Monday, August 31, 2015

Charles Dexter Ward—Additional Diagnosis

In the last post there was discussion of H.P. Lovecraft’s novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941), an important work published several years after the author’s death in 1937.  It was the longest piece of fiction he ever wrote, containing autobiographical material, local history and references to situations and characters in other Lovecraft stories.  (Randolph Carter, for example, is briefly referenced as a friend of the heroic Dr. Willett).  The novel also displays what the author knew at the time about occult practices. 

Lovecraft put a lot of effort into this particular story, which in some archetypal sense is his own.  Like a number of his later works, among them, The Thing on the Doorstep (1937) and The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943), the novel seems to be an attempt to consolidate all that he had done so far, drawing on ideas developed in previous works, and creating a larger universe darkened by the presence of the Great Old Ones, the forbidden knowledge of the Necronomicon, a haunted New England, and elements of his own difficult life.

According to several of his biographers, Lovecraft began working on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward over a decade before it was finally published, and had completed the work during his lifetime. He did not submit the work for publication despite requests for novel length material from publishers who were interested in his work.  Why didn’t Lovecraft send this material to Weird Tales or others?

L. Sprague de Camp in his Lovecraft, A Biography (1975) notes that the author had completed a handwritten first draft as early as December of 1927.  He was about to begin typing it but was distracted by additional revision work from Adolphe de Castro, (possibly The Last Test or The Electric Executioner), and Zealia Bishop, (The Curse of Yig).  Lovecraft had also completed a draft of The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath in January of that year.  It is a shame that Lovecraft did not make The Case of Charles Dexter Ward or his other novel his priorities. 

Donald Wandrei offered to type Lovecraft’s manuscript, but found the handwriting almost illegible due to numerous modifications the author had made.  Lovecraft put the novel aside; after his death, his colleagues August Derleth and Donald Wandrei had the manuscript typed and submitted to Weird Tales in 1941.  In the second volume of his I Am Providence (2013)—required reading, in my view—S.T. Joshi remarks that Lovecraft did not make an effort to submit the work for publication because he doubted both its quality and marketability.  Lovecraft himself described the novel as a “cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism.”  

Lovecraft began writing the novel about nine months after returning to his beloved Providence, following his disastrous and humiliating sojourn in New York City.  Joshi reports that Lovecraft originally had in mind a novel set in Salem, but suspects that his return to his hometown, combined with his perusal of a history of colonial Providence, led him to switch the setting.  In my opinion, this makes sense “psycho-geographically”, insofar as The Case of Charles Dexter Ward contains a reworking of autobiographical material and a local consolidation of themes of personal interest to the author.
Joshi insightfully notes that, while an ancient horror cannot be vanquished in fallen New York City, as in The Horror at Red Hook (1927) it can—must be—utterly destroyed in his beloved, pristine Providence.  Joshi goes on to provide an astute analysis of the novel, which I cannot do justice to here, but is well worth reading.  He also makes some interesting comparisons between The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and works by Walter de La Mare and M.R. James, which also deal with psychic possession.

Alert readers of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward will also note a discernible echo of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).  Incidents of vampirism begin to occur in Providence and near the farm in Pawtuxet not long after Charles Dexter Ward returns from a lengthy visit to the Baron Ferenczy’s castle in the Carpathian Mountains.  Ward recapitulates Jonathan Harker’s journey, though his purpose in going there is very different.  

Philip A. Shreffler confirms Lovecraft’s remarkable attention to historical detail in The H.P. Lovecraft Companion (1977).  Shreffler is impressed with how Lovecraft seamlessly interwove his fictional backstory with actual historical events.  He suspects that the origin of the fictitious Joseph Curwen, the evil sorcerer who psychically possesses the mind Charles Dexter Ward, was an actual gentleman named Jonathan Corwin.  Judge Corwin was a local magistrate involved in the preliminary hearings that led to the witchcraft trials in Salem in 1692.  Reportedly, Corwin—essentially an accomplice who contributed to the hysteria of the time—held hearings for over 200 of the accused in his own home.

In the forthcoming H.P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition, author John L. Steadman carefully analyzes the occult notions that underlie several of the scenes in the novel.  He notes that the spell Charles Dexter Ward uses in one of his first attempts to reconstitute a dead person from “the essential Saltes” is the wrong spell, and in fact would more likely produce the opposite effect.  Steadman’s book provides an interesting perspective on the appearance of occultism in Lovecraft’s work, and his subsequent influence on contemporary neo-pagan groups.

