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Literature / The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

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"Do not call up that which you cannot put down."

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a short horror novel written by H. P. Lovecraft in early 1927. Lovecraft never submitted the text for publishing during his lifetime though, due to dissatisfaction with the story, and, as a result, it was first published posthumously in Weird Tales in 1941. This is a bit ironic, as many today consider it one of his most coherent and best stories.

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.

The 1963 film, The Haunted Palace, by Roger Corman, although titled after an Edgar Allan Poe poem, is an adaptation of this story. Another adaptation, The Resurrected, was made by Dan O'Bannon in 1991 and went Direct to Video. It is Truer to the Text, retaining a central plot element which The Haunted Palace changed.

A Radio Drama adaptation of the story started airing on BBC Radio 4 in December of 2018. Directed by Julian Simpson, this version is loosely connected to several of his other works, collectively known as the "Pleasant Green Universe". Set in the Present Day, it centers around a team of podcasters, known as 'The Mystery Machine', investigating the disappearance of young Charles Ward from his cell at the asylum in Providence, Rohde Island. Things, inevitably, go wrong from there.

A graphic novel adaptation by INJ Culbard was published in 2012 by SelfMadeHero, part of a series of Lovecraft adaptations.

This novella provides examples of:

  • Author Avatar: Charles is an awkward and eccentric antiquarian, and even bits of his physical description matches Lovecraft himself.
  • Bad Liar: Joseph Curwen's Fatal Flaw. The man has no head for deception and obfuscation, an important skill to master when so much of his shadier business would prove disastrous should it come to light. When Simon Orne hides his longevity by pretending to be his own son, Jedediah Orne, Joseph keeps slipping and addressing mail to Simon. He attributes his own unnatural longevity to "hardy forefathers" and a "simplicity of living which did not wear him out", which fails to account for how the man can look no older than his late thirties despite being over a century old. And finally, his absolute failure to convincingly pass for a person of the modern century, let alone his own three-times great grandson, is ultimately what leads to his downfall for good.
    "And againe I ask that you shalle write me as Jedediah and not Simon. In this Community a Man may not live too long, and you knowe my Plan by which I came back as my Son"
  • Beard of Evil: The mysterious "Dr. Allen", who joins Charles in his occult studies later in the story, is recognized by eyewitnesses for a "stubbly full beard of dyed aspect". This and and a pair of Sinister Shades that he is never seen without hide the fact that he is in fact Joseph Curwen in disguise, so as to hide his identical appearance to his descendant Charles.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The villains are dead forever, but so is poor Charles, and his parents never get much closure.
  • Came Back Wrong: Using an incomplete corpse for necromancy results in a twisted abomination.
  • The Case of...: Lovecraft's only example of this title format.
  • 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.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: The apparently insane "Charles" mentioned at the beginning of the story is actually Joseph Curwen exploiting the fact that he looks almost identical to his great-great-great-grandson.
  • Deuteragonist: Dr. Willett. Arguably, he's the true protagonist while Charles is the deuteragonist.
  • Did Not Think This Through: Curwen murders Charles due to the latter's "squeamishness" and in order to assume his identity. It is at this point, however, that Curwen's downfall begins, as until that point he had been relying on Charles to navigate through American society of the 1920s, starting with basic financial transactions. Without Charles, he is left on his own, and quickly screws up with something as basic as signing cheques, not even bothering attempting to forge Charles' signature, leaving the banks to suspect forgery. Curwen only compounds on this error by utterly failing to convincingly impersonate Charles when the bank officials show up, leading him to be certified insane and committed to an asylum.
  • 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.
  • Eating Optional: The creatures in the pits within Curwen's secret lair are ravenously hungry, one going so far as to attempt to eat Willet's flashlight when he catches sight of one and drops his flashlight in horror. It is later revealed by Charles — or rather by Curwen pretending to be Charles — that in all the smoke, ruckus, and deafening gunfire of the original raid, the raiders failed to notice the grated coverings on the pits sealing the creatures in, meaning that those poor creatures have been howling away in mindless hunger in the cramped dark for the better part of 200 years, if not longer.
  • 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.
  • Exact Words: Engaged in by Lovecraft's narration, in literally the first paragraph of the book. He is very careful to note that the escaped patient went by the name of Charles Dexter Ward, in order to gloss over the question of whether he was Charles Dexter Ward.
