Disclaimer: The universe of Harry Potter belongs to J. K. Rowling. The universe of the Cthulhu Mythos and related material belongs to the estate of H. P. Lovecraft. No infringement is meant.
Author's Note: This story references events and characters from the world of H. P. Lovecraft, and it takes place almost entirely in Lovecraftian New England. I have therefore placed it in the Cthulhu Mythos crossover category. The specific story with which it's a crossover is "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," my favorite Lovecraft story, which doesn't reference Cthulhu but does reference another Old One. Familiarity with that story is probably helpful, but I hope not necessary to appreciate this fic.
There are some aspects of that story that have been adapted to the Potterverse, such as the affiliation of Dr. Willett and the magical means by which Joseph Curwen was resurrected. However, I thought that the events and timeline of it fit astoundingly well within Potterverse history, and thus this fic was born. This story contains several passing references to other things modified to fit within the alternate-universe framework: some real-world events at the beginning, and a movie towards the end (in chapter III). It was originally meant to be a one-shot, but it has become unwieldy, so I've made it a three-chapter short fic. Chapter III will go up soon.
The Riddle of the Uncanny Portrait
Marinus Bicknell Willett was, to all common appearances, a Providence physician in the practice of family medicine. His clientele consisted primarily of old families and the well-to-do, such as the venerable Ward family. He did not present himself as an expert in any specific field of medicine and was, like most general practitioners, regarded by academic experts with a certain degree of disdain—which he did not allow to bother him, but shrugged off entirely. It was assumed, by those who cared about the matter, that his mind was—though clearly advanced and cultivated—not quite as fine as those medical experts who took a more academic career path.
This could not have been farther from the truth. In fact, Dr. Willett's medical practice was a form of field research for his true area of interest, a subject in which the materialist academics could not share. Dr. Willett was a wizard, a tenured researcher at Miskatonic University in nearby Arkham, Massachusetts, studying the effects of magic upon the human brain and body with an eye to healing. His clients in Providence were not selected by economic elitism and certainly not by chance; they were, to a head, families that had magical ancestry at some point—even if it had seemingly died out. His research colleagues at Miskatonic knew that it was rare for magic to ever completely die out of a bloodline. What happened was that "muggle-born squibs" were born, often for several generations—people carrying some magical genes, but not the right combination to manifest active magic. All muggle-born wizards were the offspring of such a pairing.
Arkham and Salem were host to the premier American magical schools, and wizards and witches from much of the eastern United States attended school at one. However, there also seemed to be a lot of muggle-born squibs in the area—and that was harder for authorities to deal with. Many of these people had quasi-magical abilities, such as seeing ghosts or other spirits, using already bespelled magical objects, or performing psychokinesis or telepathy—and a few could do more than that. Some of these people could enter trance and allow communication across the veil with the dead, and since they were unidentifiable by wizards and groups of muggle paranormal investigators were now extant, the muggles tended to find these people first. The abilities that these muggle-born squibs manifested were not always benign, either. On occasion, an individual unknown to the magical authorities would manage to summon an evil entity, which invariably created a disturbance in the area. And to top it all off, a few people could fully conduct magic but did not manifest this trait until later in life. In short, there was quite a lot of work for magical authorities to do, most of it not caused by the people they knew to be witches or wizards.
The university faculty were divided on the problem; the majority wanted to keep supporting muggle skeptical organizations by financial means (and by magical mental pressure when necessary), but a vocal segment had thrown its support behind the muggle Society for Psychical Research and declared that the time had come to repeal the International Statute of Secrecy. These radicals asserted that the line between wizard and muggle was becoming indistinct in the Arkham-Salem environs, with more and more quasi-magical traits bleeding into the broader population. Humans, they insisted, were evolving into a wholly magical species, muggle science was catching up, and the muggle "witch-finders" today were acting in the name of intellectual curiosity rather than ignorant fanaticism. Their conservative colleagues, on the other hand, had often delved more deeply into the university's lore library; they would drop vague, dark hints and then clam up quickly when asked for more details of what they meant.
