I am providence the life.., p.99
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 99
As for the house’s ghostly legendry, we read the following in the WPA guide to Rhode Island (1937):
[Halsey] was a famous bon vivant in Colonial days, and there is a legend that he kept live terrapins in his cellar. For many years during which the mansion was empty, Negroes in the vicinity were convinced a piano-playing ghost haunted the property. They would not enter the house under any circumstances, and at night always gave it a wide berth. It is also said that a blood-stain on the floor has defied many years of scrubbing.
No doubt these were the sorts of stories Lillian heard in 1925.
Lovecraft began reading Providence in Colonial Times at the very end of July 1925. Since he could not check the book out of the New York Public Library but had to read it in the genealogical reading room during library hours, his consumption of it was sporadic, and he only began making headway in it in mid-September. It was at this time that he read of John Merritt as well as of the Rev. John Checkley, “famous as a wit & man of the world,” both of whom would later pay visits to Joseph Curwen. Lovecraft’s letters for the rest of the month contain much other matter derived from reading the Kimball book, and there is no question but that it helped to solidify his knowledge of colonial Providence so that he could rework it in fiction a year and a half later. Lovecraft, of course, does much more than merely recycle odd bits of history—he mingles history and fiction in an inextricable union, breathing vivid life into the dry facts he had gathered over a lifetime of study of his native region and insidiously inserting the imaginary, the fantastic, and the weird into the known historical record.
One significant literary influence may be noted here: Walter de la Mare’s novel The Return (1910). Lovecraft had first read de la Mare in the summer of 1926, and stated that the British author “can be exceedingly powerful when he chooses”; of The Return he remarked in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”: “we see the soul of a dead man reach out of its grave of two centuries and fasten itself upon the flesh of the living, so that even the face of the victim becomes that which had long ago returned to dust.” In de la Mare’s novel, of course, there is actual psychic possession involved, as there is not in Charles Dexter Ward; and, although the focus in The Return is on the afflicted man’s personal trauma—in particular his relations with his wife and daughter—rather than the unnaturalness of his condition, Lovecraft has manifestly adapted the general scenario in his own work. Another literary influence is that of M. R. James’s “Count Magnus.” Numerous parallels exist in the characters of the baleful sorcerer Count Magnus and Joseph Curwen—and, correspondingly, with the characters of their chosen victims, Mr. Wraxall and Charles Dexter Ward.
Other, more minor sources can also be noted. Marinus Bicknell Willett’s name surely derives from a book that Lillian sent him in November of that year:
Francis Read. Westminster Street, Providence, as It Was about 1824. From Drawings Made by Francis Read and Lately Presented by His Daughter, Mrs. Marinus Willett Gardner, to the Rhode Island Historical Society. Providence: Printed for the Society, 1917.
Bicknell is an old Providence name. Thomas William Bicknell, for example, was a well-known historian who wrote a five-volume History of the State of Rhode Island (1920). I am not entirely sure, however, where Lovecraft derived the name Charles Dexter Ward. Ward is a name from Providence colonial history, and in the novel Lovecraft refers to a political dispute between the party backing Samuel Ward and the one backing Stephen Hopkins around 1760. Lovecraft also owned two anthologies of English literature compiled by Charles Dexter Cleveland. Dexter, of course, is a prominent family in Providence.
If the source for Ward’s name is unclear, the source for the character himself is not. Of course, there are many autobiographical touches in the portraiture of Ward, which I shall examine presently; but many surface details appear to be taken from a person actually living in the Halsey mansion at this time, William Lippitt Mauran (b. 1910). Lovecraft was probably not acquainted with Mauran, but it is highly likely that he observed Mauran on the street and knew of him. Mauran was a sickly child who spent much of his youth as an invalid, being wheeled through the streets in a carriage by a nurse. Indeed, a mention early in the novel that Ward as a young boy was “wheeled . . . in a carriage” in front of the “lovely classic porch of the double-bayed brick building” that was his home may reflect an actual glimpse Lovecraft had of Mauran in the early 1920s, before he ever went to New York. Moreover, the Mauran family also owned a farmhouse in Pawtuxet, exactly as Curwen is said to have done. Other details of Ward’s character also fit Mauran more closely than Lovecraft. One other amusing in-joke is a mention of Manuel Arruda, captain of a Spanish vessel, the Fortaleza, which delivers a nameless cargo to Curwen in 1770. Manuel Arruda was actually a Portuguese door-to-door fruit merchant operating on College Hill in the later 1920s!
