“Dr. Willett was thinking deeply and rapidly, and his thoughts were terrible ones. Now and then he would almost break into muttering as he ran over in his head a new, appalling, and increasingly conclusive chain of nightmare happenings.“
Welcome back for the conclusion of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward!” This week we follow Dr. Willett as he uncovers the truth of the preceding events. Though this was a fun chapter, containing a ton (for Lovecraft at least) of action, the whole thing is fairly predictable. It does, however, deliver a satisfying end to the whole story. Let’s begin shall we?
The first section of the chapter is exposition heavy, and reveals basically what we’ve been suspecting all along: “They were robbing the tombs of all the ages, including those of the world’s wisest and greatest men, in the hope of recovering from the bygone ashes some vestige of the consciousness and lore which had once animated and informed them.” and “…preparing from even the most antique remains certain “Essential Saltes” from which the shade of a long-dead living thing might be raised up.”
So it turns out Curwen’s coven was in fact raising the dead and collecting them to find some ancient information, but what information are they endeavoring to decipher?
The question deepens in the next paragraph. “Joseph Curwen had indubitably evoked many forbidden things, and as for Charles…What forces “outside the spheres” had reached him from Joseph Curwen’s day and turned his mind on forgotten things?”
We are also posed the question, “Was daemonic possession in truth a possibility?”
As we consider these questions the text jumps into the meat and potatoes of this chapter. The action begins as Dr. Willett and the elder Mr. Ward go to Charles’ place. They find a trap door in the floor and open it, causing Mr. Ward to faint; “…the mephitic blast from the crypt had in some way gravely sickened him.”
Willett steels himself and heads down into the abyss. Down there, lit by his flashlight, he finds Ward’s study. All the documents he has heard about (Letters from Prague and Rakus between Orne, Hutchinson, Ward, and Curwen, the cyphers, etc.) are present and he stuffs them in his valise. He finds much of Charles’ handwriting, but he also finds much of Curwen’s, and at this point he thinks that Ward was ghost writing for Curwen: “If he had indeed come to be the leader, he must have forced young Ward to act as his amanuensis.“
Willett continues to search, finding strange thing after strange thing, building suspense as we know that something strange or horrible will happen.
The suspension of disbelief in Lovecraft is great, and his lyrical style brings the reader into the story. This novel is framed as such that we get heavy atmosphere, layered on with epistles to make us feel as though we are the antiquarians who are working to solve the riddle.
Framing the story in this way is important because, as I’ve noticed in reading Lovecraft so far, he follows the tenant that to write a convincing story, the person telling it must live to tell the tale. Through all the Lovecraft I’ve read, the narrator witnesses horrid things and gets into situations where they should absolutely not make it out, but they always survive (sometimes the worse for wear). This should take away some of the suspense, because we know as readers the narrator will make it out. The brilliance of Lovecraft’s stylizing is that his lyrical style, though the language is not the most accessible, eventually draws you into the experience of the characters. In “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” this is done through atmosphere and epistles, and this last chapter does it better than any other.
A perfect example is the ending of the second section of this last chapter. We get two “formulae” which are the summons that Curwen’s group (and Ward) were using to raise these long dead people. We see these formulae through Dr. Willett’s eyes as a horrible sound of crying or mewing comes from unknown depths beneath him. The formulae he finds seems to call out to something called Yog-Sothoth (whether it’s to please it, or it’s a call for help, we don’t really know. More on that later). The first formula has a symbol meaning a “Dragon’s Head” and the second formula has a symbol for a “Dragon’s Tail”.
We can almost feel the dread in this section. The whole novel has been a slow build to this moment where we finally get to see what has actually been happening all this time. The dank cavelike office. The ancient tome written in almost alien text. The horrible mewing of either pain or hunger coming from somewhere in the cavernous abode. What is Willett going to find down there!
Well, we’ve been getting the re-occurring theme that one must take care not to bring up what you cant put down, and now we seem to have found the two rituals. The Dragon’s head brings up and the Dragons Tail (this is actually Dragon’s Head written in reverse) puts down what was brought up.
Willett, terrified, then finds an altar that has carved into it some disturbingly unfinished creatures. The mewling gets louder and he is compelled to see (or rather to gather evidence) what is making the sound, so he follows the horrible noises until he finds a pit. When he looks down he sees, “What the thing was, he would never tell. It was like some of the carvings on the hellish altar, but it was alive. Nature had never made it in this form, for it was too palpably unfinished.”
Here is another brilliant choice by Lovecraft. What makes his horror so palpable, is that he relies on imagination to create fear. He never truly describes any of these horrors because the idea behind them is that they are so terrifying that the human mind cannot conceive of words to bring comprehension. If he spent a bunch of lines really describing the creatures in detail, we’d be able to compartmentalize what the creatures are and thus they’d be less scary. Your mind can wander and create any terrible thing that’s “Unfinished” and then the monster becomes your monster. It becomes something you’re scared of, thus making it more personal for the reader.
Willett, dealing with his terror of these unfinished creatures goes even further and we finally figure out what’s really happening. He finds leaden jars (read as urns) in two differing Grecian styles. We have finally found the elusive “Saltes” that have been used to call up the dead.
