“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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Welcome back to another Blind Read! By the looks of things, I will have made it through all of Lovecraft by the end of the year. SO…If you have an author that you’d like to discuss, or have trouble reading let me know! Maybe they can be the next author covered in this series.
“At length, being avid for new strange things and held back by neither the Kingsporter’s fear nor the summer boarder’s usual indolence, Olney made a very terrible resolve.”
This story is a connector of the Dreamlands stories. In it we have a house perched on top of a tall cliff, with the only doorway leading out to the abyss of the cliff. Inside the house we have a protector. Someone who spends eternity guarding the world from the other gods and the incursion of the Dreamlands into our reality. We are enabled to see this house because our intrepid adventurer, whom out of curiosity and a lust for life, finds a way up to “The Causeway” and meets this caretaker.
We start the story describing the harbor town of Kingsport. Right from the very first paragraph we are given knowledge that the people of Kingsport know there are strange dealings around them. The feel of the town is one of mysticism. The fantastic nostalgia for a simpler time. A time when older gods ruled the world and people only wanted for basic survival. There was no rat race, but a desire for simplicity and knowledge. This is the core of Lovecraft, both person and writings. He believed in simplicity, and loathed materialism. You can see this starkly in his portrayals of cities like New York, as he yearns to stay in his protected, almost mythical, section of New England.
Thomas Olney, our main character, is new to Kingsport and he hears stories about the house from sailors and an old bearded man in town. He can occasionally catch glimpses of it as well through the thick mists that circle the craggy cliff it sits upon. His curiosity overwhelms him and he decides that the’s going to take the trip up to it. It is a dangerous and arduous journey, but eventually he gets there and finds that the only ingress to the house are the closed windows, and a door that opens out over the cliff. He hears someone approach and hears the door creak open, so he hides beneath the sill of a window, only to be pulled into the house. The man who pulled him into the house is young and bearded and he is reminiscent of the grouchy old man in the village who seems to know about this house.
The bearded man tells stories to Olney; “…and heard how the kings of Atlantis fought with slippery blasphemies that wriggled out of rifts in the oceans floor, and how the pillared and weedy temple of Poseidonis is still glimpsed at midnight by lost ships…”
This is both a reference to R’lyeh, the city where Cthulhu is buried in slumber, and Dagon, one of the pantheon of lesser gods and linked with Poseidon. In other stories there is mention that the god like men of Atlantis fought off the Elder Gods, Cthulhu being one of them. Where they couldn’t defeat them, they buried R’lyeh, the lost city, and trapped Cthulhu within the earth. Dagon is the fish god, and still calls creatures from the sea in a slow effort to gain back control. See The Shadow over Innsmouth.
Olney is also told of older things: “Years of the Titans were recalled, but the host grew timid when he spoke of the dim first age of chaos before the gods or even the Elder Ones were born, and when the other gods came to dance on the peak of Hatheg-Kla in the stony desert near Ulthar, beyond the River Skai.”
There is a lot to unpack there, but basically we have the establishment of what Lovecraft himself called “Yog-Sothothery”, later to be coined “The Cthulhu Mythos” by August Derleth, one of Lovecraft’s closest friends and writing partners. The other gods were first; terrible creatures and malevolent in nature. The Elder Ones came later. Creatures like Azathoth. Then later, came the deep ones like Cthulhu. The River Skai also has importance in the Dreamcycle as we see in the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath and other stories.
Shortly after describing this, something comes to the door of the house. The bearded man hurries and locks the door, then goes around the house and shutters all the windows. It’s a suspenseful scene as he tells Olney to get low and be quiet. “And the bearded man made enigmatical gestures of prayer…“. The bearded man is setting wards against shadows that are gathering in the room, “For there are strange objects in the great abyss, and the seeker of dreams must take care not to stir up or meet the wrong ones.”
