Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

"The Case of Charles Dexter Ward", first published in Weird Tales, May-July 1941.

This is the the thirty-second entry in my read-through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.

This story is told by one of those distant and all-knowing but unknown narrators that you find a lot in classic stories. It's the the kind of narrator that can say of “none of these colloquies were ocularly witnessed, because the windows were always heavily draped” with a seemingly straight face. It can pose rhetorical questions in rapid succession, like an interrogation:

“was it not of this that Mr. Ward was reminded when his son barked forth those pitiable tones to which he now claimed to be reduced? Who had ever seen Charles and Allen together? Yes, the officials had once, but who later on? Was it not when Allen left that Charles suddenly lost his growing fright and began to live wholly at the bungalow?"

It's a often a gossipy, larky tone, such as when it observes that the local stalwart President Manning attended a violent raid on his neighbour “without the great periwig (the biggest in the county) for which he was noted.” It teases us at times, especially at the beginning with implications of horrors to come:

“And now swiftly followed that hideous experience which has left its indelible mark of fear on the soul of Marinus Bicknell Willett, and has added a decade to the visible age of one whose youth was even then far behind.”

It's almost a character in itself, it reminds me most of all of the narrator in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Can't you just imagine Charles Gray making a meal of this?
“The true madness, he is certain, came with a later change; after the Curwen portrait and the ancient papers had been unearthed; after a trip to strange foreign places had been made, and some terrible invocations chanted under strange and secret circumstances; after certain answers to these invocations had been plainly indicated, and a frantic letter penned under agonising and inexplicable conditions; after the wave of vampirism and the ominous Pawtuxet gossip; and after the patient’s memory commenced to exclude contemporary images whilst his voice failed and his physical aspect underwent the subtle modification so many subsequently noticed.”

It's not only HPL who does this – M R James and William Hope Hodgson do it, too, and I'm sure there are many others using the same kind of observant third-person view-point on the action. It's the kind of voice used by The Crypt Keeper and Uncle Creepy and their dozens of horror comic knock-offs in horror comics, in Alfred Hitchcock trailers, and the those LPs of horror stories narrated by Vincent Price that they used to play on wet afternoons when I was at primary school and videos hadn't been invented.

It's a traditional horror voice for a very traditional horror story. It's got a vampire, old fashioned devilry, doppelgängers, grave robbing and a strong moral centre. To this, HPL adds his own special flavour of deep history, cosmic horror and some of his most exciting action writing. It's a great story of gradual revelations and suspense. It's hugely enjoyable and exciting, with a great mix of action, convincing detail and wonderfully dark supernatural imagination.

There are three basic strands that knit together across history. The closest to the narrator is the Dr Willett as he investigates the strange behaviour of the titular scion of the aristocratic Wards. We remain quite close to Willett, and when the story focuses down to specific actions it's always Willett that we follow.

Through Willett, we observe Ward's comings and goings, and hear about outward behaviour as observed by others, but Ward himself is always remote. We're never directly shown what he's been working on locked in his room nor are we privy to his travels in Europe, but we seem to have amazing access to all this evidence. The meticulous descriptions of family papers, news reports and stories told by gossipy neighbours – all specific and sourced – are so convincing that you can almost feel them passing through your fingers.

The third strand follows the career of the 18th century Providence eccentric Jospeh Curwen and his eventual destruction at the result of an apparent witch hunt in the 1790s. We get get all this at even greater distance than we are from Ward, in fragments of letters and diaries that Ward turns up in the process of his antiquarian delvings. It's the kind of deep history that HPL's so good at, anchoring the story in an intimate knowledge of the people and history of Providence, weaving a tale of witch craft around authentic sounding details about the Revolutionary War, blockaded ports and tax disputes.

Me at 140 Prospect Street, Providence, the model for the Charles Dexter Ward House
However, we're left to fill in even more of the blanks in the story. There's a lot more obvious evil going on than in the Ward case, but HPL uses the fragmentary nature of the historical record to add to the mystery and intrigue. We never really get a good look at exactly what Curwen's up to, but we see the consequences for those that went up against him.

These three elements weave together in a very intricate plot where Curwen's actions in the past give momentum to Ward's research, which in turn is the driver for Willett's investigations. HPL gradually unravels the history and consequences with forensic precession and a stately place. The Narrator is always dropping hints, things don't really start getting bad for Ward until over of a third the way through, and even then we're a bit away from his real mania and demise.

He is destroyed because he did not heed the warning that comes up four times in the story, to make sure we don't miss it: “do not calle up That which you can not put downe”. Ward is another of HPL's prodigies who cannot resist the quest for knowledge. Like Walter Gilman in The Dreams in the Witch House, Edward Darby in The Thing on the Doorstep, the nameless narrator of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and Robert Suydam in The Horror At Red Hook, among others, he's undone by his relentless pursuit of knowledge.

