REVIEWS

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward didn’t see the light of day until 1941, four years after the writer succumbed to cancer and kidney disease in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. Weird Tales had become a regular home for Lovecraft’s work, and editor Dorothy McIlwraith included The Case… in the pulp magazine’s May issue that year. Lovecraft never produced the kind of work that ran in highly visible glossies like The New Yorker or The Saturday Evening Post, and it wasn’t just because of the abhorrent racist sentiments that he could barely keep from surfacing in his prose (the author made no secret of his distaste for New York City’s immigrant population while he lived in Brooklyn, for example). He wrote fiction steeped in people gone mad, sea creatures, and varied unearthly horrors — hardly the stuff of contemporary mainstream magazines.

“At the time Lovecraft penned his stories,” wrote Psycho author Robert Bloch, “no self-styled sophisticate dare presume to take them seriously, either as literature or as a metaphor for contemporary reality.” One of Bloch’s early short stories appeared alongside The Case of Charles Dexter Ward when it ran in Weird Tales. H.P. Lovecraft’s byline had by then been frequently occurring in the magazine for nearly two decades, and his story earned prime real estate, even if he wasn’t around to see it. A cover line positioned atop the publication’s title dubbed the work “a NEW — never before published novel by LOVECRAFT.” The lengthiest of the author’s works, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was printed in two parts, with the second half published months later. It was abridged for the magazine, and didn’t appear in full form until 1943, more than 15 years after Lovecraft finished writing it.

Charles Dexter Ward is introduced as “an antiquarian from infancy” in the original prologue to Lovecraft’s novella, which reads like a detail-rich newspaper report in the present tense, rife with specific dates and individual names that sometimes earn but a single mention. Ward’s devotion to “history, genealogy, and the study of colonial architecture, furniture, craftsmanship at length crowded everything else from his sphere of interest,” wrote Lovecraft, but this isn’t what drove Ward to the psychological deterioration that I.N.J. (Ian) Culbard suggests in the first few pages of his often grim graphic novel adaptation.

Culbard’s work opens after a winter that “saw a great change in (Charles Ward); whereby he abruptly stopped his general antiquarian pursuits and embarked on a desperate delving into occult subjects both at home and abroad, varied only by this strangely persistent search for his forefather’s grave.” Orderlies scramble inside an empty patient’s room at a hospital from which Ward has vanished. The night skies are black, softened only by swirls of serene blue tones that Ian Culbard uses to depict a lunar eclipse which coincides with Ward’s escape. Culbard follows Lovecraft’s lead in walking the narrative backward, so that the “case” of poor Charles Dexter Ward unfolds at a lethargic, stirring clip.

Hell-bent on researching the most microscopic pieces of a layered family history, Charles Ward burrows deeply into Old Providence. Lovecraft’s meticulous scene-setting is answered in the graphic novel with Ian Culbard drafting stately mansion exteriors and farmhouses in simple, slender strokes and never lending them more than two or three tones from his understated color palette. When Ward stumbles upon the records of an exporter and distant relative named Joseph Curwen, it’s a fascinating find that Culbard marks with musty diary entries, blue-gray-coded flashbacks, and sordid secondhand accounts. The story’s Curwen fled witchcraft persecutions-era Salem for Providence, gaining the trust of nearly no new neighbor in the process. Having kept late hours on his farm in order to carry out all sorts of alchemy and chemistry experiments, Joseph Curwen was “marveled at, feared, and finally shunned like a plague,” wrote Lovecraft. Townsfolk wanted nothing to do with a man who welcomed inexplicably massive numbers of livestock onto his land, from which howls and other odd guttural outbursts could be heard nightly. Worse yet, Curwen never appeared to have aged past thirty. Charles Ward’s research produced documents that dubbed him a “strange, pallid man, hardly middle-aged in aspect yet certainly not less than a full century old,” and even as Ward is transfixed, the records ultimately create a composite for Joseph Curwen that is nothing less than chilling.

