In honor of Halloween, all this month I’m going to be reviewing books that have scared over the years, in a new series I call “‘Round Midnight”.
For a notorious shut-in and misanthrope, H.P. Lovecraft sure knew how to scare a person. His “Cthulhu Mythos” stories are known for their quaint New England settings, their unique cosmology, and overwhelming sense of cosmic dread. He was one of the first horror authors to stray away from your typical witches-ghosts-undead triumvirate, and was met with middling success during his life, but after his death was revered as one of the greatest writers in the genre, and highly influential on authors from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman. He was also a racist in the “grouchy old man” mode, but we’ll get to that later.
His 1927 novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is strange among the works in his oeuvre, in that it grafts his “mind-breaking abominations from beyond the void are slowly taking over the universe” ideas onto a traditional English-style detective thriller. This actually works surprisingly well. It concerns a young man named (you guessed it) Charles Dexter Ward. He’s a pretty normal WASP-y New Englander who develops a strange obsession with his long dead ancestor Joseph Curwen, who was known for his eccentric habits. Not to ruin much, but things go pear shaped, and his doctor, Marinus Willett, is sent in to investigate.
The beginning of the book is a little slow. Lovecraft enjoys building atmosphere gradually over time, but all that eventually culminates to some of the scariest horror writing ever. I was reading this on the train, one of the least immersive places to read, and I was afraid. This is made even more impressive when you see that Lovecraft doesn’t rely on cheap shocks, or overly gruesome/sick description to make you jump. The mystery elements ground it, so it doesn’t float too far off into Lovecraft’s twisted, whimsical head, like some of his other novellas (e.g. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath), and provide a welcome relief and comfort from the stark horror taking place elsewhere. There even is a little comedy at one point, although it’s easy to miss.
I have two main issues with it, though. It takes a long time for Charles Dexter Ward to get going, and it often spends pages digressing into the villainous Curwen’s backstory, which drags a bit. The aforementioned racism is also at play here, but only in the occasional descriptive passage. Lovecraft didn’t get out much (and kind of hated all people), so he ended up with a skewed perception of humankind, that most often manifested in prejudice. This doesn’t forgive his racist biases by a long stretch, but doesn’t diminish the mostly great writing here, and Lovecraft’s impact on the genre of horror. In total, this is a flawed, but singularly frightening work from one of America’s premier masters of spooky.