Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (ATM, 299-305), an early tale written in December 1919, has a narration taking the form of a legal statement, a sort of deposition given by the narrator Randolph Carter and addressed to a body of interrogators, presumably the police. Carter and his friend Harley Warren, the story goes, visited an ancient graveyard by night, carrying (as corroborated by a witness) lanterns, spades, and a coil of wire with instruments attached. But only Carter returned, and the necessity of his making the statement suggests that he is suspected, perhaps, of foul play, or at least is expected to account for the disappearance of his friend, whom he says he saw descend into a black aperture beneath a pried-up granite slab, taking a portable telephone with him and unreeling the wire as he went. The nature of Warren’s quest, Carter claims, has been unclear all along, Warren’s long interest in the secrets found in forbidden and morbid books suggests a dark motive. Carter says that he talked over the wire with Warren, who seemed to be experiencing something horrific down in the sepulchral depths and who refused to let Carter follow him down. At length, Carter testifies, Warren’s telephonic replies became frantic and finally ceased altogether, to be replaced with a “hollow” and “gelatinous” voice saying, “YOU FOOL, WARREN IS DEAD” (305).
The text is intriguingly problematical in a number of ways. Oddly enough, one of the most interesting things about the story is the title itself.
What is a title, anyway? Most works of fiction have titles, though there are exceptions, of course, such as untitled poems. Obviously I cannot provide an example by naming one. Title in its immediate etymology derives from the Latin titulus, meaning “superscription” or “label.” A title of a short story is in some sense a label, something like a label found (for instance) on a bottle of milk. On the practical level a title is a social expectation, a device both of marking and marketing, a “handle” (reverting to the “bottle” imagery in a different way) by which one may carry the story, a means by which one may refer to the story. But the nature of the labeling is in the present case far from simple.
The striking thing, immediately, about the title “The Statement of Randolph Carter” is the particular manner in which it describes the text. Since the story, in form, is a statement—Randolph Carter’s legal statement to the questioning authorities, perhaps even under oath—the title refers very closely to the text itself, not so much like a label that merely reads “Milk” on a bottle of milk, but more like a label on such a bottle that goes so far as to say “This Bottle of Milk.” The story “The Statement of Randolph Carter” is the statement of Randolph Carter, as its title pointedly proclaims.
In the majority of cases, the title of a short story refers to something that is in some sense in the story, not to the form of the story itself. (In, here, is of course spatial metaphor; texts, being open-edged, do not “contain” things in any literal sense of closure over them. We do not escape the metaphoricity of language.) In Lovecraft’s own canon, for example, we find the story “The Cats of Ulthar,” and we recognize that the title describes not a collection of cats but rather a story that involves, among many other things, a narrative handling of a fictive collection of cats as a plot device. But Lovecraft’s title, with the word Statement, labels the statement itself.
There are other such occurrences in literature. One thinks, for instance, of Arthur Machen’s story “The Novel of the White Powder” (a title describing the tale itself, which could have been titled simply “The White Powder”). But much more commonly, the title of a short story refers to something partly constitutive of the text—perhaps, for example, a character by name or by description, or an episodic reference, or the name or description of a locale implicit in the setting, or a thematic matter (whether straightforwardly or obliquely given), or possibly even a verbatim snatch of dialogue or narration. The effect is a synecdoche, or metonymic substitution of part for whole. Thus Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter” could have been titled “Descent into the Tomb,” “The Burial Ground,” “Only One Came Back,” or some such, following the usual pattern by pointing to an elemental feature of the text. But as it is, the story bears a title pointing to the text itself and suggesting that there will be a certain flavor of self-referentiality—that the text will, among other things, dwell on itself, so that its narrative “I” can be read, when we wish, as signifying the text’s own capacity for self-reflection as well as signifying the conventional narrator Randolph Carter (the two, then—Carter and the text—to some extent coalesce).
