The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft

Reviewed by Karen Langley

Mention author H.P. Lovecraft to people and you’ll most likely get one of two reactions: either they’ll hail him as the progenitor of modern horror fiction (as does Stephen King), or they’ll dismiss him as the purveyor of pulp stories about the black arts. Lovecraft inspires these extreme reactions, and I probably would have fallen into the dismissive camp myself, despite having not read his work. However, the Apollo imprint has reissued his novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward in a beautiful new edition which is a great way to have a look to see what all the fuss was about.

Lovecraft was born in Providence, RI and spent much of his life there, dying at the young age of 46. He was unable to support himself during his lifetime, publishing only in pulp magazines, and his fame unfortunately came posthumously. The Case… is a book which Lovecraft himself did not think very highly of, dismissing it as “cumbrous, creaking”, but the introduction to this edition by horror writer Ramsay Campbell makes it clear he thinks it has great strengths, and I would tend to agree with him.

The novel tells the story of the life and fate of the titular Charles Dexter Ward. A young American living in Providence during the years just after the Great War, he’s always had a penchant for the old and interesting, spending much of his spare time in antiquarian pursuits. However, a chance find leads him to discover that he’s related to one Joseph Curwen, a mysterious character who was notorious locally, having fled to the location around the time of the Salem Witch Trials. Despite being well off and apparently respectable, Curwen soon gained a reputation owing to strange noises and coming and goings at his house, as well as his demands for chemistry supplies and large quantities of fresh meat…

Ward, always an obsessive type, becomes consumed with his researches, not only into his ancestor’s history, but also into the experiments his ancestor was undertaking. These were dark, occult things, and Ward’s parents plus the loyal family doctor Willett, become increasingly concerned about his behaviour and where his bizarre interests are taking him. The kind of incidents which made Curwen so notorious start to be repeated in modern times; and the fact that Ward physically resembles his great-great-great grandfather so much is obviously significant. The story becomes a battle between forces of good, represented in the main by Dr. Willett, and the evil creations summoned by Ward in the name of his ancestor, which builds to a thrilling climax.

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from this book, but what I actually got was a rattling good read. Lovecraft really is an excellent storyteller: from the very start, with the opening page which hints at climactic events, he has the reader gripped, and he knows how to pace a story perfectly. After introducing us to the main players, we’re then treated to an extended section which takes us back in time to the age of Curwen and from the material unearthed by the diligent Willett, much of his story is told. Coming back to the present is something of a shock, but Lovecraft never loses the reader and the links between past and present are brilliantly revealed.

Horror is a genre that I don’t read much of, but if I was choosing it this is the type I would read. Lovecraft skilfully creates a sense of creeping menace, with the suspense gradually building and much of the horror taking place off-camera, implied rather than stated outright in all its gory detail, which I find much more effective. The sense of an old, old evil stretching back centuries is strong, and there is the implication of immense powers which could be drawn upon, given the right key to open certain portals. It’s a complex and well-plotted tale with some wonderful surprises built in, and very entertaining.

What was also fascinating was the sense of place in the book; Providence was where Lovecraft was born and lived most of his life, and his knowledge of the location presumable informed his portrait of the locale which is very evocatively done (and his writing about it proves he wasn’t just a purveyor of purple prose):

Just beyond Elder Snow’s church some of the men turned back to take a parting look at Providence lying outspread under the early spring stars. Steeples and gables rose dark and shapely, and salt breezes swept up gently from the cove north of the bridge. Vega was climbing above the great hill across the water, whose crest of trees was broken by the roof-line of the unfinished College building. At the foot of that hill and along the narrow mounting lanes of its side the old town dreamed; Old Providence, for whose safety and sanity so monstrous and colossal a blasphemy was about to be wiped out.

It’s also fascinating to think of America as not such a young land, with roots going back to the early pioneers and past them connections to parts of Europe with an even longer, stranger history.

The characterisation is also strong; although Ward gives his name to the title, and it is his fate we follow, in many respects Dr. Willett dominates the story and he’s an appealing character. The evil and twisted Joseph Curwen is also a prevalent force throughout the book and he’s vividly conjured too.

Even if you’ve little knowledge of occult matters (and I know next to nothing!) that won’t spoil your enjoyment of the book. There’s lots of alchemy and spells and deep magic, and the horrors of things going wrong, all of which added together make this a very spooky read. But there are also stirring scenes when the forces of good set off to tackle the dark side, and the book’s conclusion is entirely satisfying – I shan’t say more for fear of spoiling it.

The Case… was first published in 1940 (although written in 1927) and inevitably there are race terms used that would be unacceptable nowadays; similarly, in the parts set in the 1600s the attitude towards slavery is shocking, with the slaves of all races imported being regarded as disposable (as are many of the sailors working for Curwen). Fortunately, these are relatively minor elements in the book.

A work by H.P. Lovecraft might not be the obvious choice for the Apollo reprint series, but I found it a gripping, absorbing read – one of those books you just can’t put down. I read it in broad daylight, which was probably a good thing as I imagine if it was keeping you company on a dark, stormy night you might be inclined to put it down and read it when a sunny dawn came. The book itself is a beautiful object (as are all the Apollo books) with a striking cover featuring a drawing by Edward Hopper which captures the sense of the dark deeds taking place inside. If you fancy some classic horror with no nasty visceral content, you could certainly do no better than picking up The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and has no intention of meddling in things that the human mind should leave well alone…

H.P. Lovecraft. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward  (Apollo, 2017). 978-1784082796, 190pp, paperback.

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