Without some mild prompting, horror fans may not be able to confirm that there exist two types of scare tales: those about the unfamiliar awash in the shadows and tricks of the light, and those about very familiar things that turn out to be not what they seem. For whatever reason, I have on numerous occasions toyed with scenarios from the latter grouping and they have invariably resulted in dissatisfaction. Why is our first type so superior? Perhaps because in our second, there is no suspense, no chance for understanding when something you have always treated as safe is transformed into a parlous and despicable trap (zombies, those beloved catch-all cannibals, come to mind). And while many a work has been constructed on the premise that someone – a family member, a co-worker, a respected citizen – is not what he or she appears to be, a pervasive obliviousness is the only plausible explanation; otherwise, we would simply have random whims and haphazard betrayal. It is this first premise that both makes this work so outstanding and reduces numerous whodunits to a pure guessing game. And yet there is also another genre that borrows liberally from both these types, a perfect example of which careens through the pages of this short novel.
Our eponymous character is a young man in Rhode Island; the time is that brief, sweet lull between the twentieth century's two European cataclysms. The young man has been diagnosed by alienists and other nostrum-peddlers as mentally ill, but the cause of his malady is never ascertained by modern science (and since we are reading this author, we know it never will be). No, our man is ill all right, but his is the illness of having crossed boundaries of human experiences that should remain just that, boundaries. Boundaries, as it were, to gaze upon from a comfortable distance and then be forever shown the backs of us. Young Ward's life was changed in dramatic fashion by uncovering a hitherto unknown ancestor with the ominous name of Curwen, a corruption of the Latin word for this bird. Joseph Curwen, as his forebear was called, seemed to have lived a very long and ignominious life in the region, and was somehow implicated in the witch trials that devoured Puritan England over two centuries before. And yet, chroniclers maintain that Curwen didn't age, or at least, not enough ("this strange, pallid man, hardly middle-aged in aspect yet certainly not less than a full century old"). Stranger still is this greedy and reclusive hermit's Georgian habitat, from where the wickedest midnight sounds and smells are said to emerge. This attracts the attention of local law enforcement, who choose to do nothing that could repercuss in their disfavor. Instead, one dark night they assemble an extrajudicial band and invade the premises. What they find is never made explicit, but we gather they may have been better off not interfering in such machinations:
It was just before dawn that a single haggard messenger with wild eyes and a hideous unknown odor about his clothing appeared and told the detachment to disperse quietly to their homes and never think or speak of the night's doings or of him who had been Joseph Curwen. Something about the bearing of the messenger carried a conviction which his mere words could never have conveyed; for though he was a seaman well known to many of them, there was something obscurely lost or gained in his soul which set him evermore apart.
Curwen may well represent Poe's ancestry to Lovecraft since the latter considered the author of The Raven to be the greatest of all literary influences on his artistic development, but Poe's worlds are small and self-destructive. They collapse upon themselves like tombs or old, creaking houses, with a character or two invariably trapped within. Lovecraft's work is, however, about the abyss, the immensity of horror that is only intensified by our basal apprehensions about hell or nothingness or an oblivion that will consume us over the course of millions of years. How much better then to leave undescribed what these soldiers saw that fateful night in what they had expected would be a warlock's cave, a night during which Joseph Curwen – ageless, baleful, deal-hungry Joseph Curwen – was at last destroyed.
This terrible event, of course, does nothing to dissuade young Ward, who is under the care of a certain Dr. Willett. Willett, true to his oaths, likes facts and treatments. He is averse to the spiritual in the same way that one can be allergic to something as fundamental as milk. Even when Ward betakes himself for three years to Europe to visit notorious black magic practitioners, Willett implies that Ward could be actively mimicking his ancestor's activities and language in his correspondence out of some kind of obsessive fascination. There is, of course, another explanation, and one that has to do with the menacing portrait of Joseph Curwen uncovered at the house that Ward will soon inhabit. Giving away too much of Ward's psychic shift would be unfair to the tale's future readers, but we can mention Willett's venture to the house that Curwen built:
It is hard to explain just how a single sight of a tangible object with measurable dimensions could so shake and change a man; and we may only say that there is about certain outlines and entities a power of symbolism and suggestion which acts frightfully on a sensitive thinker's perspective and whispers terrible hints of obscure cosmic relationships and unnamable realities behind the protective illusions of common vision.
What would be the most earth-shattering vision one could imagine? Many works have tapped into the personal, that which is unknowable except to the visionary himself, as in this incredible masterpiece, but this is not the picture painted here. What our doctor sees is objectively horrendous, not simply a byproduct of an active imagination and a few too many late night readings; in fact, Willett absconds from the house with the firm conviction that he may never sleep well again.
What remains valuable in reading something like Charles Dexter Ward (not that there is much like it) is the holistic notion of terror that can grip any mind, non-believing or staunchly devout, broad enough to allow its horizon to expand to the width of our ignorance. Any stab at that ignorance, any advance in the ways of realm and reason, must be attributed to otherworldly sources, even if this has evolved in contemporary literature into a variant of deus ex machina, an extraterrestrial. Lovecraft enjoyed the world in its crevices and secrets and did not care much for justifying his nightmares; he dreamt up savage lands and weird chants and thought little of their implications. In this way his art is the finest of its kind: visions without egoism, fears without psychobabble, evil without redemption. His worlds cannot be captioned as the neuroses of a single, fretful mind, and not only because they draw upon centuries of lore. His truth is a hellish abyss, and one of luxurious malevolence where things that seem foul are undoubtedly foul, fouler than one could have ever feared. Too bad no one told young Ward.