The Titular Devil, With Hand

The Titular Devil, With Hand

Friday, January 28, 2011

Do Not Call Up What Ye Cannot Put Down

Okay, I've been continuing on my Lovecraft binge...still saving Shadow Over Innsmouth for last. Just read Haunter of The Dark and Charles Dexter Ward. Haunter struck me as rather minor, but I thought Ward was just plain stupendous. I hadn't read it since I was in college; I remember liking it, but not as much as I liked it this time. It'll be interesting to see if I enjoy Innsmouth as much on this go through.

Ward plays to all of Lovecraft's strengths, in spades. It's kind of the diametric opposite of Mountains of Madness, which I savaged in my last post...undoubtedly some of you thought I was being unjust, and I may have left the impression that I don't like Lovecraft. But Ward is exactly what I want in a Lovecraft story.

For one thing, it's very firmly anchored in Lovecraft's knowledge of local new England History, and his personal experiences of the area. Apparently the guy was familiar with every damn inch of Providence, and the story is crammed with fairly minute observations. He knew just what Providence was like at the moment...and thirty years before, and sixty, and a hundred, and so forth. If anything, the colonial stuff seems more immediate and current than the twentieth-century stuff...of course, he liked to think of himself as an eighteenth-century gentleman. He's steeped in archaic speech patterns and literary styles, and is extremely well versed in the economic life of old Providence, which figures bigtime in his supernatural tale...he's devoted a hell of a lot of thought to how a vile sorcerer/alchemist from that period could go about his affairs without anybody stopping him.

I liked the first part a bit more than the second part, precisely because it's somewhat more informed by the sort of things I was just going on about. We're told that a singular personage named Charles Dexter Ward has grown obsessed with a sinister ancestor named Joseph Curwen...nicely-written scene-setting and atmospherics give way to an extensive account of Curwen's awful history. An ominiscient narrator informs us how Curwen lasted from the mid-1600's to the mid-1700's, kept his youthful appearance the whole while, maintained a world-wide shipping empire operated by gruesome mongrel sailors, funnelled zillions of slaves into an underground labyrinth from which they never re-emerged, and managed to keep the forces of propriety at bay, by a combination of financial acumen, advantageous marriage, and blackmail.

Ultimately, though, despite all his devilish machinations, his sorcerous realm comes under attack...things just get too funky for the upright folk to stand any more, and a raiding-party storms his farmhouse/stenchy laboratory/underground complex.

We see the raid from a distance, which is kind of a pity...I would've liked to have been in there with the colonial commandos getting down and dirty with all kinds of wierd shit. However, the glimpses we're shown are extremely choice, and there’s some payoff later on, when one of Lovecraft's typical old guys penetrates Curwen's underground domain after a hundred and fifty years, and finds that the situation’s just about as satanic as ever...

Just as Curwen anticipated. You see, when the shit hit the fan, he concluded his affairs in such a way that snoopy young twentieth-century Charles Dexter would resurrect him, and well...

Poor Chuck.

Do Not Call Up What Ye Cannot Put Down.

The blackmailing stuff, based on the fact that Curwen can raise your ancestors from the dead, and make them fess up where all the skeletons (I guess literally) are buried, is particularly ingenious. He knows all about the "Essential Saltes," you see, the fundamental ingredients that make you you, and from which you can be resurrected, although...he really needs to have all your saltes, because otherwise he winds up with "Ye liveliest awefulness."

Now there are those that think that the "Saltes” are simply not a very good device...Peter Straub has some things to say about this. But I think he's wrong. I found myself thinking about DNA...something rather like genetic material, and how an alchemist might've described such stuff. In short, it struck me as really great bullshit...and that's another way in which Ward excels. God knows Lovecraft was a great big scientific materialist, but he sure was knowledgeable about actual arcane hoo-hah, historical alchemists, sorcerers, books of lore, and so forth. He's quite the expert in constructing a scaffolding of truth to hang his half-truths and his total fictions upon...the occult biz fits seamlessly with the New England local color and colonial history. You wind up with layer after layer of mutually-reinforcing details. It's very dense and intricate, extremely compelling.

Another thing that's so cool about Ward is that so much of the first part, maybe a hundred pages of so(depending on how it's typeset), is dedicated to characterization. This is very much unlike a lot of Lovecraft's work...something like Mountains of Madness, for example, has nothing that could be called characterization at all. The protagonists are mere cyphers, generally bookish old guys corresponding with other bookish old guys. Curwen is front and center in Ward, even when we seem to be hearing about someone else...he really comes across...he's got a philosophy, he thinks in a particularly awful devious way, and he expresses himself like, well, an extremely sinister baleful survival from the Seventeenth Century.

Bottom line: if you haven't read this one, you should hit Amazon immediately and do the needful. It's a bona fide classic. Great great book.

Actually, a very good Charles Dexter Ward delivery system is the Library of America Library Lovecraft collection, edited by Straub. It's got all the primary Lovecraft stories, and it's what I've been reading since Christmas. Wonderful notes.

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