Despite a bibliography responsible for some of the most profound contributions to weird fiction and the larger horror genre, H.P. Lovecraft lived a life of very little fame or fortune by his death at a age of forty-six. Yet today, the author of such famous works as “At the Mountains of Madness”, “The Dunwich Horror”, and “The Colour Out of Space” remains widely lauded as one of the best in horror—bridging the gap between Poe and Stephen King. Still, this minimal recognition during his own lifetime inspired a great deal of self-doubt and suspicion that often seeped into the celebrated author’s own creative prowess.
Lovecraft wrote on numerous occasions of his own hypercritical reactions to his work, so much so that he would often allow the manuscripts to collect dust rather than be published, or only finally publish the material after a considerable amount of time had passed. (In his notes on Thing in the Doorstep, renowned Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi writes in the eponymous book: “[Lovecraft] was so dissatisfied with the story upon its completion that he refused to submit it anywhere. At last, in the summer of 1936…when Julius Schwartz proposed to HPL to market some of his tales in England, HPL reluctantly submitted the story.” (pg. 493)) Perhaps the most amazing example of this mistrust in his own abilities, however, can be found in one of the author’s longest yet most profound of achievements, a novel unpublished during his lifetime due to his own dissatisfaction for the material—The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
Calling the novel a “cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism”, Lovecraft’s longest piece of fiction remained unpublished until his weird fiction peers August Derleth and Donald Wandrei managed to have the writing posthumously published (in abridged form) within the May and July 1941 issues of Weird Tales. Yet, most remarkably, for all Lovecraft’s creative and unprecedented literary creations: the Cthuhlu mythos, the cosmic horrors of the Old Ones, supernatural entities capable of transcending barriers of time and space, the author rarely employed personal and individual human tragedies into his work, though not without calculated reason. In a letter to E. Hoffman Price, Lovecraft explained his reasons for focusing less on his characters than the fantastic cosmic horrors of their adventures as such:
“Individuals and their fortunes within natural law move me very little. They are all momentary trifles bound from a common nothingness toward another common nothingness. Only the cosmic framework itself—or such individuals as symbolise principles (or defiances of principles) of the cosmic framework—can gain a deep grip on my imagination and set it to work with creating. In other words, the only ‘heroes’ I can write about are phenomena”. (S.T. Joshi, xxxvi of Introduction to Thing On the Doorstep)
And indeed, looking throughout the most famous of Lovecraft’s achievements, one finds that the author has distilled this existential philosophy to incredible effect, leaving the reader overwhelmed by climaxes confronting their insignificance amongst the cosmos and their personal troubles. Moreover, examining some of Lovecraft’s most famous character creations—from the humans of Randolph Character and Herbert West to his mythical creations of Cthulu and Yog-Sothoth—one finds clear examples of such principles in play: characters that serve more as functionaries of Lovecraft’s horror philosophy than characters whose individual hopes or failures are used to drive plot. Yet, it is in this respect, that Lovecraft manages to best represent the true tragedy of both horrors—of individual human tragedy and that of his existential cosmos—through the character of Charles Dexter Ward.
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward begins with a structure not too unusual from many Lovecraft tales by hinting toward the final consequences of some unspeakable horror. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward opens in Providence within a private hospital for the insane, shedding few tangible clues, but laying out such preliminaries as to the fact that Charles has gone missing from his room and only left behind a trail of some fine gray dust.
Lovecraft then launches into an early biography of young Charles, jumping back to the chronological beginning of the tale, and providing a wealth of background information into his family history, setting, and position in society. With shades of the author’s own upbringing peppered throughout, Charles is described a precociously gifted scholar with very proud parents. Lovecraft then provides a number of incredibly gorgeous passages that describe everything from the town’s: architecture, landscape, and beauty of his colonial hometown of to contribute further perspective on Charles’ homelife. Following this brief, yet vital understanding into Ward’s family life and early prosaic upbringing, the essence of the plot begins upon Charles’ discovery into the existence of a great-great-great-grandfather whose identity had as of yet been a mystery: Joseph Curwen.
