This week will begin a two-week (famous last words) series on Lovecraft’s concept of The Silver Key, an artifact that his alter(anti?)ego Randolph Carter uses to regain access to the collective Dreamlands that we explored in detail during our month-long investigation of the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.
There are two tales relevant to the artifact, ‘The Silver Key’ and ‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key.’ The first he wrote in 1926 and was able to have it published in 1929. The second was written in 1932 in collaboration with Edgar Hoffman Price, finding publication in 1934. Lovecraft and Hoffman Price met through their mutual friend Robert E. Howard when Lovecraft visited New Orleans. While living in New Orleans, Hoffman Price worked for the chemical company, Union Carbide. An organization, it should be mentioned, that was sued [among many others] by the estate (or a descendant of, I’m not 100% sure) of Marblehead, MA native and Naval Architect, Bowdoin B. Crowninshield for personal injury derived from asbestos. There are other possible links to the extant Raytheon Corp Crowninshield connections as Union Carbide was very active in rocket propulsion research during the cold war — an area where we know the Salem family has deep ties. For now, however, let’s put the Lovecraftian / parapolitical Crowninshield Conspiracy aside, and concentrate on the softer colors of our magical palette.
We begin with a picture of our familiar protagonist, his thoughts passively narrated, ruminating about what is likely a very familiar state for many a magician, the fading of dreams as we pass from youth into adulthood:
“When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of 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 these liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether… Wonder had gone away, and he had forgotten that… there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other.”
This is the perspective of the Aborigine, the Native American, the Amerindian and the First Nations tribesperson; that the dream life and the waking life are two sides of the same coin, and each has the same value. With Lovecraft as narrator, he is as much as saying that this is the truth of things, a truth that his most persistent and well-thought-out protagonist, Randolph Carter, has lost. This admission should be taken to heart and used to understand all other (of the many) instances of dreams in the rest of HPL’s oeuvre. The Silver Key is revelatory, but with ideas that have now become familiar during the course of this investigation, such as when it is stated that:
“Custom had dinned into his ears a superstitious reverence for that which tangibly and physically exists, and had made him secretly ashamed to dwell in visions.”
This is referring to the cultural effect of materialism and how it can weigh even the most ardent and powerful dreamer down with its unreasoned weight. The narrator continues, illuminating more of Carter’s thoughts:
“They chained him down to things that are, and had then explained the workings of those things till mystery had gone out of the world. When he complained, and longed to escape into twilight realms where magic moulded all the… vivid fragments… of his mind into vistas of breathless expectancy… they turned him… toward the newfound prodigies of science, bidding him find wonder in the atom’s vortex and mystery in the sky’s dimensions. And when he failed to find these boons in things whose laws are… measurable, they told him he lacked imagination…”
A potent quote, and a Death Knell for the Pop Lovecraftian who insists that Lovecraft was himself a materialist. This includes his most famous and studied critics. This same envelope of understanding also places Randolph Carter as the most auto-biographical of Lovecraft’s characters. If this is so then, how do we reconcile these words from The Silver Key? Words that point a finger directly at materialism and state that not only is it fundamentally flawed, but nefarious and bullying in the spread of its dogma. The narrative continues with Carter moving from a state of despair to the company of books:
“when he came to study those who had thrown off the old myths, he found them even more ugly that those who had not. They did not know that beauty lies in harmony, and that loveliness of life has no standard amidst an aimless cosmos save only its harmony with the dreams and the feelings which have gone before and blindly moulded our little spheres out of the rest of chaos.”
