I am providence the life.., p.97
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 97
What “The Silver Key” really is, of course, is a very lightly fictionalised exposition of Lovecraft’s own social, ethical, and aesthetic philosophy. It is not even so much a story as a parable or philosophical diatribe. He attacks literary realism (“He did not dissent when they told him that the animal pain of a stuck pig or dyspeptic ploughman in real life is a greater thing than the peerless beauty of Narath with its hundred carven gates and domes of chalcedony . . .”), conventional religion (“. . . he had turned to the gentle churchly faith endeared to him by the naive trust of his fathers . . . Only on closer view did he mark the starved fancy and beauty, the stale and prosy triteness, and the owlish gravity and grotesque claims of solid truth which reigned boresomely and overwhelmingly among most of its professors . . . It wearied Carter to see how solemnly people tried to make earthly reality out of old myths which every step of their boasted science confuted . . .”), and bohemianism (“. . . their lives were dragged malodorously out in pain, ugliness, and disproportion, yet filled with a ludicrous pride at having escaped from something no more unsound than that which still held them. They had traded the false gods of fear and blind piety for those of licence and anarchy”). Each one of these passages, and others throughout the story, has its exact corollary in his letters. It is rare that Lovecraft so bluntly expressed his philosophy in a work of fiction; but “The Silver Key” can be seen as his definitive repudiation both of Decadence as a literary theory and of cosmopolitanism as a way of life. Ironically enough, the structural framework of the story at this point—Carter samples in succession a variety of aesthetic, religious, and personal experiences in an attempt to lend meaning or interest to his life—may well have been derived from that textbook of Decadence, Huysmans’s A Rebours, in the prologue to which Des Esseintes undertakes exactly such an intellectual journey. Perhaps Lovecraft knowingly borrowed this aspect of Huysmans’s work as another means of repudiating the philosophy that supported it. Carter’s return to childhood may perhaps exemplify a much earlier statement of Lovecraft’s—“Adulthood is hell”—but in reality his return is not so much to childhood as to ancestral ways, the one means Lovecraft saw of warding off the sense of futility engendered by the manifest truth of man’s insignificance in the cosmos.
For it should by now be obvious that, as Kenneth W. Faig, Jr, has exhaustively pointed out, “The Silver Key” is in large part a fictionalised account of Lovecraft’s recent Foster visit. Details of topography, character names (Benijah Corey is probably an adaptation of two names: Benejah Place, the owner of the farm across the road from the house where Lovecraft stayed, and Emma (Corey) Phillips, the widow of Walter Herbert Phillips, whose grave Lovecraft must have seen in his 1926 visit), and other similarities make this conclusion unshakable. Just as Lovecraft felt the need, after two rootless years in New York, to restore connexions with the places that had given him and his family birth, so in his fiction did he need to announce that, henceforth, however far his imagination might stray, it would always return to New England and look upon it as a source of bedrock values and emotional sustenance.
The exact relation of “The Silver Key” to the other Randolph Carter tales has not been much studied. This story depicts Carter’s entire lifetime from his childhood up to the age of fifty-four, at which point he doubles back on his own timeline and reverts to boyhood. In terms of this chronology, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is the “first” Randolph Carter tale, for Carter is presumably in his twenties at the time of its events. After he has lost the key of the gate of dreams at thirty, Carter undertakes his experiments in sampling literary realism, religion, bohemianism, and so on; finding all these things unsatisfying, he turns to darker mysteries, involving himself in occultism and more. It is at this time (his age is unspecified) that he encounters Harley Warren and has the experience described in “The Statement of Randolph Carter”; shortly thereafter, returning to Arkham, he appears to experience the events of “The Unnamable,” although they are alluded to very obliquely. Even these dallyings into the weird Carter fails to find rewarding, until at age fifty-four he finds the silver key.
Not long after writing the story Lovecraft noted that it is “not in its final form; but will shortly undergo an extensive amputation of philosophical matter in the early part, which delays the development & kills the interest before the narrative is fairly begun.” Lovecraft never undertook such a revision, for he must have realised that an “amputation” of the philosophical matter would actually render the story meaningless: Carter’s return to his childhood would carry no weight unless it were prefaced by his thorough awareness that modern adult life had little to offer him. Naturally, this results in a tale that is by no means oriented toward a popular audience, and it is no surprise that Farnsworth Wright rejected it for Weird Tales. In the summer of 1928, however, Wright asked to see the tale again and this time accepted it for $70.00. Predictably, however, when the tale appeared in the January 1929 issue, Wright reported to Lovecraft that readers “violently disliked” the story! Out of charity, however, Wright did not print any of these hostile letters in the magazine’s letter column.
“The Strange High House in the Mist,” written on November 9, is more concretely Dunsanian than “The Silver Key,” and shows that the Dunsany influence had now been thoroughly internalised so as to allow for the expression of Lovecraft’s own sentiments through Dunsany’s idiom and general atmosphere. Indeed, the only genuine connexions to Dunsany’s work may perhaps be in some details of the setting and in the manifestly philosophical, even satiric purpose which the fantasy is made to serve.
