Sunday, January 25, 2015

Reading The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

When the season is darkest with a chill on the land I like to settle-in during a few evenings with maybe a nice cup of decaf coffee and read some H.P. Lovecraft.  My most recent fix was his posthumously published short novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  At about 50,000 words, this is the longest work authored by Lovecraft, yet it is only a first draft.  The author was displeased with the results and never attempted any revision nor sought publication.  Regardless, even in draft form, it remains one of his better works.  

Though not as good as At the Mountains of Madness, this book nevertheless strikes me as very effective in the traditional Lovecraftian sense.  It is atmospheric, filled with historical depth that feigns authenticity, with bizarre and grotesque insinuations and occurrences that are incompletely explained and effectively suggested in order to engage the reader's imagination, thereby magnifying the intended horror with minimum description.  Lovecraft is the master of weird cosmic ambiguity efficiently used to establish a profound existential dread.

Charles Ward is a bright, if solitary, young man from a respected, well-to-do family. He maintains a healthy interest in history throughout his youth. He enjoys walking through the streets of Providence, Rhode Island, looking at old buildings, reading old diaries, and conducting every sort of antiquarian research.  When he stumbles across the fragmented record of Joseph Curwen, an ancestor who seems to have been expunged from family history, this naturally peaks his curiosity and he investigates more deeply. 

The novel begins with Ward having mysteriously escaped from a mental institution. Lovecraft establishes that Ward suffered from a dramatic change that physicians and psychologists (so-called "alienists") are unable to classify.  He has aged dramatically, his voice has vanished to a whisper, he seems to have become so mentally absorbed in his past studies that he knows more about historic events than he does about happenings in the present.  Perhaps most strangely, Ward demonstrates an uncharacteristic interest in understanding contemporary events that he should find familiar, whereas his knowledge of intimate historic details in the past seems uncanny.  His personality transforms to such a degree that he has to be committed to institutional care. 

The first section of the book is devoted to laying out the history of Joseph Curwen.  Lovecraft introduces Curwen through a lengthy historical chronology pieced together by Ward's meticulous studies: "...as revealed by the rambling legends embodied in what Ward heard and unearthed was a very astonishing, enigmatic, and obscurely horrible individual.  He fled from Salem to Providence, that universal haven of the odd, the free, and the dissenting at the beginning of the great witchcraft panic because of his solitary ways and queer chemical or alchemical experiments."

Despite Lovecraft's mysterious set up, Curwen is well-educated, wealthy, charitable, deals in the trade of spices, comes from well-known and respected European family.  So he is an accepted, if unusual, member of the community.  He settled in Providence, built a new house in the town in 1761, and maintained a small farm in the Pawtuxet area beyond the town.  People talk about the strange hours he keeps, the lights in his house being on at odd hours, his fascination with old texts on magic and pagan rituals, his tendency to frequent graveyards, and his obsession with chemistry.  He attempts to blend in with the population and is somewhat accepted by offering some locals "snake oil" type cures for their ailments. But, neighbors to the farm house report hearing odd sounds and occasional cries in the night.

A big problem for Curwen is that he doesn't seem to age. Decades pass and Curwen does not appear or act any older. But, since he is a wealthy business man who does things to help the community, people simply accept this weird fact, appreciating what he contributes in spite of his eccentricities. Those who work for Curwen fear him, however.  He basically blackmails them to keep them quiet about his dealings by telling them private things about their past that they would rather not be publicly known and in which only dead family members might have known.  

He leverages this puzzling knowledge to cause a local father to annul the engagement of his young daughter to a local ship captain's mate, Ezra Weeden, and betroth her to Curwen instead.  The marriage occurs, the couple have a daughter in 1765 (Ward's direct ancestor), but Weeden is disgruntled. Though Curwen is doing more civic duties and rising in esteem in the community, Weeden begins a long process of investigation, spanning several years, into the strange occurrences out at the farm.  From this, Weeden begins to piece together stories of sounds, as if torture and interrogations, coming from what are apparently catacombs under the ground of the farmhouse.

Around 1770, the townsfolk are awaken in the middle of the night by a loud commotion.  The next day a naked man is found dead in the snow.  The man resembles a blacksmith that had died in the area some 50 years ago.  This shocks the elders of the town more than any of the other strange occurrences heretofore mentioned.  Weeden is on hand to check out the situation and he traces the dead man's footprints back to Curwen's farm. Further investigation indicates that the blacksmith's grave was excavated and the body is missing.  This motivates some locals to intercept delivery of Curwen's mail.  What they read only baffles them even more.  Some of the letters are written in some language no one recognizes, others involve chemical and occult matters that none understand.

