Thursday, April 26, 2012

Lovecraft 101 - The Statement of Randolf Carter

The Statement of Randolph Carter
Ignorance is bliss. Or at least when it comes to some things it is. Another common theme in Lovecraft’s work is the power of knowledge and we get our first glimpse of that in this story. It will become more explicit in other stories down the line as we see the inclusion of ancient and powerful tomes more and more. Every culture and religion has those secret books, alluded to in one legend or another. Lovecraft plays with that often, as he takes segments from old texts (that he himself created) to flesh out the lore of a given tale. Most notable of this will be the Necronomicon much later. But in Statement, we find that the texts are unnamed, but contain vast amounts of ancient hidden information.
Illustration by Jeff Powers © 2012

Statement is our introduction to Randolph Carter, a recurring character throughout Lovecraft’s work (and enduring enough to show up in other author’s works as well, check out The Clock of Dreams by Brian Lumely). Carter has been studying for seven years with his friend, Harley Warren, near the swamps of Florida. Warren devours a great number of these ancient texts in languages far too numerous to count. He has stumbled on some great mystery that must be addressed and drags Carter along with him. Pulling up the stone of tomb in some unvisited old cemetery, Warren climbs down an endless staircase, leaving Carter behind to listen remotely via telephone. Something goes wrong and Warren is attacked. Never to come up those stairs again.
Knowledge is key in this story. What is revealed to Carter, and therefore us, and what remains hidden. Obviously some things remain hidden because we simply cannot see it, like what is attacking Warren in that tomb (the theory is still out). But some things are withheld from us. Carter cannot gain the information he wants because the books are in languages he does not know, cannot recognize, or the books are kept from him altogether, like the book Warren takes into the tomb with him.
We have talked numerous times about what I suppose I should call the Lovecraftian philosophy. Remember? It is that central nihilistic idea that pervades all the stories. Well a recurring element in HPL’s work is this idea that the chaotic, vast, and uncaringness of the universe is too much for us to truly comprehend. Imagine being confronted by incontrovertible proof that everything you thought and understood was not only a lie, but completely worthless. That you in the grandest scheme of things are as tiny and helpless as a scurrying roach upon the earth. It’s hard to really describe the true terror that Lovecraft is getting at here. So it often comes off as a little strange. Intuitively we do not think knowledge is harmful to us. We need to see and understand fully what is going on. But is there a limit? Is there a point where it is too much?
I remember reading something once that posited that if you could travel back in time, the worry of meeting yourself was not about changing your own past, but it was the fact that your own mind could not psychologically handle meeting yourself. That we are so ingrained with our mind’s concept of the self that any physical proof to the contrary would be mentally damaging. Again this is something that seems silly. We think about it, and we say, I could meet myself no problem. But it isn’t the idea of doing it that causes damage. It is that actual physical moment of it. That moment when we see someone who is us, but then we wonder, who are we then. What is the self? The mind game is simple until you are actually faced with it, then the mind game is frightening.
That is probably the closest I can get when thinking about this idea that there is knowledge so immense, so contrary to everything we can comprehend as a mortal being with a simple neural-electric brain that coming face to face with it, would just shut us down.
But back to the story.
I have always felt this story sort of reads like an Outer Limits episode. Complete with budgetary restrictions. We can’t afford a monster this week, so don’t show it. On one hand this really plays up the fear of the unknown and the unseen, but let’s face it, it’s a book, unless we imagine it, it’s all unseen. This has lead to many debates about what actually is at the bottom of the tomb. Whose hellish voice comes over the phone in the final line of the story? Is it some subterranean beast feasting on the dead like the Ghuls (which we will see more of in later stories)? Is it the undecayed flesh of the owner of the tomb, lying undead until it was disturbed by Warren’s entrance and rather noisy phone call? Or did the arcane knowledge of those old books show Warren of a secret doorway to some other dimension spilling out unfathomable demons upon the unsuspecting scholar? Really we will never know. And to be honest, it doesn’t matter. So chose the ending that feels best to you. No more of the creature will be revealed to us. But more of the characters will when we meet up with them again later. (Getting tired of me telling you that you have to wait for future stories? Seeing right through my attempts to keep you interested in a project that could take a year or two?) Not every question gets answered. Not every question needs to be. Besides, sometimes you have to be careful what you ask for. Knowing too much can be hazardous to your health.
The full text can be read here: HPL’s The Statement of Randolph Carter

1 comment:

Chris said...

Here's a pretty good adaptation that I enjoyed:

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