Odds are good, if you’re reading this, that you’re already passing familiar with H.P. Lovecraft and “the Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” but for the sake of anyone who isn’t, let me lay it all out. Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) spent his 30s and 40s writing horror fiction, mostly short stories, mostly for Weird Tales magazine, then died of some combination of intestinal cancer and malnutrition. During his abbreviated career, he created some of the most influential stories and concepts of 20th century fantasy and horror, influencing everyone from Stephen King on down. His most visible creation was the dark god Cthulhu, but hey, Ghostbusters is basically a Lovecraft story updated to the 1980s and played for laughs. If it involves a tentacle or a blob or the words eldritch or tome, it’s showing Lovecraft’s influence. Seriously, can’t overstate the man’s contributions.
Certainly he had literary antecedents and folks whose work he was reinterpreting the way so much of his work would be reinterpreted. Chief among these antecedents (at least arguably) was Lord Dunsany, who wrote fanciful fairy-tales about other worlds with indifferent gods, and whose stories formed a major plank of early Dungeons & Dragons-ish fantasy. Dunsany’s relatively obscure now, at least compared to Lovecraft, who appeared in fictional form in episodes of Scooby-Doo. “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” unpublished in Lovecraft’s lifetime, is a novella-length pastiche of Dunsany’s fantasy work. So while Lovecraft is best known for his horror writing, here I examine his most celebrated piece of light fantasy.
If you want to learn more, check Wikipedia (or Chaosium or Arkham House, a small-press publisher created specifically to publish reprints of Lovecraft’s work).
Before we get started, I just want to point something out. This is the first paragraph of Le Morte D’Arthur:
It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England, and so reigned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornwall that held war against him long time. And the duke was called the Duke of Tintagil. And so by means King Uther sent for this duke, charging him to bring his wife with him, for she was called a fair lady, and a passing wise, and her name was called Igraine. So when the duke and his wife were come unto the king, by the means of great lords they were accorded both. The king liked and loved this lady well, and he made them great cheer out of measure, and desired to have lain by her. But she was a passing good woman, and would not assent unto the king. And then she told the duke her husband, and said, I suppose that we were sent for that I should be dishonoured; wherefore, husband, I counsel you, that we depart from hence suddenly, that we may ride all night unto our own castle. And in like wise as she said so they departed, that neither the king nor none of his council were ware of their departing. All so soon as King Uther knew of their departing so suddenly, he was wonderly wroth. Then he called to him his privy council, and told them of the sudden departing of the duke and his wife.
And this is the first paragraph of the Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath:
Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvelous city, and three times was he snatched away while still he paused on the high terrace above it. 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. It was a fever of the gods, a fanfare of supernal trumpets and a clash of immortal cymbals. Mystery hung about it as clouds about a fabulous unvisited mountain; and as Carter stood breathless and expectant on that balustraded parapet there swept up to him the poignancy and suspense of almost-vanished memory, the pain of lost things and the maddening need to place again what once had been an awesome and momentous place.
So yeah, this will be a different experience.