Thursday, June 27, 2013

4. Randolph Carter alias Thomas Olney

Randolph Carter does not appear in The Strange High House in the Mist, but someone very much like him does.  With the exception of a few minor details, the character of Thomas Olney is almost indistinguishable from Carter.  They share the same world view, and both struggle through a midlife crisis that leads to a profound change in their psyche.  But rather than leaving the modern world and retreating to a childhood full of wonder and fantasy—the solution offered in The Silver Key—Olney finds a different answer to questions about the ultimate meaning of life.

This story was discussed in an earlier post about “night gaunts”.  The Strange High House in the Mist, originally published in 1931, is basically a prose poem.   It is more effective in the imagery it creates about a mysterious house high on a sea cliff, than for any feeling of a clear narrative.  It is also one of the relatively few Lovecraft stories that emphasize climbing to great heights, as opposed to descending to mysterious and ultimately terrifying depths.  As in The Silver Key, the purpose of the ascent is to find an answer or a solution.

Thomas Olney is a philosopher and college instructor, a teacher of “ponderous things”.  Lovecraft describes him as having eyes that “were weary with seeing the same things for many years, and thinking the same well disciplined thoughts.”  He moves his family to the old and mystical seaport town of Kingsport.  Visible from the town and towering above it are several crags, the tallest of which “hangs in the sky like a grey frozen wind cloud…a bleak point jutting in limitless space…”  On the very edge of this cliff, its only door facing the sea and mist is the ‘strange high house’.  The setting is reminiscent of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland.  The house clearly exists on the border between two worlds.

Though nearly inaccessible from all directions, Olney resolves to climb up the cliff and visit the strange house.  Before he does so, he consults the “Terrible Old Man”, who tells him some stories about mysterious events surrounding the house.  When he reaches the walls of the house, he finds no means of entrance.  The mysterious but friendly inhabitant of the house—a kind of wizard in long beard and archaic clothes—invites him in through one of the windows. 

They spend the evening together, discussing ancient history and mythology.  There are ominous attempts by something to get into the house with them, so the windows are secured.  As it grows darker, “the bearded man made enigmatical gestures of prayer, and lit tall candles in curiously wrought brass candlesticks.” At the appointed time, he opens the “ancient door of nail-studded oak beyond which lay only the abyss of white cloud.”  What follows is a hallucinatory visitation by two ancient gods and their entourage.  Neptune and Nodens take the two men on a ride into the mists:  “out into the limitless aether reeled that fabulous train…”

Meanwhile, back in Kingsport, Olney’s family “prayed to the bland proper god of Baptists” for his safe return.  He does return, seemingly whole, but the Terrible Old Man senses that Olney has changed. In fact, he has left his soul behind in the ‘strange high house’.   The now terribly normal Olney returns to a routine and respectable life in the suburbs.

In the epilogue, the narrator observes that the lights are brighter now in the window of the ‘strange high house’; the music is louder, and there is singing and laughter.  Worse, the young men of Kingsport are now less reluctant to make Olney’s ascent, and may join him in visiting the place.  The implication is that the attraction and radiance of the strange house will grow stronger.   There is a religious sensibility suggested here, a calling, a quest, enlightenment, and conversion.

In a sense, The Strange High House In the Mist it is not a house at all, but a church or temple, a place where mystical communication with ancient deities is still possible.  This is Olney’s solution to problem of the apparent meaninglessness of life, and was perhaps the alternative Randolph Carter might have considered.  With his soul converted and given over to this religion, Olney can endure his temporary sojourn in the “dull dragging years of greyness and weariness…”  The Strange High House In the Mist will clearly stand forever.

Facts and Impressions of Randolph Carter a.k.a. Thomas Olney

•He was a philosophy professor at a small college by Narragansett Bay.
•He had a “stout wife and romping children”.
•He and his family were Baptists, another denomination in the Calvinist tradition.
•He consulted the Terrible Old Man before and after his adventure on top of the cliff.
•Following a mystical religious experience, he settled out in the suburbs with his family and enjoyed an unremarkable life.

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