Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The

   Short novel (43,100 words); written October 1926–January 22, 1927. First published in BWS; rpt. Arkham Sampler(Winter 1948–Autumn 1948); corrected text in MM
   Randolph Carter engages in a quest through dreamland in search of the “sunset city” of his dreams, which he can no longer attain. The city is described as follows: “All golden and lovely it blazed in the sunset, with walls, temples, colonnades, and arched bridges of veined marble, silver-basined fountains of prismatic spray in broad squares and perfumed gardens, and wide streets marching between delicate trees and blossom-laden urns and ivory statues in gleaming rows; while on steep northward slopes climbed tiers of red roofs and old peaked gables harbouring little lanes of grassy cobbles.” He believes that his only recourse is to plead his case before the “hidden gods of dream that brood capricious above the clouds on unknown Kadath.” No one in dreamland knows where Kadath is, and the journey appears to be fraught with dangers, but Carter undertakes the quest nonetheless.
   He first visits the land of the zoogs, “furtive and secretive” creatures who live in burrows or in the trunks of trees. They do not know where Kadath is, but one elderly zoog has heard that a copy of the “inconceivably old Pnakotic Manuscripts” is at Ulthar and that it tells much about the gods. So Carter makes his way to Ulthar, beyond the river Skai, where the friendly cats cluster about him. Carter seeks the patriarch Atal, who long ago had ascended Mt. Hatheg-Kla in the company of Barzai the Wise, in order to look upon the gods; only Atal had come down. Carter drugs Atal with the zoogs’ moon-wine, so that Atal becomes talkative: he tells Carter of a great image of the gods (called the Great Ones or the gods of earth) carved on Mt. Ngranek, on the isle of Oriab; if Carter were to see this image, and then look for similar images among the races of dreamland, he would probably find the gods. The gods, after all, were fond of marrying the daughters of men and producing offspring who had divine blood in their veins and divine features on their countenances.
   At Atal’s urging, Carter joins a caravan bound for Dylath-Leen, a great city on the Southern Sea. Arriving there, he hears that ships from Baharna, a city on Oriab, came occasionally to trade at Dylath-Leen. These ships had an unsavory reputation, for they would merely exchange enormous rubies for hordes of black slaves. Presently such a ship comes into the harbor, and Carter speaks to one of the merchants on it; but the merchant plies Carter with drugged wine, and he is taken aboard the ship as a prisoner. Carter suspects that the ship is in league with the Other Gods, who under the aegis of the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep protect the mild gods of earth. The ship sails between the Basalt Pillars of the West, and then leaps into the air and lands on the moon, eventually docking at a peculiar city on a “leprous-looking coast”; on the shore are huge grayish-white toadlike creatures moving cargo and slaves off the ships. Other creatures, turbaned and approximately human in outline, are also seen. Two of the toad-creatures seize Carter and take him to a dungeon, and later he is led in a procession, surrounded by both the toads and the almost-human entities. Suddenly Carter hears the yell of a cat, and he realizes that the moon is where all cats come at night. Carter, knowing the cats’ language, utters a cry for help; and there ensues a battle between the cats on one side and the toad-creatures and almost-humans on the other side. The cats prevail and then make a gigantic leap back to earth, Carter safely carried along in their midst.
   Carter finds himself back at Dylath-Leen and this time boards a ship for the isle of Oriab. Reaching the port of Baharna, Carter undertakes the arduous ascent of Mt. Ngranek; finally attaining the farther side of it, he is astounded at the enormous face carved thereon. But mingled with his awe is recognition, for Carter knows that he has seen likenesses of that face in the taverns of the seaport Celephais, ruled by King Kuranes. Carter knows he must head there, but before he can climb down the mountain he is plucked by hideous winged creatures with no faces—the night-gaunts. They bear him beyond the Peaks of Thok and leave him in the vale of Pnath, “where crawl and burrow the enormous bholes.” Carter is, however, aware that bholes are terrified of ghouls, and he has had dealings in the past with ghouls—specifically with one ghoul named Richard Upton Pickman, who used to be a man. Carter summons the ghouls, who lower an enormous rope ladder up which he climbs to the top of a crag. The ghouls take
   Carter to Pickman, who “had become a ghoul of some prominence in abysses nearer the waking world.” Carter outlines his plan to get to the enchanted wood and thence to Celephais, but Pickman tells him that to do so he will have to pass through the kingdom of the gugs, “hairy and gigantic,” and their enemies, the ghasts. Pickman gives Carter a handful of ghouls to accompany him to the gugs’ kingdom and has Carter disguise himself as a ghoul.
   Carter and the ghouls reach the kingdom of the gugs. They seek to ascend a cliff to the enchanted wood, but encounter an enormous gug, fifteen feet high and with a mouth that opens vertically. At that moment, however, the gug is attacked by a swarm of ghasts, and this allows Carter and his escorts to go forth and reach an enormous tower with huge stone steps leading up. After “aeons of climbing” they reach the summit, going through a stone trapdoor just before a gug can capture them. At this point the ghouls leave Carter to return to their own realm. As he is making his way through the enchanted wood, he overhears zoogs planning a war of revenge upon the cats, who had killed several zoogs when Carter was at Ulthar. Carter realizes that he must foil the plan, so he summons the cats and informs them of the zoogs’ scheme.
