Montag, 31. August 2015

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath or lost with Randolph Carter No. 1

Analogue to our podcast, this blog post will investigate into H.P. Lovecraft’s famous Dream Circle story: “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”.  It will give you an insight into Lovecraft’s life during the time of 1926; when he wrote the story; and its publishing history afterwards. The post will further summarize the plot for you and will point out important elements and existing interpretations

Living in a Dream – Lovecraft’s Return to Providence in 1926

Lovecraft and his wife, Sarah Greene, in 1924
After living in Brooklyn for nearly 2 years, Lovecraft returned home to Providence in 1926.Apart from hanging out with fellow writers and trips to historic scenes, it seems that he did not enjoy New York very much. He not only disliked mixed raced crowds, talking in languages he did not understand; the city was also way too expensive to for a writer of dime novel fiction. With no considerable income of his own, he was depending on his wife and aunts for money. He could only afford a basic room on the edge of a sketchy neighbourhood - which lived up to all his prejudgements when his suits were stolen at one point of his stay. Already in 1925 he had enough, in a letter to his aunt Lillian he wrote:
     “…It so happens that I am unable to take pleasure or interest in anything but a mental re-creation of other & better days— for in sooth, I see no possibility of ever encountering a really congenial milieu or living among civilized people with old Yankee historic memories again—so in order to avoid the madness which leads to violence & suicide I must cling to the few shreds of old days & old ways which are left to me. Therefore no one need expect me to discard the ponderous furniture & paintings & clocks & books which help to keep 454 always in my dreams. When they go, I shall go, for they are all that make it possible for me to open my eyes in the morning or look forward to another day of consciousness without screaming in sheer desperation & pounding the walls & floor in a frenzied clamour to be waked up out of the nightmare of ‘reality’ & my own room in Providence. Yes— such sensitivenesses of temperament are very inconvenient when one has no money—but it’s easier to criticise than to cure them.”  (Letter to Lillian D. Clark, 8. August 1925)
     In the summer of 1926 he was finally able to return to his beloved Providence. The following year turned out to be his most effective writing period. As soon as he got back, he started working on “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” in October 1926 until January 1927.
1943 Cover
Throughout the process he was quite critical with his writing, mentioning to August Derleth
“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” (Letter to August Derleth, early Dec. 1926). And elsewhere, shortly afterwards: “Actually, it isn’t much good; but forms useful practice for later and more authentic attempts in the novel form” (Letter to Wilfred B. Talman, 19 Dec. 1926)    
     But Lovecraft never rewrote the story. In his later years he even refused to provide a tipped manuscript when asked for it. “The Dream Quest to the Unknown Kadath” remained unpublished during his life and was only published after his death by Arkham Sampler in a collection called Beyond the Walls of Sleep in 1943. 

“The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”

The story follows Randolph Carter throughout his dream in which he searches for the unknown city of Kadath, the home of the Gods. His quest leads him to all kinds of landscapes, to the moon and underground, meeting numerous fantastic creatures including the magical Cats of Ulthar and their human priest Atal; King Kuranes, who came to dream his own kingdom in which he is now a prisoner unable to go back to the real world; and Richard Pickman, a former painter who after leaving the real world turned into a ghoul. On several occasions Carter is warned and even threatened. At the end, the godlike priest Nylarlathotep tricks him and instead of reaching Kadath, he awakes in his own room in Boston, realizing the beauty and the actual healthy reality of the city.  
     Unpolished as it is, the story is the longest of Lovecraft’s Dream Circle stories and also the longest one featuring Randolph Carter as a character.  That Lovecraft did not intent to publish it is even more curious since Randolph Carter remains an important, persistent character throughout his later work. Considering all the stories in which he is mentioned together, “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” serves as a central narrative, conditioning his later – then also published – character development. The  details of which will be the topic of another post, for now it is important to notice that the story itself can be identified as central for his Dream Quest writing.
Map of the Dream Land
Not only because of its importance regarding the character of Randolph Carter, but also due to its detailed description of the geography of the Dream Lands.   In “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” several historic landscapes Lovecraft created in his previous work; like in “Cats of Ulthar”, “The Other Gods”, “The White Ship”; are presented as belonging to the Dream Lands, portraying Lovecraft’s own desire to be able to go back in time through his dreams. Another fantastic place; the Plateau of Leng; which is mentioned in this story and in several others, changes its position in every narrative it appears. Maybe with these geographic alterations, the early Lovecraft wanted to give the reader a sense of wandering geography which he later would make more plausible by letting his characters travel to other dimensions, conditioning an estrangement of place.

