Lo, I have descended the seven hundred steps to the Gate of Deeper Slumber, and hunted for unknown Kadath of which rumor tells nothing good, against the will of the Elder Gods whose messenger is Nyarlathotep, the crawling chaos. Which is to say, pursuing the spoor of old fantasy, I’ve finally tried a book by H.P. Lovecraft– The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.
It wasn’t what I expected. I’d gathered that he was an enormously suggestive writer but a bad one, and overfond of unusual words. That would be much more true of E.R. Eddison. In fact he’s fairly straightforward, though he is always violating Rule One your creative writing teacher told you: don’t tell us how to react. He likes to write stuff like this:
Past all these gorgeous lands the malodorous ship flew unwholesomely, urged by the abnormal strokes of those unseen rowers below. And before the day was done Carter saw that the steersman could have no other goal than the Basalt Pillars of the West, beyond which simple folk say splendid Cathuria lies, but which wise dreamers well know are the gates of a monstrous cataract wherein the oceans of Earth’s dreamland drop wholly to abysmal nothingness and shoot through the empty spaces toward other worlds and other stars and the awful voids outside the ordered universe where the demon-sultan Azathoth gnaws hungrily in chaos amid pounding and piping and the hellish dancing of the Other Gods, blind, voiceless, tenebrous, and mindless, with their soul and messenger Nyalathotep.
There’s a reason for the rule, and Lovecraft loses in vividness (as opposed to Eddison who lovingly describes everything). But there’s a certain rhythm to his repetitions, and this style ultimately gives life to his particular vision. At least in these stories (mostly dealing with Randolph Carter and his excursions into dreamland), it’s not the gibbering tentacled horror that I expected. It’s a quest through gorgeous landscapes with alien companions and the hint of a history than spans more than human time and human space. It’s also very explicitly connected to, of all things, the landscapes of the characters’ childhoods, such as Carter’s in Massachusetts.
Oddly, it’s a recognizable and very particular subcreation, very much of its time. Lovecraft loves to craft splendid cities made of rich substances and inhabited by odd people with strange names and ancient histories. It’s a vision of Europe’s discovery of the wider world as it looked in the 19th century, a time when indeed one could sail into great cities of strange-hued people, find temples teaching troubling ancient notions, stumble upon suggestive ruins and runes, perhaps even reign as king over these weird lands. It’s informed by some exciting new things (the decipherment of ancient texts giving glimpses of lost civilizations; a modern view of the cosmos as composed of uncounted worlds and modes of being), but Lovecraft obviously prefers his vision purged of the signs of modernity– gunpowder, railroads, steamships. He’d be repulsed by the thought of Ooth-Nargai or Dylath-Leen or hideous Leng hosting American warships or converting to Christianity or setting up an exhibit at the Columbian Exposition. He wouldn’t be a reader of the Planet Construction Kit. His world isn’t very dreamlike; it’s more orientalist, with a heavy dose of the imagination of a ten-year-old boy exploring alone in the woods.
In “The Silver Key” Lovecraft complains openly of the prosification of the world; he really wants to remain in dreamland, enjoying the beauty or (as a stirring change) engaging in minor wars with cats and ghouls as allies. Where Eddison’s characters are heroic overachievers even on Earth, Lovecraft’s are failures in this world. At the same time, at least in this book, it’s hinted that though an ordinary prosaic man would be destroyed by the real nature of the universe– such as the festering horrors that live in outer space, or the dreams of the Elder Gods it is best not to delve into– a dreamer such as Carter or Lovecraft himself could take it in stride.
The cover of the book promises “bone-chilling horror”, a promise not really delivered. The type of horror here is mainly unusual anatomy, plus the thought that man is only a small part of the cosmos, an idea about as old as the Neolithic. (It’s pretty spectacularly incompatible with Christianity… though things might have been different if HP had been raised Catholic rather than Congregationalist.)
It occurs to me that the way to look at these stories might be as outsider art… an unsophisticated vision from someone who didn’t fit the modern world very well, but which is compelling precisely for its singularity and sense of alienation.