Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #136: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath by H.P. Lovecraft and I.N.J. Culbard

As far as I can tell, British cartoonist I.N.J. Culbard adapted four H.P. Lovecraft novellas into graphic novel form basically back-to-back in the early years of this decade, and then moved on to other projects. It's taken me a bit longer to track down and read all of those books -- At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward are the others -- since I seem to have started reading them after he stopped making them.

I came last to The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which is thematically appropriate: it was in the middle of the Lovecraft/Culbard years, but it's a clearly different kind of story from the other three, from a different end of Lovecraft's work and with a very different view on life.

Most of Lovecraft's work is in a negative, pessimistic mode: he was most commercially successful with stories of cosmic horror, where he sublimated his loathing of basically everyone in the world (including himself) and orchestrated an only somewhat informed sense of contemporary scientific developments into fever dreams of stolen bodies and coldly alien powers and inevitable shattering destructions of mind and body. That mode is what Lovecraft's best known for, even now, and is where most of his best work lies -- and a lot of problematic work as well, and a number of outright stinkers.

But Lovecraft also had a positive mode, which is traditionally associated with his early career. Those are mostly the "Dreamlands" stories, influenced by Lord Dunsany, in which characters who often resembled Lovecraft have adventures in a fantasy world safely separated from our own by the veil of sleep. "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" is the longest and most fully worked out of those stories; it was written by 1927, a decade before Lovecraft's death, but never published in his lifetime.

Culbard leans into the usual interpretation by having Randolph Carter, the protagonist, very strongly resemble the historical Lovecraft. This might only work for those of us familiar with his face, but isn't that the majority of the audience for any Lovecraft adaptation?

Dream-Quest is an episodic story, here as it was in Lovecraft's original, with Carter dreaming three times of a glorious golden city in the distance and then trying to find that city in the often-dangerous realms of the Dreamlands. He faces dire perils, mostly escaping by stealth or with the aid of friendly cats and of people he knew from Earth, transformed either in his dream or as their own dream-selves. The Dreamlands seem to be a real place, with solid geography, that can be mapped and must be traveled across. Most of this book takes place in one night, or so it seems to the sleeping Carter.

And, yes, the end is positive, or as positive as Lovecraft got, showing the one thing he was willing to acknowledge could bring happiness. (If you don't know what that is, I certainly won't spoil it for you here -- read this book, or just read the novella.)

Culbard does just as good a job on this fantasy adventure as he did for the more horrific Lovecraft works -- this book has a lot more gold and light than the others, but the palette is similarly limited on each page -- Culbard doesn't go for the garish eye-popping colors so common in "mainstream" comics. And he skillfully navigates the many talky scenes of this story, keeping them visually interesting.

This is the best of Lovecraft's positive stories, well adapted here. Is that worth seeking out? Well, Lovecraft himself is more than a little problematic these days, particularly if you the reader belong to any of the many, many groups (women, blacks, Italians, New Yorkers, Jews, and so on) that he had strong and unpleasant opinions about. Those opinions don't feature here, if that helps. I still think he's a vital and deeply interesting writer, but I am a WASP with roots in the Northeast stretching back to colonial I might be too close to him to be trusted.

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