The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath was Lovecraft’s first attempt at a “novel” – as described, though at 100 pages it’s really more like a longish novella. In contrast to his better-known work, though, this isn’t a horrific tale of the Old Ones seeking a way to take back Earth and eradicate humanity. Instead, it tells of a journey across the Land of Dreams, seeking justice from the gods.
In the earlier part of his career, one of the biggest influences on Lovecraft was Lord Dunsany, and he wrote a string of fantasy tales, alongside his horror, that told of fabulous cities, strange dreamers and voyages through enchanted oceans. The Dream-Quest appears to have been his attempt to bind these Dunsanian tales into one mythos, and it includes characters and places from many of them – Celephais, The Other Gods, The Cats of Ulthar and The White Ship, among others – as well as straight horror stories, such as The Statement of Randolph Carter and Pickman’s Model.
At the opening, veteran dreamer Randolph Carter has been prevented from returning to a beautiful dream city he’s fallen in love with, and decides to seek out the home of the gods on the mountain Kadath, even though no-one knows in what part of the Dreamworld it lies. Descending the seven hundred steps to the Gate of Deeper Slumber, he sets out across a beautiful and perilous world in search of justice.
Carter travels to many strange lands and cities of the Dreamworld – not to mention an excursion to the Moon – and encounters terrifying enemies and almost as terrifying allies. The fighting cats of Ulthar are all very well, but Carter has to rely on ghouls – with whom he seems on good terms – against the disgusting, toad-like moon-creatures and the forces ranged to stop him reaching Kadath.
Although the story contains descriptions of extravagant and exotic beauty, there are hints of the cosmic horror that characterises his better-known work. We’re certainly not too far from the Cthulhu Mythos when he writes of
the awful voids outside the ordered universe where the daemon-sultan Azathoth gnaws hungrily in chaos amid pounding and piping and the hellish dancing of the Other Gods, blind, voiceless, tenebrous, and mindless, with their...hideous soul and messenger, the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep.
On the other hand, a Mythos tale would hardly include the description of Celephais, with its glittering minarets...and the untarnished marble walls with their bronze statues, or the gentle hills behind the town, with their groves and gardens of asphodels and the small shrines and cottages upon them...
It’s two or three decades since I last read The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath – or much Lovecraft at all – and, while I enjoyed it, it’s not the easiest read, despite its shortness. According to the introduction by August Derleth in the edition I have, Lovecraft was always intending to revise the story, but never got around to it. It’s maybe due to this that its hundred pages are not only not divided into chapters, but don’t even contain a single scene-break.
There’s also almost no dialogue – never a very noticeable aspect of his work, but here virtually every conversation is merely reported. The prose is repetitive, too, and the plot rambling in the extreme. Nevertheless, the alternating wonders and horrors kept me reading eagerly.
The volume I read it in (At the Mountains of Madness and other novels of terror) also includes the three shorter pieces Lovecraft wrote about Carter: The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Silver Key, and Through the Gate of the Silver Key. These are, respectively, a straight horror story, set in an ancient graveyard; a blend of contemporary fantasy and diatribe against twentieth century life; and a combination of horror and SF, with more than a passing nod at the Mythos (including a guest appearance by Yog-Sothoth). It’s worth reading the four Carter stories together.
Despite its flaws, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is an enjoyable story, and well worth reading for a less stark Lovecraft, willing to see the beauty, as well as the horror, in the world.