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The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

"The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"
Author H. P. Lovecraft
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Horror novel
Published in Weird Tales
Publication type Periodical
Media type Print (Magazine)
Publication date May–July 1941
File:HalseyHouse-Providence, RI-Aug14 2000.JPG
Halsey House at 140 Prospect Street, built in 1801 by Colonel Thomas Lloyd Halsey. This served as the Ward house in the story.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a short novel (51,500 words) by H. P. Lovecraft, written in early 1927, but not published during the author's lifetime. Set in Lovecraft's hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, it was first published (in abridged form) in the May and July issues of Weird Tales in 1941; the first complete publication was in Arkham House's Beyond the Wall of Sleep collection (1943). It is included in the Library of America volume of Lovecraft's work.

The novel tells the story of young Charles Dexter Ward, who in 1918 becomes embroiled in the past, due to his fascination with the history of his wizard ancestor, Joseph Curwen (who had left Salem for Providence in 1692, and acquired notoriety for his haunting of graveyards, his apparent lack of aging, and his chemical experiments). Ward physically resembles Curwen, and attempts to duplicate his ancestor's Qabalistic and alchemical feats, eventually locating Curwen's remains and by means of his "essential Saltes", resurrecting him. Ward's doctor, Marinus Bicknell Willett, becomes enmeshed in Ward's doings, investigating Curwen's old Pawtuxet bungalow which Ward has restored. The horrors of what Willett finds, and the crux of the identities of Ward and Curwen, form the hinge of horror on which the novel moves.


In August 1925, Lovecraft's Aunt Lillian sent him an anecdote about the house at 140 Prospect Street in Providence. Lovecraft wrote back: "So the Halsey house is haunted! Ugh! That's where Wild Tom Halsey kept live terrapins in the cellar--maybe it's their ghosts. Anyway, it's a magnificent old mansion, & a credit to a magnificent old town!"[1] Lovecraft would make this house—renumbered as 100 Prospect—the basis for the Ward house in Charles Dexter Ward.

The following month, September 1925, Lovecraft read Providence in Colonial Times, by Gertrude Selwyn Kimball, a 1912 history that provided him with aspects of Charles Dexter Ward, such as the anecdotes about John Merritt and Dr. Checkley.[2]

A possible literary model is Walter de la Mare's novel The Return (1910), which Lovecraft read in mid-1926. He describes it in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" as a tale in which "we see the soul of a dead man reach out of its grave of two centuries and fasten itself on the flesh of the living".[3]

The theme of a descendant who closely resembles a distant ancestor may come from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, which Lovecraft called "New England's greatest contribution to weird literature" in "Supernatural Horror in Literature".[4]

Another proposed literary source is M. R. James' short story "Count Magnus", also praised in "Supernatural Horror in Literature", which suggests the resurrection of a sinister 17th century figure.[5]

The germ of inspiration came from Lovecraft reading Cotton Mather and running across a quote from Borellus. Borellus is Petrus Borellus aka Dr Pierre Borel, a well known French doctor and alchemist. The quote refers to old experiments of the alchemists in creating life/rebirth from death using essential salts. The entire quote is as follows: "The essential Saltes of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious Man may have the whole Ark of Noah in his own Studie, and raise the fine Shape of an Animal out of its Ashes at his Pleasure; and by the lyke Method from the essential Saltes of humane Dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the Shape of any dead Ancestour from the Dust whereinto his Bodie has been incinerated."[6]

Plot summary

The title character, Charles Dexter Ward, is a young man from a prominent Rhode Island family who (in the story's introduction) is said to have disappeared from a mental asylum after a prolonged period of insanity accompanied by minor, but unheard-of, physiological changes. His empty cell is found to be quite dusty.

The bulk of the story concerns the investigation conducted by the Wards' family doctor, Marinus Bicknell Willett, in an attempt to discover the reason for Ward's madness and the physiological changes. When Willett learns that Ward had spent the past several years attempting to discover the grave of his ill-reputed ancestor, Joseph Curwen, the doctor slowly begins to unravel the truth behind the legends surrounding Curwen, an eighteenth-century shipping entrepreneur rumoured to have been an alchemist, but in reality a necromancer and mass-murderer. A raid on Curwen's farm is remarkable for the shouted incantations, lights, explosions, and some not-quite-human figures shot down by the raiders. The raiders soon swear any witnesses to strict secrecy about what they may have seen or heard.

