Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean (Penguin Press) is a spellbinding new novel about secrets and scandals, inspired by the lives of H. P. Lovecraft and his circle. La Farge has selected The Haunted Palace, the gothic horror film made by Roger Corman amid his vaunted “Poe Cycle,” even though it takes its story from Lovecraft’s novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
The Haunted Palace
Roger Corman, USA, 1963, 35mm, 87m
Corman regular Vincent Price stars as Ward, heir to a New England palace once owned by Joseph Curwen (also Price), a necromancer burned alive over a century earlier for conducting diabolical experiments on young women. After Ward assumes ownership of the estate, he learns that the palace and town are cursed, and that the vengeful spirit of Curwen is very much alive. Price clearly relishes the dual role of Ward and Curwen, shifting his creaky voice and ghoulish expressions with stark contrast, and appearing alongside fellow horror icon Lon Chaney Jr., who plays the ogreish groundskeeper of the decaying mansion. The Haunted Palace is a rare kind of Corman horror in that it fuses imagery and production elements from earlier Poe pictures with the weird mythos of Lovecraft.
La Farge on The Haunted Palace: “The Haunted Palace was marketed as one of a series of Corman films based on the writing of horror master Edgar Allan Poe—but the film is in fact based on H. P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, the only full-length novel Lovecraft ever wrote, and one of his most autobiographical works. It tells the story of a young man growing up, as Lovecraft did, in Providence, Rhode Island; like Lovecraft, he has a taste for walking around at night, admiring old buildings, and looking things up in libraries. He stumbles on the story of a lost ancestor, the mysterious Joseph Curwen, whose name and biography have been erased from nearly every public record, and thus begins an obsession that leads to young Ward’s raising his ancestor from the dead. As you might guess, this turns out to be a bad idea.
Corman’s adaptation brings in elements from other Lovecraft tales: the town of Arkham, where all sorts of creepy Lovecraftian things happen; strangely deformed people who turn out to be the result of a project to interbreed human women and extra-cosmic monsters; and the Necronomicon, a book of forbidden knowledge that grants great power to the person who reads it but also has a tendency to drive him or her mad. The film also features the talents of Vincent Price, who plays both Ward and the evil Joseph Curwen; and Lon Chaney Jr., as Curwen’s friend, the centuries-old warlock Simon Orne.
Lovecraft might have cringed at the way Corman mixed up his storylines, squeezed them into a few sets that are manifestly too small for the action they contain, and lit the whole thing in lurid yellows and greens; but The Haunted Palace, which was the first screen adaptation of Lovecraft’s work, is a delight to watch. It was an inspiration for me as I worked on The Night Ocean, which also draws, in its own strange way, on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”
About Paul La Farge: Paul La Farge is the author of the novels The Artist of the Missing (1999), Haussmann, or the Distinction (2001), and Luminous Airplanes (2011), as well as The Facts of Winter (2005), a book of imaginary dreams. His stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Believer, McSweeney’s, Nautilus, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. He has won the Bard Fiction Prize, two California Book Awards, and the Bay Area Book Critics’ Award for fiction. In 2013-14 he was a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.