November 18, 1996
Not much has been written on what many scholars call Lovecraft’s dreamlands fiction, from which The Silver Key is taken. The major reason is that Lovecraft, himself, wrote many letters to friends and fans describing what his fiction was all about. However, The Silver Key is a horror story in that it describes how science distracts and misleads us. The story calls the notion of reality and all that defines it into question and describes the ways that it attempts to distill knowledge and reality into a one single thing. There are two ways Lovecraft does this. The first is described in how the dream state can prove more real than a waking state. The second is that science also contributes to the destruction of the imagination, and thus the human spirit.
Critics believe that Lovecraft saw the cosmos as “a pointless, random collocation of atoms, winding down toward total entropy like an expiring clock” (Burleson c1983 12) which is then projected into his fiction. Other critics believe that instead of creating a new universe to base his fiction in, Lovecraft chose to extend the boundaries of our world through the creation of new myths (Mariconda 188). He created these myths out of things he dreamt, read or learned about in history. And it was in these myths that Lovecraft “wanted to form an emotionally endurable set of illusions as to values and direction in existence’ from the arbitrary concepts and folkways bequeathed to [him] through [his] traditional culture-stream’ ” (McInnis 130). These new myths he created are collectively called the Cthulhu mythos, and within this mythos appear beings that have greater control over our lives and reality.
Cthulhu (pronounced kuh-thoo-loo) is the name that Lovecraft made up to give to one of his horrible god-like creatures. But he is more than just a character, Cthulhu is also a puzzle that describes Lovecraft’s personal mythos. McInnis breaks Cthulhu “into its respective components : cuth, l(ovecraft) h(oward’s) u(niverse)” (McInnis 131) and from it he came up with the idea that The Silver Key as well as all of his fiction are just pieces that fit into Lovecraft’s personal worldview. Apparently, cuth is an old anglo-saxon word that meant manifest or known. By using this word in conjunction with his own ideals, Lovecraft sculpted the mythos to teach his readers a little about himself and what he saw as the horrors in our world.
In one of his stories Lovecraft wrote that “science… will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species” (cited in Joshi 205) and this quote shows how passionately Lovecraft felt about trying to “free himself from the rapid, inevitable social and technological changes that were occurring on around him” (McInnis 125). He hated the modern world, and by using his imagination, as seen through his work, he was not only able to escape from the modern world and its terrors, but he was also able to write to his audience about what technology might do to us if relied on heavily. This facet of Lovecraft’s belief, to escape from the modern world, is present within The Silver Key where scientific knowledge has destroyed Randolph Carter’s ability to dream.
The narrator of the story tells us about Randolph Carter (also known as Lovecraft’s alter ego) and how he lost the “key of the gate of dreams” (Lovecraft 193) and how this mentally affected him. When Carter was a child, we are told he loved to dream. He built an elaborate dreamworld that became more real than his earthly life while he dreamt. Quite often he chose to remain in this dreamworld over being in reality. However, over time he grew to adapt to the modern world and listened to the “well-meaning philosophers [who] had taught him to look into the logical relations of things, and analyse the processes which shaped his thoughts and fancies” (Lovecraft 193). In doing so he began to lose the ability to dream because “they had chained him down to the things that are, and had then explained the workings of those things till mystery had gone out of the world” (Lovecraft 193).
As Carter grows older, he “tried to do as others did, and pretended that the common events and emotions of earthy minds were more important than the fantasies of rare and delicate souls” (Lovecraft 194). However this destroys him for he begins to realize how “shallow, fickle, and meaningless all human aspirations are and how emptily our real impulses contrast with those pompous ideals we profess to hold,” (Lovecraft 193) and because of this he tries to find a way back to the dreamlands of his childhood youth.
