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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. 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.


This novella provides examples of:

  • Author Avatar: Charles is an awkward and eccentric antiquarian, and even bits of his physical description matches Lovecraft himself.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Edward Hutchinson, in his guise as "Baron Ferenczy", complains of being harassed by Romanian soldiers and police. Just after the end of World War I, the newly acquired lands in Transylvania had been plagued by banditry until the mid-1920s and the Gendarmerie developed a bit of a Hair-Trigger Temper; when meeting people of murderous reputation they usually shot first and asked questions later. Though violence had cooled itself down by said 1928.
  • Back from the Dead: Joseph Curwen.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • Averted with mysterious No. 118. In just a few hours, a 8th century man who didn't speak Modern English learned as much as possible of Curwen's personal history and methods from what papers he could patch together, poured an impassable concrete floor, made up his appearance and clothes to be undistinguishable on the street and disappeared without a trace. In less than six months, he crossed an ocean and killed Curwen's accomplices with modern explosives.
  • 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 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.
    • A 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Turned Against Their Masters: Joseph Curwen was killed for the first time, at least, when he lost control of his "guardians".
  • The Un-Reveal: 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.


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