The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.H. P. Lovecraft
H. P. Lovecraft’s biggest claim to fame is perhaps Cthulhu—the ancient god who, Sauron-like, infects the modern world with his presence and brings madness to all who look upon him. If you have known enough to see the fingers of Cthulhu in a good chunk of American pop culture—everywhere from Arkham Asylum in Gotham City to Alien, then you may not have considered how Lovecraft fits into classic literature.
There has been a place given to tales of the macabre before, of course. Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Washington Irving are all well-known in that regard. Not to mention the films Hollywood made to immortalize them further. Not that either man needed it. But there is something immensely satisfying with Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle. Even though one film in that cycle, The Haunted Palace, isn’t from Poe at all.
It’s from Lovecraft. And that is why, instead of looking at Cthulhu, we will look at The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Because if you are going to argue for Lovecraft’s place in the canon, then this novel proves it in spades because it crosses the line between Gothic and Horror.
The Leap from Gothic to Horror
And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh—but smile no more.
Usually, there’s very little to distinguish between Gothic fiction and horror fiction. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is simultaneously hailed as the first horror novel and the first Gothic novel. But, if you really consider both genres, there is at least one key difference.
Gothic fiction, especially early Gothic fiction, has an atmosphere that makes the events in the story thrilling. Most of the events themselves are fairly ordinary. It’s where they take place that makes the difference. Horror is more gore and character-driven.
If you were to read The Fall of the House of Usher, for instance, Poe provides more atmosphere than anything else. There isn’t much of a plot line. Man comes to visit ailing friend. Man and friend lounge around and read lots of poetry. Not much happens until the end and the house collapses. It’s mood-driven rather than plot-driven.
Incidentally, the poem they read “The Haunted Palace” is where Roger Corman made his connection between Poe and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
Most of Poe’s stories are the same way, too. There are terrifying events to be sure, like Montresor walling up Fortunato, but it’s almost secondary to the scenery itself.
Washington Irving does the same thing in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and combines a mood with a yarn about a schoolmaster who gets spooked out of town by a local legend by his erstwhile rival for a local heiress’s affections. Take away the Headless Horseman, the idyllic countryside of upstate New York, and what do you have?
Not much, as it turns out. The charm in the story is not the plot—it’s the atmosphere spiced with the legend of the horseman.
Where horror takes center stage is that the atmosphere is really quite normal, but the plot and characters are anything but. Carrie, for instance, could have taken place in any American high school. It could have taken place in Southern California, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Horror has a touch of plausible realism where Gothic stays firmly in the realm of fantasy. An opening to hell underneath a high school? To any marginalized high schooler, that is perfectly plausible.
Plausible Horror in New England
If you are a Washington Irving fan, even if by way of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, then you will absolutely lap up The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. It has all the mood and scenery that Irving provides in his picture of New York. Only it takes place in Rhode Island.
There’s even the almost obligatory reference to the Salem Witch Trials—a favorite of Nathaniel Hawthorne as well. Like Irving and others, there is a suggestion there are secrets hidden within that corner of New England that aren’t exactly civilized. Or what a New Englander in the 1700s would have considered civilized at any rate.
What Lovecraft provides is a very detailed history of the life and doings of one Joseph Curwen and descriptions of a historical Providence which would be fun to actually follow up on in real life, given the chance.
In fact, if you aren’t careful, you might mistake Charles Dexter Ward for another Gothic novel. He has the obligatory Indigenous couple who look after a dubious property Curwen owns, the references to the slave trade that once plagued New England towns (it wasn’t just in the South, you know), and the ancient prejudices which the Salem Witch Trials brought to the surface.
And then, alchemy and mummies come into the picture and you know this isn’t a Gothic tale at all. Lovecraft even mentions more mythical figures like Hermes Trismegistus. This is where Gothic ends and horror begins. Horror makes the ancient terrors come to life.
And what better place for terror than a place that had seen witch trials?
The legacy of Salem
The beginning of American horror begins with Salem and what its legacy represents: the continuation of European horrors on American soil. The new land of new opportunities ends up being every bit as unwelcoming and prejudiced as the old.
In Europe, the horror came out of the lasting legacy of Rome, both as a secular and sacred empire.
One physically conquered, one spiritually conquered, and then just stood back as the various ethnic and national factions in Europe tried to conquer one another while collecting the money and browbeating kings into doing their bidding.
The colonies in America, at least the New England colonies, were supposed to be a refuge from the religious turmoil in Europe.
Ironically, it turns into the exact opposite. Outcasts from Massachusetts founded Rhode Island. Baptists, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians alike weren’t welcome in the Puritans’ New Jerusalem. Dissension was a sin. Which is rich coming from a faction of people who had done little else but dissent since the mid-1500s.
Talk about bringing the horror with you. It was a legacy that haunted Nathaniel Hawthorne even as it inspired Lovecraft.
Charles Dexter Ward wouldn’t be the work it is without Salem. Because that is where Joseph Curwen came from before he began his necromantic work in Providence.
And, just as in the real Salem, the fictional Providence has prejudices in it too. Curwen imports things from foreign parts. Not the usual rum and slaves either, mind you. Those of us who live in the 21st century will no doubt cringe if not become downright enraged at the inhabitants not batting an eyelash at the slaves Curwen brings in. But when he brings in mummies from Egypt?
That really is the limit for them.
It adds a further dimension to the horror in the story for us because we are not only still dealing with the fallout from historical slavery, but we face the problems of modern slavery too. Just read about slavery in the chocolate industry for starters.
Lovecraft in the canon
If you are to place Lovecraft in the literary canon, then you cannot deny that his presence actually brings continuity in some respects. Early American writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving often stick out because American (meaning United States) literature is almost overwhelmingly realistic.
This means even Nathaniel Hawthorne can stick out. The Scarlet Letter is almost atypical of his writing when you consider Twice-Told Tales or The House of Seven Gables.
So, what happens when you place Lovecraft into the cannon? Well, that’s when you see a greater connection between modern writers like Stephen King and early writers like Washington Irving. It binds European Gothic horror with American horror too in a way.
Lovecraft shows just how far the literary craft in the United States had come and paves the way for new heights. Arguably, once you leave Romanticism behind, most of the American literature is quite dull and unimportant in the broach scheme of things.
Until you hit Lovecraft.
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward may not be his best-known work, but without it, you cannot fully understand how or why Lovecraft is a classic writer. And why it is he, and not some of his contemporaries that should be required reading.
Because there’s only so much Modernist nihilism one person can take before getting madness from Cthulhu sounds like a blessed relief.
That, and you get Vincent Price playing the role of the villain in a Roger Corman movie. It doesn’t get much better than that!
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