(In honor of Jason Thompson finally completing his adaptation of “The Strange High House in the Mist” , I’m reprnting this blog post he did for me in 2009. If you’re lucky enough to find a copy of his out-of-print “Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath,” buy it. His website now also features an earlier HPL adapation, “The White Ship,” and he’s embarking on a new one soon. Our cups runneth over.)
The Child Lovecraft and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”
“The fleeting joy of childhood may never be recaptured. Adulthood is hell.”
—H.P. Lovecraft, letter, 1920
H.P. Lovecraft is one of the greatest children’s authors of the 20th century. I say this despite the fact that he never wrote anything specifically for children and that his prose is full of words like antediluvian, verdant and ichor. I say this because Lovecraft, who liked to refer to himself as an “old gentleman” when he was scarcely in his 30s, was in many ways a child himself, a Peter Pan figure who never grew up.
My father, who had a huge science fiction and fantasy collection, told me about Lovecraft when I was six years old. I found his writing incomprehensible at the time, but when I was 12 years old, something compelled me to pick up Lovecraft again. This time, I found that I loved the ornate, secret-society prose, the stories of crypts and rotting corpses and cannibals, the invented sci-fi religion of aliens and gods and tentacled monsters. And I read essays about Lovecraft, too, such as William Scott Home’s essay The Horror Theme After HPL” which includes these lines:
“H.P. Lovecraft at the age of fifteen awoke to a sense of horror—of his own body. In “The Beast in the Cave”, he is stricken with fear of a strange creature, dead before even seen, which is covered with hair. At one time, he stresses, it had been a man. The accretion of animal hair apparently ended its humanity.”
In retrospect, it would probably have been better for me if I hadn’t read this essay mere weeks before I hit puberty. But pre-adolescence is the perfect time to discover Lovecraft, because Lovecraft’s writing is perched forever on that perilous threshold in time, on the Gates of the Silver Key of adulthood, where Lovecraft himself feared to tread. Lovecraft’s life was a kind of bonsai tree, a beautiful thing, but arguably a failure as a tree. Like most people, what drew me to Lovecraft was the monsters, but what stayed with me, and caused me to draw a 122-page comic adaptation of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, was a fascination with Lovecraft’s life.
Lovecraft: A Life
“So far as my temperament is concerned, I was born an old man.”
—H. P. Lovecraft, letter, 1929
I’ll try to be brief as I recap Lovecraft’s biography. Lovecraft was a spoiled only child, raised by his overprotective mother and some aunts. His father died when Lovecraft was very young, his grandfather not much later. He was a precocious child, arguably a genius, who decades later would still boast about how he had confounded his teachers in elementary school.
Then adolescence, and the fall. Lovecraft dropped out of high school for reasons which have never been made entirely clear. While his friends went on to college, got married, and got careers, Lovecraft stayed at home with his mother and, until his early twenties, did…possibly nothing. He was never forthcoming about this period in his life. Unemployed, antisocial, the family fortunes declining, he descended into the common flaws of people who feel cheated out of an inheritance, chiefly his horrible racism towards every minority in existence. (It’s amazing how little attention is paid to Lovecraft’s racism, when more modern writers have been completely discredited for far less; I’d like to think that Lovecraft’s “outsider artist” status makes people give him some slack, rather than thinking that people somehow don’t notice it.) Lovecraft became (or perhaps, always was) a right-wing conservative, an unapologetic elitist obsessed with the past, particularly the early 18th century. His sole interest in the modern day (apart from guilty pleasures like Edgar Rice Burroughs novels and Charlie Chaplin movies) was science, which was always his favorite school topic. S.T. Joshi, in his biography Lovecraft: A Life, quotes a letter in which Lovecraft basically says that science was the only thing that kept him from committing suicide when he was a teenager.
Gradually, Lovecraft came out of his shell and made friends through correspondence and letter-writing (it would have been email today). He became a prolific epistolarian, usually too polite to get into arguments with his more liberal correspondents. And almost as soon as his letter-writing personality emerged, Lovecraft was referring to himself as an “old gentleman.” He had jumped straight from child to old man, a harmless, asexual, convivial figure. As he told his friends in his letters, he had no interest in sex, having learned all he needed to know about it by reading medical books when he was a child. And, of course, he was a teetotaler. But is it possible to imagine Lovecraft thinking of himself as “too old” to do the things he never did in his teenage and college years? It’s possible to imagine the 31-year-old Lovecraft, after his mother’s death in 1921, uttering the same cry from the heart that Crispin Glover says in the 2003 version of Willard: “What do you mean, I have my whole life ahead of me? My life is over!”