His first attempts at finding meaning through regaining his childhood dreamland brought him to disciplines which he felt valued the spiritualness of matter and the imagination over a materialist and science driven reality. Therefore, like any sane man, he turns to the church for guidance. Carter’s discovery is that religion is no better than science. What he finds here disturbs him for all he sees is “the starved fancy and beauty, the stale and prosy triteness, and the owlish gravity and grotesque of solid truth which reigned boresomely and overwhelmingly among most of its professors” that is contained within the church doctrines (Lovecraft 194). Lovecraft diction contains many double meanings to suggest that what the world sees as “spiritualness” is just a facade and a cover -up used by the church to propagate a creation definition of reality. For Carter it starves his “fancy” (or his imagination) and tries to profess “solid truths” to the followers and ignores once again any use of the imagination and what answers to our existence it may provide.
Carter then resumes his search for ways that can take him back to the dreamlands. This new path leads him to dabble “in the notions of the bizarre and the eccentric as an antidote for the commonplace” (Lovecraft 196). To Lovecraft, bizarre and eccentric knowledge comes in the form of the occult and magic. But even here Carter/Lovecraft sees how material reality has tainted these beliefs so that they are “as dry and inflexible as those of science” (Lovecraft 196) and not allowing the imagination to expand our worldview.
In his 1991 article Burleson defines five major themes seen in Lovecraft’s fiction . The first is the theme of denied primacy or “the theme that as human beings on this planet we were not first, will not be the last, and have never really been foremost” (136). The second theme is that of forbidden knowledge or “there are some types of knowledge only by the avoidance or suppression of which can humankind maintain a semblance of wellbeing” (136). Theme number three, or illusory surface appearances, states that “things are not always as they seem, that surface appearances mask a deeper and more terrible reality” (136). The fourth theme is the theme of unwholesome survival which states that there are some things that have outlived “from the ordinary human viewpoint their rightful existence” and that these beings still exist today under carefully constructed concealments (136). Finally the fifth theme, is the theme of “oneiric objectivism” or the notion that
there is at best an ambiguous distinction between dreaming and reality–
that the world of deep dream may be as real as, or more real than, the waking world; the suggestion is strongly present that the shared dream-world of humankind holds awesome secrets about the ultimate
nature of things ( 136)
and it is this theme which is the most prominent within Lovecraft’s story The Silver Key. This belief is seen within The Silver Key in that Lovecraft tells us we must never abandon our imagination because it provides the meaning within our reality. If we lose this ability to connect to the “dreamlands,” then our world becomes shallow and meaningless, just as it had in Carter’s world.
Lovecraft illustrates this by showing how to solve a dilemma of the mind by materialistic ways creates problems. Carter spends much of his life trying to bring back his dreams through the conventional means of science and religion. However, he soon realizes that this does not work and quickly succumbs to depression. “Having perceived at last the hollowness and futility of real things, Carter spent his last days in retirement, and in wistful disjointed memories of his dream-filled youth” (Lovecraft 197). Once he lets go of his conventional beliefs that science can solve his problem, Carter realizes that he has found the key to regain his dreams. And one day, through his dreams, he is given a message that later crosses over into the real world. “In the dust and shadows of the great attic he found it, remote and forgotten at the back of a drawer in a tall chest” (Lovecraft 198) describes the first appearance of a real material key, its location given to Carter through a dream, that will help him to recross back into the imagined dreamworld.
This description of the key does two things. It provides evidence to show how dreams hold real knowledge that can be withheld over to the waking state. Secondly, the physical appearance of the key itself seems to be a metaphor for Carter’s dreamworld, for it like the key, has been left in the back of some dusty chest within his mind. This suggests that if we concentrate too much on worldly matters then our imagination becomes weakened. And if we allow to this linger for too long then our senses become dulled enabling us to distinguish between what is reality and what is “fancy”–and ultimately this can destroy us, just as it has Carter.
Carter’s key, allows him to escape reality and enter the dreamlands. The key has given him the knowledge and the power (through possession) to return back to his childhood dreams and during a fit of nostalgia, he decides to return to the “old remembered way past graceful lines of rolling hill and stone-walled meadow, distant vale and hanging woodland” (Lovecraft 199) to his ancestral homelands. This passage is different than some of the others in the story for it marks a transition from a definite reality that has borders of tangible and abstract thoughts and objects, to a less defined and blurred one. For once Carter returns home his mind floods with memories, leaving what he perseeves as reality to be called into question.