Dr. Willett didn't want anything to do with the politics, but his main line of research was about those people in the gray area, unknown to magical authorities because their abilities were not strong or consistent enough to register on tracking devices that identified wizards and witches at birth. Such people, Dr. Willett hypothesized, were at the greatest risk of physical and psychological damage. True muggles would be harmed by magic only if they were the victims of someone else's magic. Witches and wizards were trained to respect and control their powers, and they knew of the healing resources that the university and magical government established if they had accidents. It was the unidentified and untrained, those who had some single talent—or small suite of talents—but would never be able to control it, who were in the greatest danger.
Dr. Willett was terribly afraid that this very scenario had just unfolded with one of his subjects, and he had been helpless to stop it. For years, he had been unable to get close enough to his subject—his patient—to figure out what was going on, and now the doctor feared it had taken a turn for the worst.
Eight years earlier...
It was May 1920, and Dr. Willett was visiting the colonial-era mansion of the Ward family at the request of the head of the house to interview and examine his eighteen-year-old son, Charles Dexter. Ward Sr. had been alarmed at a growing obsession of his son with the young man's great-great-great-grandfather, a very long-lived man of the seventeenth and eighteenth century called Joseph Curwen.
Perhaps some of the father's alarm was due to the horrendous legend surrounding Curwen and two of his friends named Simon Orne and Edward Hutchinson—a story featuring certain murder, probable grave-robbery, suspected necromancy, and dark hints of something even worse. At last, in 1771, a mob of Providence citizens organized a raid on Curwen's second house, a farm in the countryside. This raid had ended with Curwen's death, though no one in the party wanted to speak of that in detail, and curiously, no one ever claimed credit for inflicting the death blow. A rumor quickly arose, helped along by the news of disturbing invocations and peals of mad laughter from the farmhouse, that Curwen had been killed by something he tried to invoke via black magic rather than by any resident of Providence. After that raid, Curwen's existence had been hushed up in most official records, surviving only in private correspondence and a cache of journals tucked into the walls of the town house where Curwen had lived—along with a stunning painted portrait of the man.
Charles Ward had, it seemed, become a recluse in his own rooms, engrossing himself in these old journals. The family had heretofore been proud of their son for his dedication to and scholarly interest in history, but this was quickly turning into a mania—and a disturbing one, Ward Sr. told the doctor. When he did deign to leave his rooms, the boy was prowling around graveyards looking for Curwen's grave—for what purpose, the boy would not say.
Dr. Willett had known for years that the mother's side of the family had magic in its bloodline. Since the discovery of Curwen in the lineage, it had become clear to him just where that magic had come from, although it had not manifested since then. Was young Charles a wizard who had slipped through the cracks? The identifying devices at the university had not written down his name at birth, but that might mean that he had manifested magic late—or it might mean that Charles was one of the subjects who were of special professional interest to the doctor. He wondered just what latent talents would manifest in the boy. Curwen had had a special aptitude for potions and alchemy... and the Dark Arts, Willett thought.
Some time into the interview, Willett realized that he was being put off by Charles. The documents that the lad was showing him were things he had seen for a year, when the boy first began this particular study. At last he was shown a page from an old ledger, a rather boring page—but at the last was a menacing passage in the old wizard's handwriting. "I am Hopeful ye Thing is breed'g Outside ye Spheres. It will drawe One who is to Come..."
The boy had yanked the volume away from Willett at that point, but at once, almost preternaturally, he glanced at the portrait of Curwen that Charles had discovered the previous year and which now hung above the mantelpiece. Under his eighteenth-century accoutrements, the old wizard had a truly shocking resemblance to his living descendant: It was as if Joseph Curwen and Charles had been twins. The painting's subject was unmoving and silent, despite having been a wizard. It was merely an ordinary muggle painting.
Or was it? As Willett gazed upon the wizard's blue eyes, he could not escape the feeling that the painting was full of dark magic. What, he could not guess, but he was certain it was there. It was magic he had never encountered before, even at famously Dark Arts-friendly Miskatonic. The Dark Arts were not his professional specialty.
