“He bore the name Charles Dexter Ward, and was placed under restraint most reluctantly by the grieving father who had watched his aberration grow from a mere eccentricity to a dark mania involving both a possibility of murderous tendencies and a profound and peculiar change in apparent contents of his mind.”
Welcome back to another blind read! It feels like it’s been a long drought since the last time we covered one of Lovecraft’s more popular pieces, and I gotta tell you, I was very excited to jump into this one.
Right from the start we enter into familiar territory. The POV is much more omniscient than much of Lovecraft (the majority of his stories seem to be told from a much more limited 3rd person, and much of that is from the perspective of an unreliable narrator), however the omniscient narrator spends this chapter describing the character of Ward, whom is a young man who has gone down a path that has led him to the strange.
We find that Ward is an inquisitive youth. He’s described as “a scholar and antiquarian”, but at some point (specifically at his last year of Moses Brown School, the feeder school to Brown University) “he suddenly turned from the study of the past to the study of the occult.”
Ward, while doing research into his past, found that one of his ancestors had some connection to the occult. One Joseph Curwen, “who had come from Salem in March of 1692, and about whom a whispered series of highly peculiar and disquieting stories clustered.” It was in this research of his ancestor that Ward began to go down the rabbit hole of the occult.
Whatever he did had strange consequences. It changed, not only his mind and the psychology behind it, but his actual physiology. There is a really fascinating section early on in the story where Lovecraft describes Ward’s “Organic processes”. The entire point of this is to show that Ward had tapped into something that changed him, but the brilliance of this section is that it encompasses the horror of Lovecraft perfectly:
“Respiration and heart action had a baffling lack of symmetry; the voice was lost, so that no sounds above a whisper were possible; digestion was incredibly prolonged and minimised, and neural reactions to standard stimuli bore no relation at all to anything heretofore recorded, either normal or pathological. The skin had a morbid chill and dryness, and the cellular structure of the tissue seemed exaggeratedly coarse and loosely knit.”
This was the most fascinating section to me because when you read the passage, something about what he’s describing feels off. You know that Ward has been effected by something, but as a reader, you are uncertain what it is. You know he’s still human, but you know that whatever he got himself into has done something to him, and it’s that word… something… that creates real fear. This ambiguous description is the cornerstone of Lovecraft’s genius of horror. He pontificates, but doesn’t out and out recount what is truly going on.
It wasn’t that Ward had become some creature (although he could… this is only the first chapter), just that there was something wrong with him. I see this all the time in bad horror, where the author tries too hard for the scare, and in doing so, usually describes the creature or describes in lurid detail what is happening to the character. When we actually get to see something our brain is able to put it in a box, and where that box may not be pleasant, it’s the first step in understanding. Lovecraft’s point is that we can never understand these types of horrors. He lets the reader’s mind do the work for them.
Even the titles elicit this with stories like “The Thing in the Moonlight” or “The Unnamable” prove that he understood what’s truly scary to people is what they don’t know, not what they do know. He describes things that are a little strange to unsettle the reader, but not to outright terrify. Lovecraft wants to do what his creations do, he wants to be that insidious pulling at the back of your unconscious that tells you something isn’t right, even though you don’t understand what that is.
The brilliance of this story is he places Ward into such a realistic place. He goes into great detail describing Providence, RI. So much in fact that there is criticism (actually from Lovecraft himself) that the novel is a “cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism” because of the detail he uses in describing Providence. Now, where he sees this as self aggrandizing, I find it a wonderful juxtaposition to the oddity that is Ward. The realism of his illustration of Providence grounds us, which makes the possibility of the unseen horrors corrupting that reality all the more… well… horrible.
Come back next week and read along as we cover chapter 2 “An Antecedent and a Horror” in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward!
“It was a key – a guide – to certain gateways and transitions of which mystics have dreamed and whispered since the race was young, and which lead to freedoms and discoveries beyond three dimensions and realms of life and matter that we know.”
