Novella Review: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a rather long novella (112 pages) written by H.P. Lovecraft. It tells the story of a certain mental patient by the name of Charles Dexter Ward. It begins with his early formative years where he displays an interest in all things antiquated. It then moves on into his early twenties when trouble starts. However, in order to tell the story properly, early in the work Lovecraft takes us back another 170 years or so, to the life and times of Joseph Curwen. Joseph Curwen is a practitioner of witchcraft—and I don’t mean an innocuous Wiccan. Oh, no, Joseph Curwen delves dark and deep, and has no qualms about killing anyone who gets in his way. It begins with the summoning of the shades of long dead people, but other horrors are hinted at, too.

 

The story starts with Joseph Curwen on his farm in Pawtucket, R.I. (I think it’s Rhode Island) where he is ensconced in his magical rites. His exceptional long life and other dark dealings breed sinister rumours about him. Eventually, the populace rises against him, raids his homestead, and in a final battle manage to kill him. But his activities are not through. Fast forward, 170 years to the time of Charles Dexter Ward. This young budding historian is the descendant of Joseph Curwen’s. And, when he discovers a painting of the old sorcerer, almost an exact double of the man. Ward, entranced by his own love of history and the things of a bygone era, continues to dig, and dig deep. Soon, he is traipsing off to Europe in his search, only to come back a changed man. Now, his family begin to truly worry for him. His searches have affected his mind. He has become obsessed. And, when two mysterious strangers join him in his efforts, the family’s worries multiply. The strangers are odd folk; some might even say sinister. What hold does the long-dead Joseph Curwen have over these men? And what is their ultimate design? I’ll leave that for the intrepid reader to find out for himself.

 

Strengths: this novella is horror, it is not fantasy. As I have read countless fantasy stories, horror stories never manage to “shock” me. I have to be in the right mood for a horror story to really sink in and absorb the ambience. That said, I enjoyed this novella immensely. It told a pretty gripping tale, and it told it well. All the loose ends were tied off, and yet a whole range of facets were left to the reader’s imagination to fill in. Lovecraft does that a lot. Weaknesses: I think some of Lovecraft’s writing may be overburdened with long, multi-syllabic words and descriptions. That’s usually a mistake of young writers, and I’m not sure when this particular piece was written in Lovecraft’s career. In any event, it can make his writing cumbersome at times; although, then again, that may just be because he was writing one hundred years ago (or nearly so) and the language may have changed slightly since now and then.

 

Anyway, I’ll give The Case of Charles Dexter Ward four stars or maybe even four and a half stars out of five.

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