viernes, 14 de febrero de 2020

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (Penguin Classics, 2001)
by H.P. Lovecraft
USA, 1927

"Howard Phillips Lovecraft's unique contribution to American literature," the blurb on the back of my Penguin Classics edition of this collection asserts, "was a melding of traditional supernaturalism (derived chiefly from Edgar Allan Poe) with the emerging genre of science fiction in the early 1920s."  Correctly or not, I take that explanation to mean that Lovecraft liked to tell implausible stories with some sort of a scientific (or pseudo-scientific) as opposed to a supernatural underpinning where possible.  As far as The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is concerned, that's more or less exactly what you get insofar as "the case of the missing madman" (92) collides feverish tales of grave robbing, necromancy, the raising of the dead, vampirism, cargos of mummies and the implausible like up against a "rational" world view informed by the latest advances of Einstein and "the modernistic Waste Land of Mr. T.S. Eliot" (182).  Never mind, for the moment, that Einstein's and Eliot's superpowers are found wanting by our unnamed narrator in comparison to the esoteric secrets handed down by ancient sorcerers through the ages!  Since I enjoyed my time with this short novel without really being able to put a finger on why, I'll have to give Lovecraft credit for keeping the pedal to the metal on the plot twists and turns and for deftly handling material that bounces back and forth between 17th century Salem and 20th century Providence with an impressive amount of period detail.  He's a good storyteller.  I was also amused by the one paragraph where a lesson from Oscar Wilde's life and the fate of a character in a Lord Dunsany tale were used to flesh out the back story of an ancestor of the title character--a rather freewheeling use of metafiction if you think about it.  Perhaps more intriguingly for one wondering about the distance between the novelist and his narrator, it's interesting to note the spotlight placed on antiquarianism as a possible explanation for Charles Dexter Ward's purported madness.  Given the writer's own predilection for archaic words (anent & eldritch being two handy examples) and a doctor character's contention that Ward's increasing infatuation with the "strange and archaic" offers signs of his madness "as if the snapping of the writer's mind had released a flood of tendencies and impressions picked up unconsciously through boyhood antiquarianism.  There is an obvious effort to be modern, but the spirit and occasionally the language are those of the past" (162), one can't help but ask: was Lovecraft poking fun at himself here or is this a mere red herring in terms of the plot?  Whatever, Lovecraft is said to have disparaged this tale as clunky and unfit for publication or some such.  For my part, I found it brimming with the "prime, forbidden, crazy stuff" that Amateur Reader (Tom) predicted I might find in the comments to a previous Lovecraft post here.  Wild.

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

Source
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Lovecraft's longest-ever piece at just over a hundred pages, appears on pages 90-205 of The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Tales (New York: Penguin Books, 2001).

12 comentarios:

  1. I found this to be brilliant. That is how I feel about a lot of Lovecraft that I have read. He had a knack for creating such a sense of atmosphere. The stories were also a lot of fun to read. The entire Cthulhu Mythos was fantastic and very influential down through the years.

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    1. As a latecomer to Lovecraft, I can agree with you on his skill at creating atmosphere even though my personal experience with him has been limited to this novella and maybe three or four of the short stories. Have you checked out the British podcast series named after and adapting this title? I understand it's really good so I'd like to check it out for myself soon!

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  2. I should write up a book I just finished, the Northwest Smith stories of C. L. Moore, because they are filled with Lovecraftian elder gods and cosmic doom, except they are pure pulp sci fi, so the hero can, in the end, zap the elder gods with his ray gun, which I do not remember anyone in Lovecraft doing.

    Anyway, cosmic dread was a more widespread literary phenomenon at the time than I had realized.

    The Borges connection to all this stuff is pretty amusing.

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    1. I hadn't heard of Moore or Northwest Smith before your comment, but the idea of a female pulp writer working in the genre she did in that era is pretty intriguing. The Borges/Lovecraft connections are also fairly new to me but maybe not all that surprising given their mutual interest in the literature of the fantastic. Then again, I doubt I'll ever run into a Lovecraftian "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" or anything like that!

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  3. Marvellous! Would you believe, I've never read any Lovecraft in spite of being rater fond of the occasional ghost story every now and again. Is there one of his books in particular you would recommend for a Lovecraft virgin or novice? I'd be interested to know.

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    1. Tom and Brian would be the experts here, Jacqui, as I'm just beginning my reading relationship with Lovecraft. However, the volume pictured in my post has a few of what seem to be Lovecraft's highest regarded stories and a couple of key novellas so it's been a good place to start for me. Cheers!

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  4. Lovecraft himself did not write "books." There was only one during his lifetime, The Shadow over Innsmouth.

    Any collection of the C'thulu stories will do, really. There have been several.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendations for Jacqui (and me). Just wanted to add that reading a little about Lovecraft's critical reception has been almost as interesting as reading his fiction; one critic I read this week basically dismissed Lovecraft as a sort of second-rate pulp Poe but still admitted to finding Lovecraft "compulsively readable." I guess he makes people uneasy even without the whole racist writer baggage!

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    2. Honestly, I think Lovecraft is more interesting from story to story than within any given story, not that he does not have his moments. But it is the creation of the "mythos" that is his great achievement. The mythos does a lot of curious things.

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    3. I think I've yet to read any of the mythos stories (unless "The Thing on the Doorstep" qualifies for the Arkham mythos), so that'll give me something to look forward to then. I've enjoyed the level of descriptive detail Lovecraft injects into his stories and the weird New England settings so far, though.

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    4. "Doorstep" is in the mythos. So is Charles Dexter Ward. It is full of things that recur in other stories.

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    5. Thanks, I'll try to stay on the lookout!

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