by H.P. Lovecraft
"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)
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).