CD Review: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

“From a private hospital for the insane near Providence, Rhode Island, there recently disappeared an exceedingly singular person. He bore the name of Charles Dexter Ward and was placed under restraint most reluctantly by the grieving father who had watched his aberration grow from a mere eccentricity to a dark mania involving both a possibility of murderous tendencies and a profound and peculiar change in the apparent contents of his mind. Doctors confessed themselves quite baffled by his case, since it presented oddities of a general physiological as well as psychological character.”

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
H.P. Lovecraft

When I began to prepare for writing this review, I was surprised to discover that I don’t actually have a copy of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward in any of the Lovecraft anthologies on my shelves. It’s been a long time since I read it, and had to hunt it up online to refresh my memory.

There are at least two rather loose film adaptations of this story–two that I’ve seen, anyway:

  • The Resurrected/Shatterbrain, starring Chris Saradon and John Terry, which places events in a modern-day film-noirish setting with stop-animation monsters.
  • The Poe’d-up Haunted Palace, starring Vincent Price and Debra Paget in a Victorian gothic version with putty-faced mutants roaming the misty streets of Arkham.

In both films, Ward is a much more mature man than the character in Lovecraft’s tale.

Photograph of Charles Dexter Ward with his ancestor Joseph Curwen's portraitThe novella, written in 1927 but not published until after Lovecraft’s death, presents a case study of a young man in his teens and early twenties, currently in an asylum.

Charles Dexter Ward’s descent into madness is said to have begun with his interest in a distant ancestor, one Joseph Curwen, who dabbled in alchemy and necromancy.

Charles identified strongly with Curwen, whom he resembled closely. As his obsession increased, his own studies into the occult deepened. He repeated  Curwen’s experiments and, after coming of age, he took up with mysterious companions who aided him in his secret work. His youthful appearance changed to that of an older man; his style of speech became more archaic, his handwriting changed too, and his knowledge of the modern world vanished while he seemed more in touch with 18th-century New England.

After The Thing on the Doorstep and The Shadow out of Time, you might be thinking that this is another Lovecraft story about body-swapping and that Charles has been possessed by the spirit of Curwen… but that’s not what happens this time.

The story is online at

The Dark Adventure Radio Theatre version of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a two-parter, presented as a radio drama aired as one episode following another.

Part 1 begins with a prologue at the asylum, as Dr. Willett (Barry Lynch) discusses the peculiarities of Charles’s case with Charles’s distraught father and the hospital staff. Willett is the Wards’ family doctor and a long-standing friend. He’s known Charles from birth–delivered him, in fact–and notes that a birthmark on Charles’s hip is now gone, and that there’s a large mole on his chest that wasn’t there before. Charles’s father declares that Charles looks like an old man, not a youth of 26.

The story then moves backward in time to present Charles as a boy of 16. As young Charles (Kevin Stidham) enthusiastically tells his parents about his discovery of the strange history of Joseph Curwen, his voice provides a framing narrative to scenes set in 18th-century Providence.

The colonial townsfolk discuss Curwen’s peculiar activities–the chemicals he’s ordered and the coffin-sized boxes he receives shipped from overseas, including mummies from Egypt, the strange-looking servants he keeps at his farm, the disturbing sounds his nearest neighbors hear at night, and the large amount of crops he grows to sustain what appears to be a fairly small household.

But the most peculiar thing about Curwen is that he doesn’t seem to age. He looked as if he were in his 30s when he arrived in Providence from Salem in the early 1700s, and looks no different decades later. He receives letters from friends who appear to enjoy a similar ageless state.

Marriage to an unwilling young woman temporarily gains Curwen social status and respectability, but as long as he carries on with his bizarre pursuits, it’s only a matter of time before Providence has had enough.

The last straw is when a large naked man is found dead in the snow; his footprints indicate that he escaped from Curwen’s farm and he was seen running the night before. He’s recognized as a local blacksmith who died years ago, and the doctor who performs an  autopsy confirms that he’s been dead for a very long time. The blacksmith’s grave is empty.

With this proof that Curwen is doing something far more unspeakable than necromancy with dead bodies, a surprise raid on the farm follows.

This audio sequence is really done well. As Charles describes the scene of the raid, we hear the shouts of the Providence men, the pop of their muskets, screams and wailing cries, and a thunderously loud voice speaking in an unknown language.

After the raid, Mrs. Curwen was told that her husband was killed in a customs battle and given a coffin said to contain his body. She resumed her maiden name and returned with her daughter (who would be Mrs. Ward’s great-great-grandmother) to live out the rest of her life with her own family.

At first, Charles’s parents laugh at this bizarre story, but as they hear more they grow more disturbed by it. “Just because he’s family doesn’t mean he’s not dreadful,” Mrs. Ward declares.