Welcome back to another blind read! I was excited to read this one because I thought it might have to do with the Necronomicon, but soon found out that the eponymous book was yet another tome of outlandish sorcery – but more on that later.
This fragment starts out with the old Lovecraft standby – the unreliable narrator. This one doesn’t mince words though, our narrator comes right out and says, “wow this is crazy, I don’t even know where I am, or even who I am half the time!”
Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s the beginning: “My memories are confused…I am not even certain how I am communicating this message…My identity, too, is bewilderingly cloudy.”
I’ve been debating on where to put this critique, but every other story is pretty jam packed with content, whereas this is a shorter fragment, so I think I’ll talk about this here…
I’m not thrilled about this unreliable narrator that Lovecraft loves to use. It’s fine every once and a while, but when you consistently re-use the same themes, it feels more like bad writing than a trend. I understand it for sure. Lovecraft is trying to set the stage and each unreliable narrator tends to have a different reason for their unreliableness (totally a word). This narrator is confused because of “… that worm riddled book…” he discovered. He delved so deep into it’s mysteries that it has altered his reality so that he’s not sure as to which reality he’s actually in.
The issue this creates is that the story is now forever stuck in the fantasy realm. The wonderful nature of Lovecraft is the creepy realism he develops with his mythology. He takes us to real places with dirty people (literally and figuratively) who are just trying to make a living, and these extraordinary things happen to them. By telling the story by an unreliable narrator it takes away some of the stakes. Could all of this insanity all be in their head? Could they just be lying? Are they under the influence of something like Opium of Peyote? All of these choices are fine for a story or two, but when we start out nearly every story with the narrator saying something along the lines of “I don’t even know where I am right now!” It becomes more about fantasy than horror and the stakes are lowered for the reader. Lovecraft dances this line superbly in most of his works, but it would be a better choice had the narrator understood what was happening, rather than telling us at the beginning of each story that it might not be true.
Just had to get that off my chest, but back to the story…
The narrator finds the old “wormy” book in some old book store and the shop keep is grateful to be rid of it (or is this some ploy? Could the shop keep with his “curious sign with his hand” be in on it?). When the narrator reads it he finds that, as the starting quote says, it is a key; a gateway to other worlds. I thought for sure this was the classic Grimoire I mentioned earlier but, “… the hand of some half-crazed monk, had traced these ominous Latin phrases in unicals of awesome antiquity.” So we know it’s not the Necronomicon because that tome was written by the Mad Arab Alhazred and he’d be writing it in either Arabic or Aramaic, so it must be something else. The first few pages are burned away, so no one really knows what the book is, however there are references to many other things within: “But still I read more – in hidden, forgotten books and scrolls to which my new vision led me…” So we know there is more to Lovecraft’s old forgotten mystery tomes than the Necronomicon and the Pnakotic Manuscripts.
This fragment was written just a few years before Lovecraft died, so who knows what he would have created as he expanded his universe (I’m sure other authors, like Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth did, along with a multitude of others who followed, but I’m not there yet).
We even get a glimpse of some strange square building which terrifies the narrator into giving up his research and becoming a hermit. There’s mention that he has gone back in time, could this strange square building have been a Cthulhu temple in R’lyeh? The narrator doesn’t know, so we wont either.
But that’s all. This one is a fairly contained story, but there isn’t a whole lot to it. It feels like this is actually a character sketch for a future story, or that he was trying to work out what another old tome could be. Who knows? Maybe I’ll read another story during this blind read and come across a book which is a “key” somewhere else! Anyone out there, know which book this story is referencing?
I’ve purposely kept some of the better known Lovecraft stories for last. I wanted to try to get as much experience within the framework of his oeuvre before jumping into larger and more popular stories. To that end, I have just one more fragment to get to, “The Thing in the Moonlight” which will be next week (reading from the beautifully Michael Whelan illustrated Del Rey books), before heading into “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”
Come join me! Lets read along!
