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 Silver Key,” written in 1926, and first published in the January 1929 issue of Weird Tales. You can read it here.
“When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt these liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon.”
Summary: An unnamed fellow dreamer describes Randolph Carter’s years-long midlife crisis. At thirty, Carter loses the key to the gate of dreams and can no longer travel along the river Oukranos, visit gold-spired Thran, or explore the perfumed jungles of Kled. He has immersed himself too deeply in mundane reality. Modern philosophy has rendered him analytical and destroyed his sense of wonder; he has forgotten that both reality and dream are merely “a set of pictures in the brain,” the one no more valuable than the other in a blind cosmos that grinds through being and nothingness, never heeding the flicker of our brief minds and wills.
Carter looks for fulfillment in science, in religion, in atheism, in irony, but each fails him. The “modern freedoms” of anarchy and license sicken his beauty-loving sensibilities, nor can art itself bring relief. He attempts to write as he did before his banishment from the Dreamlands. His new novels win the approval of the empty herd, but sophistication has sapped them of conviction.
He turns to the barren stupidity of popular occultism. Deeper delving leads him into “arcana of consciousness few have trod,” and he meets Harley Warren. Warren takes him to a swamp-bound graveyard in Florida, and vanishes while investigating subterranean horrors. In an Arkham graveyard, Carter and a friend are attacked by an unnamable monstrosity. These traumas push Carter to the brink of a reality less attractive than his true dream country.
He retreats to his Boston home. He contemplates suicide but lingers in memories, refurnishing the house in the Victorian trappings of his boyhood.
One night he dreams of his grandfather, who speaks of their ancient line: a Crusader who learned wild secrets from the Saracens, an Elizabethan scholar of magic—and Edmund Carter, who barely escaped hanging in Salem and who has handed down a certain silver key, now locked in a box in the Boston attic.
Carter finds the box, blackened wood carved with hideous leering faces. His aged servant Parks forces the lid. Inside is a parchment marked with hieroglyphs in an unknown tongue. Carter can’t read the characters, but he recognizes them as similar to the manuscript Harley Warren owned and shuddered over. The parchment wraps a huge silver key covered in cryptic arabesques. Carter cleans the key and keeps it with him nightly. His dreams grow more vivid, bidding him to return to old things. He sets off for the hills north of Arkham.
His way leads him up the Miskatonic River into verdant countryside. Leaving his car behind, he climbs toward the long-deserted home of his fathers, where he used to visit his strange uncle Christopher, dead thirty years. Looking east in the twilight he glimpses the steeple of the old Kingsport Congregational church. He must be looking into the past, for the church was torn down long ago. More startling, he hears the distinctive voice of Benijah Corey, his uncle’s hired man. The fellow must be well over a hundred by now! Yet he calls Carter “Mister Randy” and scolds him for worrying his aunt Martha. Where’s he been anyhow, poking into that old “snake-den” in the upper timber-lot?
Carter rubs his eyes, feeling he’s indeed late after visiting forbidden places. He feels in his blouse pocket and finds the silver key from his Boston attic. Hadn’t he given young Parks half his allowance to open its box?
Old Benijah appears with a lantern and herds Carter to the gambrel-roofed home where Aunt Martha and Uncle Chris have held supper. The next day he escapes to the “snake-den,” a hill-top cave where Carter has discovered a fissure leading to a sepulchral granite grotto. With strange eagerness, he edges into the grotto and approaches its far wall with the silver key.
Later he will dance back to the house, a changed boy. He seems to have looked on fantastic scenes beyond others’ ken. Stranger still, he’s developed a gift of prophecy. He drops inadvertent references to new events and inventions, decades early. A chance mention of the French town Belloy-en-Santerre makes him pale. Years later, serving in the Great War, he’ll receive a nearly mortal wound there.
Carter’s people think of these oddities now that he’s disappeared. His car is found below the ruins of the old Carter place. In it is a queer box and a queer parchment, but no silver key. There’s talk of settling Carter’s estate, but our fellow-dreamer narrator believes Carter’s still alive. He thinks Carter has found a way back to the land of dreams—rumor in Ulthar tells of a new king in Ilek-Vad—that fabulous town on hollow cliffs of glass, overlooking the watery labyrinths of the Gnorri. One day soon the narrator hopes to meet Carter there and see the silver key for himself, for may not its cryptic arabesques symbolize the mysteries of the cosmos?
