The All Has Read Project #2: The Statement of Randolph Carter
Welcome to The All Has Read Project, a biweekly read-along in which Everything Is Scary is examining the works of H.P. Lovecraft starting with his famous Arkham Cycle. This week our topic is The Statement of Randolph Carter, which can be read in full at The H.P. Lovecraft Archive.
The Statement of Randolph Carter was first published in the May 1920 issue of The Vagrant. It is a short tale of terror based on a dream, and introduces a few key elements of Lovecraft’s interconnected Arkham Cycle, most importantly the eponymous Randolph Carter, a recurring character many scholars and critics believe to be based on the author himself.
The story is presented as a statement given to authorities investigating the disappearance of Harley Warren, a man last seen wandering into Big Cypress Swamp with Carter. Through the testimonial we discover that the events of the night have left Carter without much recollection save one key scene. Warren and Carter come upon a graveyard, pry open the entrance of a sepulcher, and set up a high-tech (for the era) portable telephone apparatus. Warren descends into the darkness, leaving Carter on the other end of the phone line, sitting on a tombstone as he waits for report from his compatriot. Eventually Warren does call through the telephone, and while he is unable to describe anything he sees with specificity, his tone goes from terrified awe to one of immediate warning. He tells Carter to close the sepulcher with him still inside, for the safety of himself and others. As Carter persists, calling for more information, Warren goes silent. Then, a voice, rumbling up through the hole in the swampy earth, says, “YOU FOOL, WARREN IS DEAD.” Carter comes to in the hospital after being discovered at the edge of the swamp, dazed and alone the next morning.
I personally like this story a lot, in spite of its flaws. There’s a strange bit of repetition that feels sloppy—Carter describes the setting of his very bad night out with Warren twice—and the dreamy inspiration of The Statement gets to be readily apparent as details that ought to be knowable even in the Lovecraftian mode, such as the pretense for the expedition, fall under a vague fog of lost memory. Still, the tale is deliciously atmospheric, has some fantastic classic horror imagery, and manages to conjure a real sense of the uncanny in its final moments.
But the thing I like most about The Statement of Randolph Carter is that it’s a Lovecraftian pessimistic twist on one of my favourite subgenres: the paranormal investigation tale.
The Resignation of a Ghost-Finder
The paranormal investigation subgenre of horror is generally optimistic. Confronted with the supernatural, courageous and inquisitive humans strap on their proton packs, load their shotguns with rock salt, and polish their FBI badges before confronting things not-of-this-world and inevitably conquering them. The paranormal investigation is the argument against Lovecraftian cosmic pessimism, positing that the human traits which set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom—critical thinking and technology—will allow us to dominate even the most Gozer-esque evils bent on our species’ annihilation. Ghostbusters, The X-Files, Supernatural, Constantine, these are all modern popular manifestations of this idea, but the trope existed before Lovecraft’s time and its influence seems to be at play in The Statement of Randolph Carter.
Lovecraft was inspired by a strange fiction author we’ve written about before here on Everything is Scary named William Hope Hodgson. Hodgson’s work is remarkable. Despite it being over a century old, some of his writing is still genuinely terrifying and hard to read before bed. It is also notable for its early blending of sci-fi with supernatural horror, a trait that’s very prominent in his Thomas Carnacki stories—some of the first paranormal investigation procedurals ever published (though the paranormal investigator character archetype predates Carnacki by decades, a famous example being Abraham Van Helsing, the Dutch vampire hunter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula).
Carnacki the Ghost-Finder is a Sherlock Holmes for the haunted world. He regales friends at dinner parties of his exploits in which he confronts phantasmal phenomena with experimental technology like his signature electric pentacle. The framing of every story positions Carnacki as a survivor of the paranormal, the conqueror of the supernatural, and while there are moments of dread in his stories, the message is always clear: humans have the capacity to overcome the terrible things of other planes, sanity and body intact.
The Statement of Randolph Carter reads like Thomas Carnacki’s letter of resignation. All of the staples are there of a paranormal investigation: research of ancient and foreign texts, the search for scientific knowledge in the realm of the supernatural, a sublime setting, and nifty state-of-the-art technology. Carter and Warren are prepared for an investigation, but everything seems to go wrong. Warren is virtually possessed by his singular goal of confirming his theory of “why certain corpses never decay, but rest firm and fat in their tombs for a thousand years,” and Carter is woefully underprepared, only able to speculate at the occulted contents of his friend’s most mysterious book that ostensibly holds the key to why they are in Big Cypress Swamp in the first place. They apply their technology to trespass on the realm of other things and, while Warren does receive confirmation of his strange theory, he chooses death over the possibility of emerging from the crypt and enlightening other parapsychologists at a dinner party, Carnacki-style.
The subversion of genre tropes and expectations here is the same as we saw in Dagon. Where the narrator of that story saw what in other literature would be a call to adventure as a justification for suicide, Carter encountered what other paranormal investigators would see as a challenge to assert their human superiority and lost his mind and partner instead. In the larger picture of Lovecraft’s fiction, particularly the Arkham Cycle, The Statement of Randolph Carter does an excellent job of redefining the rules of fantasy and horror to favour the un-human. Those who trespass into the realms of other things expecting to claim the unknown as within the domain of human ownership are deemed hubristic and face cosmic repercussions for overstepping their limited bounds. The universe was not made for us, even this world belongs to other forces. There are some investigations that simply cannot succeed.
For this project I’m primarily reading The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, which is filled with cool little tidbits, trivia and factoids by editor Lesley S. Klinger. I highly recommend it. Klinger’s note on the book Warren keeps in his pocket is especially interesting. Apparently preeminent Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi concluded that the pocket book is not, as many have speculated, a copy of the infamous Necronomicon. Klinger offers the possibility, however that it might be an abridged version of the forbidden text, an idea that I find exciting.
While whatever Warren encounters in the bowels of the swamp is vague, there are interesting details we can glean. He encounters legions of things, rather than a single entity; he receives confirmation of his theory, so there are likely intact corpses down there; and at least one of the things can speak English, though whether Carter’s account can be entirely trusted on this matter is iffy, since that’s the point where he loses his mind. Get used to this lack of specificity. Lovecraft’s horrors live outside of human description.
We will encounter Randolph Carter a few more times in this project. It’s fitting that we are introduced to him in a piece of fiction based on a dream, as he is the main protagonist in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath which is about Carter’s own dreams.
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