One of the confiscated letters contains a passage that Ward reads 150 years later as he researched and pieced this odd story together. It is written the old style of the time: "I say to your againe, doe not call up Any that you can not put downe; by the Which I meane, Any that can in Turne call up somewhat against you, whereby your Powerfullest Devices may not be of use.  Ask of the Lesser, lest the Greater shall not wish to Answer, and shall commande more than you."

Things quickly come to a head as far as the townsfolk and Curwen are concerned.  A militia is formed of about 100 men and the Curwen farm is attacked under cover of night.  But this results is a unexpected skirmish against unknown and almost indescribable resistance. 

"Then the flaming thing burst into sight at a point where the Curwen farm ought to lie, the human cries of desperate and frightened men were heard. Muskets flashed and cracked, and the flaming thing fell to the ground.  A second flaming thing, and a shriek of human crying was plainly distinguished.  Then there were more shots and the second flaming thing fell.

"Five minutes later a chill wind blew up, and the air became suffused with such an intolerable stench that only the strong freshness of the sea could have prevented its being noticed by the shore party of by any wakeful souls in Pawtuxet village.  This stench was nothing which any had ever encountered before, and produced a kind of clutching, amorphous fear beyond that of the tomb of the charnel-house. Close upon it came the awful voice which no hapless hearer will ever be able to forget.  It thundered of the sky like a doom, and windows rattled as its echoes died away. It was deep and musical; powerful as a brass organ, but evil as the forbidden books of the Arabs.  What it said no man can tell, for it spoke in an unknown tongue..."


Curwen dies in the attack along with several of the militiamen.  His body is returned to his wife for burial. Everything to this point takes up about one-third of the novel and is offered as a summary of Charles Ward's research into his ancestor. From this point on the narrative emphasizes the present time (the 1920's) and concentrates on the effect continued research on this matter has upon young Ward. Eventually, he becomes more interested in what Curwen might have attempted to do than in the man himself. Cuwen's research and dabbling with occultism and alchemy increasingly become Ward's personal quest.

Ward discovers a portrait of Joseph Curwen during an antiquarian visit to an old house.  His father is astonished at the uncanny similarity of the portrait to Ward. When the portrait is removed (to be re-installed in Ward's study) one of Curwen's private journals and other obscure manuscripts are discovered in the wall behind the portrait.  Ward obsessively pours over these documents.  His parents and other family members begin to worry about the boy.  Later, one of the alienists contends that this was the beginning of Ward's madness.  

His parents are somewhat relieved when he decides to travel to Europe for a few weeks.  It is hoped that the change will do Ward good.  Unfortunately, the trip has the opposite effect and seems to have made matters worse. Ward becomes even more mysterious and reclusive.  Lovecraft writes:

"What elicited the notion of insanity at this period were the sounds heard at all hours from Ward's attic laboratory, in which he kept himself most of the time.  There were chantings and repetitions, and thunderous declamations in uncanny rhythms; and although these sounds were always in Ward's own voice, there was something in the quality of that voice, and in the accents of the formulae it pronounced, which could not but chill the blood of every hearer.  It was noticed that Nig, the venerable and black cat of the household, brisket and riches his back perceptibly when certain of the tones were heard.  

"The odors occasionally wafted from the laboratory were likewise exceedingly strange. People who smelled them had a tendency to glimpse momentary mirages of enormous vistas, with strange hills or endless avenues of sphinxes and hippo grids stretching into the infinite distance."


One specific incident profoundly affected Ward's mother.  It involved a commotion within Ward's locked study late one evening, I have chosen particular aspects of this longer passage for the sake of brevity.  "This had been going on for two hours without change or intermission when all over the neighborhood a pandemoniac howling of dogs set in. The extent of the howling can be judged from the space it received in the papers the next day, but to those in the Ward household it was overshadowed by the odor which instantly followed it; a hideous all-pervasive odor which none of them had ever smelt before or have smelt since; and then was heard the voice that no listener can ever forget because of its thunderous remoteness, it's incredible depth, and it's eldritch dissimilarity to Charles Ward's voice.

"A second later all previous memories were effaced by the wailing scream which burst out with frantic explosiveness and gradually changed from a paroxysm of diabolical and hysterical laughter.  Mrs. Ward, with the mingled fear and blind courage of maternity, advanced and knocked affrightedly at the concealing panels, but obtained no sign of recognition.  She knocked again, but paused nervelessly as a second shriek arose, this one the unmistakably familiar voice of her son, and sounding concurrently with the still-bursting cachinnations of the other voice. Presently, she fainted, although she is still unable to recall the precise and immediate cause. Memory sometimes makes merciful deletions."


Ward's mother became a casualty of this infernal nonsense. She was sent away on holiday to recuperate and Ward was forced to relocate his secret effects from the attic to the former, now largely dilapidated, Pawtuxet bungalow of Joseph Curwen.

