This is a pleasant surprise. When I first burned through the Lovecraft canon in my late teens his Dreamlands stuff didn’t enthral me as much as the cosmic horror. But on rereading, this story turns out to be unexpectedly charming and relatable, and I suspect it’s one of his most autobiographical pieces.
As for what it’s about, I can do no better than quote the opening:
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 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.
He had read much of things as they are, and talked with too many people. Well-meaning philosophers had taught him to look into the logical relations of things, and analyse the processes which shaped his thoughts and fancies. Wonder had gone away, and he had forgotten that all life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which 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. 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.
It’s a story of loss, of having been told to grow up and being dissatisfied now that he’s grown. Carter tries to fit into conventional adult society and adopt conventional tastes, but none keep his interest. He gradually fades into seclusion, living alone in his old family house filled with unchanged Victorian furniture. And one night, when he remembers a silver key his grandfather had once described to him, he becomes consumed with the thought that he might regain his dreams.
I suspect many readers of science fiction and fantasy can empathize with the feelings in this story. Indeed, it’s not an unusual moral nowadays, and it often dissatisfies me: when there are characters who read speculative fiction, and are praised and uplifted for it, it is difficult for there not to be an air of self-congratulation. But by Lovecraft’s story being about Carter’s dream worlds, and portraying them as quasi-physical places, this story manages to escape these misgivings while still commenting on such feelings directly.
It’s also one instance where Lovecraft’s distinctive style undoubtedly enhances the story. The language is rich without being opaque (helped by the story being largely contemplative rather than action-based), and the prose-poetry tone captures the feel of a eulogy for Carter’s lost dreams.
The Silver Key by H.P. Lovecraft
Availability: free online (out of copyright), print
Word count: 5,000
First published: Weird Tales, January 1929
Where to find it: As it is out of copyright, it can be found in many places, including Wikisource here
It has also been reprinted in many H.P. Lovecraft collections. Here are a few recent ones:
The H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 1: At the Mountains of Madness, collection, 1987, Grafton
The Complete Fiction, collection, 2010, Barnes & Noble Books
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and other Oneiric Works, collection, 2011, Creation Oneiros
The Fantasy Hall of Fame, edited by Robert Silverberg & Martin H. Greenberg, Arbor House