The Case of Charles Dexter Ward - H.P. Lovecraft I'm rereading this based upon Stephen's review so if I do not appreciate it more, it will be entirely his fault :-)
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In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward HPL ventures a novel-length story about his Elder Gods and one man’s tragic fate when he delves into mysteries better left unexamined. Charles Dexter Ward is the scion of a well established Providence family who begins investigating esoteric matters and discovers that an ancestor, Joseph Curwen, was killed by a terrified town when they discovered his unhallowed necromantic studies.

The reader doesn’t actually spend a lot of time with Charles Ward. Instead HPL tells the story through the boy’s doctor’s attempt to find out what happened to him. HPL’s strength as a storyteller does not reside in memorable characters but in the ability to evoke an atmosphere of mounting horror and despair, and he does that very well here. You can feel the terror Dr. Willett experiences when he’s trapped in the lightless vaults beneath that ill-omened Pawtuxet farmhouse where Curwen raised up monstrous entities from Outside:

But Marinus Bicknell Willett was sorry that he looked again; for surgeon and veteran of the dissecting-room though he was, he has not been the same since. 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 unnameable realities behind the protective illusions of common vision. In that second look Willett saw such an outline or entity, for during the next few instants he was undoubtedly as stark mad as any inmate of Dr. Waite’s private hospital. He dropped the electric torch from a hand drained of muscular power or nervous co-ordination, nor heeded the sound of crunching teeth which told of its fate at the bottom of the pit. He screamed and screamed and screamed in a voice whose falsetto panic no acquaintance of his would ever have recognised, and though he could not rise to his feet he crawled and rolled desperately away over the damp pavement where dozens of Tartarean wells poured forth their exhausted whining and yelping to answer his own insane cries. He tore his hands on the rough, loose stone, and many times bruised his head against the frequent pillars, but still he kept on. Then at last he slowly came to himself in the utter blackness and stench, and stopped his ears against the droning wail into which the burst of yelping had subsided. He was drenched with perspiration and without means of producing a light; stricken and unnerved in the abysmal blackness and horror, and crushed with a memory he never could efface. Beneath him dozens of those things still lived, and from one of the shafts the cover was removed. He knew that what he had seen could never climb up the slippery walls, yet shuddered at the thought that some obscure foothold might exist. (pp. 102-03)


And this is a description of the relatively empty vaults found in 1928; nothing at all like these same vaults from 170 years earlier when the men who descended into those hellish catacombs emerged unable to speak about what they had seen and heard – the only account of the venture coming from the journals of a man who remained above ground.

I’ve got the entire Ballantine collection of HPL’s stories sitting on my bookshelf but poor Charles Dexter has languished there while I favored its brothers such as The Lurking Fear or The Doom That Came to Sarnath. It took Stephen’s review mentioned above to prompt a reread and I’m glad that I did.

So, Stephen, you may not have steered me to a tropical paradise, but I did manage to avoid any literary ice bergs.