Finally, readers interested in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward may find their experience of the novel enhanced by two resources:  The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (1914) and I.N.J. Culbard’s graphic novelization of Lovecraft’s work, published SelfMadeHero in 2012. 

The former provides an excellent selection of 22 of the author’s stories as well as dozens of interesting marginal notes and pictures, (mostly architectural, but some of old magazine illustrations).  At the back of the book are several appendices (e.g., "Genealogy of the Elder Races") that will intrigue fans.  The graphic novel, while no substitute for Lovecraft’s text—Culbard took some liberties with the material in order to adapt it to the graphic format—still makes a good companion to the reading.  Who doesn’t like pictures?   

Saturday, August 29, 2015

“…doe not call up Any that you can not put downe…”

This sensible advice is offered by Jedediah Orne in a letter sent to Joseph Curwen in the late 18th century.  Both men were nefarious characters—Curwen especially—in one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most ambitious works, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  The failure to abide such advice provides the impetus for much of the ensuing horror and tragedy.  The novel, which is the longest work of fiction Lovecraft ever wrote, was published several years after his death, first appearing in an abridged version in Weird Tales in 1941.

Despite its flaws, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is H.P. Lovecraft at his best, in command of his material, showing markedly improved characterization, and making effective use of his particular strengths as a writer:  creating moody and disturbing scenes, building up nightmares out of thorough backstory, and offering mind blowing concepts for his readers to piece together from the steadily accumulating and disquieting evidence.  Unusual for Lovecraft, the story is told in the third person instead of the first, and superficially at least seems less autobiographical than much of his fiction.

As the title suggests, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, is essentially a clinical study of psychic possession.  It falls to the diligent family physician, Dr. Willett, to determine—from family report, genealogical records, correspondence, newspaper articles and his own observations—a terrifying diagnosis with frightful implications for all of humankind.  This being a Lovecraft story, readers can probably anticipate what the prognosis will be for Charles Dexter Ward.  But his family and doctor barely survive themselves with their sanity intact.  The novel contains something pathological for everyone: grave robbing, necromancy, corruption (political and economic as well as physical), psychic possession, grotesque monsters, and even vampirism.

It is interesting to compare The Case of Charles Dexter Ward with The Shadow Out of Time (1936).  (The latter was discussed in late July; see also 3. Time: Not on Our Side). Both stories involve forms of mental transference, one brought about through necromancy, the other administered by extraterrestrials.  Why was this such a frequent motif towards the end of Lovecraft’s career?  It seems inconsistent with his oft stated belief that nothing of mind or soul survives outside the physical body. 

However, the appearance of mental transference or soul exchange is also a marker of the tension between the supernatural and the proto-science fiction elements in his work.  Lovecraft seems to oscillate between occult and pseudo-scientific explanations for the phenomena.  Other stories that contain this motif include The Whisperer in Darkness (1931), The Challenge from Beyond (1935), The Thing on the Doorstep (1937), and perhaps The Evil Clergyman (1939).  The last of these, which is fragmentary and dream-like in conception, contains an uneasy mixture of both supernatural and scientific or technological imagery.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward actually contains two stories in roughly equal proportions.  First, there is the pain-staking reconstruction of a concealed history, that of the career of one Joseph Curwen, refugee from “the great witchcraft panic” in Salem, vengeful sorcerer and corrupter of pre-Revolutionary Providence.  Curwen’s method of obtaining powerful occult and esoteric knowledge was through necromancy—reconstituting the bodies and souls of the long deceased from a handful of their dusty remains.  Which knowledge he used effectively to gain political and economic influence, as well as the hand of a local heiress in marriage.  But Curwen had another project he was secretly completing on his farm in nearby Pawtuxet, one with dire consequences for the entire world.

Lovecraft cleverly incorporates the fictional history of Joseph Curwen into the actual history of events in Providence circa the mid-18th century—a skill he shares with his colleague Robert E. Howard, who in some of his adventure tales did the same with ancient European and Middle-Eastern history.
Interwoven with the story of Joseph Curwen is the relentless demise of his descendent, Charles Dexter Ward, who outwardly resembles Curwen when compared to an old portrait of the sorcerer.  Ward also very much resembles Lovecraft in physique, temperament, sheltered childhood, scholarly preoccupations, and obsession with genealogical and antiquarian matters.  Reading the description of Ward’s upper class lifestyle and demeanor, one wonders if this essentially autobiographical material is Lovecraft’s own life rewritten:  what his experience might have been if his grandfather’s business had not collapsed and the family’s fortunes not precipitously declined, leaving him impoverished.

