Lovecraftian Horror: The Dream Cycle

While most people can easily recognize Cthulhu, the titular deity from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, what many do not realize is that Lovecraft’s work was actually divided into two major categories. One being the Cthulhu Mythos, featuring aliens and cosmic deities that has received almost all of the mainstream attention, while the second is referred to as the Dream Cycle.

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H.P. Lovecraft in 1915

Lovecraft himself was very fascinated by the concept of dreams, what they mean or even just what they are. As Lovecraft himself said, “Wise men have interpreted dreams, and the gods have laughed,” suggesting that while humans may feebly try to understand the meaning behind dreams, they are too strange or abstract to be accurately understood. This ties into with the themes of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, as Lovecraft believed that the wider universe and possible aliens that humanity may encounter would be so vastly different that humans wouldn’t be able to comprehend them or their motives.

The Dream Cycle itself takes place in a realm referred to as the “Dreamlands,” a strange dimension that can be accessed via dreaming. Some readers compare it to The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland, as it is an extremely fantastic world with very strange imagery, such as cats who act like people, a city made of onyx, and a Moon which can be traveled to by sailing a ship off the edge of the Dreamlands and through space. There are many maps of the Dreamlands to help establish a sense of geography and keep track of the strange places described, but according to Atal, the High Priest of Ulthar, everyone has their own dreamland that may be similar but it interpreted differently. If this is true, then it is very likely that the stories of the Dream Cycle do not necessarily take place in the Dreamlands, but rather Randolph Carter’s Dreamlands.

dreamlandsInterestingly, Randolph Carter is the protagonist of almost all of the stories set within the Dream Cycle. Carter is described as being a relatively normal person, albeit with a strong interest in dreams and the occult. Carter himself is heavily based on H.P. Lovecraft, being very contemplative and quiet while having to be a mostly unrecognized author, such as how much of Lovecraft’s fame did not arise until after his death.

To describe what makes the Dream Cycle unique would be very difficult without giving a brief synopsis of at least some of the stories contained within, so here are a few examples. The first example, the story The Quest of Iranon depicts an immortal man searching for a city where he was supposedly a prince, although he never meets anyone who has ever heard of it. Eventually Iranon meets someone who has indeed heard of the city, but only from a young beggar’s boy who made such false claims. Upon finding that the city is merely a figment of his own imagination, Iranon begins to immediately age and die.

cats-of-ultharAnother story, The Cats of Ulthar, depicts a town in which an old couple is rumored to kill cats for fun. At one point, a caravan of animal-worshiping gypsies visits the town and the couple kill a black kitten belonging to a young orphan boy. The boy places a curse on the old couple, and eventually leads to the cats of the village eating the old couple alive, leaving nothing but their skeletons for later discovery. This leads the town’s officials to pass a law making it illegal for people to kill cats.

A third story, The Silver Key, involves the protagonist Randolph Carter becoming unable to dream, and seeking solace is places such as religion, which disappoint him. Eventually Carter discovers a silver key with strange writing on it that he can’t seem to understand, while being unable to discern what the key goes to. Eventually, Carter goes to a cave he used to play in as a child, and emerges as that young child. Essentially, Carter’s consciousness has somehow managed to go back in time, allowing him to relive his childhood.

Then there is the novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, one of Lovecraft’s longest works which describes Randolph Carter’s journey through the Dreamlands in search of a beautiful city that he is unable to reach. After going on a perilous journey and encountering a host of strange people and places, Carter finds that the city he was searching for the whole time was his city of Boston at sunrise. The novel itself polarizes Lovecraft fans, as some see it as his worst work while others consider it among his best. Lovecraft himself was not very proud of the work, believing that the constant use of strange imagery would lessen the effect of individual images and wear away at the reader.

dream-quest-bookAs can be seen, Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle stands out for its creativity and strangeness, especially considering the time it was written when modern horror and “weird fiction” was still in its infancy. However, the Dream Cycle are not the only stories Lovecraft wrote that dealt with dreams. One, called Hypnos deals with a pair of men who use drugs to go to sleep and explore another realm of consciousness. Another, The Thing in the Moonlight, was written by J. Chapman Miske, but was actually based heavily on a dream by H.P. Lovecraft. The story The Statement of Randolph Carter was also based on a dream of Lovecraft’s, except in the story Lovecraft was changed to “Warren.”

However, despite the Dream Cycle being separate from the Cthulhu Mythos, both are actually a part of the same continuity. While this is not necessarily unusual considering they are all written by Lovecraft, it does draw some strange conclusions. For example, one being named Nyarlathotep is described a few times in the Cthulhu Mythos as being a servant of Azathoth, while going about his own business on Earth. However, in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Nyarlathotep is described as being angry that the gods have abandoned Kadath for the city seen in Carter’s dreams, although he retains his trickster personality.

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Cthulhu emerging from R’lyeh

Another connection could be made in Through the Gates of the Silver Key (a sequel to the story The Silver Key), in which a character points out that the strange characters inscribed on the silver key Randolph Carter possesses is not any human language, but rather the language of R’lyeh, the city where “dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” In the story The Call of Cthulhu, certain isolated groups of people, the insane, etc. are described as being susceptible to Cthulhu’s influence at a subconscious level, and some characters experience dreams of R’lyeh and Cthulhu. If one considers that the pantheon of alien deities described in the Cthulhu Mythos are able to interact with humans through the strange realm of the Dreamlands, then that adds a certain level of horror indeed.

That concludes this article on the Dream Cycle by H.P. Lovecraft, which will be followed by a second article detailing the overshadowing Cthulhu Mythos. If you are a fan of Lovecraft’s work than try giving the second article a read once it is released, and thanks for reading.

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