The Lovecraft Reread

Frail Nerves Indeed: “The Statement of Randolph Carter”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories.

Today we’re looking at “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” written in December 1919 and first published in the May 1920 issue of The Vagrant. You can read the story here. Spoilers ahead.

“Over the valley’s rim a wan, waning crescent moon peered through the noisome vapours that seemed to emanate from unheard-of catacombs, and by its feeble, wavering beams I could distinguish a repellent array of antique slabs, urns, cenotaphs, and mausolean facades; all crumbling, moss-grown, and moisture-stained, and partly concealed by the gross luxuriance of the unhealthy vegetation.”

Summary: Randolph Carter is giving a formal statement about the disappearance of his friend Harley Warren. He has told law enforcement officials everything he can remember about the night Warren went missing—in fact, he’s told them everything several times. They can imprison or even execute him if they think that will serve “justice,” but he can do no more than repeat himself and hope that Warren has found “peaceful oblivion,” if there is such a thing.

Warren was a student of the weird, with a vast collection of rare books on forbidden subjects, many in Arabic. Carter took a subordinate’s part in Warren’s studies, the exact nature of which he’s now mercifully forgotten. They were terrible, though, and Warren sometimes scared Carter, most recently on the night before his disappearance, when he went on and on about his theory of why “certain corpses never decay, but rest firm and fat in their tombs for a thousand years.”

A witness has testified to seeing Warren and Carter on the Gainesville Pike, headed for Big Cypress Swamp. Carter doesn’t quite recall this, but doesn’t deny it. He can second the witness about what they were carrying: spades, electric lanterns, and a portable telephonic apparatus. Warren also carried a book he’d received from India a month before, one in a script Carter doesn’t recognize. Just saying. Oh, and another thing Carter’s sure about is their final destination that fatal night: an ancient cemetery in a deep, damp, overgrown hollow. This terrible necropolis is setting to the one scene he can’t forget.

Warren finds a half-obliterated sepulchre, which he and Carter clear of drifted earth and invasive vegetation. They uncover three flat slabs, one of which they pry up. Miasmal gases drive them back. When these clear, they see stone steps leading down into the earth.

Warren will descend alone, for he says that with Carter’s frail nerves, he couldn’t survive what must be seen and done below. Really, Carter couldn’t even imagine what the “thing” is like! However, Warren has made sure the wire connecting their telephone receivers is long enough to reach the center of the earth, and so they can stay in touch during his solo adventure.

Down Warren goes, while Carter gets to fidget alone on the surface, imagining processions of amorphous shadows not cast by the waning crescent moon and such like. A quarter hour later, Carter’s phone clicks, and Warren speaks in quivering accents quite unlike himself. What he’s found is unbelievably monstrous, but he can’t tell the frantic Carter any more than that, for no man could know it and live!

Unfortunately, that seems to include Warren. He begins to exhort Carter to put back the slab and run—“beat it” being the boyish slang to which he’s driven in his extremity. Carter shouts back that he won’t desert Warren, that he’s coming down after him. Warren continues to beg him to flee, voice growing fainter, then rising to a last shriek of “Curse these hellish things—legions—My God! Beat it! Beat it! Beat it!”

Silence follows. Carter does not go down the steps. Instead he sits variously muttering, shouting and screaming into his receiver: Is Warren there?

Eventually he hears the thing that drives him mindless to the edge of the swamp, where he’s found the next morning. It is a voice, hollow, remote, gelatinous, inhuman, perhaps even disembodied. It isn’t Warren’s voice, in other words, but one that intones:

“YOU FOOL, WARREN IS DEAD.”

 

What’s Cyclopean: Sometimes the only way to describe the indescribable is with a lot of adjectives, and “deep; hollow; gelatinous; remote; unearthly; inhuman; disembodied” is quite the list. We also get the delightfully precise “necrophagic shadows.”

The Degenerate Dutch: Pretty limited degeneracy here. There’s the continued suggestion that a large proportion of nasty occult books are written in Arabic—but then, a lot of classic texts on everything are written in Arabic (and we get a lot of Latin too, though not here). Then there’s the suggestion that a book in an unknown alphabet is probably particularly suspicious. While that’s clearly the case here—dude, there are a lot of alphabets, and it isn’t weird that you don’t recognize them all.