When Ward becomes aware of his ancestor, he is soon obsessed with finding out all he can about him, even locating the necromancer’s unpublished Journall and Notes of Jos: Curwen, Gent. Of Providence –Plantations, Late of Salem.  As he becomes ever more under the sway of Curwen’s influence, Ward begins to recapitulate the occult work his evil progenitor had begun in the late 1700s.  Like father, like great-great-great-grandson.  Ward’s parents and family doctor become increasingly alarmed, though for a while they are remarkably tolerant of all the chanting, shrieking, thunder claps and disturbing odors that radiate from Ward’s locked study.

Much of the initial part of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is lengthy travelogue describing historic properties and locations in Providence.  There is also an overly long portrait of Ward’s early life, which seems in many aspects to be a version of the author’s autobiography.  This material appears to serve little purpose in unedited form, and gives the impression it was appended to the front of the story.  Less committed readers may want to skim these early sections. 

Lovecraft has often been criticized for excessive back story, which typically involves depiction of a narrator diligently studying and pondering old records in search of an explanation for some bizarre event.  However, the detailed history of Curwen and his activities, as well as the clinical depiction of Ward’s collapse into psychic possession are critical to the story, and firmly establish the basis for the increasing horror and tragedy.  And Lovecraft skillfully brings the narratives of the two men together at the end, with a climax that is memorable and haunting.

By the late 1930s Lovecraft was attempting ever longer and more complex stories with multiple characters and subtle, disturbing themes.  His skill as an author was continuing to develop. His voluminous correspondence, the fragments and some of the posthumous publications he left behind—among them Ibid (1938), The Evil Clergyman (1939), The Very Old Folk (1940) The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943) and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941) clearly show that his work was not yet done.  It is a tribute to his efforts that so many have since attempted to build on top of the foundation he laid, or perhaps—because there was so much excavation involved—uncovered.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Personal Note: When Justice Trumps Holy Scripture

Today’s post will depart from the usual preoccupation with eldritch matters—early twentieth century horror, fantasy and science fiction—to consider a more contemporary topic, one that may seem far more terrifying and disorienting than a mere recrudescence of Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth, at least to some folks.

Last June, as most readers know, the Supreme Court of the United States of America made the historic decision to legalize same-sex marriage in our country.  Last March, perhaps in anticipation of that outcome, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA quietly announced its approval of a proposal to allow churches in our denomination to celebrate same-sex marriages.  The measure passed with the support of approximately 75% of the assembly, following exhaustive study, prayer and debate. 

The proposal does not compel individual congregations to perform same-sex marriages; whether to do so is a decision left to the local governing body of each church, called session, in Presbyterian parlance.  Your humble blogger is a church elder serving on session at a neighborhood church, which now has the arduous responsibility of deciding whether to sanction same-sex marriage, and determining how to communicate this decision to an aging and dwindling congregation. 

Allowing individual churches to decide the matter for themselves—akin to “states’ rights” but involving congregations instead—may have been a strategy to avoid accelerating the loss of membership or causing the schisms that have afflicted other Protestant denominations.  The open-endedness of the proposal seems to reflect anxiety and indecisiveness at all levels of the Presbyterian Church.  Though it seems to many of us to be a just and compassionate decision, there have been few audible hallelujahs, and not a little fear.

Presbyterians, who are known affectionately as the “frozen chosen”, value orderliness and restraint and avoid conflict or spectacle in matters of church government.  So it is uncomfortable to observe weeping or raised voices at our more recent session meetings, of which there have now been several devoted to the issue of same-sex marriage.  Our more progressive wing immediately advocated for a quick decision in favor of allowing gay marriage, to follow the momentum of the Supreme Court ruling in June.  More conservative members, of which I am admittedly one, lobbied for a period of reflection, study, and discussion.  How would we present this divisive matter to the rest of the congregation, many of whom are ardent traditionalists? 

It’s not that all Hell has broken loose—especially since many members of the congregation no longer believe in Hell.  (As a horror enthusiast, this is a dismaying development.  If no one believes in Satan and his minions, what will become of literature that traffics in demonic possession, vampirism, the Last Days, and so forth?  What can be done to keep fear alive?)  But if we are to discard 2000 years of church teaching and understanding, if we are choosing to ignore significant passages of supposed Holy and Inerrant Scripture, shouldn’t there be at least a moment or two to consider and reconsider?