But what, beyond these obscure tips of the hat and in-jokes, is the fundamental message of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward? To answer this question, we must first ascertain exactly what Curwen and his cohorts around the world were attempting to do by gathering up these “essential Saltes.” Lovecraft makes the matter a trifle too clear in a passage toward the end—a passage which, one hopes, he might have had the good sense to omit in a revised version: “What these horrible creatures—and Charles Ward as well—were doing or trying to do seemed fairly clear . . . They were robbing the tombs of all the ages, including those of the world’s wisest and greatest men, in the hope of recovering from the bygone ashes some vestige of the consciousness and lore which had once animated and informed them.” It is not, indeed, entirely clear how the tapping of human brains—even the “world’s wisest and greatest”—would result in some scenario that might threaten “all civilisation, all natural law, perhaps even the fate of the solar system and the universe.” Curwen occasionally speaks in notes and letters about calling up entities from “Outside ye Spheres”—including perhaps Yog-Sothoth, who is first mentioned in this novel—but these hints are so nebulous that not much can be made of them. There are further hints that Curwen in 1771 died not because of the raid by the citizenry but because he had raised some nameless entity and could not control it. Nevertheless, the basic conception of a Faustian quest for knowledge has led Barton L. St Armand, one of the acutest commentators on the work, to declare: “The simple moral of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is that it is dangerous to know too much, especially about one’s own ancestors.”
Well, perhaps it is not so simple as that. By this interpretation, Ward himself becomes the villain of the piece; but surely it is Curwen who is the real villain, for it is he who conceived the idea of ransacking the world’s brains for his own (rather unclear) purposes. Ward certainly does pursue knowledge ardently, and he certainly does resurrect Curwen’s body; but it is false to say (as St Armand does) that Curwen “possesses” Ward. There is, as I have already remarked, no psychic possession—not, at least, of the obvious sort—here, as there is in “The Tomb” and as there will be again in “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1933). Curwen is physically resurrected, and when Ward proves unwilling to assist him in carrying out his plans, Curwen ruthlessly kills him and tries to pass himself off as Ward. And note Ward’s defence of his actions in the letter to Willett, specifically the sentence: “I have brought to light a monstrous abnormality, but I did it for the sake of knowledge.” This single utterance comprises Ward’s (and Lovecraft’s) justification: in the first part of the sentence Ward confesses to moral culpability; but the second part of the sentence is preceded by “but” because Ward (with Lovecraft) sees the pursuit of knowledge as intrinsically good. Sometimes, however, that pursuit simply leads to unfortunate and unforeseen consequences. Ward was perhaps naive in thinking that his resurrection of Curwen would lead to no harm; but, as Willett himself says at the end: “. . . he was never a fiend or even truly a madman, but only an eager, studious, and curious boy whose love of mystery and of the past was his undoing.”
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward represents one of Lovecraft’s few relative triumphs of characterisation. Both Curwen and Ward are vividly realised—the latter largely because Lovecraft drew unaffectedly upon his own deepest emotions in the portrayal. Willett is not so successful, and on occasion he reveals himself to be somewhat pompous and self-important. After solving the case he makes the following ludicrous speech: “I can answer no questions, but I will say that there are different kinds of magic. I have made a great purgation, and those in this house will sleep the better for it.”
But St Armand is nonetheless right in seeing Providence itself as the principal “character” of the novel. It would require a lengthy commentary to specify not only all the historical data Lovecraft has unearthed, but the countless autobiographical details he has enmeshed into his narrative. The opening descriptions of Ward as a youth are filled with echoes of Lovecraft’s own upbringing, although with provocative changes. For example, a description of “one of the child’s first memories”—“the great westward sea of hazy roofs and domes and steeples and far hills which he saw one winter afternoon from that great railed embankment, all violet and mystic against a fevered, apocalyptic sunset of reds and golds and purples and curious greens”—is situated in Prospect Terrace, whereas in letters Lovecraft identifies this mystic vision as occurring on the railway embankment in Auburndale, Massachusetts, around 1892. Ward’s ecstatic return to Providence after several years abroad can scarcely be anything but a transparent echo of Lovecraft’s own return to Providence after two years in New York. The simple utterance that concludes this passage—“It was twilight, and Charles Dexter Ward had come home”—is one of the most quietly moving statements in all Lovecraft’s work.
It is of interest to note how Willett’s complete eradication of Curwen stands in such stark contrast to Malone’s obvious failure to eliminate the age-old horror in Red Hook: New York may be the haven of all horror, but Providence must at the end emerge cleansed of any evil taint. We will observe this occurring in all Lovecraft’s tales of Providence. In many ways, indeed, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a refinement of “The Horror at Red Hook.” Several features of the plot are borrowed from that earlier story: Curwen’s alchemy parallels Suydam’s cabbalistic activities; Curwen’s attempt to repair his standing in the community with an advantageous marriage echoes Suydam’s marriage with Cornelia Gerritsen; Willett as the valiant counterweight to Curwen matches Malone as the adversary of Suydam. Lovecraft has once again reverted to his relatively small store of basic plot elements, and once again he has transformed a mediocre tale into a masterful one.