It is as if the story were titled “The Story That Follows.” Such a title, of course, functioning tautologically, would tell us nothing of the nature of the text to which it would so directly point, whereas Lovecraft’s title manages to partake of the same sort of close labeling and to be informative as well. In any case, the title is, after all, more text, with which the part of the text that we are in the habit of calling “the story itself” will interweave to form intertext. When we read Statement in the title (thus in the text) and especially when we note that the story is a statement as promised, we see the text commenting upon its own textuality and anticipating our reading.
Another attitude that we may take toward the title is that Statement may suggest the fully transitive verbal force of stating, in the sense of something being “done to” Randolph Carter. By such a reading, Statement in “The Statement of Randolph Carter” would function much as “Betrayal” or “Vindication” would function in such titles as “The Betrayal of Randolph Carter” or “The Vindication of Randolph Carter.” Thus the statement of Randolph Carter becomes the stating of him, the inscription of him, the writing of him. But then we note that what the text writes (by being read) is the text itself. And if what it does is to inscribe (state, make a statement about) Randolph Carter, then even here we find Randolph Carter and the text itself, as subjects/objects of inscription, intertwined, so that, as we have seen, the narrative “I” insists upon being plural in its possibilities.
Alternatively, if we were to think of the title as pointing synecdochically to an elemental aspect of the text, then we might take statement to be a statement made in the text by Carter. But the only declarative utterance he ever makes is “I’m coming down” (304). Even then, though, we may think of his comedown as a relinquishing of his status as “I,” a status that he turns over to, or agrees to share with, the text itself. And still another attitude that we may take, to the same effect, is that the prepositional phrase of Randolph Carter in the title functions there the same way that, for example, “of patience” would function in the expression “the virtue of patience”—as a specification. One may imagine the following exchange of conversation: “I’m thinking of a virtue.” “What virtue?” “Patience. The virtue of patience. The virtue that we call ‘patience.’” And in parallel fashion one may postulate this exchange: “I’m thinking of a statement.” “What statement?” “Randolph Carter. The statement of Randolph Carter. The statement that we call ‘Randolph Carter.’” Randolph Carter is the statement. The statement is the text. Randolph Carter is the text. It would seem, then, that in any case we may read Randolph Carter as identified with the text, the statement, so that “The Statement of Randolph Carter” becomes “The Statement of ‘The Statement of Randolph Carter,’” which becomes “The Statement of ‘The Statement of “The Statement of Randolph Carter,”’” and so on, in an infinite self-referential protraction of textual self-rewritings.
One sees further intimations that the text will deal with, among other things, its own textuality. The story’s first two words are “I repeat,” assuming an already fully made statement, a prior inscription, an inscription of the text prior to itself, especially when we read “I” as the text, which, then, is (or claims to be) its own repetition and is in any event self-referential with or without the overt use of “I.” The text claims to be its own repetition, and we note that repetition is change. A thing repeated from an anterior instance is a thing changed, by virtue of the fact that its new appearance is a repetition. The text, then, in claiming from the outset that it is repeating itself, is proclaiming self-change—is promising to differ from itself, is already in fact differing from itself by purporting to make a present, originary statement while, in the act of doing so, claiming that it is repeating (iterating, evolving, changing, rewriting, inking a palimpsest-text over) itself. If the text is its own iteration, then it is not its own present self. One of the statements being made, then, is that the text, which differs with itself even over the point of whether it differs with itself, will deny access to any unequivocal, single reading. The text will subvert any such reductive program, and it is already doing so. The word The in the story’s title is dissembling and ironic; there will be, as we have noticed, more than one statement being made. Even a title (French titre) may “titter,” that is, it may playfully mock our inbred logocentric yearnings for unity.
