The Lovecraft Reread

Unfortunate Relations: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Part III

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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 Part III 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.

You can catch our post on parts one and two of the story here. Spoilers ahead.

Once Charles Dexter Ward discovers his relationship to the notorious Joseph Curwen, he wants to learn everything about him. He makes no secret of his interest, at least at first.

Curwen was born in 1663, ran away to sea, and returned from Europe with strange books to settle in Salem. His only friends, Edward Hutchinson and Simon Orne, share his interests. The ill-rumored Hutchinson disappeared during the witchcraft panic, while Curwen moved to Providence. Orne remained until 1720, when he disappeared, only to be replaced 30 years later by his “son.” That trick wasn’t nearly as old back then, and worked until Providence got wise to Curwen and tipped them off.

Charles finds a ciphered manuscript of Hutchinson’s, and a letter from Curwen to Orne. The letter wishes Orne the good will of him whom they serve, but admits Curwen doesn’t want to play the come-back-as-my-son game. There are all those shipping interests, and his farm “hath under it What you Know,” which wouldn’t wait. He implies strongly that he’s figured out how to cheat death—but only if he can produce an Heir, and make Saltes. He hasn’t yet figured out the process, but the attempts are using up a lot of specimens. He also suggests the best hotels and restaurants if Orne wants to visit.

He tracks down Curwen’s Providence address, and explores the house with the cooperation of the current residents. Further research mentions a portrait there. He finds it painted over, and hires a specialist to restore it. The complete restoration shows Curwen as Charles’s exact doppelganger. His father buys him the painting. When it’s removed, Ward discovers Curwen’s notes hidden behind, including one addressed “To Him Who Shal Come After.”

Academic alienists date Charles’s madness from the discovery of these papers, though Willett disagrees. At the least, he avoids sharing the contents even as he studies them obsessively.

Now Charles searches libraries for works of magic and daemonology. After weeks of secretive study, he shows an air of triumph. He abandons work on the cipher in favor of putting together an esoteric chemistry lab—and searching feverishly for his ancestor’s grave.

Worried by Charles’s neglect of schoolwork, Ward Sr. calls in Dr. Willett to speak with the boy. He finds him apparently sane, but insists on some explanation of his conduct. Charles says that the papers reveal remarkable scientific knowledge, long lost, and which could surpass even Einstein in revolutionizing modern understanding. But to be properly understood, they must be correlated with “neglected arts of old,” that Charles now studies. As for the graveyard search, the headstone is carved with key symbols to support this discovery.

He shows Willett ciphers and a relatively innocuous diary passage, quickly snatching the book when the doctor tries to read the next page. Willett glimpses a passage mentioning a “Mr. H” in Transylvania.

The doctor’s reassurance eases the Wards’ minds, even when Charles confirms that he won’t be going to college. (A pity, Miskatonic would appreciate a boy of his talents, and might be able to provide some guidance.)

Three years pass, full of occult study and the continued search for Curwen’s grave. When he comes of age, he takes a long-desired trip to Europe. He avoids acquaintances and does little sightseeing, but seeks obscure individuals and texts across the continent. He finishes with a long stay with “Baron Ferenczy” in Transylvania, finally returning to America 3 years later—looking older, and with only a small pit above the right eye in Curwen’s portrait to distinguish them..

Slightly less academic alienists believe that Ward went mad in Europe, but again Willett disagrees. The idea of insanity at this time arises from the terrible chanting and odors coming from Ward’s lab.

In January 1927, during one of Charles’s rituals, the earth trembles. Dogs howl, cats flee, and a sudden thunderstorm culminates in a great crash. Believing the house struck, the senior Wards rush up the stairs. Their son, with a look of triumph, assures them all is well.

At spring thaw, Ward leaves the house late and returns with helpers bearing a strange long box. His work becomes more frenetic, and he permits no one into his lab. The repulsive stench, he assures everyone, is harmless but necessary. He “damages” a newspaper later found to report illicit gravediggers (probably bootleggers trying to hide liquor).

On April 15—Good Friday—Ward begins a repetitive chant heard clearly throughout the house. Dogs howl, and a hideous odor seeps from the lab. There’s a flash, and a terrible voice cries: “DIES MIES JESCHET BOENE DOESEF DOUVEMA ENITEMAUS!”

Daylight fades. There comes a wailing scream, and Mrs. Ward—because she’s his mom, that’s why—goes upstairs. But when she hears her son screaming—separate from, and in concert with, the wailing—she faints.

