“All that can be told of their discoveries is what Eleazar Smith jotted down in a none to coherent diary, and what other diarists and letter-writers have timidly repeated from the statements which they finally made – and according to which the farm was only the outer shell of some vast and revolting menace, of a scope and depth too profound and intangible for more than shadowy comprehension.”
Welcome back for another Blind Read! This week we tackle chapter two “An Antecedent and a Horror,” of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (apparently I’ve read too much Robert Louis Stevenson because I consistently want to call this “The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” in reference to “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”).
We take a bit of a hard right turn in this chapter after learning about Ward in the previous one; it makes sense however because of the title of the chapter. We know that we’re learning of Joseph Curwen, the antecedent (and ancestor) of Charles Dexter Ward in this long chapter from the first line: “Joseph Curwen, as revealed by the rambling legends embodied in what Ward heard and unearthed, was a very astonishing, enigmatic, and obscurely horrid individual.”
There is evidence to suggest that Curwen practiced witchcraft in Salem at the height of that age and fled directly before the hunt began to weed out the witches. This flight led him directly to Providence, “-that universal haven of the odd, the free, and the dissenting-“. I kind of love that Lovecraft has a statement about Providence in here because the narrative is decidedly opposite; the people of Providence revolt against the odd and the dissenting. It is, however, obvious how much Lovecraft adored Providence , and this statement is more from his perspective, the author, rather than the narrators perspective. This is why his writing and his livelihood flourished here… because he felt accepted.
Anyway, back to the text. Curwen moves to Providence and we already know something is odd about him. He’s an antiquarian, just like Ward, but he also dabbles in drugs and acids and strange metals, and he is preternaturally old, but doesn’t look it: “At length, over fifty years had passed since the strangers advent, and without producing more than five years’ apparent change in his face and physique.”
This makes the people of Providence weary of him, but to make matters worse, he contacts a local apothecary and also a local literary and scientific fanatic hermit, John Merritt, to bring him books from all over the world. Lovecraft spends nearly a page of text naming the works, from historical to literary to religious, until “upon taking down a fine volume conspicuously labelled as the Qanoon-e-Islam, he found it was in truth the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Arad Abdul Alhazred…”
Merritt sees a passage which sheds a little light on some of the things that the Necronomicon can actually do: “The essential Saltes of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious Man may have the whole Ark of Noah in his own Studie, and raise the fine Shape of an Animal out of it’s Ashes at his Pleasure; and by the lyke Mothod from the essential Saltes of humane Dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the Shape of any dead Ancestour from the Dust whereinto his Bodie has been incinerated.”
So here we find what Curwen is striving for (though the motive is still absent). He is just trying to understand life and gain what knowledge his ancestors had. He is a pre-eminant scholar, but even though he’s dabbling in these strange and forbidden arts, there is zero evidence that he’s done any harm to any living being (other than livestock and being a slave owner. The slave owner thing is completely unforgivable, but in terms of the time period this story is taking place in, it was a commonplace practice, so he’d be no different from the townsfolk in terms of morality).
Despite the knowledge of his “dark arts” he joins the church and tries to become a contributing member of society. He might be trying to get people to relax about his strange dealings, or he could be trying to ingratiate himself to certain members of society to gain favor…
A few years later we find Curwen looking to marry. He finds his ideal wife… the daughter of a ship-Captain, Dutee Tillinghast. The text itself shows no real nefariousness, but Lovecraft does spend a bit of time describing how old Curwen is and how submerged into witchcraft he is, before suddenly switching the narrative and talking about how he got Tillinghast to agree to marry off his daughter, Eliza (Not Peggy). This sudden switch from his witchcraft to his courting is curious. Is it to indicate that Curwen magically charms Tillinghast to give away his daughter? Or does Curwen just pay enough of a bride price to satisfy Captain Tillinghast? In either case this infuriates Eliza’s young gentleman sailor caller, Ezra Weeden, because he wanted to marry Eliza. Little does Curwen know it, but his choice of bride becomes his undoing.
Ezra, angry at being shunned, “…began a systemic study of the man and his doings…” certain that the old wizard was up to something. Certain that his lovely Eliza could not choose Curwen under her own volition, despite the fact that Curwen set Eliza up at a separate house and gave her everything she wanted or needed and didn’t spend too much time with her, or intrude upon her. Truly we don’t know, because there is nothing in the narrative to tell differently, but Eliza never seemed unhappy or in danger at any time from Curwen. Still, there is no storm worse than a lover scorned.
