Friday, June 28, 2013

5. “I shall ask him when I see him…”

This is the final post in a series about Lovecraft’s character, Randolph Carter.  Four of Lovecraft’s earlier stories were discussed in terms of changes in Carter’s personality that result from his several adventures, and the extent to which his development reflects Lovecraft’s own changing perceptions of his life.  The stories reviewed included The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Unnamable, The Silver Key, and The Strange High House In The Mist.

(I did not include Through The Gates Of The Silver Key.  Though an interesting tale, it seems that E. Hoffman Price’s style and additions obscure whatever Lovecraft may have contributed to the story in their collaboration.  And I will save The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath—surely the culmination of Randolph Carter’s struggle to reconcile dream and reality—for future posts.)

From the start, it can be said that these four stories interrelate in a way that conveys the sadness, loneliness and frustration in Carter’s life and perhaps in his creator’s life as well.  The first two stories begin in graveyards, where the interlocking challenges of mortality and the meaning of life are plainly in view.  In The Unnamable, Carter remains above ground, cowering as his friend is overwhelmed below by what he discovers in the tomb.  A little later, in another graveyard, the ghost of a centuries old horror is the nexus of Carter’s struggle with his Puritan heritage, with materialism, and a “self-satisfied deafness to the delicate overtones of life.”

Randolph Carter’s inability to reconcile his idealism and romantic nature with the demands of modern life gets almost academic treatment in the first few pages of The Silver Key. Here the narrator offers Lovecraft’s critique of modern times and explains his discomfort with the viewpoints and social expectations of his contemporaries.  Meanwhile, Thomas Olney, his alias in Kingsport, has resigned himself to the day by day, year by year reality of modern life, “and done uncomplaining the suitable deeds of a citizen.”

There are fictions within fictions in these stories.  Is it believable that Randolph Carter was a World War I veteran, in the French Foreign Legion?  That he was a successful writer of novels?  That he had a butler named Parks and unlimited funds?   That Thomas Olney had a “stout wife and romping children”, or was a successful philosophy professor?  The internal inconsistency of these details suggests they are probably examples of wishful thinking.  More likely, Randolph Carter/Thomas Olney remained a struggling writer, and “For a while he sought friends, but soon grew weary of the crudeness of their emotions, and the sameness and earthiness of their visions.”
In the last two stories, two solutions are offered to the problem of the character’s midlife crisis.  (Which crisis is the result of that terrible distance between dreams and ideals on the far shore and the reality at the edge one stands on.)  The seeds of this struggle of can be found in the first two stories.  Carter eventually returns to his childhood, where dreams and reality are never far apart.  Olney enters into a mystical communion with elder gods, where dreams and reality can unite.  By leaving his soul there, he can thrive in the suburbs, as “his good wife waxes stouter and his children older and prosier and more useful…”

Sadly, the solution that is never seriously considered by Randolph Carter—the ancient solution—is the one that includes family, friendship, meaningful work, and religious faith. 

Randolph Carter's most elaborate adventure, in Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943) was discussed in a series of posts in early 2016.  See also:


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