   Carter follows the river Oukranos to Kiran and Thran, and there boards a galleon to Celephais. He describes to the mariners the face on Mt. Ngranek, and the mariners tell him that people matching that description are found in a faraway twilight land called Inganok, close to Leng. After passing by Hlanith, Carter comes to Celephais, where he meets his old friend Kuranes. But Kuranes, although now a king, longs for his old home. Trevor Towers, in England, and suggests that Carter’s “sunset city” may not be as satisfying as he thinks.
   At length a ship from Inganok docks at the harbor, and Carter is thrilled to see “living faces so like the godlike features on Ngranek.” Carter takes passage on their ship and eventually comes to the onyx city of Inganok. He is unnerved to see again the slant-eyed merchant who had drugged him in Dylath-Leen, but the latter disappears before Carter can speak to him. Carter wishes to talk with the onyx-miners in the north, so he hires a yak for the purpose and makes his way to the quarries. Ascending the black cliffs higher and higher, Carter reaches the crest and sees, far in the distance, what appears to be an enormous range of black mountains, but is in fact a series of gigantic onyx figures, “their right hands raised in menace against mankind.” From their laps Carter sees arising a black cloud of shantak-birds. In front of him he sees the slant-eyed merchant astride a yak and leading a horde of shantaks. The merchant compels Carter to mount one of the birds, and they fly through space to the doorway of a windowless stone monastery in Leng. Carter is led before a “lumpish figure robed in yellow silk…and having a yellow silken mask over its face,” whom Carter realizes as the “highpriest not to be described, of which legend whispers such fiendish and abnormal possibilities.” At one point the priest’s mask slips, and the brief glimpse of the face impels Carter to flee madly through the labyrinthine corridors of the monastery. Without warning he slides down an almost vertical burrow and, seemingly miles below, finds himself in a ruined city that he recognizes is Sarkomand.
   Carter sees a glow ahead, and approaching carefully he sees that it is a campfire near the seashore, where a black galley from the moon is docked; around the campfire Carter sees a group of the toadlike moon-beasts, who have captured his erstwhile ghoul escorts. Carter realizes that he must summon help, so he goes down an immense set of spiral staircases; but as he is slipping down the steps, he is caught up by night-gaunts. Now aware that the night-gaunts are in league with the ghouls, Carter utters a ghoul-cry and tells the nightgaunt to take him back to Pickman and his cohorts. Explaining the situation to the ghouls, he sees them arraying themselves for battle, each ghoul jumping astride a night-gaunt and flying toward the seashore where the captured ghouls are being held. Another battle ensues, with the ghouls and night-gaunts eventually victorious. The ghouls decide to exterminate the garrison of the toadlike creatures, and they board a captured galley with the night-gaunts and defeat the moon-beasts and their almost-human slaves in a titanic struggle.
   In gratitude for Carter’s assistance, the entire army of ghouls and nightgaunts agrees to accompany Carter in approaching the Great Ones in their castle and making a plea for his sunset city. Flying over Leng and Inganok, they see Kadath looming in front of them—a mountain of almost inconceivable height, with the Great Ones’ castle on top. They begin an ascent, but after a time Carter notices that the night-gaunts are no longer flapping their wings: a “force not of earth” has seized the army and is bearing it up to the castle. Swept into the castle, Carter finds to his amazement that the place is entirely empty and dark, except for one small light that glowed from a tower room. Then a “daemon trumpet” blasts three times, and Carter notices that he is now alone—the ghouls and night-gaunts have disappeared. Accompanied by an array of “giant black slaves,” a “tall, slim figure with the young face of an antique Pharaoh” approaches him. It is Nyarlathotep, “messenger of the Other Gods,” and he speaks at length to Carter. The Great Ones, the gods of earth, have deserted their castle to dwell amidst Carter’s own sunset city, and this is why he himself is denied it in his dreams. But what is that sunset city? Nyarlathotep tells him:
   “For know you, that your gold and marble city of wonder is only the sum of what you have seen and loved in youth. It is the glory of Boston’s hillside roofs and western windows aflame with sunset; of the flower-fragrant Common and the great dome on the hill and the tangle of gables and chimneys in the violet valley where the many-bridged Charles flows drowsily. These things you saw, Randolph Carter, when your nurse first wheeled you out in the springtime, and they will be the last things you will ever see with eyes of memory and of love….
   “…These, Randolph Carter, are your city; for they are yourself. New-England bore you, and into your soul she poured a liquid loveliness which cannot die. This loveliness, moulded, crystallised, and polished by years of memory and dreaming, is your terraced wonder of elusive sunsets; and to find that marble parapet with curious urns and carven rail, and descend at last those endless balustraded steps to the city of broad squares and prismatic fountains, you need only to turn back to the thoughts and visions of your wistful boyhood.”
