By Jan J.B. Kuipers
Published before in: Cyäegha
nr 18, ‘De Lage Landen VII’, winter 2016, 2-3. A slightly different version in Dutch, 'Lovecraft in de voorhof', appeared in: Dromen vanuit R'lyeh; Wonderwaan
41, 2017, 2-5.
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath has been my favourite work of fiction for years and years (a Dutch translation was published as a separate standalone paperback in 1972). Why? This is always a difficult question to answer – countless factors are involved, of which coincidence may not be the least. Of the countless books I did not read how many would have driven my favourite from its place, had I but known them? Moreover, once you have decided that a certain book is your Number One, then you tend to hold off on other likely candidates – by means of a sort of self-censorship – until the brilliance of your champion eventually begins to fade.
When I look back at Dream-Quest
now, I can still perceive some of the elements that partially explain its allurement to my younger self. As a young adult I particularly liked the style of the Old Master: the abundance of adjectives, the numerous references to the ‘unspeakable’, ‘abominable’, ‘indescribable’, ‘unmentionable’ and so forth. This kind of writing undoubtedly influenced my own early fantastic fiction, as did the style of another grandmaster from the margins: the exuberant Irish-American (tall) tale-teller R.A. Lafferty. Eventually one develops one’s own style of course, and the old masters become friendly grinning, dust-covered busts on some neglected shelf.
I think that the real force of attraction of Dream-Quest has more to do with the visualisation
and instantiation of certain vague and invisible realities. According to the mythologist Joseph Campbell, a myth is a collective dream and a dream is a personal myth. Lovecraft certainly succeeded in bending these two poles towards each other, and perhaps even melting them together. After all, his personal mythology, partly based on his own dreams, became a collective one, once it had been made tangible through the magic of scripture. It became The Mythos: a separate literary realm to which countless authors and artists have since contributed.
‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown
,’ Lovecraft once wrote, like some sort of personal motto to be placed above his work. Just like in other, historical mythologies, this writer banished the unknown and fear of the unknown in his made-up cosmos; he catalysed the unfathomable by erecting a wholly realistic backdrop and by providing a series of divine and demonic entities – the classic strategy of the mythological-literary imagination!
Undeniable, however, are the Christian-dualistic roots of Lovecraft’s eerie pantheon and Mythos. His Elder Gods, Ancient Ones and Great Race (I am certainly no expert!) are, as it were, more ancient than the known universe itself and know neither good nor evil, morality nor order. In this aspect they seem related to the pre-classical gods of the Mediterranean world and the Middle East, before the light of Greek philosophy fell upon them, and transformed them into childlike figures with capricious, lightly flammable moods and characters – ready to be overthrown by the solemn doctrines of Christ and his Church. These pre-classical gods were also beyond good and evil, because ancient man knew very well that the gift of life came hand in hand with the gift of suffering and death. Pandora’s box had a deep, deep meaning.
These gods often united, under a single guise, the blessings of life and prosperity with the doom of loss and destruction. The ethical distinction between good and evil only became evident later on with the growth of Hebrew and Christian monotheism. And we all know to which side Cthulhu and his creeping, sleeping, swarming and despicable legion belong, from a human point of view. They have only doom and destruction to offer, and are very obvious personifications of evil, as perceived by the Christian tradition; and of fear of the unknown – which in its ultimate form is death itself. But, like in any mythology, their creation also leads to their exorcism. Horror of the unseen made visible, is horror made innocuous. In mythology, and in literature, diagnosis is the cure.
Outside of the English-speaking world many authors have also racked their brains about the meaning and scope of Lovecraft’s Mythos, and, of course, about the fabulous dream adventures of Randolph Carter. In H.P. Lovecraft: Contre le monde, contre la vie (‘H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life’, 1991), Michel Houellebecq approaches Lovecraft and his Mythos from the escapist point of view. Rejection and repulsion of the world are overcome by the sublimation of its horrors – the romantic strategy par excellence.
Flemish writer Hubert Lampo dived deeper into the psyche in De Zwanen van Stonehenge
(‘The Swans of Stonehenge’, 1972), a ‘reading book on magic realism and fantastic literature’. He was heavily influenced by Swiss psychiatrist Carl-Gustav Jung's theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious, and attributed the whole branch of fantastic literature he was writing about to ‘the creative process of the unconscious’. To him, Lovecraft was one of the most pre-eminent examples of this process – but he was also, simultaneously, an author who could not be restricted to any frame of interpretation, ‘because he did not seem to fit entirely within this world’. Lovecraft was, in the words of Jacques Bergier, and quoted by Lampo, ‘ce grand genie venu d’ailleurs’ (‘that great genius from somewhere else’).
These are but a few examples. But then again, what is my own current attitude towards Lovecraft and the Mythos? What is the attitude of a lover of the sea towards the writings of one who – according to Lampo – greatly feared the Ocean and all that comes from it? Well, the old master still holds a fascination for me, albeit from a distance. Certainly the ‘extended life’ quality of fiction plays a part here. In Elk moment de dageraad
(‘Each Moment a New Dawn’, 1997), an essay on Henry David Thoreau in my book Methoden tegen de helderheid
(‘Methods Against Clarity’, 2014) I stated that one’s aspirations, dreams, longings and fantasies are an integral, if not essential, part of one’s biography. The banal reality of our day-to-day life is merely one part of the multidimensional play that is our existence. But, when I went back and glanced through my copy of Kadath
, and my eye fell upon a seemingly random passage, I suddenly saw that in a way anyone who has ever been ‘afflicted’ with a sense of the fantastic and of what has gone before, comes 'from somewhere else’. In Lovecraft’s case a particular forecourt of the fantastic turned out to be of critical importance to him: a proneness to nostalgia, a hopeless resistance against the dwindling and disappearance of the things that we love, the things that are inextricably intertwined with our lives. This hopeless resistance against transitoriness is of course a resistance against death.
It is in this dimly lit forecourt of the mind, where remembrance melts into imagination, that I can appreciate Lovecraft best. It is the place where the passage that struck me at random was born: ‘At the last, he was very certain, the seeker would long only for the early remembered scenes; the glow of Beacon Hill at evening, the tall steeples and winding hill streets of quaint Kingsport, the hoary gambrel roofs of ancient and witch-haunted Arkham, and the blessed miles of meads and valleys where stone walls rambled and white farmhouse gables peeped out from bowers of verdure.