This is the the twenty-sixth entry in my read-through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.
Image by pavelrybin and used under the terms of the creative commons license.
Well, I haven't had much luck with these Dunsanian tales so far, but this one really takes the cake. This story completely abandons narrative tension in favour of a series more-or-less unconnected encounters with distinguished metaphysical entities, crowned with a feeble “shock” ending.
HPL is not entirely to blame here, as this is a collaboration with his friend, E Hoffman Price. In A Life, Joshi states that HPL became “unwillingly involved” in the project, when staying with Price who, on his own initiative, undertook the task of writing a sequel to “The Silver Key”. HPL completely re-wrote it, but it was beyond his own unreliable skills at plotting to bring Price's ideas to life. HPL does lend the story the products of his greatest gift – a fabulous imagination for queer and grotesque aliens and creatures – which provides the only meagre pleasures this story presents.
Aside from these momentary flashes of interest, it's just page after page of droning rhetorical flatulence:
Randolph Carter my manifestations on your planet extension, The Ancient Ones, have sent you as one who would lately have returned to small lands of dream which he had lost, yet who with greater freedom has risen to greater and nobler desirer and curiosities. … What you wish, I have found good; and I am ready to grant that which I have granted eleven times only to beings of your planet―five times only to those you call men, or those resembling them. I am ready to shew you the Ultimate Mystery, to look on which is to blast a feeble spirit. Yet before you gaze full at that last and first of secrets you may still wield a free choice, and return if you will through the two Gates with the Veil still unrent before your eyes
The mix of self important appeals to dubious honorifics, sci fi psychedelia and opaque wisdom sounds a lot like the channelled wisdom of the Ancient Masters one sometimes reads in New Age and Theosophical magazines. Maybe it has its genesis in the rambling of Edgar Cayce and Manly P Hall, a mix of pulp era sci fi and transcendental occultism that found find its purest expression in Scientology.
The story is framed around a sequence where Carter's executors gather to divide up his estate in the years following his disappearance (in The Silver Key). It shares that story's snobbery, but while HPL was typically happy to ignore the prosaic types this story presents us with Ernest B Aspinwall, Carter's cousin, by marriage (and therefore “naturally not a Carter”), a broad blustering stereotype of grasping, middle-class mundanity.
Aspinwall's grotesque mendacity is contrasted with the poetic curiosity of Carter's executors, a New Orleans mystic Ettienne-Laurent de Maigny (based on Price) and the elderly New England intellectual Ward Phillps (guess who), and their visitor, Swami Chandrarupta, a mysterious Hindoo (sic!) who relates the events of Carter's journeys beyond the titular egress. When the Chandrarupta reveals Carter's final fate, Aspinwall drops stone dead, his silly, prosaic imagination unable to conceive the soul-destroying secret.
I think there's only one more Dunsanian work to go in this volume, the short novel set in the Dreamlands, “The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath”. I know this one quite well, as it happens, and I'm looking forward for another read. It has its faults, but there are some excellent extended section.
Anyway, we're getting ahead of ourselves. Next up is At the Mountains of Madness, which is quite long, so I may be some time.