Howard Phillips Lovecraft is a polarizing figure.1 His fiction lives on for us mainly because of the anthologizing and reprinting of his stories that was done mostly by August Derleth in the years after Lovecraft’s untimely death at the age of 46. While no contemporary can touch Robert Howard in the realm of prolific, Lovecraft was nearly his equal, publishing not just scores of horror2 stories but also nonfiction, poetry, and even some science, mostly astronomy. Because of his prolific and varying works, we’ve chosen to do as we did with Howard and Burroughs, and focus in on characters and arcs rather than try to nail a whole author in one swoop.
Which brings us to today’s topic: Randolph Carter. Carter is the eponymous main character of an early Lovecraft work titled “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and followed up with “The Unnameable,” The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, “The Silver Key,” and “Through the Gates of the Silver Key.” Much like with the Conan stories of Robert Howard, there has been a lot of haggling over how the Randolph Carter stories should be organized. There is publication chronology, and there are at least two major character-based chronologies: Derleth had his order and Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi has his. Some of the later stories have time travel elements which complicate the order even further. Regardless, apart from the last two stories, they can be tackled by a reader in any order as the episodic nature of the fiction allows for it.
“The Statement of Randolph Carter” was first published in 1920 in a small amateur magazine titled The Vagrant and was then reprinted in Weird Tales in 1925. It introduces the character of Randolph Carter, a middle-aged man, perhaps in his early 40s, who has studied some necromantic and occult texts, although not as deeply as his friend Harley Warren. The story is sort of epistolary in that it’s purported to be his statement to the police as he explains the disappearance of his friend in the Florida wilderness. From a literary standpoint, the story is a classic example of an unreliable narrator, and it’s a story I use in my college classes particularly for this reason.
“The Unnameable” is once again told directly by Carter, but it is his recounting of an attack on him and his friend Joel Manton by a nameless horror. Manton describes it in the last line “shocker” statement endemic to much pulp fiction and later ported over to such stalwarts as The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt. In this story Carter seems to be quite a bit more sure of himself and his occult experiences, so it makes some sense as a sequel to “Statement.” That said, in this story Carter does not believe in the supernatural, something he clearly experienced in the early written story.
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is closer to novella than short story, and it is often packaged together with both “Silver Key” stories to form a paperback collection. It is among Lovecraft’s longest works of fiction. In this story Carter is an expert in the occult, as he wanders through dream realms to talk with the elder gods about his vision of a marvelous sunset. It is one of Lovecraft’s more sophisticated works, and it mostly avoids the shock-value ending, although it is filled with typical Lovecraftian language and idiosyncrasies.
The two “Silver Key” stories do seem to be end-stage character development, as Carter has lost his ability to move through the dream realms he explored in Dream-Quest. The first story deals with his acquisition of a silver key that sends him out of his timeline but gives him back the ability to dream. The second is a direct sequel that picks up with Carter in a higher plane of existence. This particular story takes weird to a new level, as Carter meets more elder gods, loses his sense of self, gets trapped in an alien body, and shows up in that body at his own funeral. These two stories are complex in the way that was off-putting for many readers, including Farnsworth Wright, Lovecraft’s publisher friend at Weird Tales, who passed on the stories the first time offered. They certainly require more character knowledge than many of Lovecraft’s other stories.
The character of Carter is pretty clearly a stand-in for Lovecraft himself, with “Statement” having supposedly come to Lovecraft in a dream. Carter is a writer, a dreamer, and an explorer of the occult and unknown, so it is fascinating that Carter essentially loses himself in the dreamstate. The way Lovecraft went–cancer, poverty, and malnutrition–as he spent his money on more writing (correspondence and letters to friends and other writers) has a tragic quality that maps closely on to Carter’s own death.
Lovecraft’s fiction and poetry work is all in the public domain, and he was rather free with his creations even when he was writing, allowing other authors to play with his creations and write their own stories. That may or may not have had an impact on his poverty and relative obscurity during his lifetime, but later generations, thanks mainly to Derleth’s book collections and Stephen King’s own testaments to the importance of Lovecraft on his works, have embraced the author. He was even recognized by the Library of America with a fantastic collection. You can’t go wrong with purchasing that particular book, but most of the work is free to read online..
1 You can hand me my understatement of the year award whenever you like.
2 Even his horror moves through different subgenres