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. Wise men told him his simple fancies
were inane and childish, and even more absurd because their actors persist
in fancying them full of meaning and purpose as the blind cosmos grinds
aimlessly on from nothing to something and from something back to nothing
again, neither heeding nor knowing the wishes or existence of the minds
that flicker for a second now and then in the darkness.
They had 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 little vivid fragments and prized associations of his mind into
vistas of breathless expectancy and unquenchable delight, they turned him
instead toward the new-found prodigies of science, bidding him find wonder
in the atom's vortex and mystery in the sky's dimensions. And when he had
failed to find these boons in things whose laws are known and measurable,
they told him he lacked imagination, and was immature because he preferred
dream-illusions to the illusions of our physical creation.
So Carter had tried to do as others did, and pretended that the common
events and emotions of earthy minds were more important than the fantasies
of rare and delicate souls. He did not dissent when they told him that
the animal pain of a stuck pig or dyspeptic ploughman in real life is a
greater thing than the peerless beauty of Narath with its hundred carven
gates and domes of chalcedony, which he dimly remembered from his dreams;
and under their guidance he cultivated a painstaking sense of pity and
Once in a while, though, he could not help seeing how shallow, fickle,
and meaningless all human aspirations are, and how emptily our real impulses
contrast with those pompous ideals we profess to hold. Then he would have
recourse to the polite laughter they had taught him to use against the
extravagance and artificiality of dreams; for he saw that the daily life
of our world is every inch as extravagant and artificial, and far less
worthy of respect because of its poverty in beauty and its silly reluctance
to admit its own lack of reason and purpose. In this way he became a kind
of humorist, for he did not see that even humour is empty in a mindless
universe devoid of any true standard of consistency or inconsistency.
In the first days of his bondage he had turned to the gentle churchly
faith endeared to him by the naive trust of his fathers, for thence stretched
mystic avenues which seemed to promise escape from life. Only on closer
view did he mark the starved fancy and beauty, the stale and prosy triteness,
and the owlish gravity and grotesque claims of solid truth which reigned
boresomely and overwhelmingly among most of its professors; or feel to
the full the awkwardness with which it sought to keep alive as literal
fact the outgrown fears and guesses of a primal race confronting the unknown.
It wearied Carter to see how solemnly people tried to make earthly reality
out of old myths which every step of their boasted science confuted, and
this misplaced seriousness killed the attachment he might have kept for
the ancient creeds had they been content to offer the sonorous rites and
emotional outlets in their true guise of ethereal fantasy.
But when he came to study those who had thrown off the old myths, he
found them even more ugly than 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. They did not see that good and evil and beauty and ugliness
are only ornamental fruits of perspective, whose sole value lies in their
linkage to what chance made our fathers think and feel, and whose finer
details are different for every race and culture. Instead, they either
denied these things altogether or transferred them to the crude, vague
instincts which they shared with the beasts and peasants; so that their
lives were dragged malodorously out in pain, ugliness, and disproportion,
yet filled with a ludicrous pride at having escaped from something no more
unsound than that which still held them. They had traded the false gods
of fear and blind piety for those of license and anarchy.
Carter did not taste deeply of these modern freedoms; for their cheapness
and squalor sickened a spirit loving beauty alone while his reason rebelled
at the flimsy logic with which their champions tried to gild brute impulse
with a sacredness stripped from the idols they had discarded. He saw that
most of them, in common with their cast-off priestcraft, could not escape
from the delusion that life has a meaning apart from that which men dream
into it; and could not lay aside the crude notion of ethics and obligations
beyond those of beauty, even when all Nature shrieked of its unconsciousness
and impersonal unmorality in the light of their scientific discoveries.
Warped and bigoted with preconceived illusions of justice, freedom, and
consistency, they cast off the old lore and the old way with the old beliefs;
nor ever stopped to think that that lore and those ways were the sole makers
of their present thoughts and judgments, and the sole guides and standards
in a meaningless universe without fixed aims or stable points of reference.