No.  Let’s get on with it.

I have several gay colleagues, friends and clients, and certainly don’t begrudge them any civil rights due a fellow American citizen, much less the opportunity to enjoy lifelong relationships with the ones they love.  Because of the nature of my work, my office is one of the most culturally diverse places on earth—far more diverse than a white middle-class Protestant church. 

Not long after the Supreme Court ruling, my wife and I attended a dinner party hosted by one of her gay co-workers and his partner in the next town over.  The two gentlemen host this affair in their backyard every year, a neighborhood block party with excellent food, strong drinks, and hits from the 1980s pouring from speakers hidden among the old trees.  Gay and straight couples and single folks mill about and settle into circles here and there in an immaculate garden lit by tiki torches.  The yard is nervous with young children of various nationalities dashing about, tripping over a wary dog or two, spilling their drinks. Neighbors young and old wander into the mix from the sidewalk all night. 

Gardens of any kind recall the original garden we were cast out of eons ago, and prefigure the one we may return to someday, if we don’t manage to plant it here ourselves.  Or perhaps this annual event in the next town over is merely an idyllic vision of an American neighborhood block party—peaceful, prosperous, friendly, lively, diverse. What is wrong with this picture?

Nothing is wrong with this picture.

Since the announcement from the General Assembly last March almost nothing has been said about gay marriage at our church, probably out of fear of alienating some of the members.  However, in the interim I learned that our compassionate pastor quietly presided over one same-sex marriage held well off the premises, which is permissible according to church regulations, since session only determines whether such a marriage can occur on the premises.  Location, location, location.   I was saddened that such a celebration could not be comfortably announced or shared inside the walls of our church, but this may be changing soon.

Session was held again last night, and consisted mainly of a very orderly discussion of both sides of the issue of gay marriage.  Honestly, I was hoping to see a fight, at least a spirited—spirit filled—debate.  The panel consisted of one woman who articulated the progressive view, one man who earnestly reminded us of the traditional view—unnecessary, since all of us were already well versed in it—an older clergyman who spoke for the presbytery, (akin to a Roman Catholic diocese), and a gay member of the congregation. 

The progressive used a clever strategy:  she focused on the small set of “clobber-texts”, readings from Leviticus, Genesis, and Romans that explicitly condemn homosexuality.  She showed how bound they were to the cultural, linguistic and historical context they were derived from—an approach used previously to reinterpret Biblical teachings on slavery, the role of women, the nature of government, and the ethics of capital punishment.  She effectively disarmed the traditional arguments against gay marriage.   

The traditionalist did make the important point that more or less equal piles of scholarship have been generated on both sides of the controversy—but without producing a conclusive answer for the rest of us.  The clergyman assured us that the General Assembly’s proceedings last spring were sober, thoughtful, diligent, prayerful, thorough, and scholarly—which everyone already suspected.

The last speaker spoke simply, eloquently and courageously about what it was like to grow up as a homosexual in a conservative Christian church.  He brought down the house.

But we still need to decide, and then tell our congregation.

As church elders go, my zeal for the faith is fairly tepid, and in the absence much bloviating from the pulpit about evil, or death, or damnation, my enthusiasm for a strict—and reassuring—orthodoxy has waned.  Has the Bible been wrong about homosexuality for the past 2000 years?  After all, the Romans and the ancient Greeks were fairly hip about it, as I recall.  Or for that matter, has the church, nominally under the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit, been wrong about the role of women in society, or the nature of slavery, or the justification for war?  Will it be right for the next 2000 years?  

If the explicit recommendations of an ancient Holy Scripture can be waived or re-interpreted in the wake—in the light—of a Supreme Court decision, rightly or wrongly, then the Bible seems much less the inerrant Word of God, the comprehensive guide to living, the only book we need.  Maybe there ought to be a few other books on the shelf!

And this is the crux of the matter, at least for me.  If love, tolerance, and a concern for justice lead us to put aside Holy Scripture to do what is right and compassionate, if the Bible is no longer perceived—even by the church—as the inerrant guide to faith and living, then why do I have to get up on Sunday mornings?  Ultimately, the issue is much larger and deeper than the matter of allowing, or even celebrating same-sex marriage.  It strikes at the heart of orthodoxy and the sacredness of revealed texts.  How terrifying would it be to dispense with them?