As Willett is terrified as he inspects the laboratory. To assuage his fears he finds himself gently repeating the “Dragon’s Head” as he somehow finds it soothing. While he is doing so a figure appears out of the shadows. The figure have a beard and immediately we recall the nefarious Dr. Allen. Willett is scared for his life and faints and the creature who looks like Dr. Allen takes hold of him.
Willett wakes the next day in a room with Mr. Ward looking over him. They struggle to understand what’s actually going on, until they find a false beard and glasses which were very obviously Dr. Allen’s.
We are led through several pages of confusion. Who is Allen? Is Allen Ward? Is Allen Curwen? Is Allen either Hutchinson or Orne? What were those “Unifinished creatures” in the pit?
Then we get the opening quote. Dr. Willett suddenly understands. Dr. Allen was in fact Curwen…that is until he transposed bodies with Charles Dexter Ward! Curwen changed bodies, that’s why Ward’s speech changed, his memory was wiped, and his writing changed. Curwen took over Ward’s body, and put Ward’s soul into Dr. Allen’s body, then “put down” Allen.
Willett, unknowingly called Ward back up (and for some reason he was still wearing the fake beard) unknowingly because quoting the Dragon’s Head calmed his nerves as he investigated the horror lab. He just happened upon Ward’s “Saltes” and brought him back.
Meanwhile the “unfininished” wretches in the pit, were undoubtedly the men who charged the farm all those years ago. This was Curwen’s method giving them penitence for deigning to stop him of his nefarious ends…to give them unending torment. He brought them back unfinished (because he didn’t use all the essential “Saltes”), so he might complete his ritual of long life and find the information he was searching for.
Why did he need them to complete the ritual? The text doesn’t actually say, but we know that Yog-Sothoth is a deity of information, and to do a ritual which goes beyond life and death, and possibly beyond the cosmos like the one Curwen was attempting, I think the missing essential “Saltes” were put into either the altar, or into Curwen himself for added strength. That seems to be the only reason why depictions of the “unfinished beasts” would be on the Altar in the first place. It was signifying that those creatures were the “sacrifice” needed to get to the next step of ascension.
Dr. Willett was just lucky enough to call back the young Ward, who saved him and took him home. There is a hilarious moment when Willett makes the connection. “The article was a photograph of the luckless son, on which he now carefully drew in ink the pair of heavy glasses and the black pointed beard which the men had brought from Allen’s room.”
Willett goes to Ward (Curwen) in the institution for the climax. “The patient quailed, conscious that since the last visit there had been a change whereby the solicitous family physician had given place to the ruthless and implacable avenger.”
Willett uses “the cryptic invocation whose heading was the Dragon’s Tail, sign of the descending node–” and put Curwen down “…scattered on the floor as a thin coating of fine bluish-gray dust“, ending the horrible nightmare.
The novel is a horror story first. Indeed the only mention of anything cosmic is the name Yog-Sothoth itself, so hang on we’re going to get meta here for a minute!
What I mean by a horror story is that we have those classic horror tropes we started to identify in the third chapter and just when I expected something cosmic to erupt at the end of the novel, Lovecraft kept it about reanimation and zombies and vampires and witches…or did he?
Yog-Sothoth in the greater mythos is considered an all-knowing deity and grandfather to Cthulhu. The whole novel we have all the characters (and because of how the book is structured, the reader) striving for knowledge. The idea of striving for this eldritch knowledge is at the core of Yog-Sothoth’s interests, because it is all knowing. Curwen went to it to find out about all the weird things that lie at the edge of our known world. So the coven of three were praying to Yog-Sothoth, not Satan, and that’s how they got to understand the powers that they did. The reason they resurrected the “Great minds” of yesteryear, was because they fell into the pit-fall of all Lovecraftian antagonists…they wanted to know how to commune and interact with the cosmic dieties, and thus transcend their own mortal beings. Well, I guess it was cosmic after all!
The next logical step that I would take, is that this novel was written in 1927, and it’s the first time Yog-Sothoth was mentioned in any of Lovecraft’s stories. Lovecraft didn’t call his created universe and the deities it contained “the Cthulhu Mythos,” that was actually a creation of August Derleth (his friend and publisher). Lovecraft actually called it Yog-Sothothery. Meaning that every story he wrote had these creatures, these deities in the background, and it was this novel that solidified the scope of the idea for him. Everything after (that he wrote himself, there are one offs he co-wrote) had a distinct connection with this cosmic approach, and because Yog-Sothoth was about knowledge, he was able to tie every story written before into this as well.
Another reason he called it Yog-Sothothery was because of the idea of the deity itself. Nearly every story he wrote was about the characters seeking something beyond their ken. Seeking ancient or forbidden knowledge. Yog-Sothoth for Lovecraft was the owner of that knowledge, so it makes sense that his stories in his mind would all have to deal with this celestial god.
I think this is also why he wanted other authors to continue on with telling the stories of the Mythos after he died, because he knew it was such broad universe of ideas and he simply didn’t have the time or the overall perspective to produce it.
Well, that’s all for this week! Thanks for sticking around for this longer post!
Read along and join me next week as we discuss “The Colour Out of Space”!
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