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 http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/thecaseofcharlesdexterward.htm

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CD Review: The Thing on the Doorstep

The latest thrilling episode of Dark Adventure Radio Theatre from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society just arrived in the mail this past week. It’s The Thing on the Doorstep, a Lovecraft short story of a peculiar marriage between two students of the occult that involves possession and leads to a contest of wills. A visit from a grotesque and stunted creature in a trenchcoat brings horrifying news about which one triumphed in the end.

There aren’t that many women characters of note in Lovecraft’s works: Lavinia Whately in The Dunwich Horror, poor Mrs. Gardner in The Colour Out of Space, the witch Keziah Mason in Dreams in the Witch House, and the villain of our current piece, Asenath Waite–although I’m not sure this last one actually counts.

Miskatonic Student ID for Asenath WaiteAsenath was the daughter of the reputed wizard Ephraim Waite, who died babbling in an asylum, and an unseen mother, one of those fishy Innsmouth people. She was also a formidable scholar of arcane knowledge  herself, a powerful hypnotist even in her schoolgirl days, and a leading figure among the decadent set at Miskatonic University in the late 1920s.

Asenath’s marriage to Edward Pickman Derby came as great surprise to friends of both. The two seemed a strangely mismatched pair. Edward was more than 15 years older than Asenath, but boyish even at 40; Asenath appeared the elder while still in her early 20s.  Edward was a former child prodigy, a writer of fantasy poetry, dabbler in occult practices, but overprotected by his parents, weak-willed, and unprepared to manage life as an adult alone. His wife, with her greater powers of concentration, dominated him from the very beginning and brought him deeper into the dark arts than he wished to go.

Strangest of all, the two sometimes seemed to switch places, with Edward showing a surprising new and forceful personality as he drove off on mysterious errands for days at a time while Asenath was glimpsed by neighbors sitting forlornly at home.

The text of the H.P. Lovecraft’s short story is online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/td.aspx.
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DVD Review: Crowhaven Farm

John Carradine carries the old door This was one of those spooky made-for-TV movies that I watched in my childhood during the 1970s. Over the long years between now and then, I’d forgotten almost all of it except for the title and a handful of images:

  • A woman being crushed beneath a large, wooden door weighted with stones.
  • The same woman seeing that same door being carried and reacting in horror to it.
  • A little girl toying with a wedding ring.

It had something to do with a 17th-century witchcraft trial.

So, when I was buying a bunch of DVDs on Amazon recently and saw that this title was inexpensively available, I thought “Why not?” and added it to my cart.

Crowhaven witches Watching Crowhaven Farm again as an adult, the first thing that strikes me is how clunky and expositional most of the dialog is.

The second thing is that the story is a takeoff on Rosemary’s Baby; it involves a woman who wants to be/becomes pregnant and is menaced by a coven of witches. Some characters and plot-points are similar, even if they misdirect one’s expectations. But the key difference is that this coven’s focus isn’t on the baby, and the heroine isn’t as much of an innocent victim of happenstance as Rosemary.
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Dark Shadows: The Head

Barnabas Collins and Julia Hoffman are time traveling again, this time to 1840 to prevent events that will lead to the destruction of Collinwood in 1970. Aside from preventing Quentin’s murder in 1897, they really don’t have a good track record in changing the past, but they have to keep trying.

Since their arrival in 1840, the two have witnessed a variety of goings-on at Collinwood, some of it involving Gerard Stiles, the man who will become the evil ghost who destroys the Collins family and their home. But there’s one item they haven’t yet seen, and it will prove to be the most important clue to the future disaster.

Desmond and the Head Cousin Desmond Collins has brought back a curious souvenir from his travels: A severed head in a glass box. He doesn’t think it’s real at first, but after a couple of people die, he begins to realize he has something truly awful on his hands. Researching some old newspapers, he also discovers that the Head has a history in the neighboring town of Bedford as well as a connection to his own family.

The Head belonged to a powerful warlock named Judah Zachary, who was beheaded in 1692 for witchcraft. One of the judges at the trial was Amadeus Collins. Zachary’s body was buried separately and secretly, and the Head was displayed for a time in the glass case before it was stolen. Legend has it that if the head and body are reunited, Zachary will rise and regain his powers.