What’s Cyclopean: Nothing; this is a gambrel story. “Prosy” shows up twice, but seems small potatoes adjective-wise.
The Degenerate Dutch: A love of harmony keeps Carter close to the ways of his race and station, which is apparently a good thing. And his return to idyllic childhood is marked by the appearance of an extremely stereotyped loyal servant. Howard, will you please stop trying to write dialect?
HP also gets pretty snarky about religion here, sniping about people blindly following their primitive tribal instincts… while blindly following his primitive tribal instincts. Huh.
Mythos Making: Lots more detail on the blurry boundary between Mythos and Dreamland. West of Arkham the hills rise wild; north of Arkham the hills… travel backwards through time?
Libronomicon: There’s that unreadable script again. Seriously, Miskatonic is right there, and he can’t find anyone who can read it? Then again, it sounds like the standard level of clarity for an instruction manual.
Madness Takes Its Toll: No madness, merely a touch of ennui.
Among Randolph Carter’s sad ponderings after his loss of the Dreamlands must have been Wordsworth’s lament from “Intimations of Immortality”:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
Carter, thwarted dreamer, disenchanted rationalist, priggish sensualist, time lord, monarch! Lovecraft dwells so lovingly on his hero’s internal struggles that it’s no wonder Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright complained that his readers “violently disliked” this story. Perfumed jungles, crystal cliffs and bearded merpeople are mentioned only in passing, and the key itself doesn’t appear until over half the word count’s been spent on psychological study and convoluted philosophizing on the nature of reality—or realities. Dude, where are the gugs and ghasts, the ghouls and moon-beasts, the Ulthar cats, the nightgaunts? Obvious answer: They’re lost to us because they’re lost to Carter, and we must share his distress and thrashing ennui until dream comes to the rescue again in the form of grandfather Carter and directions to the box of the silver key.
I confess that the slow start of this story kept me from finishing it until this very read. I’m glad I did. Carter so thoroughly rejects the offerings on the buffet of modern thought! Science only goes so far, and where it does go, it kills wonder. Religion might serve beauty if it would stick to painting and music and awesome ceremony, instead of getting all narrowly moralistic and prosy. Our hero is too nice to revel in sensuality, as do the decadents of “The Hound.” Commonplace occultism is, well, so commonplace and stupid, and the real thing leads to borders better not crossed, as poor Harley Warren discovered in “Statement.” Even literature is no salvation when Carter finds his style corrupted by mawkish social realism, satire, and an ironic approach to the fantastic.
Only a retreat to childhood memories saves him from suicide. Only an actual retreat to childhood, a new start, delivers him back to his heart’s true country. I perked up with Carter when Granddad reminded him in dream of his ancestors: the “flame-eyed” Crusader, the Elizabethan wizard, and the Salem witch who hid the silver key for a like-souled descendent to rediscover. I perked up still more as Carter journeyed to Arkham’s backcountry. It’s in “the brooding fire of autumn,” and we follow the windings of the Miskatonic past giant elms in which a Carter disappeared more than a century ago, and where the wind still blows “meaningly.” We nervously speed by the ruins of Goody Fowler’s homestead, for she was a witch. We climb hills to a vista of “faery forest” and “spectral wooded valley” and “the archaic, dream-laden sea.”
Things really get interesting when Carter spots the spire of the old Congregational Church in Kingsport. You know, the one under which “The Festival’s” seeker found strange burrows indeed. Because the church was torn down long ago, and if Carter can see it, he’s looking through not only space but time. On this cue, the past rushes in on him, in the person of Benijah Corey. Benijah treats Carter like the wayward child he used to be; seamlessly, without explicit authorial comment, Carter himself slips back into boyhood, feeling in his “blouse” for his “little telescope” and feeling guilty about being late for supper. He finds not a telescope but the silver key, the discovery of which he now remembers differently. It was not his old servant Parks who prised it out of the box, but a young Parks who took half Carter’s “allowance” for the job. And seeing Chris and Martha alive, their house whole and welcoming, inspires no wonder. Of course it’s so: Randy Carter’s only ten years old, after all.
Impressive handling of the time switch, I think, daring a certain amount of reader confusion.
