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?   


  1. Found this article very interesting, and helpful. Thanks. I won't make any detailed observations now because I've just been up in the loft getting down all my old Lovecrafts. I've come to realise that I need to have a more critical full read-through, preferably in chronological order of writing (I usually dive in any old where). Cheers.

  2. Thanks John.

    I find that I get a deeper appreciation of an author if I can do just what you propose: read a number of his or her works across a time period, and look for patterns and and recurrent themes or motifs.

    If I am really intrigued with an author, I like to go on and look at correspondence as well as what contemporaries were doing in the same genre. It's fascinating, to me at least, to see how Lovecraft shared certain ideas with people like Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, who in turn had an influence on Lovecraft. (This shows up in their letters to each other.)

    By the way, I enjoyed your piece "The Lurking Adjectives of Doom".


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