The Lovecraft Reread

Imperfect Saltes: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Part V

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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 the finale 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, here, and here. Spoilers ahead.

Willet and Ward Senior agree at last that they’re in a Mythos story. They seek the crypt beneath CDW’s bungalow, and find entry through a basement platform. Noxious fumes cause Ward Senior to pass out. Willett sends him home, breaking the first rule of surviving an adventure.

Underground, Willett hears unnatural wailing. An immense passage stretches away, broken by regular archways. Willett begins exploring. He finds CDW’s library. Years’ worth of papers and notes go into his valise—but there’s nothing in CDW’s handwriting from the past two months. There’s plenty in Curwen’s hand, though. He finds no third handwriting that could be Allen’s.

He finds archaic symbols—the Dragon’s Head and Tail—and the words of the accompanying spells. He starts repeating them under his breath. As he continues searching, the wailing and stench increase. He finds a vast pillared space with an altar in the center and oddly pierced slabs in the floor. He shrinks from the altar’s horrible carvings.

Both stench and wailing are worst above the pierced slabs. He pries one loose. The moaning grows louder. Something leaps clumsily, frantically, in the well below. He looks more carefully and drops his torch, screaming.

The true horror of what he sees cannot be fully described. It looks like some of the altar carvings, but alive. It’s palpably unfinished.

He crawls toward the distant light, afraid of stumbling into the pit. The candles flicker, failing, and he runs. He reaches the library as the lamp starts to sputter. He refills it and begins to recover his senses.

Determined (and perhaps a little stupid), he continues. He finds Charles’s lab at last: chemistry equipment and a dissecting table. And coffins, like any good lab.

He finds stoppered jars labeled custodes and materia, both containing fine powder. He recalls one of the letters: “There was no Neede to keep the Guards in Shape and eat’g off their Heads.” It follows that these guards are out of shape, a nastier condition than health magazines usually admit.

The materia, then, are the best minds from all history, kept here at Curwen’s whim and tortured for knowledge.

Beyond a door smelling of the chemicals that were on CDW when he was captured, Willett finds a chamber full of torture devices. There are several of the stoppered jars, one open: the greenish dust poured into a shallow cup.

The walls are carved with a different version of the invocation Willett’s been repeating. And repeats again now, trying to reconcile the pronunciations.

We strongly recommend not doing this in a newly discovered magical lab.

There’s a cold wind, and the terrible smell rises, stronger. A thick cloud of greenish-black smoke boils out. A shape looms through the smoke.

Ward Sr. finds Willett the next day in the bungalow, unconscious but unharmed. His valise is empty. Waking, he staggers to the cellar and finds that the platform no longer opens. The planks cover only smooth concrete. He recalls nothing beyond the looming shape, but something must have brought him upstairs.

Willett finds paper in his pocket, inscribed with medieval script. The two men puzzle out the Latin: “Curwen must be killed. The body must be dissolved in aqua fortis, nor must anything be retained.”

In shock, they go home. The detectives assigned to Allen call, promising their report the following day. The men are glad to hear from them; they believe Allen to be Curwen’s avatar.

They confront Charles. When Willett berates CDW for the Things left in pits for a month, unfed, CDW laughs mockingly. When Whipple went below during the raid, he was deafened from the sound of the battle and never noticed them—they haven’t been trapped for a month, but for 157 years!

Willett mentions the lab, and CDW says it’s fortunate that he didn’t know how to bring up what was in the cup. Willett wouldn’t have survived, for it was the dust of #118. CDW’s shocked to learn that #118 appeared and yet spared Willett. Willett shows him the message. CDW faints, and wakes muttering that he must tell Orne and Hutchinson.

Willett writes later for news of Orne and Hutchinson. Both have been killed—presumably by #118.

The detectives haven’t found Allen himself, but report that he has a scar over his eye, like Curwen and now CDW. His penmanship is identical to CDW’s recent writing. They’ve found his false beard and dark glasses. Ward and Willett realize no one’s seen Allen and CDW in the same place. A photograph of CDW, altered to add the disguise, is recognized as Allen.

Willett visits CDW’s home library, braving the noxious smell that now permeates it, and searches alone. He cries out and slams a cabinet, then demands wood for a fire. Black smoke emerges. Later, his servants hear him sneak out, and the paper again reports graveyard prowlers.

Willett writes to Ward Sr. He must not question further, but the matter is about to be resolved. Charles will escape the asylum, “safer than you can imagine,” but he won’t be restored to his family. In a year, they’ll erect a gravestone for a young man who never did evil.

