The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
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Created: February 2017
| Updated: February 2017
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
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The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a short novel (51,500 words) by H. P. Lovecraft, written in early 1927, but not published during the author's lifetime. Set in Lovecraft's hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, it was first published (in abridged form) in the May and July issues of Weird Tales in 1941; the first complete publication was in Arkham House's Beyond the Wall of Sleep collection (1943). It is included in the Library of America volume of Lovecraft's work.
In August 1925, Lovecraft's Aunt Lillian sent him an anecdote about the house at 140 Prospect Street in Providence. Lovecraft wrote back, "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!" Lovecraft would make this house—renumbered as 100 Prospect—the basis for the Ward house.
The following month, September 1925, Lovecraft read Providence in Colonial Times, by Gertrude Selwyn Kimball, a 1912 history that provided him the anecdotes about John Merritt and Dr. Checkley that he incorporated into his novel.
A possibleTemplate:Weasel-inline literary model is Walter de la Mare's novel The Return (1910), which Lovecraft read in mid-1926. He describes it in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" as a tale in which "We see the soul of a dead man reach out of its grave of two centuries and fasten itself on the flesh of the living."
The theme of a descendant who closely resembles a distant ancestor may come from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, which Lovecraft called "New England's greatest contribution to weird literature" in "Supernatural Horror in Literature".
Another proposed literary source is M. R. James' short story "Count Magnus", also praised in "Supernatural Horror in Literature", which suggests the resurrection of a sinister 17th century figure.
The germ of inspiration came from Lovecraft reading Cotton Mather and running across a quote from Borellus. Borellus is Petrus Borellus aka Dr Pierre Borel, a well-known French doctor and alchemist. The quote refers to old experiments of the alchemists in creating life/rebirth from death using essential salts. The entire quote is as follows: "The essential Saltes of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious Man may have the whole Ark of Noah in his own Studie, and raise the fine Shape of an Animal out of its Ashes at his Pleasure; and by the lyke Method from the essential Saltes of humane Dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the Shape of any dead Ancestour from the Dust whereinto his Bodie has been incinerated."
Charles Dexter Ward is a young man from a prominent Rhode Island family who has disappeared from a mental asylum. He had been incarcerated during a prolonged period of insanity, during which he exhibited minor and inexplicable physiological changes. His empty cell is found to be very dusty.
The bulk of the story concerns the investigation conducted by the Wards' family doctor, Marinus Bicknell Willett, in an attempt to discover the reason for Ward's madness and physiological changes. Willett learns that Ward had spent the past several years attempting to discover the grave of his ill-reputed ancestor, Joseph Curwen. The doctor slowly begins to reveal the truth behind the legends surrounding Curwen, an eighteenth-century shipping entrepreneur and alleged alchemist, who was in reality a necromancer and mass-murderer. A raid on Curwen's farm is remarkable for the shouted incantations, lights, explosions, and some not-quite-human figures shot down by the raiders. The raiders soon swear any witnesses to strict secrecy about what they may have seen or heard.
As Willett's investigations proceed, he finds that Charles had recovered Curwen's ashes, and through the use of magical formulae contained in documents found hidden in Curwen's home in Providence, Rhode Island, was able to call forth Curwen from his "essential saltes" and resurrect him. Willett also finds that Curwen, who resembles Charles enough to pass for him, has murdered and replaced his modern descendant and resumed his evil activities. Although Curwen convinces onlookers that he is Charles, his anachronistic mindset and behaviour lead authorities to certify him insane and imprison him in an asylum.
While Curwen is locked up, Willett's investigation leads him to a bungalow in Pawtuxet Village, which Ward had purchased while under the influence of Curwen. The house is on the site of the old farm which was Curwen's headquarters for his nefarious doings; beneath is a vast catacomb that the wizard had built as a lair during his previous lifetime. During a horrific journey through this labyrinth in which Willett sees a deformed monster in a pit, Willett discovers the truth about Curwen's crimes and also the means of returning him to the grave. It is also revealed that Curwen has been engaged in a long-term conspiracy with certain other necromancers, associates from his previous life who have somehow escaped death, to resurrect and torture the world's wisest people to gain knowledge that will make them powerful and threaten the future of mankind. While in Curwen's laboratory, Willett accidentally summons an ancient entity who is an enemy of Curwen and his fellow necromancers. The doctor faints, awakening much later in the bungalow. The entrance to the vaults has been sealed as if it had never existed, but Willett finds a note from the being written in Latin instructing him to kill Curwen and destroy his body.
Willett confronts Curwen at the asylum and succeeds in reversing the resurrection spell, returning the sorcerer to dust. News reports reveal that Curwen's prime co-conspirators and their households have met brutal deaths, and their lairs have been destroyed.
Charles Dexter Ward contains the first mention of the Cthulhu Mythos entity Yog-Sothoth, who appears repeatedly as an element in an incantation. Joseph Curwen is the owner of a copy of the Necronomicon (disguised as a book labelled Qanoon-e-Islam) and there are hints of cult activities in a fishing village that refer obliquely to the events narrated in "The Festival". The story also contains references to the Dream Cycle: 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.
Brian Lumley expanded on the character of Baron Ferenczy, mentioned but never met in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, in his Necroscope series, specifically Book IV: Deadspeak, where Janos Ferenczy uses the Yog-Sothoth formula to call forth whole bodies from ash remains, and to return them to that state.
When Dexter's mother hears chanting ("per adonai eloim, adonai jehova, adonai sabaoth, metraton on agla mathon, verbum pythonicum, mysterium salamandrae, conventus sylvorum, antra gnomorum, daemonia coeli gad, almousin, gibor, jehosua, evam, zariatnatmik, veni, veni, veni." translated to if it was Latin "by Adonai, Eloi, Adonai Jehovah, Adonai hosts metraton on Egla was appointed, divining the mystery of the salamander, a meeting of the forests, caves, gnomes, devils, heaven Gad almousin, gibor Oshea, Eve, zariatnatmik, come, come, come.") this chanting is referencing the "mystery of the salamander" which is also mentioned in other short stories.