunsany’s Small Gods, the gods of earth, while powerful, are no match for a forceful individual or “experienced dreamer” such as our hero). To complicate matters, no one knows where Kadath might be located, so he must first quest for information. Since the story takes place in the Dreamlands — an alternate world we can enter only when dreaming, which has rules and laws all its own — he meets with many strange, beautiful, and terrible things along the way; these incidents provide much of the story’s charm. Some of the people he meets, like Kuranes, are dead in the real world but live on in Dreamland, while others have never existed except in dreams (and nightmares).

Unfortunately, the mild gods of earth, or “Great Ones,” are protected by the strange and terrible “Other Gods” and their minions, who destroy those who in any way trespass on the Great Ones. Evil and powerful beings like Azathoth (the embodiment of chaos itself “at the centre of all eternity”) and Nyarlathotep (messenger of the Other Gods, also known ominously as “the Crawling Chaos”) who dwell in the abysses of darkness between the stars, the Other Gods are the equivalent here of what eventually came to be known in Mythos stories as the Great Old Ones or Outer Gods. There are hints of yet another group in the god Nodens (what later redactors dubbed the “Elder Gods”), but his status is unclear; he delights in Nyarlathotep’s discomfiture and his minions, the night-gaunts, are feared by Nyarlathotep’s servitors, but he may simply be an unusually powerful and independently minded Great One or a rival Other God, not an altogether different order of being.

“So, Randolph Carter, in the name of the Other Gods
I spare you and charge you… to seek that sunset city . . .
For know you that your gold and marble city of wonder
is only the sum of what you have seen and loved in youth
… This loveliness, moulded, crystallised, and polished by years of
memory and dreaming, is your terraced wonder of elusive sunsets.
Go now… Forget not this warning, lest horrors unthinkable
suck you into the gulf of shrieking and ululant madness.
Remember the Other Gods; they are great and mindless
and terrible, and lurk in the outer voids. They are
good gods to shun… and pray to all space that you
may never meet me in my thousand other forms.
Farewell, Randolph Carter, and beware; for I am
Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos!”

The ending of the tale, which comes immediately after Carter’s confrontation with Nyarlathotep himself, is interesting for several reasons, and full of ironies. First, Carter finally achieves his goal, only to find it fruitless; after many exploits he reaches Kadath but discovers it deserted, the gods having abandoned their Dreamland equivalent of Mount Olympus to revel in the city of his vision. Then he discovers that the city he dreamed about was actually of his own creation, something his mind made out of memories of his own past and all the nostalgia he felt for the things lost over the years. Nyarlathotep pretends to send him on a mission to recall the errant gods, but this is only a trap; too late Carter discovers he is flying through space on a one-way trip to Azathoth “for madness and the void’s wild vengeance are Nyarlathotep’s only gifts to the presumptuous.” But in the final twist and revelation, Carter suddenly remembers that he is dreaming — this is after all a dream-quest — and at the last minute forces himself to wake up. We have been reminded from time to time that the whole story is a dream (at one point Carter is even advised to wake up and start again but demurs because he’s afraid he might forget too much he’d already learned in his quest), but such a simple solution to his direst of straits and immanent destruction of body and soul together is so obvious it never occurs to most readers. In an ending borrowed straight from Dunsany’s “Where the Tides Ebb & Flow,” but none the less effective for that, Randolph Carter “leaped shoutingly awake within his Boston room” to the beauty and light and life of the real world:

And vast infinities away,
past the Gate of Deeper Slumber and the enchanted wood . . .
the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep strode broodingly into the onyx castle
atop unknown Kadath in the cold waste, and taunted insolently
the mild gods of earth whom he had snatched abruptly
from their scented revels in the marvelous sunset city.

The Dream-Quest and Your Game

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is one of those rare classics of fantasy which any gamer can sit down and play immediately, since it’s the inspiration for Chaosium’s “Dreamlands” setting for the classic Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. While Chaosium has never replicated Randolph Carter’s quest (or indeed any of Lovecraft’s stories) as an epic RPG adventure, the setting derived from it and its associated short stories has gone through four editions (1986, 1988, 1992, 1997), with a fifth due out shortly; they have also published thirteen adventure scenarios using the setting. In addition, the Dreamlands setting was the basis of a stand-alone set of Chaosium’s collectable card game, Mythos (1997).


