My Relatives in an H.P. Lovecraft Story!


In preparation for the lead up to the Halloween season  (and spurred on by the fact that I have learned I am related to him, and also by recent walking tours I’ve taken with Rory Raven and Jane Rose, a recent play by Nat Cassidy, and annual festivals by RadioTheatre and Dan Bianchi) over the past few weeks I went back and re-read the complete works of H.P. Lovecraft. As always, I did plenty of snorting and eye rolling, but mixed in with it all that was plenty of admiration.

What joy it would give me to be his editor!  Imagination: A+. Originality: A+. Intelligence: undeniable. Command of language: dazzling. Culture: prodigious. And many of the situations in the stories are indeed chilling and nightmarish. But there are times when the author’s vagueness steers me away from fear or horror towards boredom. And times when he lazily substitutes modifiers for the hard writing it would take to achieve a truly vivid effect (i.e., he tells us something is “loathsome” or “horrible” or whatever, rather than painting a concrete portrait that will produce in US that impression). I love the fact that he is erudite and abstract and is in such command of the language. That’s precisely what will always keep me coming back to his writing; it is what sets him sets him above so many others. But ironically, he is at his most effective when he allows himself to be more graphic. By that, I do not mean to imply “more bloody” as the word is typically employed in horror criticism. I merely mean more descriptive of the real world. He is very good on the “unseen”. We need him to work harder on the “seen”.

At any rate, a friend asked me which story was my favorite. And that’s too hard to say. There will always be several. (Easier to say which were my least favorite: normally, the fragments based on transcriptions of dreams he had. No plot, just description of imaginary cities and planets or whatever). However, there is one piece of writing I came across that will now always hold a special attachment: the short novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Written in 1927, the novella went unpublished until several years after he died. It’s one of Lovecraft’s stronger stories plotwise, mixing many intriguing elements: doppelgangers, alchemy, the resurrection of the dead, deals with the devil, madness, and a Dorian Gray like cessation of the aging process.

But what gave the story an added power this time around was the amount of reality he put into it. In fact, there’s so much of the “true” in it, that one could almost include it in the American Hoax tradition, along with certain writings by the likes of Edgar Allen Poe and Mark Twain. First, there’s an appealing amount of autobiography. It’s one of a small handful of stories in which Lovecraft allows his beloved Providence to be the setting. And more than any other story that I noticed, he paints a portrait of his hometown, which the titular character roams around on extended walks, much as the author himself did. Well known landmarks and streets are folded into the story. It’s not “Arkham” or “Miskatonic University”. It is a very vivid Providence. Beyond his mapping of the town as he knew it, he has carefully researched its history, and filled it with several real characters. In many cases, he depicts actual historical personages. In other cases, he simply creates a fictional character with an actual Rhode Island surname.

And this is what gives the tale an added pull for me, for these are all names in my family tree. I am connected by blood to all these people and places and names: the four Brown Brothers (and institutions connected with them, like Brown University and Moses Brown School), Olney Court, Stampers Hill, Stephen Hopkins, Capt. Abraham Whipple, Capt. James Mathewson, Samuel Winsor, Thurston’s Tavern, the First Baptist Church, and characters with the names Slocum and Tillinghast. I am also related to the Ladd Family, after which Brown’s Ladd Observatory is named. It was a frequent haunt of Lovecraft’s and wound up in many of his writings.

So there’s an added thrill in reading this stuff now. And furthermore, my relatives are the good guys in the story! Well, Charles is good, too. He’s just a little, shall we say, misguided in his quest for “knowledge”.  Judge for yourself! The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is available to read (gratis) here. 

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