As Willett's investigations proceed, he finds that Charles had recovered Curwen's ashes, and through the use of magical formulae contained in documents found hidden in the wizard's former town house in Providence, Rhode Island, was able to call forth Curwen from his "essential saltes" and resurrect him. Willett also finds that Curwen, who resembles Charles enough to pass for him, has murdered and replaced his modern descendant and resumed his evil activities. Unfortunately for Curwen, due to culture shock, he is unable to entirely successfully impersonate Charles - his lack of understanding of the modern world leads to him (as Charles) being certified insane and imprisoned in an asylum.

While Curwen is locked up, Willett's continuing investigations lead him to a bungalow in Pawtuxet Village, which Ward had purchased under the influence of Curwen. It turns out that this house is on the site of the old farm which was Curwen's headquarters for his nefarious doings; beneath is a vast catacomb that the wizard had built to serve as his lair during his previous lifetime. During a horrific journey through this labyrinth, (the worst was the deformed monster Willet saw in a pit in a vast room) Willet discovers the full truth about Curwen's crimes and also the means of returning him to the grave. During the expedition it is also revealed that Curwen has been engaged in a long-term conspiracy with certain other necromancers (associates from his previous life who have somehow escaped death) to raise and interrogate through torture the world's wisest people in order to gain knowledge that will let them gain horrible power and threaten the future of mankind. Finally, while in Curwen's laboratory, Willett accidentally raises an ancient being (its identity is not made clear) which is an enemy of Curwen and his fellow necromancers. The doctor faints at this eventuality: he wakes up back in the bungalow. Willett finds that the entrance to the vaults has been sealed as if it had never existed, but finds a note from the being written in Latin in an Anglo-Saxon hand telling him to kill Curwen and destroy his body.

Armed with this knowledge, Willett confronts Curwen at the asylum and succeeds in reversing the spell, reducing the undead sorcerer once again to dust, the dust that was mentioned at the start of the story. News reports reveal that Curwen's prime co-conspirators have met brutal deaths along with their households and their lairs have been destroyed, presumably the work of the being whom Willett raised.

Much of the plot is revealed in letters, documents and other historical sources discovered by both Ward and Willett.


Charles Dexter Ward

Ward is born in 1902; he is 26 in 1928, at the time the story takes place.

Though considered one of Lovecraft's autobiographical characters, some details of the character seem to be based on William Lippitt Mauran, who lived in the Halsey house and, like Ward, was " a carriage" in front of it. Like the Wards, the Maurans also owned a farmhouse in Pawtuxet, Rhode Island.[3]

Joseph Curwen


Ward's ancestor, born in present-day Danvers, Massachusetts, seven miles from Salem, on February 18, 1662. He flees to Providence from the Salem witch trials in 1692. He dies, at least temporarily, in 1771 when he is killed in the course of a raid on his lair by a group of important Providence citizens who have got wind of only a few of his crimes. In his first life, Curwen was a successful merchant, shipping magnate, slave trader, and highly accomplished sorcerer. His magical powers are extensive. He has perfected a method of reducing the effects of aging so that by the time of his first death, when he was over a century old, he still appeared to be in his early forties at the most. He has the ability to resurrect the dead and converse with them, though to do so he must either have the complete corpse or its "essential saltes," since incomplete bodies only yield incoherent abominations. He is able to summon Cthulhu Mythos entities such as the god Yog-Sothoth to assist him in his magic. It also seems clear that he was able to find a way to create a spell that would transcend time and inspire a descendant to become interested in him and his work and attempt to bring him back should he ever be slain.

Curwen makes extensive use of the resurrection spell to gain historical and occult knowledge. To this end his agents scour the graveyards and tombs of the world for the corpses of illustrious persons which are then smuggled back to Providence, where Curwen temporarily raises them to torture their secrets out of them. In this endeavour he is assisted by two fellow necromancers and Salem exiles; Jedediah / Simon Orne, alias Joseph Nadek, who lives in Prague, and Edward Hutchinson, who masquerades as Baron Ferenczy in Transylvania. These three, and an unknown accomplice in Philadelphia, are engaged in a vast conspiracy to use their ill-gotten knowledge to achieve ever greater powers for themselves.

