A supernatural murder mystery is probably the best way to describe “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward“, the short novel by H.P. Lovecraft. Published after Lovecraft’s death in 1941, this tale combines tropes from horror, weird fiction and detective mysteries and is a must read for any fans of those genres.
Set in the early 20th century, our story begins with the reader learning that the young Charles Dexter Ward has escaped from the mental asylum he was committed in. His final fate is related to us by the narrator who describes Ward fascination with colonial American history and his growing obsession about his pre-Revolutionary ancestor and alleged wizard, Joseph Curwen. Ward physically resembles Curwen and attempts to duplicate his ancestor’s alchemical feats. As Ward grows distant from his family his doctor, Marinus Bicknell Willett, investigates Curwen’s old Pawtuxet bungalow which Ward has restored. As Willett delves deeper into the mystery surround Ward and the long-deceased Curwen, he uncovers a horrible plot that could threaten all of existence.
“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” is unlike any other Lovecraft story I read. Instead of the protagonist grappling with some eldritch horror or learning some dark secret about there past,Willett’s nemesis is just another human. Albeit a human possessing great intelligence, cunning and an array of mystical powers, but a human nonetheless. Remove the Lovecraftian references to the Necronomicon and Yog-Sothoth, and the story is very similar to a Carnacki tale. Some of the monsters who make cameos are even recognizable as modern versions of necromancers, zombies and vampires.
What really got me, however, were the scenes when Ward was still living at his parents, but he mostly locked in his room conducting bizarre experiments. It reminded me of a simpler time when I was a young lad living at home and exercising my right of privacy. A part of me wonders what my parents thought I was doing. No doubt a slew of scenarios went through there heads, with the most dramatic scenario probably being drugs.
Yet I doubt they thought I was cavorting with demonic forces. Of course if my parents were the type to think reading Harry Potter is a form of devil worship, than I could have easily in their minds trying to summon a demon to do my homework for me. Ignore the smell of rotting fish, mom. I’m just summoning Cthulhu.
For Mister and Misses Ward, however, that was exactly what there child was doing…and how many reasonable or outlandish possibilities did they have to eliminate before they accepted the truth?
Unlike a lot of other classic Lovecraft works, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” has been adapted into other forms of media several times. There is the loosely adapted 1963 film The Haunted Palace starring everyone’s favorite over-acting horror star Vincent Price, a radio drama put on by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society and a graphic novel adapted by INJ Culbard, which Cory Doctorow called “the best way to enjoy Lovecraft.”
While Lovecraft’s tendency to be wordy is fully present in this work, those looking for a spooky mystery set during a time when reason and science is (supposedly) exorcising superstition from Earth once and for all, will enjoy “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, plus the link I gave you at the top will allow you to read it for free. So money shouldn’t be an excuse.
Just make sure everyone who shares a home with someone that you don’t read all the spell verses out loud. Don’t want anyone calling the men in the white coats or a priest on you.