The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath by H.P. Lovecraft and illustrated by I.N.J. Culbard (graphic novel review).

November 14, 2020 | By | Reply More

Because ‘The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath’ was never finished in his lifetime, many fans of H.P. Lovecraft have tended to pass over this novella in favour of his more polished and accessible works. In doing so, they miss out on some of Lovecraft’s most intense imagery and exotic ideas. It tells the story of a dreamer, Randolph Carter, who longs for the sunset city glimpsed in his dreams. Seemingly snatched away by the ‘capricious gods of Earth’, he resolves to enter the Dreamlands, confront the gods and demand that they let him the beautiful dream city of his own creation.

Once in the Dreamlands, he finds himself at various times captured, pursued and otherwise harassed by all sorts of monsters. He also finds unexpected allies among the armies of talking cats and the communities of ghouls living deep underground. If this all sounds rather bonkers, that’s because it is and, as an unfinished text, there are some rough edges and inconsistencies that presumably would have been tidied up had the story ever been submitted for publication.

I.N.J. Culbard’s adaptation of the story takes more than a few liberties with the details but broadly keeps to the spirit of the thing. Perhaps the most jarring change is the framing story: whereas the original ‘The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath’ is written without as a single very long piece of prose, without any chapter breaks or changes in perspective. This adaptation breaks the Dreamland sections into flashbacks, with Carter either waking up in his room or else telling his experiences to an unnamed companion.

This friend appears to be the protagonist of another Lovecraft story, ‘Celephais’, written some years earlier, but with elements that get folded into the ‘The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath’, which seems to imply that the imagined worlds of both stories share a common identity. In fact, this becomes an important plot point later on, when Culbard rather drily has Carter meet his companion once more, but this time in the Dreamland city of Celephais rather than real-world Boston. This time, Carter’s friend finally has what he wants, to return to the world of his youthful imagination, but is now trapped by it, having died in the real world.

Carter’s visit to Celephais half-way through ‘The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath’ is some pretty stern foreshadowing but, of course, Carter ignores the warning his friend gives him about treasuring the reality of the waking world compared with the ultimately empty experiences of the Dreamlands. Here again, Culbard does a clever thing, having drawn Carter as H.P. Lovecraft himself. It’s certainly easy to see Carter as a stand-in for Lovecraft in those stories where he appears.

As Lovecraft’s own life became harder after his family’s decline into genteel poverty, with his inability to secure employment or make much money from his writing and, then again with his failed marriage to Sonia Greene, it doesn’t take a psychology degree to see the parallels with a character of gentle birth and high intelligence, but not much money and few friends, who rejects mundane reality in favour of esoteric learning and the fantasy of unbridled imagination. So, in having Lovecraft literally playing the part of Randolph Carter in his adaptation and then experience the pleasures and horrors of a Dreamland adventure, Culbard encourages the reader to think about what Lovecraft was trying to say when he wrote ‘The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath’. Was it escapism? Was it a warning? Did it help him resolve how he felt about his real life compared with the imaginary worlds conjured up in his fiction?

Some sections of the story are almost unrecognisably different to the original version. In Lovecraft’s novella, once Carter arrives in the Dreamlands, he meets up with strange forest-dwelling creatures known as Zoogs, with whom he has had previous dealings and actually asks for their help. This they provide and, when he sets off on the next stage of his journey, a few Zoogs follow him. While these Zoogs come to a bad end, Carter behaves with kindness to a young kitten and so Carter is seen to be a friend of cat-kind. He benefits from their assistance several times and the young kitten becomes a grown cat when next encountered, hinting at the strange way time passes in the Dreamlands.

In the Culbard adaptation, most of this is lost. The Zoogs are instead immediately threatening and Carter only keeps them at bay by threatening to pull a chain of some sort, seemingly attached to some nameless horror the Zoogs do not want to see awakened. Similarly, instead of the leisurely walk to Ulthar that Lovecraft describes, with Carter enjoying the scenic countryside, for some reason Culbard draws a chase scene with the Zoogs only being stopped when some cats attack the Zoogs outside the village of Ulthar. There’s no sign of the little black kitten and, when Carter does encounter the cat army, they help him simply because he’s an enemy of the Zoogs, an idea that’s entirely alien to the original story.

One of the most exciting sections of the original is where Carter escapes from the Plateau of Leng and ends up in Sarkomand, where he sees Moonbeasts torturing three of the ghouls that had helped him earlier on in the story. Carter manages to find a camp of ghouls underground and, after telling them what has happened, he returns with a ghoul army to rescue the captives. This army then goes on to wipe out the threat to their kind by commandeering a galley and rowing to the nameless island some distance out to sea.

Again, a battle ensues, with Carter providing useful skills and strategies and, in this way, further earning the trust of his unlovely allies. Culbard condenses all of this into a few panels, losing a great deal of the nuance and drama. Carter arrives at Sarkomand and sees some ghouls get killed. He then tells the other ghouls what happened, they attack the Moonbeasts, simply as an act of war. The clever tactics described in the novella are completely missing from Culbard’s adaptation, which renders the ghouls rather less interesting characters than they are in the original.

While certainly unpleasant to be around, Lovecraft’s ghouls, at least as portrayed in ‘The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath’, are also rather decent and subtle in their ways and Lovecraft describes them in an almost humorous way, as when they find gemstones on the nameless island and then throw them away as having no particular use!

Even if Culbard’s adaptation of ‘The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath’ isn’t simply a line-for-line retelling of the original, that’s to be expected to some degree, giving the unfinished nature of the work. What Culbard has instead produced is something that is true to the spirit of the original, framing the Dreamland experiences against Carter’s life in the waking world. Culbard makes the relationship between the two worlds ambiguous to a degree. Is Carter simply dreaming all of this or is he somehow travelling into another world, one with a reality all its own?

The story, in both its original form and in Culbard’s adaptation, is meant to be uplifting. Ultimately, Carter discovers his sunset city is an amalgam of his childhood memories of his hometown and, in rediscovering this, he learns to take pleasure in the waking world rather than to long, hopelessly, for something unreal.

The last few panels are filled with colour and happiness, things strangely lacking from the Dreamland sequences, giving the reader the sense that whatever the exotic beauty of imagined worlds, there is more joy to be found in our own world. Or, at least, that would be this reader’s positive interpretation of this interesting, if free, adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s less well regarded ‘gems in the rough’.

Neale Monks

November 2020

(pub: SelfMadeHero. 144 page graphic novel pocket-sized paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-91059-397-4)

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Category: Comics, Horror

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