For Carter, although the ‘old myths,’ what he calls religion, were found unsatisfactory given his experience in the Dreamlands (as anyone with a taste of this type of magic might), the case made by the atheist, yes, the atheist, was even more ugly and intolerable. What these lines are saying is that even a shallow adherence to the myths of old and the slim chance for escape and wisdom they possessed was preferable to a life where myth had no place at all. The mundane weighs on Carter, pushing him further:
“he cultivated deliberate illusion, and dabbled in the notions of the bizarre and the eccentric as an antidote for the commonplace. Most of these, however, soon shewed their poverty and barrenness; and he saw that the popular doctrines of occultism are as dry and inflexible as those of science… So Carter bought stranger books and sought out deeper and more terrible men of fantastic erudition; delving into arcana of consciousness that few have trod, and learning things about the secret pits of life, legend, and immemorial antiquity which disturbed him ever afterward…”
Who among us has not felt this call? If you are here and you have an interest not just in magic but in Lovecraftian Magic, it is likely that the Pop Lovecratfian / Derlethian call of inexplicable monsters and undying cosmic horrors are what led you here. Are you not on the same path as Carter took, seeking ever stranger books… delving into the arcana of consciousness… learning the dark secrets of immemorial antiquity. The next paragraph gives examples of Carter’s travels through the Lovecraftian universe, haunting cemeteries and sealing away blasphemous diaries of distant ancestors in Arkham. The loss of access to the Dreamlands very literally drove Randolph Carter to actively seeking out the cosmic horrors present in the world, the darkness of both the unknown and the known. As the narrative continues, as Carter moves deeper and deeper into what humankind can never know, he is at the same time surrounding himself with what was most familiar:
“his relics of youth… made life and sophistication seem very distant and unreal; so much so that a touch of magic and expectancy stole back into his nightly slumbers.”
The effect of hyper-nostalgia, for Carter, was a richer and more magic dreaming. It also put him back in touch with ancestor-spirits, namely his grandfather, whom can only be old Whipple himself, resurrected in paper in ink. It was Whipple that told him where in the attic of his ancestral home to find the ’Silver Key,’ an artifact and representation of the magic of his ancestors:
“he cleaned the key, and kept it by him nightly in its aromatic box of ancient oak. his dreams were meanwhile increasing in vividness, and though shewing him none of the strange cities and incredible gardens of the old day, were assuming a definite cast whose purpose could not be mistaken. They were calling him back along the years, and with the mingled wills of all his fathers were pulling him toward some hidden and ancestral source.”
his tale has especial potency for me. I’ve spoke on it a number of times, in fact, around a year ago it must have been… I have spoken about how my childhood on the family farm in the Northwestern corner of Illinois is the only reoccurring landscape of my dreams. I recall it being a year ago because of the difficulty and danger my grandmother was posing in successive degree every time I visited. Her death wasn’t sweet, having moved into a mental space not unlike Ruth Deaver’s at the end.
It is the Days of Cyprian again, and I have not forgotten that I was finally successful in at least appeasing and quieting the malefic manifestations of her dream incarnation with his help. Every time I have gone back to that farm house in my dreaming since I asked Cyprian to help her find her way out of the place she was in, she has not been there. If The Silver Key has a message, it is telling me there is power and gnosis in that hypernostolgic landscape. In The Silver Key, Carter makes a physical trip to the place of his ancestors, called there by our archetype, The Silver Key:
“Then came the steeper slope that held the old Carter place… Afternoon was far gone when he reached the foot, and at the bend half way up he paused to scan the outspread countryside… in the slanting floods of magic poured out by a western sun. All the strangeness and expectancy of his recent dreams seemed present in this hushed and unearthly landscape, and he thought of the unknown solitudes of other planets as his eyes traced out the velvet and deserted lawns shining… between their tumbled walls, the clumps of faery forest setting off far lines of purple hills… and the spectral wooded valley dipping down in shadow to dank hollows where trickling waters crooned… Something made him feel that motors did not belong in the realm he was seeking, so he left his car at the edge of the forest… [put] the great key in his pocket [and] walked on up the hill.”
There is a lot here about the landscape-as-spirit, which, for Lovecraft was obviously New England, but his description of the land, such as where he calls out the ‘slanting floods of magic pouring from the Western sun’ are universal. My brother was married just last week and I found that same magic flooding over the endless corn fields of my youth as the sun set on a perfect late summer evening. This language’s inclusion tie the act of hypernostalgia to an embededness of oneself in the landscape-as-spirit, both of which are tied to the act of journeying and where our own individual gates are hidden deep within our personal dreamlands, gates which allow us access to Carter’s collective dreamlands that connect the far flung planets of our solar system. Somewhere in that dream of your childhood home is a door leading to the non-Euclidean spires of planets beyond our comprehension.
