Serendipity Magazine is pleased to have a guest post
from one of our regular writers, Jack Heslop.
Book review: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H. P. Lovecraft
Lovecraft, master of the short story, wrote only one full-length novel, which he disliked and wasn’t published until after his death. (He described it as a “cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism”.) This novel was The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, a slim work, 176 pages, about the titular young scholar and his weird ancestor, Joseph Curwen, ominously connected with the Salem witch hunts.
Though other readers and critics might disagree, I regard it as a small masterpiece, a trove of elegant, Victorian-esque prose about dark magic. It’s a chilling, at times almost inhumanly evil story, and I mean that in the spiritual sense, as in its evil transcends humankind, speaking of “forbidden knowledge”, a major Lovecraftian theme. Though its (relatively) happy ending is perhaps conventional, the rest is visionary. It is the best 20th-century horror novel I’ve read.
The story begins with a prologue: Charles Dexter Ward, son of a prosperous Rhode Island family, has escaped from an asylum, which held him due to strange psychological changes. Years earlier, to which we then cut, his road to mystery began with the discovery that he’s related to Curwen, a 17th-century businessman and suspected wizard. This creates an obsession in Ward, who for years researches Curwen through whatever sources he can find, which makes him increasingly reclusive. His parents, disturbed by strange noises and events connected with their son, finally call on the family doctor, Marinus Bicknell Willett, to investigate.
A common criticism of Lovecraft is that he wrote bad dialogue and flat characters. This is, if I may so, mostly true. His characters were fine, following basic archetypes and enriched by great description, but they weren’t complex, overshadowed by the supernatural. That can be dismissed as part of Lovecraft’s vision; his great theme was the isolation and (blissful) ignorance of humankind.
The dialogue, however, is pretty bad. It oscillates between clunky exposition and, as Stephen King put it in his memoir On Writing, “country cornpone”. That may be why Ward and Lovecraft’s other works use so little of it. The only real back-and-forth conversation in this novel is right at the end, and the rest is mostly letters or little fragments of quotes.
Though this means that neither Ward, Willett nor Curwen are up there with Hamlet in terms of dimension, they are, I think, well-evoked, embodying Lovecraft’s recurrent types. Ward is the sweet-but-short-sighted young student, driven by the noble pursuit of knowledge, his downfall; Willett is the older, wiser man, sensible and brave; Curwen, on the other hand, is pure evil.
Never seeming to age, even after the point when most men should be dead, Curwen leaves Salem before it can expose him, but outstays his welcome in his next home, as disappearing slaves and sailors dog him. Rumour has it that he and others in his circle have access to necromantic knowledge.
Besides horror, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is also a bit of a detective novel; the solutions to some mysteries are Agatha Christean. Its true genius is in its evocation of place and person; long interludes from Curwen’s life contain enough rich setting to bowl one over. Lovecraft could be described as a Dark Romantic; the connection to nature in his work cannot be diminished. A secret door in a riverbank, a barn emitting weird lights, an underground system of tunnels and prisons… all seem as real as a Realist’s bedroom. Without giving too much away, one encounter with a jailed beast still haunts me.
Lovecraft’s gift for causing fear stemmed from the way he implied that, if you could see what he was describing, it would drive you mad. The best of his characters barely hang on to their sanity. I’d dearly love to analyse each and every scene, describing which moved me and why, but I’ll resist. For horror fans, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is like a Christmas present: to fully appreciate you must open it yourself.
Thank you for your great review, Jack!
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