Saturday, November 6, 2010

[Review] 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward' by H.P. Lovecraft [Part 1]

Title: The Case of Dexter Ward
Author: H.P. Lovecraft
Genres: Horror
Softcover: 128 pages
Publisher: originally by Weird Tales in 1941; my translation is from 2007 by Publishing Group Bulgaria
Standalone/Series: Standalone
Copy: Bought it myself

Blurb: Incantations of black magic unearthed unspeakable horrors in a quiet town near Providence, Rhode Island. Evil spirits are being resurrected from beyond the grave, a supernatural force so twisted that it kills without offering the mercy of death!

Available from: Amazon - US - UK | B&N | BookDepository

Cover Comment: The shady, out-of-focus image that you’re seeing is the Bulgarian cover for this novel, which is a miserable cross between drawing and photo manipulation. My edition carries the novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as well as the novella Herbert West – Reanimator, which I think is why my book is called ‘The Re-Animator’. I never could find an image with better resolution and my copy is stashed somewhere I can’t find, so you can’t see how bad the cover actually is. Apart from trying to be current in design and failing at it, this is by far one of the better covers Bulgarian designers can produce. However, there is a lot on the cover that makes me cringe. Formatting the company name as the text the hunched man is so focused on writing is plain wrong as well as adding the title ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ in red, right lower corner. I wanted to comment on the cover to explain why SFF genre is not thriving here with original Bulgarian covers. It’s simply not eye-candy at best.

Review: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is my first foray into Lovecraft and his demented fantasies, which I was more than convinced that I would love. My only regret so far is that my official christening is done through a translation and not in the original language, because I’m a firm believer that the original language holds more power over the reader. Even so, I found The Case of Charles Dexter Ward to be properly horrifying at the right places and interesting as a whole.

The novel is divided in five chapters, of which I will cover the first two and speak about the mechanics of the storytelling, the prose and worldbuilding. The story opens with ‘Conclusion and Prologue’, which introduces us to the setting [Providence in Rhode Island], presents the story [the sudden psychological and pathological degradation of the eccentric amateur-historian Charles Dexter Ward] and then the mystery [his disappearance from the asylum, where he has been treated]. From then on this brief section outlines the life of Charles: his childhood passion for history and genealogy, then his rapid changes from the harmless eccentricity to causing dread as well as his metamorphosis, where his interests shift from history to the modern world.

The interesting thing about Lovecraft is his heavy reliance on prose and omission of dialogue altogether. In his On Writing Stephen King speaks of Lovecraft’s inability to craft dialogue, which would explain the complete absence of it at large and also why when used, it’s done so in a sparing manner. I can’t judge that weakness, but it shows a great skill to labor one story without such a key component. What contributed to the success of this storytelling model is the documentary feel to it. Lovecraft has meticulously noted down a detailed timeline with a great many inserted opinions from different people and sources. The combined effect is one of omniscience based on the accumulated accounts and that this story can be nothing but true.

In the second chapter, ‘Past and Nightmare’ Lovecraft dedicates sixty pages to piece together the past of Joseph Curwen, Ward’s mysteriously discovered relative. Lovecraft charts his arrival to Providence, his accession as a successful trader, his shrouded in mystery hobbies and the communal outrage towards his activities, which results into an expedition of 100 men and his supposed murder.

Even though Curwen is deceased, he’s relevant to the story as it’s his legacy that acts as a catalyst for Ward’s transformation. It’s why Lovecraft goes at great length to flesh him out. Joseph’s story is sewn together from excerpts from letters, journals, registers and old newspapers. I could sense how passionate Lovecraft was while adding these details and this investigative approach to his research.

Where Lovecraft shines with his worldbuilding is with Providence. His narrative is littered with small sidetracks; perhaps two lines or even a phrase to add a small, inconsequential bit or trivia. Whereas modern horror often thrive in isolation; encapsulated in a house, a cottage, a flat or in a day, a week, a month and often exclude the city and society as characters. Here it’s the opposite. The reader is not only whisked away into the past to read of Joseph’s story, but to read of Providence as well.

Last but not least, I’d like to speak of Lovecraft’s horror. It’s widely known that the quote: ‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.’ belongs to Lovecraft and he practiced what he preached. In chapter two, I was chilled at several places without really getting direct answers. Joseph’s farm, the experiments he conducts there and the townsfolk expedition remain shrouded in secrecy with only hints and indirect accounts as to what unholy things transpired.

I found this both intriguing, annoying and dread inducing. The modern reader [horror lover] is accustomed to full frontal, visual attacks, high-definition and uncensored in rendition of gore, blood and deformity. Lovecraft shifts the focus from sight to hearing and smell [rarely relying on sights and when horrors are described the account is secondary] and remains vague at large in his descriptions. The mixture of awareness that something horrid is transpiring and the fact that these events are unrestricted by any dimensions is truly potent.

The reader can fill out the blanks with his/hers own personal phobias, thus amplifying the fear. Because where one fears snakes, another might love them, which can be said about pretty much everything. Scaring a lot of people with a plethora of different terrors is a challenge, especially to the modern jaded horror fan. Lovecraft’s technique is successful, because the fear of the unknown is still a primary fear.

Next Part: In the next part, I will pay more attention to the plot of the novel and later discuss the themes in the story. I warn you that tomorrow’s plot discussion will have only one spoiler but it’s the crux of the mystery, so you better watch out for my sign.

NOTE: Hope you enjoyed this a bit improved method for reviewing novels. I welcome all sort of feedback.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I like the new review format. Very clean and clear.

Harry Markov said...

I'm glad that you like it. It's the first try of serializing novels, so I was worried.

Mieneke van der Salm said...

I like this new format!

Harry Markov said...

Thank you! Now I have the necessary basis.

Unknown said...

It sounds like an interesting read. :)

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