The Silver Key is a remarkable story though it is not an easy read, at least not initially. The first ten or eleven paragraphs contain Lovecraft’s subtle philosophical criticisms of modernity. It is a lot to wade through, and reads like a lengthy academic essay. Randolph Carter has lost interest in living, which is a result of his losing connection with his dreaming self. He blames this on modern culture.
In an effort to regain a sense of meaningfulness and purpose, he samples various offerings of the modern world, including science, pragmatism, traditional spirituality, materialism, and the occult. Nothing satisfies him. He returns briefly to his writing and gains success for awhile, but only by pandering to his public’s expectations and low standards. He loves only beauty, and cannot find this anywhere in the dull reality of his middle aged life.
He retires and withdraws to his home in Boston. He considers suicide, “and got from a South American acquaintance a very curious liquid to take him into oblivion without suffering.” However, just before he gives up all hope, he has a vision of his grandfather, who reminds Carter that he is one in an ancient line of “delicate and sensitive men”. The grandfather also tells him where to find an ancient box containing a silver key, handed down from his ancestors. He finds this key hidden in the attic of his home.
Unlike many Lovecraft stories, this character Randolph Carter ascends. He climbs up into the attic to retrieve a gift from his predecessors, and later in the story he will climb a hill to his original home. He goes upward in the story to a brighter reality, instead of downward into the earth to discover an unknown horror.
The story of his recovery from this middle aged depression and melancholy begins at this point. With the silver key in his pocket, he returns to his original home in Arkham. He is clearly going backward in time. As he drives up into the mountains, he passes landmarks that remind him of previous adventures. Several of Lovecraft’s earlier stories are referred to in this reverie: The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Unnamable, The Strange High House in the Mist, and others.
When he is almost to the old homestead, he leaves his automobile, that is, modernity, behind and climbs up the hill to the house. As he does so, he is welcomed by visions of old family members, and becomes a child again. The author brings about this transformation in Carter very smoothly and seamlessly. Now that he has returned to the childhood of his past, his adult life in the present becomes a barely remembered dream. But because he remembers parts of this dream, as a child he is later remembered as a prophet, because he appears to predict the future. In fact, he is remembering the present. It is an interesting twist.
Back in the present, the narrator explains towards the end of The Silver Key that Randolph Carter has disappeared. Investigators find his car, the now empty wooden box, and evidence that someone has wandered about in the ruins of the old house.
But the narrator, who now speaks in the first person as someone who knew Randolph Carter, does not believe he is dead. “There are twists of time and space, of vision and reality, which only a dreamer can divine; and from what I know of Carter I think he had merely found a way to traverse these mazes.” In fact, the narrator intends to meet him again shortly “in a certain dream city we both used to haunt.”
The Silver Key is a sad story, with some ghost story creepiness thrown in at the very end. But the appearance of a friend creates a feeling of hopefulness. Perhaps it is not so much a return to his dreams that Randolph Carter needs, as a close friend to share them with.
Additional Facts and Impressions of Randolph Carter
•He appears to have no financial worries.
•Though hailing from Arkham, Massachusetts, he lived in Boston as an adult.
•He was briefly successful as a writer of popular novels.
•He fought in the French Foreign Legion during World War I.
•He was almost fatally wounded in 1916, in a battle near Belloy-en-Santerre.
•One of his ancestors was a Crusader, another a magician and one was almost hanged as a witch in Salem.
•“For a while he sought friends, but soon grew weary of the crudeness of their emotions, and the sameness and earthiness of their visions.”