Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Silver Key by H.P. Lovecraft

Okay, so we all know a little about Lovecraft, the guy who invented ‘cosmic horror’: he feared that mankind was adrift in an endless and uncaring universe, he created a Parthenon of god-creatures that are unspeakably terrifying (if occasionally plush and cuddly), and he liked using the word ‘eldritch’. A lot. And let us not forget his contribution to later generations of teenage mealheads (curse Metallica’s spelling of ‘Ktulu’- I always thought it was some kind of bird).

But today’s topic is a sometimes less-noted facet of his works- the ‘dream-works.’ See, when he wasn’t scaring the bejesus out of readers with his madness-inducing monsters and his turgid prose, he wrote stuff that was, well, a bit different. A bit airy-fairy. The ‘dream-works’ refer to a bunch of his stories that are more overtly-than-usual influenced by one Lord Dunsany, an Anglo-Irish writer (woop woop!) who wrote fantasy fiction around the turn of the century. Dunsany’s stuff is extremely whimsical, a little like slightly twisted children’s fairy tales. There’s been a lot of speculation about exactly how to classify some of these writers who were churning out fantasy and science fiction-type stories before those terms had really solidified (Lovecraft is usually thought to feature elements of both), but be sure that the dream-works fiction would register as extremely soft on the hard/soft sci-fi scale.

These tales generally take place in regions of a dream-world that’s as well mapped as Lovecraft’s fictional New England. It’s a place full of ‘strange and ancient cities’ and ‘elephant caravans tramping through the perfumed jungles of Kled.’ A place of wonders rivalled only by the Arabian Nights themselves, and limited only by the imagination of a dreaming artist. The stories feature real people who discover ways to enter the dream-realm, and once there they have fantastic adventures. They’re mostly enjoyable for their sheer whimsy and lack of logic, though they’re probably not my favourite of his works. When they start to include roving bands of intelligent cats (HPL bloody loved cats) as main characters, that’s when I check out.

But there is one Dream-cycle story that has a special meaning to me.

The story starts with a tale called The Statement of Randolph Carter. Carter is a young man who acquires a strange Southern friend with an interest in the occult. As usual, they go messing with Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, and Carter’s associate comes to a messy (if vague) end in an eldritch tomb in a graveyard. It’s a short, throwaway tale, standard for Lovecraft, and Carter is just another of HPL’s author-stand-in protagonists. There’s no evidence that Lovecraft had any particular plans for the character.

Carter next shows up in a tale called The Silver Key, and suddenly he’s become a much more interesting character. The first line is unforgettable-

When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key to the gate of dreams.

The story is about how Carter, who once was imaginative and unsullied by convention, made nightly trips to fabulous dream-worlds. As he grew older, however, experience and friends caused him to adopt a more prosaic, world-weary attitude, and he becomes unable to enter the dream world. Achingly conscious of what he has lost and yet unable to abandon the logical, scientific approach to life, Carter desperately searches for the key to the dream-world by adopting and then abandoning various world-views. It’s a fantastic tale that challenges the reader. Lovecraft weighs up the merits of religion, atheism, rationalism and finds them each lacking in wonder. Essentially it’s a poignant ode to the innocence of childhood. It’s especially interesting knowing Lovecraft’s own real-life views; he believed that science was an inarguable truth that freed man from superstition as much as it killed wonder. He often noted that his own need to write weird fiction stemmed from his belief that the world was decidedly not mysterious or mystical- he was in effect, a hardline rationalist who mourned for the death of romanticism.

Eventually, Carter returns to his childhood home, the place where he first learnt to dream. Exactly how the story ends depends on the reader’s interpretation, as well as the reader’s attitude towards the real life vs fantasy theme. Relatives find his car and some of his clothes near the house, but Carter himself has vanished. Has he finally escaped for good into the dream world, or was he just a silly dreamer who earned nothing but sordid oblivion? It’s a great open ending.

EXCEPT that there’s a sequel, Through The Gates of The Silver Key. Supposedly Lovecraft was reluctant to write this, and was persuaded to do it by another writer, E. Hoffman Price. It’s a slightly ridiculous tale sci-fi that destroys the mystery and ignores the timeless fantasy and commentary of the original. During a will reading to divide up the missing Carter’s stuff, a well-wrapped-up stranger appears (wonder who that is?!). Turns out that Carter travelled through the cosmos, ending up trapped in the body of a stupid-looking alien on some faraway planet. Eventually, he figured out how to build a spaceship, locate Earth, and return just in time for the will reading. Ridiculous.

When I first read The Silver Key it had an enormous impact on me. I had spent several years at college training to be a scientist (which I had enjoyed), and without really noticing it, going through an extended creative dry period. The story shocked me- I recalled my former love for writing, for books and stories and movies, and I identified with Carter. I too, had lost the key! Fortunately, I had not left it as late as Carter did to realise this! I still enjoy science, but it’s only a part of what I do. Immediately after reading this story I began a slow change in career trajectory. I began writing reviews, articles and fiction once again. For a story to have such an effect 90 years after it was published sure means that the old guy was surely doing something right.

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