The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft (1928): I’ve come to share the beliefs of recent Lovecraft scholars who see this short novel as perhaps H.P. Lovecraft’s funniest joke (its only rival in the HPL canon being “Herbert West – Reanimator”). For decades, readers pretty much assumed that H.P. Lovecraft was a humourless fellow despite ample evidence in his published letters to the contrary. Not so much any more.
The case for The Case of Charles Dexter Ward being satire rather than straightforward horror rests on two main foundational stones — the wonky shenanigans that take place within, and Lovecraft’s oft-stated antipathy to many of the tired horror tropes he nonetheless deploys herein. I mean, there’s even vampirism in this novel, and Lovecraft really didn’t play that vampirism crap.
Take it straight or take it with a large supply of essential salts — either way, this novel deploys an almost manic daftness when it comes to supernatural shenanigans. Sorcerers chant ostensibly real spells from ‘real’ books of magic (and not the beloved Necronomicon or other Cthulhian magic books either — these are the quasi-Christian spell-books of some of history’s ‘real’ magicians and alchemists and court sages).
But the sorcerers also seek to reconstitute the dead by doing something to their “essential salts.” A supernatural grave-robbing ring seeks to plunder the graves of history’s greatest men (including Ben Franklin) so as to force the risen dead to tell them their secrets. Ben Franklin! I kid you not!
Things escalate in Providence, Rhode Island in the 1920’s, as only an aging family physician ultimately stands between Earth and utter destruction. There are some terrific, moody set-pieces — especially a nightmare tour through one of the worst hidden sub-basements in horror history. There’s some stuff that I find deeply, intentionally funny (there’s a running bit with various writers trying to set down what assorted creatures cry out in extremis, and on at least one occasion the writer really seems to be trying to solemnly set down what really is just a non-linguistic scream as if it were yet another mind-freezing bit of sorcery).
As well, there’s the usual Lovecraftian documentary approach, and that attention to the gradual accumulation of telling detail. There are gambrel roofs. There’s an evil twin. There’s a bad guy who lives in Transylvania. There’s a massive, pitched battle between Revolutionary era citizens and the sorcerer’s monstrous legions. It’s all terrific. Highly recommended.