Having lost these artificial settings, their lives grew void of direction
and dramatic interest; till at length they strove to drown their ennui
in bustle and pretended usefulness, noise and excitement, barbaric display
and animal sensation. When these things palled, disappointed, or grew nauseous
through revulsion, they cultivated irony and bitterness, and found fault
with the social order. Never could they realize that their brute foundations
were as shifting and contradictory as the gods of their elders, and that
the satisfaction of one moment is the bane of the next. Calm, lasting beauty
comes only in a dream, and this solace the world had thrown away when in
its worship of the real it threw away the secrets of childhood and innocence.
Amidst this chaos of hollowness and unrest Carter tried to live as befitted
a man of keen thought and good heritage. With his dreams fading under the
ridicule of the age he could not believe in anything, but the love of harmony
kept him close to the ways of his race and station. He walked impassive
through the cities of men, and sighed because no vista seemed fully real;
because every flash of yellow sunlight on tall roofs and every glimpse
of balustraded plazas in the first lamps of evening served only to remind
him of dreams he had once known, and to make him homesick for ethereal
lands he no longer knew how to find. Travel was only a mockery; and even
the Great War stirred him but little, though he served from the first in
the Foreign Legion of France. For a while he sought friends, but soon grew
weary of the crudeness of their emotions, and the sameness and earthiness
of their visions. He felt vaguely glad that all his relatives were distant
and out of touch with him, for they would not have understood his mental
life. That is, none but his grandfather and great-uncle Christopher could,
and they were long dead.
Then he began once more the writing of books, which he had left off
when dreams first failed him. But here, too, was there no satisfaction
or fulfillment; for the touch of earth was upon his mind, and he could
not think of lovely things as he had done of yore. Ironic humor dragged
down all the twilight minarets he reared, and the earthy fear of improbability
blasted all the delicate and amazing flowers in his faery gardens. The
convention of assumed pity spilt mawkishness on his characters, while the
myth of an important reality and significant human events and emotions
debased all his high fantasy into thin-veiled allegory and cheap social
satire. His new novels were successful as his old ones had never been;
and because he knew how empty they must be to please an empty herd, he
burned them and ceased his writing. They were very graceful novels, in
which he urbanely laughed at the dreams he lightly sketched; but he saw
that their sophistication had sapped all their life away.
It was after this that 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 showed their poverty and barrenness;
and he saw that the popular doctrines of occultism are as dry and inflexible
as those of science, yet without even the slender palliative of truth to
redeem them. Gross stupidity, falsehood, and muddled thinking are not dream;
and form no escape from life to a mind trained above their own level. 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. He decided to live on a rarer
plane, and furnished his Boston home to suit his changing moods; one room
for each, hung in appropriate colours, furnished with befitting books and
objects, and provided with sources of the proper sensations of light, heat,
sound, taste, and odour.
Once he heard of a man in the south, who was shunned and feared for
the blasphemous things he read in prehistoric books and clay tablets smuggled
from India and Arabia. Him he visited, living with him and sharing his
studies for seven years, till horror overtook them one midnight in an unknown
and archaic graveyard, and only one emerged where two had entered. Then
he went back to Arkham, the terrible witch-haunted old town of his forefathers
in New England, and had experiences in the dark, amidst the hoary willows
and tottering gambrel roofs, which made him seal forever certain pages
in the diary of a wild-minded ancestor. But these horrors took him only
to the edge of reality, and were not of the true dream country he had known
in youth; so that at fifty he despaired of any rest or contentment in a
world grown too busy for beauty and too shrewd for dreams.
Having perceived at last the hollowness and futility of real things,
Carter spent his days in retirement, and in wistful disjointed memories
of his dream-filled youth. He thought it rather silly that he bothered
to keep on living at all, and got from a South American acquaintance a
very curious liquid to take him to oblivion without suffering. Inertia
and force of habit, however, caused him to defer action; and he lingered
indecisively among thoughts of old times, taking down the strange hangings
from his walls and refitting the house as it was in his early boyhood -
purple panes, Victorian furniture, and all.
