Thursday, December 5, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath"

Spooky Synopsis: Randolph Carter has long excelled at dreaming. As he floats into unconsciousness every night, his mind's eye opens to fabulous vistas filled with strange sights, some terrifying and some beautiful. The most lovely vision of all, though, is that of an unnamed golden city that he sought three times, but which finally vanished away never to be beheld again. Desperate with longing, Carter made a rash vow: He would travel to the cold peaks of Kadath and petition the Great Ones, those mighty gods of the dream realm, to restore to him the beautiful city. The only problem is that no one knows how to reach Kadath.

Lovecraftian Language: "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 tree 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 an awesome and momentous place."

Eerie Evaluation: Though there might be almost as many approaches to any genre as there are readers, fantasy tends to follow one of two divergent paths. The first strives to create brand-new worlds that rigorously adhere to their own internal logic, while the second sacrifices consistency in the name of creating a certain emotional state within readers. Think of it as the divide between J.R.R. Tolkein and Charles Williams or Neil Gaiman and M. John Harrison. Unfortunately for Lovecraft, he ends up straddling that gulf in "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath." The story reads as though he was aiming for that tightly defined type of fantasy, what with its complicated geography, imaginary economies, and exotic flora and fauna. But the often-abrupt and occasionally nonsensical transitions show that he didn't put in the hard world-building work such a novel requires. In better moments, "Kadath" feels airily untethered; in worse passages, one wonders if Lovecraft simply lost the plot. Yes, he deserves praise for trying to integrate many of his earlier short stories, and some of those efforts work well. Nods to "CelephaŃ—s" and "Polaris" dovetail rather nicely. But what is one to do with the transformation of the titular protagonist of "Pickman's Model" from a menacing misanthrope into the noble leader of a pack of kind-hearted ghouls? Let's not even discuss how "The Cats of Ulthar" manage to transverse from earth to the moon and back again via nimble feline leaps. (Yes, it's just as ridiculous as it sounds.) Even Lovecraft himself had a low opinion of "Kadath," writing, "Actually, it isn't much good." Interesting ending aside, I find I have to agree with him.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):

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To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education” (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft’s work), please click here.

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