But unlike Robert E. Howard with his dark depressions and easy access to guns, Lovecraft didn’t kill himself when his mom died. Instead, he tried to grow up. Through his literary circles, he met Sonia Greene, an attractive Jewish divorcée, businesswoman and author who pursued this tall, handsome, articulate oddball with absolute infatuation. She was his first kiss. Lovecraft proposed to her, and they married and tried to live together in New York. But Lovecraft couldn’t find a job, even though he apparently tried hard. Sylvia supported him, but he became depressed and missed his hometown. His aunts, who were possibly even more prejudiced than he was, never really approved of him marrying a Jewish woman anyway. Lovecraft returned home after a few years in New York, and a few years later, their separation became final. When Lovecraft wrote about his return to Providence in a letter, he waxed emotional as the familiar sights of his childhood came back into view, one by one. He was home. In the eleven remaining years of his life, Lovecraft tightened his writing, became slightly less of a bigoted asshole about social issues, and offered encouragement to many young writers, playing the “kindly old gentleman” role to its hilt. He almost never spoke of his marriage again, just as he never spoke of whatever had happened to him in high school and his years living alone with his mother. He contracted intestinal cancer from his terrible diet brought on by increasing poverty brought on by not working, and at the age of 47, still youthful-looking, he died.
The Clawing, Pounding Horrors of the Void
To me, this is the Cthulhu Mythos. To me, every Lovecraft story is about Lovecraft himself. Of course it is reductive to present artists with unusual lifestyles, whether they are H.P. Lovecraft or Kazuo Umezu or Henry Darger, as some sort of circus-freak martyrs whose life sacrifices make Great Art for everyone else. And no one can say for sure whether Lovecraft was just a shy guy, or a repressed homosexual, or a truly asexual Creature of Intellect, as HPL himself would have argued. But all good artists put themselves into their work, intentionally or unintentionally.
Lovecraft’s later science fiction stories have less of the misanthropy and nostalgia of his earlier work—the countless early stories in which all humanity is shown to be nothing but slimy degenerate inbred animals, or the parallel track of emo fantasy stories like “Celephais” and “The Silver Key,” influenced by the fairytale-esque fantasy of Lord Dunsany, in which the heroes flee the oppressive adult world for the comforting world of dreams and childhood. (The most transparently embarrassing of these stories is “The Quest of Iranon,” in which a roving minstrel with dreams of ancestral grandeur is driven to his death because everyone around him wants him to get a job.) Lovecraft’s later work, particularly idea-driven science fiction like “The Shadow out of Time” and At the Mountains of Madness, is more original but arguably less emotional than his early horror and fantasy stories. Lovecraft was a scientist, a philosopher, and a historian (one of his last planned projects was a non-supernatural genealogical tale of an imaginary New England family). But (as he repeatedly told his correspondents) he never cared about human beings, and he never really wrote about human beings. With the exception of a few vague “friends” and vaguer father/mentor/old man figures, there are no characters in Lovecraft’s stories except Lovecraft himself (under a number of pseudonyms). He wrote about solitary fears and solitary emotions; love of places, of ideas, not of people.
He certainly did not write about sex. There is no place for positive sexuality in Lovecraft’s universe. Half-naked women and veiled sex scenes (which hardly count as ‘positive’ sexuality anyway, of course) may have been a commonplace in Robert E. Howard’s primitivist male fantasies and Clark Ashton Smith’s self-aware West Coast jungle decadence, but Lovecraft’s work is aggressively chaste. Some people have accused him of misogyny due to his almost total lack of female characters, but I’d rather read stories in which women are absent than stories in which women are chained nude to sacrificial altars and ravished by brawny barbarians. If sex seeps through at all in Lovecraft (and it does; think of the hairy Beast in the Cave), it’s in the form of horror; not just cheesy Stuart Gordon kink, but truly negative sexuality, sexuality seen through the uncomprehending eyes of a terrified, unprepared child. From wet and slimy tentacled sea-things and gushing blobs, to Wilbur Whateley whose body is completely inhuman below the waist, to “Dream-Quest” with its short-haired, vertical-mouthed gugs, to the Great God Azathoth with its “pounding, clawing horrors of the void,” Lovecraft’s fiction expresses an absolute horror of physical contact, of even the slightest touch of sexuality. For this reason, Grant Morrison’s X-rated “Lovecraft in Heaven” (yes, that Grant Morrison – it’s reprinted in the Creation Books anythology “The Starry Wisdom”) is one of my favorite Lovecraftian short stories. As much as it would have repulsed HPL himself, it’s far truer to his spirit of sexual revulsion than August Derleth’s Paul Gauguin fantasies of sleeping with big-lipped Innsmouth fish-women.
In The Land of Dreams
“All that I live for is to capture some fragment of this hidden and just unreachable beauty…There is somewhere, my fancy fabulises, a marvelous city of ancient streets and hills and gardens and marble terraces, wherein I once lived happy eternities, and to which I must return if ever I am to have content.”