With the passage of time he became almost glad he had lingered, for
his relics of youth and his cleavage from the world 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. For years those slumbers had known
only such twisted reflections of every-day things as the commonest slumbers
know, but now there returned a flicker of something stranger and wilder;
something of vaguely awesome imminence which took the form of tensely clear
pictures from his childhood days, and made him think of little inconsequential
things he had long forgotten. He would often awake calling for his mother
and grandfather, both in their graves a quarter of a century.
Then one night his grandfather reminded him of the key. The grey old
scholar, as vivid as in life, spoke long and earnestly of their ancient
line, and of the strange visions of the delicate and sensitive men who
composed it. He spoke of the flame-eyed Crusader who learnt wild secrets
of the Saracens that held him captive; and of the first Sir Randolph Carter
who studied magic when Elizabeth was queen. He spoke, too, of that Edmund
Carter who had just escaped hanging in the Salem witchcraft, and who had
placed in an antique box a great silver key handed down from his ancestors.
Before Carter awaked, the gentle visitant had told him where to find that
box; that carved oak box of archaic wonder whose grotesque lid no hand
had raised for two centuries.
In the dust and shadows of the great attic he found it, remote and forgotten
at the back of a drawer in a tall chest. It was about a foot square, and
its Gothic carvings were so fearful that he did not marvel no person since
Edmund Carter had dared to open it. It gave forth no noise when shaken,
but was mystic with the scent of unremembered spices. That it held a key
was indeed only a dim legend, and Randolph Carter's father had never known
such a box existed. It was bound in rusty iron, and no means was provided
for working the formidable lock. Carter vaguely understood that he would
find within it some key to the lost gate of dreams, but of where and how
to use it his grandfather had told him nothing.
An old servant forced the carven lid, shaking as he did so at the hideous
faces leering from the blackened wood, and at some unplaced familiarity.
Inside, wrapped in a discoloured parchment, was a huge key of tarnished
silver covered with cryptical arabesques; but of any legible explanation
there was none. The parchment was voluminous, and held only the strange
hieroglyphs of an unknown tongue written with an antique reed. Carter recognized
the characters as those he had seen on a certain papyrus scroll belonging
to that terrible scholar of the South who had vanished one midmght in a
nameless cemetery. The man had always shivered when he read this scroll,
and Carter shivered now.
But 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 showing him none of the strange cities and incredible gardens of
the old days, 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. Then he knew he must go into the past and merge himself with old
things, and day after day he thought of the hills to the north where haunted
Arkham and the rushing Miskatonic and the lonely rustic homestead of his
In the brooding fire of autumn Carter took the old remembered way past
graceful lines of rolling hill and stone-walled meadow, distant vale and
hanging woodland, curving road and nestling farmstead, and the crystal
windings of the Miskatonic, crossed here and there by rustic bridges of
wood or stone. At one bend he saw the group of giant elms among which an
ancestor had oddly vanished a century and a half before, and shuddered
as the wind blew meaningly through them. Then there was the crumbling farmhouse
of old Goody Fowler the witch, with its little evil windows and great roof
sloping nearly to the ground on the north side. He speeded up his car as
he passed it, and did not slacken till he had mounted the hill where his
mother and her fathers before her were born, and where the old white house
still looked proudly across the road at the breathlessly lovely panorama
of rocky slope and verdant valley, with the distant spires of Kingsport
on the horizon, and hints of the archaic, dream-laden sea in the farthest
Then came the steeper slope that held the old Carter place he had not
seen in over forty years. Afternoon was far gone when he reached the foot,
and at the bend half way up he paused to scan the outspread countryside
golden and glorified 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
undulant between their tumbled walls, and clumps of faery forest setting
off far lines of purple hills beyond hills, and the spectral wooded valley
dipping down in shadow to dank hollows where trickling waters crooned and
gurgled among swollen and distorted roots.
