- Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The
- Short novel (51,500 words); written late January–March 1, 1927. First published (abridged) in WT (May and July 1941); first collected in BWS;corrected text in MM;annotated version in TD. Joseph Curwen, a learned scholar and man of affairs, leaves Salem for Providence in 1692, eventually building a succession of elegant homes in the oldest residential section of the city. Curwen attracts attention because he does not seem to age much, even after the passing of fifty or more years. He also acquires very peculiar substances from all around the world for apparent chemical—that is, alchemical—experiments; his haunting of graveyards does not help his reputation. When Dr. John Merritt visits Curwen, he is both impressed and disturbed by the number of alchemical and cabbalistic books on his shelves; in particular, he sees a copy of Borellus with one key passage—concerning the use of the “essential Saltes” of humans or animals for purposes of resurrection—heavily underscored.In an effort to restore his reputation, Curwen arranges a marriage for himself with the well-born Eliza Tillinghast, the daughter of a ship-captain under Curwen’s control. This so enrages Ezra Weeden, who had hoped to marry Eliza himself, that he begins an exhaustive investigation of Curwen’s affairs. After several more anomalous incidents, the elders of the city—among them the four Brown brothers; Rev. James Manning, president of the recently established college (later to be known as Brown University); Stephen Hopkins, former governor of the colony; and others—decide that something must be done. A raid on Curwen’s property in 1771, however, produces death, destruction, and psychological trauma among the participants well beyond what might have been expected of a venture of this sort. Curwen is evidently killed, and his body is returned to his wife for burial. He is never spoken of again, and as many records concerning him as can be found are destroyed.A century and a half pass, and in 1918 Charles Dexter Ward—Curwen’s direct descendant by way of his daughter Ann—accidentally discovers his relation to the old wizard and seeks to learn all he can about him. Although always fascinated by the past, Ward had previously exhibited no especial interest in the outre;but as he unearths more and more information about Curwen—whose exact physical double he proves to be—he strives more and more to duplicate his ancestor’s cabbalistic and alchemical feats. He undertakes a long voyage overseas to visit the presumable descendants of individuals with whom Curwen had been in touch in the eighteenth century. He finds Curwen’s remains and, by the proper manipulation of his “essential Saltes,” resurrects him. But something begins to go astray. He writes a harried letter to Dr. Marinus Bicknell Willett, the family doctor, with the following disturbing message: “Instead of triumph I have found terror, and my talk with you will not be a boast of victory but a plea for help and advice in saving both myself and the world from a horror beyond all human conception or calculation…. Upon us depends more than can be put into words—all civilisation, all natural law, perhaps even the fate of the solar system and the universe. I have brought to light a monstrous abnormality, but I did it for the sake of knowledge. Now for the sake of all life and Nature you must help me thrust it back into the dark again.”But, perversely, Ward does not stay for the appointed meeting with Willett. Willett tracks him down, but something astounding has occurred: although still of youthful appearance, his talk is eccentric and old-fashioned, and his stock of memories of his own life seems to have been bizarrely depleted. Willett undertakes a harrowing exploration of Curwen’s old Pawtuxet bungalow, which Ward had restored for conducting experiments; he finds, among other anomalies, all manner of half-formed creatures at the bottom of deep pits. He confronts Ward—who he now realizes is no other than Curwen—in the madhouse where he has been committed; Curwen attempts an incantation against him, but Willett counters with one of his own, reducing Curwen to a “thin coating of fine bluish-grey dust.”While living in Brooklyn, HPL was contemplating a “novelette of Salem horrors which I may be able to cast in a sufficiently ‘detectivish’ mould to sell toEdwin Baird for Detective Tales—which rejected ‘The Shunned House’” (HPL to L.D.Clark, July 27, 1925; ms., JHL); but then, in September, he read Gertrude Selwyn Kimball’s Providence in Colonial Times (1912) at the New York Public Library, and this rather dry historical work fired his imagination. He was, however, still talking of the Salem idea in late January 1927 (see SL2.99). Perhaps the Kimball book—as well as his return to Providence—led to a uniting of the Salem idea with a work about his hometown. It was from this book that the anecdotes about John Merritt, Dr. Checkley, and other points mentioned early in the novel derive.The genesis of the work goes back beyond August 1925. The quotation from Borellus—Pierre Borel (c. 1620–1689), the French physician and chemist — is a translation or paraphrase by Cotton Mather in Magnolia Christi Americana (1702), which HPL owned. Since the epigraph from Lactantius that heads “The Festival” (1923) also comes from the Magnolia,HPL may have found the Borellus passage at that time also. It is entry \#87 in his commonplace book, which dates