Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.
You never know who is on the end of the line…
“The Statement of Randolph Carter” was written in December 1919 and first published in the May 1920 issue of The Vagrant. The Vagrant was an amateur magazine that ran between 1915 and 1927 although with a somewhat irregular publishing schedule meaning that it only managed to produce 15 issues in those twelve years. Aside from hosting “Statement”, The Vagrant also saw the first publication of Lovecraft’s “Dagon” in its November 1919 issue as well as what might very well be the first critical appraisal of Lovecraft’s work in the form of a short essay by Vagrant editor William Paul Cook who positioned Lovecraft as an heir to the likes of Pau, Maupassant, and Bierce.
“The Statement of Randolph Carter” is one of Lovecraft’s better known early stories. There are a number of different reasons for this relative longevity but the first and foremost is that the tone and imagery is considerably more macabre than a lot of stories from this period and the darkness of the imagery serves to locate “Statement” a lot closer to the stories of the so-called Mythos cycle than the Dream cycle stories that surround it. Aside from tonal similarities, “Statement” also introduces a character who would recur in later stories and then get picked up and played with by a long list of pastiches and derivative works.
It is worth stopping to consider why “Statement” feels more like a Mythos-thing than a Dream-thing as the story is based upon imagery from one of Lovecraft’s dreams suggesting that the real difference between Mythos-related and Dream-related stories might not be the source of the inspiration but the decision to surround that imagery with stuff anchoring it to the real world. Indeed, stories like “The White Ship”, “The Green Meadow”, and “Polaris” feel dream-like in so far as none of them take place in the real world. Conversely, stories like “Dagon” and “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” feel much more like pieces of Mythos-related fiction because Lovecraft situates the weirdness in the real world rather than some secondary world that is accessed through more-or-less magical means. Obviously, this boundary is quite porous in that all of these works set out to blur the line between dreams, fantasy, and reality but this is a distinction I may wind up bearing in mind or developing as I work my way through Lovecraft’s fiction.
Another big difference between “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and stories from the same period of Lovecraft’s life is that “Statement” makes no attempt to recreate the sense of dream-like silvery awe that pervades those other stories: Gone are the decorously-ruined temples and talk of noble Aryan ancestors brought low by cruel fate. Instead we have a return to the high-goth macabre of stories like “The Tomb”:
“The place was an ancient cemetery; so ancient that I trembled at the manifold signs of immemorial years. It was in a deep, damp hollow, overgrown with rank grass, moss, and curious creeping weeds, and filled with a vague stench which my idle fancy associated absurdly with rotting stone.”
The story opens with some administrative throat-clearing and scene-setting as we learn that the narrator of the story (one Randolph Carter) has survived a hideous experience and is being interviewed by officials who are trying to work out what happened to his friend Harley Warren.
Lovecraft introduces Warren as both a two-fisted occult adventurer and a habitual bully. An expert in the field of ‘weird studies’, Warren speaks multiple languages and has spent years studying occult texts and trying to work out why some dead bodies rot while others remain intact. Having hit upon what he believes to be an answer, Warren decides to head out to an abandoned graveyard in the Florida swamps where he can dig up a few bodies and test his macabre theories.
When I say that Warren comes across as a habitual bully, I mean that every sentence he utters that is not exposition is a brutal dunk on his friend Carter:
“I’m sorry to have to ask you to stay on the surface,” he said, “but it would be a crime to let anyone with your frail nerves go down there. You can’t imagine, even from what you have read and from what I’ve told you, the things I shall have to see and do. It’s fiendish work, Carter, and I doubt if any man without ironclad sensibilities could ever see it through and come up alive and sane. I don’t wish to offend you, and heaven knows I’d be glad enough to have you with me; but the responsibility is in a certain sense mine, and I couldn’t drag a bundle of nerves like you down to probable death or madness.
Warren’s willingness to dunk on the viewpoint character combined with the viewpoint character being totally fine with this reminded me quite a bit of Lovecraft’s comic story “A Reminiscence of Dr Samuel Johnson” where the viewpoint character serves as a punching bag for Johnson’s sadistic wit. As with that earlier story, it’s interesting that Lovecraft chooses not only to associate his viewpoint with that of a timid and socially submissive man but also to treat being dominated and systematically spoken-down to by others as something so normal and routine that it barely merits an acknowledgement.
A lot has been written about Lovecraft’s racism, classism, conservatism and general nostalgic yearning for a long-lost golden age but it’s rare for commenters to situate these reactionary tendencies in any kind of broader psychological context. In this case, that psychological context must include the tension between Lovecraft’s desire to associate himself with the upper-class and the ease with which he identified with the broken, the infirm, and the brutalised. Yet again, Lovecraft’s choice of protagonists speaks less to any fantasies or superiority and more to a wellspring of profound self-loathing. Lovecraft sensed what he was decades before he was able to accept it.
The (somewhat minimal) plot is very similar to that of Lovecraft’s earlier unpublished technical experiment “The Transition of Juan Romero” in so far as it’s about a character other than the viewpoint character disappearing down a hole and having something unspeakably supernatural happen to them only for the viewpoint character to arrive on the scene too late to witness anything directly. In fact, I suspect that “The Statement of Randolph Carter” may well be the source of the old canard that Lovecraft’s stories all boil down to someone witnessing something so horrible that it (conveniently) defies verbal description.
One significant change from “Transition” is the idea of having Warren carry a field telephone so even though Carter remains outside of the tomb, he still gets to hear Warren’s descriptions of the indescribable horror:
Once more came the voice of my friend, still hoarse with fear, and now apparently tinged with despair:
“I can’t tell you, Carter! It’s too utterly beyond thought—I dare not tell you—no man could know it and live—Great God! I never dreamed of THIS!”
Stillness again, save for my now incoherent torrent of shuddering inquiry. Then the voice of Warren in a pitch of wilder consternation:
“Carter! for the love of God, put back the slab and get out of this if you can! Quick!—leave everything else and make for the outside—it’s your only chance! Do as I say, and don’t ask me to explain!”
I must admit that I found all of this telephone stuff a bit too contrived. The idea of having someone narrate something horrible down the phone must have hit pretty hard back in the days when telephones were still a cutting edge technology but nowadays the idea of someone holding onto a phone and narrating rather than running away just seems silly. The idea that someone would describe what they were seeing while also insisting that they were seeing something indescribable is just absurd. Frankly, it brings to mind that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where someone carves a message about the Castle of Aaaargh:
This is one of those narrative contrivances that are a little bit too obviously solutions to problems the author has managed to create for themselves. The problem is that Lovecraft wanted to revisit the idea of someone disappearing down a hole and undergoing some sort of supernatural encounter whilst having some of that action take place a) at a safe enough distance that nobody winds up puzzled as to the narrator’s survival and b) ‘on screen’ to the extent that it is at least partially witnessed.
The introduction of the field telephone allowed Lovecraft to solve the problem in a slightly different way to the method he deployed in “Transition”. While I’m not totally sold on this story, I do have some sympathy for Lovecraft’s decision-making as you can imagine a version of the story where the phone simply goes dead and while it would have been significantly less silly than the story we eventually got, it would have wound up with an ending that was far more deflationary and anti-climactic than the ghoulish silliness on display here. This isn’t a great way to end a story and it hits on a note of silliness rather than horrifying power but it’s definitely an improvement on the solution deployed in “Transition”.