Robert M. Price
When Brian Lumley began his adventures in the Lovecraftian Dream World, down the 700 onyx steps, he faced, as did Randolph Carter before him, determined opposition from bitter foes. No, not from the ghasts. Nor were the ghouls his nemeses, nor the gugs, nor even the terrible bholes. In fact he got along with the leathery night-gaunts pretty well. No, the opponents he faced, neither giving nor asking any quarter, were Lovecraft fans. Not all Lovecraft fans, mind you. After all, the books, The Clock of Dreams, Hero of Dreams, Ship of Dreams, Mad Moon of Dreams, Iced on Aran, and Elysia: The Coming of Cthulhu, attracted a substantial readership. With Lumley's Lovecraftian work, you either love it or hate it. But why would anyone hate it? What would they hate about it?
For some, it is enough that these books were not written by Lovecraft. Others gripe for a similar reason, namely that the books were not written as Lovecraft would have written them had he been inclined to set more adventures in his Dream World. These readers have nothing against the work of Gary Myers or Lin Carter or anyone else who has tried his hand at Dreamworld stories. Why? It is quite simple. These writers emulated Lovecraft by emulating Lord Dunsany. They wrote brief fables and drolleries. Not Lumley. But this doesn't mean he wasn't following Lovecraft.
Don't get me wrong: if Lumley's Dreamworld books are well-written and enjoyable, they need no further defense. It hardly maters if they are like Lovecraft. But in fact they are, though many have not noticed. This is what I want to demonstrate. The key point will be to realize that Lovecraft himself departed from his own Dunsanian canons in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. He used his own previous Dunsanian tales as building blocks, but he was building a very different type of structure with them.
First, some find all the manly action and adventure inappropriate for the tepid and asexual HPL. But here is where Lumley has seen something his critics have not. Lovecraftian "purists," who tend to be more Lovecraftian than Lovecraft, have been slow to recognize the manifest influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs on The Dream Quest. William Fulwiler was the first, to my knowledge, to point out the fact, and I have tried to elaborate on his insight in my essay "Randolph Carter, Warlord of Mars." Other Lovecraftian scholars, one suspects, feel obliged to embrace HPL's later sneering at Burroughsian space opera, rather than being open to the young HPL's enthusiasm for Burroughs. And since the Burroughsian influence was occasioned by HPL's early sympathy for ERB, it seemed to them something to hide, or at least it was not something they were readily inclined to notice. But Lumley did notice. And perhaps he noticed what some readers of Burroughs have not noticed: the Barsoom saga is the dream quest of John Carter. Hiding in a mountain cave from some pursuing Apache warriors, Carter succumbs to some gas in the cave and before he knows it he has been spirited away to the Red Planet, to a city called Helium. His body is supine in the cave, where he eventually awakens again on earth, but when he appears on Mars he is in possession of his physical form. Or so it seems. Carter goes on to meet a compatible species of humanoid redskins, one of whom he marries, Dejah Thoris. It is John Smith and Pocahontas all over again. The Green Tharks, on the other hand, are the nasty Apache. The obvious conclusion is that Carter is dreaming, and that the Martians are the dream transmogrifications of the Indians. The red desert of Mars is the transformation of the Southwestern desert. In precisely the same way, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Miss Gulch becomes the Wicked Witch of the West, Professor Marvel becomes the great and powerful Oz, and Dorothy's three semi-human companions represent her waking world friends, the farm-hands.
It appears that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was itself a source for The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Carter tries to reach his once-glimpsed Sunset City, just as Dorothy tries to reach the Emerald City. Both make the acquaintance of various tribes of wondrous creatures along the way. The zoogs might even be viewed as Lovecraft's Munchkins. And in both cases there is a final scene of revelation in which the protagonist is informed that the ethereal object of his/her quest is in reality just the dream-version of the familiar and beloved homestead back in the waking world, to which the hero/ine at once returns. Glinda or Nyarlathotep, what's the difference?
Lumley has seen this, too. There are various elements of the Lumleyan Dreamworld which seem directly inspired by Oz, such as the Sea of Stickistuff through which we always find ourselves plodding as some nightmare stalks us. The idea of actually coming upon some proverbial abstraction is delightfully Ozian (like the Horse of a Different Color). Another is Lumley's Clockwork Man, the Curator of the museum of Serranian. Even the notion of the sky city being held aloft by machinery is redolent of the Victorian sort of clockwork technology familiar. The Eidolon Lathi and Zura of Zura, queen of the dead, are Ozish denizens, the way Lumley portrays them and their subjects, though of course the names have been borrowed from Lovecraft. In all this, Lumley has ingeniously filled out hints from Lovecraft by going back to Lovecraft's inspirations, those other classic dreamworlds, Barsoom and Oz.
