Column: Writing the Mythos: H.P. Lovecraft, Fantasist

By G. W. Thomas

If you look at the contents page of The Best of H. P. Lovecraft (Del Rey, 1982) you will find only one story from HPL’s fantasy oeuvre, collectively known as The Dreamlands stories. (This is “The Silver Key”, a tale of Randolph Carter, who loses the key to the Dreamlands, and how he finds his way back to that magical place. As a fantasy tale, it is couched mostly in our world.) The Best of H. P. Lovecraft is a large book and dominated by his later horror classics.

This is a shame, for H. P. Lovecraft was a fine fantasy writer. His Dreamlands stories are colourful and fantastic at the same time that they can be dark and haunted. I understand Del Rey’s desire to market their books to horror fans (thus, the creepy covers by Michael Whelan and the introduction by Robert Bloch). This is a reality of publishing. You don’t pollute a horror collection, especially one subtitled “Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre”, with tales of “white-capped Thurai” and “the singing Skai under its bridges down to the Southern Sea”. Del Rey did try to make amends by publishing two separate volumes, The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath and The Doom That Came to Sarnath, that contain the Dreamlands tales, along with other early pieces. The covers are from the same grisly Whelan painting but nowhere does Del Rey claim “Best of” status.

Some Horror fans hate fantasy (As one Amazon review put it: “No Elves!”) and vice versa. There are, of course, Weird Tales fans such as myself that are comfortable in both worlds. Throw in science fiction as well and you run the gamut of the old pulp fantastic, such as in the works of HPL’s good friend, Clark Ashton Smith. HPL himself could be said to have written in all three genres if you consider “In the Walls of Eryx” (Weird Tales, January 1936), “The Colour Out of Space” (Amazing Stories, September 1927) and “The Shadow Out of Time” (Astounding, June 1936), all of which appeared in pulps that published SF. Ironically, two of these appear in The Best of H. P. Lovecraft.

The core tales of the Dreamlands saga include: “Celephais”, “The Silver Key”, “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”, “The White Ship”, “The Strange High House in the Mist”, “The Other Gods”, “The Tree”, “The Doom That Came To Sarnath”, “Polaris”, “The Cats Of Ulthar”, and “The Quest of Iranon”, with the short novel, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, acting as a kind of frame for the rest. (Find them all here). The themes and details of these stories can be found in other tales as well, such as “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (which features the same main character) and “Pickman’s Model” (for Randolph Carter finds out what happened to Pickman after his story). In HPL’s mind, these stories were all connected; genre was irrelevant.

The Dreamlands stories were inspired by Lord Dunsany (1878-1957), the Anglo-Irish baron who popularized short fantasy tales at the turn of the century. Before Dunsany, most fantasy was at the novel length, such as the romances of William Morris. HPL was struck by the power of Time and the Gods (1906). “The first paragraph arrested me as with an electric shock….” (Lovecraft: A Biography (1975) by L. Sprague de Camp) The Gods of Pegana (1905) gave HPL the first inkling of connecting a series of stories with a “Mythos” of ancient gods. Lovecraft went to see Dunsany read in early November of 1920, but proved too shy to speak to his idol. It’s a fantasy meeting worthy of a movie, but ultimately, HPL sat quietly and let the opportunity slip by.

Dunsany’s stamp infuses the Dreamlands stories, just as Edgar Allan Poe’s style predominates much of HPL’s horror writing. Eventually, Lovecraft would blend the two and create his own style. He never entirely erased Dunsany from his work, whether he wrote horror or fantasy: “The one theme incontrovertibly constant in both his life and his work is a preoccupation with dreams,” as Robert Bloch writes in the introduction to The Best of H. P. Lovecraft. “The Dreams in the Witch-House” is, without doubt, a horror tale, but we still get fantastic glimpses of other worlds between the scares.

It saddens me a little that the Dreamlands never caught on as a setting for other writers. This seems odd, considering how much of what Lovecraft wrote became the springboard for new authors. But unlike the Hyborian setting of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, which have spawned comics, role-playing games, MMORPGs, movies and new novels by authors from Robert Jordan to Harry Turtledove, the Dreamlands have not. There are a few examples around, such as Chaosium’s Dreamlands supplement for Call of Cthulhu, as well as in fiction, like “Of Melei, Of Ulthar” by Gord Sellar, and a clutch of novels by Brian Lumley: Hero of Dreams (1986), Ship of Dreams (1986), Mad Moon of Dreams (1987), and Iced on Aran: And Other Dream Quests (1990) but not nearly enough. My challenge to writers is simply to write a tale of Ulthar or lost Kadath. Forget the retread tales of Deep Ones, the diaries about guys who look for Cthulhu. Try a little magic, instead. I will gladly join you in the land of Mnar, where men “…built Thraa, Ilarnek, and Kadatheron on the winding river Ai.” I’ll even put up with a few elves.