—H. P. Lovecraft, letter, 1927
“What I look back upon nostalgically is a dream-world which I invented at the age of four from picture-books and the Georgian hill streets of Old Providence.”
—H. P. Lovecraft
I discovered Lovecraft when I was a child, too, and Lovecraft’s neuroses spoke to me. Even I thought “The Quest of Iranon” was lame, but Lovecraft’s distrust of the physical and adult worlds, his love of science and art and childhood and the mind, was strangely reassuring. And my favorite Lovecraft story was “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” the final story in his childhood nostalgia cycle, the story he wrote not long after his marriage failed. “Dream-Quest” ties together all of Lovecraft’s earlier stories of the dreamlands, a fantasy world at first tentatively set in the distant past but eventually established to exist in some sort of alternate dimension-slash-collective unconscious. Not directly linked to Lovecraft’s later stories of Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth and those other later monsters, the Dreamlands are a sort of pastoral fantasy world of fabulous cities and faraway dangers, where the people worship the mysterious but apparently benign Gods of Earth, and the Gods of Earth are secretly ruled over by Nyarlathotep, the eloquent but cruel messenger of Azathoth, the mindless and hostile Supreme God. To me, it’s a sort of metaphor for the comforting (to Lovecraft) power of tradition and custom, and the nihilistic awareness (which Lovecraft certainly had) that it’s all ultimately meaningless and that the real power behind the universe is the ticking clock of entropy. (According to his own letters, Lovecraft believed in the existence of the Greek gods for awhile while he was growing up—reminding me of a G.K. Chesterton quote which goes something like “Children are naturally religious. They are also naturally polytheistic and pagan.”) In such a world, the only thing you can do is to descend into despair, or just not care that it’s an illusion and chase your dreams.
And in “Dream-Quest,” for once, a Lovecraft protagonist does the latter. Randolph Carter (one of Lovecraft’s countless self-insertion characters) sees a beautiful city in his dreams, and falls so in love with it that he decides to visit the dreamlands and ask the Gods of Earth where the city might be. But first he has to find the gods, who dwell on an impossibly tall and impossibly distant mountain, Mount Kadath; and so begins his long journey across seas, jungles, forests, rivers, through dozens of cities both grim and welcoming, through underground caverns, over tundra and up mountains, encountering various monsters (or more often, seeing signs of their presence and then running far away), and riding a variety of bizarre and monstrous steeds. As Robert M. Price pointed out, some of the fight scenes feel influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs; but Burroughs’ macho heroes never had the power to speak to cats, or paused to lie in the grass and admire the beauty of the river Thran, or made friends with dog-snouted ghouls who feed off human corpses but, Wild Things that they are, become quite companionable to our hero. In short, there is a lot of whimsy in “Dream-Quest,” and this is what I like about it. At the heart of existence, Azathoth claws and pounds, but here on earth—or dream-earth—there is beauty and playfulness and adventure. Not sweat-and-sinews adventure, but fairy-tale, almost childlike adventure. And “Dream-Quest” has possibly the best ending of any Lovecraft story ever, an ending which has echoes of both Hindu/Buddhist cosmology and, cheesy as it sounds, The Wizard of Oz.
The Persistence of Memory
“Then the tired stranger sat down in a chair and gazed out of the window sheer over the Edge of the World…from the abyss there grew with their roots in far constellations a row of hollyhocks, and amongst them a small green garden quivered and trembled as scenes tremble in water…the twilight was full of a song that sang and rang along the edges of the World…and an old woman was singing it down in the garden.…And the song that was lapping there against the coasts of the World, and to which the stars were dancing, was the same that he had heard the old woman sing long since down in the valley in the midst of the Northern moor.”
—Lord Dunsany, A Day at the Edge of the World
In my senior year of high school, my art teacher gave me some leftover 11″ x 16″ sheets of paper, and I decided to draw a graphic novel version of “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” It was a spontaneous decision—at the time I had several half-finished comic projects lying around, and with those blank sheets of paper in front of me, I got the urge to draw another one. I quickly realized that, in a way, “Dream-Quest” was very suited to my art style. At the time I could barely drawn human beings, and I used to cheap out by drawing stick figures named “mock men” whenever possible. (Hence my website, mockman.com.) I wasn’t sure I could draw an entire 100+ page graphic novel with realistic human characters—but luckily, Lovecraft’s stories barely have any human characters. I decided to draw the secondary characters in the comic as actual humans, and to draw only Randolph Carter as a “mock man,” on the retroactive explanation that since it is his dream, he sees himself as a simple stick figure, but he sees everyone else as human beings. (In a few panels set in the real world, you see Randolph Carter’s human form, and naturally, he looks just like H.P. Lovecraft.) Drawing Carter as a stick figure had other side effects: it made him a more childlike, gender-nonspecific figure, removing the pulp adventure echoes of Burroughs and Howard. Most of all, I drew lots of backgrounds, covering page after page with lopsided, improbable buildings influenced by weird fanzine artists like Mike Scott and Denis Tiani. I drew cats and cities and monsters and stars. I tried to make as few changes as possible to the story, but I did add a little dialogue, and a one-page wordless scene near the beginning, in which we see a character who looks a bit like Sonia Greene, talking to our protagonist Randolph Carter. But he turns from her entreaties and walks away, into his lonely dreams.
