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Literature / The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

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The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is a novella by H. P. Lovecraft. Completed in 1927 but unpublished in his lifetime, it finally saw print in 1943. It is both the longest of his stories and a massive Crossover between the characters and locations of his Dream Cycle.

Uncelebrated writer and illustrious dreamer Randolph Carter dreams three times of a majestic sunset city, but each time he is abruptly snatched away before he can see it up close. When he prays to the gods of dream to reveal the whereabouts of the phantasmal city, they do not answer, and his dreams of the city stop altogether. Undaunted, Carter decides to use all his talents in the dream-world to find the legendary mountain Kadath, where the wiser Earth Gods live, in order to ask them for the location of his beloved sunset city. He initiates a quest through the depths of the Dreamlands, finding the weirdest things and meeting the strangest friends and foes.

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Unknowingly to Carter, a powerful entity is bent on making him desist of his quest...


This story includes examples of:

  • Acoustic License:
    • Lampshaded by Carter himself, who overhears the ghouls from several miles away and reminds himself that the Underworld has special laws about things like air and sound.
    • Then lampshaded again towards the ending, being noted that the Inquanok mountain-gargoyles move without a single noise despite their gigantic steps.
  • Aliens Speaking English: Averted. Carter speaks in fantasy languages when traveling the Dreamlands so much that he is relieved to encounter Pickman as they are both American and can speak in their own language.
  • Ambiguously Human: The swarthy shipmen who come to Dylath-Leen to trade rubies are described as such by sailors due to their conspicuous costumes and lack of shipping supplies, and are later revealed to be effectively non-human.
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  • Anti-Escapism Aesop: Played in several ways, including commented on, and ultimately played straight and defied at once. Carter is implied to have become a Dreamlands traveler in first place due to the boredom he feels towards his life in the real world, just like his friend Kuranes, who in turn warns him about the perils of abandoning his life to live in his dreams. Nonetheless, Carter is so focused on finding a particularly beautiful location of the dream-world that he barely thinks about his real life, and only when strongly reminded. At the end of the story, however, he discovers that the place he was looking for was actually his own world all along — specifically, it's Boston, where he was born — and the realization helps him to come to terms with his quest and wake up from the dream in time to escape Nyarlathotep's death trap. The conclusion given is both simple and optimistic: the reality is superior to the dreams, but it is not merely because it is real (and thus, dreams are not bad for being less real), it is because it's his home town. Viewed from a particular perspective and with love and cherished memories, it is just that awesome.
  • Anti-Hero: Randolph Carter wishes to reach Kadath, and he takes a no-prisoners approach in his quest. He deceives people into releasing information, considers taking demi-gods hostage to blackmail the Earth Gods, and generally has no qualms about what he does. On the other hand, he is strongly loyal to the true friends he makes — the cats of Ultharnote  and the ghoulsnote  — is much more benign than many of the foes he finds, and has a sense of gratitude and compassion. Even after he gets old Atal shitfaced drunk on moonwine he helps him lie down to sleep and arranges his beard decorously.
  • Arcadia: The Skai lands, represented by golden fields and small farms.
  • Astral Projection: In a sense. The main character is not himself in the Dreamlands, but just his dream self, which means that he can snap out of the story as an emergency backdoor simply by waking up. He considers doing this as a shortcut at one point but decides against it because he might forget important information. He does do it at the end to escape Nyarlathotep's trap.
  • Atop a Mountain of Corpses: After being kidnapped by the Night-Gaunts, Carter is left in Pnoth, a deserted region of the Underworld where ghouls throw their waste, so it is naturally full of bones.
  • Author Appeal: The village of Ulthar features a large population of cats, which are held sacred by the villagers, and Carter later enlists the help of an army of those animals. Lovecraft was a notorious cat lover.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: The leader of the moon-beasts does a rather epic Last Stand on Sarkomand Island, felling several ghouls before being killed.
  • Badass Beard: Carter is mentioned to have grown one, but he is forced to shave it in order to disguise himself as a ghoul.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: The cat race is grateful to Carter for his sympathy towards them, especially after he helps a kitten who happens to be the grandson of a cat general. Their loyalty and care for him are both awesome and heartwarming.
  • Beneath the Earth: The Peaks of Throk are a range of granite mountains located in the Underworld, deep beneath the Dreamlands. Carter comes there carried by the Night-Gaunts.
  • The Big Bad: Nyarlathotep.