Mythos Making: Randolph Carter is a major recurring character in Mythos and Dreamlands stories. Although we don’t see him at his best here, he’s a Miskatonic alumnus and will eventually quest in unknown Kadath.

Libronomicon: The fateful mission is precipitated by a book that Harley Warren has taken to carrying around in his pocket. Kind of like those little bibles with the green covers, but different.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Warren assures Carter that he’s too frail to sanely face the “fiendish work” that will be necessary beneath the earth. Seems a bit rude, frankly. And then, of course, he turns out to be a bit frail himself.

 

Anne’s Commentary

For the third time in four weeks of blog posts, one of Lovecraft’s friends gets fictionally messed up—Harley Warren’s counterpart in the dream that inspired “Statement” was Samuel Loveman. Lovecraft seems to have dreamt about Loveman a lot, because he also played a prominent part in the dream that led to “Nyarlathotep.”

Right up front let me say that I find more strikes in “Statement” than hits. Framing the story as a legal statement negates what could have been another successful retelling or recasting of dream (as “Nyarlathotep” is and “The Outsider” seems to be.) A statement must lay out the facts, no prose-poetics welcome. Here too many facts remain vague, unremembered, while others firmly stated seem incredible.

The setting is apparently Florida’s Big Cypress Swamp, now a national preserve. Located just north of the Everglades, it’s nowhere near Gainesville, don’t know about a Gainesville “pike.” When the officials tell Carter that nothing like the graveyard he describes exists in or near the Swamp, believe them. This “necropolis” sounds too old and too European in its accouterments. What’s more, the water table in Florida (especially in a swamp) is way too close to the surface to allow for those steps leading down and down and down, dampish but not submerged. Plus where are the gators? Got to have gators in South Florida, come on!

To be fair, Lovecraft knows his graveyard is not really part of any Florida swamp-scape. It’s in some kind of parallel Florida? In part of the Dreamlands impinging on Florida? The latter conceit would be more effective in a story that isn’t masquerading as a legal statement, hence prejudicing our expectations toward the factual.

The list of Lovecraft narrators rendered unreliable by possible madness or actual memory loss is a long one. Here the narrator is just too unreliable. Yeah, maybe his statement is based on hallucination or nightmare. For sure, his memory is riddled with odd holes and implausible blank stretches—odd and implausible because when he does remember something (the graveyard episode), he remembers it down to the dialogue, with all the words and all tonal nuances intact. Kind of the way Wilmarth remembers Akeley’s lost letters? But I’m calling Lovecraft on this story, and I’m saying that Carter’s memory is entirely in the service of his creator’s decision to keep the central horror a mystery, as it doubtless was in the inciting dream. Our one clue to what’s under the slab is Warren’s theory about corpses that rest firm and fat in their tombs. This reminds me of “The Festival.” I’ll bet that among Warren’s rare Arabic books is the Necronomicon, and that he’s familiar with Alhazred’s contention that the bodies of sorcerers instruct the very worms that gnaw, causing them to “wax crafty to vex [the earth] and swell monstrous to plague it.” So, is it some of these wizards-turned-grubs (or grubs-turned-wizards) that Warren’s looking for—legions of them, all walking when they should crawl? That could account for the gelatinous nature of the voice that speaks to Carter!

That’s all speculation, though, and the reader would have to know “The Festival” in order for this maybe-connection to make “Statement’s” monsters more particular. Besides which, “The Festival” comes four years after this story, and Alhazred is two years away (first appearing in “The Nameless City”), and the Necronomicon itself is three years off (first appearing in “The Hound.”) Not that Lovecraft couldn’t have known about the vexy worms and mad Arab and dark tome in 1919. Known and mercifully kept them to himself, until driven by the terrible weight of his knowledge to speak.