As much as it intrigued him, Dr. Willett unfortunately had little opportunity to investigate the painting. Ward had maintained his reclusive habits until embarking on a trip to Europe in 1923, and he had strictly banned examination of the books and other materials that he had left behind. When the doctor questioned the parents, they too were strangely insistent that the portrait was not to be touched and that as little time as possible was to be spent in the room—even the mother, who strongly disliked the portrait's very presence because of its uncanny similarity to her son's looks.
Could Charles be a late-manifesting wizard and have them under the Imperius Curse? Willett wondered. He did not want to believe the young man capable of that. Or could it be the magic in the portrait itself that is influencing them? This seemed more likely. The picture had certainly had an effect on the direction of Charles's thoughts. This hypothesis, despite keeping Charles innocent, was somehow even more disturbing to the doctor. How could a mere magical artifact influence the thoughts of people toward its own protection? It was subtle, and the doctor didn't like it. Cursed items that affected people's thoughts usually had nothing subtle about them, often putting people to sleep or turning them into gibbering idiots who repeated the same phrases over and over. Such spells would overwrite whatever thoughts the victim would naturally have, an expected result of static, nonliving magic. This was different. It was almost as if this portrait were alive and could influence people's thoughts in the normal way that a living person could do. How is that possible? the doctor thought.
Unfortunately, there was no way to answer the question. The parents were unmoving on the subject of their son's rooms. Charles did not return until May 1926, at which point he began to chant arcane spells and brew noxious-smelling potions behind closed doors, refusing to divulge any meaningful information about what he was up to. Willett returned to his normal academic work, resigned to the fact that Charles would apparently keep his doings a secret. In March 1927, it seemed even more certain; Charles had had something large and heavy brought inside and then banned his own parents from his in-house laboratory.
But on April 19, the doctor was again summoned to the Ward mansion to have a talk with Charles. Very strange things had taken place on the fifteenth, Mrs. Ward explained.
"He chanted this one verse over and over," she whispered to the doctor, as if afraid that her son—or something else—might overhear her.
"Did you catch what the 'verse' was?" Willett asked.
She had, and she wrote it down from memory. The doctor took the slip of paper and his eyes popped wide open at what was written on it. That it was dark magic was obvious, but it also appeared to be a fomula for summoning the powers of certain spirit-plane entities. What is the boy doing? the doctor screamed in thought. He pocketed the paper, resolved to have outside experts look at it and tell exactly what it did. He was not an expert in the Dark Arts and certainly had no knowledge of summoning spells.
Later that evening, an extremely dark incantation had thundered through the house in a voice unlike Charles's. This spell too had been recorded by Mrs. Ward and handed to Willett with a look of despair. Even she knew that it was extremely dark magic; her son had once told her so, when he was more open about his researches into his ancestor.
And at last, another, different chant had begun to sound from the locked laboratory. This one was unknown to Mrs. Ward and in a gibberish language; she was unable to record it for him. But at last, this chant too had ceased, tumultuously, and after that, laughter and what sounded uncannily like two distinct voices in dialogue were heard at the door.
This was what Mrs. Ward reported to the doctor on the nineteenth of April. Charles had sharply changed his behavioral patterns after the night of the fifteenth, emerging into the house for books on a wide variety of modern subjects—also markedly unlike his behavior over the past eight years, in which he had been fixated upon events of the eighteenth century. Her son had to be interviewed, she said firmly. His recent behavior was disturbing and she feared that he was losing his mind.
"I quite agree that it is unsuitable for a family home," Charles said when Dr. Willett finally saw him. "I should have procured an outside laboratory a long time ago, really."
Willett looked at the paneling over the mantelpiece where he expected the uncanny portrait of Joseph Curwen to be, and he nearly did a double take. The picture was gone. Well, that explains why the mother suddenly panicked, the doctor thought. It wasn't influencing her any longer.
"What happened to the painting?" he exclaimed, getting up to examine it, hoping to find traces of magic still present. But his hands only found bare wood. That it had once been magical was all but certain; Willett did detect traces, but whatever the spells had been, it was now impossible to say. He wanted to pull his hair out in disappointment.
Charles smirked. "I think it must have been the fumes of the chemicals," he said evasively. "It happened four days ago." He tried to bury the smirk on his face but failed.
The doctor did not fail to notice. "The day that your poor mother worried herself sick about your chantings and incantations," he said harshly. At once his quick mind leapt to another conclusion. Charles can cast wandless Dark Arts spells. He must be a late-manifesting wizard! Those dark spells, somehow, are what destroyed the portrait. He has been brewing potions in this room for years. However, he did not voice his conclusions to the boy. "I do not see what is amusing about the loss of the picture, or anything else I have been informed of by your parents."
"You are quite right about the latter," Charles agreed. "That's why I have decided, at last, to take my researches out of their home and cease disturbing them. But the painting—well, it was just a painting."
Willett locked eyes with the youth. For a fraction of a second, he was able to perform Legilimency and detect the lie. But Charles, perhaps cognizant of the doctor's intentions, broke eye contact before he could grasp the truth. Giving up on the interview, Willett soon left.
As it turned out, Charles was good to his word about leaving the Ward mansion and taking his occult materials with him. In late summer, he rented a bungalow on the outskirts of town, an area that Dr. Willett was immediately able to document had once been the site of Joseph Curwen's farm. The significance of this was not lost on him, and his concern deepened. It was evident that the youth was up to no good, attempting some of the dark magic that Joseph Curwen and his two friends of old had written down, but specifically what the boy was doing, the doctor could not determine.
Charles also acquired two companions, one who was apparently a laborer or manservant and one who was a colleague. The trio's country neighbors disliked the weird, ritualistic chanting that emanated from the farmhouse at night, and this colleague, who went by the name of Dr. Allen and was always seen in a false-looking beard and heavy glasses, seemed to be the most distrusted of all. That a rash of gory, vampiristic murders was taking place across Providence throughout the latter half of 1927, the period when this Dr. Allen first appeared on the scene, did not help the supposed doctor's standing in the community.
No one seemed to know who he was or where he had come from, but almost as soon as he had shown up, he had—so it seemed to Dr. Willett—taken over Charles's research. Unpleasant reports starting coming from the bungalow vicinity, rumors of excessive orders of meat from the butcher shop, strange importations, and bizarre catalogues of chemicals. Dr. Willett's mind began to go to some very dark places as he mused over these reports and what might conceivably explain them. The story of old Joseph Curwen was on his thoughts a lot, how that wizard had been suspected of grave-robbery, attempted necromancy, and the creation of Inferi for some unknown purpose—though no such bodies had ever been found. If it were true... well, it would have been in those damnable notes that Charles had found so many years ago, and Dr. Allen might be trying to recreate the work.
This disturbing theory seemed confirmed with the shocking report in January 1928 that a cargo of coffins of Philadelphia, containing the remains of highly distinguished personages from American history, had been intercepted en route to the bungalow. Dr. Willett instantly fired off a magical telegram to a professional counterpart, Dr. Gates, who resided there, informing him of the repulsive discovery. One of the deceased had been a wizard and his tomb was heavily protected by spells, which implied that wizard criminals had been involved in the theft. The muggle authorities were also on the case at once. When questioned, Charles insisted that he had merely ordered preserved specimens from a scientific supplier and certainly had no idea that such a vile crime would be committed in their procurement, let alone that the identity of the specimens would be what it was. He was believed—and he might, Willett thought, have been telling the truth as he knew it. The Charles he knew had too great a respect for his country's history to make such a request. Dr. Allen was behind it, no doubt.
Shortly after this incident, Dr. Willett received a frantic, desperate letter from Charles. The young man was panicked, having escaped the bungalow and returned home, and urged the destruction of everything found there—and the killing of Dr. Allen, no questions asked. This itself was shocking enough; Charles had always been a mild-mannered fellow, and Dr. Willett had never heard him call for the death of anyone. He shuddered over some of the young man's phrasing: "Upon us depends more than can be put into words – all civilisation, all natural law, perhaps even the fate of the solar system and the universe. I have brought to light a monstrous abnormality, but I did it for the sake of knowledge. Now for the sake of all life and Nature you must help me thrust it back into the dark again." Yes, he thought grimly, Allen was apparently another modern aficionado of the late Joseph Curwen and was attempting to carry the torch.
There was no wizard known to the Arkham authorities—or any of the other North American offices of magic—by the name of Allen. Dr. Willett had already made that inquiry by the time the letter arrived. That did not mean that he wasn't a wizard who, like Charles, had manifested late and escaped their notice, but it seemed far more likely that it was an assumed name, just as that beard and glasses were so highly suspicious to Willett. Charles was now at home, apparently, so it was time to go to the Ward house and finally have a good long talk.
Dr. Willett was deeply displeased to find, upon arrival at the mansion, that Charles had apparently gone back on his word and returned to the bungalow. He had, it seemed, escaped the house without anyone noticing, then returned for something, and then left openly. There had been strange noises, the butler reported, after his return—a scuffling, a series of fearful cries, and a choking sound—but nothing was found amiss in the laboratory after the second departure. Dr. Willett sat in the empty laboratory, gazing upon the blank paneling that had once held Curwen's portrait, not knowing exactly what he feared, but not liking the situation one bit.
Charles did not return to the house that evening. Resigned and irritated, the doctor resolved to visit the bungalow. Dr. Allen was gone from the place, Charles's father reported the next day. This news briefly buoyed Willett. Perhaps the danger was gone and Charles was taking care of the infernal laboratory. If so, Dr. Willett definitely wanted to be on hand to assist him—and investigate it himself.
The meeting had been deeply unsatisfactory. Charles Ward—if it were he—behaved like a character out of time, speaking in a very old-fashioned way and in a voice unlike his own. He asserted, in complete defiance of the plea to kill in the letter, that Dr. Allen was a fine man and anything he may have said to the contrary was to be forgotten, for it was written in a state of nerves. Dr. Willett could not help but wonder, for a terrible moment, about spirit possession. He had heard of such things... Additionally, none of the books, notes, or chemical paraphernalia that had once graced the rooms of the Ward mansion were visible in the bungalow. They weren't just disguised; they were gone. Hidden away somewhere else, Dr. Willett presumed. That there was an underground crypt left over from the days of Joseph Curwen seemed indubitable to him. That was where the research was now taking place. He did not like this development one bit and decided that something significant needed to be done.
After a similarly unproductive meeting between Ward and his father, Dr. Willett urged Mr. Ward to have his son committed to the mental hospital. If it were his son, he had taken on a neurotic mania and was clearly aping the customs, language, and even writing of the era—and person—that he had studied for so many years. If it were not his son, then it was still safer to have him out of that bungalow, away from the magical materials, if only temporarily so.
This was done on the eighth of March. There was no resistance from the young man, merely an amused resignation as the doctors and their assistants came to the bungalow to take him away. Dr. Willett felt a creeping alarm as, once again, the thought crossed his mind that this was not the boy he had known from childhood.
Shortly after Ward's commitment to the asylum, a strange letter arrived at the family house, addressed to Dr. Allen, from an unknown person in Prague. To Willett's displeasure, the father found and read this note before he could hide it.
Whether the father understood what he was reading, Dr. Willett certainly did. It contained clear references to grave-robbery and the trafficking of the exhumed remains—the very type of activity that old Joseph Curwen was supposed to have been doing. It addressed Dr. Allen as "Mr. J. C" and was signed "Simon O.," the name and initial of one of Curwen's old friends and colleagues. And it also contained this highly disturbing phrase: "As I told you longe ago, do not calle up That which you can not put downe; either from dead Saltes or out of ye Spheres beyond."
When he and the father went to the asylum to confront the patient about the meaning of this missive, Dr. Willett very much wished that he was a better Legilimens. The young man was evasive, implying that it was some manner of role-playing and that being "in character" with their historical counterparts aided the "researchers" in their studies. This explanation, in fact, was exactly what the materialist muggle psychiatrists were convinced was the case, a fact that did not escape Dr. Willett. He was certain that the young man was trying to charm his way out of the hospital as soon as he could by telling them what they wanted to hear. He was also certain that it would be a horrendous idea to permit it.
End Notes: Yes, Lovecraft fans, this is almost all background and reiteration of his story. Chapter II is where the AU really begins in earnest.