Lovecraft’s love story with dreams was lifelong. It was such a love that he constructed a whole universe on his "Dreamlands" concept, before he moved on to the better-know pieces of the Cthulhu mythos. At the end of his life, Lovecraft apparently abandoned the mysterious, marvelous, and occasionally frightening country of dreams in order to depict a world invaded by terrifying aliens, for whom mankind is nothing. Does that mean that he turned away from the world of dreams for good? There are numerous elements in the Cthulhu stories that come straight from the Dreamlands stories to dispute this notion, including the divine fortress of Kadath, the evil plateau of Leng, and the prophecies of the Arab occultist Al-Hazred. There is one major difference: instead of being situated in a parallel world, these enigmatic locales are found in Antarctica at the dawn of time.
S. T. Joshi, who edited the definitive editions of Lovecraft's works, points out inconsistencies in how Lovecraft uses these settings. Joshi suggests that in the later tales Lovecraft "reworks (usually to much better advantage) themes and conceptions used in earlier stories" (The Call of Cthulhu, 393). The later renditions appear to supercede the earlier work. But based on a reading of two of Lovecraft’s stories, "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," the longest and arguably the best of the Dreamlands stories, and "At the Mountains of Madness," written four years later, where a team of scientists travel in Antarctica and discover the remains of the forgotten city of the Great Old Ones, I disagree. These stories, it is true, have a radically different themes and atmospheres. Nevertheless, the Dreamlands and the grim world of the Cthulhu mythos are in fact one and the same universe, which I will demonstrate through a comparison with the unique belief structures of the Australian Aborigines.
Dreams, for the Australian Aborigines, are extremely important. According to their beliefs, the world was created during Dreamtime, a mythical era that some clans actually understand to be the dream of their own mythical ancestors (Eliade 1972, 79). This era marks the creation of the physical land, all living beings, and the rules of society that govern them (Glowczewski 33). Because of this connection to the past, one can see traces of Dreamtime in the present. But most relevant to our argument is the conception of time found in the Aboriginal myths. Dreamtime is not actually the past. It is akin to the past insofar as it is the origin of the present (Eliade 1972, 56); nonetheless, it is accessible through rituals, and some Aboriginal people are said to be able to travel to the Dreamtime at will (Glowczewski 33). Besides, history as such does not exist in the traditional Aboriginal worldview. Any important event of the past is said to have taken place in the Dreamtime, and thus escapes history. This is how otherwise historical characters like James Cook or John Wayne (Glowczewski 301) have been included in the myths of the Dreamtime, the former as archetypal European enemy, the latter as defender of all indigenous people. The Dreamtime is a parallel timeline, where everything already exists as potential (Glowczewski 301), of which the events of the physical world are only a manifestation. It still has the power to evolve, and individual shamans can change it and even bring back new visions from their travels, using these visions to create new rituals; it is nevertheless believed that these shamans do not invent anything themselves, but merely bring back something that existed in Dreamtime and had been forgotten by mankind (Glowczewski 34).
Lovecraft’s universe has a lot in common with those myths. His Dreamworld is built one story after the other (in "Celephais," "The Other Gods," "The Cats of Ulthar," et al.) and culminates in "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," where a traveller, Randolph Carter, visits various places that only briefly appeared in the previous stories, giving the reader an occasion to get more than a glimpse of this fleeting world. The Dreamworld harbours not only a few legendary places, it also includes a hell (the Underworld of ghouls, ghasts, and gugs), a divine fortress (Kadath), a land that is held in mystical terror by the inhabitants of the Dreamlands (the plateau of Leng), and the gods themselves—most of them relatively unimpressive except for the mysterious Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos and messenger of the Other Gods (the terribly powerful ones that dwell outside the Earth). Everything in the Dreamlands is to some degree legendary or holy. Places of legend, mystical deserts, and the home of the gods all lie along a mystical path which only the most experienced dreamers may tread with care, as do the Australian shamans in their dreams.
This holy land is home to various kinds of creatures. The ordinary humans come first, in such tales as "The Quest of Iranon" and "The Other Gods." Then there are magical creatures like ghouls. The most memorable are the heroes that came from the physical world to explore the Dreamworld and sometimes settle there, like Kuranes, the Englishman who became king of Celephais, or Pickman, turned into a ghoul after having befriended them, and, of course, Randolph Carter. The story of those heroes is quite different from that of the scientists in "At the Mountains of Madness," who end up as terrified witnesses of the vanished civilisation of the Great Old Ones: for starters, they manage to fit in with the world they explore.
Yet in the Cthulhu stories, the Dreamlands are only present as a remote legend. Those mythical places, especially Kadath and Leng, are still there, but their mystery is never resolved. The references to the Dreamlands get cryptic in places (for example, the "Dunsanian cities" mentioned in "At the Mountains of Madness," 253). The reader discovers that Kadath and Leng are part of the physical world, in which they appeared long before mankind. Leng, however, has ceased to be the dark, evil plateau that Randolph Carter crosses with the help of Pickman. It is now a vast icy desert, and in its centre lies the city of the Great Old Ones, in which the scientists learn about the monstrous past of the Earth. Yet the plateau of Leng is not as dead as it might seem. The shoggoths, the ancients slaves of the Great Old Ones, that turned against their masters and ruined their civilisation, still live there. As for Kadath, little is revealed about it, but it is enough to guess that its powers are at best dormant. The greatness of Leng and Kadath survived as deserted ruins, another part of the past, just like Cthulhu who waits at the bottom of the ocean for the moment to wake up and conquer the Earth again. Moreover, the scientists soon realise to which incredible extent their own world still bears the marks of the Great Old Ones, since it is they who fashioned life on Earth (302). And as the Great Old Ones are found hibernating under the Antarctic ice or as "in his house in R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming" ("The Call of Cthulhu," 150), the creative ancestors of the Aborigines went to sleep beneath the crust after they created the Earth (Eliade 1972, 58).
Kadath and Leng are then remnants of the remote past of the Earth and are yet still accessible to modern-day dreamers, as if existing in a parallel timeline. The similarity to Australian mythology is striking. The world according to Lovecraft was fashioned eons ago by creatures so superior to humans that they appear as gods (even though we know, ultimately, that most of them were just powerful aliens), and that these gods went to sleep for millions of years, exactly like the mythical ancestors of the Aborigines. And just as the Aborigines believe that you can still see the traces of the ancestors’ activity in the various landscape formations (a valley being the place where an ancestor lay down to rest or a river being born of another’s footsteps) (Gowczewski 294, Mountford 33), all life on Earth, as Lovecraft’s heroes come to realize, bears the mark of the Great Old Ones that created it. Additionally, in the Dreamlands stories, it also appears that there is still access to those mythical times, since some heroes can reach the holy places in their dreams, taking far fewer risks in the process than the scientists who try to reach them by physical means. What they find then is much more than the image of long-gone events: it is a time that is guarded by living gods, and that may be transformed by the actions of potent enough dreamers, who could be compared to the shamans of Australian religions.
Only a few people can travel in the Aboriginal Dreamtime and only after a comprehensive initiation process. In Australian religions as in many religions of the world, the idea of initiation is of paramount importance. The initiates have a privileged contact with the Dreamtime, they can interpret its mysteries and help the community decipher its signs for guidance. What the initiates learn during that period has much to do with spiritual knowledge, and very little with theory, since pure theoretical knowledge is not enough to grasp the mysteries of dream. However, one must go through various ordeals before becoming acquainted with these mysteries. First there is a period of isolation, then a symbolic death, and finally rebirth as an initiate. The initiation truly ends after a symbolic trip to the Dreamtime (Mountford 44, Glowczewski 271).
Lovecraft’s heroes must go through a similar process before they can travel freely in the Dreamlands, and these dreamwalkers are even rarer than Aboriginal shamans. The main dreamers have all done a few preliminary trips, and one of them, Pickman, has even undergone a physical transformation—metamorphosis being in many cultures an aspect of the myths of initiation (Eliade 1959, 184). Another, Kuranes, dies (not just symbolically) before being reborn as a king of the dream city Celephais. As for Carter, even though we learn almost nothing about his previous trips, we understand that there were many, and that they were rather profitable. On his first day in the Dreamlands, he is able to understand the tongue of magical (and dangerous) creatures that live there (157). This happens several time in the story, when the reader is told of "zoogs" (157), "magah birds" (171), "vooniths" (184), and even ghouls like his friend Pickman. We are also repeatedly told how Carter can speak the languages and literally translate the signs of the Dreamlands. He is of course aware of it, as he calls himself "a master among dreamers," worthy of meeting the gods with great dignity as one acquainted with the deepest mysteries of dreams (241). Finally, he is not only able to travel in the Dreamlands, he also manages to create new elements there; we learn that the fabulous city that spurs his quest through the Dreamlands is in fact his own dream-creation, fashioned from his childhood memories (245).
The story of the "Dream-Quest" has two distinct parts. In the first part, Carter averts great dangers thanks to his knowledge of the Dreamlands. His linguistic talents save him from the zoogs. Then his friendship with cats allows him to be rescued from the claws of the evil moon-beasts. In the Underworld, he survives thanks to the help of his ghoulish friends. Pickman and Kuranes, who were initiated in the previous stories, initiate Carter in his turn, providing him with help and guidance along the way. Things happen rather differently in the second part. Carter explores a desert, an unknown part of the Dreamlands, where his gift with languages is quite useless, and it is mainly thanks to his mentor Pickman that he finally reaches his goal. "At the Mountains of Madness" parallels the second part. Both stories take place in the plateau of Leng. Even though Carter has not been initiated to Leng’s mysteries, he has at least deciphered a great part of the Dreamlands, whereas the academics of the second story hardly even know it exists. In both stories, the heroes who reach Leng discover murals painted or sculpted eons before, through which they learn about the origins of the place. However, although pictorial works are enough to learn some theoretical data, they fail to deliver the spiritual knowledge that is necessary for initiates. And this failure to be spiritually initiated might account for the ultimate failure of Carter’s quest. While he believes that he can now meet the gods with great poise, Nyarlathotep considers him an insolent human who deserves punishment (241). The heroes of "At the Mountains of Madness" are one step even further from deciphering Leng’s mysteries. Science is of no help to them. The first team that nears the ruined city dies in a tragic misunderstanding after they rudely dissect the hibernating bodies of the Great Old Ones (330). The second team tries to understand the history of the city by studying its bas-reliefs, and does manage to grasp the main timeline. But their most reliable conclusion is that the Great Old Ones were so superior to mankind in intellect that it is useless to try to understand them. Only the briefest moment of epiphany before the bodies of the Great Old Ones, freshly mutilated by a surviving shoggoth, helps them realize that they were not so different after all: "Poor devils! [. . .] Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn. . . Whatever they had been, they were men!" (330). And this is the ultimate lesson. Science is insufficient to rid oneself of the mystical terror and inability to understand that initiates must learn to suppress; a spiritual insight is required (Mountford 44). They finally manage a very narrow escape, after which several members of the team succumb to madness. It is not necessarily true that the contact with alien powers always brings madness. It is more accurate to say that the scientists and academics are misguided to rely only on science, that it does not bring the spiritual knowledge needed to stave off the mystical horror. They never suspect that there might be a way to be initiated to the mysteries of that strange world. The only reference to dreams in the stories is the quotation from the Necronomicon that mentions the dreams of drug-users—hardly a reliable lead, in the minds of the scientists (300).
"At the Mountains of Madness" is situated in the same world as "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," with the exact same geography—Leng at the confines of the world and Kadath after that (337). What changes from one story to the other is the means of access, and the level of initiation. The protagonists of the historically situated stories are not properly initiated and therefore cannot fully access the mythic realms. Those protagonists who venture to the Dreamlands, however, have gained this spiritual initiation and so can journey to these places. What distinguishes the form of initiation found in Lovecraft from traditional Aboriginal religions, is that for Lovecraft’s heroes, initiation is not simply a new birth. It is a point of no return.
To recap our understanding of initiation: the initiate has contact with supernatural powers that teach him spiritual mysteries. He is cut from his family until he dies symbolically, sometimes with a process of "dismemberment" and "pulling the body back together" by supernatural beings. Then he is born again, according to the level of initiation he experienced, as an adult, a warrior, or at the highest degree, a shaman. Shamans are those who have the closest ties with the Dreamtime, to the point that they were sometimes thought to be psychopaths: they are often chosen for their strange behaviour, that is supposed to indicate a proximity to the supernatural (Eliade 1959, 198). Once their initiation is completed, shamans can act as a bridge between the Dreamtime and society. Their tasks are, among others, to help other members of the clan deciphering their dreams, and to travel in the Dreamtime for visions and signs.
As we saw, the parallel with Lovecraft’s heroes works remarkably well—up to a certain point. Kuranes, Pickman, and Carter are exceptional people indeed, who barely fit in their own society, but have spontaneous ties with the Dreamlands. Their contacts start with unusual dreams that quickly become actual trips where their spirit (and Pickman’s body) are transported into the Dreamlands. Nonetheless, the stage of symbolic death and rebirth is for them a point of no return. No initiate has ever come back, in Lovecraft’s stories, to act as a link between society and the Dreamlands, except perhaps the occultist Al-Hazred; yet Al-Hazred is mad, and his Necronomicon is not always exact (it denies the existence of the very real shoggoths, for instance) (300). Furthermore, his position as an intermediary is far from perfect, since he provides very little in the way of guidance, and much more often leads his readers to madness. The situation of the other characters is even clearer. Kuranes is so absorbed by the Dreamlands that he dies in the physical world (Celephais 30). Pickman is turned into a ghoul, and has lost all but his last remnants of humanity when Carter meets him (186). Furthermore, even in the Dreamlands stories, madness is never far, and awaits those who wander past the boundaries of the terrestrial dream (156), into the other universe from which one can suppose the Great Old Ones and the Cthulhu spawn came from. Finally, Carter himself comes very close to never seeing his home world again. As he escapes Nyarlathotep, he has to cut his ties to the Dreamlands by waking, therefore losing his marvellous city forever. There is no possible compromise: characters have to choose between one world and the other. In Carter’s following adventures ("Through the Gates of the Silver Key"), the reader even supposes that those who have set foot in the Dreamlands are bound to come back to it sooner or later. "Through the Gates of the Silver Key" has a far less optimistic ending than Carter’s previous quest, as Carter comes back from the Dreamlands turned into a monstrous alien, unable to assume his original shape. Ultimately, Carter does not have the privilege of being the first dreamer to come back alive and sane. The Dreamlands claim him at last.
Thus, initiation in Lovecraft’s stories amounts to a one-way trip from one world to the other. Now this brings us to the following problem: we use the word "mythos," and indeed I have been comparing Lovecraft’s world to the Aboriginal myths, but one important characteristic of myths is the fact that they are strongly linked to the physical world. The world as we know it exists as a consequence of what happened in myths; myths explain the world, and reciprocally, every myth is there for a reason, i.e. it explains something about the current world. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, on the contrary, have an absolutely autonomous existence. The Great Old Ones created life on Earth with a selfish goal, whereas the Australian mythical beings deliberately subsided to leave the world to mankind. If the Dreamlands are a mythical world, then is must be because of the structure of its time and space, rather than because it justifies anything.