When the novel begins, Carter is thirty and the progression throughout the years has left his imagination in tatters. Yet at this point in the story, as the “shadows thickened around him” (Lovecraft 199), Carter magically returns back to his childhood youth. And “through his puzzlement a voice piped, and he started again at its familiarity after long years. Old Benjiah Corey had been his Uncle Christopher’s hired man, and was aged even in those far-off times of his boyhood visits” marks the first time that Carter’s reality and imagination clash, redefining his world. Time no longer takes on a familiar linearity and instead of growing older to us it seems as if he has transported back into time and physically regained his youth. Upon remembering where he found the key, Carter remarks that
he tried to recall just where he had found the key but something seemed confused. He guessed it was in the attic at home in Boston, and dimly remembered bribing Parks with half his week’s allowance to help him open the box and keep quiet with it. (Lovecraft 200)
Lovecraft points out here that there are no definite boundaries between what is imagined and what is real for in this passage there are elements of both leaving us confused as to its interpretation. Is Carter really young again or has his old, feeble mind regained an imagination? The diction of this passage suggests both, for in it this new young Carter still has retained dreamlike qualities of where he used to live in Boston; yet words like “allowance” and “bribing” suggest the actions and the language of a young boy, leaving us with no real boundaries, no scientific logic to explain to us what Lovecraft has just said what has happened. However, because science cannot explain it doesn’t mean that it is real.
In the concluding passage of the story the narrator states that “Carter’s relatives talk much of these things because he has lately disappeared” (Lovecraft 202). This conclusion suggests that either Carter has found the key to cross over from our perceived reality into a imagined one, making the imagined one his new reality or that he has gone mad in his old age because of what science has taught him to disregard between fact and fiction. Whether or not Carter achieved his dream, no one will ever know; however, the narrator seems to believe that he did escape this reality, and that “I shall ask him when I see him, for I expect to meet him shortly in a certain dream-city we both used to haunt” (Lovecraft 203) leaving the mystery of what reality is and isn’t a mystery that science may never prove.
All reality is is a word and its definition can be whatever you want it to be. H.P. Lovecraft and his alter ego Randolph Carter prove, through the writings of imagination, that the illogical can exist with the logical and that science shall never be exact. The Silver Key is testimony to this idea. Lovecraft suggests in The Silver Key that we can’t rely on science to show us reality and because we all can’t live in a dreamworld of our own, we must allow science joined with the imagination to define for us the boundaries of reality. In a letter that Lovecraft wrote, he states ” my own attitude in writing is always that of a hoax weaver’ ” (Burleson c1983 15) and that stories that are woven with elements of both science and fantasy are the most hard to judge where the line between where true reality and the dreamworld exists. Perhaps for Lovecraft they exist on the same plane, in the same time, and the real hoax is played on humanity for thinking that science can prove otherwise.
Burleson, Donald. H.P. Lovecraft, A Critical Study. Westport, CT : Greenwood Press, c1983.
—–. “On Lovecraft’s Themes : Touching the Glass.” An Epicure in the Terrible. ed. David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi. London : Associated University Presses, 1991. 135-147.
Joshi, S.T. The Weird Tale : Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft. Austin, TX. : University of Texas Press, 1990.
Lovecraft, H. P. “The Silver Key”. from The Dream Cycle of H. P. Lovecraft : Dreams of Terror and Death. New York : Ballantine Books, 1995. 193- 203.
Mariconda, Steven J. “Lovecraft’s Cosmic Imagery.” An Epicure in the Terrible. ed. David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi. London : Associated University Presses, 1991. 188-198.
McInnis, John. “H.P. Lovecraft’s Immortal Culture.” Death and the Serpent : Immortality in Science Fiction and Fantasy. ed. Carl B.Yoke and Donald M. Hassler. Westport, CT : Greenwood, 1985. 125-134.