What a world to dive into.
I’ve heard it remarked in the past that the world of H.P. Lovecraft is incredibly immersive and intricately interwoven – which can simultaneously be enticing and intimidating. However, while Lovecraft’s influence on horror and his knack for world-building had always fallen on the side of enticing to me, I’d had my doubts about giving the mind behind the Cthulhu mythos a shot.
When reading Lovecraft, one is not simply entering into the expansive mythos he created, but also exploring a divisive legacy of racism and prejudice that lurks behind his influential texts. Lovecraft’s views have been a source for continued debate and discussion over the weight carried by the merit of one’s work vs. the individual beliefs of the creator – and should not go unmentioned when discussing his work. Today, writers of color in particular have grappled with whether or not to reject Lovecraft’s influence altogether or to renew his his themes and concepts with a more inclusive lens. While the latter argument has paved the way for some fantastic and more progressively-minded Lovecraftian stories such as Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe and Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, the former argument undoubtedly holds merit as well, pointing out the dangers of immortalizing works that validate problematic ideals.
It is with respect to this continued debate that I decided to take the plunge and read some Lovecraft for myself. As someone who tends to enjoy more fantastic elements to horror, I decided that The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath would be a good place for me to start. The novella tells the story of Randall Carter, an “experienced dreamer,” who decides to embark on a journey through the dream lands in order to locate an irresistibly beautiful city, of which he’d caught fleeting glimpses in dreams in the past.
Randall Carter himself seems like he’d probably be a jerk if I ever met him in real life, and I felt that in general the character work wasn’t that strong, but the dream lands themselves were simply extraordinary. Lovecraft somehow found a way to cultivate a unique sense of exploration, dread, horror and excitement all wrapped together throughout Carter’s quest. The various creatures and cities Carter comes across were both fascinatingly unique and often horrifying.
This book was also my first real exposure to the uniquely Lovecraftian concept of cosmic horror, which I quickly found to be quite effective and conceptually terrifying. I loved Lovecraft’s descriptions of the gods of Earth – their callousness and petty attitudes amongst each other and towards the people of Earth. On top of that, the revelations that these were simply minor and relatively inconsequential gods in comparison to the nearly incomprehensible and all-powerful gods/creatures of the greater cosmos did a lot to make the human characters seem incredibly small and instill a combined sense of wonder and insignificance onto the reader.
Despite the innate awfulness of H.P. Lovecraft as a person, the world he created was inventive and creative, and upon finishing The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, I can see why his ideas have had a lasting influence on genre story-telling.
“His racism made him a worse person,” writes philosopher, Michael LaBossiere, in his essay, On Lovecraft’s Racism, “however, the fact that he was a racist does not impact the merit of his works—except to the degree that the racist elements in the stories damage their artistic merit (which is an issue well worth considering).” I tend to agree with LaBossiere’s sentiment after reading The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, yet I understand and respect those who would would reject it. As I mentioned above, diving into Lovecraft’s world is more than just diving into his fiction; and for gaining a deeper understanding of his literary influence and learning more about the continued debate surrounding his work, I’m glad that I did.