The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward: TCL#53

‘The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward,’ is the only full novel HP Lovecraft ever wrote, which might make you think it is likely to be his grand opus… Sadly it is not. Its a long hard trawl through a Lovecraft story that had it been a ten thousand word short may have been quite fun. This may be slightly disingenuous of me to say, as I vaguely recall enjoying the novel a great deal the first time I read it some twenty years ago, and while taste develops over time and what you like in one decade of your life you’re not necessarily going to enjoy as much in the next, there must have been something about it at the time that sat well with me. However, I suspect I know what the difference was in those bygone days of youthful when I did not find ‘The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward’ a  thankless trawl of a novel which just drags itself along like a man who has just lost a leg to a threshing machine who is trying to get to the farmhouse to phone for a doctor. If you’re wondering what was different then, it is simply this, I had not read everything else Lovecraft had written up to this point in his life back then…


My opinion and lack of enjoyment this time around, therefore, is a bit of a shame, because as an introduction to Lovecraft’s style of storytelling it’s not a bad one. Indeed his style suits this down to the ground, except having read everything else by this time it is that style which is my biggest hurdle when it comes to Lovecraft. But it is not the only issue with ‘The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward,’ as far as I am concerned. There is also a small matter of the plot and knowing exactly what was going to happen and where the story was going after the first ten pages. And yes I had read this before, a long time back, but even if I had never had that pleasure I could have taken a stab at the plot of this novel, and the big reveal ending, after the first few pages.

The set up is complex in some respects but tracing paper thin in others. Young Charles ward becomes obsessed with a mysterious ancestor whom ‘dabbled’ shall we say, in the dark arts, and in the course of his researches becomes stranger and moves slowly towards madness. Which is all good apart from one bit of description early on which gives the whole game away. Indeed sells you tickets to the big blockbuster while telling you Bruce Willis’s character was dead all the time…

Its this line, and I paraphrase a little

‘Wards madness was strange, he seemed to know details of antiquity that were impossible for a man to know yet understood almost nothing of modern life…’

Which gives the whole game away, and as you read further everything you read just confirms what you expect to be the reason Ward appears to be a mad man. Why he has grown old in his skin and while lucid speaks in archaic terms and language.

There is a lot in the novel, ancient magic, witch trials, a whole lot of Lovecraftian lore, zombies or some other undead, strange paintings and souls that don’t quite stay where they should. But it is so drawn out that these gems buried in the text are somehow lost within it. There are few actual surprises and fewer shocks, to the point it all feels a bit too mundane and perhaps that’s the greatest problem with it all. There is nothing new here, no big idea, its just Lovecraft let loose in the long form with an idea better suited to a short story.

As I said this is all a tad disingenuous of me, I had read the novel before, even if I didn’t remember it that well. But having read a lot more Lovecraft of late believe me when I say he could have made this a much better short story than it ever is a novel. I’d probably still recommend this to anyone new to Lovecraft, but not before a whole host of better stories. It does, however, mark a watershed of sorts in this series of blogs, because the next several tales coming up are among the best of Lovecraft. Dunwich Horror,, the mountains of madness, and the shadow over Innsmouth are all in touching distance. So after the long drawn-out haul of the last few of these blogs, I finally have something good to look forward to and something I have been longing to share before I started. so perhaps that’s why I am giving this a generous, not entirely deserve four …  But mostly for the memory of what an interesting novel it seemed the first time around, all those years ago…

4out 6

Further Lovecraftian witterings as ever can be found here

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