Lovecraft’s work is available in multiple overlapping editions, and the Dream-Quest is no exception. The standard edition is that published by Arkham House as part of a three-volume set of all HPL’s fiction; DQ forms part of the third volume, At the Mountains of Madness (1964, corrected text 1985; the other two volumes being The Dunwich Horror and Dagon and Other Macabre Tales; a fourth volume, The Horror in the Museum, reprints his ghost-written work that appeared under other author’s names). The story is also available in trade paperback as part of The Dream Cycle of H. P. Lovecraft (Del Rey, 1995), which also collects virtually all the stories related to the Dream-Quest, either by being set in the Dreamlands or by featuring a character whom Lovecraft later re-used in his novel (for example, “Pickman’s Model” and “The Statement of Randolph Carter”). The most attractive edition, however, is the first mass market paperback, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (Ballantine, 1970), where our novel is the featured story and not buried toward the back of some other collection. (Cover shown is of the 1996 reissue of this [Ballantine Books, July 1996; reissue edition; ISBN 0-3453-3779-4.]) Along with its companion volume, The Doom That Came to Sarnath (1971), this was part of Ballantine’s famed “Adult Fantasy Series” and unlike the hardcover has the advantage not only of a better cover (an evocative wraparound piece by Gervasio Gallardo, replaced in 1982 by an even more striking one by Michael Whelan) but also fittingly ends with Lovecraft’s single best story, “The Strange High House in the Mist.”

[1] We have R.H. Barlow to thank for the story’s survival; a teenage fan who became one of Lovecraft’s closest friends and eventual literary executor, Barlow persuaded Lovecraft to loan him the manuscript, which he surreptitiously typed; he also preserved Lovecraft’s manuscripts after his death and presented them to the John Hay Library in Providence, as well as providing the text that was posthumously published by Arkham House.

[2] Scholars debate endlessly about exactly which stories by Lovecraft and his imitators do and do not belong to the “Mythos,” but the seminal story remains Lovecraft’s own “The Call of Cthulhu,” published in the February 1928 issue of Weird Tales. Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG takes the sensible approach by equating the Mythos and “Lovecraftian” — e.g., anything in Lovecraft’s fiction. In part, the Mythos seems to have begun as a sort of game whereby Lovecraft and his friends could link their stories and exchange ideas. It also seems to have been a means whereby Lovecraft signaled that ghost-written stories were his work, by inserting elements of his Mythos into them. The Mythos has become more popular than ever in the last twenty years, largely because of the roleplaying game sparking a revival of interest in Lovecraft; in both quality of scenario-writing and its impact on the gaming and fantasy-fan communities the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game exceeds the contributions of all but the very best of the fiction writers using the Mythos (e.g., Clark Ashton Smith).

[3] In one unintentionally funny example of Lovecraft’s technique undercutting the desired effect (in this case, to describe events with the Poe-like immediacy of a first-person narrator), “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” ends with the main character writing in his journal a description of being dragged away to a horrible death — as if a character in such circumstances would calmly stop to write in his diary while grappling with a monster. Most of Lovecraft’s fiction is completely humorless; the Dream-Quest is a rare and welcome exception, and it mainly generates its humor through the deliberately inapt choice of adjectives (a technique Lovecraft may have learned from Clark Ashton Smith, who uses an over-elaborate vocabulary to great comic effect in tales such as “The Colossus of Ylourgne” and “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”).

[4] Stories in the sequence include “Celephais” (Kuranes), “The Other Gods” (the fate of Barzai), “The Cats of Ulthar” (a cautionary tale explaining just why cats are sacred in Ulthar), “The Silver Key” (the eventual fate of Randolph Carter), “The Strange High House in the Mist” (Nodens), “The White Ship,” “Polaris” (Lomar), “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” “The Quest of Iranon,” “Ex Oblivione,” and possibly “Beyond the Walls of Sleep.” Closely related but not part of the sequence are tales like “Pickman’s Model” (the pre-ghoul Pickman), “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (introducing Carter himself), “Nyarlathotep” (featuring a modern-day appearance by the Crawling Chaos), and “Azathoth” (a novel fragment that seems to have provided the Dream-Quest‘s climax).

[5] Dunsany’s great contribution to fantasy are the eight volumes of fantasy short stories he published between 1905 and 1919: The Gods of Pegana (1905), Time and the Gods (1906), The Sword of Welleran (1908), A Dreamer’s Tales (1910), The Book of Wonder (1912), Fifty-one Tales (1915; a collection of fables also known as The Food of Death), The Last Book of Wonder (1916), and Tales of Three Hemispheres (1919). Lovecraft drew heavily from all these, but especially A Dreamer’s Tales, The Book of Wonder, and The Last Book of Wonder, plus the “Idle Days on the Yann”/”A Shop in Go-by Street”/”The Avenger of Perdondaris” sequence (collected in Tales of Three Hemispheres under the general title “Beyond the Fields We Know”).

[6] The five Randolph Carter stories are “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1919), “The Unnamable” (1923), “The Silver Key” (1926), The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1926-27), and “Through the Gate of the Silver Key” (1932-33), the latter a weak collaboration with E. Hoffman Price.

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