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.