“The following is a guest post by The Midnight Mystic Mage.”
“The essential Saltes of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious Man may have the whole Ark of Noah in his own Studie, and raise the fine Shape of an Animal out of its Ashes at his Pleasure; and by the lyke Method from the essential Saltes of humane Dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the Shape of any dead Ancestour from the Dust whereinto his Bodie has been incinerated.”
-Petrus Borellus as paraphrased by Cotton Mather and quoted by H.P. Lovecraft, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
Alright, after finishing a review on the adaptation of this book The Haunted Palace , it only seems fitting that next I would review the novel itself. So far this is the story by Lovecraft that has drawn me into it the most (I am currently reading through his work on HPLovecraft.com, it’s a great resource), the title is The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. There is so much to love about this book. Much of the book follows the Ward’s family doctor, Dr. Willet. He is investigating to see what has brought about the drastic changes with Charles. Charles is a young man who is very much fascinated by history & genealogy, he is described as an antiquarian. He lives with family and they begin to notice a change in him as he delves deeper and deeper into his studies. The spark that ignites this change is when he begins to research an ancient relative of his, Joseph Curwen. He becomes very reserved, and does not discuss his studies as much. Not only does he become more reclusive, but Ward also experiences an extreme change of character. Instead of being fascinated with history and genealogy, he begins to inquire about the modern-day and even begins to speak with an anachronistic dialect and manner.
Ward lives with his mother and father, and is very close with Dr. Willet who I mentioned earlier. Willet even delivered Ward into the world and had remained his family doctor his whole life. So when the “Alienists” or Psychiatrists begin examining Charles and declaring him mad before Willet believes it the case, it is true that is not his area of expertise, but he is also a much better judge of his character.
Of course we as the reading audience know soon enough that madness has nothing to do with what is wrong with the young man at all. You see the thing that brought his studies into a darker place is his findings about Joseph Curwen and his dark occult studies. There was almost a sort of conspiracy trying to erase the man from existence. Of course this is of great interest to Ward, the Antiquarian and Genealogy enthusiast that he is. The more and more he pursues this lost relative the further he goes into the Occultism and dark arts that his ancestor so fervently studied.
Joseph Curwen is another story altogether from Charles. The man was from a well-known family, he was a philanthropist, and helped our beloved politicians although he was not one himself. Probably the biggest contribution to the city was his shipping, basically every business relied on him to get them their goods. As you can imagine it took quite a lot of strange occurrences and evidence before the town was able to turn on a man who did so much good in the public eye. Of course there were plenty of both.
Curwen fled from Salem during the witch trials to escape persecution. He did a great job at first of saving face, by way of the previously mentioned acts and others. Eventually though people started to wonder about this guy. What are the crazy noises we keep hearing coming from his house? Why do the helpers he hires for such high wages keep up and disappearing? Why is he having Mummies smuggled in to town and brought to his place? No I didn’t just make that last one up. I won’t beat around the bush too much, if you read the quote in the beginning you probably have guessed by now that this guy is into some strange necromancy stuff.
Curwen had obtained the ability to call animals and even humans back to life through their preserved remains, or the “essential saltes” or ashes of their bodies. It is also brought to light that Curwen invokes the aid of Yog Sothoth who is an old god that supposedly has power over time and space. This causes Curwen to basically completely stop aging, which is one of the main factors leading to suspicion about him from the town. The suspicion eventually drives him to move to a spot outside of town where he is less likely to be found guilty of his murderous schemes.
Eventually though it all becomes too much, the villagers organize a raid. The night they go to find the evil doer and put him out of his misery, there is said to be bright lights flashing, not quite human looking things that they have to shoot down, and many other unsettling things. It is not said exactly how he meets his end but Curwen dies that night in the raid with either his body or his remains somehow preserved. His family changes their names in shame back to Tillinghast and the erasing of Curwen’s history begins. Nobody wants to be associated with this guy in any way possible.
