In the last post, we began a series on Randolph Carter, a character who appears in several of Lovecraft’s stories. He is unique among Lovecraft’s creations and may be a representation of the author himself. What does the development of this character reveal of Lovecraft’s own changing perceptions of life? (Your comments are always welcome.)
In The Unnamable, Randolph Carter resumes a debate that he has had off and on with his friend, Joel Manton, a high school principle in Arkham. The debate has to do superficially with the existence of the supernatural. However, it is really the classic argument between people who relate to the world through intuition, imagination and faith, and those who prefer to rely on reason and observation through their five senses—idealism versus practicality.
A Good Place for a Metaphysical Debate
The debate takes place appropriately in an ancient graveyard, close to dusk. Carter and Manton sit on a tomb not far from “the cavernous rift in the ancient, root-disturbed brickwork close behind us..” and “…the utter blackness of the spot brought by the intervention of a tottering deserted seventeenth century house…”
Frustrated with his friend’s insistence on sensory data alone as a source of truth, Carter dismisses him as a complacent “orthodox sun dweller.” As the light fades, Carter tells a story within a story. At this point The Unnamable begins to sound like a campfire tale. He provides his friend the history behind his recently published short story, ‘The Attic Window’.
‘The Attic Window’
Drawing from the papers of Cotton Mather, local folk tales and a diary of one of his ancestors, Carter describes a creature, possibly human, or part human, that had been locked in the attic of an old house. The creature escapes at one point and attacks one of Carter’s ancestors along a dark road. It is unclear how the creature came to be, but Carter ascribes this in part to Puritanism: “And in that rusted iron straitjacket lurked gibbering hideousness, perversion, and diabolism.”
Eventually the old man who cared for the creature dies, and the monster is left locked upstairs in the attic. The townspeople assume it has perished, but later on there is a horrible and vicious attack at the parsonage, (which seems to fit the author’s views on Calvinism).
Many years pass, but the spirit and malevolence of the creature seem to persist, even driving a boy to madness after he goes to investigate the creature’s remains in the old house. The townspeople tell stories about travelers being gored to death or smothered by frightful apparitions in the vicinity of the tomb and old house. Carter speculates: “if the psychic emanations of human creatures be grotesque distortions, what coherent representation could express or portray so gibbous and infamous a nebulosity as the specter of a malign chaotic perversion, itself a morbid blasphemy against nature?”
Randolph’s Closing Arguments
Manton is visibly shaken by the story, but Carter is not done with him yet. He reveals that the two of them are actually sitting right next to the very tomb and house where the creature dwelled. Its spirit suddenly makes a violent and horrendous visitation, and Manton is seriously wounded. (Randolph merely faints.) In the hospital, Manton is forced to acknowledge that he has experienced “The Unnamable”. Carter has won the argument.
Besides the debate between idealism and practicality, there are other topics are being argued in The Unnamable. Earlier in the story, Manton has criticized Carter’s writing for its “constant talk about ‘unnamable’ and ‘unmentionable’ things, and for often ending his stories “with sights or sounds which paralyzed my heroe’s faculties and left them without courage, words, or associations to tell what they had experienced.” Yet Carter’s telling of ‘The Attic Window’ is effective in frightening his friend—he is an able and successful story teller.
Manton is a member of a Congregationalist church, a Calvinist denomination linked in history with the Puritans. So Manton represents Puritanism in Randolph Carter’s graveside debate, and history comes full circle as the spirit of the monster attacks him as vigorously as it did the parsonage long ago. The Unnamable is clever in using the ‘story within a story’ to help Carter powerfully win his argument with Manton, and with the Puritans.
Additional Facts and Impressions of Randolph Carter
•He is prone to fainting under duress.
•He does not appreciate criticism of his writing, philosophy or creative approach.
•He is unafraid of controversy, especially in terms of the public’s perception of his works.
•He is a friend of Joel Manton, the principal East High School in Arkham, Massachusetts.
•Like his friend Harley Warren, Mr. Manton comes under fearful attack from supernatural forces, although he survives the ordeal.
•Carter is willing to go to extremes to make a point, including putting his friends in hazardous situations.
•It is risky business being a friend of Randolph Carter.