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, and putting the
great key in his coat pocket walked on up the hill. Woods now engulfed
him utterly, though he knew the house was on a high knoll that cleared
the trees except to the north. He wondered how it would look, for it had
been left vacant and untended through his neglect since the death of his
strange great-uncle Christopher thirty years before. In his boyhood he
had revelled through long visits there, and had found weird marvels in
the woods beyond the orchard.
Shadows thickened around him, for the night was near. 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, the panes of the little
round windows blazing with reflected fire. Then, when he was in deep shadow
again, he recalled with a start that the glimpse must have come from childish
memory alone, since the old white church had long been torn down to make
room for the Congregational Hospital. He had read of it with interest,
for the paper had told about some strange burrows or passages found in
the rocky hill beneath.
Through his puzzlement a voice piped, and he started again at its familiarity
after long years. Old Benijah Corey had been his Uncle Christopher's hired
man, and was aged even in those far-off times of his boyhood visits. Now
he must be well over a hundred, but that piping voice could come from no
one else. He could distinguish no words, yet the tone was haunting and
unmistakable. To think that "Old Benijy" should still be alive!
"Mister Randy! Mister Randy! Wharbe ye? D'ye want to skeer yer Aunt
Marthy plumb to death? Hain't she tuld ye to keep nigh the place in the
arternoon an' git back afur dark? Randy! Ran... dee!... He's the beatin'est
boy fer runnin' off in the woods I ever see; haff the time a-settin' moonin'
raound that snake-den in the upper timberlot! ... 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;
had strayed very far away to places where he had not belonged, and was
now inexcusably late. He had not noticed the time on the Kingsport steeple,
though he could easily have made it out with his pocket telescope; but
he knew his lateness was something very strange and unprecedented. He was
not sure he had his little telescope with him, and put his hand in his
blouse pocket to see. No, it was not there, but there was the big silver
key he had found in a box somewhere. Uncle Chris had told him something
odd once about an old unopened box with a key in it, but Aunt Martha had
stopped the story abruptly, saying it was no kind of thing to tell a child
whose head was already too full of queer fancies. He tried to recall just
where he had found the key, but something seemed very confused. He guessed
it was in the attic at home in Boston, and dimly remembered bribing Parks
with half his week's allowance to help him open the box and keep quiet
about it; but when he remembered this, the face of Parks came up very strangely,
as if the wrinkles of long years had fallen upon the brisk little Cockney.
"Ran ... dee! Ran ... dee! Hi! Hi! Randy!"
A swaying lantern came around the black bend, and old Benijah pounced
on the silent and bewildered form of the pilgrim.
"Durn ye, boy, so thar ye be! Ain't ye got a tongue in yer head, that
ye can't answer a body! I ben callin' this haff hour, an' ye must a heerd
me long ago! Dun't ye know yer Aunt Marthy's all a-fidget over yer bein'
off arter dark? Wait till I tell yer Uncle Chris when he gits hum! Ye'd
orta know these here woods ain't no fitten place to be traipsin' this hour!
They's things abroad what dun't do nobody no good, as my gran'-sir knowed
afur me. Come, Mister Randy, or Hannah wunt keep supper no longer!"
So Randolph Carter was marched up the road where wondering stars glimmered
through high autumn boughs. And dogs barked as the yellow light of small-paned
windows shone out at the farther turn, and the Pleiades twinkled across
the open knoll where a great gambrel roof stood black against the dim west.
Aunt Martha was in the doorway, and did not scold too hard when Benijah
shoved the truant in. She knew Uncle Chris well enough to expect such things
of the Carter blood. Randolph did not show his key, but ate his supper
in silence and protested only when bedtime came. He sometimes dreamed better
when awake, and he wanted to use that key.
In the morning Randolph was up early, and would have run off to the
upper timberlot if Uncle Chris had not caught him and forced him into his
chair by the breakfast table. He looked impatiently around the low-pitched
room with the rag carpet and exposed beams and corner-posts, 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.
Then, when he was free, he felt in his blouse pocket for the key; and
being reassured, skipped off across the orchard to the rise beyond, where
the wooded hill climbed again to heights above even the treeless knoll.