The denouement, now explicitly in the voice of the fellow dreamer, raises fascinating questions. I’m thinking that by returning to his ancestral home with key in pocket, Carter has managed to rewind his life to that longed-for boyhood. History doesn’t replay as before, however, because the presence of the key changes it. With the key, Carter is physically able to pass beyond the grotto of the “snake-den” into the Dreamlands, and this represents a firmer connection than he had in his previous life. That there was a previous life we’re assured by Carter’s vestigial memories of events, inventions, even his near-fatal part in WWI. Some of these memories come to pass, but Carter’s fate changes in the most important way: Instead of losing the Dreamlands as he ages, he passes bodily into them for good, even to the throne of one of his beloved cities.
Will his kingdom last forever, though? The blind cosmos cycles through being and nothingness, and so may Carter’s life, I suppose, ever rewinding to different ends. Or to the same end, through trials that only seem different because incompletely remembered?
I’m going to go with my first idea, that the key does change everything. That way, when I get to Ilek-Vad, King Randolph will be waiting to greet me.
I’ve mentioned before that several of the Dreamlands pieces are new to me this read. Each story makes it increasingly obvious that they share an impersonal, uncaring universe with the better-known tales of cosmic horror—the difference is in the philosophy. Where Mythos narrators are overwhelmed by the universe—seeing in its inhuman vastness a terror best denied, and papered over with illusory comfort—Dreamlands narrators are sickened by those very attempts to impose meaning. Instead, they take joy in epic (if possibly also illusory) beauty. And, paradoxically, they do find meaning, and impose it in the face of all odds: here, at the end, the key symbolizes not only the mysteries but the “aims” of the cosmos. That seems a remarkably hopeful thing for an impersonal universe to have.
The two attitudes are complimentary, a sort of yin and yang of dealing with cosmic indifference—but they don’t garner equal attention. The scientific terror of the Mythos, synonymous with “Lovecraftian,” continues to attract readers and writers a century later. The Dreamlands, not so much. I don’t think I’m the only reader who’s occasionally glossed over them.
In spite of that unequal attention, some of the attitudes in this story seem pretty familiar. Not in a good way, either. It’s not Lovecraft’s fault that I’m tired of stories where science and wonder stand opposed, or where adults lose their metaphorical dreams in the face of facile society. But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t original when he did it, either—which may be why his take hasn’t made much of a dent in the collective unconscious. The Dreamlands have their points—and those points are occasionally awesome—but it’s easy to lose that thread amid the tepid philosophical rants, not to mention the smugness about the superiority of fantasy fandom.
What “Silver Key” lacks in awesome story, it makes up for in continuity porn. Here we get confirmation that the Carter of “Statement” and the Carter of “Unnamable” are one and the same—The Carter of “Silver Key” recalls both experiences, has fought in the Great War, owns that pesky diary… and has a worrisomely good excuse for prophecy. We also get yet another indication that Kingsport is a border town, and that the presence or absence of the old Congregational Hill steeple is a pretty good marker for which side you’re standing on. Randolph should be careful in those geologically improbable caverns—I hear some of them are occupied.
Back to the philosophy, I can’t help thinking there’s something Crowleyish here. “All life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the others.” A few decades later I got that from Robert Anton Wilson, but Lovecraft seems likely to have read his ceremonial magicians, however recent, and noticed that “Do what thou wilt” can end up in very different places depending on whether thou art a nihilist or a fantasist. Carter’s guidelines aren’t entirely different from the cultists in “Call of Cthulhu”—it’s just that he’s a lot more interested in sitting on the throne of Ilek-Vad than in violent revels.
Someone mentioned in an earlier comment that technology plays well with the Mythos; it’s only in the Dreamlands that science and magic don’t mesh. We see that here—Carter has to leave his car behind to cross over. Overall, the story is pretty dismissive of science. On the Mythos side of the border it may be inadequate, but it can still tell you something (even if it’s something you didn’t want to know), and occasionally even lead to fleeting triumph against forces that would destroy humanity as an accidental byproduct of their own incomprehensible affairs. And I confess, I still prefer that take—if the hundred carven gates of Narath can’t stand a little scientific curiosity, their wonder seems a little shallow.
Next week, more old-house horror in “The Rats in the Walls.” You can read it here. Trigger warning for a cat with a deeply unfortunate name that starts with N.
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.