There are in fact two main ways to understand time. In the modern Western world, we are used to thinking of time as history. According to Michel de Certeau, history has two main characteristics: chronology, and the fact that it defines the past as different from the present, or, to use his own phrasing, "chronology is composed of eras […] between which one can find the decision to be something else or to stop being what was until then" (Certeau 16). Myth, on the contrary, has no chronology, to the point that some people have said that it emphasised space rather than time (Certeau 245), which might well be true about the Aboriginal myths, which almost always tell about the ancestors’ travels (Glowczewski 293). Moreover, even if the time of myths and the present times are distinctly separated, they are closely linked, as all myth is there to justify and explain the present. Except for the ideological value, it is the way time is staged that differentiates myths and history.
The Aborigines see all past as myth. This does not appear to be the case in Lovecraft’s stories, at first. The bas-reliefs the heroes discover in "At the Mountains of Madness" do represent a chronology. However, this chronology is so old that its beginning gets lots in eons. The Great Old Ones arrived on Earth at a time where there was no life there yet, before any reasonable attempt to establish a chronology was even possible. Even if it was possible to put precise dates on their history, those dates would be meaningless to humans, accustomed to thinking of history as mere millennia. Millions of years blur together in human understanding of time. Lastly, the scientists follow the history of the Great Old Ones using gigantic bas-reliefs, walking along them in the labyrinthine city. Chronology turns into a field trip through the historical city of the Great Old Ones. Legendary places (Leng and its bas-reliefs) are where the mythical times become real, in the same way as the Aborigines see the past action of the ancestors in the various elements of the landscape; and it is physical travel that enables the heroes to come close to the holiness of the myths. The characters of "At the Mountains of Madness" come step by step to the ruined city: first, mountains higher than the Himalayas, then the bodies of the Great Old Ones, like Carter who travels from the more familiar to the least known places. It is space, more than time, that matters in Lovecraft’s mythos. It is not even possible to date the end of the mythical times: Kadath, the city and its shoggoths and Cthulhu are still there, and there is very little humans can do to affect them. If we are to judge by the way Lovecraft’s stories stage the timeline, making it alien to human conceptions of history, then we can probably say that they are dealing with myth.
Geography is another important point. Myths have no more maps than chronology, yet they have a very obvious link to places. We saw it in the Australian myths, but we could also mention Homer's Odyssey, which according to some is a fictionalised geography of the Mediterranean. Why no maps, then? This has to do with the fact that myths depict the origins: how can you draw the map of a space that is being created? If Ulysses was the first traveller to sail around the Mediterranean, then the story of his adventures cannot be geographically precise: the places appear there for the first time. Likewise, Carter’s travels might be an Odyssey of sorts, as he travels across a great part of the Dreamlands when his predecessors only visited small parts of it ("Celephais," "Pickman’s Model"), and even changes its geography, by adding his own dream city.
But the link between myths and places is even more obvious in "At the Mountains of Madness." The heroes visit an entirely uncharted territory, and their project is to establish the first maps of that region—a project that will never be accomplished, due to their hurried departure. Mythical places matter more than their precise location, just like mythical events matter more than chronology. The failed initiation of the heroes allows them at least to understand how deeply their own world is marked by the sacred places of a bygone time, and their discovery reinforces the holiness of Leng and Kadath, instead of rationalising it. The terror they feel then is of mystical, not of rational nature.
We have to mention one more characteristic of myths: their protagonists are archetypes, not individuals as modern fiction usually has it. Now, any discerning reader of Lovecraft likely noticed how uncharacteristic his heroes were. They hardly ever have a past, a family life, or even a distinctive personality or appearance. In the Cthulhu stories, they are not even really actors: they are witnesses to what happens, but have no real power over the course of events. As for Randolph Carter, his only identifying feature is his name. Is that enough to say that all of Lovecraft’s characters are archetypes? What is certain is that it is not their individuality that counts, but what the reader learns through them. And in the Dreamlands, the heroes do become archetypes even if they don’t necessarily start out as such: Kuranes becomes an archetypal king (indeed, we don’t even learn his waking name, only his dream name Kuranes), Pickman becomes almost indistinguishable from the next ghoul, and is said to have acquired "a certain standing" (185), which is interesting, given that archetypes are supposed to be perfect, or superior, specimens. Both become landmarks of the Dreamlands for Carter to visit. Even Carter himself could be see as the archetypal traveller, as wise and resourceful as cunning Ulysses.