When later resurrected by Ward, Curwen initially goes in disguise as "Dr. Allen" to avoid suspicion being aroused by his close resemblance to Ward. The undead Curwen shows vampiristic tendencies, attacking local travellers and breaking into houses to drink the blood of the inhabitants. It is not explicitly spelled out that the vampirism is a consequence of the spell, but Curwen is overheard arguing that he "must have it red for three months," implying that the large quantities of meat and animal blood that "Allen" and Ward order from the local butcher shops are not sufficient to sustain the newly revived wizard. Curwen immediately makes contact with Orne and Hutchinson, who have been alive and active all the while, and starts up his old plots once again. He soon murders Ward when he starts having doubts about what they are doing and assumes his identity.


Curwen is a man of great cunning, foresight and intelligence; he is also a man of boundless arrogance and cruelty. Aside from his black magic and grave robbery, Curwen never hesitates to stoop to murder, torture or blackmail to achieve his ends; he also uses - and kills - vast numbers of living slaves as subjects for his experiments.

Intriguingly, the ultimate goal of Curwen's activities is not completely specified and its interpretation is largely left to the reader. The activities themselves leave no room for doubt: resuscitating consciences or whole corporeal forms of long-defunct wise men in order to obtain privileged intelligence by means of verbal interaction. The nature or the use for the information thus extracted, however, is not fully disclosed. It seems clear, however, that his pursuits are at least remotely akin to those of Wilbur Whateley and his grandfather, probably with a far larger psychopathic and/or megalomaniac component, while his quest for immortality through a descendent is reminiscent of Ephraim Waite's and Richard Billington's. The closest thing to a description of Curwen's aims is contained in a passage describing the ashes central to his experiments:

Could it be possible that here lay the mortal relics of half the titan thinkers of all the ages; snatched by supreme ghouls from crypts where the world thought them safe, and subject to the beck and call of madmen who sought to drain their knowledge for some still wilder end whose ultimate effect would concern, as poor Charles had hinted in his frantic note, "all civilisation, all natural law, perhaps even the fate of the solar system and the universe"?

This ambiguity also affects, notably, the exact circumstances of Curwen's "first" death. It is evident he was betrayed and probably killed by the entity summoned in his defense during the siege to the hidden grounds of his farm, but the identity of this being, as well as its possible connection with Yog-Sothoth (whose name is mentioned in the incantations) is left open to speculation. It is significant, however, that its irruption during the confrontation elicits a "An unmistakable human shout or deep chorused scream", as well as "a yell of utter, ultimate fright and stark madness [that] wrenched from scores of human throats—a yell which came strong and clear despite the depth from which it must have burst", and that the participants of the raid are left with psychological sequels far beyond those expected in any episode of unconventional warfare. (The participants were sworn to secrecy, both in oral and written communications, and only the noises, lights, a dead malformed body, an animal roar and a shouted evil incantation witnessed by outsiders, give any clue to what went on.)

Joseph Curwen may be inscribed in the line of characters in Lovecraft stories, including both villains and antiheroes, notable for their individualistic or egocentric demeanor, prominent social standing within a closed parochial community, higher-than-average intelligence or charisma and usually low moral standards, who manage to deal actively with evil, unknown forces while at the same time avoiding the negative side-effects of such activities—even if the latter do affect a variable number of innocent people, as well as their own direct descendants or people related to them. Further examples of this archetype in Lovecraft are Obed Marsh, Alijah Billington, Ephraim Waite and Walter de la Poer and, to a lesser extent, Old Whateley.

Parallel to his evil pursuits, he also feigns some degree of civic spirit and decency; for instance, he contributes to the funding of many urbanistic expansion projects of his town and treats his wife with remarkable grace and courtesy. It is strongly implied this is all part of a clever ruse—a social gambit aimed at producing an heir, as well as improving his public image to avoid forced displacement. It is left unclear whether the fellow necromancers he trades letters with are any less antisocial or Machiavellian in their own close environments.