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. Once in his ascent Randolph
crossed a rushing stream whose falls a little way off sang runic incantations
to the lurking fauns and aegipans and dryads.
Then he came to the strange cave in the forest slope, the dreaded "snake-den"
which country folk shunned, and away from which Benijah had warned him
again and again. It was deep; far deeper than anyone but Randolph suspected,
for the boy had found a fissure in the farthermost black corner that led
to a loftier grotto beyond - a haunting sepulchral place whose granite
walls held a curious illusion of conscious artifice. On this occasion he
crawled in as usual, lighting his way with matches filched from the sitting-room
matchsafe, and edging through the final crevice with an eagerness hard
to explain even to himself. He could not tell why he approached the farther
wall so confidently, or why he instinctively drew forth the great silver
key as he did so. But on he went, and when he danced back to the house
that night he offered no excuses for his lateness, nor heeded in the least
the reproofs he gained for ignoring the noon-tide dinner-horn altogether.
Now it is agreed by all the distant relatives of Randolph Carter that
something occurred to heighten his imagination in his tenth year. His cousin,
Ernest B. Aspinwall, Esq., of Chicago, is fully ten years his senior; and
distinctly recalls a change in the boy after the autumn of 1883. Randolph
had looked on scenes of fantasy that few others can ever have beheld, and
stranger still were some of the qualities which he showed in relation to
very mundane things. He seemed, in fine, to have picked up an odd gift
of prophecy; and reacted unusually to things which, though at the time
without meaning, were later found to justify the singular impressions.
In subsequent decades as new inventions, new names, and new events appeared
one by one in the book of history, people would now and then recall wonderingly
how Carter had years before let fall some careless word of undoubted connection
with what was then far in the future. He did not himself understand these
words, or know why certain things made him feel certain emotions; but fancied
that some unremembered dream must be responsible. It was as early as 1897
that he turned pale when some traveller mentioned the French town of Belloy-en-Santerre,
and friends remembered it when he was almost mortally wounded there in
1916, while serving with the Foreign Legion in the Great War.
Carter's relatives talk much of these things because he has lately disappeared.
His little old servant Parks, who for years bore patiently with his vagaries,
last saw him on the morning he drove off alone in his car with a key he
had recently found. Parks had helped him get the key from the old box containing
it, and had felt strangely affected by the grotesque carvings on the box,
and by some other odd quality he could not name. When Carter left, he had
said he was going to visit his old ancestral country around Arkham.
Half way up Elm Mountain, on the way to the ruins of the old Carter
place, they found his motor set carefully by the roadside; and in it was
a box of fragrant wood with carvings that frightened the countrymen who
stumbled on it. The box held only a queer parchment whose characters no
linguist or palaeographer has been able to decipher or identify. Rain had
long effaced any possible footprints, though Boston investigators had something
to say about evidences of disturbances among the fallen timbers of the
Carter place. It was, they averred, as though someone had groped about
the ruins at no distant period. A common white handkerchief found among
forest rocks on the hillside beyond cannot be identified as belonging to
the missing man.
There is talk of apportioning Randolph Carter's estate among his heirs,
but I shall stand firmly against this course because I do not believe he
is dead. There are twists of time and space, of vision and reality, which
only a dreamer can divine; and from what I know of Carter I think he has
merely found a way to traverse these mazes. Whether or not he will ever
come back, I cannot say. He wanted the lands of dream he had lost, and
yearned for the days of his childhood. Then he found a key, and I somehow
believe he was able to use it to strange advantage.
I shall ask him when I see him, for I expect to meet him shortly in
a certain dream-city we both used to haunt. It is rumoured in Ulthar, beyond
the River Skai, that a new king reigns on the opal throne of Ilek-Vad,
that fabulous town of turrets atop the hollow cliffs of glass overlooking
the twilight sea wherein the bearded and finny Gnorri build their singular
labyrinths, and I believe I know how to interpret this rumour. Certainly,
I look forward impatiently to the sight of that great silver key, for in
its cryptical arabesques there may stand symbolised all the aims and mysteries
of a blindly impersonal cosmos.