Wednesday, July 17, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"

Spooky Synopsis: By everyone's account, the case of one Charles Dexter Ward was exceedingly baffling and altogether strange. Few would deny that Ward had odd tastes as a child, being steeped in antiquarian interests and of a solitary nature from his earliest days. The trouble seemed to begin in the winter of 1919 when he developed an unhealthy fascination with morbid occultism. This preoccupation seemed sparked by his discovery that he was distantly related to Joseph Curwen, a horrible devotee of forbidden knowledge who lived in Providence, Rhode Island, in the early eighteenth century. As rumor would have it, Curwen displayed a certain unhealthy fascination with Borellus' claim that the essential "Saltes" of the dead could be used to call up the deceased -- "unhealthy" because that interest led to a raid on his property that caused his demise. Interesting enough trivia as it goes, but the studies of bookish Charles into his relation wrought a terrible change in him. All at once, his diction changed, becoming strangely archaic. His skin turned cold and loose. The birthmark on his hip even seemed to have inexplicably shifted to his chest. These changes so troubled his parents that they had him institutionalized. Then, quite mysteriously, he vanished without a trace from his cell one day ...

Lovecraftian Language: "Five minutes later a chill wind blew up, and the air became suffused with such an intolerable stench that only the strong freshness of the sea could have prevented its being noticed by the shore party or by any wakeful souls in Pawtuxet village. This stench was nothing which any of the Fenners had ever encountered before, and produced a kind of clutching, amorphous fear beyond that of the tomb or the charnel-house. Close upon it came the awful voice which no hapless hearer will ever be able to forget. It thundered out of the sky like a doom, and windows rattled as its echoes died away. It was deep and musical; powerful as a bass organ, but evil as the forbidden books of the Arabs. What it said no man can tell, for it spoke in an unknown tongue, but this is the writing Luke Fenner set down to portray the daemoniac intonations: 'DEESMEES -- JESHET -- BONE DOSEFE DUVEMA -- ENITEMOSS'. Not till the year 1919 did any soul link this crude transcript with anything else in mortal knowledge, but Charles Ward paled as he recognized what Mirandola had denounced in shudders as the ultimate horror among black magic's incarnations."

Eerie Evaluation: When I began reading "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," I assumed that its novel-long length would prove more than enough text with which Lovecraft to hang himself. After all, old Howard Phillips had strung himself up with purple prose aplenty in far shorter works. Imagine my surprise, then, upon finding the story moves along at fairly brisk clip. Oh, it's not a nail-biter by any means, unfolding primarily through historical summaries and glimpses of forbidden arcana and portentous conversations filled with muted implications. It's all exceedingly subtle, and at times it feels quite a lot like the best of M.R. James sprinkled with a touch of grave-robbing grue. Of course, James never wrote novels, and that's a good thing if "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" is any indication. One of the problems with understated storytelling is that it provides precious little for readers to sink their proverbial teeth into. If readers happen to piece together early on just what kind trouble Charles Dexter Ward got himself into, then the remainder becomes so much narrative spadework. If they don't figure it out, they might find themselves wallowing in seemingly unconnected and inconsequential details for tens of thousands of words. But Lovecraft took steps to address both, inserting sections filled with gripping (albeit a bit offstage) action and spelling out the proceedings at two key junctions. All in all, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" proves surprisingly successful.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):

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To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education" (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.

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