The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward

October 3, 2017 9:02 pm by Crocodile

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
By HP Lovecraft

Lovecraft lived in Providence RI, where I am now, and he set a lot of stories here and around here. Living here you sort of hear his name a lot. The first summer I lived here I read this book, and was delighted to find out that the demoniacal experiments of the main character took place in the part of town I was living in (Olneyville). Years later there was a Lovecraft festival in town (the “NecronimiCon”, or course) and they showed a movie version of this story. It was maybe the best movie experience I’ve ever had????

The movie was directed by Dan O’Bannon and O’Bannon’s widow was on hand to present. But what she presented wasn’t the official release (which looks kind of dumb) but a work print that O’Bannon made, a sort of “pre-director’s cut”. The important part here is not that we saw the “true version”- we didn’t. This wasn’t the version before studio hacks re-edited it, nor was this the work of an auteur, or even someone doing something on purpose. What we saw was a work print, a version of the movie made after shooting but before the finishing details. It was a version of the movie that was accidentally perfect but that basically could not exist.

First of all, there was either no music or very limited music. The music had yet to be added. This is a bizarre way to see a movie, and an incredible way to see a horror movie– it was completely lacking in emotional cues. In a normal movie if you’re creeping through a catacomb and a slithering hellbeast is about to lurch out at you with needleteeth glistening, the music lets you know that the mood is one of creepiness and that something sinister is about to happen. In this case, there was just the sound of footsteps and dripping, then suddenly something horrible. At first I didn’t notice that there was no music– it was like when someone gets a haircut and you know something’s weird but you can’t figure it out.

The other thing that was special about this version was that it was put together before most of the special effects had been completed. As a result, almost every instance of a horrible monster or a huge explosion was replaced with a black screen, followed quickly by the aftermath. You’re creeping through a catacomb, the screen goes black, and when the image comes back you’re covered in blood, and someone you were with is missing. It was insane. If memory serves there were some special effects, which seemed all the more special by their rarity.

Again, this was not the planned release, only a work cut- the director’s ideal version would have had music and special effects. But purely by accident, this version was incredible, and perfectly appropriate for the source material. A key element of Lovecraft’s fiction is that the narrators are not trustworthy, or to be specific, the narrators themselves don’t trust their own senses. They are confronted with something so outside of their frame of reference that they absolutely cannot make sense of it- the only thing they can do is try the best they can to refuse to try. By tapping out for the most extraordinary parts of the narrative, the movie (as I saw it) presented the best adaptation possible.

Incidentally, this is why I hate the Lovecraft fandom- the perfect thing about these stories is that they refuse to look closely at the monster. The fandom is mostly about looking directly at the monster. It sucks. Character design was not Lovecraft’s strongpoint, and glimpsing the monster without being able to look right at it is way scarier anyway.

Anyway, that was the movie. The book is also cool and creepy and scary and gross and fun, and takes place in my neighborhood. Parts of it were almost in the building where I lived when I read it, right after I moved to this city. I remember reading it and feeling pulled along with a feeling of mounting excitement and dread. But it also had a feeling of homework. Like, if I had moved to Concord instead of Providence I’d be reading Emerson, or if I had moved to Northhampton I’d be immersing myself in Dinosaur Jr.

The Pinch Of Ginger If Not Salt that all Lovecraft writing requires is: Lovecraft (the guy) was a racist whose racism charted above the baseline of an already racist era and location. I can’t think of an instance where this is the foreground of a story, these beliefs, but it’s not uncommon for a narrator to drop an occational invective against “mongrel races”, and that sort of shit can still sting. Since nearly all Lovecraft narrators are weak weaselly shitbags, that changes the power dynamic a little– you’re already set against sympathizing with them so their shittiness is less destructive and can even convey the opposite, like how a bad Yelp review from clearly a bad person is a positive review to a careful reader. But it isn’t my place to say that such invective is No Big Deal. I feel like many of these instances could easily be translated into strictly class-based hatred with pretty much nothing lost, but doing this translation internally is easier for some people than others and takes energy that not everyone wants to exert.

I think I got this book from the free pile outside the Worcester Public Library. It’s a paperback with that adhesive plastic cover that libraries use, stamped WORCESTER PUBLIC LIBRARY and DISCARD, and the cover is half-detached. The cover is just a pile of skulls and an art noveau font, pretty sick! It looks like that 3 Six Mafia “pile of green skulls” shirt, but not green obviously, and not worn by an Oscar-winning rap group. That shirt was ubiquitous in 2005, I bet if you wore one now thirtysomethings only would yell I HAD THAT SHIRT at you from cars. Can you even get that shirt anymore? This book was published by Ballantine / Del Ray, in 1971, this one is the eighth printing, 1987. $2.95 cover price would be $6.39 today. Read with a pinch of salt and detest the narrator.

Here’s a trailer to the official release of the movie, it stars Chris “Prince Humperdink” Sarandon, the guy you (I) love to hate: [link]. The whole movie’s on YouTube as well but I honestly have no idea if it’s good as it is. It’s probably fun, or it’s fun if you think it seems fun. It’s probably pretty much as it seems.

Happy Halloween!

                                                                                                 

3 Comments »

Leave a comment

First-time commenters will experience a delay while their posts are approved.

(c) 2018 100% Publishing