It is certainly a pity that Lovecraft made no efforts to prepare The Case of Charles Dexter Ward for publication, even when book publishers in the 1930s were specifically asking for a novel from his pen; but we are in no position to question Lovecraft’s own judgment that the novel was an inferior piece of work, a “cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism.” It has certainly now been acknowledged as one of his finest works, and it emphasises the message of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath all over again: Lovecraft is who he is because of his birth and upbringing as a New England Yankee. The need to root his work in his native soil became more and more clear to him as time went on, and it led to his gradual transformation of all New England as the locus of both wonder and terror.
The last tale of Lovecraft’s great spate of fiction-writing of 1926–27 is “The Colour out of Space,” written in March 1927. It is unquestionably one of his great tales, and it always remained Lovecraft’s own favourite. Here again the plot is too well known to require lengthy description. A surveyor for the new reservoir to be built “west of Arkham” encounters a bleak terrain where nothing will grow; the locals call it the “blasted heath.” The surveyor, seeking an explanation for the term and for the cause of the devastation, finally finds an old man, Ammi Pierce, living near the area, who tells him an unbelievable tale of events that occurred in 1882. A meteorite had landed on the property of Nahum Gardner and his family. Scientists from Miskatonic University who come to examine the object find that its properties are of the most bizarre sort: the substance refuses to grow cool, displays shining bands on a spectroscope that had never been seen before, and fails to react to conventional solvents applied to it. Within the meteorite is a “large coloured globule”: “The colour . . . was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all.” When tapped with a hammer, it bursts. The meteorite itself, continuing to shrink anomalously, finally disappears altogether.
Henceforth increasingly odd things occur. Nahum’s harvest of apples and pears, though unprecedentedly huge in size, proves unfit to eat; plants and animals with peculiar mutations are seen; Nahum’s cows start giving bad milk. Then Nahum’s wife Nabby goes mad, “screaming about things in the air which she could not describe”; she is locked in an upstairs room. Soon all the vegetation starts to crumble to a greyish powder. Nahum’s son Thaddeus goes mad after a visit to the well, and his other sons Merwin and Zenas also break down. Then there is a period of days when Nahum is not seen or heard from. Ammi finally summons up the courage to visit his farm, and finds that the worst has happened: Nahum himself has snapped, and he can only utter confused fragments:
“Nothin’ . . . nothin’ . . . the colour . . . it burns . . . cold an’ wet, but it burns . . . it lived in the well . . . suckin’ the life out of everything . . . in that stone . . . it must a’ come in that stone . . . pizened the whole place . . . dun’t know what it wants . . . it beats down your mind an’ then gits ye . . . can’t git away . . . draws ye . . . ye know summ’at’s comin’, but ’tain’t no use . . .”
But that is all: “That which spoke could speak no more because it had completely caved in.” Ammi brings policemen, a coroner, and other officials to the place, and after a series of bizarre events they see a column of the unknown colour shoot vertically into the sky from the well; but Ammi sees one small fragment of it return to earth. Now they say that the grey expanse of the “blasted heath” grows by an inch per year, and no one can say when it will end.
Lovecraft was correct in calling this tale an “atmospheric study,” for he has rarely captured the atmosphere of inexplicable horror better than he has here. First let us consider the setting. The reservoir mentioned in the tale is a very real one: the Quabbin Reservoir, plans for which were announced in 1926, although it was not completed until 1939. And yet, Lovecraft declared in a late letter that it was not this reservoir but the Scituate Reservoir in Rhode Island (built in 1926) that caused him to use the reservoir element in the story. He saw this reservoir when he passed through this area in the west-central part of the state on the way to Foster in late October. I cannot, however, believe that Lovecraft was not also thinking of the Quabbin, which is located exactly in the area of central Massachusetts where the tale takes place, and which involved the abandonment and submersion of entire towns in the region. Whatever the case, the bleak rural terrain is portrayed with mastery, as its opening paragraph is sufficient to demonstrate:
West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has
Donald R. Burleson has plausibly suggested a literary influence on this passage from Milton’s “Il Penseroso” (“arched walks of twilight groves, / And shadows brown, that Sylvan loves, / Of pine, or monumental oak, / Where the rude axe with heaved stroke / Was never heard the nymphs to daunt”); but there may be an autobiographical connexion also. Lovecraft seems to have seen a region very much like this one, although curiously enough it was not in New England. Consider his description of the primal forest he traversed in the New Jersey Palisades along the way to Buttermilk Falls in August 1925:
To reach this scenick Mecca we traversed some of the finest woodland country I have ever seen—unlimited acres of stately forest untouched by the woodman’s axe; hill & dale, brooklet & glen, ravine & precipice, rock ledge & pinnacle, marsh & brake, glade & hidden meadow, landscape & prospect, spring & cleft, bower & berry-patch, bird-paradise & mineral treasury.
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