In the runup to Halloween, I have been watching a classic horror movie every night (oddly enough, watching a supernatural thriller is good escapism from the real world horrors of the day). I recently watched The Haunted Palace, produced and directed by King of the B Movies Roger Corman, a mad genius who could crank out a movie in three weeks for a couple of hundred thousand dollars. Corman had directed a run of successful horror movies adapted from short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, widely considered the greatest horror author of all time, at least here in the United States. Corman wanted to attempt something different, so he hit on adapting The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, a posthumously published novella by H.P. Lovecraft. The management at American International Pictures insisted on slapping an Edgar Allan Poe title on the film, however, as Lovecraft was relatively unknown at the time, so it was entitled The Haunted Palace and Vincent Price recited lines from the poem to give a patina of Poe-etry to the proceedings. The screenplay of the movie was written by Charles Beaumont, a prolific science fiction and horror author who wrote numerous Twilight Zone episodes, but is largely forgotten today- his precipitous neurological decline and death at the age of thirty-eight constitutes a horror story in and of itself. Penguin Books has recently released an anthology of Beaumont's stories, Perchance to Dream, which will hopefully pull this interesting writer back from obscurity. Beaumont's script adapts The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but also admixes an unsavory element from Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror to augment the rather bare-bones motivation of Lovecraft's sinister warlock. Beaumont's script also moves the action of the novella from the city of Providence to Lovecraft's fictitious town of Arkham, probably due to budgetary constraints.
Lovecraft's villain, Charles Dexter Ward's ancestor Joseph Curwen, while engaging in necromancy by calling up the remains of the dead using their 'essential saltes', really has a vague motivation... he and two other necromancers, based in Europe, are calling up dead persons of renown in order to interrogate them to gain more knowledge and power.
What these horrible creatures—and Charles Ward as well—were doing or trying to do seemed fairly clear from their letters and from every bit of light both old and new which had filtered in upon the case. They were robbing the tombs of all the ages, including those of the world’s wisest and greatest men, in the hope of recovering from the bygone ashes some vestige of the consciousness and lore which had once animated and informed them.
A hideous traffick was going on among these nightmare ghouls, whereby illustrious bones were bartered with the calm calculativeness of schoolboys swapping books; and from what was extorted from this centuried dust there was anticipated a power and a wisdom beyond anything which the cosmos had ever seen concentrated in one man or group. They had found unholy ways to keep their brains alive, either in the same body or different bodies; and had evidently achieved a way of tapping the consciousness of the dead whom they gathered together.
He attributes the alchemical means by which this is accomplished to Borellus:
“The essential Saltes of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious Man may have the whole Ark of Noah in his own Studie, and raise the fine Shape of an Animal out of its Ashes at his Pleasure; and by the lyke Method from the essential Saltes of humane Dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the Shape of any dead Ancestour from the Dust where into his Bodie has been incinerated.”
John Bellairs parodied this in The Face in the Frost, a particular favorite of mine:
In the meantime, he fribbled away the day with mindless tasks like cleaning the ash pit of the fireplace and raising the ghosts of flowers. From a square bottle marked "Essential Salts," Prospero poured a few green crystals into a white ceramic dish; when he had mumbled some words over the bowl, a pink and green cloud began to ascend from the shimmering translucent pebbles.
Before long, a definite shape appeared.
"Carnations," said the wizard disgustedly. "Phooey."
Of course, raising dead humans poses a greater risk than raising flowers, even flowers unsought for:
Certainely, there was Noth’g butt ye liveliest Awfulness in that which H. rais’d upp from What he cou’d gather onlie a part of. What you sente, did not Worke, whether because of Any Thing miss’g, or because ye Wordes were not Righte from my Speak’g or yr Copy’g. I alone am at a Loss. I have not ye Chymicall art to followe Borellus, and owne my Self confounded by ye VII. Booke of ye Necronomicon that you recommende. But I wou’d have you Observe what was tolde to us aboute tak’g Care whom to calle up, for you are Sensible what Mr. Mather writ in ye Magnalia of ——, and can judge how truely that Horrendous thing is reported. I say to you againe, doe not call up Any that you can not put downe; by the Which I meane, Any that can in Turne call up somewhat against you, whereby your Powerfullest Devices may not be of use. Ask of the Lesser, lest the Greater shall not wish to Answer, and shall commande more than you.
Beaumont's screenplay dispenses with all of the alchemical bafflegab and substitutes for it a more traditional 'village girls in peril' theme, making it more accessible to the typical audience member.
The film is a great collaboration between horror greats- Lovecraft, Poe, Corman, Beaumont, and Price. Add in a sympathetic portrayal of Ms Ward, a woman nonplussed by the terrible transformation of her formerly loving husband, by the luminously gorgeous Debra Paget, in her last film role before retiring from the big screen, and you have a fun, gruesome little horror gem. It is also the first film adaptation of a Lovecraft story. Vincent Price, years later, recorded an introduction to the film for Iowa public television:
In The Haunted Palace, you get twice the Price- with the horror maven playing both the benevolent Charles Dexter Ward and the monstrous Joseph Curwen. In his introduction to the film, Price notes that his own career parallels his performances in the film... the kindly, urbane Vincent Price ably playing every stripe of villain. It is a perfect spooky entertainment for the Halloween season.