Action-packed comics don’t often owe to depictions of characters sifting through moldy correspondence, deciphering archaic language, and unlocking mantras typically reserved for cellars or graveyards. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is largely driven by words, but Ian Culbard — evidently also prone to unearthing dusty texts — has adapted several novels for the comics medium and nabbed the British Fantasy Award for Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (2010), so he knows well how to move the author to a stylish visual format. There’s lots of talk here, yellowed newspaper cut-ins, and letter reading, each set on black pages. Culbard’s slope-chinned cast wears angular-cornered overcoats and facial expressions styled with minimal line work. They’re dead ringers for the affluent, early 20th century Brit zombies he drew for The New Deadwardians (2012), perpetually serious figures who mull documents and converse in the tall, plush chairs preferred by the era’s upper class. But within these dialogues and rigorous literary exploration lie an urgency and a textured work of horror.

Charles Ward’s obsession with Joseph Curwen accounts for a mere fraction of H.P. Lovecraft’s story — Ward’s studies doom him, ushering him into a pitch-black cycle involving sinister rituals, fits of violent paranoia, vampirism, and a conjuring of unfriendly apparitions best left to the past. Ian Culbard builds this wonderfully. The book is dotted with spare grisly sequences and a final act that materializes in catacombs framed in wordless, black-and-mold-green panels ala Alan Moore’s Cthulhu-fired Neonomicon. And while Ward’s subject grows more ghastly with the turn of every page, Lovecraft’s antiquarian can hardly resist digging further. For the reader, the feeling proves contagious.

FILED UNDER:

4 Responses to The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

  1. James Van Hise says:

    Once again we see a comic book adapting a novel while using as few words as possible from the novel. Lovecraft wrote stories which dripped atmosphere, which could easily have been used in captions to establish mood and ambience, but they are missing here just as they are missing from most modern comic books. Imagine what the EC comics adaptations of Ray Bradbury would be like with all of the captions stripped away. What a waste and what a lost opportunity, all because modern comics think captions are old fashioned. They always served a purpose and only short sighted creators don’t see that.

    • J Lundberg says:

      I don’t know, but the drawings seem so simple and clean, maybe Lovecraft’s words – the complete opposite of simple and clean – would clash too much?
      And I admit to being the caption-weary type, myself. It is, I think, very hard to use them well, to not just write in words what the artist already showed.

    • Dustin says:

      I find this an odd complaint as many prose-to-comics adaptations I’ve seen fail precisely because they just cut and paste large swathes of text from the source material into the adaptation. I remember opening up a comic book version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and immediately putting it down upon seeing big chunks of text lifted straight from the book. Not that Dick’s prose is bad (in fact, it’s fantastic) but it was written for a novel and was ill suited to caption a comic.

      I’m much more a fan of (to pick a recent example) the way Richard Corben adapts Poe. He uses the visuals of the story to get at the mood and ideas of the original while adapting the text into concise captions that fit naturally in the story.

      • Mike Hunter says:

        With the utmost respect and appreciation of your erudition and countless contributions to the field, things aren’t necessarily that simple aesthetically.

        Personally, I can appreciate those atmosphere-loaded captions in the Al Feldstein EC horror comics. For all their much-derided redundancy, they added a whole “layer” to the events illustrated below; not simply verbal recapitulations of what the artist depicted, but added mood, sounds, emotional enhancement.

        However, a comic creator can do without captions — just as a filmmaker can decide to avoid voice-overs — for reasons beyond fashion. Is it not said that creativity is not just about what one puts in, but about what is left out? Something indeed is lost, but something can be gained as well; a spareness, an avoidance of telling the reader/audience what they ought to be feeling, or urging their emotions along.

        Imagine “2001: A Space Odyssey” with a voice-over Explaining Things. The audience confusion that almost made the film a box-office bust would’ve been mostly eliminated, yet the eeriness, mystery, ambiguity that added so much would have been lost. Arthur C. Clarke’s novel version is a telling comparison. ( Along that vein, see http://flavorwire.com/385666/oblivion-and-the-sad-state-of-smart-sci-fi .)

