So I'm a big fan of the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast. It's two guys, armed with lit degrees and a healthy sense of humor, dissecting the works of HP Lovecraft, one story at at time, in the order they were written. I've been a big Lovecraft fan ever since I first discovered him at around age 12. His stories of Elder Gods and nameless horrors from beyond spoke to me then, and probably had a more profound impact on my world-view than I'd like to admit.
At any rate. The podcast is about a year old now, and they're just getting to the most prolific and creative part of Lovecraft's career. Last week, they covered his story "The Silver Key," and their discussion gave me a far greater appreciation of it than I had before. It's part of Lovecraft's Dreamlands cycle, and like most of the Dreamlands stuff, I read it kind of half-assed when I was a kid, and haven't really ever gone back to it. But their reading made me look at it (and all the Randolph Carter stories, ultimately) as a sort of fantasy autobiography. And in light of where Lovecraft was in his life at the time of writing (he'd just returned home to Providence after his life as a married man in New York fell apart), it's become pretty fascinating to me.
There's a weird disconnect between the message of Silver Key and that of its (superior) companion piece, "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" (which Lovecraft was apparently writing at the same time). In Silver Key, Lovecraft seems to be endorsing a retreat into childhood as the key to mastering the Dreamlands (which are, ultimately, a stand-in for creativity). Because that's what Randolph Carter does: at the jaded age of 50, having lost his ability to enter the Dreamlands to the constant barrage of worry that comes with adult life, he becomes a child again and relives his life, only half-aware that he's done it all before. And this reliving, the narrator tells us, will unlock the Dreamlands for him and ultimately result in him becoming its king.
But in Dream-Quest, set 20 years earlier in Carter's life (but finished and published after Silver Key), Lovecraft tells us that the perfect city of dreams that Randolph Carter was trying to attain was actually the real world all along. Which would seem to imply an embrace of reality and adulthood as the real source of Lovecraft's creative impulses. This disconnect fascinates me, and I can see two possible readings of it:
1. Silver Key is an expression of Lovecraft's feelings of inadequacy after failing to keep his marriage and life in New York going. He felt like he had retreated to childhood, in effect infantilizing himself by coming under the care of his aunts. Then, once he'd had time to settle in and get his head straight about it all, he finished up Dream-Quest and gave us his ultimate feelings on the issue of the value of reality vs the more ephemeral value of dreams.
One problem with this reading: I think it's completely wrong. Lovecraft seems to have in fact been energized by his return to Providence, as evidenced by the sudden upturn in quality in his writing. This is the period when he wrote "The Call of Cthulhu," "Pickman's Model," and most of his truly great work. So I think this scenario is more likely:
2. Dream-Quest is actually just a snapshot of where Lovecraft's head was when he moved to New York in the first place. But by the time he came back to Providence, the Silver Key seems to tell us, he saw that as a naive outlook that had been dashed on the rocks of bland reality. His adult life, he felt, had cost him the keys to his imagination, and it was only by returning home, essentially retreating into childhood, that he found it again. With Call of Cthulhu and the rest bubbling up in his brain, he really must have felt like the King of the Dreamlands.
That's a slightly horrifying philosophy to me, but that horror is lessened somewhat by the narrator's assertion that Carter will be back. So it's not a complete retreat into childhood that Lovecraft's endorsing here, but a temporary one. A vacation in childhood, perhaps, that allows reflection and learning from mistakes, and that will eventually lead to better things.
Of course, we also know that Lovecraft lived with his aunts for the rest of his life, so... Maybe that became a permanent vacation after all...