  • Big Damn Heroes: The cats come in time to rescue Carter in the moon. Later, Carter himself leads a force to save three friendly ghouls who were captured by the same moon-beasts in Sarkomand. Finally, it's implied that Nodens and the intelligent violet gas S’ngac have a hand in helping Carter to escape Nyarlathotep's trap.
  • The Blank: The Nightgaunts.
  • Blob Monster: The moon toad men are described as being shapeshifting bloats whose toad frame is only their most common guise.
  • Bottomless Pit: There is one in the Leng monastery, and the oriental-looking merchant who sells Carter to the great priest is swiftly thrown into it when Randolph sees his chance to escape.
  • Bounty Hunter: The black shipmen kidnap Carter in order to sell him to Nyarlathotep in exchange for favors, as it seems Gnarly is after him in order to impede his quest.
  • Cats Are Magic: As well as a thoroughly wise, supernaturally gifted and relatively benevolent race. They even can fly between the Earth and the moon, which they usually do at night. They worship Bast and aid the hero in his quest. The only thing the Earth-cats fear are the cats from Saturn, who are even more powerful than they, but are in league with the Eldritch Abominations.
  • Cats Are Mean: Their ruthlessness during the battle in the moon shocks even the cat-loving Carter, who watches how the felines completely wreck his former captors. There's just one little bone left when they're done. In a straighter example, the big cats from Saturn are explicitly evil and are friends with the bad guys.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Carter is presented with moon wine by the zoogs, and he later uses it to bribe Atal (read: to get him shitfaced) in exchange for more information about the places of the gods, specifically Mount Ngranek on Oriab Island.
  • Chromosome Casting: Characteristic of Lovecraft, there are zero female characters in this story.
  • Continuity Nod: Tons of them.
  • Contrived Coincidence: It's hard to pin down what is contrived in the dream-world and what is not, but it happens that Carter overhears the zoogs discussing their plans to attack the cats in his second journey through the fungus forest. Being the Kindhearted Cat Lover he is, Randolph is fast in warning them of the menace.
  • Cunning Linguist: Carter knows several languages, including zoog, cat-talk and ghoul howls.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The ghouls are necrophague creatures and quite creepy in appearance, but they are explicitly described as very respectful and helpful, at least towards their friends. The Night-Gaunts, although they never stop being creepy to Carter, are also shown to be loyal allies. If you know a certain password, they will be very helpful, hold you respectfully as they fly, and won't tickle you to make you keep still.
  • Deus Exit Machina: Carter’s allied army of Night-Gaunts and ghouls is sucked away by a divine wind when they reach Kadath, so he is forced to venture on it alone as in the story's beginning.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: Randolph Carter manages to trick Nyarlathotep.
  • The Dreaded: The Night-Gaunts are feared even by the Greater Gods.
  • Dream Walker: Carter is an experienced dreamer, so the dream-worlds are very familiar to him and a lot of people there know him. At one point he has to tell three dreams beyond belief in order to pass into the city of Thran so he can book passage on a ship going to Celephais.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath ends with the protagonist dispelling Nyarlathotep's deception and avoiding his doom, then waking up to the Scenery Porn of the architecturally graceful city of Boston, USA. Nyarlathotep admits defeat.
  • Eldritch Location: The Dreamlands, naturally.
  • Evil Counterpart: The cats from Saturn are one to the cats from the Earth.
  • Everything's Better With Kangaroos: Ghasts are described as deformed kangaroos.
  • Eyeless Face: The moon-beasts, who apparently see through some kind of sensorial peduncle.
  • The Fair Folk: The zoogs are described as small black beings who are relatively benign but potentially dangerous to humans.
  • Fantasy Keepsake: After Carter wakes up from his dream, we are shown that he keeps a little black cat in his house, just like the black cat he befriended in the Dreamlands. While they are not implied to be one and the same, the connection between the two is narratively clear.
  • Forbidden Zone: Kadath is guarded by the gods, and it's constantly said than any attempt by a human to reach it would meet ruin. Also the peak of Hatheg-Kla, where the gods dance, is forbidden to man.
  • Fungus Humongous: The zoog forest. The moon also had some big ones.
  • Giant Flyer: The shantak birds are described as elephant-sized birds. Ah, and with heads of horses.
  • Going Native: Richard Pickman is now a ghoul himself, having ditched clothes and even adopted somehow their physical traits. Later, Carter himself has to disguise himself like one in order to deceive the man-eating gugs.
  • Gratuitous Animal Sidekick: The black kitten tries to be one but the cat general won't allow it. At the very end, we see that the cat apparently chose to follow him into the waking world. Aw.