Ezra continues to watch and notices strange cargo going to Curwen’s farmhouse. “The cargo consisted almost wholly of boxes and cases, of which a large proportion were oblong and heavy and disturbingly suggestive of coffins.” Of course we infer what they are and so does Ezra. The issue is he’s a sailor and he’s often gone with his ship, so he hires Eleazar Smith to watch while he’s gone (The young man from the opening quote).
Eleazar finds prisoners in an extensive tunnel system under Curwen’s farmhouse. These prisoners are of a horrid physiognomy, and we can only infer that they are the resurrected ancestors that Curwen has been importing in those strange coffins. We know from Merritt and his glace at the notated portion of the Necronomicon that Curwen is bringing these ancestors back to life “from their Salte” to grill them for information:
“Once, for example, an alternately raging and sullen figure was questioned in French about the Black Prince’s massacre at Limoges in 1370…”
Weeden and Smith gather many important town figures. They want to get the law involved. Once they do, the group decides to confiscate some of Curwen’s mail. They find all sorts of crazy evidence, but one line stands out as important and foreshadowing: “doe not call up Any that you can not put downe…”
This is all the evidence the group needs. They form a mob to raze the farm house and all that dwell within it. Bringing a Frankensteinian vibe, they storm the farmhouse. There is an incredible battle where many of the men are killed or maimed and Curwen eventually dies. During the middle of the fight there was a blast in the farmhouse. “This blast had been followed by a repetition of the great shaft of light from the stone building,” namely Curwen summoning creatures to aid in the fight. The narrator doesn’t go into detail, but talks of fire creatures and strange smells that stick on the men in the raid.
Right at the end of the chapter there is a passage that leads me to believe that Curwen was actually killed by creatures he called up rather than the attackers:
“I say to you againe, doe not call up any that you can not put downe; by the Which I meane, Any that can in Turne call up somewhat against you, whereby your Powerfullest Devices may not be of use. Ask the Lesser, lest the Greater shall not wish to Answer, and shall commande more than you.”
Curwen called up a power that was just a little to strong for himself and in turn it killed him. I do, however, wonder what the scent is and why it’s mentioned. I wonder what the firey creatures are. I wonder how this correlates to Ward’s transition. Again, there isn’t any indication in the text… yet, but I’m sure we’ll soon find out!
What really intrigues me about this chapter has to do with fear and anger. The whole downfall of Curwen was spawned by a young man’s jealousy, because Ezra went a little far in trying to prove Curwen was evil. Without a doubt Curwen was doing some terrible things, however he was not doing them to the living, so there is a bit of a moral question here. Does that merit death?
The through line is that Curwen came from Salem. The witch trials were all about fear. Innocent people died because people were so afraid of what they didn’t understand that they committed atrocious acts against others. The same here. The mob was formed because they stole Curwen’s mail and didn’t understand what they were reading. Rather than just reaching out to Curwen, or even arresting him, they decided that because they didn’t understand what was going on, they were just going to eliminate him. We come to realize that though Curwen is monstrous, the real monsters were the people of Providence, feeding off that fear. All because a young man felt cheated.
One last note for this chapter which I absolutely loved, and I believe it’s more a reflection on the novel as a whole, is that Lovecraft is writing it as though we ourselves are antiquarians looking back at Ward. Throughout the book thus far, we have been given snippets of text from books, articles, and letters that the characters are looking at. Thus it’s as though we as readers are doing the research to understand what happened to Ward. This is a wonderful Juxtaposition of Ward looking back on Curwen, and in turn Curwen looking back at his ancestors. It is a brilliant structural organization because it brings the reader more into the story. It makes the reader empathize with both Ward and Curwen as we delve deeper and unfold more layers of the mystery. We ourselves have become the antiquarians…
Join me next week for chapter 3, “A Search and an Evocation”!
I would feel remiss if I didn’t add in this portion about racism. I have argued with people over the past year and a half as I’ve read through Lovecraft’s works, saying that he was merely xenophobic and agoraphobic and not just outright racist. This story has unequivocally proven me wrong.
In previous stories he rails against the culture of others. I have seen that nearly across the board, and where it’s jarring, it’s also fleeting so I’m able to gloss over it. There is a passage in this chapter (I will not repeat it. Look it up yourself if you’re curious) that is abhorrent. It speaks about appearance, not culture. I can no longer in any way defend what I’m reading. I almost stopped the project all together when I came across that passage. I still may, but I do believe that there is enough time and understanding that has passed since the authorship of these works that I can be impartial. What I mean by this is that with recent art like “Lovecraft Country” coming to HBO (and the book, though I haven’t read it), Lovecraft’s legacy can be about his creation, not the hatred he himself had. I feel it’s OK to continue on because others of races and creeds are benefiting from his creations. That being said the passage rocked me a bit, and left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m hoping the rest of this novel will be free of such prejudice.