“But at this time it was all horribly real, and nothing can ever efface the memory of those nighted crypts, those titan arcades, and those half-formed shapes of hell that strode gigantically in silence holding half-eaten things whose still surviving portions screamed for mercy or laughed with madness.”
Wow, what a wild ride this story was. This was probably the scariest and most classic horror of any H.P. Lovecraft that I’ve read up to date.
As the story begins we are introduced to detective Thomas F. Malone who is on extended medical leave for trauma. The first portion of the story describes how he’s living and dealing with this trauma, of which we are still ignorant.
The second portion of the story covers Red Hook. We get a call back to HE, as there is a similar tenement structure our narrator experienced there. This story also takes place in New York, which is absolutely unique for Lovecraft. It does not hold the same atmosphere as much of his work, but from the start of this story the tone has a much darker and sinister feel. The basis in New York gives Lovecraft the ability to explore different themes than the usual fantasy/cosmic horror that he frames in New England.
The third portion of the story is the introduction to Malone’s quarry, Robert Suydam. “Suydam was a lettered recluse of an ancient Dutch family,” and he purchased a space in the run down, twisting alleyways of Red Hook. After a strange trip to Europe, Suydam began to deteriorate. His personal hygiene took a hit, he lost friends, and “When he spoke it was to babble of unlimited powers almost within his grasp, and to repeat with knowing leers such mystical words or names as ‘Sephiroth’, ‘Ashmodai’ and Samael’.” And there it is. We have three demons from the Kabbalah and Christian religions. The text has gone beyond the normal Lovecraft, no longer in the world of the cosmic horror. We are no longer in the dreamlands (though there is a little bit of dream stuff to come), we have now crossed over into religious horror. To me this raised my hackles. I find this subject matter far more terrifying that anything I have yet come by within Lovecraft’s oeuvre.
The fourth section of the story delves into the police work. Trying to uncover just what strange dealings that Suydam has been up to. They raid his home, which is empty, and they come across blasphemous art work and things that Malone simply “did not like”. They also found an inscription:
O friend and companion of night, thou who rejoices in the baying of dogs and spilt blood, who wanderest in the midst of shades among the tombs, who longest for blood and bringest terror to mortals, Gorgo, Mormo, thousand-faced moon, look favourably on our sacrifices!
I had no idea what this meant. Though obviously a atmospheric quote, I believed it had deeper meaning. Lovecraft infuses lots of Greek mythology and heritage within his work. There is a certain amount of admiration he obviously felt for the culture and the artwork. He loves the idea of marble structures and busts and even includes some of that iconography in this story as well. So when I came across this quote, it was no surprise to me that it was about Hecate, the Greek Goddess of the underworld, ghosts, and magic. This story was not going to deal with cosmic horror, it was going to deal with something closer to home. It was about Hell.
The next short section of the story tells of a journey Suydam takes across the sea, where he dies. He instructs that his body be conveyed to the bearer of the note provided.
Then we move into the Horror. Malone goes to Red Hook and investigates, noticing a melee. He goes to allay the fight and finds strange sounds and smells while all the participants of the battle flee. Malone suspects something nefarious behind a large door, so he takes a stool and breaks the door open, “whence poured a howling tumult of ice-cold wind with all the stenches of the bottomless pit, and whence reached a sucking force not of earth or heaven, which, coiling sentiently about the paralysed detective, dragged him through the aperture and down unmeasured spaces filled with whispers and wails, and gusts of mocking laughter.“
Malone is sucked into Hell. He experiences some truly horrific scenes, perfect for any fan of this type of fiction, and much more evocative than anything I’ve experienced from Lovecraft. We see Suydam giving himself over to a demon, finally getting what he was after, and becoming one with hell.
