An Interesting Observation about Lovecraft’s Stories

Saturday , 6, May 2017 14 Comments

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.

Unimpressed by the covers for At The Mountains of Madness, here is a Roerich painting that inspired it.

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”?

14 Comments
  • Misha Burnett says:

    I agree that “At The Mountains Of Madness” went on too long, but I disagree with your analysis of where. I liked the logistics and the vanilla wilderness survival section of the story. I thought that was paced well, with the growing sense of things going off the rails once they were far from help and snowed in.

    It was the part where the characters reached the city of the Old Ones that felt too long to me. Part of it was the interminable descriptions of the mosaics telling the history of the Old Ones and the Shoggoths–not only is the narrator telling us what they say, he’s telling us things that I couldn’t imagine being clear from a series of pictures, particularly ones made by aliens, describing alien events.

    That, in my opinion, could have been cut down to “Entered ancient city, saw shoggoth, ran from same.”

    • icewater says:

      That is where “The Shadow Out of Time” is its superior, narrator’s familiarity with the ancient race and their history is far more believable whereas it is quite hard to swallow in “At The Mountains Of Madness”. Finale was quite a bit more frightful, too.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    I dunno. You may be on to something in that I agree there does seem to be a point past which tension is drained away. And, I’d agree about The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Unfortunately, in terms of my own favorite stories, they belie this idea. My favorites are his longer works: The Shadow Out of Time and in particular At the Mountains of Madness.

    But, it is his medium length works that do seem to be the general fan favorites: Cthulhu, Innsmouth, Dunwich, and Colour. So, maybe I’m the oddball.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Dang it, been too long since I read them; can’t make a decision.

    Good question, though.

  • Andy says:

    You mean whetting the audience’s appetite, not ‘wetting’.

  • Ulysses says:

    Yeah Mountains of Madness was way too long IMHO. I had even forgotten about the ending, which is so atypical for a Lovecraft story and i think the weakest part. That mid range game is terrific though. All time favorite is Colour out of Space. As a Western Mass native I also have a special place in my heart for Dunwich, which takes place closer to Springfield than Boston

  • RandyJJ says:

    I consider “The Call of Cthulhu” to be Lovecraft’s most overrated work. While very good in setting things up, it was terribly anti-climactic and didn’t have an interesting twist to compensate. [My personal belief is that it became so well known in popular culture because Cthulhu is the only big bad that had an extensive physical description, resulting in his becoming the ‘face’ of Lovecraft’s villains.]

    In contrast, I did not actually think that “The Shadow over Innsmouth” was very good for most of the story. Serviceable, certainly. Not bad. But while the situations and events were all mysterious and horrifying for the protagonist, they weren’t at all to me, the reader, with Lovecraft’s exposition sitting fresh in my memory. But that ending! Even though I suspected it was coming, it was still horrible to watch it happen. At the end of the day, Innsmouth is one of my favorites (I don’t think it quite breaks into my top 5) and Cthulhu is nowhere (which is not to say it’s one of his worst; merely in the unremarkable middle).

    “The Shunned House” I actually consider to be quite good. There is something terrible about watching a slow, creeping, inevitable destruction. I think the only thing keeping it from being one of his greats is the fact that he did the same sort of thing, but better, in “The Color out of Space” (Lovecraft rehashed earlier ideas in new stories several times; Innsmouth is basically the same story as “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” dolled up a little).

    I was amazed by “The Reanimator” simply because I didn’t expect to get creeped out by Zombies ever again.

    “Hypnos” is my favorite of his short works. One can clearly see why everyone would consider the protagonist’s story insane, one can clearly see why he will never be able to convince anyone that he’s not, and there is left the niggling sensation in one’s brain that maybe, just maybe, he is simply insane after all.

    About “The Dunwich Horror,” I need say nothing. Everyone is already aware that it is excellent.

    I confess to liking “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” considerably; before reading any Lovecraft, I was a fan of FFG’s game ‘Eldritch Horror,’ and it was a bit surprising to me to see such a huge lack of cults, magic spells, and Great Old Ones in his actual writing. Charles Dexter Ward was the first story chronologically (which is how I was reading them) that included all these elements (I am only speaking of the research and casting of magic spells done by the protagonists; earlier works certainly had magic as an element). Perhaps I would not have liked it so well if I had read “The Dunwich Horror” first, which likewise includes all the ‘Hollywood’ aspects but is a much better story overall.

    In closing though, I would just like to say that story that surprised me the most, the most out-of-left-field concept, the least expected twist in ANY of Lovecraft’s works is to be found in the humble story “Old Bugs.” I laughed when I remembered when Lovecraft wrote and realized where the story was (or wasnt’?) going.

    • RandyJJ says:

      Sheesh, I got going and didn’t realize I’d gone on so long.

    • Vlad James says:

      I agree with you about Cthulhu’s popularity.

      He is neither the most powerful, most interesting, nor most frequently mentioned of Lovecraft’s old gods. Just the most clearly described. Amusingly, his portrayal in later works is almost inevitably wrong, regardless.

      Nevertheless, the story itself is very good. Not even because of the god himself, but the crazed, bizarre rituals performed by his followers and the unspeakable terror they willingly stir up. The cult members are the true stars of that story.

      Thanks for mentioning “Hypnos”! I hadn’t read it before, but your post inspired me to. It’s an excellent short story, with a terrific, ambiguous ending.

      A similar concept to The Turn of the Screw, but far more succinct and effective in execution. Not to mention more imaginative.

      • B&N says:

        ” Not even because of the god himself, but the crazed, bizarre rituals performed by his followers and the unspeakable terror they willingly stir up.”

        I often hear this from people who try to explain that they aren’t afraid of the gods of other religions, but the followers who want to bury them or convert them.

    • icewater says:

      I like Innsmouth for its atmosphere more than anything else. “The Color out of Space” is also quite excellent and atmospheric, and there he also managed to pull out a personal tragedy, whereas same is (IMO) burred bellow dry genealogy in “The Shunned House”.

      “The Dunwich Horror” is one of my favorites too, but I realize that it is fashionable to dislike it in the Mythos circles due to impossibility of presenting its supernatural/occult element in their materialistic SF frame, and obviously due to humans triumphing over outer evil.

  • icewater says:

    No love for “The Dreams in the Witch House”? I just love how claustrophobic and suffocating it is, and that depiction of its protagonist’s descent into madness.

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