Werner's Reviews > The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft
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it was amazing
bookshelves: science-fiction
Recommended for: Fans of "horror" and horrific science fiction

Though Lovecraft is a favorite writer of mine, until now this book (one of only two novel-length pieces he ever wrote) has been one I hadn't gotten around to reviewing. It was recently nominated as a common read in my Supernatural Fiction Readers group; and though it wasn't the one chosen, that reminded me of it, and I resolved to correct the lapse. It's one of my favorite Lovecraft works, and certainly one I highly recommend to other readers who like this type of fiction.

The Goodreads description for this edition (which isn't the one I read) doesn't really give you any accurate clue as to what the book is about, and the reference to "magic" is erroneous; like Poe, Lovecraft tended to eschew magical causes for his horrific plots, preferring naturalistic explanations. (Nonetheless, this novella reads a lot like supernatural fiction, both in mood, tone and style and in the fact that his "science" operates in ways that in practice might be easily mistaken for magic.) The premise here is that in colonial New England, a would-be sorcerer has learned both how to extend his life far beyond its natural limit, and how to reanimate even the long-dead (which some old-time alchemists actually believed was possible by the proper treatment of their "essential saltes"). His villainous activities are destined to have sinister results, both in his own time and that of the author. (Though it was published posthumously in 1941, it was actually written shortly after World War I.) To avoid spoilers, I won't elaborate further.

Some Lovecraftians characterize this as one of his "non-Cthulhu" works. To be sure, it was written well before "The Call of Cthulhu" (1927), and the agent of evil here is a human being, not a Great Old One. But there are indications that some of the motifs of the Mythos were already germinating in the author's mind. It's indicated that the baddie got his information from occult traffic with unhallowed elder beings from beyond the earth ("Those Outside"), and one scene in particular depicts a hidden-away place with phenomena that could come from out of any of the later Mythos stories. (Indeed, Lovecraft himself almost certainly never divided his works into those two neat categories in his own mind. Nor did he even coin the "Cthulhu Mythos" term, which was the invention of August Derleth after HPL died.) But although exposure to this place sends our principal good guy into a temporary paralyzed state of catatonic terror, this book does lack some of the heavy-handed moralizing about the supposedly reason-annihilating terror of exposure to Lovecraft's view of nihilistic "reality" that appears in some of his stories (though one earlier passage hints at it.) In terms of his plotting here, a case could be made that this is perhaps one of Lovecraft's more "optimistic" works (if we can apply that adjective to anything from his pen :-) ).

Lovecraft is a master of purple prose, one of the authors I most admire when considered strictly as a stylist, and he's at the top of his form here. The storytelling is first-rate, and the evocation of atmosphere is masterful. Much of the story is built around the title character's antiquarian research, a motif I particularly like, and HPL handles it very adeptly. He set the tale in his native Providence, and he brings that setting to life as only he could --he makes it real to me though I've never been there! (One reviewer complained about the wealth of historical detail as distracting and slowing the story, but for me it was actually one of the strong points of the book.) For Lovecraft fans, this is a must-read; and I'd heartily recommend it to anyone wanting to sample his work.

It's worthwhile here to briefly mention the 1963 movie The Haunted Palace (www.imdb.com/title/tt0057128/ ) directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price (which I watched before I read the book). Although it takes its title from a Poe poem, this is actually a loose adaptation suggested by this book, though the film writers moved the setting to Lovecraft's fictional Arkham and changed a number of other aspects, including the ending (which seems designed to set up a sequel, though I don't think one was ever made). The movie is worth watching on its own merits, but no one should imagine that viewing it will give them a real understanding of the book's actual plot.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 1, 2003 – Finished Reading
March 21, 2008 – Shelved
March 21, 2008 – Shelved as: science-fiction

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Banner (new) - added it

Banner This book has been recommended by several here on GR. I need to move this up on my list. Thanks for the review.

Werner You're welcome, Banner. If you do read it sometime, I hope you enjoy it; and I'll be interested in your review!

message 3: by spikeINflorida (new)

spikeINflorida Great review Werner! I've always wanted to read HPL, but didn't know where to start. Thanks

Werner You're welcome, Spike, and thank you!

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