Tuesday, November 1, 2011

H.P. Lovecraft - The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

In his life, H.P. Lovecraft wrote only three novel length works, the second of which was The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Lovecraft thought the tale poor, calling it, in a letter to Barlow, a cumbering, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism (p. 389), and he never made any attempts to publish it. In the time since, however, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward has come to be considered a more than worthy addition to Lovecraft's body of works. This is a human story, one where characters and their aims dominate the stage, and, perhaps stemming from that, this may be Lovecraft's most plot focused work. [Two brief notes before we begin: First, SPOILERs will follow. Second, all page numbers come from the Penguin Classics edition of The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories unless otherwise noted.]

Though things generally do progress in a chronological manner, the power of the plot does not come from a traditional escalation of events and tensions but rather through successive revelations. Frequently, the importance of events cannot be discerned until well after their passage, and, in the novel's first half, our protagonist, dear Charles Ward, is himself attempting to unravel the dark past surrounding his ancestor, Joseph Curwen. In addition to that, not only is the reader trying to piece together facts, and not only is the character, but the narrator, too, is writing with an outsider's eye, combining numerous sources to try and comprehend the true happenings of the tale with varying degrees of success.

The downsides of such a style can be felt strongly in the opening. After the intriguing first section, we switch to a view of Ward's youth that is filled in endless historical details, near no tension, and that does, alas, serve to justify a bit of Lovecraft's dismissal of the work. But, soon after, disquiet seeps into the narrative, something that only serves to grow, often exponentially, as Ward's probing turns from the innocuous past and to its darkest aspects. When, in the story's final chapters, we do finally understand the tale's core and events surge forward, the scholarly detail and multiplicity of sources from which it's been compiled, lend the text an air of powerful authenticity, leaving the reader not feeling like they've been told of great and dark happenings but that, through their own insight and research, they've discovered those happenings themselves.

One result of this is Lovecraft's prose throughout the story. Lovecraft's style can be, perhaps, said to consist of two interlocking parts. First, there's the scholarly side, something superficially aided by his intentionally archaic spellings and diction but really coming forth in his approach to detail, in how many of his stories start with what could serve as the openings to essays, and in the erudition he always displays. Then there's his penchant for climax and even hysteria, the moments of startling eloquence where his words seem as grand and immortal as the farthest reaches of whatever he's describing, as well as, alas, his oft parodied excesses.

While both of those are, to some extent, present in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, it's by far the former that predominates. With only a few exceptions, the majority of the text's first, say, two thirds, are devoid of stylistic flourishes, and those that are there, interestingly, are often of a more positive or beautiful nature, brief reprieves from the darkness that, depending on the mindset of the soul seeing them, may or may not be perceived: That he said nothing of antiquarian rambles in the glamorous old city with its luring skyline of ancient domes and steeples and its tangles of roads and alleys whose mystic convolutions and sudden vistas alternately beckon and surprise, was taken by his parents as a good index of the degree to which his new interests had engrossed his mind. (p. 141) It's only far later that Lovecraft's writing takes on any of its sometimes-donned oppressive weight, layering and filling the sections spent in the bowels of Curwen's home with, at once, a sense of dark majesty and of nigh irresistible claustrophobia.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward has, I think, some of Lovecraft's strongest work with character. Now, mind you, I don't mean that in a third person limited point of view, follow them around and know their lives sense. What I do mean, though, is that, as we accumulate and acquire facts that allow us to understand the characters' actions, we begin to see the characters themselves. In large part precisely because of how little of his inner workings are ever shown, Charles Ward becomes a tragic figure, his passions and light wholly subsumed into the darkness brought on by Curwen's influence. The other figures, too, receive depth through the narrator's assembly of their story's, but the most interesting aspect is the contrast between Curwen and Ward.

As the novel progresses, and as Ward loses more and more of his humanity, we see several letters, written in a dense and anachronistic style, between Curwen and his confederates, not a one of them any longer mortal in the traditional sense. And the fascinating thing is that, in marked contrast to Ward's obsession, these letters are, in places, positively warm, showing evidence of a genuine friendship amidst the deepest darkness: I rejoice you are again at Salem, Curwen writes, and hope I may see you not longe hence. I have a goode Stallion, and am think'g of get'g a Coach, there be'g one (Mr. Merritt's) in Providence already, tho' ye Roades are bad. If you are dispos'd to Travel, doe not pass me bye. (p. 130)

On the surface, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward seems to fit snugly within the mythos and their thematic implications that Lovecraft is so (justly) famous for. To sum things up in the briefest manner possible, the mainstay of Lovecraft's fiction focuses on man's place in the universe, and how that place is wholly insignificant, irrelevant, ephemeral, and so on and so forth. The Call of Cthulhu, to pick what's likely his best known work, or The Colour out of Space, to pick what's likely my favorite of the lot, both focus on man coming to terms with the wider world and being brushed aside, trampled, and ignored, surviving only because forces greater than he don't care enough to extinguish him any more than we'd wage a global war against ants.

