“The Silver Key”

Well I work on getting some new stuff out, I’ll continue with the Lovecraft series.

This is a significant Lovecraft story due to its autobiographical elements.

Raw Feed (2005, 2012): “The Silver Key”, H. P. Lovecraft, 1926.277a820dd7a0f4d98d1dd010.L

When I first read this story, I wondered if it was written before Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” because, though it covers all of Carter’s life, it makes no real mention of the events of that story though it is listed as being a 1926 story and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” is dated 1926-1927. After reading it, I found out this story was written first.

It’s not unusual for Lovecraft stories to begin with a philosophical statement — “The Call of Cthulhu” being the most famous example. Here, though, the first five-and-a-half pages of an 18 page story are taken up with what seems to be, from what I’ve read Joshi say of Lovecraft’s personal philosophy, an autobiographical description of his character.

To be sure, Carter is not Lovecraft in every detail. He’s 50 years old (Lovecraft was only 36 when he wrote the story); he is a successful author of mainstream books (where, it is said, he spent too much time worrying about improbabilities and sympathetic characters), and he uses drugs for his ennui (Lovecraft, evidently, even forsook alcohol).

But the description of the philosophy, the concern with the beauty and importance of dreams, Carter’s philosophical development, all seem pertinent to Lovecraft. Both espouse a sort of conservative, aesthetic nihilism. Carter has no “delusion that life has a meaning apart from that which men dream into it”. Since Carter sees that

good and evil and beauty and ugliness are ornamental fruits of perspective, whose sole value lies in their linkage to what chance made our fathers think and feel, and whose finer details are different for every race and culture,

beauty is the only judgment, the only value. And beauty is judged by the harmony of something with tradition.

Lovecraft and Carter find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They are atheists who find value in the old rites of religion but not its “stale and prosy triteness” and myths overthrown by science. Yet, science leads to an overthrow of the old beliefs because of

preconceived illusions of justice, freedom, and consistency … [without thinking] that that lore and those ways were the sole makers of their present thought.

Carter and Lovecraft disdain the resulting “cultivated irony and bitterness”, and drowning ennui in “bustle and pretended usefullness, noise and excitement, barbaric display and animal sensation.”

It’s a very modern dilemma. Since nothing ultimately matters except something’s beauty, the beauty of dreams is important to Lovecraft and Carter, even more so than “the animal pain of a stuck pig or dyspeptic ploughman in real life”.

That’s why Carter is so disturbed that he has lost “the secrets of childhood and innocence” and, after thirty, can no longer find the gates of dream. He eventually finds his way back with a silver key left to him by an ancestor. He loops back on his earlier life, regains the gates of dreams, and the precognitive powers of his earlier life are explained.

This is also, after “The Rats in the Wall“, only the second Lovecraft story I’ve read to mention World War I which Carter served in.

The story is interesting, but the main interest of the story is one it says about Lovecraft the man.

Rereading the story in 2012, I noticed not only the rich fictional explication of Lovecraft’s personal philosophy but the weird story elements.

First, there is the seamless transition of Randolph Carter to physically seeming to inhabit the world of his childhood.

Second, there is the odd position of the narrator. The story goes from omniscient third person narrator (seemingly) which relates Carter’s experiences and mental state to a first person narrator who hopes to meet Carter again in the land of dreams. Is he the narrator of the first part of the tale? If so, how does he know all the details of the carefully described physical clues left in the wake of Carter’s disappearance?


More reviews of Lovecraft related material is on the Lovecraft page.

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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