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.