Still in the first line, we read: “I repeat to you, gentlemen, that your inquisition is fruitless” (299). We pause with some concern over the word fruitless. Since the phrase is not “will be fruitless,” surely the more natural word here would have been pointless (“your inquisition is pointless”). The narrator Randolph Carter may naturally be supposed to be pointing toward the future and saying that his interrogators’ questions will not turn up anything to the point. But when he says that the interrogation “is fruitless” (barren of results), he suggests that the interrogation is already barren of definite results, has already turned out to be so. The text anticipates itself, sees itself as already written and already read. And by beginning with “I repeat,” the text even says that it has said before that the interrogation is, and always was, devoid of establishable results: always already fruitless. We are seeing, here, no mere infelicity of diction. Rather, we are looking at one of those strange little inner spaces where a text unwittingly begins to unravel its own apparent semantic unity. On the level of self-commentary, the text is saying, as an undercurrent beneath its surface flow, that it is always already multiply readable, that is, “unreadable” in the complimentary sense of being resistant to fixity of reading—that “your” (the reader’s) “inquisition” (desire to press for definite meaning and settled results) is always already fruitless, problematic, destined to face built-in undecidabilities.
And what of a text that by its title announces its covert self-referential concerns, a text that in writing itself claims that it is repeating its own writing and thus imbuing itself (whatever, paradoxically, “itself” then means) with non-self-identity, a text that says that it has said even all this before, a text that promises fruitlessness of endeavor to (and says, in fact, that such fruitlessness has already turned out to be the case, in advance, for) the singleminded inquisitor? What about such a text, if it intertwines with Randolph Carter himself, the other “I” (alternative to, but close cousin to, the text’s self-seeing eye) of the narration? What sort of creature is Randolph Carter as text-personified?
We note that Randolph derives from the Old English Randwulf, where rand is “edge,” “border,” or “margin” (e.g., an unplowed strip of land bordering a field) and wulf is of course “wolf.” Randolph is the wolf of the border, not so much the wolf prowling on the border as the wolf-as-predator (and, considering the text’s self-preceding aspirations, the wolf as pre-dater) of the border, the eater of borders, the gnawer of edges. Texts themselves, of course, chew and fray their edges and are not only frayed of edges but also afraid of them, maintaining their protean capacities as texts only by refusing, like wolves, to be hemmed in by borders. In being a border-predator or chewer of margins, Randolph Carter is already, even in his name, behaving like text. As a carter he is a drawer of carts. As Rand-Wolf Carter he is one who carts, transports, provides a textual vehicle (when we identify him with the text) for the power of the border-wolf, that is, for the capacity of the text to frazzle its would-be margins, to spill over and outrun the delimitations of its conventional edges. Cart derives from the Indo-European root ger-, “crooked” or “curving,” whence also derives the English word crop, suggesting fertility, fecundity of semantic potential—albeit “crooked.” Carter, like any text that seems on the surface to insist loudly on a single, privileged reading, is semantically crooked. He seems to expect to be, but in fact cannot be, “read” singlemindedly or unequivocally. He subverts any such attempt at reading him, in subverting himself over the question, among others, of his unitary readability.
One need not squint too hard at the Carter-text to find Carter equivocating with himself (the text equivocating, as always, with itself) even on the elementary narrative level. He tells his interrogators, describing his imperfect memory of what happened on the night when he went into the old cemetery with his friend, that he has one “single hideous scene which remains burned into [his] shaken recollection” (299-300). But he later says, “My first vivid impression of my own presence in this terrible necropolis concerns the act of pausing.” (301). Carter goes on to describe a number of other memories that belie his statement that his memory holds only one hideous scene or impression, the one described in the denouement of the tale. Evidently he is not inclined to be unambiguous, consistent, or univocal. He tells a story about his vanished friend Harley Warren, but we are hard put to know what to make of the account. Statement in the title may of course suggest accounting, or the balance sheet, but it would seem unlikely that Carter’s account will balance or that the books will ever be closed.