The final section explains how the mysterious group brought Suydam’s body back to that experience and how Malone could hear that same refrain from some “hag” speaking to young children about Hecate. The knowledge of the fate of Suydam and that whatever devious magic caused it is still alive and well in Red Hook is what truly throws Malone over the edge.
When I think of Lovecraft I don’t generally think “disturbing”, but I have to say that this one was up there. That penultimate chapter covering Malone’s experiences in Hell were truly unsettling.
What do you think?
Welcome back to the creeping revision of H.P. Lovecraft’s work! This week I’m delving into Hypnos and it’s duality meaning.
The basic story is that the classic unreliable narrator meets a man who had a god-like face almost as ‘white as the marble of Pentelicus.’ The man had passed out in a train station, and our narrator went to him and when the man opened his eyes the narrator knew ‘he would be thenceforth my only friend.’ They discuss the universe and everything within it, and the narrator sculpts his friend. Our narrators new friend has a secret desire that he dare not speak of, to rule and go past the barriers of our known world. They experiment in drugs and try to get into the sleep world (which I can only imagine is a precursor, or even the beginnings of the dream-cycle pantheon). Then one one of these trips the friend (unnamed…for now), goes past an impassible barrier in the dream world, and comes back terrified and visibly aged. The two then vow to sleep as little as possible, also with the help of drugs. They age horribly and they pass their time in big groups and go to as many parties as possible, until one night as they are sleeping something strange happens as a light glows over his friends head and our narrator can see the disembodied face that looks as his friend once did before he went through the impassible barrier. The police come and gather the narrator and tell him that he has been alone, that all along he has been alone…that there was no friend. the only evidence is a bust of his friend with the name Hypnos.
There is an emerging theme that I had never known about from hearing about Lovecraft and that is the drugs. There have been many stories thus far eliciting that the narrators are using drugs to help them get past the barriers and see what is beyond. One cant help but think of the drug dreams of Irving Welch, and wonder if these are stories of fever dreams. It would be a provocative theory, though probably an unpopular one, but I would need to read more to see if the thread continues.
The connectors in the story are traced back to Greece. The narrator is a sculptor and he says he spends his free time sculpting his friend, who has a forehead as white as the marble of Pentelicus…a mountain in Athens known for it’s marble. Then at the end we find that the friends name was Hypnos, which was the Greek demi-god of sleep. So we come to a crossroads. The story is either telling us that the narrator finds this marble bust, and through his drug or fever dream, thinks that the bust opens its eyes and becomes his friend. Remember that the friend was found asleep in the train station, a place where it would make sense for a bust to be. Our narrator is lost in the HYPNOtic gaze of the bust, steals it and the drugs bring him through the adventures. The strange light over his friend at the end, is actually light over the bust and the cracking of the narrators reality. Remember that the idea was put there by drugs (one can only guess that it was a hallucinogenic), and he then stayed awake with the help of drugs. Sleep deprivation on top of a psychotic break will only deepen psychosis.
The other option, is that the events of the story are unfolded exactly how they are told, but frankly with the evidence that Lovecraft deposits throughout the story, this is not very likely. In any case, this was probably my favorite story thus far, right up there with The Tomb and The Tree.
Join me on Thursday this week (08/17) for one of Lovecraft’s Poems “Nathicana”. and if you want to read along with me I’m reading the Del Rey edition of “The Doom That Came to Sarnath”. ISBN: 0345331052
These two are merely vignettes, minute glimpses into the world that Lovecraft was in the process of creating; the strange and the cosmic.
“Memory” is a look forward and “What the Moon Brings” is a naval gaze of the apocalypse. Both are no more than 2 pages a piece, but both are full of meaning.
In Memory we are shown a shambles of a world. Ruins that are over run and the only inhabitants are apes. Two gods are having a discussion, and where one cant remember the past, asks the other “Daemon” about the beings who built the original ruins. The Daemon says that he is Memory and what he remembers is that they were insignificant and their deeds were forgotten as soon as they were preformed. They built the ruins and their name was Man.