Wasn’t this the plot of The Thing That Couldn’t Die? A fine, goofy B-movie, but not the sort of literary classic the Dark Shadows writers normally borrow from.

By the time Desmond has learned all this, however, the Head has already exerted its influence over him and he’s compelled to search for its body.

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Dark Shadows: The Destruction of Collinwood

Dr. Julia Hoffman and Barnabas Collins return from a week-long visit to 1995 with horrible news about the future of the Collins family. Some time before the end of 1970, the following will occur:

  1. Collinwood will become an abandoned ruin.
  2. Most of the Collins family will have mysteriously disappeared, except for:
    1. 13-year-old David, who will die; Barnabas and Julia have seen his tombstone in the graveyard, and his ghost in the garden. A girl about the same age named Hallie Stokes will also die and appear in ghostly form with David.
    2. Carolyn, who will be found completely mad within the house. She’ll spend the rest of her life, which ends in 1995, as an unbalanced recluse.
    3. Quentin, who will be found wandering the woods, also completely mad and going on about someone named Daphne. He will spend the next 25 years in an asylum.

All of this will be brought about by an evil ghost named Gerard and another morally ambiguous ghost in a magenta dress, who turns out to be Quentin’s Daphne (Kate Jackson). Both died in 1841, although who they were and why they want to destroy the Collinses remains a mystery.

On their return to 1970, Barnabas and Julia try to warn Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard and Quentin about the things they’ve seen, but no one seems to care much about helping them to prevent this disaster from happening.

Bad things are already starting.

Gerard's ghost Gerard’s ghost is at Collinwood, even if no one’s actually seen him yet. Carolyn and Hallie sense someone is watching them. At a picnic near the cliffs, David snaps a photo of Quentin and Maggie; when he develops it in his darkroom, thinks he sees a face in the shrubbery behind them. It could just be a trick of light on the leaves, but it does resemble a scowling man…
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Dark Shadows… In the Future!

Collinwood in ruins Their future, our past.

After escaping from Collinwood in the alternate dimension just as it was burning down around them, Barnabas Collins and Julia Hoffman discover that they haven’t returned home after all. They now find themselves in a long abandoned and decayed Collinwood in 1995.

Ah, the music, paintings, beautiful people of the 1990s. What will they be like? Will there be flying cars and robot servants? Daily flights to our bases on the Moon?
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Dark Shadows: More Alternate Dimensions

Barnabas Collins has entered an alternate universe via an empty room at Collinwood. Unfortunately, he gets locked up in a coffin almost immediately by this universe’s Will Loomis and doesn’t get to see all the interesting goings-on that the Collins counterparts are playing out–events that include the Dark Shadows‘ interpretations of Rebecca, with Angelique in the title role, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

But this version of Rebecca has an unexpected twist.

After weeks of putting up with everyone believing that she was really her dead twin sister Angelique, Alexis Stokes visited Angelique’s coffin in the family vault. This settles the question about Alexis’s identity for everyone, including me; Angelique’s body is in the coffin and looks perfectly fresh, not like a woman who’s been entombed for six months. But it turns out that there’s a reason for that and Alexis has made a bad mistake in touching her late sister’s hand when she bids her farewell.

Angelique changes places with Alexis Angelique opens her eyes. She’s been waiting for just such a touch to bring her back, and gets up out of her coffin to exchange places with the horrified Alexis.

A few minutes later, Angelique as Alexis returns to Collinwood, and the real Alexis is in the coffin, shortly to be cremated.

Angelique is determined to solve her own murder. She will later say that the last thing she remembers is someone sticking a pin into the base of her skull and falling to the table, but she didn’t see who did it. She also wants to get her old life back, including getting her husband away from his new wife.
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Dark Shadows: Switched!

Charity stakes Barnabas When Charity Trask tells Edward Collins that she’s killed his vampire cousin Barnabas, he doesn’t believe her at first. The poor girl is, after all, crazy. Then Edward goes to the formerly secret place where Barnabas kept his coffin to see for himself.