If Carter’s account is believable, then he is innocent of any wrongdoing of which his inquisitors seem to suspect him. If his account is not believable, then the possibility arises that he is in some way culpable—that perhaps he may even have done away with Harley Warren himself. The primary supplementarity over which the text tries to function, then, is that of innocence/culpability, with innocence the seemingly privileged term, since Carter’s “statement” proclaims this innocence, whether reliably or otherwise, and since the whole narration urges the reader to accept the account’s reliability, without which the horrific implications of the tale would vanish to be replaced only by a relatively prosaic suggestion of foul play. But the privilege of innocence over culpability in this supplementarity is far from being a settled matter, as we are in the process of seeing.
What of the other character, Harley Warren? He is a shadowy figure, one who has vanished, one whom we never see except through the troubled conduit of Carter’s imperfect memory (or claim to memory, or claim to lack of memory), the supposedly fragmented recollection of a narrator who coalesces with a text that has even had the audacity or the unwitting predisposition to enunciate its own self-differing.
If Randolph Carter’s very name has turned out to be suggestive, then perhaps Harley Warren’s name will be as well. Harley can scarcely help putting us in mind (significantly, it would seem) of harle-quin, and a harlequin is a masked buffoon, which in turn suggests not merely (textual) frolic or play, but masked play, a ludic inclination that from the outset conceals itself, though perhaps letting the mask (of surface-level or “obvious” interpretation) slip aside from time to time. Harlequin is thought to have been derived from the Old English Herla cyning, King Herla, a mythic figure identified with Woden or Odin. Whatever Harley Warren signifies in the text, he undergoes a kind of apotheosis. He is raised to a position of importance—ironically, since Carter’s account has him lower himself into the crypt. And what he would seem to signify is absence. When the narration opens, Harley is missing, and indeed, given the text’s claim to precede itself and find itself already written, Harley has always been missing, has always represented absence. The narration would not even have started, claiming that it was there even before its putative beginning, without Harley’s absence. He is a reversal on the old expression, Don’t start without me. His message to the text is, Don’t start with me. Thus absence is fundamental, and the suggestion, on the level of textual self-reference, is that the text again anticipates its own reading. Just as linguistic signifiers consist not of what is “in” them, but of the traces of what is absent from them, so the text endorses a “metaphysics” of absence and describes the conditions of its own reading.
The surname Warren suggests, directly, the noun warren, an overcrowded dwelling place, from the Indo-European root wer-, “to cover,” whence also comes warrant. Harley Warren is a semantically crowded repository of textuality, dwelling as he does in absence, and warranting, thereby, the existence of the text—not to mention accounting for the fact that a warrant seems to have gone out at some point to have Carter brought in for questioning. Warren’s name also suggests warring, and one thinks of critic Barbara Johnson’s celebrated and felicitous definition of deconstruction (in The Critical Difference) as “the careful teasing out of warring forces of signification within the text itself.” Harley Warren, then, comes to represent—rather, he stays away to represent—the text’s own self-differing inclination, the unstoppable “warring” of its significations, the competing of its various possible configurations of privilege. Warren, the deposition tells us, has learned to read a wide variety of languages, and thus he is a fitting figure to represent linguistic and textual complexities.
He signifies absence, but why is he absent? We can never know for sure, yet the whole narrative issue of the text revolves around this point. Since a text is a literary text at all only to the extent that it entertains “warring forces of signification,” Harley Warren himself in a sense coalesces with the text, since he is the “warring” of its tensions and is eminently qualified, by his pivotal position of absence in the text, to be so. But if he is the text, then (and this way, one suspects, madness lies) he is also Randolph Carter, who is the text too. At least this is one of the possibilities that we may mention, and it becomes, itself, one of the elements of the text’s “warrings.” This occurs in spite of the fact that the narration, Carter’s statement, claims that the interrogators claim that a witness has claimed that two distinct people went into the graveyard that night. In this nested sequence of claims, reminiscent of a string of biblical “begats,” one senses a certain distancing, and the matter is far from being resolved. We shall suppose, however, that we may turn aside from the (nevertheless real) option of reading that would have Carter, possibly hopelessly schizophrenic, watching himself go down into the crypt beneath the slab. It is possible, in such a reading, that Carter has imagined even his inquisitors and is simply muttering his self-defense to himself out of paranoia. While there is no refutation for that point of view, we shall credit primarily, instead, those options of reading in which, at least, Carter and Warren are two distinguishable figures. Even such a simplifying turn will lead us to glimpse a labyrinth opening in front of us.
The main difficulty, of course, still resides in the question of privileged terms in the supplementarity innocence/culpability, paralleling (for the reader) the question of credulity/scepticism. Even on the surface of the text, there is simply no way to decide with certitude. The narration struggles to make us believe Carter’s story, yet that story is one that would scarcely cause Carter’s interrogators to take Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s advice and suspend disbelief. And to the extent that we identify the interests of Randolph Carter with the text’s own self-interests—the statement of Randolph Carter being the statement and perpetual restatement of the text itself—we find paradox lurking at every turn.
If the statement or deposition is true (“fictively true,” let us say), then Randolph Carter is innocent. He did not kill Harley Warren. But Randolph Carter, as we have argued, is the text, which we are for the moment hypothetically assuming believable, and the text did kill Harley Warren. Already we arrive at paradox. On the other hand, if the statement or deposition is false, then Randolph Carter, having lied outright, inherits some culpability. He may have killed Harley Warren (assuming that he hasn’t just imagined the whole thing), or he may, for example, be putting forward his story to cover up for a third party. But the problem here is that a text hypothetically assumed to be unreliable does not imply anything with certainty. The text still says that Harley Warren is dead, but he may or may not be. If Harley Warren—who is the text’s warring significations, its repository of doubt and indeterminacy—is dead, regardless of who killed him (if anyone did), then the warring significations are dead, and we have interpretative death as well. Without warring significations and plural potential for interpretation, the surface-level or “obvious” reading (favoring the term innocence) is the one that devolves to the text in its “reduction to truth,” so that Randolph Carter—making a true statement and thereby proclaiming his innocence—is innocent after all, whereas we have begun, in the present case, by supposing him unreliable and somehow culpable. But if Harley Warren is not dead, assuming there ever was such a person, then the warring significations still live, producing a self-differing text. The text, however, which claims that it will differ with itself, is thus being reliable, whereas in the present case we have supposed it unreliable. It reliably reports its own unreliability, which is displaced, or at any rate made problematic, by the very reliability that reports it. We have an elaboration here on the old paradox, This statement is false. There are many other lines of implication that we could follow, but they would lead to the same sorts of places. Contradictions abound.
At least they do to the extent that we credit the notion that Carter and the text are coalesced. We might, on the other hand, take the attitude that the contradictions at which we have arrived constitute a sort of reductio ad absurdum that Randolph Carter does not, after all, identify with the self-interest of the text. But if we dismiss the notion that he does, then all of the text’s subtle indications supporting the notion, which we have observed, become forms of textual self-subversion. Either way, we find the text in one manner or another dealing out hearty servings of paradox and actively working to subvert and unsettle its own workings.
The device of reductio ad absurdum, of course, depends on the “law of the excluded middle” of classical logic and neglects the further possibility always lurking offstage, ready to come on and play, that the matter at hand is intrinsically undecidable. And indeed we are in no position, can be in no position, to privilege either innocence or culpability, reader credulity or reader scepticism in any permanent or necessary way. “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” this story so pointedly and starkly announced by its title but so enigmatic in what that title announces, allows only irresolvable alternation between its optional poles, without synthesis, without closure. We arrive at aporia, at hermeneutic impasse, and find the story reinscribed perpetually by its continuing oscillations. The text has claimed that it rewrites itself, precedes and follows itself, and repeats its own writing, and it makes good at least on that claim—by doing so, without end.