Monday, 30 May 2011

The Silver Key

"The Silver Key", first published in Weird Tales, January 1929.

This is the the twentieth entry in my read-through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.

This story sees the return of Randolph Carter, the narrator of The Statement of Randolph Carter (obviously) and The Unnameable. These two earlier stories form incidents in this longer-term narrative which examines the circumstances of Carter's life and describes his efforts to discover a purpose in life after he loses “the key of the gate of dreams” exiling him forever from a nocturnal revelling in Orientalist fantasies.

It's an odd sort of story, a new type for this anthology, although I have a vague recollection from other collections of minor stories of this sort, featuring a lost dreamer seeking a return to oneiric Nirvana. It's a partial return of the Dreamlands style, although this time limiting the fantastical elements mostly off-screen, in favour of recounting Carter's experience's in a world apparently unaware of the value of the marvellous.

One immediately wants to give the story an autobiographical spin. Lovecraft was in his early thirties when he wrote this story, and after his sojourn in New York might have felt – as well as the joy of returning to Providence – the weight of the real world, it's material worries and disappointments, pressing in on him. Could the key of the gate of dreams be a metaphor for some kind of loss that HPL feels, and Carter's eventual fate be something he longed for himself?

An H P Lovecraft Encyclopedia says that “Although Lovecraft clearly identified with Carter on many different levels, Carter is not as autobiographical character as many others in HPL's fiction; he is, instead, a construct representing various of HPL's philosophical and aesthetic views.”

I don't think he represents anything so abstract as that, though. On the contrary there is very little philosophical engagement – Carter's experiments in various lifestyles are given only the most cursory dismissal. We spend more time on Carter's mordant ennui than we do presenting philosophical and aesthetic points of view.

A simpler explanation of Carter is as a type of idealised version of HPL himself – aristocratic, worldly, sensitive, somewhat aloof and sufficiently wealthy to indulge these attributes. This type of character has turned up a few times – most clearly Delapore in The Rats in the Walls, but to a lesser extent the unnamed narrators of stories such as The Shunned House or Pickman's Model. Carter in particular is a man of significant achievements – he's a best selling writer, a distinguished record in the war, dabbles in the worlds bohemia and the occult – which seem to hint at the sort of person HPL wanted to be, and perhaps his fate is the sort of end that HPL himself desired.

It's not the end for RC, because HPL wrote a sequel with his friend E Hoffman Price, Through the Gate of the Silver Key, relating Carter's further adventures beyond the veil!

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