Mr. Ward returns and revives her—and nearly faints himself when he hears a whispered conversation on the other side of the door. Something about the second voice is profoundly disturbing. He carries his wife downstairs, but not before hearing his son hiss: “Sshh! Write!”

They confer, and decide that this conduct has gone on long enough. After dinner Mr. Ward goes up to admonish Charles, and finds him in his disused library wildly grabbing books and papers. But he agrees that his behavior has been unacceptable, and promises to limit himself, inside the house, to book study.

When Ward Senior examines the library, he finds that his son has retrieved not occult volumes but modern histories, scientific works, even newspapers. Something further seems amiss, and at last he realizes that the Curwen portrait has succumbed abruptly to age: only a fine bluish-grey dust remains scattered on the floor.

What’s Cyclopean: Nothing here. Wait for it…

The Degenerate Dutch: Inferring from the fuller version of the name in “The Rats in the Walls,” the black cat called Nig takes on an ominous cast.

Mythos Making: Yogge-Sothothe will help ye get back after ye laste. Sure she will, kiddo. And I’ve got a non-Euclidean bridge to sell you.

Libronomicon: Curwen’s writings mention “ye III Psalme in ye Liber-Damnatus holdes ye Clauicle” and “Abdool Al-Hazred his VII. Booke.” The mystic writings of Eliphas Levi apparently contain necromantic rituals in a weird combination of Hebrew and extremely iffy Latin—not sure whether to put this here or under The Degenerate Dutch.

Madness Takes Its Toll: The whole story is framed by the debate about when, exactly, Charles succumbed to insanity.

 

Ruthanna’s commentary

I wouldn’t have thought Lovecraft would do well with a novel’s opportunity for verbosity, but he rather does. The observation of humanity improves, with little touches fleshing out characters he’d normally gloss over. I love the chatty letters from Curwen that combine the quest for immortality with hotel recommendations—evil he may be, but he genuinely likes his friends, and unlike Charles hasn’t neglected the things that’d make immortality worthwhile.

Though one does sympathize with Charles. At 17, if you’d dropped tantalizing hints of a villainous necromancer in my ancestry, I’d have been hooked. And lacked my current genre-savvy that—I hope—would give me enough sense not to visit the mysterious old man on the mountain in Transylvania. That kind of thing never ends well.

Even now, one is tempted by this kind of academic obsession. CDW has his passion, and pursues it to the ends of the earth. He doesn’t seem to have many Lovecraft protagonists’ awareness that this is bad for him—though he obviously knows others would think so—but the fatal attraction element is there and as alluring as ever.

At 39, though, I read this story with parent switch firmly flipped on. CDW is young—hasn’t even gone to college, and abandons those plans for Curwen’s sake. Many people want things that are bad for them at that age, and parents often try to forestall a terrible relationship that they fear will ruin the child’s life. This one is just a little more unusual, and a little more ruinous than most. When Mrs. Ward goes determinedly towards the screaming, when Mr. Ward nearly faints himself, when they decide—too little, too late—to Have a Talk… it rings very true. The real horror isn’t always that something might happen to you, but the failure to realize how deep someone else has fallen.

Parents, talk to your children about dark sorcery. If you don’t, someone else will. And teach them to use protection—we particularly recommend a Solomon’s Seal.

One does wonder to what degree the Wards are based on Lovecraft’s own parents, and their reactions—real, imagined, feared, or desired—to his own morbid obsessions.

Little bits of symbolism shore up the effect. We get biblical references: Job’s “If a man die, shall he live again?” and the Good Friday ritual (perhaps a bit too on the nose, but it works). I also wonder if the portrait is meant to recall The Picture of Dorian Grey. Rather than hiding CDW’s sins, and taking on their effects to keep him pure and young, it spills its own depredations into his life so that Curwen can be reborn. Despite appearances, it’s Charles who’s the true mystical portrait.

 

Anne’s Commentary

So far in Ward, Lovecraft has emphasized real-world cities and institutions. Charles delves into the resources of the Essex Institute in Salem, the British Museum in London, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, and Harvard’s Widener Library. Since all of these except the Essex Institute house a copy of the Necronomicon, I guess Charles didn’t need to haunt the archives of Miskatonic University. As Ruthanna speculated re “Call of Cthulhu,” does Lovecraft mean to add creepy verisimilitude via omission of Arkham? Certainly the liberal deployment of actual occult tomes and authorities and bits of ritual are effective, but I kind of miss Arkham, which by 1927 had appeared in several stories: “The Picture in the House” (1920), “Herbert West-Reanimator” (1921-22), “The Unnameable” (1923), “The Silver Key” (1926) and “The Color Out of Space” (1927).