Willett speaks with “Charles” one last time. The thing in the cabinet, now burned, was CDW’s body, and the man before him now is Curwen.

Curwen begins an invocation, but Willett interrupts, chanting the Dragon’s Tail. The words silence Curwen—and the man called up out of time falls back to a scattering of bluish-gray dust.

 

What’s Cyclopean: At last: “cyclopean vaulting” in the passageway below the bungalow. Alas for Lovecraft that he also gives 2 of 3 precise dimensions: 14 feet high by 12 feet wide. Even stretching into the unimaginable distance, cyclopean’s still smaller than expected.

The Degenerate Dutch: This segment focuses enough on the principal players to avoid racist slurs. We do get an extremely rude mention of T. S. Eliot.

Mythos Making: Yog-Sothoth is mentioned repeatedly. We also get far too specific details on the nasty spells to raise the dead and/or summon Things from ye Outside Spheres.

Libronomicon: Unless you count Eliot’s Wasteland, we just get letters and notes today.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Willett goes briefly mad on seeing the thing in the pit. He also continues to insist, for far too long, that he’s merely trying to understand a young man’s psychological case.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Whew! I feel Lovecraft doesn’t quite make the dismount here, not surprising in a work far longer than anything else he attempted. Willett, after showing remarkable genre savvy at first, persists far too long in assuming CDW is still what he appears, just a troubled young man. And the exploration of the Underdark caverns, though fascinating, regularly sinks into a miasma of foetid melodrama. I have great tolerance for Lovecraft’s language, but “he screamed and screamed and screamed” is not one of his better moments.

The idiot ball is in serious play—in Willett’s slowness at figuring out who’s in the asylum, in his insistence on solo subterranean exploration, and in his casual repetition of a chant from an eldritch tome. That this works out well for him is little excuse—he may be the only investigator in Mythos history to get so lucky.

On the other hand, the vanishing entrance to the Underdark caverns is effective and creepy. It supports earlier suggestions that this isn’t merely an underground complex undermining the Pawtuxet riverbank. Also creepy: #118 is still out there. Just because it didn’t like those who wanted to torture it, that doesn’t make it particularly benevolent towards modern humanity. Sequel, anyone?

We see here ideas that Lovecraft gets back to later, in very different form. Curwen and company’s mission is, with a bit of a squint, essentially the same as the Yith’s. Both seek to learn all they can of Earth’s esoteric history, and to speak with the greatest minds they can reach. They’ve learned how to cheat death and move from era to era. And like the Yith in Peaslee’s body, Curwen kind of sucks at passing. But aside from that one shared failure, Curwen’s friends aren’t nearly as good at what they do—they have a shorter reach than the Yith, and their methods attract significantly more attention. And they’re much worse hosts.

“Here lay the mortal relics of half the titan thinkers of all the ages.” Bet some of them spent time in the Archives, too, and liked it better. The Yith are really much nicer—not something one gets to say very often.

I keep waiting for a good place to talk about how Lovecraft handles mental illness and “madness.” Maybe this is it? Lovecraft’s own family history made him nervous of the subject, and he danced around and with it in pretty much every story he wrote. Not always with the greatest sensitivity, though I’d be hard pressed to name a topic that he did treat delicately—not the man’s strong suit.

Here we get actual attempts to diagnose mental illness, alongside the more poetically licensed gibbering. There’s much to forgive here, given that 20’s clinical psychology was… how do I put this delicately… damn near useless. People tried, but almost none of the era’s ideas about etiology or treatment have survived professionally into the modern era, and for good reason. (Caveat: I’m an experimental psychologist; I eagerly await correction or elaboration from those more intimately familiar with 20’s clinical practice.) So where modern writers have little excuse for vaguely described nervous breakdowns in response to Things Mortals Were Not Meant to Know, Lovecraft worked with what he had.

Sometimes when I’m being charitable I distinguish between Real Things and Poetic Things. Serpents are malevolent creatures that hiss and blink through the Harry Potter books, and snakes are what you find in the zoo. Likewise we have madness and mental illness.

But the more literary Madness still shapes how many people see mental illness. You can find in any newspaper the assumption that bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and narcissistic personality disorder (distinguished from one another only vaguely) all lead to violent, gibbering breakdowns. On the other tentacle, I know people who reclaim the “mad” label as a way of dealing with their own experiences of the world.

I’d love to see modern Mythos stories deconstruct this particular trope. People with autism who make great investigators because they process interactions with elder gods differently? People who come out of hidden nether realms with recognizable anxiety disorders? Reading suggestions very much welcome.

