Dienstag, 24. Februar 2015

An Appreciation of August Derleth on His Birthday

(Here is a piece I wrote last year for "Weird Tales" now defunct website.)

I Wrote to a few authors associated with August Derleth stating  my intention in writing an appreciation of Mr. Derleth in honor of his 106th birthday . I then asked them whether they would be so kind as to make a statement regarding their  own thoughts on the man.

Here is an email reply that  I received from Mr. Brian Lumley regarding August Derleth.

Dear Mr. Draa – in answer to yours of 7 Feb. 2014:

No one would ever reasonably dispute the fact that August Derleth – a wonderful author in his own “write,” not to mention an accomplished editor and a shrewd and immensely knowledgeable publisher of weird fiction – was the most influential member of the original Lovecraft Circle and the greatest “fan” and constant champion of the peerless H. P. Lovecraft. Derleth’s now famous Arkham House publishing concern, whose distinctive black-bound hardcover books would come to be recognized as standing among the most collectible of their like in the English speaking 20th Century world, ensured Lovecraft’s continuity and indeed that of his “Mythos,” in the wake of an era when the authors of strange tales enjoyed few outlets for their work and who, with the demise of the so-called “pulp magazines” where much of it was published, were in the main forgotten…

But due initially (albeit posthumously) entirely to the efforts of his champion, H.P.L. was never in danger of being forgotten; Derleth published not only his entire body of fiction but also five volumes of his letters to fans, devotees and established authors of like talents and persuasions: a huge task for any man, but a labour of love for August Derleth. H.P.L., however, superb author as he was, was not alone in Derleth’s affections; he shared space with an entire panoply of dark stars in the stellar nursery that was Arkham House. Such names as Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, A. E. van Vogt, Ray Bradbury and others: a seemingly endless list of luminaries, were also given additional prominence by Derleth’s publishing genius…

 And a reply from David Drake..

August Derleth read and critiqued my first submitted story. He read my rewrite and critiqued that. Finally he bought my second rewrite, saying it still wasn’t right but he’d edit it himself.

            Mr Derleth wasn’t gentle, but he spent time on me for no reason but basic kindness to a wannabe writer. I may not owe him the fact that I became a successful writer–but there’s no one to whom I owe more.

 Dave Drake

Today, the 24th of February, is August Derleth’s 106th birthday. Now a 106th birthday isn’t nearly s special, as say, a 100th Birthday. It will have to do though, being that I’m five years to late on this. One of the reasons for writing this is naturally Mr. Derleth’s association with the original incarnation of Weird Tales Magazine. That’s not my main reason though.

I’ll explain. A few months ago I stumbled across an online petition to have H. P. Lovecraft’s name removed from the Carroll @ Graff  editions of  The Lurker at the Threshold and The Watchers out of Time.  At first glance I thought that the petition’s creator simply wanted  Lovecraft’s named removed  from the titles simply because  they were some of Mr. Derleth’s infamous “posthumous collaborations” with Mr. Lovecraft. Upon rereading the petition I realized that the petitioner’s ire wasn’t with Mr. Derleth per se, but with Carroll & Graff’s misleading marketing of the two books. The front covers contained Mr. Lovecraft’s name alone, with no mention of Mr. Derleth’s “co-authorship”. I’ll admit that I agree with this wholeheartedly, since it has to be an intentional deception. But I agree only up to a point though. I’ll explain why at the end of the Appreciation. I then went on to read some of the comments made by the petition signers. Sadly, the more I read, the angrier I became. Here are a few comments……

You are dragging Lovecraft’s name in the dirt!

An outrage for all us Lovecraftians….

Slap the marketing weasels and pull Derleth off of Lovecraft’s coattails.

this is bullshit… down with derleth

stop Derleth’s bad influence, and “Cthulhu mythos” falsity!


Derleth is mooching on Lovecraft’s good name!

Those are from the first 10 pages. This stuff then goes on for  another 49!

I honestly understand the confusion and anger, but only to a point. What bothered me was this generalized kind of “hater’s” mentality. It makes me despair that so-called fans and admirers know so little about August Derleth and his contributions to the genre. This goes to show that sometimes those who scream the loudest are the ones who know the least (And for God’s sake! I’m not talking about you Mr. Joshi!)

Now let me say up front that I am neither a scholar nor am I the most deeply insightful of men,  I am simply a fan. I do believe though that only those who are poorly informed about what they claim to love so dearly would try to judge Mr. Derleth’s stature solely based on 15 short stories and one novel. The sum of the man is so much greater than the parts. And some of the parts are pretty damned amazing.

I’ve known for years that Mr. Derleth never considered his genre writing to be his primary or best work. He reserved this opinion for his historical and regional writings. His Sac Prairie Saga was what he believed to be his to be his greatest achievement. Now what I didn't know was that Mr. Derleth was awarded, because of the first volume of his Saga, a highly prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship under the sponsorship of Edgar Lee Masers and Sinclair Lewis.

Now this alone gives the man some serious literary street cred. Another thing that many fans don’t realize is that Mr. Derleth is seriously considered to be a pioneer in Conservationism and Environmentalism.  So you see, we already have a man who is so much more than merely some hack riding upon another author’s coattails.

As an author of weird fiction Mr. Derleth ranged from mediocre at his worst to exceptional at his best. He even once stated that many of his stories that appeared in Weird Tales were simply filler material. He still managed though to write some genuine genre classics with such tales as The House of Magnolias (1932), The Thing that Walked on the Wind (1933), Drifting Snow (1939), The Lonesome Place (1941) and Who Shall I say is Calling? (1952). Now this is purely subjective, but I consider The Drifting Snow and The Lonesome Place to be two of the best horror tales to ever see print.

