Saturday, February 23, 2008

The key to the gate of dreams

Someone asked me the other day why I named my particular bit of cyberspace "The Silver Key." As you can see from the quote at the bottom of my home page, I took the title from a short story of the same name by well-known horror/science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937).

"The Silver Key" isn't one of Lovecraft's better-known tales, nor is it accorded one of his best. Famous for creating tentacled abominations from deep space (The Cthulhu mythos) and an evil sanity-blasting tome (the Necronomicon), Lovecraft is better known for stories like "At the Mountains of Madness," "The Call of Cthulhu," and "The Dunwich Horror."

Yet "The Silver Key" grabbed me from the moment I read it. It was unlike any other story in the particular collection (The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre) in which I first encountered the tale. Most notably, "The Silver Key" is not about horror. Aside from a few mentions of witches, mad prophets, and strange, unexplained disappearances (relatively tame elements for a Lovecraft story), "The Silver Key" explores one man's search for meaning in a vast, uncaring, and empty universe.

At the outset of the story we're introduced to Randolph Carter, a dreamer whose imagination has fossilized due to the humdrum routine of daily life, and the onset of middle age:

When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key to the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt those liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon.

Carter's plight is common to that of all adults: We are taught life's facts and realities until mystery and wonder goes out of the world, and become chained down to things that are. Teachers and politicians and clergy instruct us that science and politics and traditional forms of religion are the only pursuits worth following, and that the stuff of dreams is for children. Gradually, our imaginations are choked off.

Carter tries to assimilate himself into society and embrace earthly pursuits, but without success. He eventually comes to discover that all of these "worthwhile" values and systems are empty and ugly next to the stuff of dreams:

...he could not help seeing how shallow, fickle, and meaningless all human aspirations are, and how emptily our real impulses contrast with those pompous ideals we profess to hold. Then he would have recourse to the polite laughter they had taught him to use against the extravagance and artificiality of dreams; for he saw that the daily life of our world is every inch as extravagant and artificial, and far less worthy of respect because of its poverty in beauty and its silly reluctance to admit its own lack of reason and purpose.

Carter is even more disgusted with people who abandon earthly pursuits for "barbaric display and animal sensation." Finally, he comes to realize that "calm, lasting beauty comes only in a dream, and this solace the world had thrown away when in its worship of the real it threw away the secrets of childhood and innocence."

Note that by "dream," Lovecraft does not mean the literal act of the mind while sleeping, but instead the dreams born of imagination and journeys of the waking mind. This is where I throw my support behind Lovecraft: I too wish there was more room in the world for fantasy and the stuff of dreams. I find much of what life has to offer rather shallow, unfulfilling, and spiritually empty.

Carter ultimately finds release by using a great silver key, an heirloom handed down by his grandfather and a literal "key to the lost gate of dreams." Here the tale takes a true turn into the supernatural, as Carter uses this key to pass through a strange cave in a forest slope near his family's ancestral home in the woods of Arkham, Massachusetts (Lovecraft's fictional setting for many of his stories). He disappears forever and is presumed dead by the authorities, but the narrator, one of Carter's heirs, knows otherwise:

He wanted the lands of dream he had lost, and yearned for the days of his childhood. Then he found a key, and I somehow believe he was able to use it to strange advantage.

I shall ask him when I see him, for I expect to meet him shortly in a certain dream-city we both used to haunt. It is rumored in Ulthar, beyond the River Skai, that a new king reigns on the opal throne of Ilek-Vad, that fabulous town of turrets atop the hollow cliffs of glass overlooking the twilight sea wherein the bearded and finny Gnorri build their singular labyrinths, and I believe I know how to interpret this rumor. Certainly, I look forward impatiently to the sight of that great silver key, for in its cryptical arabesques there may stand symbolized all the aims and mysteries of a blindly impersonal cosmos.

As I see it, the silver key from Lovecraft's tale is a symbol for the escape our dreams can offer from a mechanistic, material universe. Just as this space on the web is for me.

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