We are now again in Kingsport, a city to which Lovecraft had not returned since “The Festival” (1923), the tale that first embodied his impressions of Marblehead and its magical preservation of the tokens of the past. North of Kingsport “the crags climb lofty and curious, terrace on terrace, till the northernmost hangs in the sky like a grey frozen wind-cloud.” On that cliff is an ancient house inhabited by some individual whom none of the townsfolk—not even the Terrible Old Man—have ever seen. One day a tourist, the “philosopher” Thomas Olney, decides to visit that house and its secret inhabitant; for he has always longed for the strange and the wondrous. He arduously scales the cliff, but upon reaching the house finds that there is no door on this side, only “a couple of small lattice windows with dingy bull’s-eye panes leaded in seventeenth-century fashion”; the house’s only door is on the other side, flush with the sheer cliff. Then Olney hears a soft voice, and a “great black-bearded face” protrudes from a window and invites him in. Olney climbs through the window and has a colloquy with the occupant:
And the day wore on, and still Olney listened to rumours of old times and far places, and heard how the Kings of Atlantis fought with the slippery blasphemies that wriggled out of rifts in ocean’s floor, and how the pillared and weedy temple of Poseidonis is still glimpsed at midnight by lost ships, who know by its sight that they are lost. Years of the Titans were recalled, but the host grew timid when he spoke of the dim first age of chaos before the gods or even the Elder Ones were born, and when only the other gods came to dance on the peak of Hatheg-Kla in the stony desert near Ulthar, beyond the river Skai.
Then a knock is heard at the door—the door that faces the cliff. Eventually the host opens the door, and he and Olney find the room occupied by all manner of wondrous presences—“Trident-bearing Neptune,” “hoary Nodens,” and others—and when Olney returns to Kingsport the next day, the Terrible Old Man vows that the man who went up that cliff is not the same one who came down. No longer does Olney’s soul long for wonder and mystery; instead, he is content to lead his prosy bourgeois life with his wife and children. But people in Kingsport, looking up at the house on the cliff, say that “at evening the little low windows are brighter than formerly.”
On various occasions Lovecraft admitted that he had no specific locale in mind when writing this tale: he stated that memories of the “titan cliffs of Magnolia”[8
For the strange transformation of Thomas Olney is at the heart of the tale. What is its meaning? How has he lost that sense of wonder which had guided his life up to his visit to Kingsport? The Terrible Old Man hints at the answer: “somewhere under that grey peaked roof, or amidst inconceivable reaches of that sinister white mist, there lingered still the lost spirit of him who was Thomas Olney.” The body has returned to the normal round of things, but the spirit has remained with the occupant of the strange high house in the mist; the encounter with Neptune and Nodens has been an apotheosis, and Olney realises that it is in this realm of nebulous wonder that he truly belongs. His body is now an empty shell, without soul and without imagination: “His good wife waxes stouter and his children older and prosier and more useful, and he never fails to smile correctly with pride when the occasion calls for it.” This tale could be read as a sort of mirror-image of “Celephaïs”: whereas Kuranes had to die in the real world in order for his spirit to attain his fantasy realm, Olney’s body survives intact but his spirit stays behind.
One other small item that can be noted here is the poem published in Weird Tales for December 1926 as “Yule Horror.” This effective four-stanza poem, written in the same Swinburnian metre as “Nemesis,” “The House,” and “The City,” is actually a Christmas poem sent to Farnsworth Wright under the title “Festival”; Wright was so taken with it that he omitted the last stanza, a reference to himself—
And mayst thou to such deeds
Be an abbot and priest,
Singing cannibal greeds
At each devil-wrought feast,
And to all the incredulous world shewing dimly the sign of the beast.
—and, to Lovecraft’s surprise and pleasure, published it. Lovecraft’s only other poetic contributions during his first eight months in Providence are a plangent elegy (written in late June) on Oscar, a cat owned by a neighbour of George Kirk’s who was killed by a car, and “The Return,” a poem on C. W. Smith published in the Tryout for December 1926.
A significant prose item written on November 23 was the essay “Cats and Dogs” (later retitled by Derleth as “Something about Cats”). The Blue Pencil Club of Brooklyn was planning to have a discussion concerning the relative merits of cats and dogs. Lovecraft naturally would have liked to participate in person, especially since a majority of the members were dog-lovers; but since he could not go (or was unwilling to do so), he wrote a lengthy brief simultaneously outlining his affection for cats and—with tongue only partially in his cheek—supplying an elaborate philosophical defence of this affection. The result is one of the most delightful pieces Lovecraft ever wrote, even if some of the sentiments expressed in it are a little tart.
In essence, Lovecraft’s argument is that the cat is the pet of the artist and thinker, while the dog is the pet of the stolid bourgeoisie. “The dog appeals to cheap and facile emotions; the cat to the deepest founts of imagination and cosmic perception in the human mind.” This leads inevitably to a class distinction that is neatly summed up in the compact utterance: “The dog is a peasant and the cat is a gentleman.”
