I just finished reading H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” for the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, perhaps the only thing in the world which could’ve gotten me to tackle it. (Peer pressure!) And I not only made it through, I enjoyed it.
I’ve tried to read it twice before, once when I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, having just discovered H.P. Lovecraft and not knowing what a “Dream Cycle” was. The second time, I was actually a bit prejudiced. I knew that I tend not to enjoy the dream stories and had heard that I was not alone in having failed to read it the first time.
Fortunately, the podcast has a forum and someone there directed me to the Cthulhu Podcast, which had a reading of Dream-Quest in late 2008/early 2009 (there are readings of other stories tehre but I haven’t looked up yet). The podcast format is about 10-15 minutes of talking & old-timey music followed by about 15-20 minutes of story.
When I started listening to it, I still wasn’t hopeful. But I have a few mindless tasks at work which are very audiobook-friendly, so I gave it a shot.
Turns out, it’s a fantastic story when a) read aloud and b) you don’t have anywhere you need to be. I had all the time I needed (wasn’t rushing on to the next story) and the narration allowed me to enjoy the plethora of adjectives which so greatly impeded my previous efforts. The recording was not as good as a formal audiobook, but it was better than many free ones and probably worth the $4 and change it costs to buy on Lulu (which I’m strongly considering doing).
What Did I Like About It?
Dream-Quest actually has the feel of a graphic novel and I would love to see it as one. Lovecraft’s words, which clutter the paper, paint such vivid scenes that when my eyes aren’t busy trying to read for content, my brain can create them instead. I found myself giving Lovecraft’s dreamlands a similar feel to parts of Dream’s kingdom in the Sandman novels.
The story is also quasi-serialized, with Randolph Carter going from place to place and having adventures in each. The essential serialization of the podcast also helped my brain take it in in pieces, though I listened to the second half all on Saturday while doing a crafting project.
I found myself comparing it with both Lovecraft’s other works and actually some things by Neil Gaiman. I don’t think I’d spoil the plot (what plot? yes, there’s a bit of a plot) by saying that ghouls rescue Carter from night-gaunts. If you’ve read the Graveyard Book, you know why that’s a bit funny. The cats also reminded me of “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” from Sandman.
I enjoyed the development of both ghouls & night-gaunts as things you don’t want to run into in a cave or a subway tunnel but yet as rational beings one can converse with, ally oneself with, and even befriend.
Turns Out It Had a Plot, Too
It wasn’t the most nuanced or compelling of plots, but I was surprised to discover that Carter did have a motivation and that there was even a reason (and what felt like a decent reason) that he couldn’t go to his dreamland of choice. I even feltlike the ending was entirely authentic to the dreaming—or, nightmare—experience, if a bit “Oh Lovecraft, of course.”
Honestly, I would’ve liked it better had Lovecraft not done the twist of the twist ending because I thought the first twist ending actually made the story even better. It would’ve given Carter a mission. The second twist undid that a bit for me.
Lovecraft could’ve also improved it by adding more urgency in the quest. We know that Carter’s mission involves finding Kadath to worship the gods of Earth because of his banishment from his own beautiful dream city. But as the story goes on, Lovecraft doesn’t really repeat details this mission or expand on it until we actually get to Kadath. We know he’s going to find the gods & pray to them, but it sort of slips from our minds. Of course, it shows up again when he gets there and it’s quite poetic at that point, but I recommend trying to keep it in your head because Lovecraft won’t do it for you.
This is most likely because Lovecraft didn’t intend this work for publication and could keep Carter’s quest in his own mind without problems. He apparently didn’t think it was worthwhile (though while I agree with his assessment of some stories, I think he was wrong on this one…though it could’ve used editing).
A Couple Things I Found Funny/Interesting
What the hell is up with the phrase “a malevolent tickling”? It’s what night-gaunts do to you when they hold you in their paws. I haven’t yet finished listening to the HPLLP recaps of the Dream-Quest episodes, so I don’t know if they brought this up, but I believe I’ve read that Lovecraft actually dreamed of night-gaunts. In that case, I suppose there was nightmarish tickling involved in his dreams too. I looked about a little to see if I could find a reference, but didn’t.
I was also amused by his description of horse-headed creatures as “hippocephalic.” In fairness, he called them “horse-headed” the first time around. My mother’s insistence on our knowing basic Greek & Latin word roots (and attempts to cajole us to learn either Greek or Latin….and really just living with her) meant that I knew what it was as soon as I heard it and that it referred to the same horse-headed beasts. Just Lovecraft being Lovecraft.
The third thing I found rather hilarious was the phrase “a meep of cosmic fear.” I can’t imagine a meep & cosmic fear going hand-in-hand. Of course “meep” is the sound I make when am feeling cute I want to be kissed, which doesn’t help.
And the fourth was the idea that Randolph Carter could possibly pass himself off as an onyx miner. The mind boggles that Lovecraft would’ve thought this possible. And then it laughs a lot.
Another thing which wasn’t funny but was rather interesting was the immense onyx quarry. It made me think of the “Shadow Out of Time” and the vast quarry/underground city that was far too big to have been wrought by humans.
So Do or Don’t Read?
Give the audio a shot, especially if you have some time to kill. I was definitely rewarded for this third try.