The Crawling Chaos

I recently read H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. For those who don’t know, H.P. Lovecraft was a horror writer from the early twentieth century most famous for his Cthulhu Mythos.

Now, the Dream-Quest is not from the Cthulhu Mythos. It is from the Dream Cycle. Though there are occasional cross-references between the two, they are usually considered separate entities, and I endorse that view. Of course, Lovecraft was not nearly as, shall we say, rigorous in his mythopoeia as J.R.R. Tolkien was. He described what he was doing as creating “pseudo-mythology”. The world(s) Lovecraft describes isn’t coherent, and it’s not supposed to be; it’s just supposed to evoke a certain emotion, namely, terror. In fact, he probably wanted it to not only make no sense, but nonsense; after all, one of the main themes of the Cthulhu Mythos is that mankind cannot understand the universe and that, if anyone comes close, he becomes a gibbering idiot because of the sheer horror contained therein. Note that I don’t really like this approach to mythopoeia, but I do recognize Lovecraft’s genius for it.

On to the story itself. I’m a big fan of the Dream-Quest; it’s probably my favorite Lovecraftean tale. It’s not exactly typical Lovecraft, though. It is fairly long, a novella really, unlike most of his pieces, which are short stories. It focuses not on one particular horror, but on a long sequence of rather surreal and disconnected adventures. Most importantly, though, unlike most Lovecraft pieces, it has a happy ending. At least somewhat happy.

Now one reason I like the Dream-Quest is that it seems to me like Lovecraft’s best statement of the idea of an illogical, absurd universe with no inherent meaning, in which there may be deities but they are neither good, nor bad, but amoral. The tale is filled with mentions of the Other Gods, who are described as “mindless”, and whose herald Nyarlathotep is called the “horror of infinite shapes and dread soul and messenger of the Other Gods”. The lord of this world is the Daemon-Sultan Azathoth who rules from the outer abyss that would drive any man who perceived it into insanity.

I think this idea is well summed up in my favorite quote from the Dream-Quest, from when Randolph Carter, the hero of the tale, thinks he has completed his quest: “Carter had come to unknown Kadath in the cold waste, but he had not found the gods.” Carter had come through innumerable dangers in the hope of finding the gods and pleading before them to be allowed to enter the golden city, only to find that they do not even live where he thought they did. That is the bleakest picture of a world with a deity that I can imagine. It is a rebuke to those who assume that it logically follows that if there is a God, he must be good. He could be the Daemon-Sultan set on mocking us, toying with us, and eventually leading us all into oblivion.

So the Dream-Quest seems to be pretty clearly espousing a cosmology that makes no sense, or that if it does make sense is to vast and terrible as to be incomprehensible to humanity. It is a rather depressing idea. At the same time, the happy ending seems to refute this world-view. I actually don’t know why Lovecraft would have the story end how it does – it seems to refute his theology (if it can be called that). Perhaps because, while Randolph Carter isn’t turned into a gibbering idiot by the nameless horror of the Outer Gods, the story still ends with the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep brooding and devising tortures for the inhabitants of the dream-world. It shows that, while you can perhaps escape from the creeping darkness for the time being, eventually it will find you and catch you and rend the veil that protects you from the dark beyond. There is no salvation.

Of course I don’t believe that the universe is like that, that God is really Azathoth, or that his messenger is Nyarlathotep. Nor should you. But I read H.P. Lovecraft because it seems like a good idea to examine other possible cosmologies in order to learn more about what I actually believe. In other words – yes, I think reading H.P. Lovecraft has made me a better Catholic. I’ve heard that it can be damaging to faith to read him, but I think no more than it can be damaging to read Homer or Virgil. The only danger is if you read uncritically – if you fail to consider the possibility (probability) that the author was wrong.


2 Responses to The Crawling Chaos

  1. Robin Lowe says:

    If you remember that the whole thing is taking place in a dream in the book, with the hero contacting dead friends outside his dream, then the whole thing makes a lot more sense. If you hold this in mind when you get to the bit where Carter encounters Nyarlathotep and take into account the idea that Lovecraft injects into the story regarding his omnipotence, you’ll see that the point the author is trying to make is not a lot to do with anything theological or anti-theological. Nyarlathotep is basically the motivator behind consciousness – he is that which sits at the centre of the web and governs the other gods in their universe between dimensions; the crawling chaos – the only way he can be found is through the unconscious dream-quest, but Nyarlathotep sends the hero away from Kadath, does he not? Expels him after revealing his true identity, no? This would seem to suggest that the author is stating that the foundation of counsciousness or spirit can’t be known. It’s not so much that the hero fails in his quest, but that the quest he was on was impossible. I haven’t read the book for about 3 years, so please forgive any fogginess, but that is the basic essence of it. The author is not wrong, because what he refers to can’t be known due its very unknowable nature.

  2. Good point about the relationship between Nyarlathotep (and the dream-world in general) and consciousness. But I don’t think you can move from the fact that Lovecraft is saying something about consciousness to knowing that Lovecraft is *not* saying anything about religion or the nature of the world. Both because an author can say two things at once, and because the two are, I think, connected.

    And isn’t failure on an impossible quest still failure? :P I didn’t mean to imply his quest was possible – you’re right, it never was meant to be seen as such – but he still fails, as does everyone who struggles to understand consciousness/the universe/the gods.

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