We now have quite a few arguments to state that Lovecraft’s Dreamlands is indeed a mythical universe: it follows its own rules for time and space as a past which is at the same time a parallel timeline, it can only be safely visited by initiates, and the characters there are more archetypes than individuals. Yet the crucial element is missing: Lovecraft’s myths explain nothing, except that mankind is profoundly insignificant. Laymen cannot use these myths to justify why their world is as it is, they can only use them to understand that man is a mere bug compared to the infinitely more powerful and intelligent aliens that came before him, and that man is certainly not the ultimate goal of the creation of the world, unlike what traditional myths tend to imply. Even initiates cannot use their knowledge of the mythical world to provide guidance for the rest of mankind. When they manage to enter the Dreamlands, it is a one-way trip. Dreams are in no way benevolent or well-disposed towards mankind. Their gods might even be hostile, as Carter’s unfortunate experience shows. Initiation is a contest of moral strength, and the only ones who succeed are those clever or willful enough to avoid the traps of a world that is hardly inclined to welcome them. And in that case, they cannot come back: the Dreamlands are so superior to the physical world that it would not be acceptable to defile it by incessant comings and goings. It is a myth indeed, but an inaccessible one, more likely to thwart mankind than to exalt it.
Lovecraft’s Dreamlands are a mythical time that did not found anything—hence my using the phrase "mythical time" rather than "myth." Although the images and archetypes suggest that Dreamlands could have been a mythology, it evolves as a detached world. It is not necessarily a place of evil (even though the Great Old Ones look like alien monsters, they are ultimately no less human than humans), but it will certainly seem evil to humans who cannot understand it. All in all, Lovecraft used his Dreamlands to express what may have been for him the ultimate meaning of the world, a very pessimistic view, in which man is an unimportant link on the cosmic evolutionary chain. Unlike other authors of the budding speculative fiction of the time, Lovecraft did not picture that mankind would be victorious over vicious bug-like aliens. If man is only a species among others, it cannot be the most evolved one, nor can it be the centre of the attention of the primordial forces of the universe. The Dreamlands thus turns away from mythology, to become a primal world, indifferent to mankind.
It is probably no coincidence that Lovecraft's first stories contained characters who could escape into a world that was more aesthetic than terrifying, and that later stories looked at the darker side of speculative fiction, where men have no way of escaping the cosmic powers. Halfway through his production, myths cease to be a means of solace, even an imperfect and dangerous one. Another side of the mythical time is revealed: the reader discovers that this world is as terrible as it is remote, and that a supernatural reality has no reason to be favourable to man, even less to comfort him. An illusion vanishes, but what is revealed is not simply that what seemed to be magic and gods is actually super-evolved aliens; magic or superior science might well be one and the same thing. The Cthulhu stories shatter the reader’s illusions by showing that if there is a mythical time, it is not a time to which humankind can be reconciled. Myths and magic exist, but they crush humans instead of welcoming them. The dreamers have all vanished into the world of their desires. The scientists that remain here are incapable of finding the spiritual knowledge they need to see the myths and escape with their sanity.
Lovecraft, Howard Philip, "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," 1927, The Dreams in the Witch House, ed. S. T. Joshi, London: Penguin Books, 2005, 155-251.
—, "At the Mountains of Madness," 1931, The Thing on the Doorstep, ed. S. T. Joshi, London : Penguin Books, 2001, 246-340.
—, "The Call of Cthulhu," 1926, The Call of Cthulhu, ed. S. T. Joshi, London: Penguin Books, 1999, 139-170.
—, "Celephais," 1920, The Call of Cthulhu, ed. S. T. Joshi, London: Penguin Books, 1999, 24-30.
—, "Pickman’s Model," 1927, The Thing on the Doorstep, ed. S. T. Joshi, London: Penguin Books, 2001, 78-89.
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