Here, the surface details do seem to match up. Not only does this happen to be the first place where the recurring Mythos entity Yog Sothoth is mentioned, the tale's horror comes from a man venturing beyond the spheres of mortal and sane life and even past time (p. 203). In fact, in its focus on the dark sides of science and progress, the story serves to illustrate the so-famous opening paragraph to Call of the Cthulhu: The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. (p. 355, H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction)

But The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a human story in a way that the majority of the Mythos' centerpiece tales are not. Of course, this is not the only instance where the great beyond has its human familiars, or even its dark sorcerers, but Jospeh Curwen and his associates are different from the crazed cultists of the Call of the Cthulhu, the degenerate Whatley of the Dunwich Horror, or whoever else you care to name. Curwen, see, is in control. He ventures "beyond the spheres," yes, and does things no mortal ever could, but he himself is the architect, and his aims are, in their twisted way, human ones. It's not interdimensional monstrosities that he creates from his essential saltes (p. 90) but rather the titan thinkers of all ages (p. 186), and, though his aims may alter all civilization, all natural law, perhaps even the fate of the solar system and the universe (p. 186), their acts in doing so are driven by humans with their ends also being comprehensible in nature, even if their means are not. This is not a tale of man discovering the entity greater than itself that will destroy us, but rather of man discovering powers beyond what can be conceived and destroying itself.

Of course, this interpretation can be contested, especially with regards to the recurring warning throughout the text to never call up Any that you cannot put downe. (p. 190) And Curwen, after all, is, it's implied, killed the first time by a creature that he lost control of. But I think the fact that any control at all was possible, no matter that he lost it in the end, show this to be an exceptional case in Lovecraft's Mythos. After all, can you imagine a man, no matter his ultimate fate, slapping a saddle on the back of Cthulhu or, for any time at all, directing a shoggoth?

All that, though, is not to say that there is not a free and supernatural agent in the text, for there is, but – and here's the amazing thing – it's actually a force for good, and one called, one must not forget, more by a well-meaning character's bumbling than by dark designs. The rising of the entity, that which was therein inhum'd (p. 190), that Willet accidentally calls to life forms a damn excellent climactic moment, but its implications are far greater than just that. It's this man, whose identity can never be confirmed (though that does nothing to diminish the fun of speculating i), that strikes the greatest blows against the unnatural practices of Curwen and his cohorts, a man capable of wielding stronger weapons (p. 195) than the simply mortal. That benevolent and supernatural force, and the happy(ish) ending it brings, are certainly anomalies in Lovecraft's so-strictly amoral Mythos.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a fascinating and, once it gets going, gripping novel that's far greater than Lovecraft himself thought. I don't think I'd recommend it as an entry point for the man's work – there are far more immediately enthralling tales, and it'd likely be best to understand the core of Lovecraft's Mythos before venturing to their outskirts – but this is nonetheless a necessary read for anyone looking for a complete understanding of Lovecraft's writings, Mythos, and thoughts.It's damn difficult to find meaning in a world where life can be created and dissolved by the mad, where the laws of society and nature are just playthings for the powerful. And yet, with the text's close, the men perpetrating the evil, if not the ability for the evil itself, have been destroyed, and the evidence of their actions undone. True, Ward has fallen victim to his tragic need to know and understand, and those around him will never be the same, but the world does go on. Maybe, if we stay huddled in our corners and never stray too far, it'll stay that way. 


  1. You know, I think I read this, years and years ago. And I don't remember any of it.

    Maybe time I read some Lovecraft again. It's been more than a while.

  2. I'm always impressed by the wild diversity of quality in Lovecraft's writing. Sometimes he's spot on (Mountains of Madness, Dagon, etc), and sometimes, as in "The Street" (I think it's called), he's horrible.

    Have you read the short about the submarine? If so, thoughts?

  3. Lydia: I'd highly recommend a reread, though I guess that's not too surprising opinion, seeing as I just posted a two thousand word panegyric.

    Travis: I certainly agree. I think the majority of Lovecraft's fiction is absolutely excellent, but there is, alas, the presence of a fair few outliers. And they are awful, and inexcusably so.

    I have read The Temple, and remember thinking it quite good (though certainly not one of his best), though it's been a while, and I'd need to reread it before saying much more than that. Your thoughts?