What about Carter himself? This is his first appearance and not a super-auspicious debut, given his funky memory, and frail nerves, and fear-frozen immobility at the climax. Carter in “The Unnamable” is still fairly useless in an emergency, but his nerves are up to investigating haunted attics and toting around monstrous bones. And the Carter of the Dreamlands is positively bold—rash, even, though his knowledge of the mystic realms and his alliances with its inhabitants preserve him through his trials. The development of the character often considered Lovecraft’s alter-ego makes an interesting study, one to look forward to in our readings of Dream-Quest and the Silver Key stories.

Pluses: The whole phone conversation thing, which must have seemed tech-to-the-minute in 1919, and it is shivery-cool to think of something besides Warren finally figuring out how to pick up the fallen receiver and tell Carter to shut the hell up already. And a waning crescent moon instead of a gibbous one! And this lovely bit about the graveyard’s smell: “….a vague stench which my idle fancy associated absurdly with rotting stone.” Rotting stone! Love it.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

The guy who tells you how much sturdier and stronger and saner he is than you? The guy who drags you out in the middle of the night and then tells you that you can’t handle anything beyond watching him be brave? That’s the guy who needs someone to look down on in order to feel good about himself. It takes a certain sort of guy to pick a guy like Carter as his closest friend, and drag him around searching for nameless horrors. And Carter, of course, thinks the world of him, and moons about his mellow tenor.

So my first thought is that it wouldn’t actually be a terrible thing to drop a slab over him and head back into town, giving the police a song and dance about inexplicable voices. Probably not the interpretation Lovecraft had in mind, though.

But this set-up actually gets more interesting when you look at Carter’s whole timeline. One of Lovecraft’s major recurring characters, he goes from being deeply ineffective here—failing utterly to undertake a daring rescue—to the seasoned adventurer of “Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.” And here, at the start of his appearances, he’s already in his 40s. In fact, according to his full timeline he’s a World War I veteran who was part of the French Foreign Legion. So his “nerves” are probably PTSD (which makes Warren even more of an asshole).

On this reading, the rest of Carter’s stories follow him as he recovers his pre-war courage and ability to take action. (One wonders what friends lost in foxholes were going through his mind during the events of “Statement.”) Perhaps the seemingly very different Carter in “Unnamable” is deliberately playing with his own fears, and starting to come to terms with them. One notes that there, he’s the dominant partner in a slightly more equal friendship—the one dragging someone else, with a degree of guilty pleasure, into the world of indescribable horrors. Only this time they’re survivable. Later, in “Dream-Quest,” he’s become a full-blown adventurer, well-versed in the lore needed for survival—though his quests will eventually lead him through many strange transformations.

Moving away from Carter himself, in “Statement” we also get Lovecraft’s repeated motif of weirdly telescoping time. The cemetery makes Carter tremble with “manifold signs of immemorial years.” (Reminder: Carter’s memory is faulty, so lots of things might be immemorial.) The wait for Warren’s non-existent response takes “aeons.”

I have a love-hate relationship with this trope. When it works, we get the intimations of deep time and genuinely vast cosmic gulfs that (almost) eclipse horror with wonder. When it fails, we get the horrifying ancient oldness of houses built a couple of hundred years ago. The former marks some of my favorite passages in Lovecraft—which makes the latter all the more frustrating. If you can make me feel the rise and fall of civilizations over billions of years, the awe-inspiring abundance and terrifying loss implied by the succession of solar races, then why would you try and get me to flip out over a colonial-era cemetery?

But at the same time, things really do feel like they take longer when you’re terrified. Maybe that’s the key with the cemeteries and houses—or at least a way to read them that’s more effective than exasperating—not that their age is inherently ancient and immemorial, but that the stress of the situation makes them feel that way.

Finally, I’m deeply intrigued by the owner of that voice. Because that is a cosmic horror that 1) speaks English, 2) finds it worthwhile to razz Carter but not to attack him, and 3) is kind of snide. Is it Warren’s shade? Is it whatever killed him? Is it something else entirely? Inquiring minds want to know, even though finding out is probably a really bad idea.

 

Next week, we return to the Dreamlands for a couple of brief journeys with “The Cats of Ulthar” and “The Other Gods.”


Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She lives in a large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection.The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.

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