All of this information, plus numerous mentions of dreams and dream seekers, leads me to believe that this house is a way point. This house, in between Kingsport and Arkham, is an thin place that connects the dream world to the real world. The keeper, the bearded man, must be careful not to let these ancient horrors through the world. He gives the information to Olney, just like he gave it to The Terrible Old Man (Lovecraft even capitalized this honorarium in the story) so many years before. They get just enough information to be afraid of the house, and potentially keep others away. Olney never goes back, and in fact he loses some of his natural curiosity because of the shock of the experience, and eventually moves away. But still that Strange High House in the Mist stays and guards against the others from transcending into our world.
What do you think?
May 29, 2020 | Categories: Blind Read, Blog, Essay, Uncategorized | Tags: #author, #blindread, #blog, #essay, #fiction, #H.P.Lovecraft, #horror, #horrorfiction, #literature, #lovecraft, #shortstory, #writing | 3 Comments
Welcome back to another Blind Read. This story is an interesting departure from the normal cannon. I have read a little about Lovecraft’s religious leanings and understand him to basically be an Atheist, so that’s what makes this story so fascinating to me.
The story follows our nameless narrator who watches a lighthouse. He sees a mysterious White Ship that sails in over the seas and seems to sail calmly, no matter the state of the ocean. The narrator eventually walks out over the waters and joins the White Ship. They sail past the horrible land of Xura “The Land of Pleasures un-attained”, and they continue to follow the “bird of heaven” which takes them to the wonderful Sona-Nyl. This is a land where everything is beautiful and wonderful and everyone is happy.
The narrator driven by curiosity and tells the crew that he want’s to visit a land he heard of in Sona-Nyl. The Land of Cathuria. He convinces them to take him there, and as they sail out of Sona-Nyl, they run into a horrible storm and the ship crashes. The narrator finds himself back at the lighthouse and finds a mysterious dead bird on the shore and for the rest of his time, he never sees the White Ship again.
This story is obviously about humanity and the afterlife. We have our narrator who has died, and walks upon the waters to join the crew of the White Ship. They sail past Hell, because that is not where he belongs, but follow the “bird of heaven” to the actual Heaven. A place where everyone is content and happy and there is no strife.
But there is a curiosity in Human Nature that drives us for understanding. I think this hits home more in Lovecraft than many people and I think that’s why he wrote the type of stories that he wrote.
The narrator wants to see this other land, so he coerces the crew to take him, and though they know what will happen, they agree. They sail away from Sona-Nyl and reject it and he is returned to the real world never to see Sona-Nyl again.
Could this be Lovecraft’s veiled attempt at telling his story of the rejection of religion? you can gather a glimpse of heaven, but it is sallow and thin. There is more mystery in the world and to ignore it is to live in ignorance. So Lovecraft is rejecting heaven to gain a darker understanding of our terrestrial world.
What do you think?
Join me Tomorrow for a Blind Read of “Arthur Jermyn”
October 24, 2017 | Categories: Blind Read, Blog, Essay, Uncategorized | Tags: #author, #blog, #essay, #fiction, #H.P.Lovecraft, #horror, #horrorfiction, #literature, #lovecraft, #sail, #ship, #shortstory | Leave a comment
Back for another Blind Read. I am trying to keep honest to the Blind Reads and not do research on the side to gather connections, but if my memory serves me correct, Dagon is one of the lesser gods in the Lovecraft pantheon. That makes this story very interesting to me because this story could have wide ranging implications for the building of the Mythos (or apparently as Lovecraft called it, Yog-Sothothery. It was actually August Derleth that coined the phrase Cthulhu Mythos).
The story follows our narrator during WWI, as his ship was taken by a German sea-raider ship. He escaped them and found his way to a strange, unknown of island in his dinghy. As he explores the island, he finds a strange monolith with images carved that are humanoid, but fish-like. They have webbed hands and feet, they have large eyes and large lips, and they are huge, nearly the size of a whale.
As he stands there one of these creatures comes out of the sea and hugs the monolith, then prays to it.
The narrator immediately thinks of Dagon, who is an ancient fish god.
What is provocative about this story is that there have been small connections in the past with figures like Nyarlathotep, which make a connection with our actual world. The difference, however is that in every previous story I’ve read the characters in the stories are fictional, in a real setting. This is an actual god that people have worshiped in the past, and here Lovecraft uses the same name and adopts it as his own. Thus bringing his pantheon into our cultural reality.
There are two different ways to look at the story. One is that the creature that comes out of the sea is a disciple of Dagon, and the monolith is what it prays to in supplication to Dagon. This event keeps Dagon as a god, and now we have a race of cthonic creatures, whom live under the sea and live under Dagon’s rule.
The other way to read it (and this is what i believe Lovecraft intended) is that the creature that comes out of the sea IS Dagon. This is a much more horrific idea. This means that this creature, which made the narrators mind break (“I think I went mad then”) at the mere sight of it, is actually supplicating to something more than itself. So this creature which in our real life mythology is considered a god, has a being so much more powerful than it (Cthulhu himself?) that it prays through the form of the monolith.
What do YOU think?
Join me next Tuesday for another blind read of “The White Ship”.
October 19, 2017 | Categories: Blind Read, Blog, Essay, Uncategorized | Tags: #blog, #dagon, #essay, #fiction, #fish, #H.P.Lovecraft, #literature, #lovecraft, #mythology, #mythos, #writing, author | 1 Comment
I’m going to start this one with a little rant. This is a blurb about this story from the back of the book: A crazed murderer blames his crime on beings from another dimension. Wild ravings from an insane man turn to prophecy when the Truth is revealed.
This is the problem with most writing. It isn’t the writing itself, but it’s marketing. The only thing about the above sentence that is true is the fact that the man (Joe Slater) is a murderer. Nothing else is true, and it begs the question if the person who wrote the blurb actually read the story. If they had, then it is a much greater crime to purposefully mislead the reader to try and get more sales, by outright fabricating the plot.
Slater never blames his crimes on beings of another dimension (in fact there are never beings, in plural, but ever only one being who “did him great wrong”). Then the author of the blurb deigns to use the buzz word “prophesy”. There is no prophesy. The ravings of the mad Joe Slater are heard by the narrator and the narrator has an interest in dreams, so to see what Joe is seeing, he hooks them both up with a skullcap to see what he is seeing. Which he does. That’s it.
Ok sorry. Now to the nitty gritty of the story.
This is one of Lovecraft’s earliest stories and supposedly has no correlation to the later works. I see quite a bit here that would lead to that however. Again we have these strange green northern lights. Again we have madness derived from exposure to a cosmic deity. Again we have the unreliable narrator. Again we have the remote local. And to top it all off we have Lovecraft’s trademark superiority complex (He names the madman’s neighbor Peter Slader, where the madman’s name is Joe Slater. He mentions many times that they are all backwoods yokels who have no knowledge and intimates that they inbreed. Only to verify that claim by naming the characters of the mountains with such close names as to subliminally castigate them).
Where this shows as an early work is that he actually shows his god. The narrator goes “Beyond the walls of sleep”, and into the cosmic realm that drove the simple Slater mad. the Narrator himself (though it is never discussed what he actually does, or how he acts) is offered a leave of absence, because he is “working too hard” after the experience he gained from Slater’s mind.
But perhaps the most provocative aspect of the story, is why the cosmic deity would come down and inhabit a backwards “white trash” (Yes. Lovecraft actually wrote the words “White Trash” in 1919) yokel, who doesn’t have any brains. Maybe because the idea was to make a transformation?
“His gross body could not undergo the needed adjustments between ethereal life and planet life.”
Meaning he was not intelligent enough to understand how to make the transition. But the narrator can ascend and we are left feeling slightly off kilter, as if this were not a choice, but now that the cosmic deity has found an appropriate zygote he will being his proliferation.