   What Carter must do is to go back to his sunset city and urge the Great Ones to return to their castle. Nyarlathotep provides Carter with a shantak to take him back, and they fly off. But Carter becomes aware that it is all a trick: the shantak plunges him “through shoals of shapeless lurkers and caperers in darkness” and is heading toward the great throne of Azathoth in “those inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond Time.” It then occurs to Carter that all he has to do is wake up in his Boston room, leave dreamland behind, and take cognizance of the beauty to be found on his doorstep. He does so, and Nyarlathotep’s plan to destroy Carter and deprive him of his sunset city is foiled.
   While writing the story, HPL expressed considerable doubts about its merits: “I…am very fearful that Randolph Carter’s adventures may have reached the point of palling on the reader; or that the very plethora of weird imagery may have destroyed the power of any one image to produce the desired impression of strangeness” ( SL2.94). And elsewhere: “Actually, it isn’t much good; but forms useful practice for later and more authentic attempts in the novel form” ( SL2.95). The novel has, indeed, inspired highly contradictory judgments, some HPL enthusiasts finding it almost unreadable and others, like L.Sprague de Camp (Lovecraft: A Biography [Doubleday, 1975], p. 280), comparing it to the Alice books and the fantasies of George MacDonald.
   If there is any dominant literary influence on the novel, it is probably William Beckford’s Vathek (1786), which is similarly an exotic fantasy written without chapter divisions. Several other features of plot and diction bring Beckford’s Arabian fantasy to mind. One other possible influence is John Uri Lloyd’s curious novel of underworld adventure, Etidorhpa (1895), which HPL read in 1918 (see SL 1.54–55). This strange work, full of windy philosophy and science defending the idea of a hollow earth, nevertheless contains some spectacularly bizarre and cosmic imagery of the narrator’s seemingly endless underworld adventures, although no specific passage seems to be echoed in HPL’s work. Nevertheless, HPL’s dreamworld creates the impression of being somehow underground (as in Carter’s descent of the 700 steps to the gate of deeper slumber), so perhaps he was thinking of how Lloyd’s narrator purportedly plunges beneath the actual surface of the earth on his peregrinations. (Some have believed that the episode involving the high-priest with the yellow silken mask is an allusion to Robert W.Chambers’s The King in Yellow [1895], but HPL would not read this work until two months after completing the Dream-Quest.)
   The novel seeks to unite most of HPL’s previous “Dunsanian” tales, making explicit references to features and characters in such tales as “Celephais,” “The Cats of Ulthar,” “The Other Gods,” “The White Ship,” and others (not to mention the “real-world” story “Pickman’s Model”); but in doing so it creates considerable confusion. In particular, it suddenly transfers the settings of these tales into the dreamworld, whereas those tales themselves had manifestly been set in the dim prehistory of the real world.
   It has frequently been conjectured that the tale carries out HPL’s old novel idea “Azathoth” (1922); but while this may be true superficially in the sense that both works seem to center around protagonists venturing on a quest for some wondrous land, in reality the novel of 1926 presents a thematic reversal of the novel idea of 1922. In the earlier work—conceived at the height of HPL’s Decadent phase—the unnamed narrator “travelled out of life on a quest into the spaces whither the world’s dreams had fled”; but he does this because “age fell upon the world, and wonder went out of the minds of men.” In other words, the narrator’s only refuge from prosy reality is the world of dream. Carter thinks that this is the case for him, but at the end he finds more value and beauty in that reality—transmuted by his dreams and memories—than he believed. (Carter’s realization is prefigured in the episode involving Kuranes.)
   In this sense, the resurrection of the Dunsanian idiom—not used since “The Other Gods” (1921)—is meant not so much as a homage as a repudiation of Dunsany, at least of what HPL at this moment took Dunsany to be. Just as, when he wrote “Lord Dunsany and His Work” in 1922, he felt that the only escape from modern disillusion would be to “worship afresh the music and colour of divine language, and take an Epicurean delight in those combinations of ideas and fancies which we know to be artificial,” so in 1926—after two years spent away from the New England soil that he now realized was his one true anchor against chaos and meaninglessness—he felt the need to reject these decorative artificialities.
   See Peter Cannon, “The Influence of Vathekon H.P.Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” (in FDOC); L.D.Blackmore, “Middle-Earth, Narnia and Lovecraft’s Dream World: Comparative World-Views in Fantasy,” Crypt No. 13 (Roodmas 1983): 6–15, 22; S.T.Joshi, “The Dream World and the Real World in Lovecraft,” CryptNo. 15 (Lammas 1983): 4–15; S.T.Joshi, “Lovecraft and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” CryptNo. 37 (Candlemas 1986): 25–34, 59; Giuseppe Lippi, “Lovecraft’s Dream-World Revisited,” LSNo. 26 (Spring 1992): 23–25.

An H.P.Lovecraft encyclopedia. .

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