I drew the first 16 or so pages of “Dream-Quest” in high school—up to the point when Carter goes to the moon—and then I went to college and lost steam. After I graduated in late 1996, I was feeling restless and wanted to work on a comic again, and then the idea of “Dream-Quest” returned. I was getting by while working part-time (on my first real job out of college), so I had plenty of time to devote to a big project like a comic. I immediately decided that my old high school pages were too crappy (besides, the paper my art teacher had given me was already yellowing) so I plotted everything out and redrew it from scratch, continuing on past where my high school self had stopped. I would sit in my tiny apartment in San Francisco among the steep hill streets—streets like the ones Lovecraft used to describe lovingly, or so I imagined—and draw with as much detail as I could muster, occasionally pausing to watch anime with my roommate, or to get reference from library books on the ocean, shells, tropical plants, Antonio Gaudi, ancient maps, etc. etc. I took especial inspiration from children’s books, from Dr. Seuss’s “I Had Trouble In Getting to Solla Sollew” (which has essentially the same plot as “Dream-Quest,” right up until the last page) to Wanda Gag’s “Millions of Cats” to Mercer Mayer’s “In the Night Kitchen.” The whole project took two years, five issues and 122 pages. I distributed it through Diamond from 1997-1999.
I finished “Dream-Quest” and moved on to other comic projects, like “King of RPGs” (www.kingofrpgs.com), but “Dream-Quest” has remained surprisingly popular, probably because it’s the only adaptation of an (I think) unjustifiably obscure Lovecraft story. When I look at it now, I can see how much my art has developed in the 10+ years since I drew it, and the first two issues are particularly awkward. But people at NecronomiCON, the now-defunct H.P. Lovecraft convention in Providence, generally liked it and put me on art panels, and Guerilla Productions, a couple of cool people in Portland, adapted the comic into a full-length semi-animated movie in 2003 (or technically, used my comic artwork in a movie adaptation of the original novel, with my permission and blessing). I still get emails asking to buy a set of “Dream-Quest” comics, which is embarrassing, considering that I have been sold out of issue #3 for nearly ten years.
Luckily, at long last, I’ve decided to release “H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” as a graphic novel. The book will be self-published and will be out by the end of 2009. I’ll be setting up a system for pre-orders at www.mockman.com soon, but until then, if you’re interested, please email me at email@example.com. The price is TBD, but the page count will be about 160 pages, longer than the original “Dream-Quest” comics because I will also be adding three new adaptations of short Lovecraft dream stories which tie in to the “Dream-Quest” cosmology. One is “The White Ship,” which I drew back in 2005. The others are “Celephais” and “The Strange High House in the Mist,” which I will begin to serialize on Fridays at www.mockman.com, starting with page one of “The Strange High House in the Mist” on Friday, June 19.
“If I ever say to the moment; ‘Stay, you are so beautiful!’ Then you may throw me in chains; then I will readily perish; then may the death-bell toll; then you are free from your service. The clock may stand, the hour-hand may fall: time will be a thing no more for me!”
—Goethe, Faust Part One, 1806
T.E.D. Klein (in the introduction to Arkham House’s edition of Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, which I’ve drawn from heavily) and Michel Houellebecq (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/jun/04/featuresreviews.guardianreview6) have written fascinating analyses of Lovecraft’s work and life. All I can offer is a personal perspective. “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” is my favorite Lovecraft story, and I think it’s because it most closely, and poignantly, captures the obsession with childhood which is a major theme of his work.
It is a love story about a man and a city. In “Dream-Quest” we rarely see the misanthropic Lovecraft, the racist Lovecraft (though he is there), the suicidal Lovecraft, the body-horror Lovecraft (though that’s there too), or the scientific Lovecraft. We see darkness and terror, but we also see imagination and emotion, even (in the book’s final, surprising scene) the hope that emotion (of a sort expressible to Lovecraft) can conquer the forces of entropy and time. To compare it to something sixty years more recent, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, like “Labyrinth,” is the story of a journey that might or might not just be a dream. The important thing is, the dreamer is transformed in the process. Whether that transformation is happy or sad is up to the reader to decide, but it is a transformation, and a journey, that was obviously close to Lovecraft’s heart.