Marinus Bicknell Willett

An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia compares Willett's character to other "valiant counterweight[s]" in Lovecraft such as Thomas Malone in "The Horror at Red Hook" (1925)[2] and Henry Armitage in "The Dunwich Horror"; like Willett, Armitage "defeats the 'villains' by incantations, and he is susceptible to the same flaws--pomposity, arrogance, self-importance--that can be seen in Willett."[7]

Critical reception

Lovecraft himself was displeased with the novel, calling it a "cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism".[8] He made little effort to publish the work, leaving it to be published posthumously in Weird Tales by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei.

Writing in the New York Times reviewer William Poster described Ward as "a good story in the New England witchcraft tradition, well seasoned with alchemy, vampirism, ancient documents and mummy-stealing".[9] Horror historian Les Daniels called The Case of Charles Dexter Ward Lovecraft's "finest novel".[10] E. F. Bleiler noted that the short novel, "despite its being strangely tired and routine, has interesting concepts and good moments".[11] Baird Searles found that "HPL's great knowledge of New England history provides a convincing background" for the story.[12] Douglas Robillard stated Lovecraft's negative assessment of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was "too harsh; this is one of his finest works".[13]

Cthulhu Mythos

Charles Dexter Ward contains the first mention of the Cthulhu Mythos entity Yog-Sothoth, who appears repeatedly as an element in an incantation. Joseph Curwen is the owner of a copy of the Necronomicon (disguised as a book labelled Qanoon-e-Islam) and there are hints of cult activities in a fishing village that refer obliquely to the events narrated in "The Festival". The story also contains references to the Dream Cycle: Dr. Willett notices the "Sign of Koth" chiselled above a doorway, and remembers his friend Randolph Carter drawing the sign and explaining its powers and meaning.

Brian Lumley expanded on the character of Baron Ferenczy, mentioned but never met in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, in his Necroscope series, specifically Book IV: Deadspeak, where Janos Ferenczy uses the Yog-Sothoth formula to call forth whole bodies from ash remains, and to return them to that state.

When Dexter's mom hears chanting ("per adonai eloim, adonai jehova, adonai sabaoth, metraton on agla mathon, verbum pythonicum, mysterium salamandrae, conventus sylvorum, antra gnomorum, daemonia coeli gad, almousin, gibor, jehosua, evam, zariatnatmik, veni, veni, veni." translated to if it was Latin "by Adonai, Eloi, Adonai Jehovah, Adonai hosts metraton on Egla was appointed, divining the mystery of the salamander, a meeting of the forests, caves, gnomes, devils, heaven Gad almousin, gibor Oshea, Eve, zariatnatmik, come, come, come.") this chanting is referencing the "mystery of the salamander" which is also mentioned in other short stories.



  1. ^ H. P. Lovecraft, letter to Lillian D. Clark, August 24, 1925; cited in S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, "Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The", An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, p. 33.
  2. ^ a b Joshi and Schultz, p. 33.
  3. ^ a b Cited in Joshi and Schultz, p. 33.
  4. ^ Joshi and Schultz, p. 107.
  5. ^ Richard Ward, "In Search of the Dread Ancestor", Lovecraft Studies No. 36 (Spring 1997); cited in Joshi and Schultz, p. 131.
  6. ^ Mather, Cotton. Scanned page on, Magnalia Christi Americana, retrieved 2014-07-12.
  7. ^ S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, "Dunwich Horror, The", An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, p. 81.
  8. ^ H. P. Lovecraft, letter to R. H. Barlow, March 19, 1934; cited in Joshi and Schultz, p. 34.
  9. ^ "Nightmare in Cthulu" (sic), New York Times Book Review, January 16, 1944, p.19
  10. ^ Les Daniels (1975). Living in Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media. Da Capo Press, P. 121. ISBN 0306801930 .
  11. ^ E. F. Bleiler, The Guide to Supernatural Fiction, Kent State University Press, 1983 (p.322-23)
  12. ^ "On Books", Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, May 1982, p.20.
  13. ^ Douglas Robillard, in Lovecraft, H(oward) P(hilips), in Jack Sullivan, (ed.) The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Viking, 1986. ISBN 0670809020 (p. 273).

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