Moving towards that door, Carter steps into a Lovecraftian Aesthetic more familiar and more prevalent then any Derlethian writhing tentacles, the old growth forests of New England:
“Woods now engulfed him utterly… Shadows thickened around him… Once a gap in the trees opened up to the right, so that he saw off across leagues of twilight meadow and spied the old Congregational steeple on Central Hill in Kingsport; pink with the last flush of day… Then, when he was in deep shadow again, he recalled with a start that the glimpse [of the church] must have come from… memory… since the old white church had long been torn down… Through his puzzlement a voice piped, and he started again at its familiarity… Old Benijah Corey… his [Uncle’s]… hired man…
‘Mister Randy! Mister Randy!… He’s the beatin’est boy fer runnin’ off in the woods… Hey, yew, Ran… dee!’
Randolph Carter stopped in the pitch darkness and rubbed his hand across his eyes. Something was queer. He had been somewhere he ought not to be… he knew his lateness was something very strange and unprecedented.”
As we progress deeper and deeper into the dominion of the Wild Adversary, while holding our artifact, we are pulled through time, the landscape and the power of journeying physically pulls us into the past. Liber Kaos goes on and on (and on) about the nature of time and how its quantum undefined nature makes retroactive enchantments possible. That is the tech being described here. By embedding himself deeply in this green space and focusing on his memories of the past, Carter is transporting himself to a place where the most potent type of enchantments can be wrought. For Carter the transfiguration is a nearly complete act as he is pulled back into his own body as a young boy:
“In the morning Randolph was up early… He looked impatiently around the low-pitched room… and smiled only when the orchard boughs scratched at the leaded panes of the rear window. The trees and the hills were close to him, and formed the gates of that timeless realm which was his true country.”
True Country is an excellent descriptor for the complex enchantment that we are exploring here. A goal that we can strive for. That place in our unconsciousness that can open gates to a deep well of magical power. A place in our dreams that is surrounded by the deepest memories as they are represented, reconstituted, interpreted by the landscape that has made the strongest imprint on us, our True Country. Somewhere inside our True Country is a door, a barrier, and we all know what we as Lovecraftian Magic-Users (can I use that? It’s so much more delightfully nerdy than mage or witch) do with barriers and the exponentially strange and terrifying places that lie on the other side.
Finding and learning to stay with, night after night, our True Country is the first step in finding the Gate of the Silver Key, and on the other side lay the collective dreams of the human race with all of their beauty and gnosis.
Immersed in his past, or a probable past as Carroll would suggest, Carter moves closer to his own True Country:
“when he was free, he felt in his… pocket for the key, and… skipped off across the orchard [and the forest beyond]… The floor of the forest was mossy and mysterious, and great lichened rocks rose vaguely here and there in the dim light like Druid monoliths among the swollen and twisted trunks of a sacred grove… Then he came to the strange cave in the forest slope, the… ‘snake-den’ which country folk shunned… [he] had found a fissure in the farthestmost black corner that led to a… haunting sepulchral place whose granite walls held a curious illusion of conscious artifice…”
Carter, in his enchanted hypernostalgic journey, finds his way to the same cave that we encountered in the Transition of Juan Romero and the Mountains of Madness, the same cave where Jung descended and found inscrutable writing made by the cave itself and a black river of blood in which snakes covered the glowing red light of Helios? of Christ? of the Devil? The Snake-Den is the center of one’s True Country, and where we will find our door. After finding his way back to the Snake-Den with the Silver Key in hand, Carter is transfigured himself.
A curious note here, there is a brief mention of Carter’s cousin, one Ernest B. Aspinwall of Chicago. The Aspinwall Genealogy states, regarding the English ancestors of the Aspinwall family:
“Toxteth Park, now a suburb of the city of Liverpool, had been the property of the Crown from the time of King John, but, in the year 1604, was disparked, and came through purchase into the hands of one Richard Molyneux. Prior to this time, it is spoken of as "waste land without inhabitants," but when it was disparked, a number of persons settled on the land, and began its cultivation. Among these was one Edward Aspinwall, no doubt a member of the Aspinwall family in the immediate vicinity.
