Crom Your Enthusiasm (9)

By: John Hilgart
August 11, 2015

Weird_Tales_May_1941

One of 25 installments in a series of posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite fantasy novels from the Thirties (1934–43). Enjoy!

THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD | H.P. LOVECRAFT | 1941

H.P. Lovecraft’s narrators are always throwing themselves into a hellish abyss with single-minded purpose and scientific precision. The path to this abyss is inevitably a very old thing — a house, a book, a crypt, a portrait, an attic window, a cupboard, a sculpture, a manuscript in the local university library.

Lovecraft was fetishistically and existentially attached to old things. During a brief, agoraphobic residence in working-class Brooklyn — arguably the event that turned him into a first-class writer — he turned immigrants into horrors and worried particularly about the threat they posed to the New England family heirlooms he’d moved with him from his lifelong (and soon to be again) home in Providence. Years later, in one of his final letters, he worried about the disposition of those same artifacts.

His identity was so bound up in and fortified by a pseudo-patrician New England past — and in the old town and possessions that embodied it — that he invested old things with impossible depth and meaning. Unfortunately, Lovecraft was also a nihilist, completely and sincerely at an intellectual level.

As a result, most of his stories are about researchers who disclose the wonder of historical particularity, only to dig too deep, breaking through into an infinity of space and time that renders everything human retroactively tiny, benighted, and meaningless. Lovecraft’s beloved objects and histories became arcane and alien in his fiction, because he could not succeed in defending their affirmative significance.

He is celebrated for merging the supernatural and science fiction, which he achieved by placing the access codes to the infinite, indifferent universe within old books, 17th century, gambrel-roofed Providence homes, and family trees. When you crack the code, the old New England timbers give way, and you fall infinitely far. You are annihilated.

I am not spoiling much by telling you that The Case of Charles Dexter Ward concerns a man who uses family artifacts to resurrect his fascinating ancestor, only to be murdered by him and stuffed into the ancestor’s old cupboard.

Alongside a few of his best cosmic monster stories – the abyss with tentacles – The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is one of the finest ways to experience and to understand the mechanism that makes Lovecraft’s fiction compelling and impossible to imitate. People have been writing “Lovecraftian” fiction for nearly a century at this point, but it all falls short. The authors have noted the symptoms, but they do not suffer from the necessary illness.

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CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): Erik Davis on Jack Williamson’s DARKER THAN YOU THINK | Sara Ryan on T.H. White’s THE SWORD IN THE STONE | Mark Kingwell on C.S. Lewis’s OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | David Smay on Fritz Leiber’s THIEVES’ HOUSE | Natalie Zutter on Robert E. Howard’s QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | James Parker on J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT | Adrienne Crew on Dion Fortune’s THE SEA PRIESTESS | Gabriel Boyer on Clark Ashton Smith’s ZOTHIQUE stories | John Hilgart on H.P. Lovecraft’s THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD | Barbara Bogaev on William Sloane’s TO WALK THE NIGHT | Rob Wringham on Flann O’Brien’s THE THIRD POLICEMAN | Dan Fox on Hergé’s THE SEVEN CRYSTAL BALLS | Flourish Klink on C.S. Lewis’s PERELANDRA | Tor Aarestad on L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s THE ROARING TRUMPET | Anthony Miller on H.P. Lovecraft’s THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH | Suzanne Fischer on E.R. Eddison’s MISTRESS OF MISTRESSES | Molly Sauter on Herbert Read’s THE GREEN CHILD | Diana Leto on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s TARZAN AND THE LION MAN | Joshua Glenn on Robert E. Howard’s THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON | Andrew Hultkrans on H.P. Lovecraft’s AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS | Lynn Peril on Fritz Leiber’s CONJURE WIFE | Gordon Dahlquist on H.P. Lovecraft’s THE SHADOW OUT OF TIME | Adam McGovern on C.L. Moore’s JIREL OF JOIRY stories | Tom Nealon on Fritz Leiber’s TWO SOUGHT ADVENTURE | John Holbo on Robert E. Howard’s CONAN MYTHOS.

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KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | GILL SANS | AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | SHE’S NOT THERE | FAUX DEVANAGARI | FUTURA | JENSON’S ROMAN | SAVANNAH SIGN | TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | KUMON WORKSHEET | ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | DIPLOMA REGULAR | SCREAM QUEEN | CHICAGO | CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | SHATTER | COMIC SANS | WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | GOTHAM.

HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | “That’s the Joint” | “Freedom” | “Rapture” | “The New Rap Language” | “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | “Making Cash Money” | “The Message” | “Pak Jam” | “Buffalo Gals” | “Ya Mama” | “No Sell Out” | “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | “Rockit” | “The Coldest Rap” | “The Dream Team is in the House” | The Lockers.

KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| The joke is on Kirk | Kirk vs. Decker | Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Captain Camelot | Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | Federation exceptionalism | Wizard fight | A million things you can’t have | Debating in a vacuum | Klingon diplomacy | “We… the PEOPLE” | Brinksmanship on the brink | Captain Smirk | Sisko meets Kirk | Noninterference policy | Kirk’s countdown | Kirk’s ghost | Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | How Spock wins

KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | KAMANDI | MACHINE MAN | SANDMAN | THE X-MEN | THE FANTASTIC FOUR | TALES TO ASTONISH | YOUNG LOVE | STRANGE TALES | MISTER MIRACLE | BLACK PANTHER | THOR | JIMMY OLSEN | DEVIL DINOSAUR | THE AVENGERS | TALES OF SUSPENSE | THE NEW GODS | REAL CLUE | THE FOREVER PEOPLE | JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

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What do you think?

  1. Meaning that — when investigated too far — collapses into meaninglessness. Thanks for this, fascinating! I’m reminded of the stuff in Moby Dick about whether or not the world is meaningful — or just a “pasteboard mask” with nothing behind it.

  2. Logical conclusions are the most distorted of all — the “realism” of the dark void and the blank slate are ironically the negative of the scribbles Lovecraft could so well fill that space with yet still not believe…

  3. I love this object-based analysis–absolutely borne out by the way the dark cities, the physical things of the Mythos are of horrifyingly indescribable geometries.

  4. I really appreciate these comments. Yes to “Moby Dick” – the massive detail of the cetology and seamanship chapters vs. the question of whether anything means anything. Yes to the realism of HPL’s negative space and to the opposite of the minutely described object or architecture being indescribable geometries.

    When I read all of HPL’s fiction in chronological order, alongside letters, etc., the two things that stood out to me were this object/history/meaning crisis and the steady evolution of HPL’s monsters from signifiers of negation to twins with whom he sympathized – as HPL felt increasingly that he was the outsider, the old one.

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