The Lovecraft Reread

Do Not Call Up That Which You Cannot Put Down: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Part IV

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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 IV 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.

Catch our posts on the earlier parts of the story here and here. Spoilers ahead!

Charles’s attic lab quiets down after the Good Friday craziness, but he continues to act strangely. He hustles books between his library and the attic; he’s developed a ravenous if privately indulged appetite; he haunts the basement of Curwen’s Olney Court house; he hikes the former boundary of the Pawtuxet River farm. Mrs. Ward overhears Charles conducting another “conversation” with himself, during which he shouts that he “must have it red for three months.” The butler quits after Charles fixes him with an “unholy” look on his way to some midnight errand.

Mrs. Ward doesn’t believe the butler—that same night she heard Charles sobbing in the attic. She listens nightly and hears symptoms of despair.

Two other things happen the night of the “unholy” look. Ezra Weeden’s grave is desecrated, the headstone splintered, the remains carried off. In Pawtuxet Village, dogs howl, thunder rolls, and nasty odors taint the air. Oh, and a night watchman hears a man shrieking in terror and agony. Still more troubling for Pawtuxet and the area around the Ward house are attacks by a “lean, lithe, leaping monster” that feasts on victims’ blood.

Dr. Willett sends Mrs. Ward to Atlantic City for a rest cure and keeps a concerned eye on Charles, who obviously has his own anxieties. He pays an exorbitant price for a bungalow above the Pawtuxet, but no other house will do for his new laboratory. He moves in his books and equipment—and two colleagues, “Portuguese half-caste” Gomes and a lean, dark-spectacled, bearded man called Dr. Allen. Coincidentally—right?—the vampire attacks now center solely on Pawtuxet Village.

In September the vampirism declines, but the following January Charles barely avoids trouble with Federal officials. Truck hijackers hoping for bootleg liquor instead find the remains of people so famous their unearthing must be hushed up to avoid national scandal. These were bound for Charles, who claims ignorance of the identity of the “anatomical specimens” ordered for his research.

A month later Willett gets a letter from Charles. He admits his studies have found terror, not triumph, and he begs the doctor to help prevent a calamity that could end humanity, maybe even the cosmos! Charles has left the Pawtuxet bungalow. It must be cleansed as the Curwen farm was cleansed centuries before, and Dr. Allen must be shot on sight, then dissolved in acid, not burned. Charles has told his father he’s in danger and is at home, guarded by four detectives. Let Willett come as soon as he can devote several hours to hearing Charles out.

Willett comes, only to learn that Charles snuck past the guards, returned, banged around in his library, then left again. Willett waits until Mr. Ward returns, then is glad to leave the library that seems tainted by the former presence of Curwen’s portrait.

Dr. Allen’s left town on business, so Charles has supposedly returned to the bungalow to oversee their researches. Willett can’t reconcile the sincere terror of Charles’ letter with this contradictory conduct. He confronts Charles and finds him profoundly changed. His voice is a hoarse whisper, his language archaic, his stock of antique knowledge prodigious—seemingly at the expense of his modern memories. Charles gives the doctor a tour of the bungalow, but its lab is a meager blind, and many books from the Ward house are missing. Could deeper catacombs exist? Neighbors whisper of nocturnal truck deliveries, absurdly large butcher orders for meat and blood, and, most tellingly, underground noises of a ritual nature.

The situation comes to a head when bankers approach Mr. Ward. Charles’s recent checks are blatant forgeries, and he’s ignorant of financial matters he formerly had at his fingertips. Alienists are called in. Surprisingly, Charles is unruffled by the prospect of a stay in Dr. Waite’s sanitarium. Apparently he thinks his unimpaired intelligence will prove him no madman, in spite of his memory loss, queer physiological impairments, and eccentric pursuits.

With Charles hospitalized, Willett and Ward Senior intercept Dr. Allen’s letters. Two letters prove of horrific interest. From Prague comes a missive from “Simon O.” to “Mr. J. C.” From Transylvania comes one from “Edw. H.” to “J. Curwen, Esq.” Both are in archaic hands which Willett recognizes from the Orne and Hutchinson papers. Charles’ own handwriting, Willett realizes, now resembles Curwen’s. The alienists make little of this. Charles and his correspondents are obviously monomaniacs who believe they’re the reincarnations of Puritan wizards; to buttress their delusions, they’ve learned to imitate the styles of their assumed personae.