He appears to have been the earliest settler of the name at Toxteth Park, and, from various circumstances, the compiler of this work believes that he was the father of Peter Aspinwall, our ancestor, although he has not had the opportunity to make any researches to settle this point. It appears that the early inhabit- ants of Toxteth Park were Puritan in their leanings, and, in 1611, Richard Mather, afterwards minister at Dorchester, Mass., at the age of 15 years, was called there to take charge of the school.
He lived, while at Toxteth, in the family of Edward Aspinwall, and while there became converted, which, as he expresses it, " was occasioned by observing a difference between his own walk, and the most exact, watchful, faithful and prayerful conversation of some in the family of the learned and pious Mr. Edward Aspinwall, of Toxteth, where he sojourned."
Which is an interesting additional to Carter’s own history, that he is related to a line that was able to exact a living out of a waste land with a Puritan pride and tenacity. Further in the ancestry there are a number of ‘Ernests’ extant in the records, lending an edge of reality to our fiction-as-spell.
In the end, Carter enacts his full retroactive enchantment, immersing himself so fully in his hypernostalgia that it consumes him and he disappears from the current point in time and new memories flood all of those that knew him, such as Ernest Aspinwall above, where he is remembered as being a strange youth with a gift of prophecy. In a way, upon reaching his True Country, the Randolph Carter that was, dies, and is replaced with something new.
Our tarot match for ‘The Silver Key’ is the Death card.
One might be forgiven for thinking that applying such a potent card to such a small tale in Lovecraft’s oeuvre is an error in judgement. I think once we make a few connections you will see the wisdom in this match provided by the deck.
Let’s revisit Benebell Wen’s Holistic Tarot for a moment. In that work, she says of this trump that:
“Death is [a] transformation and metamorphosis… the end of a phase [of] life and the beginning of a new one. The Death card is about change.”
If ‘The Silver Key’ is about anything it is about the transformation of Randolph Carter from a being soaked in the Seas of Quiddity to one weighed down by the trappings and culture of materialism, and then back again into something new, a dreamer with the wisdom of having lived in that darker place. Benebell continues with her interpretation when she states that:
“It can suggest the waning of power of one authority and the growing, ascending power of a new. It is the card of revolutions… [Changes] that are necessary [experiences] that… must [be] endured to find the greatness that is promised…”
Suggesting that the power and authority of materialism is disintegrated through the Silver Key’s enchantment, replaced with a new world where magic is once again possible.
Jodorowsky, in his ‘Way of the Tarot’, has parallel ideas about the Death card. In his work on the subject he states that:
“this card invites a radical purification of the past, a revolution that takes place in the nonverbal or preverbal depths of the individual, in the shadow of that black terrain, that unknown region of ourselves, from which emerges, like a matrix, our humanity.”
Which is a perfect description of the act of seeking one’s True Country, descending down into the Snake-Den and finding Jung’s glowing, serpent-gaurded Red Center.
Our Etteilla deck offers two keywords that deepen our understanding of the connection between The Silver Key and the Death card. The first keyword is, as expected, Mortality. From the Old French ‘Mortalite,’ come the predictable meanings of massacre, slaughter, fatal, illness, poverty, and destruction. When this is broken down into its PIE root, *mer-, the meaning shifts to ‘rub away’ and is related to the the Hittite word-part mer-, meaning ‘to disappear,’ or ‘vanish.’ Which is the exact act that Randolph achieved once he found his own Red Center. Also of interest is how *mer- expands out to the words ‘ambrosia’ — the food of the gods, or soma — and ‘mare,’ meaning night-goblin or incubus. Our second keyword, Nothingness, is related to the PIE root *ne-, which predictably means ‘not’ or ‘without.’ This connections gains more meaning when he see that it is expanded out into ‘nepenthe’, ‘nix,’ and ‘renegade.’
The Silver Key is a very important archetype for Lovecraftian Magic-Users (I’m rolling with it, try and stop me), as it represents our part in the growing revolution against the false construct of materialism, pointing us all to our True Country, through which we will all find one another again in the collective Dreamlands of humankind.