The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Hey everybody,
While I normally wait until the very end of the year for my mythos reading blogs, as I wrote the other week, I have been indulging myself a little early this time around, and have been reading the longest piece of fiction from the pen of HP Lovecraft: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward!

This novella comes in slightly ahead of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and At the Mountains of Madness. Never published in full during his lifetime, it is a curious story in parts, and is firmly in Lovecraft’s vein of witchcraft and alchemy rather than the more cosmic horror – although the story does mark the first mention of Yog Sothoth in his output. The tale chronicles the madness of young Charles Dexter Ward, something of a bookish antiquarian who discovers an ancestor so abhorred that all mention of him was struck from the historical record, which naturally sparks his curiosity. His research is broad, and he unearths a lot of history which begins to consume him – quite literally, as it turns out. His ancestor, Joseph Curwen, was linked to the Salem Witch Trials, and moved to Providence to effectively start over as people became curious about his longevity and perpetual youth. After more than a century, when the rumours became too many to ignore, it was pitchforks at the ready, and Curwen was apparently killed. Well, once Charles discovers some of his paperwork, and retreats to his laboratory in the attic, things get a bit messy and the rumours start to fly in present-day Providence, leading his family doctor to investigate what’s going on. Turns out, Curwen body-snatched Charles from beyond the grave, and was born anew. It’s up to the good doctor to put an end to it all.

What a wild ride! This story seemed somehow very cinematic, whether it was because of Lovecraft’s choice of the omniscient narrator this time, rather than first-person narration, or just the fact it was a much more low-key cosmic threat? Sure, Yog Sothoth is up there in the spheres, and Curwen and his mates are digging up famous folks to bring them back to life in the pursuit of their knowledge. But it’s not all cyclopean madness from outer space, you know? The historical touches were really nice, and it was interesting to see how the story of Curwen’s life in the 18th century could be seen to mirror the present-day narration with Charles. I did feel quite sorry for the central protagonist, though it’s arguable that the stuff in which he was dabbling could only have led to one conclusion, and he really ought to have known better. But it’s almost a case of curiosity killed the cat here. I was a little unclear on the whole premise of who was who, at one point – there’s Charles, his new associate Dr Allen, and then there’s Curwen’s reincarnated spirit. Which might have been intended to be Dr Allen, but then it seems that Curwen’s spirit inhabited Charles’ body, as they were so alike anyway. So who was Dr Allen? And what did the family doctor find behind the portrait? Not sure on a lot of that. Apparently Lovecraft never revised this, though, so maybe it would have been cleared up if he had come back to it?

There is a bit of a walking tour of Providence that forms the majority of the preamble, which I’ve read some negative reviews for, though personally I don’t mind it so much. It’s all part of Lovecraft’s style, after all, giving us these verbal street maps and so on. There is a touch of the autobiography in here, as well, and the excellent notes that accompany the Penguin Modern Classics edition are really quite exhaustive in providing the background on the real people and real places that Lovecraft uses to give the tale that air of authenticity. I would say that it’s definitely worth reading, even if you prefer your Lovecraft to have huge mythos beasties and the like, because of its place within Lovecraft’s canon at large. I’m certainly glad to have finally gotten round to it, at any rate. There are some flaws in there, some plot elements that could perhaps have benefited from more development (the vampirism in particular), although I accept that a lot of Lovecraft’s style comes from hints and suggestions, and he leaves it up to us to decide what form the horror should take. The sense of atmosphere that comes out of the piece though – in particular in building up to the confrontation with Curwen in 1771 – is really very nicely done, and I thought the suspense as we learnt more of the past was really good. Dr Whittle’s exploration of the catacombs towards the end was just pure Lovecraft, and I think was the highlight for sure. Overall, I think it’s a good weird tale, I enjoyed the magical elements as a change to the more fantastical story elements.  

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