The greatest debt we owe Mr. Derleth is that he quite likely saved H. P. Lovecraft from obscurity by co-founding Arkham House publishing along side Donald Wandrei for the express purpose of preserving Mr. Lovecraft’s works and to present them to a wider audience. We will never know if anyone else would have done this if Mr. Derleth hadn’t.  The fact is though, that he was the one who did this and helped bring Mr. Lovecraft’s stories to the world at large.

It’s quite possible that without Mr. Derleth’s efforts, Mr. Lovecraft would have been resigned to a foot note in the annals of weird fiction.  Mr. Derleth also championed such writers as Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, to name just a few. Arkham House also published Dark Carnival, Ray Bradbury’s first novel. I’m pretty sure this collection was neither a career breaker or nor maker for Mr. Bradbury. And it was during the 1960s that Mr. Derleth discovered and encouraged the two genre giants, Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley. Through Derleth’s patronage it was Arkham House which introduced these gentlemen to generations of fans. And David Drakes first sale was also to August Derleth.

Not only was August Derleth a publisher and author, he was also a respected anthologist.  He edited 29 anthologies between 1944 and his death in 1971. And it was through such anthologies that the stories of many a talented Horror and Science Fiction author was rescued from complete obscurity.  I own over a dozen of these collections and they are honestly some of the best that I have ever read. I treasure every one of them.

Now lets deal with the touchiest of subjects from Mr. Derleth’s career and what folks love to whine about the most. The posthumous collaborations with H. P. Lovecraft. It’s a known fact that these collaborations are actually tiny morsels of Lovecraft converted into full blown works by Mr. Derleth. Any reader will immediately see that these works are greatly inferior to those that are 100% HPL. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out since Mr. Derleth wasn’t Mr. Lovecraft. Is it correct and fair that Mr. Lovecraft’s name appear in huge text on the covers while Mr. Derleth’s name appears as little more than an afterthought? Not really. That’s an out and out marketing gimmick. I have no idea if Mr. Derleth was capitalizing on HPL’s name or simply honoring a man who he greatly admired. I don’t know and neither does anyone else. It could be a mixture of both.

What I do find very interesting is this statement at the very beginning of the first paperback edition of  The Survivor and Others from Ballantine Books in 1957….

“Among the papers of the late Howard Philips Lovecraft were various notes and/or outlines for stories which he did not live to write. Of these, the most complete was the title story of this collection. These scattered notes were put together by August Derleth, whose finished stories grown from Lovecraft’s suggested plots, are offered here, as a final collaboration, post-mortem.”

Interpret that as you see fit. But I find it somewhat telling that such statements disappeared from editions published after Mr. Derleth’s death.

This leads me to believe that the publishers were/are the actual guilty parties as far as trying  pass off Derleth as Lovecraft. Just look at the well intentioned petition to have Lovecrafts name removed from the two posthumous collaborations published by Carroll & Graff. They didn't deem it necessary to place Mr. Derleth’s name on the covers along side that of HPL’s. Mr. Derleth had nothing to do with this fraudulent practice  since he was long dead when those editions were published. So it appears that the publishers have played a great role in perpetuating the confusion over the collaborations.

Never forget that Mr. Derleth never got rich on any of this and was making most of his money elsewhere. So I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that the authorship issue was just as much an effort to honor HPL as it was a marketing ploy. I will continue to believe this until someone can prove otherwise. and at that time I will be more than willing to eat these words.

It is also clear that many readers, scholars and critics have some serious and understandable issues with Mr. Derleth’s own take on the structure of what himself christened “The Cthulhu Mythos”. I don’t like it either that he broke the deities down into good guys and bad guys. Nor do I like the fact that he attempted to convert them into Elementals.  And it’s also another fact that he never forced this cosmological interpretation onto anyone else. It was his take on things and his alone. And it’s another fact that readers vote with their dollars. The books sold and have been reprinted a few times. So it seems that they did find some resonance with part of the fan base. Mr. Lovecraft’s vision was an open one that wasn’t written in stone. There have been countless writers who have had their own take on the Mythos and they haven’t taken nearly the amount of heat that Mr. Derleth has.  I’m tired of hearing how Derleth damaged the Mythos and Mr. Lovecraft’s stature/reputation. I see no evidence of this. So here is my challenge to the haters. Please show me how any of Mr. Derleth’s collaborations or works under his own name  alone have in any way done harm to Mr. Lovecraft. If you can prove me wrong then I’ll be more than happy to append this piece and eat my own words. Such “fans” should spend more time and effort combating those who are actively trying to harm Mr. Lovecraft’s reputation instead of wasting time tearing down a dead man who spent the greater part of his professional life championing and promoting Mr. Lovecraft! He has earned at least that much of our respect and gratitude!

So please take one last look at the mans achievements ….

Patronized as a young writer by Edgar Lee Masts and Sinclair Lewis.

Pioneer Conservationist and Environmentalist.

Brought HPL to the masses!

Wrote some damn good stories!

Excellent Anthologist!

Never got rich off of HPL!

Gave us many fine new authors!

And did I mention that he brought HPL to the masses?

Happy Birthday Mr. Derleth!

We owe you one.


And as always, these are all scans of book I have in my collection.