Willett’s not sold on this explanation. He’s disturbed by passages in the “Hutchinson” letter, which speak of Curwen’s “Boy.” If the Boy gets squeamish, Curwen can’t put him down like he can those raised from “Saltes.” Still, he has “strong Handes and Knife and Pistol, and Graves are not harde to digg.” And there’s mention of the “Legions from Underneath” that they’ll be ready to have up in a year’s time! After which, “there are no Boundes to what shal be oures.”

Yikes. Allen and his foreign buddies are madmen up to no good, including the murder of poor Charles, who’s come to share their imitative mania. Mr. Ward hires more detectives to hunt Allen down. He interviews them in Charles’s library. Even these stolid gentlemen are glad to get out of the room, where the portraitless overmantel continues to exude a miasma of dread.

What’s Cyclopean: Wait for it…

The Degenerate Dutch: Curwen hires a “villainous looking Portuguese half-caste,” and we hear considerably more about his undesirable appearance than his actual villainy. Of course, that’s all we’ve got for the actual villains so far. Asa and Hannah, named and sympathetic African Americans, seem to have moved from previously unknown inhabitants of Curwen’s house to stereotypically nurturing childhood servants of Ward’s. We’re still doing pretty well for Lovecraft.

Mythos Making: Curwen and company appear to be cheerfully mixing the dread entities of the Mythos with pedestrian Satanism. Old Scratch doesn’t stand a chance. Also, there’s a Darke thing belowe Memphis. Anyone surprised?

Libronomicon: Much is made of Ward’s missing library and its probable contents and location, but we don’t see much of either in this section.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Willett, with his dramatic reports and talk of souls, is actually a pretty lousy clinician—though he seems likely to make a passable Mythos investigator after a few more sanity-destroying adventures. The argument over Ward’s case continues, and we at last see him committed—to the hospital of one Dr. Waite, which seems… worrisome.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Vampires in Edgewood, Rhode Island, my own neighborhood! How cool is that? Though it is getting a little chilly in here. Maybe I’ll close these windows. And lock them. You know, to make sure no drafts get in.

The past is a tricky thing, isn’t it? Bring one little bit of it back, like your wizardly ancestor, and suddenly today is yesterday. This reread I noticed the close parallels between the 1771 and 1928 storylines. Instead of midnight boats bringing mysterious cargo to Curwen’s Pawtuxet farm, we have midnight trucks bringing mysterious cargo to Charles’s Pawtuxet bungalow. Instead of inordinate herds of cattle, we have inordinate butchers’ bills. Instead of confiscated mummies, we get confiscated American luminaries, what’s left of them. And instead of ill-favored Native American half-caste servants, we’re treated to an evil Portuguese half-caste servant. There must be a half-caste employment agency in Lovecraft’s Providence, with a long history of serving the pulp fiction market, and not just HPL.

Anyhow, the past is a tricky thing, particularly when it tries not to look like the past. Dr. Allen resorts to dark glasses and a beard of “dyed aspect.” Nothing suspicious there. When two voices come from a room where there should be one person, it’s, um, because of “certain conflicts of spheres of consciousness.” What? Then there are letters, addressed on the outside to Allen, but on the inside to J.C. or J. Curwen, from Simon O and Edw. H. Because no one but the addressee can ever open an envelope. Hutchinson remarks in his letter that he and Orne have had 150 more years than Curwen to get things done, but they haven’t learned to write in a modern idiom? At least J. C. has an excuse for his antique diction and hand, having been kinda dead until quite recently.

I can’t get too snarky, because when I started writing my ancient wizard in the modern world, he too had a way of lapsing into 17th century speak and crabbed handwriting. Then I thought, nope, he should be too smart for that. He should adopt the idiom and tech of every decade he passes through. No better disguise for the unnaturally long-lived than currency. Orne and Hutchinson haven’t taken that route, but I like to imagine Curwen would have. He, at least, was gorging on modern literature, along with his blood.

On to those rascally alienists! We’ve already seen their rationalizations forof why a certain class of global amnesiacs all dream of being cone-shaped beings in primordial yet Cyclopean cities of no human design. Well, um, they all studied the same obscure branch of folklore while they were in their secondary personalities, yeah. Here three dudes share the delusion of being Puritan wizards, that’s why they all walk and talk like Puritan wizards. In a story written today, Curwen and Orne and Hutchinson would have an easy out—instead of letting alienists call them mad, they could claim to be LARPing and leave a lot of Chaosium props lying around for proof of their innocent pastime.