Lovecraft then pauses the present story and returns to the past—back to 1761— to doll out the disturbing history of Joseph Curwen’s infamous early existence and subsequent downfall. Though Curwen poses as a wealthy shipping entrepreneur, local suspicions arise concerning the astounding levels of beef that are delivered to Curwen’s barn, along with the strange, intermittent shafts of light that are periodically produced. Curwen’s enemies soon discover more details of his nefarious plans, which include the possibility of his being able to rise forth beings from the dead and outside realms of human experience. After a raiding party attacks Curwen’s property, the disgraced wizard is never heard from again and the surviving raiders agree to a unanimous secrecy of what they may have just witnessed.
Returning to the present, the narrative’s remaining bulk is devoted toward Charles’ increasing obsession toward his heretofore-unacknowledged ancestor. The young boy drops out of school, a social life, a relationship with his parents…all in the pursuit of unlocking the abominable secrets previously pursued by Curwen. The Ward family doctor—Dr. Marinus Willet—serves as the audience’s eyes, as he slowly discovers the horrid depths of Charles and Curwen’s plans through letters, old documents, interviews—all pointing toward a plan of complete cosmic destruction. Willet’s investigations into Charles’ unraveling psychology eventually lead him the underground catacombs found below Curwen’s old premises—long since abandoned since the attack by the raiding party years ago.
These passages—wherein the elder doctor stumbles down the subterranean depths to uncover a variety of terrible creatures housed by Curwen—present some of the most dread-filled pages within all of Lovecraft’s bibliography. Though these horrors are mostly hinted at, rather than given completely description (as say, the reveal of the Shoggoth in At the Mountains of Madness), they become all the more powerful for placing the reader directly into Willet’s shoes and being forced to finally discover the unspeakable monsters living beneath this tiny town.
Afterward, the tragedy of Charles’ obsession finally reveals that the young Ward has been replaced by the soul of his disembodied ancestor: Joseph Curwen. Willet surmises that through a variety of ancient spells, rituals, and hinted alchemy, Curwen killed and replaced Charles’ being, and now intends to finish the nefarious plans set in motion more than a century ago.
As is Lovecraft’s predominant style, the author embellishes his narratives with impressive depictions of fictional creations through a vivid command of language. The inimitable style pulls the reader into the transportive realm of the text before concluding in the reveal of that great, supernatural horror–one whose believability has been soundly constructed through passages designed to hypnotize the reader through this wall of atmospheric realism. As a result, the final reveal builds with an almost unbearable weight of dread. In each major section, Lovecraft has left a trail of clues, hints at horrors to come, that allow the reader to piece together the unspeakable terror until the ultimate reveal of his horrific creation.
While many of Lovecraft’s narratives are written from first-person point-of-view, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward uses third-person omniscient to expert effect. The story begins with a general impression into Charles’ life, then drastically changes gears to offer the full details of Curwen’s downfall, before reverting back to Charles’ perspective before ending with Dr. Willet’s.
In doing so, the reader becomes familiar with Charles, understanding his world as an actual person and not just as an investigate means of supernatural phenomena. Consequentially, his final fate allows for a demonstration of horror on both the cosmic and personal scale as Lovecraft has never executed so perfectly. Charles’ slow psychological unraveling, his inexorable descent into cosmic powers beyond his control, and the manipulation of this young boy into an expendable chess piece by his own ancestor all exemplify a beautiful merging of the true terrors found within the hearts of men and the cosmic horrors that they may conjure.
Unlike a number of other central Lovecraft characters—say Professor William Dyer in Mountains of Madness or Wilbur Whateley in Dunwich Horror—who either serve as the human functionary unraveling the horrors, or, as in Wilbur’s case, as the actual cosmic phenomena to be later revealed, Charles Dexter Ward represents as a unique combination of both. Charles begins as an innocent child with inclinations that border the bizarre, but never necessitate any cause for worry. But as he digs deeper into his unusual family lineage, Charles’ downward spiral into the occult echoes many of the familiar metaphorical tragedies that would befall a young man due to individual struggles, e.g.: alcohol/ drug addiction, depression, mental illness…that Charles’ ceaseless obsession into Curwen creates a very unique type of dread for the life of this young boy that separates itself from similar character in the Lovecraft canon.