  • Happy Place: As Kuranes's body died and thus he cannot wake up from the dream world anymore, he dream-built a copy of his town and Cornwall in Celephais in order to cope with his nostalgia.
  • The Hedge of Thorns: The forest is explained to have two tunnels which lead to the physical world, which the zoogs use to have fun, although it gets subverted as the protagonist never uses them.
  • Heel–Face Turn: The Night-Gaunts's first appearance is when they abduct and creep out Carter. However, he later finds out that they have a pact with his friend Pickman and his ghouls and that they serve Nodensnote  and not Nyarlathotep as he thought, so he recruits them for his side.
  • Heroes Prefer Swords: Carter goes usually unarmed, but he mentions carrying a scimitar with him when ascending the Ngranek, just in case. However, it gets stolen by a Night-Gaunt.
  • Hero of Another Story: Atal returns from The Cats of Ulthar and The Other Gods and talks with Carter about those stories and his own quest with Barzai. Richard Pickman from Pickman’s Model and Kuranes from Celephais appear as well.
  • Hitchhiker Heroes: Randolph Carter himself.
  • Horse of a Different Color: People in Oriab ride zebras.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Nyarlathotep.
  • I Am A Humanitarian: The inhuman shipmen are revealed to devour the black slaves they trade their ruby stones for. Carter finds this out in a creepy I Ate WHAT?! moment (averted, he throws it out).
    • The moonbeasts below deck are also implied to eat the black slaves, as well as their own slaves, the shipmen.
  • Identity Amnesia: Carter believes himself to have lived in his sunset city at some forgotten time, but it is not clear whether it is true ( It is.) or just an idle dream of his.
  • If It Swims, It Flies: The sinister ships in which Carter is captured leave the water and fly towards the moon in their travel, though it is mentioned as due to the natural course of their route and not because the ships are special themselves (they still might be, however).
  • Improbable Weapon User: The three ghouls who escort Carter in his travel underground back to the forest carry a big tombstone in order to use it as a tool and weapon, and they actually beat a ghast into a pulp with it.
  • Inscrutable Oriental: Carter meets one in Dylath-Leen who knows about Leng, but he proves to be more inscrutable than thought by saying nothing about it. Then he later reappears with a horde of shantak birds to capture him and take him to the moon-beasts in Leng.
  • It Was with You All Along: The sunset city Carter was looking for is revealed to be his own city, Boston, where all his memories of youth are.
  • Jerkass Gods: Nyarlathotep is a dick who gets what's coming to him.
  • Kind Hearted Cat Lover: Randolph Carter is described as loving small black kittens more than anything in the world. This works to his advantage when he gets kidnapped by aliens. That kitten turns up later as a young lieutenant in the cat army that rescues Carter from the moon beasts. He tries to follow Carter then, but his grandfather won't discharge him; it's strongly implied that he is the black cat in Carter's home at the very end of the story.
  • Lethal Lava Land: Mount Ngranek is said to be an inactive volcano (it was active at the time the Gods were), and people from around it have built onyx mining camps on it, though not too high in the mountain, as it is a Forbidden Zone.
  • The Lost Woods: The first place in the quest is the Enchanted Forest, a dark place infested with fungus and zoogs.
  • Lunarians: The dreamworlds’ moon is inhabited and features seas and fields just like the Earth. The main race there is some kind of evil toad people.
  • Mix-and-Match Critter: The shantak birds: giant bird bodies, scales instead of feathers and heads of horses.
  • Monster-Shaped Mountain:
    • The face on Ngranek, carved like Mt. Rushmore.
    • The mountains at the edge of the cold waste. Except they aren't mountains.
  • Mother of a Thousand Young: The mother of the shantak birds, which is kept in the darkness of a vault in Inganok. It spawned the entire race and apparently has Dream Weaver powers.
  • Nepharious Pharaoh: How Nyarlathotep introduces himself to Carter, complete with a procession of black slaves and a lot of gold.
  • Nephilim: It's recounted that the gods of Kadath often mate with villagers from around the city, so they all carry divine blood. Interestingly, according to Carter, their blood manifests in the form of their general appearance, Cloudcuckoolander personalities and "much higher thoughts than any man," not in special powers of any kind.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: As Nyarlathotep puts it, the Earthly Gods abandoned Kadath to inhabit the shining city which Carter dreamt of, and by doing so the natural order was altered. Nyarlathotep sends Carter supposedly to convince the gods to return to Kadath in order to get the balance back. However, it's revealed that it is all a ruse to send him to his doom and that Nyarlathotep was controlling the Earthly Gods all the time.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: Nyarlathotep plots to send Carter to Azathoth under the fake destination of the city built by Randolph’s memories of youth, but his Purple Prose-filled description of those, meant to charm Carter, ends up giving Randolph the strength he needs to recreate them in the void Nyarlat was trying to throw him into, using them to wake up and return to his real world.
