Spooky Synopsis: Randolph Carter, the midnight mystic who visited unknown and exotic worlds while he slept, has lost the ability to dream. As middle age encroaches, he finds that the arguments of naturalist philosophers have stripped him of his capacity for wonder. He has come to believe that his flights of fancy were merely adolescent immaturities, simple escapism that failed to take into account the world as it actually is. But such clear-headed conclusions bring no comfort to Carter. Indeed, all worldly succors fail him until his aged grandfather mentions a grotesquely carved box that has remained in the family for centuries. Legend hints that it holds a mysterious key that might open the way to his dreaming once again.
Lovecraftian Language: "But when he came to study those who had thrown off the old myths, he found them even more ugly than those who had not. They did not know that beauty lies in harmony, and that loveliness of life has no standard amidst an aimless cosmos save only its harmony with the dreams and the feelings which have gone before and blindly moulded our little spheres out of the rest of chaos. They did not see that good and evil and beauty and ugliness are only 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. Instead, they either denied these things altogether or transferred them to the crude, vague instincts which they shared with the beasts and peasants; so that 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."
Eerie Evaluation: Much like "The Unnameable" (which also featured a character named Carter), "The Silver Key" is more of a philosophical treatise than an actual story. Part of me wants to treat it with a little charity, because halfway through Lovecraft seemed to remember what sort of writer he was and attempted to wrench the proceedings back in a narrative direction. Alas, the conclusion is more muddled than not, and the didactic bits end up being far more memorable -- which is not a positive thing. Lovecraft uses them to level Nietzschean nihilism at the scientific set that seeks to lay the foundation of the future on the rubble of discredited mysticisms. He scoffs at such positivism, concluding that only aesthetic delight remains once one realizes that truth is mere social construct. Of course, this reasoning should do more than just undermine modernistic optimism; it should also lead to the acknowledgement that judgments about "beauty" are no more binding than judgments about fact or falsehood or any other thing. Lovecraft's beliefs ought to have us bemoaning, "Vanity, vanity! All is vanity and striving after the wind." Yet he continues to cling to aesthetic delights at story's end. That may not have been the least bit consistent, but he had to know that great stories do not spring from viewing the world as meaningless.
Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):
To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education” (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft’s work), please click here.