Randolph Carter is a character who appears in several of H.P. Lovecraft stories, as early as 1920 in the classic The Statement of Randolph Carter. Thought by some to be the author’s alter ego, the character appears to undergo some personal changes over time and across stories, and this is especially the case in the Lovecraft-Hoffman collaboration, Through the Gates of the Silver Key (1934)—Carter at one point is reincarnated as an insectoid wizard from the planet Yaddith. This makes his homecoming much more awkward than it was in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943).
In a letter to E. Hoffmann Price dated October 3, 1932, Lovecraft offers his friend several suggestions in order to improve the draft of this sequel to his earlier story, The Silver Key (1929):
In the first place, the style ought perhaps to be less unlike that of The Silver Key. Secondly, in describing Carter’s exit from the world of reality the fact that he has returned to a boyhood stage ought to be allowed for. This is mentioned in The Silver Key. Third—the transition, and the entrance to the world of illusion, ought to be infinitely subtilized. There must be no abrupt entry to a tangible and describable vault inside the hill, but rather a vague atomic filtration into a world hardly describable in terms of matter.
In the letter Lovecraft indicates that his contribution to the joint project may involve some changes, which changes “may (if you don’t mind) be quite considerable.” Perhaps anticipating criticism from others, namely that of Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales, where the collaboration was eventually published, Lovecraft goes on to identify the challenges he and Hoffman face in completing the work:
And right here two problems come up. First—how to get ideas to the reader without introducing the element of concrete-sounding dialogue—a jarring note in connexion with vague transpatial abysses and nebulosities—and second, how to avoid the impression of lecture-room didacticism. Hell, but it’ll be a tough nut to crack!
Many readers have since concluded that the nut remained uncracked. Upon reading the story when it was first submitted, Farnsworth Wright feared that readers “would find the descriptions and discussions of polydimensional space poison to their enjoyment of the tale…” S.T. Joshi did not like this story either. It is not included among Lovecraft’s primary and secondary revisions in The Horror in the Museum (1970), though it is at least equal in quality to several of the stories in that interesting collection. Joshi described it as “…nothing more than a fantastic adventure story with awkward and laboured mathematical and philosophical interludes.”
Nevertheless, Through the Gates of the Silver Key is interesting as much for its flaws as for its imaginative attempts to incorporate elements of both The Silver Key and The Statement of Randolph Carter. (The doomed character of Harley Warren is frequently referred to in the Lovecraft-Hoffmann story.) There are numerous references to Lovecraftian concepts from other works, and The Necronomicon is quoted at length:
“And while there are those,” the mad Arab had written, “who have dared to seek glimpses beyond the Veil, and to accept HIM as guide, they would have been more prudent had they avoided commerce with HIM; for it is written in the Book of Thoth how terrific is the price of a single glimpse...”
Approaching a novella in length, Through the Gates of the Silver Key is comprised of 8 sections, but the most interesting are the first three—which bring the reader up to date about Carter’s activities since he disappeared back in October of 1928—and the last, which contains a surprise ending that will not surprise most astute readers. Most will want to skim through sections 4 through 6, which present a tediously “didactic” proto-New Age mish-mash of weird geometry and Buddhism. (E. Hoffmann Price was a Buddhist and also, incongruously, a Republican.) This part of the story must have been excruciating for Lovecraft to edit and revise—Joshi suspects he gave up and left most of Price’s ideas intact.
The story opens in New Orleans, at the home of one Etienne de Marigny, a wealthy mystic, who is hosting Ward Phillips—“an elderly eccentric of Providence, Rhode Island” and Ernest K. Aspinwall, a cousin of Randolph Carter’s, representing the family’s fiduciary interests. They have gathered to divide the long lost Carter’s earthly estate, but Phillips and Marigny believe Carter is still alive and may return soon.
So does their exotic guest, the Swami Chandraputra, also at the table. Here Lovecraft and Price have inserted the stock character of the mysterious inscrutable Asian who probably knows more than he is saying. There is also “an increasingly nervous old Negro” whose job it is to refill “the odd tripods of wrought iron” that stand in the corners of the room, spewing out “the hypnotic fumes of olibanum”. He gets no lines, no one talks to him, and he apparently flees in panic near the end of the story. This is also a stock character in the pulp fiction of the time and in the movie adaptations that followed shortly afterwards.
Chandraputra gets nearly all the lines. Much of the story is his monologue about Lovecrafto-Buddhist metaphysics, as he describes how Carter goes through various “gates” and what he sees. Randolph Carter is oddly absent from the tale except in name. He says very little, does little, and is quite passive. He seems to be more an idea than a character in the story, the focal point for an elaborate philosophical explanation. At least he is until the very end. Sadly, it is not clear whether he will ever be able to return to human form, much less to Arkham. If only he had remembered to bring “the undecipherable parchment in the hideously carven box with the silver key…”
The character of Randolph Carter has been discussed in several earlier posts. Interested readers may also want to look at
1. What Happened to Randolph? (The Statement of Randolph Carter)
2. Randolph’s Graveside Debate (The Unnamable)
3. Randolph’s Mid Life Crisis (The Silver Key)
4. Randolph Carter alias Thomas Olney (The Strange High House in the Mist)
5. “I shall ask him when I see him…” (Various)