  • No, I Am Behind You: Carter realizes something is very wrong when he is chasing his yak down the Inganok mounts and then he hears something is chasing him in turn.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: It's mentioned that nobody has seen a dhole from the Underground, as they are invisible, and thus nobody knows how them look. The narrative implies that they might be something similar to a giant worm (or, alternatively, a tentacle beast), but you never know.
  • Not Quite Flight: The cats seem to have the ability to fly between the Earth and the moon, but it is later explained to be less flight than very long jumps. Even Carter manages to do it with some help from his feline friends.
  • Oh, Crap!: Carter and the three ghouls have one at the top of the gugs' stairway, as they heard something is thrashing the ghast they have killed and left behind.
  • Our Gargoyles Rock: The sculpted mountains of Inquanok are revealed to be basically Evangelion-sized gargoyles which come to life every time someone tries to cross the pass.
  • Our Ghouls Are Different: Ghouls are a secretive living species, rather than undead or demons.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Funnily enough, the three ghouls who escorted Carter later proceed to steal human clothes and try to pass themselves for humans, with exactly the results you'd expect.
  • Plot-Powered Stamina: Averted, even when it would have been possible to Handwave considering the story takes place in a dream. Carter gets so tired while ascending the stairs from the land of the gugs that his ghoul guards have to help him up.
  • Port Town: More or less every city Carter visits is a bucolic port town with lots of merchants selling unusual things, dark streets and mysterious taverns.
  • Press-Ganged: Carter gets shanghaied into one of the black ships after being drugged by one of their sailors. He correctly guesses that he is going to be sold to Nyarlathotep.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Carter starts a quest to visit Kadath despite the Gods' will to impede him from doing it.
  • Rich Boredom: King Kuranes of Celephais is bored with his throne and would rather return to his past life.
  • Scenery Porn: The story could be alternatively titled Scenery Porn: The Novella. The sunset city, for one; the story begins with Carter's lush dreams about its beautiful landscape.
  • Shining City: Carter's marvellous city consists of everything that he ever loved, distilled to its purest form.
  • Slave Mooks: The inhuman shipmen are revealed to be slaves of the moon toads.
  • The Strategist: Pickman proves to be a brilliant military commander at the battle of the Sarkomand rock island, as well as Carter, who also leads a part of the ghoul force. Lots of these ghouls are actual veterans of various wars, so they have some idea what they're doing.
  • Surprisingly Happy Ending: Atypically for a Lovecraft story, Kadath's conclusion is neither a Downer Ending nor a Bittersweet Ending: Carter escapes the evil's clutches and ultimately fulfills his goal. Then again, the next chapter in Carter's life, The Silver Key, introduces him to a new challenge.
  • Temple of Doom: Several, but specially the Temple of the Gods in Dylath-Leen, which gives Carter bad vibes despite not being too overt in the "Doom" part.
  • Underwater Ruins: One, it's seen in the travel to Baharna. The city is apparently inhabited, but Carter gets to see a sacrificed man tied to a pillar, so he deduces the ruins must be populated by some kind of creatures, and not by precisely friendly ones.
  • The Unfettered: The antiheroic Carter is distinctively willing to do anything in order to find his beloved city. One of his first plans would involve abducting one of the demi-gods of Kadath in order to use him as a hostage. He considers doing this but never gets a chance.
  • Vagina Dentata: The gugs's mouth.
  • Was It Really Worth It?: Kuranes states to Carter that he would gladly give his immortal throne in Celephais to return to his home and past life, and warns him to think twice before continuing with his quest for the sunset city.
  • Waterfall into the Abyss: The point where the Western sea ends and the ethereal worlds of the gods begin.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: It's not known what happens to the Night-Gaunts and Pickman's ghouls after they are taken away by the godly forces of Kadath.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Cute?: Randolph Carter is perfectly fine with the cats eating the zoogs that have been following him, because he likes cats a lot better... and because the zoogs have been threatening to eat a kitten.
  • Where It All Began: Subverted. After a long, perilous journey, Carter returns to the enchanted forest where he started the quest, but it's not the very end of the story. In fact, that's kind of the midpoint.
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