The Case of Charles Dexter Ward has long been one of my favorite books. Charles Ward is an intellectual young recluse steeped in antiquarianism (much as Lovecraft himself was) who discovers horrible secrets about a distant ancestor, one consciously expunged from public records and histories at the end of his ill-begotten life. Ward engulfs himself in a genealogical and historical pursuit of knowledge of this man, a passion all the more emblazoned by each mysterious discovery he makes. This ancestor, Joseph Curwen, was reputably a dabbler in the black arts who fled from Salem in advance of the remarkable witchcraft trials in that town. Finding refuge in Providence, he lived a reclusive, mysterious life, made even more mysterious by his eternally youthful appearance. A recluse by nature, he spent most nights at a farmhouse in Pawtuxet. A continuing series of terrible cries and noises detected from that farmhouse, in conjunction with a number of missing locals and rumors of brutality against Negro slaves surreptitiously brought to that abode culminated in a raid by local citizens determined to put an end to whatever monstrous acts the strange man was committing. No member of that raiding party ever dared discuss what he saw or heard during that awful night. Ward's knowledge of Curwen is greatly advanced when he discovers an old painting of him (revealing a face virtually identical to his own) and a set of personal papers hidden behind that painting. He then launches into terrible studies of the occult at home and abroad, then returns home to put to use the arcane secrets he has learned. His doctor and father eventually grasp the nature of Ward's actions and unite themselves in a determination to block Joseph Curwen's ancient ambitions and plans to once more walk the earth with the aid of his great-great-great grandson. The horrors they encounter in the pursuit of this objective are richly described and deliciously gruesome.
This story is pretty much straight horror with no deeply mythological overtones beyond those of necromancy. Lovecraft does an excellent job of always pushing the action along while providing a rich, deep, historical background of both Curwen and young Charles Ward. The ending chapter contains some of Lovecraft's most terror-inducing, menacingly evil scenes and is not to be missed by those with a gratuitous admiration for the macabre. For those readers who find the Cthulhu Mythos stories too strangely remote and otherworldly, this novella provides a more practical, more individualistic vision of horror sure to affect the reader more viscerally than do mysterious references to the Ancient Ones. Anyone considering reading Lovecraft for the first time would do well to make this book his introduction to the master of horror. This is everything a horror story should be.
on 22 March 2016
I am an avid fan of HP Lovecraft, having the complete works in the Nikelodeon edition. I bought this, Lovecraft's only novel-length story, to introduce my friend's 11 year old daughter to his works but I was disappointed by the quality of this edition. First, there are no leading pages: one opens the book directly onto the first page. Nor is there any introduction or biographical information which might interest a new reader. There is also a graphic that is missing from the novel: while exploring Joseph Curwen's subterranean lair, Dr Willett finds a note in his pocket written in Saxon miniscule, and it is this graphic that is missing from the edition. In conclusion then I cannot recommend this edition to any serious Lovecraft reader. It is sloppily produced and looks like it has been run off from a photocopier. Hence my award of three stars only.
on 14 November 2013
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.
on 15 June 2012
I love the Ian Miller cover art for this edition. I tried to order this edition at ye USA Amazon store, only to be sent the earlier 1969 edition. This is the trouble with ordering from Amazon, when a book has had a number of editions: one never knows what edition will be sent.
THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD was never polished by Lovecraft during his lifetime, so what we have is a rough draft. He packed it away, and I don't recall that he let anyone see it, except perhaps for Barlow, who wanted to make a typed copy but after looking at the mess of the original MS declined. Lovecraft seems to have had a poor opinion of the novel, which is sad because the publishers who rejected his various collections of short stories for book publication would tell HPL that if he had a novel they'd be interested in seeing it.
This remains my favourite work by H. P. Lovecraft. It has recently been published in a definitive annotated edition by the University of Tampa Press, illustrated with photographs of Providence of various locations mentioned in the novel.
on 6 July 1997
This was the very first book I read, written by Howard Philips Lovecraft.
A friend had tipped me about H.P. Lovecraft, and when I was at
the library looking for fact-books about old scandinavian religions
for a homework in school I took the chance of looking after the author
my friend had tipped me about.
I had ben reading a lot of fantasy and also a bit science fiction
at that time, but this was different.
It was, and is still - I've read it many times over and over, an usual
horror-tale elegantly mixed with the special spicy cosmic horror, which is
so specific for H.P. Lovecraft.
I won't tell you anything of the story because it's very hard,
or even impossible to find the right words to describe something
so big and elegant without makeing sound banal and patethic.
Instead, I let you see for your self. Next time you're visiting
the library - look for Howard Philips Lovecraft. Or why not look for it
right away here and now. I bet you won't be able to put the book away till
you're finished with it. And when you're finished with it you just need
Other great short-stories written by H.P. Lovecraft is, among others the
strange "Color out of time and space" which is flooded with cosmic
and strange horror. This one is also totally different compared with
"The case of Charles Dexter Ward.
Please have indulgence with all eventual misspellings, though I am used to
talk, write and read in swedish.
P.S. Everyone who likes H.P. Lovecraft, and of course everyone else,
feel free to contact me.