“Silver Key, The“


“Silver Key, The“
   Short story (5,000 words); probably written in early November 1926. First published in WT (January 1929); first collected in O;corrected text in MM
   Randolph Carter—revived from “The Unnamable” (1923) — is now thirty; he has “lost the key of the gate of dreams” and therefore seeks to reconcile himself to the real world, which he now finds prosy and aesthetically unrewarding. He tries all manner of literary and physical novelties until one day he finds the key—or, at any rate, a key of silver in his attic. Driving his car along “the old remembered way,” he goes back to the rural New England region of his childhood and, in some magical and wisely unexplained manner, finds himself transformed into a nine-year-old boy. Sitting down to dinner with his aunt Martha, Uncle Chris, and the hired man Benijah Corey, Carter finds perfect content as a boy who has sloughed off the tedious complications of adult life for the eternal wonder of childhood.
   The story is a lightly fictionalized exposition of HPL’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 (“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 bohemians (“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”). 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 have been derived from J.K.Huysmans’ A Rebours(1884), in the prologue to which Des Esseintes undertakes exactly such an intellectual journey.
   The story is also, as Kenneth W.Faig, Jr. has determined, a fictionalized account of HPL’s visit, in October 1926, to the western Rhode Island town of Foster, the home of his maternal ancestors. 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 HPL stayed, and Emma [Corey] Phillips, the widow of Walter Herbert Phillips, whose grave HPL probably saw), and other similarities make this conclusion unshakable. In some ways, “The Silver Key” is a retelling of “The Tomb,” in which Jervas Dudley discovers in his attic a physical key that allows him to unlock the secrets of the past.
   In regard to the other Randolph Carter stories, “The Silver Key” portrays Carter’s life from his childhood to the age of fifty-four, at which point he doubles back on his own timeline and reverts to boyhood. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadathis 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. It was only at E.Hoffmann Price’s suggestion that HPL undertook a further account of Carter’s adventures in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (1932–33). WTrejected the story upon its initial submittal, which apparently did not occur until the summer of 1927. In the summer of 1928, however, Wright asked to see the tale again and this time accepted it for $70. Following its appearance in January 1929, Wright reported to HPL that readers “violently disliked” the story (HPL to August Derleth, [1929]; ms., SHSW). Wright, however, did not print any of these hostile letters in the magazine’s letter column.
   See Kenneth W.Faig, Jr., “‘The Silver Key’ and Lovecraft’s Childhood,” Crypt No. 81 (St. John’s Eve 1992): 11–47.

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