Henri-Laurent de Marigny, one of Lumley's heroes began as a twin of Titus Crow, though Lumley decided he liked Crow better and paired Henri with him as his Dr. Watson. But in both Henri and Titus serve as Randolph Carter analogs, whereas his Hank Silberhutte character (Spawn of the Winds; In the Moons of Borea) is a direct counterpart to John Carter. But what is the origin of the team David Hero and Eldin the Wanderer? These protagonists of Hero of Dreams, Ship of Dreams, Mad Moon of Dreams, and Iced on Aran seem to me to be inspired by Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser, denizens of yet another dreamworld, Fritz Leiber's Newhon. Their sparring banter, Lumley confides, comes from the wise-cracking between Hope and Crosby in their Road to Kadath flicks. (By the way, I inevitably find myself picturing David Hero like Michael Hurst, the guy who plays Kevin Scorbo's sidekick on Hercules, and Eldin as Nicol Williamson playing Little John in the Sean Connery movie Robin and Marian). But I cannot help thinking there is more than a little Fafhrd and the Mouser in the pair as well. And this is not without its own connection to Lovecraft, either, since Fafhrd and the Mouser were originally set in the narrative world of the Mythos, though at Lovecraft's suggestion Leiber eventually removed the Lovecraftian references. They weren't really necessary.
Parenthetically, let me call attention to the title story of the collection Iced on Aran, which seems redolent of both Dunsany and Leiber in its wistful and scary wisdom, while "The Lords of Luz" transcends the heroic fantasy character of the Hero and Eldin tales for a glimpse of real pit-born horror.
So maybe the Dreamworld novels of Brian Lumley aren't so far from Lovecraft after all. In developing Lovecraft's concept further, he has returned to Lovecraft's sources, making new but authentic uses of them. In fact, ironically, it is just where his critics accuse him of being heretical vis a vis Lovecraft that he is sometimes the most Lovecraftian! For instance, when Lumley makes Azathoth into nuclear energy in general, must we not think of Lovecraft's own demythologization of the being he had first conceived as an anthropomorphic "daemon sultan," later making him a more abstract "nuclear chaos." And remember the scene in The Transition of Titus Crow when Titus tells us Lovecraft's narrator Francis Wayland Thurston was wrong: it wasn't Great Cthulhu himself who pursued poor Johansen, but rather one of the Cthulhu spawn (as the Old Ones of R'lyeh are dubbed in At the Mountains of Madness). Blasphemy! Or is it? Lumley, who is accused of anthropomorphizing the Great Old Ones (and sometimes he does), has here safeguarded the transcendence of Great Cthulhu against the embarrassing depredations of Lovecraft who had deigned to depicting Cthulhu like Caltiki the Immortal Monster! Lumley figured, "Naw, it couldn't be Cthulhu -- chasing a ship? Getting rammed by a ship?" (Note that Cthulhu himself does appear on stage in Lumley's "The House of Cthulhu.")
The grand conclusion of Lumley's dream epic, Elysia: the Coming of Cthulhu, weaves together threads from just about all of Lumley's series before Psychomech and Necroscope. In it, we witness the final assault of the Great Old Ones on the citadel of the Elder Gods, that great Armageddon predicted by the Necronomicon. And yet, when it actually occurs, we discover that it is one with the primordial rebellion of the Old Ones against the Elder Gods. History is cyclical. It ends as it began, which means it never ends at all. And though Lumley did not have it in mind (I asked him), one cannot help speculating on the basis of the text itself, which has its own tale to tell, that Kthanid, king of the Elder Gods and a cosmic Octopus of the same species as Cthulhu, his evil opposite number, might be none other than Cthulhu at a different point in the time cycle. He is not present on Elysia when Cthulhu leads the charge, nor do we see him afterward when Titus Crow is giving the post-game explanations. Can it be that Cthulhu's dormancy, his aeon-long slumber, is his abeyance as the Hyde-side of Kthanid, bursting forth from his Jeckyll prison?
I wonder if I am alone in spotting some Lumley influence on Babylon 5, whose creator and head writer John Straczynski, is a known Lovecraft fan. In the Shadow War sequence we meet a group of ancient godlike entities called the First Ones, just as we did in Hero of Dreams. And in the sequence in which Commander Sinclair's fate is decided, the sequence about the disappearance of the earlier Babylon 4 station, the whole thing resolves into a cyclical time paradox, just like in Elysia. (Note, too, the Lovecraftian device in that episode of Sinclair beholding an ancient note in his own handwriting, derived from another tale of time-paradox, "The Shadow out of Time.")
Created: December 2, 1997; Updated: August 9, 2004