Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories. Today we’re looking at the first two parts of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. CDW was written in 1927, published in abridged form in the May and July 1941 issues of Weird Tales; and published in full in the 1943 collection Beyond the Wall of Sleep. You can read the story here. Spoilers ahead.
Summary: In 1928, Charles Dexter Ward is confined to a private hospital near Providence, Rhode Island. He appears to have traded a twentieth-century mindset for an intimate acquaintance with eighteenth-century New England. Once proud of his antiquarian learning, he now tries to hide it and seeks knowledge of the present. Still odder are physiological changes: perturbed heartbeat and respiration, minimal digestion, and a general coarseness of cellular structure. He’s “exchanged” the birthmark on his hip for a mole on his chest, cannot speak above a whisper, and has the subtle “facial cast” of someone older than his 26 years.
Dr. Willett, Charles’s physician from birth, visits. Three hours later, attendants find Charles missing, without a clue to how he escaped. Nor can Willett explain. Not publicly, that is.
Charles was always prone to enthusiasms. His fascination with the past dated to childhood walks through the antique glamour of Providence. His genealogical researches revealed a hitherto unsuspected ancestor: Joseph Curwen, who’d come to Rhode Island from witch-haunted Salem, trailing dark rumors. Piqued by their relationship and an apparent conspiracy to destroy all records of Curwen, Charles sought information about the pariah. In 1919 he found certain papers behind paneling in Curwen’s former Providence home. Charles declared these papers would profoundly alter human thought, but Willett believes they drew young Charles to “black vistas whose end was deeper than the pit.”
Yet by the early 1760s, his strange ways led to social ostracism. The few savants to see his library came away vaguely appalled. One recalled seeing a heavily underlined passage from Borellus: “The essential Saltes of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious Man may…raise the fine Shape of an Animal out of its Ashes…and by the lyke Method, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the Shape of any dead Ancestour from [its] Dust.” Curwen kept his ship officers only through coercion, and hired “mongrel riff-raff” as sailors—sailors who often disappeared on errands to his farm. He bought many slaves for whom he couldn’t later account. He often prowled around graveyards.
To restore his position, and perhaps for more obscure reasons, Curwen decided to marry a woman beyond social reproach. He persuaded Captain Dutee Tillinghast to break his daughter Eliza’s engagement to Ezra Weeden. To the surprise of all, Curwen treated his bride with gracious consideration and relocated any untoward activities to his farm. Public outrage was appeased.
Not so the outrage of spurned Weeden. Weeden swore Curwen’s pleasure with newborn daughter Ann and his renewed civic contributions to Providence were a mask for nefarious deeds. He spied on Curwen and learned that boats often stole down the bay from his warehouses by night. Doings at the Pawtuxet farm were more disturbing. With confederate Eleazar Smith, he determined there must be catacombs under the farm, accessible through a hidden door in the river bank. The spies heard subterranean voices, as well as conversations inside the farmhouse: Curwen questioning informants in many languages. From accompanying protests and screams, he was no gentle interrogator. Bank slides near the farm revealed animal and human bones, and after heavy spring rains corpses floated down the Pawtuxet—including some that bridge loungers insisted weren’t quite dead.
In 1770, Weeden had enough evidence to involve some prominent townsmen, including Capt. Abraham Whipple. All remembered a recent incident in which British revenue collectors had turned back a shipment of Egyptian mummies, assumed to have been destined for Curwen. Then a huge naked man was found dead in Providence. His trail led back through the snow to Curwen’s farm. Old-timers claimed the corpse resembled blacksmith Daniel Green, long deceased. Investigators opened Green’s grave, and found it vacant. Intercepted letters suggested Curwen’s involvement in dark sorceries.
Curwen grew visibly anxious and intensified his Pawtuxet operations. The time had come to act against him. Captain Whipple led a force of a hundred men to the farm. None actively involved in the raid would speak of it afterwards, but reports from a neighboring family and a guard posted at the farm’s outskirts indicated a great battle took place underground. Charred bodies, neither human nor animal, were later found in the fields. Monstrous cries sounded above musket fire and terrified screams. A mighty voice thundered in the sky, declaiming a diabolical incantation.
Then it was Curwen who screamed, as if whatever he’d summoned hadn’t wished to aid him. He screamed, but he also laughed, as Captain Whipple would recall in drunken mutters: “T’was as though the damn’d ____ had some’at up his sleeve.”