The meaning behind the vignette is that, far in the future, the deeds and actions of humans are forgotten and the only thing that remains is earth. The gods themselves look over everything, but they forget as well, which makes them insignificant as well. The ultimate god, the ultimate truth is the earth. The land holds the longest memory and will outlive and outlast all.
What the Moon Brings flows into a similar vein. The narrator tells of their own death. He (due to Lovecraft’s sexism and racism, I assume that every narrator is a white man) describes what he can see from the light of the moon. The moon (a otherworldly being in and of itself that is the origin of many of Lovecraft’s creatures) shows the death of civilization through the reflection of the lake. He can also see creatures in the water. He decides at the end to go and join them, because he knows that the moon will continue to come and continue to bring the visions of what is coming. In his despair he walks into the waters and either drowns himself or lets the creatures have him.
It is intimated that he is the last of the population and is giving in to despair, as he gazes at the reflection of the “dead, dripping city”. The book I’m reading through (Del Rey 1971 ISBN: 0345331052) should have put them in reverse order, because What the Moon Brings, shows the decline and fall of civilization and Memory shows the aftermath.
What the Moon Brings is much less deep, but by far the creepiest of the stories thus far, because it is more direct (with the exception of The Tomb). Both a lot of fun, but I still feel as though these stories are merely setting up the mythos that are coming.
This is supposedly the first story written by Lovecraft, and it flows perfectly into his predilection for madness. The story follows Jervas Dudley, the quintessential unreliable narrator, in his descent into madness.
Jervas states at the beginning of the story that he loves reading ancient tomes; books that no one else ever reads, who’s subject matter is strange and malignant. He has no social life and he derives much of what he understands about life from these convoluted books.
Then one day he happens upon a tomb. It is in the location of his neighbor’s (The Hydes) burned down house. He begins spending much of his time there, hiding out and sleeping in front of the partially ajar, padlocked tomb.
One day a voice from the tomb tells him to go to his attic, where he finds a key to the padlock and enters the tomb. He spends much of his time there, but at the same time, his father becomes concerned for his mental well being, so he sends a “spy” to watch over him. Listening in on the conversation, Jervas is confused to hear the spy tell his father that he spends all his time sleeping outside of the tomb, not inside as he knows to be true. He also develops a fear of lightning and storms, which is what destroyed the Hyde’s mansion in the first place.
Then while in the tomb he attends a party held by the Hyde’s and everyone seems so realistic and the mansion is back to its former glory, that is until Jervas’ Father and the spy grab him. In the struggle lightning started to flash and it exposed a box on the ground with the initials J.H. and inside was a statue of a young man with an uncanny resemblance to Jervas.
The story ends with one of the servants, supposedly going into the tomb and finding a coffin with the name Jervas on it.
This can be read in two different ways. The first is that the narrator, who is confined to a madhouse, has pushed his brain into thinking about the strange dealings of the netherworld by reading all those tomes instead of interacting with others. Then his half sleep for weeks on end in front of the tomb, his mind played games with him and he imagined everything.
It is easy to correlate that the Hyde’s were his ancestors, and once the mansion was destroyed the family built a new one close by. It stands to reason that during that time there was a young man by the name of Jervas Hyde (J.H.) who’s coffin the servant found at the end of the story. Because of this Jervas Dudley thinks everything is about him, because he has no other basis in reality.
The other way to read it (and the one I quite prefer) is that Jervas found something in the attic, that began to possess him. It made him desire to be with his ancestors, and the spirit of Jervas Hyde had somehow begun to merge with Jervas Dudley. They began to see and experience the same things. One could even conjecture that Jervas’ father knew this was happening, and that is why he was relegated to the asylum.
In either case, it was a fun read, though much shallower than the other Lovecraft I’ve read to date. This was supposedly in his straight horror days, which people say is uninspired, but it has a beautiful reminiscence to Poe and tales like “The Fall of the House of Usher”.