Ward took to associating with an enigmatic Dr. Allen out at the bungalow.  The novel moves quickly here and Ward's doings out at Pawtuxet do not last long before they attract the attention of State Police.  Ward is able to offer sufficient reasons to prevent any intensive investigation.  But shortly thereafter he writes a disturbing letter to his personal physician, Dr. Willet, staying that Ward was abandoning the old residence, after disposing of and destroying aspects of his "research", and returning home to his father.

Dr. Willet takes on greater significance as the story shifts into its third and final phase.  The first phase was the back-story of Curwen.  The second was Ward's increasing obsession with Curwen's research and occultist techniques. The final part of the novel begins when Ward turns up missing altogether. The last word Dr. Willet revives from the young man is in the form of a letter which states: "Instead of triumph I have found terror, and my talk with you will not be a boast of victory but a plea for help and advice in saving both myself and the world from a horror beyond all human conception and calculation."  The letter indicates that Ward wants to meet with Willet and discuss these strange matters in private.  It closes with bizarrely enough.  "P.S. Shoot Dr. Allen on sight and dissolve his body in acid. Don't burn it."

But when Dr. Willet arrives Ward is nowhere to be found. His father does not know his whereabouts and a mystery within a mystery briefly ensues. Ultimately, Willet and the elder Ward manage to piece together evidence that seems to indicate that Dr. Allen believed himself to be the reincarnation of Joseph Curwen and had, for reasons unclear, either caused harm or kidnapped Charles Ward. Beyond this, Dr. Allen seemed to represent a group of individuals or a secret society that was busy collecting the remains of dead bodies all over the world and attempting to reanimate them through diabolical means of alchemy and ritual.

Through complex circumstances Dr. Willet finally tracks down Charles Dexter Ward and is taken aback by what he finds.  In short, Ward had gone insane.  "His conduct would have sent his interviewers away in bafflement had not the persistently archaic trend in his speech and unmistakable replacement of modern by ancient ideas in his consciousness marked him out as one definitely removed from the normal. Of his work he would say no more to the group of doctors than he had formerly said to his family and to Dr. Willet, and his frantic note of the previous month he dismissed as mere nerves and hysteria."

Ward went to the mental hospital exhausted and without protest.  But Dr. Willet visited Pawtuxet to investigate further.  There he discovers the hideous catacombs of Joseph Curwen, where Charles Ward must have undertaken his own experiments and rituals.  The things Dr. Willet discovers are opportunities for Lovecraft to exhibit some of his marvelous style of writing what he called "weird fiction."

"It is hard to explain just how a single sight of a tangible object with measurable dimensions could so shake and change a man; and we may only say that there is about certain outlines and entities a power of symbolism and suggestion which acts frightfully on a sensitive thinker's perspective and whispers terrible hints of obscure cosmic relationships and unnameable realities behind the protective illusions of common vision."  The pits Dr. Willet manages to see beneath the ground on the Pawtuxet property are filled with all manner of ghoulish creatures, failed and discarded attempts at summoning the great lives of the past back to life from their decomposed remains dug up from graves around the world.

Ultimately, Dr. Willet realizes that there is no Dr. Allen and, moreover, there is no Charles Dexter Ward.  Instead, Ward summoned up Joseph Curwen himself and, apparently with great struggle, was possessed by Curwen. (Do not call up what you can not put back down.) Dr. Willet confronts Curwen in the mental hospital room. The two engage in a battle of magic, for Dr. Willet has learned many things and incantations during his long investigation. We are left with the result with which the book begins, a mystery to everyone but Dr. Willet and, now, the reader.  Charles Ward is missing, there is a strange odor in the room, and a curious bit of gray ash in a small pile on the floor. The manner in which the narrative loops is just one of the many wonderful literary techniques used by Lovecraft in this story.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward did not have the benefit of a rewrite by Lovecraft, and it shows in several aspects of the narrative.  It is weak in some of its specifics such as Charles' father who seems to passively accept everything until the end when he assists Dr. Willet in his investigation.  The way people shrug off the strange doings and grave robbing of Curwen and, later, of Charles Ward, seems too convenient and carelessly contrived in the face of such strangeness.  They are all stupid toward the diabolical nature of events.  But Lovecraft truly thought the common person to be rather, mercifully, ignorant.  So perhaps Lovecraft would have left such stupid behavior in the narrative. Who knows?

Overall, this is a strong piece of classic horror, and I find it a eerie, moody, captivating, and thoroughly entertaining read in the dead of winter.  Renown Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi writes in his splendid biography of the author: "It is certainly a pity that Lovecraft made no efforts to prepare The Case of Charles Dexter Ward for publication, even when book publishers in the 1930s were specifically asking for a novel from his pen; but we are in no position to question Lovecraft's own judgment that the novel was an inferior piece of work, a 'cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism'.  It has certainly now been acknowledged as one of his finest works..." (page 419)

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