This section starts off as a richly detailed antiquarian detective story. No one’s surprised that scholarly Charles immerses himself in Curwen research once he realizes he’s related to the infamous “wizard.” At this point he’s healthily skeptical concerning any rumor of supernatural activities. Those silly Puritans. So what if a witness at the 1692 witch trials names Curwen and his buddy Simon Orne among those who’ve received the “Divell’s” mark? So what if buddy Edward Hutchinson entertained strange visitors in his remote house, where the lights weren’t always the same color? And so what if Curwen casually dropped Yog-Sothoth’s name in letters?

Charles is “bewildered” when, viewing Curwen’s portrait for the first time, he sees a slightly older version of himself. But the spirit of his research changes drastically—immediately—after he finds the papers Curwen hid behind the portrait. Before this critical discovery, he was open with his parents about all things Curwen. Afterwards he’s circumspect, even secretive, locking away the papers whenever he’s not hovering over them. Worse, he ditches antiquarian studies for the occult, and chemistry, and a feverish search for Curwen’s grave. He refuses to go to university, instead pursuing occult studies on his own, first at home, then in Europe. His host in Prague is a “very aged man” who possesses “curious medieval information.” Fishy enough. But his host in Transylvania! I think Lovecraft has fun drawing parallels between “Baron Ferenczy” and Stoker’s Dracula. The Baron sends a carriage to meet Charles and take him to a castle on a crag in dark wooded mountains! The Baron’s aspect and manners are idiosyncratic, his age positively disturbing! He’s not a person “to appeal to correct and conservative New England gentlefolk,” like the elder Wards. Like Charles himself before his eerily instantaneous change of focus.

What’s that all about, anyway? Alienists call it the start of Charles’s madness. Willett disagrees. I think both are right, after a fashion. Charles remains coherent, capable, even canny. Bemused as the Wards are by his obsession, they still recognize their son. Charles remains Charles in essence, but I’d say that dormant occult proclivities have switched on in him, that he’s inherited more than looks from Curwen. Even more, though. Lovecraft several times quotes Curwen on “a Thing [he’s caused] to breed Outside ye Spheres.” A Thing that “will drawe One who is to Come, if [Curwen] can make sure he shal bee, and he shall think on Past thinges and look back thro all ye yeares.” At first I thought the Thing was Charles himself, but Charles is the one who is to come, the person on whom the Thing is to act. Is the Thing an entity or a force? A force of destiny, perhaps, in that it semi-possesses Charles upon the trigger event of his finding Curwen’s papers.

Hmm. I should trot over to MU and consult with its experts in interdimensional metaphysics—is time-release psychic manipulation feasible? If so, how much does Yog-Sothoth charge for it? The experts would probably give their standard answer, though: You don’t WANT to know….

The second half of this section features Charles, six years closer to a perfect resemblance to Curwen and six years hardened by his studies, finally pulling off a deed. Obviously a momentous deed, too, since it involves incantations, mephitic stenches, lightning, daytime darkness, eldritch responses, and, of course, cats and dogs going nuts, even dropping dead! Mrs. Ward faints and (mercifully) doesn’t remember exactly what turned out her lights. Mr. Ward overhears what sounds like two voices in a room only Charles occupies. Then the painted Joseph Curwen, bland (great adjective!) observer of his descendent, gives up the ghost (literally?) and subsides into dust.

None of this bodes well for Section IV.

Last note: I love the description of Charles returning to Providence after his European sojourn: the approach along Reservoir and Elmwood Avenues, the arrival at the old bus terminal behind the Biltmore Hotel, the cab-ride up the sunset-limned slope of College Hill, with its treetops pierced by the Christian Science dome, and the First Baptist spire, and all those ancient roofs, gambrel and peaked and mansard. Old Providence, where lay “the arcana, wondrous or dreadful…for which all [Charles’s] years of travel and application had been preparing him.” For the city’s “long, continuous history…had brought him into being,” as it had brought Lovecraft himself. I imagine HPL hurrying home from one of his rare trips to such sights as he describes here. I can almost hear his heart “beat with quickened force,” as Charles’s does.

The home place. The sunset city. The first destiny, however augmented or distorted by Things bred outside the spheres. The intimacy of a beloved setting gives this story particular power. After all, as his gravestone says, Lovecraft is Providence.

 

We continue our Halloween season read of Charles Dexter Ward next week with Part IV, “A Mutation and a Madness.”

Image Credit: A cemetery in Providence. Perhaps the cemetery? Photo by 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’s been traveling New England this week and is somewhat put out to find no eldritch abominations whatsoever. It does make for a more restful vacation, however.

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.

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