It is merely the “cheap” emotions of sentimentality and the need for subservience that impel praise for the “faithfulness” and devotion of the dog while scorning the aloof independence of the cat. It is a fallacy that the dog’s “pointless sociability and friendliness, or slavering devotion and obedience, constitute anything intrinsically admirable or exalted.” Consider the respective behaviour of the two animals: “Throw a stick, and the servile dog wheezes and pants and shambles to bring it to you. Do the same before a cat, and he will eye you with coolly polite and somewhat bored amusement.” And yet, do we not rate a human being as superior for having independence of thought and action? Why then do we withhold praise for the cat when it exhibits these qualities? One does not, in fact, own a cat (as one does a dog); one entertains a cat. It is a guest, not a servant.
There is much more, but this is sufficient to indicate the extraordinary elegance and dry humour of “Cats and Dogs”—a piece that delightfully unites philosophy, aesthetics, and personal sentiment in a triumphant evocation of that species that Lovecraft admired more than any others (including his own) on this planet. It is perhaps not surprising that, when R. H. Barlow came to publish this essay in the second issue of Leaves (1938), he felt obligated to tone down some of Lovecraft’s more provocative (and only half-joking) political allusions. Toward the end of the essay Lovecraft remarks: “The star of the cat, I think, is just now in the ascendant, as we emerge little by little from the dreams of ethics and democracy which clouded the nineteenth century”; Barlow changed “democracy” to “conformity.” A little later, Lovecraft says: “Whether a renaissance of monarchy and beauty will restore our western civilisation, or whether the forces of disintegration are already too powerful for even the fascist sentiment to check, none may yet say . . .” Barlow changed “monarchy” to “power” and “even the fascist sentiment” to “any hand.” But in spite—or perhaps because—of these very politically incorrect utterances, “Cats and Dogs” is a virtuoso performance that Lovecraft rarely excelled.
But Lovecraft was by no means done with writing. In a departure from his normal habits, he wrote “The Silver Key” and “The Strange High House in the Mist” while simultaneously at work on a much longer work. Writing to August Derleth in early December, he notes: “I am now on page 72 of my dreamland fantasy . . .” The result, finished in late January, would be the longest work of fiction he had written up to that time—The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.
18. Cosmic Outsideness
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath was finished at 43,000 words on January 22, 1927. Even while writing it, Lovecraft expressed doubts about its merits—
I . . . am very fearful that Randolph Carter’s adventures may have reached the point of palling on the reader; or that the very plethora of weird imagery may have destroyed the power of any one image to produce the desired impression of strangeness.
As for my novel . . . it is a picaresque chronicle of impossible adventures in dreamland, and is composed under no illusion of professional acceptance. There is certainly nothing of popular or best-seller psychology in it—although, in consonance with the mood in which it was conceived, it contains more of the naive fairy-tale wonder-spirit than of actual Baudelairian decadence. Actually, it isn’t much good; but forms useful practice for later and more authentic attempts in the novel form.
This final remark is about as accurate a judgment as can be delivered on the work. More than any other of Lovecraft’s major stories, it has elicited antipodally opposite reactions even from devotees: L. Sprague de Camp compared it to George MacDonald’s Lilith and Phantastes and the Alice books, while other Lovecraft scholars find it almost unreadable. For my part, I think it is an entirely charming but relatively insubstantial work: Carter’s adventures through dreamland do indeed pall after a time, but the novel is saved by its extraordinarily poignant conclusion. Its chief feature may be its autobiographical significance: it is, in fact, Lovecraft’s spiritual autobiography for this precise moment in his life.
It is scarcely worth while to pursue the rambling plot of this short novel, which in its continuous, chapterless meandering c
All golden and lovely it blazed in the sunset, with walls, temples, colonnades, and arched bridges of veined marble, silver-basined fountains of prismatic spray in broad squares and perfumed gardens, and wide streets marching between delicate trees and blossom-laden urns and ivory statues in gleaming rows; while on steep northward slopes climbed tiers of red roofs and old peaked gables harbouring little lanes of grassy cobbles.
This certainly sounds—except for some odd details at the end—like some Dunsanian realm of the imagination; but what does Carter discover as he leaves his hometown of Boston to make a laborious excursion through dreamland to the throne of the Great Ones who dwell in an onyx castle on unknown Kadath? Nyarlathotep, the messenger of the gods, tells him in a passage as moving as any in Lovecraft:
“For know you, that your gold and marble city of wonder is only the sum of what you have seen and loved in youth. It is the glory of Boston’s hillside roofs and western windows aflame with sunset; of the flower-fragrant Common and the great dome on the hill and the tangle of gables and chimneys in the violet valley where the many-bridged Charles flows drowsily. These things you saw, Randolph Carter, when your nurse first wheeled you out in the springtime, and they will be the last things you will ever see with eyes of memory and of love. . . .
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