The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft and illustrated by I.N.J. Culbard (graphic novel review).

Alongside the simultaneous re-releases of ‘The Dream Quest Of Unknown Kadath’ and ‘The Shadow Out Of Time’, SelfMadeHero have republished another of the I.N.J. Culbard graphic novels in a slightly smaller paperback format. Again, the adaptation is basically sound but having read through all three of them now, the quirks, if not quite limitations, of the books have become more apparent.

For a start, the range of colours that Culbard uses is limited. Almost certainly, this is a stylistic choice made to evoke to feel of 1920s America and, perhaps more specifically, the New England atmosphere of Lovecraft country. But the flip side to this is that the panels have a certain uniformity to them that the occasional bright spots of action do little to lift. Likewise, the abundant use of black, sometimes for silhouettes but, mostly for the extensive and ominous shadows, tends to pull the aesthetic appeal of each frame more towards the gloomy than the exciting.

But where ‘The Shadow Out Of Time’ and ‘The Dream Quest Of Unknown Kadath’ at least had some panels that were colourful and exciting, there are relatively few such scenes in ‘The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward’. To be fair, the story suffers a bit from being something of a detective story, with family doctor Willett discovering, bit by bit, the true explanation for Ward’s apparently madness. Consequently, much of what happens involves conversations with witnesses, readings from centuries-old letters and so on.

This, in turn, brings us to another of Culbard’s quirks: the adjusting of important plotlines to give the story a more contemporary or at least modern twist. So it was with ‘Dream Quest’ that the protagonist was given psychological depth by portraying the protagonist as Lovecraft himself, while ‘Shadow Out Of Time’ was given an ambiguous ending that suggest the story might well be a psychological delusion rather than an accurate revelation of the Earth’s secret history. In ‘The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward’, Culbard decides to have Dr. Willett tell the story to what appears to be a police inspector. This, in itself, isn’t a problem, what’s more troubling is Culbard’s decision to have Willett secured in a mental institution.

Now, fans of the original story will usually have found in Willett that rarest of things in a Lovecraft story: an active protagonist who eventually understands the big picture and is able to take positive actions that bring the supernatural threat to a satisfying conclusion. Most of Lovecraft’s stories don’t work this way, with the participants lucky if they merely survive, and, at best, walk away the certainty that, even if catastrophe was avoided today, it is but a matter of time before humanity loses its privileged position on this planet.

While Lovecraft never says what happens to Willett after he disposes of the villainous Curwen, Culbard’s tweak does add an extra layer of melancholy that ensures the graphic novel ends on a more sombre note than the original. It does, perhaps, heighten the sense that Willett made a courageous act of self-sacrifice that helped to keep us safe, but nobody will believe him, let alone thank him.

One somewhat disappointing fact about the three adaptations discussed here is that they all have the same foreward. Written by Jeff Lemire, it is, alas, a rather general homily to Culbard’s skill as an artist rather than specific commentaries on the three very different stories being presented. Ultimately, they add nothing and it’s a bit of a shame that the effort wasn’t made to include short pieces about each of the stories, explaining their significance in the development of horror fiction and American literature generally.

Bottom line then is that while this adaptation is good and broadly sticks to the original in terms of narrative structure and events, there are some changes diehard fans might take exception to. What does work well is the art, even if the colours used are rather sombre and, for the price, the book is good value and certainly well worth picking up, even if you aren’t all that familiar with Lovecraft’s work. ‘The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward’ is one of the least ‘mythos-heavy’ of Lovecraft’s longer stories and works very well as a piece of psychological, even gothic horror.

Neale Monks

December 2020

(pub: SelfMadeHero, 2020. 122 page pocket-sized paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-91059-395-0)

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