The wizard’s body was sealed in a strangely-figured lead coffin found on the spot. Later Eliza’s father insisted that she and Ann change their names, and effaced the inscription on Curwen’s gravestone. Others would assist in obliterating Curwen from the public record. He should not only cease to be, but cease ever to have been.
What’s Cyclopean: Nothing here, but keep an eye out in later sections. For now we’re still at the gambrel stage. We do get a delightful adverb: “ululantly.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Curwen’s sailors are “mongrels,” and his farm is guarded by “a sullen pair of aged Narragansett Indians… the wife of a very repulsive cast of countenance, probably due to a mixture of negro blood.” And yet, this story is relatively sympathetic to other races. Not only is it portrayed as a bad thing to sacrifice imported African slaves to unholy powers (though not to enslave them in the first place), but in the next section we’ll actually get two named African American characters about whom nothing at all bad is implied. They own Curwen’s old house, and shared historical curiosity leads them to cooperate with Ward’s investigations. This is as good as Lovecraft gets on race, which is pretty sad.
Mythos Making: Various elder deities are discussed in quaint ‘Ye Olde Yogge Sothothe’ terms, along with mention of nameless rites in Kingsport. It’s likely that the Blacke Man spoken of in Curwen’s letters is, though normally in colonial New England a byname of more pedestrian devils, Nyarlathotep.
Libronomicon: Curwen’s library includes Hermes Trismegistus, the Turba Philosophorum, Geber’s Liber Investigationis, Artephius’ Key of Wisdom, Zohar, Albertus Magnus, Raymond Lully’s Ars Magna et Ultima, Roger Bacon’s Thesaurus Chemicus, Fludd’s Clavis Alchimiae, and Trithemius’ De Lapide Philosophico, and the infamously quoted Borellus. The Necronomicon makes its inevitable appearance, lightly disguised between brown paper covers as the “Qanoon-e-Islam.”
Madness Takes Its Toll: We start with a flashforward to Ward (or “Ward”) escaping from a private asylum. The whole thing is presented as a clinical psychology case with very singular characteristics—unique, with no similar cases reported anywhere.
Learning from Curwen’s example of failure to fake it, I’m going to come right out and admit that this is a first read for me. (While this whole series has been billed as a reread, in fact I’ve not been a completist in the past. And CDW is long and lacks aliens.) I’d been hoping to get through the whole thing before we posted Parts I and II, but toddlers. I’ve read summaries and am not worried about spoilers, but if there’s subtle foreshadowing I’ll leave its identification up to Anne.
Breaking with his usual methods, Lovecraft offers this tale from a third-person, semi-omniscient perspective. It works well, letting us jump from point of view to point of view and evidence scrap to evidence scrap without the usual artificialities. One wonders why he didn’t make use of this tool more often—perhaps it simply wasn’t as much fun. One can see hints of his usual style, in that specific sections are guided by not-quite-narrators: the first by Dr. Willett’s opinions of Ward’s case, the second by Ward’s own research on Curwen.
This is another story steeped in real locations. Indeed, we practically get a guided tour of Providence. Lovecraft does love his written-out maps! And hand-drawn ones too, of course. Anyone have insight into why he finds the precise geography of his street grids so important? One does note that the verbal map of Providence is considerably richer and more approving than that of the Lovecraft County towns.
This story also attempts, as in the later “Innsmouth,” to put together rumor and evidence into a damning picture. Here, though, there are enough reliable sources to actually succeed.
The “essential saltes of animals” quote makes me think inevitably of DNA. Of course, when this was written, we knew that some sort of hereditary essence existed, but not its nature. As it turns out, you sure can raise the shape of an animal at your pleasure, as long as you’ve figured out the secret to cloning (and haven’t taken “ashes” literally). Do let us know if you manage it.
Interesting to see how often H.P. revisits questions of identity, the self replaced by other selves, or sometimes by a new version of oneself that the old wouldn’t recognize. Intruding Yith, intruding dirty old men, intruding Deep One ancestry… now intruding ancestors that really should have stayed dead. In the grand and dreadful sweep of the cosmos, selfhood is a fragile thing. The obsession with madness is of a piece, another way that the self can be lost.
Speaking of repeated themes, here’s another story where marriage is a nasty thing, a route to intimacy with dark powers—poor Eliza Tillinghast. Though she gets a name—indeed, gets her own name back and gets out of the marriage alive, which is pretty remarkable for a female character in Lovecraft.