Occurs to me suddenly: At the end of Part IV, Willett and Ward seem to have decided that Allen and friends are nuts claiming to be avatars of earlier nuts. But it’s Charles who is plainly acting like an avatar of Curwen. So is he just emulating the other nuts, having taken the infection from them? Seems like some loose-ish threads in this part of Lovecraft’s admittedly complex plot-tapestry.

Overall, I’m still happy with the novel. Two more cool things to point at:

—B. F.! That is, the Salte-y revenant that every necromancer wants to play with. Both Orne and Hutchinson are wild to get B. F. when Curwen’s done with him. And who could B. F. be? Why, that 18th century celebrity par excellence, Ben Franklin, I’m saying. And who wouldn’t want to chat with Ben? There’s a great story to be told about Ben’s resurrection and possible escape into the modern world via Curwen, if it hasn’t already been told. Experts, chime in if you know of one.

— Things. You know, the Things that an necromancer can call up from Saltes of an uncertain nature, tombstones being as unreliable as they are. Orne reminds us of the Thing Curwen got from the King’s Chapel ground in 1769, and the Thing Hutch got from the Olde Bury’g Point in 1690, and most intriguing to me, the Thing Orne himself got 75 years previously in Aegypt, which scarred him. I’m having great fun imagining what these Things might have looked like, just like I’m having great if sadistic fun imagining what Curwen did to Ezra Weeden when he revivified him lo so many years after Weeden’s spying left Curwen (momentarily) deceased. I wonder if Weeden always feared his revenge might bring him to a horrific end-after-the-end, because what goes around really comes around when you’re dealing with necromancers.

My words of wisdom for today: Don’t mess with real resurrection men. Or metaphorical ones, either. Icky.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Witches, vampires, and cultists, oh my! The story starts to gel here into an intriguing mishmash of all possible evils. Drinkers of blood, workers of dark rites, desecraters of the dead… Curwen and his friends have done it all. It’s surprisingly effective. You know you’re going to get all those juicy tropes, but the question remains of how, exactly, they all fit together.

The details of that fitting continue to be effective and chilling. The way that “Ward” speaks to his father as if he were a stranger, the old memories that slip out when he talks with Willett. A very human monster, Curwen has opinions on theater and gossips about people’s wigs falling off. If he and his friends discuss murder with equal cheer, well, they’re not so different from the rest of us, are they? Not so different as we’d like, anyway.

Here, Lovecraft manages to make old things legitimately and intrinsically scary. No random, “Oh god, this house, it’s hundreds of years old” this time around. Instead, we get a past that constantly threatens to supplant the present, replacing well-meaning curiosity with ancient evil. And perhaps we get at some of why old houses might be scary. It’s not age itself that’s frightening, but one’s own fascination with ancient things. Obsess too much over the past, and you might lose yourself to its depredations.

Speaking of depredations, I kind of love Curwen and company’s Zipcar of shared corpse saltes. When you’re done torturing the dead for information, just return them to the dust and mail them to the next guy. If you’re lucky, you might even get B.F. (Did Curwen seriously just mail order Ben Franklin’s body? Why did he want it? Is this service still around? Can you get these things through Amazon?)

Lovecraft reuses names with some frequency. Of course, there are only so many Old New England names. It’s only natural that his background characters—and some of the foreground characters—will be related. But it gives an additional interest to Ward’s tale, albeit one that probably isn’t intentional given order of writing. Reading Ward’s imprecation to “Shoot Dr. Allen on sight and dissolve his body in acid. Don’t burn it,” my first thought was, “and never, ever introduce him to Ephraim Waite.” And then our subject ends up at Dr. Waite’s hospital… perhaps Upton shouldn’t have been so confident, in “Thing on the Doorstep,” that burning would be enough.

Here, as in Thing, we also get the reminder that Lovecraft has one and only one scale for his stakes: “Upon us depends more than can be put into words—all civilisation, all natural law, perhaps even the fate of the solar system and the universe.” It’s not sufficient to have Charles’s life and soul at risk, but we must have Hutchinson promise that, once they bring up the Legions From Underneath, there will be no limit to their power. This bugs me, just as Cthulhu’s interest in human sacrifice bugs Anne. HP can never quite decide whether the universe is hideously indifferent or hideously vulnerable to human whim. Each possibility is horrifying, but you simply can’t have both. And on the vast canvas of cosmic horror, I prefer a solar system that follows out its appointed span without regard for human evil.

After all, we know the giant beetles are in line right after us.

 

We conclude our Halloween season read of “Charles Dexter Ward” next week with Part V, “A Nightmare and a Cataclysm.”

Image: The Olney Court house, an entirely respectable dwelling. 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. .

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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