As within the climaxes of cosmic horrors necessitating a very calculated amount of prior clues to propel the reader towards the ultimate reveal, Charles’ own storyline works in a similar, dreadful fashion. As the boy begins to psychologically unravel, his mother and father’s concerns escalate into a subplot of severe family tragedy. As Charles’ experiments with Curwen’s writings soon require his isolation from family, his mother is asked to leave all meals before his door and forbidden entry from contacting him. The mother’s clear disgust for her son’s unstoppable obsession soon becomes apparent, and the reader watches with accumulating dread as these parents must witness their young child begin to lose his mind. Eventually, Charles’ mother’s own sanity collapses under the mental strain and she is sent away to Atlantic City for an indefinite stay: never to see her boy again. Meanwhile, Charles’ father–Theodore–takes up the fight alongside Dr. Willet. The anxious father soon recognizes that his son’s interests with Curwen has driven into a treacherous realm of unstable mental illness, and perhaps toward death or an even worse, unspeakable conclusion.
After his discovery of Curwen’s catacombs beneath the farmhouse, Willet pieces together the true horror of what has happened—that Charles has been murdered by Curwen and the young boy’s body is being possessed by the very ancestor summoned by the boy. Upon realizing what he must do, and how he will be the one responsible for killing Curwen (vis-à-vis Chalres), Willet understands that his actions the following day will result in Charles’ death. What follows is Willet’s letter to Theodore—Charles’ father—explaining how the case will conclude:
“It is better you attempt no further speculation as to Charles’ case, and almost imperative that you tell his mother nothing more than she already suspects. When I call on you tomorrow, Charles will have escaped. That is all which need remain in anyone’s mind. He was mad, and he has escaped. You can tell his mother gently and gradually about the mad part when you stop sending the typed notes in his name…So don’t ask me any questions when I call…There will be nothing more to worry about, for Charles will be very, very safe. He is now—safer than you dream…But you must steel yourself to melancholy, and prepare your wife to do the same. I must tell you frankly that Charles’ escape will not mean his restoration to you. He has been afflicted with a peculiar disease, as you must realize from the subtle and physical changes in him, and you must not hope to see him again. Have only this consolation – that he was never a fiend or even truly a madman, but only an eager, studious, and curious boy whose love of mystery and of the past was his undoing. He stumbled on things no mortal ought ever to know, and reached back through the years as no on should ever reach; and something came out of those years to engulf him…There will be, indeed, no uncertainty about Charles’ fate. In about a year, say, you can if you wish devise a suitable account of the end; for the boy will be no more. You can put up a stone in your lot…that will mark the true resting-place of your son. Nor need you fear that it will mark any abnormality or changeling. The ashes in that grave will be those of your own unaltered bone and sinew – of the real Charles Dexter Ward whose mind you watched from infancy – the real Charles with the olive-mark on his hip and without the black-mark on his chest or the pit on his forehead. The Charles who never did actual evil, and who will have paid with his life for his ‘squeamishness’. That is all. Charles will have escaped, and a year from now you can put up his stone. Do not question me tomorrow. And believe that the honour of your ancient family remains untainted now, as it has been at all times in the past.”
While Lovecraft has written some of the most unsurpassably gorgeous descriptions of fantasy and horror in all of literature, the above letter from a doctor to a father explaining that his son will be dead tomorrow is undoubtedly Lovecraft’s most poignant and heartbreaking. In this above passage, Lovecraft has masterfully merged a union of horrors between the tragedy of human affairs and the consequence of cosmic insignificance. Though Lovecraft’s legacy both in literature and pop culture will always honor him for imbuing the genre with fantastically creative creatures and conceptions of dread that remain amongst the most innovative the genre has to offer, one of the author’s own best works was almost never given the chance to even be presented for any audience. Moreover, one of the author’s most unique characters was almost lost amongst the other classics of the Lovecraft canon. A tragedy that would have made impossible the case of a young man’s downfall—the precocious young Charles Dexter Ward—who provides an invaluable link in representing terrors indicative both to the author’s own philosophical output and those tragedies found in the heart of human nature.