  • Fire Keeps It Dead: Subverted. Willett is repeatedly told not to destroy the Big Bad with fire because he can resurrect from ashes. Instead Willett must dissolve him in acid.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: This is the main reason why Curwen's Kill and Replace gambit fails — despite his best efforts, he sticks out like a sore thumb in 20th-century New England.
  • God Is Evil: Curwen's "ancient ally" isn't explicitly named, but the incantation to summon him goes "PER ADONAI ELOHIM, ADONAI JEHOVA, ADONAI SABAOTH, METATRON..." However, there's a further implication that the necromancers believe Yog-Sothoth is in fact the God of the Bible.
  • Grand Theft Me: Seems to be Curwen's long game, until he goes the direct route with a Kill and Replace.
  • Heel Realization: After resurrecting his ancestor, Charles starts to balk at the crimes Curwen is committing and tries to have him killed. Instead Curwen kills him.
  • 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, who have to practice vampirism for some months after they've been reanimated in order to become fully alive again. 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 sorcerer face to face by his own means.
  • Pretending to Be One's Own Relative: Simon Orne, one of Curwen's associates in the dark arts, had in the past skirted the suspicions that one who lives so long without visibly aging might accrue by abandoning his base and holdings, only to come back some time later as "Jedediah Orne". Curwen himself later attempts to Kill and Replace Charles, with much less success.
  • 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.
  • Really 700 Years Old: One benefit of Curwen and associate's unnatural studies is an almost total cessation of the aging process. Curwen himself lives for over a full century while still appearing to be a man in his thirties at the latest, only meeting his first death in combat against the Pawtucket raiders. Meanwhile Orne and Hutchinson have managed to survive into the time of Charles Dexter Ward, over a century and a half later, by means of various cover identities.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Willett gives a short but withering one to Curwen when confronting the latter in the asylum at the end.
    Marinus Bicknell Willett: But you hadnít reckoned on the different contents of two minds. You were a fool, Curwen, to fancy that a mere visual identity would be enough. Why didnít you think of the speech and the voice and the handwriting? It hasnít worked, you see, after all.
  • Scenery Porn: The story revels in Scenery Porn of Providence, Lovecraft's beloved hometown.
  • Schizo Tech: Curwen has not yet assimilated the use of electric lighting. His underground fortress has only oil lamps and candles.
  • Sealed Good in a Can: The mysterious avenger that Willett calls up by accident.
  • Sins of Our Fathers: Charles Dexter Ward is made to suffer for his ancestor's crimes.
  • Smug Snake: Curwen is a high-functioning example. He's able to keep his activities more or less hidden for decades the first time around, but his inability at deception and obfuscation leads him to make several mistakes that end up biting him hard and twice leads to his death ó with the mistakes leading to his second death also contributing to the deaths of his confederates Simon Orne and Edward Hutchinson, who unlike Curwen had managed to live all the way to modern times.
  • 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.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • 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.
    • A resurrected person from the 18th century is going to find it immensely hard to blend in during the 20th century. Pretending to be his descendant actually makes it even more difficult, since Charles comes with a lot of backstory that his ancestor hasn't bothered to learn, to his detriment. The strange behaviour of 'Charles' alarms the people around him, and the authorities soon certify him as insane and have him forcibly institutionalized.
  • Turned Against Their Masters: Joseph Curwen was killed for the first time, at least, when he lost control of his "guardians".
  • The Unreveal: Several details are left mysterious and unrevealed. In particular, it's never revealed just who the entity Dr. Willett accidentally summons, #118, isnote , but he hates Curwen and compatriots enough to hunt down the other two and arrange their deaths. Also unrevealed, though tantalizingly hinted, is the the corpse Curwen disinters whose identity would cause patriotic shock and outrage if the crime was discovered, and his initials are B.F.
  • The 'Verse: When visiting Curwen's farmhouse in the 18th century, John Merritt finds the Necronomicon in Curwen's possession, which reminds him of "the exposure of nameless rites at the strange little fishing village of Kingsport, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay," referring obliquely to the events narrated in The Festival. Much later, in 1928, when investigating Curwen's subterranean lair, Dr. Willett notices the Sign of Koth chiselled above a doorway, and remembers his friend Randolph Carter drawing the sign and explaining its powers and meaning, thereby linking this story to the Dreamlands ones.
  • Villains Blend in Better: Their use of low profiles allows Curwen's associates Orne and Hutchinson stay under the radar far better than Curwen, to the point of successfully keeping it up into the modern day.