There’s Barnabas with a stake sticking up out of his chest (although we don’t get to see it yet). Edward orders both the coffin and the sea-cave where it’s placed sealed up.

Meanwhile, Count Petofi continues his insidious plans for traveling into the future. Chatting with Quentin, he asks the younger man if he would like a new life. Quentin says sure, why not? The Count then gives him a head massage, which is weird, and Quentin takes a nap; when he wakes, the ruby ring that the Count has always worn on his power-imbued Hand is now on Quentin’s finger and he can’t get it off.

I don’t think this means that they’re engaged.

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Dark Shadows: More Count Petofi

Now that the Count has his severed hand back and reattached (although it still looks nasty), he looks to the future–by that, I mean that he wants Barnabas Collins to take him to the 1960s when Barnabas himself returns to that time.

“The music, paintings, beautiful people of 1969,” the Count muses. “What will they be like?”

Barnabas trapped in his coffin

But Barnabas has to refuse, since he doesn’t actually know how to do that; the Count shuts him up in a coffin and pins him down with a crucifix on his chest.

Count Petofi then brings in Quentin to talk to Barnabas. Quentin is forbidden to touch the crucifix. The Count has instructed him to tell Barnabas that if he doesn’t give up the secret to time travel, it will be at the price of David’s and Jameson’s lives. Both Collins men care very much about one boy or the other.

To back this up, the Count brings David from the future to inhabit Jameson’s body. Everyone except Quentin who sees the boy thinks that Jameson is delirious with fever. And feverish David thinks he’s still in 1969.

While he’s lying there trapped in his coffin, Barnabas does tell Quentin that he has in fact come from the future and that if Jameson dies, then the whole 20th-century Collins family will never exist. He doesn’t mention specifically that David is Jameson’s grandson, nor does he explain how David can recognize 1897’s Quentin when he sees him.

David thinks the man he’s talking to is a ghost; he tells Quentin how he and Amy found the skeleton sealed up in Quentin’s room, which disturbs Quentin. It must be the “sealed up” part of the story that does it, since Quentin couldn’t possibly hope to still be alive 72 years in the future even if he kept in perfect health and stopped knocking back so much brandy every day.

Count Petofi’s desire to travel in time isn’t just based on a desire to see the Swinging ’60s for himself. He also wants to escape to someplace where his enemies can’t possible reach him. For the Count has many enemies.
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Dark Shadows: Count Petofi

The Count's other hand After his artificial hand is accidentally yanked off during a fight, the mysterious stranger known as Victor Fenn-Gibbon first denies that he is in fact Count Petofi. But as he speaks of the powerful warlock’s history–how the Count gave up his hand to the gypsies to be cured of being a werewolf, and how sad he was when he killed his pet unicorn during one of his wolfy nights–he only convinces his audience that he’s speaking from personal experience. He admits the truth.

Why does he want his icky severed hand back, apart from its mercurial powers? He’s been getting on without it for nearly a century.

It turns out that if he retrieves it before the hundred years is up, he’ll not only wield all his old powers with it, but he’ll also gain eternal life. If he doesn’t find it, he’ll die. The deadline is getting very close, and he’s getting desperate.

He doesn’t believe Quentin, Barnabas, or Magda, however, when they say that the Hand has been stolen from them. They’d better find it… or else.

It’s Quentin, visiting his former friend Evan Hanley, who gets the first clue as to who’s got the Hand. The Hand and its new best friend, Tim Shaw, paid a call on Hanley the night before and this second encounter with the thing has left the lawyer completely shattered. He wants nothing more to do with the occult.

Quentin then learns that Tim left Collinsport by train, but no one has any idea where he’s gone. When Quentin brings this information back to the Count, he insists they go after Tim. Then it looks like the Count intends to go after Tim himself. He bids farewell to the family at Collinwood, who still think he’s Fenn-Gibbon. In a somewhat strange moment, he says good-bye to young Jameson as if he were an aged uncle or old friend, and gets the boy to give him a peck on the cheek before he leaves the house.

The meaning of this becomes apparent after he’s gone, when Jameson starts wearing black gloves like the Count’s, wants some brandy, and speaks as if he were a world-weary old man. The kid’s possessed again.
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