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Literature / The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Even before he inexplicably escaped out of a 60-foot-high window of the local mental hospital, Charles Dexter Ward was a puzzling case for his doctors. Already a strange and reclusive young man when he was sane, Charles now exhibited such symptoms as incomplete memory loss, antiquated speech patterns and hand-writing, personality changes, and even small physical alterations. But while the nature of his madness remained a mystery, the cause of it seemed clear: the trouble had all started when Charles became obsessed with digging up information on his great-great-great-grandfather, Joseph Curwen, a sinister shipping magnate from Salem with a reputation for practicing alchemy, lurking in graveyards, importing large quantities of coffin-shaped objects, buying far more livestock than his small household should need, and stubbornly refusing to age normally.

As Charles's family doctor, Marinus Willett, seeks a cure for the young man, he uncovers the horrible truth behind Joseph Curwen's dark reputation and how Charles fell victim to his ancestor's ancient crimes.

This novella provides examples of:

  • Author Avatar: Charles is an awkward and eccentric antiquarian.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Edward Hutchinson, in his guise as "Baron Ferenczy", complains to be harassed by Romanian soldiers and police. Just after the end of World War One, the newly acquired lands in Transylvania had been plagued by banditry until the mid-1920s and the Gendarmerie got a bit Hair-Trigger Tempered, when meeting people of murderous reputation they usually shot first and asked questions later. Though violence had cooled itself down by said 1928.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The villains are dead forever, but so is poor Charles, and his parents never get much closure.
  • Blond Guys Are Evil: Joseph Curwen and Charles Ward especially when Curwen impersonates him.
  • Came Back Wrong: Using an incomplete corpse for necromancy results in a twisted abomination.
  • Cats Are Magic: The Wards' black cat, Nig, can sense the nasty stuff going on in Charles's room and even drops dead when Curwen comes back to life.
  • Deuteragonist: Dr. Willett. Arguably, he's the true protagonist while Charles is the deuteragonist.
  • Durable Deathtrap: Curwen's Elaborate Underground Base is completely intact after being abandoned for 150-odd years (as are the monsters lurking in it), even though it's built under the surface of a flood plain right next to a major river.
  • Easy Amnesia: One of Charles's symptoms. Justified because you can't forget what you never knew in the first place.
  • Evil Is Not a Toy:
    I say to you againe, doe not call up Any that you cannot put downe; by the Which I mean, Any that can in Turne call up somewhat against you, whereby your Powerfullest Devices may not be of use. Ask of the Lesser, lest the Greater shall not wish to answer, and shall commande more than you.
  • Evil Smells Bad: Whenever something horrible happens at the Curwen or Ward households, there's guaranteed to be a nasty stench.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The trio of necromancers end up being killed with all their work destroyed by one of the spirits they were torturing for magical secrets, when it got accidentally summoned by an investigator searching one of their laboratories.
  • How We Got Here: The story starts with the final event of Charles escaping the mental hospital, then rewinds 200 years to cover the backstory.
  • Identical Grandson: Charles Ward, to Joseph Curwen.
  • Instant People, Just Add Water: The "essential saltes" are powdered remains of dead people (or animals), which can be reanimated by sorcery.
  • Kill and Replace: What Curwen does to young Charles.
  • Lovecraft Lite: The accidentally-summoned abomination turns out to be helpful, and the Big Bad is destroyed by a brief incantation.
  • Necromancer: Curwen and his two associates in Prague and Transylvania. Charles also dabbles in this.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: We never get a good look at the mutants in the pit or the Sealed Good in a Can nor a detailed account of what happened when Joseph died in the raid.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: They're necromancers, though one of them does live in Transylvania.
  • Pintsized Powerhouse: Dr. Willett is a small, thin old man who dares to explore the evils of Curwen's den and to fight the sorceror face to face by his own means.
  • Purple Prose: Becomes a plot point: Willett notices that post-madness Charles's speech is significantly purplier than everyone else's, leading him to realize that Charles has been killed and replaced by his centuries-old ancestor.
  • Reality Ensues: The only reason that no one realizes that "Charles" is Curwen right off the bat is because Muggles don't believe in Necromancy. Once Dr. Willett is forced to accept that yes, the dead can return to life, he deduces the truth at once.
  • Sealed Good in a Can: The mysterious avenger that Willett calls up by accident.
  • Spooky Painting: The portrait of Joseph Curwen gives everyone the creeps, and seems to follow Charles with its eyes. Later on, Curwen stores Charles's corpse behind it.