By the by, psychologists have recently run an experiment which is about as close as we can easily come to Lovecraftian possession or replacement—a “cyranoid” speaks words and intonation as directed by someone else over a discreet earpiece, and interacts with people who aren’t aware of this. No one notices, even when it’s a child speaking through a college professor or vice versa. Good news for anyone hoping to replace their relatives unnoticed in real life!
This novel is near my heart for two reasons: It’s steeped in the antique glamor of Providence, and it’s the primary inspiration for my own Mythos work. Early on, I planned for my hero to be another of Curwen’s descendants. That’s changed, but Curwen’s Pawtuxet legacy will certainly figure in the series. Who could resist ready-made underground catacombs full of unhallowed secrets?
Not me. Nope. Not even.
Living around Providence, I’ve often emulated Charles’s walks along the precipitous streets of College Hill. In Lovecraft’s time, Benefit Street had declined, leaving the Colonial and Victorian houses sadly neglected. Gentrification and a vigorous Preservation Society have reversed the decay, and the street now deserves its appellation of a “mile of history.” The infamous “Shunned House” is there, and many buildings by which Curwen must have strolled during his long tenure in the growing town. And the view from Prospect Terrace that entranced the infant Charles? It remains a thrilling smorgasbord for the antiquarian, and on an autumn evening, sunset does indeed gild spires and skyscrapers, while the westward hills shade into a mystic violet.
I currently live nearer the novel’s other locus, Pawtuxet Village. Its historical claim to fame is the June 9, 1772 attack led by none other than privateer Abraham Whipple. The Gaspee, a British customs schooner, went aground near the Village. Whipple and other Sons of Liberty boarded her, overcame the crew, then burned the ship to the waterline. Every June, we fete this blow to tyranny with parades, re-enactments and Colonial encampments. I’ve long wanted to question the gentleman impersonating Whipple over lubricating flagons of ale—c’mon, what really went down during that nasty business with Curwen? From a cosmic point of view, ridding Providence of necromancy was the Captain’s greater feat!
On the other hand, if the actor stayed in character, he might crown me with his flagon and follow it with scalding epithets. Better not to chance it.
I also rather like that Curwen’s daughter is named Ann. As Ruthanna noted, her mother Eliza came out of her brush with Mythos matters remarkably unscathed for a Lovecraft character of either gender. A different writer might have reunited her with Ezra Weeden. Huh. That could be the plot bunny of the week, but isn’t necessarily a fate to wish on Mistress Tillinghast given Weeden’s probable state of mind following his “revenge.”
The omniscient point of view resembles “The Terrible Old Man” in its cool distance and in the lack of purple prose that seems a natural (and welcome) outgrowth of stepping away from the action. Here, however, the key note is sincerity rather than irony. The terrors that beset Providence are not to be taken lightly. This is alternate history, properly buttressed with historical detail and personages—just think what might have happened if Curwen hadn’t been stopped!
Actually, I enjoy thinking about it. For me, Curwen is one of Lovecraft’s most intriguing characters, suave enough to please his ill-won bride, yet steeped in murderous monomania. Parts I and II leave us uncertain of his ultimate goals. From the start, he’s achieved unnaturally extended youth, though not absolute immortality. When exactly he makes a breakthrough in his wizardry, one must read closely to deduce. We’re told he’s always kept his associates in line through mortgages, promissory notes or blackmail. He shifts method five years before his death, in 1766. Thereafter, he wields damaging information he could only have pried from the mouths of the long-dead. Telling, too, is the change in midnight cargo transported to his farm. Before 1766, it’s mostly slaves for whom no later bills of sale can account. After 1766, it’s mostly boxes ominously coffin-like. Conversations overheard on the Curwen farm shift from mere mumblings and incantations and screams to those terribly specific catechisms in many languages. The confiscated Orne letter congratulates Curwen for continuing to get at “Olde Matters in [his] Way.” Apparently this late progress involves shafts of light shooting from a cryptic stone building on the farm.
Shafts of light. Hints from the Orne letter that Curwen better not summon anything “Greater” than himself. Hints from accounts of the Pawtuxet raid that maybe Curwen did summon “Greater.” What has he been up to? What would he have been up to if not for those Providence busybodies?
Here at the end of Part II, Lovecraft has me eager to learn the answers. Get to work digging them up, Charles!
We continue our Halloween season read of Charles Dexter Ward next week with Part III, “A Search and an Evocation.”
Photo credit: Anne M. Pillsworth
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She has a slightly dusty collection of brains in a closet somewhere.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.