        Regarding that “something indeed is lost”; is that also not likewise the case when a work — especially poetry — is translated? Or sculpture is photographed? Can’t the losses be accepted, and compensated for in interesting fashions? A recent “New Yorker” article about translations of “The Divine Comedy” — http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2013/05/27/130527crbo_books_acocella — enumerates how various tomes strove to better do justice to the poetry, but at the expense of accuracy; were more precise in translating what Dante wrote, but gave up on the poetic aspect of the work…

        I’ve no trouble with an aspect that even many Lovecraft defenders are apologetic for, or consider sub-par; his often tortured, deliberately archaic prose. Is it not reasonable than a comics adapter might want to — for aesthetic reasons, rather than fashion — jettison HPL’s “voice,” and seek to instead focus on his themes, ideas, plot?

        Culbart could’ve chosen to compensate for the loss of “moodiness” in Lovecraft’s writing by his artwork. (Ah, what an HPL comics adaptation by “Ghastly” Graham Ingels would have looked like! Or “The Dunwich Horror” by Basil Wolverton. Not that many great talents didn’t “do” HPL…) But it’s instructive that his rendering is dry, low-key.

        Seeking to imagine how the Culbard pages shown above would have appeared, fitted with mood-enhancing captions featuring Lovecraft’s prose describing those scenes, I just now skimmed through the novel — at http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/thecaseofcharlesdexterward.htm — and was surprised to note (less’n I blinked and missed them) that no such scenes existed. (My hair was bleached white with shock; I was gibbering unintelligible, otherworldly blasphemies: “Y’AI ‘NG’NGAH, YOG-SOTHOTH H’EE-L’GEB F’AI THRODOG UAAAH! “)

        There was no straightforward, clearly-explaining conversation in facing wing chairs; no scene of Ezra and friend spying on a talking skeleton suffering an “enhanced interrogation”; no peering-through-the-keyhole by the wife-to-be. Lovecraft writes:

        ———————–
        Hitherto a complete hermit, [Curwen] now determined to contract an advantageous marriage; securing as a bride some lady whose unquestioned position would make all ostracism of his home impossible. It may be that he also had deeper reasons for wishing an alliance; reasons so far outside the known cosmic sphere that only papers found a century and a half after his death caused anyone to suspect them; but of this nothing certain can ever be learned. Naturally he was aware of the horror and indignation with which any ordinary courtship of his would be received, hence he looked about for some likely candidate upon whose parents he might exert a suitable pressure. Such candidates, he found, were not at all easy to discover; since he had very particular requirements in the way of beauty, accomplishments, and social security. At length his survey narrowed down to the household of one of his best and oldest ship-captains, a widower of high birth and unblemished standing named Dutee Tillinghast, whose only daughter Eliza seemed dowered with every conceivable advantage save prospects as an heiress. Capt. Tillinghast was completely under the domination of Curwen; and consented, after a terrible interview in his cupolaed house on Power’s Lane hill, to sanction the blasphemous alliance.

        Eliza Tillinghast was at that time eighteen years of age, and had been reared as gently as the reduced circumstances of her father permitted. She had attended Stephen Jackson’s school opposite the Court-House Parade; and had been diligently instructed by her mother, before the latter’s death of smallpox in 1757, in all the arts and refinements of domestic life. A sampler of hers, worked in 1753 at the age of nine, may still be found in the rooms of the Rhode Island Historical Society. After her mother’s death she had kept the house, aided only by one old black woman. Her arguments with her father concerning the proposed Curwen marriage must have been painful indeed; but of these we have no record…
        ————————–

        in Lovecraft’s original is sprawled, diffuse, Culbart — in the sample pages here, at least — makes vivid, particularizes. Creates scenes where the inchoate suspicions in the novel are made utterly manifest.

        It’s certainly arguable that HPL’s approach makes for eeriness of a more refined stratum (I’d agree with that POV). However, Culbart’s considerations of what would create a more powerful effect upon a larger audience (and the way he might prefer to go), and resulting creative choices, are highly defensible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>