By Austin H. Williams
Austin H. Williams is a raconteur and rockenroller who can, to some extent, be observed at Twitter.com/austinhearswhos
The Lurking Anthologist
As I was skimming through the rulebook, trying to figure out who I could be, what I would become, and just how screwed I’d be if I rant into the titular monster, I noticed a name that kept popping up, and it was bugging me.
“For a book based on Lovecraft stuff,” I said, “this August Derleth guy keeps popping up a lot.”
“Oh, yeah,” said one of my friends, “I think he’s some guy Lovecraft made up, like that guy who wrote the Necronomicon.”
“Oh,” I said. “Makes sense.” And I left it at that while we played the game. I mean, August Derleth does sound like a name ol’ Howard would’ve made up, right?
Well, as with many things in life, I had no idea how wrong I was. He was. We all were. But I had caught onto something fairly quickly – and that’s just how much those of us reading Lovecraft now owe to Derleth’s work in preserving and proliferating Lovecraft’s legacy.
Facts Concerning the Late August Derleth and His Legacy
Due to his penchant for horror and fantastic stories, one might be tempted to view him similarly to any number of writers of the era – wallowing in the pulps, content to spit out penny-a-page yarns as the literary elite sneered from a distance. But this didn’t happen. He drew critical praise for a wide variety of his writings. His Sherlock Holmes pastiches were popular enough to elicit legal attention from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s descendents. His children’s adventure books received praise from the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. His Sac Prarie Saga books won him plaudits from Pulitzer Prize winners and luminaries such as Sinclair Lewis and Edgar Lee Masters. He even won a bloody Guggenheim fellowship and, then, y’know, spent the money binding his comics collection. (Priorities, I suppose.)
He fenced. He hiked. He worked jobs ranging from parole officer to school board trustee, and through it all (by his own estimation) found time to write “750,000 to a million words a year.” But this is window dressing, yes? Remarkably few people are, after all, reading this blog to know more about the most respected observer of early-20th Century Wisconsin rural life.
August Derleth – Republisher
c) the maddening emptiness at the core of all existence
d) New England
e) any combination of the above
And yet, Lovecraft and Derleth’s careers in the pulps overlapped for decades, and both men admired one another and kept in close contact – I mean, y’know, for what counted as close contact between people living half-a-country apart in days when party-line telephones were still cutting edge. Derleth began his correspondence with Lovecraft as a teenager – not long after “Bat’s Belfry” made its way into Weird Tales’s pages, and the two kept in touch until Lovecraft’s death in 1937.
Along with Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and other pulp luminaries, Derleth played with stories and ideas inspired by Lovecraft’s not-quite-concretized mythos. Lovecraft encouraged this kind of dabbling within the realm of his cyclopean and preternatural world, but while others remained content to merely work within the Cthulhu-verse, Derleth took it several steps further. Upon Lovecraft’s death, Derleth, along with fellow “Lovecraft Circle” member Donald Wandrei, took it upon themselves to produce a collection of Lovecraft’s fiction for wide publication and release. But Derleth soon discovered that not even a well-regarded Guggenheim fellow with fresh connections to New York publishers could land a home for Lovecraft’s work. Whatever was a fanboy to do?
Convinced that it was vital to preserve Lovecraft’s legacy, Derleth and Wandrei founded Arkham House, a publisher that focused initially on anthologizing and distributing Lovecraft’s work to ensure that his legacy of nightmarish, otherworldly terrors (as well as more problematic things…) would endure. And, of course, it worked. We wouldn’t be reading or writing this blog if it hadn’t, right?
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Canon
Arkham House found success anthologizing Lovecraft’s stories and letters. Lovecraft’s mythos, his “Yog-Sothothery” was providing motifs and inspiration to new generations of pulp writers such as L. Sprague de Camp and Fritz Leiber. Feeling the unction of a historian, of a scholar, of a fantasist, Derleth undertook the challenge of pounding Lovecraft’s “aesthetic construct” (as Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi put it) into a cohesive comprehensive mythology, replete with its levels of gods, elemental associations, and even a cosmic battle between good and evil.
Of course, as we, good Lovecraftians all, are aware, many of these ideas are either alien or even inimical to Lovecraft’s writings. There is no consensus over whether Lovecraft ever intended there to be a concrete “Cthulhu Mythos,” and doubtless he would have never allowed anything like metaphysical good or evil to seep into it!
But Derleth didn’t stop with coining the term “Cthulhu Mythos,” or even with organizing the disparate strands of horrific cosmology into a cohesive system. He proceeded to build something of a cottage-industry career of taking throwaway lines and ideas from Lovecraft’s letters and making full-fledged stories out of them. “The Lurker at the Threshold,” “The Shadow out of Space,” “The Lamp of Alhazred,” “The Shuttered Room,” and others would come to be published with H.P. Lovecraft sharing Derleth’s byline. Some stories, such as “The Lurker at the Threshold,” actually contained (relatively) extensive original portions of Lovecraft’s writing. Others were based on nothing more than musings, often merely hinted at. S.T. Joshi referred to these stories as “perhaps the most disreputable phase of Derleth’s activities.” Mordicai Knode, writing for Tor.Com, observed simply that the stories, and even Derleth’s attempt to systematize the Cthulhu Mythos was the work of someone who “writes Lovecraft fanfiction, basically.”
The Shadow Over Lovecraft
Reflecting on Derleth’s most enduring legacy is a humbling exercise. His most critically acclaimed work, the aforementioned Sac Prairie Saga, was something like A Prairie Home Companion meets In Search of Lost Time. But what if Garrison Keillor did something to be best remembered for, I dunno’, writing zombie apocalypse novels? That’s basically what happened to August Derleth here.
Regardless of the value – either literary or ethical – of Derleth’s own contributions to Lovecraft’s legacy, what isn’t in doubt is that without Derleth’s efforts, the lay horror enthusiast may be no more familiar with Lovecraft’s work than most lay science fiction readers know of Philip Francis Nowlan, or fantasists know of William Morris. Derleth not only preserved Lovecraft’s work and legacy, he kept it a living, growing entity long enough for it to attach itself to modern geek culture and metastasize.
Lovecraft’s tales of dread and madness seem to resonate more and more with every successive generation, but it’s worth some consideration, and some gratitude, to note that if not for August Derleth and the Arkham House publications, Lovecraft’s tales may have, so to speak, remained in the vault…