'The essential Saltes of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious Man may have the whole Ark of Noah in his owne Studie and raise the fine shape of an Animal out of its Ashes at his Pleasure; and by the lyke method from the essential Saltes of humane Dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the Shape of any dead Ancestour from the Dust whereinto his Bodie has been incinerated.'
'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward' was written by H. P. Lovecraft in 1927 and was first published in abridged form in Weird Tales, 1941 - back in the day when horror was scary. Its first appearance as a full-length work was with Beyond the Wall of Sleep in 1943. Lovecraft was a relentless perfectionist, and considered the work unfinished at the time of his death in 1937. Hence, it was first published posthumously.
Spanning five chapters and over 50,000 words, this is Lovecraft's longest work; together with 'At the Mountains of Madness' and 'The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath', it is referred to as one of his "short novels".
The unbridled genius of this tale makes it a standard work of horror fiction. It is available as a book, as part of an anthology, or as a complete text on the internet. It was resurrected (har, har) as two movies: 'The Haunted Palace', which combines Poe's texts with Lovecraft's settings to create an horrific tale, and 'The Resurrected', which butchers (sorry, just my little joke) the characters a little in order to convey the story.
This is the story of Charles Dexter Ward, a young man with great enthusiasm for history and antiquities. Ward discovers a maternal ancestor named Joseph Curwen, whose scientific research once filled the New England town of Providence with screams in the night. Curwen was lynched and his name was stricken from the town records, but traces of his wicked work survived. Ward's father and Dr Willett watch helplessly as Ward becomes obsessed with Curwen's work, and soon the obsession overtakes him....
'He stumbled on things no mortal ought ever to know, and reached back through the years as no one ever should reach; and something came out of those years to engulf him.'
Subtle hints of the demonic are based on the Cthulhu mythos, which rose from the ancient and dubious Necronomicon. Lovecraft was an avid scholar of this flesh-bound book, and Necronomiconic tales are a common theme in many of his works. Lovecraft's short and sweet History of the Necronomicon provides an interesting background for curious readers.
So why does this tale give people the howling fantods? Lovecraft's use of suspense is authoritative and relentless. The book begins with a foreshadowing of events: it is clear that the scenario ends very gravely. The reader is left to dwell on this throughout the work. His cold and clinical language removes all humanity from Curwen and Ward. No emotional connection is made with these characters; one does not learn the inner workings of their minds, and the audience is given little access to them. Instead, Lovecraft focuses on an outsider's perspective of the events. Information is revealed through letters, newspaper articles and observations made by strangers.
But most of all, the atmosphere of tension is created by implicit suggestion. Modern literature is often accused of spoon-feeding the audience with simple and direct explanations; not so Lovecraft. The raisonneur, Dr Willett, is not embellished until the final chapter. Even in ordinary descriptions, Lovecraft leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions. Take a description of blood on a stone:
'.... the dark stains which discoloured the upper surface and had spread down the sides in occasional thin lines.'
This absence of the definitive makes 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward' all the more horrifying. That said, the story remains accessible to the attentive reader. The subtlety of the tale lends itself to multiple readings. Each paragraph has a subtext that allows Lovecraft to develop the plot in exquisite detail:
'.... Mrs. Ward, rising and going to the window, saw four dark figures removing a long, heavy box from a truck at Charles's direction and carrying it within by the side door. She heard laboured breathing and ponderous footfalls on the stairs, and finally a dull thumping in the attic; after which the footfalls descended again, and the four reappeared outside and drove off in their truck.'
Lovecraft does not disappoint. Having armed the reader with suspicion and fear, he devotes the final chapter to a clear summary of events and a thrilling conclusion. While many things are left unsaid, nothing is left incomplete: Lovecraft brings the tale full circle.
The moral of the story is simple: 'I say to you againe, do not calle up that which you can not put downe.'
Lovecraft is very clear on this. To put down a creature - this is important - repeat loudly:
GEBL - EE'H
Echoes of Lovecraft himself can be felt in the story's premise. Lovecraft, like the tale's protagonist, was a young, impressionable scholar with a love of history, growing up in New England's Providence. He wrote extensively about history and his love of the town (his poem, Providence, is a pleasant example of this). It is easy to imagine that Lovecraft's formative years were the inspiration for the story.
Need to know exactly what happens? Having trouble wrapping your mind around the dark corners of Lovecraftian fiction? This is a complete summary of the whole story; spoilers included.
Charles Dexter Ward's maternal great-great-great-grandfather was an academic by the name of Joseph Curwen. By using black magic and arts, derived primarily from the Necronomicon, Curwen perfects the art of raising the dead from their ashes. He and his worldwide compatriots seek out the graves of great scholars and philosophers. The ancient and wise are summoned from the dead, tortured for their wisdom, and traded around the world.
Curwen's behaviour arouses suspicion - his youthful appearance despite his remarkable age, his extravagant orders of fresh meat and blood, the odors and screams coming from his farm, the scores of sailors that go missing in the area. A party of town leaders and soldiers raid Curwen's house, resulting in Curwen's death. None will speak of what happened inside the house.
Two hundred years later, the young antiquarian Charles Dexter Ward discovers the dark legend of his ancestor. He is intrigued by the remarkable resemblance between himself and his ancestor. Curwen's "scientific research" is slowly revealed to him, and he travels across the world to learn more. When he returns home, he dedicates himself to the secretive study of Curwen's evil practices. His parents know nothing of his studies, and become desperately worried. They seek the help of Dr Willett, their wise family doctor, but there is little that he can do.
Following his ancestor's instructions, Ward finds Curwen's grave and raises him from the dead. Curwen disguises himself as "Dr Allen" and steps up the "research" program. But Ward becomes "squeamish" about their activities and warns Dr Willett to "kill Dr Allen and dissolve the body in acid". Before Dr Willett can act, Curwen kills Ward and hides his body in a cupboard built behind a portait in the study. Curwen masquerades as Ward and defaces the portrait so that no one will notice his single identifying mark - a scar above his eyebrow. He moves back to his old farmhouse to continue his demonic work.
Ward's father becomes gravely worried about his "son", and has him committed to a private psychiatric hospital. Dr Willett explores the farm and discovers terrible, wretched evils created by Curwen's summoning. He realises that Ward is dead and Curwen is posing as him. Dr Willett returns to the hospital and uses Curwen's ancient knowledge to put him down - to return him into ashes once again.
Kudos to Cletus the Foetus
whose knowledge of the arcane added immeasurably to this node.