Ward and his compatriots are kind of questing boys, who naively think the world is rational and benign before finding out the worst is true, that they are themselves in fact tainted with an evil too hideous to bear. When they see what they've done, they always try and step back, but it's too late, the hooks are in too deep.

Curwen is the opposite sort to this. He's learned the truth and likes it; he actively seeks the cataclysmically forbidden. He never changes, never sees the error of his ways never experiences the note of horror at what he's become. His is a story of getting progressively more evil as time passes until he gets to the stage where he must be stopped. This usually involves some kind of fatal encounter, often in horrorific circumstances. Ultimately it works out just as badly for him. Ephraim Waite from The Thing On the Doorstep is a similar sort, and so, I suppose is Wilbur Whately in The Dunwich Horror, although I find him a rather more pathetic figure.

Not surprisingly, the story has many autobiographical elements for HPL. There's the topography of Providence, for example, described lovingly here in the present day 1920s and in across the 18th century. And of course, there are elements of Ward's character that have clear echoes of HPL. I've discussed this in the past, of course and as well as the usual antiquarian leanings, precocious talent and aristocratic roots, the character has the predilection for madness the afflicts so many of his subjects.

Ward's disturbance begins to manifest in his late teens, just before he leaves high school from where he's expected to go to college. He doesn't go, but locks himself in his room saying “he had individual researches of much greater importance to make.” He ignores his friends (as much as this lonely moody boy had friends) and pays no attention to appearance or his health. He becomes a virtual hermit.

Lovecraft himself of course, was seized by some kind of anxiety in his last years at thigh school and never graduated at all. In fact, the period 1908 to 1913 – the four years between ages of 18 and 23 – are a complete blank in HPL's life as he dealt with some kind of depressive illness. Joshi in A Life suggests that HPL wasn't doing much of anything in this period. Around 1914 he'd start writing for the amateur press, but in that period he was in his own words, a virtual hermit.

This time line fits Ward to a degree, as well. Instead of going to college, he pursues follows his search for “antiquarian matters” to Europe. He leaves in 1923 when he'd “come of age” and returns in 1925, aged about the same as HPL as he emerged from his shell.

It's the eventual fate of these two characters that intrigues me. HPL edged his way back out into the world with his writing. He seems to have deliberately constructed a diffidently conservative and backward-looking persona. He refers to himself mockingly in his correspondence as an old man; by many accounts he longed to be a Colonial era aristocrat, perhaps fighting on the side of the English.

When Ward emerges from his own madness,  he is replaced entirely by a mysterious figure who resembles him, but adopts a curiously archaic manner and pursues relationships by post with contacts in distance places that he rarely meets face to face. He turns out to be what HPL always longed to be, a colonial era aristocrat.

Both characters come through their madness transformed. A similar transformation afflicts the other questing boys and turn is ultimately destroyed by their desire to know more: the narrator of The Shadow Over Innsmouth becomes a raping frog monster, Walter Gilman is made to kill a child and maybe sell his soul, and Edward Darby is forced to become a woman!

I think this is all metaphorical for the pain of lost childhoood. It's the disappointments of the adult world, the responsibilities and confusion. Curwen is the grown up Ward, up to no good in unimaginable ways. HPL imagines his post-madness self as the impostor Curwen, and the original, prodigious original is gone forever.

Interestingly, we get this horror of adulthood from the other end in the Dreamlands stories. Here the quest goes the other way: disenchanted with adult life, the protagonists find their way back to a half-remembered childhood ideal, quite literally in the case of Randolph Carter in The Gate of the Silver Key. There's other examples, too, like the unnamed protagonist of Celephais (not included in this collection) who becomes King Kuranes in his childhood dream city, and Thomas Olney who finds child-like bliss by leaving his inmost self swapping jokes with the Gods when he finds in The Strange High House in the Mist.

I'd almost be inclined to put Robert Pickman into this category, as well, even though there's more than a touch of the questing boy about him. There's no doubt of the horror of his final estate romping with the ghouls, but he never seems that disturbed by the idea. And he ends up on the fringes of the Dreamlands in The Dream Quest for Unknown Kadath, which seems to connect him more with the feel good transformations of the dream stories rather than the harrowing destruction of the horrors.

As it happens I'll be looking at this next. They come next to each other in ordering of writing, too, with Dreamquest first and then The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. He was was obviously trying to master longer tales at that time, and I think he really got it here.

The photo of Charles Gray comes from this site. There's no copyright info so I'm taking the incautious approach and using it. If you own this picture and and wants me to take it down, get in touch.

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