Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft; The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, pt. 4
“Important sections of Charles Ward’s store of mental images, mainly those touching modern times and his own personal life, had been unaccountably expunged; whilst all the massed antiquarianism of his youth had welled up from some profound consciousness to engulf the contemporary and the individual.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve even deeper into the mystery of Charles Dexter Ward as we take a look at chapter four, “A Mutation and a Madness.”
This penultimate chapter gives us some much needed information, and sets us up for the final chapter “A Nightmare and a Cataclysm.” I have a feeling because of the direction the text is taking, and the title of the last chapter we are going to get a much more intimate view of what that attack on Curwen’s farm house looked like; with Ward taking place of the antagonist, but that’s for next week.
This week we continue to follow Ward down the rabbit hole. What Lovecraft does so well in this novel is heighten the mystery and suspense by not fully showing us what’s actually happening. He’s brought in all these other horror tropes (as mentioned last week), so the reader is left wondering what’s going on. Is this magic? Are Curwen and his fellows actually witches? Are they vampires? Did they tap into some eldritch energy? Based upon my reading so far in Lovecraft’s oeuvre it could be any of these options. We don’t get a specific answer in this chapter, but things are certainly clarifying, so lets dig into it as much as we can!
We start, right off the bat, with Ward acting subdued after the event on Good Friday where his mother collapsed. Ward seemed to regress back to the antiquarian activities of his youth. He was subdued for months. What was he doing during this time? We know he was dabbling in Curwen’s personal documents, so was Curwen biding his time before coming into being? Or was Ward trying to fight him off?
Those few months go by and it seems as though we have the answer: “The youth was arguing or remonstrating hotly with himself, for there suddenly burst forth a perfectly distinguishable series of clashing shouts in differentiated tones like alternate demands and denials…” then a curious statement was overheard from Mrs. Ward: “…must have it red for three months…”
Curwen had been biding his time. There was something they were working on which took time, some incantation, and Ward was either an unwilling or reluctant participant in it. We know this because Ward’s mother listened all night and “...as long as she had remained awake she had heard faint sounds from the laboratory above, sounds as if of sobbing and pacing, and of a sighing which told only of despair’s profoundest depths.”
Ward was being compelled and I think that something happened during the “Good Friday” kerfluffle that ended the last chapter which took hold of Ward. It’s almost as if a part of Curwen had been injected into Ward’s subconsciousness and they were two beings fighting for one body. That would certainly explain “clashing shouts in differentiated tones.”
The next day we find there had been more body snatching from the cemetery the night before Ward’s lamentations. The body of Ezra Weeden, the young man who courted Eliza Tillinghast who became Curwen’s wife and then led the charge on the farm house, was exhumed and then shortly there after there were “…shrieks of a man in mortal terror and agony.” followed by, “strange and unpleasant odours…”
This entire novel there has been grave robbing. In previous chapters, I assumed it was because Curwen was trying to gain access to the knowledge of his ancestors. What I now am coming to realize is the reason Curwen (and by extension Ward) needs the “Saltes” of the past, is not to resurrect them (although I do believe that they do resurrect the bodies, which makes the hypothesis all the more gruesome), but to feed on them. Curwen and his coven have abnormally long life and to do that you must have a source to fuel you.
This makes exhuming Weeden seem cruel and vicious, as though Curwen is exacting revenge on the man for storming his farmhouse all those years ago, but maybe there is something deeper going on here. If they in fact do gain the knowledge from these poor souls they bring back, maybe Curwen is trying to figure out how Weeden succeeded in convincing the townsfolk to attack. Maybe Curwen is trying to stop that from happening again, against Ward.
This still doesn’t change that they seem to not only be feeding on the dead but also the living, because vampirism begins taking place concurrently, and we already know that Hutchinson has survived thus far as a “Transylvanian Count” who lives off blood. Around this time there is also stories of people being attacked by …”a lean, lithe, leaping monster with burning eyes which fastened its teeth in the throat or upper arm and feasted ravenously.”