So now that we know a little more about Ward’s ancestor, let’s fast forward back to Ward himself. When he was first learning about this juicy Curwen conspiracy, Charles actually finds the return address on an old letter sent by Curwen. He quickly goes to see the place and is let in by the kind family inhabiting it. He finds a portrait of his ancestor on a section of the wall, painted directly onto it. The old warlock has an uncanny resemblance to Charles. His father decides he must have this painting removed for his son. He pays to have the painting removed and the wall fixed up so that his son can bring it home, there is a very strange effect the painting has though. It gives his mother an unsettling feeling. Things begin to go south the farther into Curwen’s mind Charles gets.
Eventually this leads Charles to what is suggested to be him digging up the remains of Curwen. He is approached by Dr. Willet about a section of newspaper he tore out. The section reveals that a local undertaker was chasing off some people who were digging at an unmarked location. This undoubtedly is Charles covering his tracks while searching for the remains of his ancestor, in hopes of calling him back to life.
Charles was beginning to do some strange business in that room of his in his parents’ house. They could hear loud chanting and strange noises from his chemical experiments. One night it goes too far, his mother goes to see what all the noise is about and hears another man talking to Charles. His father at this point has finally had enough and tells him he can not be doing this stuff in his house. Charles agrees with this and promises to adhere to the conditions. He tells his father he will stick to the study of books and other things that would not be so disturbing to them.
The studies and experiments were moved to a more remote location and Charles began to be seen with two helpers. The doctor receives a damning letter from Charles explaining much of the evil experimentation and urging him to kill a certain accomplice on site and dissolve his body in acid. Curwen promptly does away with Charles as soon as he realizes he is no longer in, and is able to dissuade Willet and everyone else for a bit longer. There begin to be “waves of vampirism” in the city. This is undoubtedly Curwen’s doing, and could be his way of getting back at the town that ruined him all those years ago.
Eventually however all of this leads to the seizing of Curwen in the guise of Charles who is brought to the mental asylum. He goes willingly of course because a few years is nothing in the view of his large-scale plans. Dr. Willet is having trouble with all of this. He keeps it to himself so that the others in his profession and the townspeople don’t suspect him of being mad as well, but he knows that something about all of this just isn’t adding up.
Willet reaches the conclusion that we all had figured out up to this point in the story, the man in the asylum is not Charles Dexter Ward. He goes on a horrible journey through the space where Charles had been studying and working. There appears to be some kind of hideous monster wriggling around beneath the floor. This could be any number of things when you understand the number of beings in the Bestiary, but in true Lovecraftian fashion he leaves this up to the imagination.
This is one technique that Lovecraft is widely known for, speaking of things that “should not be named” or that are “indescribable”. It leaves the reader with an eerie sense of wonder and fright. Once through this area and to Charles personal experimentation space, he finds the place littered with the “essential saltes” of those who fell victim to Curwen’s evil plans. While there Willet finds a chant and some instructions with it. Something along the lines of read this to call them up, read it backwards to put them back down.
Willet does what he can to console the parents but leaves out much that would harm them. He even burns and prepares Charles body without letting them know what all is happening. He does tell them though that within a short time the body of their true son will be buried in their family cemetery. It was discovered that Charles who we now know is Curwen did not have a birthmark that Charles always had, and had one that he didn’t have in a different spot. Willet swears the man buried will be Charles with the correct birthmark and all.
After catching the parents up, as much as he is willing to, it is into the phone booth and on with the Superman cape for Dr. Willet. He pursues the villain to the point of being let into his room at the asylum. He then confronts Curwen and reads the backwards version of what he found scrawled on that piece of paper in Ward/Curwen’s laboratory. This meets us with the mystery of the books opening section, where did Curwen go? They find Willet alone and nothing but a window too tall to jump from flung open and a blue dust scattered about the ground.
The 8-Bit Review
This book is not scary in an, oh crap this could actually happen, way. It is however very creepy and unsettling. The things that Lovecraft suggests with his mysterious writing style leave the mind pondering and connecting further implications. What is Curwen planning to do with the army of people he is planning to summon? What types of torture does he use on the people who had wronged him that he calls back up? What creature is making all of the noise and destroying Willet’s flashlight in the laboratory? It is more the places that your mind can bring this book to that makes it so horrific, rather than what is directly spelled out. Lovecraft is a master of implication and he is in full form here in his only novel.
One thing I have come to learn about Lovecraft is that he was very critical of the language used in writing. He was very hard on his own work and never even got this book published in his lifetime, presumably because he himself didn’t like it, and felt that it was amateurish. I couldn’t disagree with him more on this one though. He as always is very descriptive, and does a wonderful job setting the scene and the mood. The time when Willet is sneaking through the lair of Curwen is genuinely chilling, and the descriptions of the beautiful Rhode Island scenery are breathtaking and painstaking.
It is so far the story of Lovecraft’s that I have found the most enjoyable to read, there is a sense of wonder and curiosity instilled by the ideas and situations that are presented and that feeling never faded. The suspense built in both the times of Curwen and in the future with Charles is just nail-biting and draws you in every step of the way. There are different depths to the story but I never felt like it was jumping around too much and making it hard to understand exactly what’s going on.
Tampering with things of a foul nature or getting involved in bad practices can lead to a most untimely end. Charles wants out at the point of sending the letter to Willet exposing the situation, at this point through it is too late. This adds a layer to that theme of getting in too deep. I definitely feel that these are some of the strongest messages here. I don’t believe in the supernatural and neither did Lovecraft, so I would definitely think it was more of a message that could be applied to us in the “living realm”. Instead of “Don’t call up that which you can not put down” maybe we are to apply this to not beginning things that we will not have control over once we have started them.
The conflict in the story is intentionally telegraphed. We as readers know basically the whole time what is going on. The fun is in watching the characters come to know in time and see their reactions. I don’t think this is a downside and I don’t feel it would have worked as well if we were kept in the dark about certain things. It is very tense and suspenseful, and with the approach that he took I think it is as good as it could get. I feel though when you are able to foresee the situation so easily it does tend to diffuse some of the nervous or worried feelings the conflict might usually give you. Not every situation is like this, you are still worried for the safety of Willet and Charles. When it comes to why Charles is acting strange and many other things to do with Curwen though, we as the readers have a pretty good idea of what all is going on.
Binge Worthiness: 9/10
I was hooked from beginning to end. Following the case even though you are in on what is going on is for some reason still incredibly suspenseful. Although you have a pretty good idea of what is happening and what will probably ultimately happen, the deep characters and relationships keep you enthralled. It has the effect of a TV show with cliff hangers at the end of each episode. You try to come to a stopping point, but you can’t just stop there, what happens to Curwen? What are they going to do with their new remote location in Pawtuxet? How will Dr. Willet make it out of the dark and wretched catacombs? It is an extremely addictive story and it is hard to see how Lovecraft wasn’t very fond of it himself.
This story was very unique to me, I personally had never heard of any idea like it. Raising the dead from their ashes, leaving instructions for your ancestors to do the same to you. It was all just so different and new to me. There were some stories that are cited as inspiration but I felt like he also drew much from his personal life also. Obviously not for the outlandish parts but for the more realistic ones. A young man who is obsessed with antiquity, genealogy, it is even set in his hometown of Providence. I loved the way that he was able to integrate his studies on Cotton Mather, Petrus Borellus, and Eliphas Levi. His extensive research on the occult really shone through, he even used real incantations at certain points in the story.
My Personal Score: 9/10
It is the most fun Lovecraft story that I have read all the way through so far. I am to the D’s now on HPLovecraft.com and I have read a few scattered other ones. It’s not the insane attention to detail, such as in At The Mountains of Madness that makes it so great. I just really was mystified by the story that is in play and the character development. Each main character is so deep and has many different facets, and the story taking place is so unheard of that it just really is so gripping. I would recommend it to people who are interested in Lovecraft and those who are not as well. Many consider Lovecraft the master of the horror tale in the 20th century, and if you are looking for a novel to read by him, this is the only one you are going to find.
Aggregated Score: 8.8