 

Anne’s Comments

This novel makes me wish Lovecraft had lived to write more long fiction. Given ample space, his gift for telling and provocative detail takes off. Writing about his beloved hometown contributes richness and authenticity along with the emotional resonance noted earlier. Compared to many shorter works, the prose verges on purple only where the omniscient narrator seems to sink into Dr. Willett’s shocked voice. Could length as well as generally distant narration lead to this restraint? Lovecraft isn’t dashing off an expressionistic sketch of the terrible here—he’s producing (for him) an epic painting, with Pre-Raphaelite attention to the minute.

For example, detail on the catacombs starts at the entrance, hidden under a washtub platform that pivots under the right pressure. (If I remember right, a similar mechanism opens the entrance into subterranean terror in “The Rats in the Walls.”) Catacomb rooms don’t have generic doors—they have the six-paneled models common to Colonial architecture. We get formulae, exactly as written out. We get the mystery script of what Willett summoned—8th century Saxon minuscules! “Things” aren’t kept in bland cages but in brick wells under pierced stone slabs, and “Saltes” don’t reside in plain old jars but in vessels of antique Greek design: lekythos and Phaleron jugs. Then there are those caches of clothing, Colonial and modern. The reader must wonder what they’re for. Willett supposes they’re meant to equip a large body of men. Or maybe not exactly men? Maybe the legions from underneath the wizards hope to “have up?” Maybe summoned guards and interviewees? You don’t return from the dead with your clothes intact, do you? Or maybe some antique clothing was worn by Curwen’s slaves and sailors who disappeared. Speaking of which, to build such an impressive lair, Curwen must have employed them as more than experimental subjects and/or “Thing” sustenance.

On a larger structural note, I like how Willett’s “raid” echoes Abraham Whipple’s. Whipple and his small army went well-armed, Willett alone with valise and flashlight—dude, once I heard that dull howling and slippery thudding, I’d have been out of there. Ironically, it’s Willett’s solo spying that brings Curwen down. Whipple and Co. made so much noise and fuss, they missed a lot of things. Er, Things.

A third article about nefarious doings in the North Burial Ground is a nice touch. The first incident in the cemetery—digging up Curwen—starts the horror. The second—Curwen vengefully excavating Weeden—deepens the devilry. The third—Willett burying Charles’s ashes—sets things as right as they can be set and returns the sacred ground to its rightful use.

Charles Dexter Ward, I find, is so packed with plot bunnies the hutch is exploding at the seams. My absolute favorite is #118. Who did Willett accidentally summon? Turns out it wasn’t who Curwen expected, a someone whose resurrection Willett wouldn’t have survived. Uh oh, those pesky switched headstones again. The 118 Curwen wanted was probably someone of his own sort, steeped in dark magic. Luckily for Willett, it was instead an enemy of dark wizards so potent that Curwen fainted at the sight of his missive and woke up babbling that Orne and Hutchinson had to be warned at once. Curwen was right to faint—within six months Orne’s house is wrecked and Hutchinson’s castle explodes.

Number 118 is no one to mess with, evil necromancers. I’m intrigued by the last of the penciled notes Willett finds in Curwen’s summoning chamber, presumably written during his previous interview: “F. soughte to wipe out all know’g howe to raise Those from Outside.” Could 118 be “F”?

“F” or no, if resurrection confers immortality or if he knows another way to extend life, 118 could still be around. I’m thinking he wouldn’t be able to put himself back down simply by reciting the descending formula—or Curwen couldn’t recite that formula without re-dustifying himself, right? It doesn’t seem the necromancer’s intention is necessary—Willett raises 118 inadvertently.

I say 118 walks among us, friends, keeping us safe from unrighteous magicians. And, because why waste a great lair, I say he at least occasionally resorts to the Pawtuxet catacombs he sealed off. Under concrete. So he’s also adept at masonry.

118, you rock. I’d still like to think Orne and Hutch escaped you, though, and that a sanitarium housekeeper swept up Curwen’s Saltes before they blew out the window. And kept them in a jar. Because hypnotic suggestion from that force bred in the outside spheres, that’s why.

Finally, the Things. In the brick wells so small they couldn’t even lie down, just squat and howl for all time, or at least 157 years as of 1928. I seriously feel so bad for them, unnamable and smelly as they are. My vote for most sympathetic monsters in the Lovecraft pantheon. I hope 118 sent them back wherever they came from, poor Things.

 

Next week we take on some shorter work with a Brief Deities theme—join us to learn more than man was meant to know about “Nyarlathotep” and “Azathoth.”

Image: Nice place for a bungalow. 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 lives in a large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

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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