Enter Dr. Allen, a mysterious man who suddenly appears and has become Ward’s companion. This companion, along with a man servant, move into a new house…the center of the vampiristic attacks…and they become reclusive with each other.
Ward “grew steadily paler and more emaciated even than before, and lacked some of his former assurance when repeating to Dr. Willett his old, old story of vital research and future revelations.”
Could it be that Dr. Allen is the vampire and he is actually feeding on Ward? Or is it Curwen, through Ward’s body that is effecting the exsanguinating attacks?
The answer is unclear, but at this time Ward makes a deal with a local abattoir and has abnormal amounts of blood and meat sent to him. There is concurrently a caravan headed to Ward’s abode that is hijacked by thieves. Thieves who promptly drop the cache in horror as they realize it’s grisly (dead bodies) contents.
The small coven of three is slowly building power. Power in blood and power in knowledge. The three men move into the old Farm House complete with it’s hidden catacombs of Curwen’s making. It does not seem strange to me that they had to find a “man servant” to join Dr. Allen and Ward, because years before Curwen had to be joined with Orne and Hutchinson to be a coven of three. What did Allen and Ward promise this young man to join them?
Once at the farmhouse Ward realizes that he’s in over his head and decides to take a last stand. He sends a letter to his Alienist (Psychiatrist) Dr. Willett which states, “Instead of triumph I have found terror, and my talk with you will not be a boast of victory but a plea for help and advice in saving both myself and the world from a horror beyond all human conception or calculation.” Yikes. It’s here that Lovecraft begins to transcend the run of the mill horror. He has conceded that things like zombies, witches, and vampires exist in the world, but they are a means to an end for a deeper and more horrible truth to come. They are mosquito’s pecking at someones skin, when the whole time there is something deeper, insidious, and ruthless, like a virus which will do much more damage, just waiting to be let free.
As if to emphasize this, the post script is a desperate attempt at redemption, “Shoot Dr. Allen on sight and dissolve his body in acid. Don’t burn it.”
What a strange and horrifying thought. Ward is so scared of Dr. Allen coming back from the grave, that he knows you must absolutely destroy the body; that way the “Saltes” cannot be restored. This also makes sense because in previous letters, Orne told Curwen not to bring up what you cant put down, which coincides with Curwen’s collecting acids. He must have used those acids to “put down” whatever horrible thing he “brought up.”
Soon after this letter, Charles Dexter Ward goes absent. His nefarious companions state that he is just out and about and must not be disturbed. They say he is OK and just doing very important research. Charles’ dad calls, inquiring after his son and hears Dr. Allen for the first time and “…it seemed to excite some vague and elusive memory which could not be actually placed…” It stands to reason that the voice was one he heard Ward utter in a different tone while he argued with himself on that infamous Good Friday. Then we get into the last and probably most important question of this chapter.
Who is Curwen and how is Dr. Allen involved?
Dr. Willett and Ward’s father visit and Ward himself tells them, “I am grown phthisical,” (I had to look it up too) which means that he’s become consumptive, that his speech is hoarse and gravelly. Ward has become a shell of who he formerly was.
We call back to the beginning of the chapter and remember that Ward had stopped being his normal self. His memory was wiped and any knowledge of anything current was cleared for items of antiquity. His speech had even changed cadence to represent a previous dialectical time. He even makes statements like this one:
There is no evil to any in what I do, so long as I do it rightly.
I believe Curwen has taken over Ward. The text leads to some question of that, in fact the last few paragraphs actually seem to state that Dr. Allen was Curwen. What if that was true? What if Allen was Curwen? Allen disappears about the time Ward makes this transition, so it may well be that Allen was Curwen (they even slant rhyme) in Ezra Weeden’s expired body. When the body began to give out (because it required too much blood for upkeep) Curwen began the transition into Ward’s body. That was why Ward was absent for those few days, because it took that much time to make the transition.
The conflict will come because Willett and the elder Ward believe that Allen is Curwen, so we’ll have to to just wait for the final chapter to see how it all pans out!
Will Ward make it through? Will Curwen summon something he can’t put down? Will Hutchinson and Orne re-appear?
Join me next week for the finale of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward!