Does an overtly racist writer deserve the energy it takes to write about them? I’m not sure. However, Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, based on Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, obliged me to read him. Turns out, her interest in Lovecraft is timely, so this month, I’ll focus on Lovecraft, and next month I’ll focus on Nebula and Hugo award winning Kij Johnson.
Lovecraft’s style in The Dream-Quest is annoying and boring. His prose is crammed with value-laden adjectives like terrible, shocking, frightful; his characters are flat and don’t evolve; there’s little dialogue, and there’s a lot of summarized action. Finally, he favors pretentiously and anachronistically twisted syntax.
Yet, when I enter Lovecraft’s land of “dream,” I feel like a person wading through a bog, sliding my foot along a hidden rail of oddly compelling, incomprehensible sense. His more polished stories remind me of Jorge Luis Borges.
The basic plot of Dream-Quest is that Randolph Carter (Lovecraft’s avatar) visits the land of “dream” and sees a “glorious” sunset city that fills him with “the pain of lost things and the maddening need to place [them] again.”
He prays to the gods of Kadath to go there, but they don’t answer him. He determines to go Kadath, “where no man has gone before,” to speak to its gods in person. What ensues are rambling encounters with Ghouls, Night-gaunts, Zoogs, and Gugs with no apparent progression.
Western Kentucky University scholar Timothy Evans asserts Lovecraft’s antiquarian travel writing is key to understanding his fiction. He idealized his white, New England heritage, and he despaired of science, industrialization, and modernism. He loved America’s colonial landscapes, seeing them as the “real America” (forget the indigenous). His greatest horror was immigration and “miscegenation.”
Alan Moore corroborates this in The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, where he urges us to see Lovecraft as a “barometer . . . of the fears . . . of the white, middle-class, heterosexual, Protestant-descended males” who were threatened by “the shifting power relationships . . . of the modern world.”
Sound familiar? Trump would seem to be a dumber, barely literate version of Lovecraft, engaging in absurd antics as he tries to rectify a nostalgic vision of “the great white America,” while populating the White House with Ghouls, Zoogs and Thugs. But I digress.
Evans asserts that while Lovecraft’s travel writing explores the light side of his antiquarianism, his fiction explores the dark side, which, in my estimation, might partially redeem his fiction.
Certainly, Dream-Quest is rife with bucolic landscapes rendered in misty-eyed wonder. The rejection of obsessive antiquarianism is evident when Randolph Carter encounters King Kuranes, who has dreamed up a replica of old Cornwall. His warning that life in his fulfilled dream is actually unfulfilling suggests that Lovecraft – at least unconsciously—thought the same.
The fact that Randolph encounters ugly and dangerous creatures who kidnap, drug, and almost kill him supports Evans’ assertion of the dark side of antiquarianism, as does Randolph’s interview with the “crawling chaos” Nyarlathotep, at the end of the novel.
Nyarlathotep informs him (spoiler alert) that the city he seeks has always been his for the taking, for it is made of his childhood memories of New England. The gods of unknown Kadath have been hanging out there and that’s why they didn’t let him reclaim it. All he has to do is ride on a “monstrous” bird, alight among the gods, and remind them how beautiful their own Kadath is, thereby inducing them to leave his city.
It appears to be a trick when the bird flies him into chaos where he’ll certainly go mad.
The duality of cats and Ghouls, the only friendly creatures in the land of “dream,” who save his life, is yet more evidence of Evans’ assertion.
When I opened the window to let in my own cat, she paused on the threshold, the perfect embodiment of duality. Cats are wild but domestic, cuddly by day, killer by night, and they always pause on the threshold. In short, they make the perfect guides between worlds, thus serving as a touchstone for reality. A fan of cats, Lovecraft depicts them thus in many stories.
Dogs are also dualistic creatures, wild and tame, happy, silly human companions who nevertheless eat carrion and feces. So, too, Ghouls, described as having dog-like faces, “glibber” and “meep” rather adorably, considering they are cannibalistic zombies.
If we view both Randolph and King Kurane as monological, the fact that dualist Ghouls and cats save Randolph suggests Lovecraft sees resolution in the dualism. One more point for Evans.
Here’s where Evan’s interpretation ceases to work, though. Randolph, in the midst of being driven into madness, suddenly remembers he’s dreaming and can simply jump off the bird. Inexplicably–yet somehow consequently–the cosmos dies and is reborn.
Then two conflicting things happen: on the one hand, maybe the dream world becomes real (italics mine):
“There was a firmament again…for through the unknown ultimate cycle had lived a thought and a vision of a dreamer’s boyhood, and now there were re-made a waking world and an old cherished city to body to justify these things…
“Randolf Carter had indeed descended at last the wide marmoreal flights to his marvelous city, for he was come again to the fair New England world that wrought him.”
On the other hand, he simply wakes up:
“Randolph Carter leaped shoutingly awake within his Boston room…and infinities away, past the Gate of Deeper Slumber…the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep…taunted insolently the mild gods of earth whom he had snatched abruptly from their scented revels in the marvelous city.”
I must admit, I like the way Lovecraft’s prose deconstructs itself here, delivering and un-delivering a resolution at the same time by moving the dream into the real world, but characterizing the dream world as simultaneously “infinities away.” Jacques Derrida could have a field day.
Far from being a rejection of antiquarianism, the ending of Dream-Quest suggests that if you pursue your dream with the right consciousness and a few friends in the unconscious, you can turn fantasy into reality, and it’s worth a brush with death.
The contradictory and inscrutable ending makes it impossible to ascertain just exactly what the story means, which is perhaps the point of all stories, but most certainly this one.
That’s why, against all intention, I ended up liking it and look forward to rereading Kij Johnson’s Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe with it in mind.
- Evans, Timothy H. “Tradition and Illusion: Antiquarianism, Tourism, and Horror in H. P. Lovecraft.” Extrapolation. Vol. 45, No. 3. by the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. 2004.
- Johnson, Kij. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. Tor.com. 2016.
- Klinger, Leslie S. “Forward.” The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Ed. Leslie S. Klinger. Liveright Publishing Corporation. 2014
- Lovecraft, H.P. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. A Del Ray Book. Ballentine. 1990.
- Moore, Alan. “Introduction.” The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Ed. Leslie S. Klinger. Liveright Publishing Corporation. 2014
- Rottensteiner, Franz. “Lovecraft as Philosopher.” Science Fiction Studies, March 1992, Vol. 19, p117-121.