roughly to April 1923.In late August 1925 HPL’s aunt Lillian related to him an anecdote about his hometown. HPL replied: “So the Halsey house is haunted! Ugh! That’s where Wild Tom Halsey kept live terrapins in the cellar —maybe it’s their ghosts. Anyway, it’s a magnificent old mansion, & a credit to a magnificent old town!” (HPL to Lillian D.Clark, August 24, 1925; ms., JHL). The Thomas Lloyd Halsey house at 140 Prospect Street is the model for Charles Dexter Ward’s residence, which HPL deliberately renumbers 100 Prospect Street. Now broken into apartments, it is still a superb late Georgian structure (c. 1800) fully deserving the encomium HPL gives it in his novel.One significant literary influence may be Walter de la Mare’s novel The Return (1910). HPL had first read de la Mare in the summer of 1926; of The Returnhe remarks in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”: “we see the soul of a dead man reach out of its grave of two centuries and fasten itself upon the flesh of the living, so that even the face of the victim becomes that which had long ago returned to dust.” In de la Mare’s novel, actual psychic possession is involved, as there is not in Charles Dexter Ward,and, although the focus in The Returnis on the afflicted man’s personal trauma rather than the unnaturalness of his condition, HPL has manifestly adapted the general scenario in his own work.Although there are many autobiographical touches in the portraiture of Ward, many surface details appear to be taken from a person actually living in the Halsey mansion at this time, William Lippitt Mauran (b. 1910). HPL was probably not acquainted with Mauran, but it is highly likely that he observed Mauran on the street and knew of him. Mauran was a sickly child who spent much of his youth as an invalid, being wheeled through the streets in a carriage by a nurse. Indeed, a mention early in the novel that Ward as a young boy was “wheeled… in a carriage” in front of the “lovely classic porch of the double-bayed brick building” that was his home may reflect an actual glimpse HPL had of Mauran in the early 1920s, before he went to New York. Moreover, the Mauran family owned a farmhouse in Pawtuxet, exactly as Curwen is said to have done. Other details of Ward’s character fit Mauran more closely than HPL. One other amusing in-joke is a mention of Manuel Arruda, captain of a Spanish vessel, theFortaleza,which delivers a nameless cargo to Curwen in 1770. Manuel Arruda was actually a Portuguese door-to-door fruit merchant operating on College Hill in the later 1920s. The novel does not appear to involve psychic possession in the obvious sense: in the latter stages of the novel the resurrected Curwen actually kills Ward and pretends to be him. But psychic possession of a subtler sort may nevertheless come into play. Curwen marries not only because he wishes to repair his reputation, but because he needs a descendant. He seems to know that he will one day die and require resurrection by the recovery of his “essential Saltes,” so he makes careful arrangements to this effect: he prepares a notebook for “One Who Shal Come After” and leaves sufficient clues toward the location of his remains. It appears, then, that Curwen exercises psychic possession on Ward so that the latter finds first his effects, then his body, and brings him back to life.In many ways the novel is a refinement of “The Horror at Red Hook”: Curwen’s alchemy parallels Suydam’s cabbalistic activities; Curwen’s attempt to repair his standing in the community with an advantageous marriage echoes Suydam’s marriage with Cornelia Gerritsen; Willett as the valiant counterweight to Curwen matches Malone as the adversary of Suydam. HPL again dipped into his relatively small store of basic plot elements and again retold a mediocre tale in masterful fashion. HPL, however, felt that the novel was an inferior piece of work, a “cumbrous, creaking bit of selfconscious antiquarianism” (HPL to R.H.Barlow, [March 19, 1934]; ms., JHL). He therefore made no effort to prepare it for publication, even though publishers throughout the 1930s professed greater interest in a weird novel than a collection of stories. R.H.Barlow began preparing a typescript in late 1934, and in 1936 was still typing it, but he typed only twenty-three pages. Barlow did not deposit the manuscript at JHL until around 1940, by which time a full transcript (full of errors, however) had been made by Derleth and Wandrei for its abridged appearance in WTand its complete appearance in BWS. It was published separately by Victor Gollancz (London, 1951) and subsequently reprinted in this form by Panther, Belmont, and Ballantine.See Barton L. St. Armand, “Facts in the Case of H.P.Lovecraft,” Rhode Island History 31, No. 1 (February 1972): 3–10 (rpt. FDOC); April Selley, “Terror and Horror in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” Nyctalops 3, No. 1 (January 1980): 8, 10–14; M.Eileen McNamara and S.T.Joshi, “Who Was the Real Charles Dexter Ward?” LS Nos. 19/20 (Fall 1989): 40–41, 48; David Vilaseca, “Nostalgia for the Origin: Notes on Reading and Melodrama in H.P.Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” Neophilologus 75, No. 4 (October 1991): 481–95; Richard Ward, “In Search of the Dread Ancestor: M.R.James’ ‘Count Magnus’ and Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” LSNo. 36 (Spring 1997): 14–17.
An H.P.Lovecraft encyclopedia. S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz.