Like most here, I’m a fan of HP Lovecraft’s stories. The imagination is astounding and the description vivid and memorable. However, when I first read these tales a few years ago, I was most impressed by Lovecraft’s technical writing prowess. He had a better, more articulate command of language than many serious dramatic writers possess, and was an expert at setting up tension and conveying a mood. I’m not surprised his writings have stood the test of time far better than some of the serious, critically-praised literature of that era (Thomas Wolfe, anyone?), and will likely be enjoyed generations into the future.
However, I noticed something unusual about his works. Namely, a major indicator of their quality was the page length. Now, this was far from the only factor, and there are some exceptions. But in general, Lovecraft had a “sweet spot” for his stories, and they lost some of their power and richness when he ventured outside of it.
Let’s look at the specifics. I love The Dunwich Horror. We’re introduced to a creepy, dilapidated town, and one particularly ominous family that dwells there. A mystery is expertly weaved, whetting the audience’s appetite, but isn’t overdone. The plot proceeds at a brisk pace, building up the tension, until we finally get a memorable, shocking finale. Complete with a surprising wrinkle I didn’t see coming. Every short story writer should be required to read this.
While it adopts a more global perspective, recounting bizarre events around the world, one can say the same for the excellent The Call of Cthulhu. While there are different editions, The Dunwich Horror is around 65-70 pages and The Call of Cthulhu is 40-50 pages.
This seems to be the optimal length for a Lovecraft story. One where the description and mystery don’t have a chance of getting stale, the plot proceeds at a perfect pace, and the reader is surprised a
nd delighted by the ending. Of course, not all of Lovecraft’s stories of this length are classics; The Shunned House is decent, but not particularly memorable.
Now, let’s look at the longer, roughly 130 page The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. On the basis of imagination or premise, this work is no way inferior to the other two! There is a deep mystery considering the title character as well as an evil ancestor of his. The first 30 pages or so are fantastic. However, in the middle portion, the story gets bogged down, repeating more and more unusual circumstances around the title character. And of a very similar nature to what we had already read in dozens of pages. At some point, the additional backstory and description stops adding to the mystery and tension, but actively detracts from it.
About 90 pages through, and with the story little different than it was 30 pages in, I’m sure every reader had figured out what the explanation was, and even what would occur. This is very different from The Dunwich Horror, and robs the conclusion of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward of its effect. Being predictable instead of surprising, it feels like a dud, doubly so with how much longer the build-up was.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a pretty good story I would encourage others to read. But it’s inferior to Lovecraft’s shorter, tighter stories, and I can only imagine how outstanding it might have been if edited down to half its length.
Now, finally we come to At The Mountains of Madness, the only Lovecraft story I’ve read that I didn’t care for. Which almost pains me to type, since it has a lot going for it! The imagination is tremendous and linking the cold, haunting landscape of Antarctica to the paintings of Russian mystic Nicholas Roerich highly inspired. There are some spectacular moments, and the final image of the story is particularly vivid and haunting.
Unfortunately, to get there, we have to slog through endless descriptions of the logistics of the exploratory crew. Every single aspect of the caves, landscape, provisions, plane trip, and cadavers is gleaned through, and often repeated for good measure. With the narrator remarking dozens of times about how horrifying and maddening his experience was before we have truly gotten to the meat of it. This kills the mood, making it feel like a tedious journal more than a bizarre, suspenseful, and exciting tale. When the action finally kicks in near the end, I didn’t have the same reaction I normally would.
It’s a testament to Lovecraft’s brilliance that he is still able to largely bring it back with an excellent ending. Nevertheless, with some editions listing this at over 150 pages, I believe length was a culprit.
Of course, these are my personal impressions. What say you, dear readers? Do you think Lovecraft had an ideal length for his writings, or do you believe his longer ventures suffered none of the flaws I ascribed to them? Are there other writers, particularly among pulp writers, who had a “sweet spot”?