Randolph Carter, the Anti-Hero

Through the looking class, “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” can also be read as an inversion of the classical odyssey theme, making Randolph Carter an unusual, but believable Anti-Hero figure. Carter is not presented as a physical active character; he gets taken prisoner several times, left in the need of external help to rescue him.
Randolph Carter, Arkam Horro Card Game
Norman Gayford similar argued that Carter “…exemplifies the path of the modern anti-hero in that he faints, seems unable to use a traditional weapon.”  All the way throughout his quest he is warned by his alias, reacting by not only ignoring their advice, but also violating their friendship. As Gayford illustrates: “…Atal offers “discouraging advice. Carter then violates the relationship, and gets Atal drunk in an attempt to force out more information than is offered. He is not playing exactly by the rules of the game. Kuranes, former hashish user who dies in the dream world, becomes King of Ilek-Vad, and remakes a small portion of dream world into his idyllic vision of the English countryside, is a significant aid. Out of his harshly learned wisdom, Kuranes tells Carter to quit seeking the city because its attainment cannot be as good as it is in the form of a vision. […]
   When Carter meets with Kuranes, it is as if we see Father warning Son against his course of action. […] Kuranes is a psychically wounded king. For all his prestige, he cannot recreate reality; merely manufacture a simulacrum of it. The confrontation between the two reminds us of his estrangement and Carter’s freedom. […]
   Richard Pickman, late artist-cum-ghoulmaster, is of vital aid in getting Carter back onto the right path. Like Kuranes, he is a fitting aid for the anti-hero, himself an outcast artist.”
   Cater, unable to decipher the warnings, continues his quest. But without realizing it, his dream had gotten the control over him – using his obsession to suppress him. Trapped it is now for him impossible to reach Kadath. Gayford concludes: “Carter awakens from that final plunge negatively transformed. Yes, he realizes his New England, but the dream world has been lost to him. This plunge through the universe may be the first true crossing of the threshold. Only then does a vital transformation of the anti-hero occur: he loses his creativity. […]
     Carter emerges from Dream-Quest emptied rather than cleansed, deposited in reality rather than transcending it. […]There is no trophy with which to return. Carter left his castle, Kadath, behind; he rejected dissolution, and in doing so he places himself in a spiritual coma. His experience with the Being leads him to the realization that the universe is not malignant. Rather, it is uncaring of man. That, as we know, was Lovecraft’s philosophy. […]” (Norman Gayford, Randolph Carter: An Anti-Hero’s Quest, Part I, in: Lovecraft Studies, No. 16, 1988, p. 3-12)
     In this sense, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” provides a deeper insight into the interpretive patterns Lovecraft formed and implanted into his fiction. The story connects Lovecraft’s nostralgia for the fantastic and the past with an almost cynical understanding of entrophy produced by time. But if he ever read Hegel’s philosophical writing on Heraclitus; which shares striking similarities with Lovecraft’s (fictional) worldview; is unknown, but will remain as an interesting subject of comparison for a furture post. As a teaser, here is a quote from James Strilin, back in 1850’s a scholar on Hegel, writing about Heraklitus in Hegel’s work and at the same time – strangely - summarizing Lovecrafts’s Dream Land:

(James Hutchison Stirlin, The Secret of Hegel, 1865, p. 60.)

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