In the years that follow, Charles’s interest in his strange ancestor grows more keen and he continues to pursue information about Curwen’s life and supposed death. He locates what he believes to be the old Curwen farmhouse and pays the bemused couple who currently live there to let him have a look around. Charles’s historical reading has informed him that Curwen’s portrait was painted directly onto the wood panels above the fireplace in the library; this, he finds after paying the couple some more money and scraping off layers of old paint. Curwen’s portrait looks remarkably like young Charles.

When Charles has the panels the portrait is painted on removed to take home with him, he makes a more important discovery: behind the painting is a hidden recess containing Curwen’s own private journal and notes about his experiments. This gives Charles the key he needs to try and reproduce his ancestor’s work. He sets up a laboratory in the attic of his parents’ home. Both Mom and Dad are awakened in the middle of the night when Charles has some large, heavy object brought into the house, and the next morning they read in the newspapers about what looks like an attempted graverobbing in a old cemetery outside of the town.

My favorite additions to this adaptation are the reactions of Charles’s bewildered parents to his increasingly arcane pursuits. In the first of the two disks, Charles’s mother (Leslie Baldwin) is my favorite character; she’s so very much a typical Mom in her outlook and  responses to Charles’s activities, even though she’s faced with situations that mothers of even the most geeky kids don’t have to deal with. She gets some great lines, although it’s Dr. Willett’s dead-pan response, after Charles tries to explain the importance of his studies and compares them to Einstein’s work, that made me laugh out loud:

“Einstein doesn’t do his research in graveyards, Charles.”

Mrs. Ward frequently listens outside her son’s door, overhearing whatever Charles is doing–not the usual sorts of things teenaged boys get up to alone behind locked doors either.  At the very least, she suspects opium use, since the more fragrant scents that occasionally creep out from beneath Charles’s door bring up brief but fantastic images in her mind. Other odors, however, aren’t at all pleasant. She also hears sounds of chanting at all hours, and odder still, what seem to be conversations even though Charles is in his room alone. Then there’s the rumbling, deep voice of whatever Elder God Charles has managed to summon up–the same voice heard at Curwen’s farm over a hundred years earlier. (It turns out to be Yog Sothoth, sounding very like the rumbly bass voices of his sons Wilbur and Yog Whately as heard in the Dark Adventure version of the Dunwich Horror)

Her concerns about Charles are disregarded–it’s just a phase the boy is going through–until she begins chanting herself and has a nervous collapse. The doctor gives her a strong sedative and sends her away to Atlantic City to recover.

The portrait of Curwen in Charles’s room crumbles to pieces.

Part 2 is the downhill slope of the story. The focus shifts to Dr. Willett as the primary witness and driver of the remainder of the plot.

Charles has moved out of the family home and is working in a bungalow aided by a Portuguese servant named Gomes (which is curiously pronounced to rhyme with “homes” rather than like Morticia Addams’s husband) and a mysterious colleague, the bearded and perpetually sunglassed Dr. Allen. Charles’s life during this period grows more secretive and strange; Dr. Willett and Mr. Ward only hear of it second-hand from gossiping neighbors around the bungalow.

Then Charles suddenly sends a frantic letter to the doctor saying that he was wrong: the result of his experiments is “not triumph, but terror.” The knowledge he’s gained is dangerous not only to himself but to “all life, nature,” and even the entire universe. His work must be destroyed immediately and the raid on the old Curwen farm repeated.

When Willett goes around to investigate, he finds Charles hasn’t gone over the edge into raving lunacy, but is exhibiting the language, manners, and memories of an 18th-century man. Dr. Allen has disappeared.

After committing Charles, Dr. Willett and Charles’s father start to put the pieces together to find out what’s really been going on. They visit the abandoned bungalow laboratory and at first find it innocuous–it turns out that Charles’s real work has been conducted elsewhere.  A letter is discovered that reveals that someone with the initials JC keeps in touch with men with the same names as Curwen’s long-lived colonial buddies–and that they have rather ominous sounding plans for “the boy” if he balks in continuing to work with them.

As they gather evidence about the nature of Charles’s and Joseph Curwen’s work and its results, the two men are eventually forced to acknowledge to each other that they believe it’s all true, and not the product of Charles’s deranged mind.  A trip to view the ancient horrors in the catacombs beneath the old Curwen farmstead, where the real experiments have been conducted, confirm their suspicions–but even worse suspicions follow for the doctor. Is the man in the mental hospital actually Charles at all? If not, then what’s happened to him?

At last, it’s up to Dr. Willett to employ what occult knowledge he can summon to deal with Joseph Curwen himself. Their show-down is the high point of the second disk, but the outcome isn’t everything the doctor would have wished.

In addition to the above photograph of Charles with Joseph Curwen’s portrait, this CD box contains:

  • A letter to Joseph Curwen from one of his ageless brethren in occult practices.
  • A page from Borellus, “bearing many cryptical marginalia and interlineations in Curwen’s hand.” The passage about the “essential Saltes” which Curwen used in his experiments is underlined.
  • A Providence newspaper article about Charles’s supposed escape from the mental hospital.

Documents from Charles Dexter Ward


Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.