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"A Certain Slant of Light..."
Christopher Conlon's Blog
Dweller in a Different Darkness: Reconsidering August Derleth 
16th-Oct-2015 04:26 pm
Dweller in a Different Darkness:
Reconsidering August Derleth

Originally published at RA for All: Horror
Oct. 14, 2015

Copyright © 2015 by Christopher Conlon

Once upon a time August Derleth wasn’t particularly controversial. Growing up in the 1970s, I remember getting his paperback genre anthologies from the library—Beyond Time and Space, The Other Side of the Moon, Dark Things—and at some point my mind made the connection between the editor of those books and the name that occasionally popped up in the “Based on a Story by” credits of the horror-show reruns I liked. I vaguely realized that Derleth was the author of the “Solar Pons” Sherlock Holmes pastiches that appeared in mystery magazines here and there, and that he was somehow associated with H.P. Lovecraft as well. That was about all—just a lesser light in my mental collection of People Whose Names Appeared on the Covers of Books.

Prolific and protean, Derleth—who died in 1971—was quite a significant figure in the American literary scene of his time. Author of something like 150 titles, Derleth wrote everything from mainstream fiction set in his native Wisconsin to nature journals to well-regarded poetry to biographies of Emerson and Thoreau to horror stories set in Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos” (a term he coined, by the way).

Today, however, Derleth’s name is mud, at least in terms of the horror fiction by which he is best remembered. All aspects of his association with Lovecraft (commonly called “HPL”), for whom he served as a de facto literary executor after the latter’s death in 1937, have been thrown into question—his handling of Lovecraft’s manuscripts, his copyrights, his very literary legacy. Though Derleth founded Arkham House with Donald Wandrei in 1939 for the specific purpose of keeping Lovecraft’s work in print, Derleth’s editions of Lovecraft’s stories were discovered to have been riddled with all kinds of errors. A fervent band of Lovecraft aficionados has spent the last couple of decades setting things right and publishing new, corrected editions of the Master’s works. That’s certainly a good thing.

What has not been so good, however, is the trashing August Derleth’s reputation has undergone as a result. Although it’s indisputable that he had more to do with Lovecraft’s remaining in print and available to the reading public than anyone else in the first several decades after the author’s death, many of today’s Lovecraftians actively despise Derleth, referring to him in their books and monographs (to say nothing of Internet postings) in the most savagely splenetic terms.

To be sure, some of Derleth’s behavior surrounding HPL’s estate was ethically dubious. Perhaps the main bone of contention has been Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft, stories ostensibly based on HPL’s notes and outlines and published with a collaborative byline but discovered long afterward to have been mostly—often solely—the work of August Derleth. This is unfortunate, and impossible to defend.

But the truth is that Lovecraft was never more than a minor part of August Derleth’s extraordinary publishing career. Despite his regard for Lovecraft the man, whom he knew through correspondence, he never took the Cthulhu Mythos very seriously, claiming that HPL wrote the stories only “as pure entertainment, no more” and seemingly taking the same attitude when writing his own tales set within the Lovecraft universe (some published as collaborations, others under Derleth’s solo byline). He was far busier writing huge numbers of important novels in his Sac Prairie Saga along with deep meditations on nature and community in his small corner of Wisconsin—books he considered his major work. Despite the importance of Arkham House to him (he sometimes kept it afloat with his own money), writing Lovecraftian fiction was never more than a lucrative sideline for August Derleth.

Yet today, more than four decades after his death, the attacks on Derleth from within the Lovecraft community are constant and unending. He resides in a kind of Index Expurgatorius at least as fearsome and forbidden as the Necronomicon—one reads that Derleth was “a hack,” “talentless,” “a very bad writer,” “incompetent,” and many much less temperately expressed things.

In truth, a number of his Lovecraftian tales are excellent—the novella “The Dweller in Darkness” comes immediately to mind. But the unsuspecting reader would never know it when one of the best-known and most respected of Lovecraft scholars dismisses all of these widely-read, much-reprinted stories with magisterial disdain as “a mass of sub-literary rubbish.”

It’s time for the unique and important writer who was August Derleth to be rediscovered. Much of his work is now commercially out of print, but a lot of it is available exclusively through the August Derleth Society, which publishes its own handsome editions obtainable directly through their website (derleth.org).

Here then are three titles that an enterprising librarian might choose to begin building an August Derleth collection.

The Watchers Out of Time and Other Stories (Del Rey), credited to H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth, is the main compilation of the so-called posthumous collaborations, and it is surely the place to start. All of these tales are worthwhile, and some are excellent. “The Fisherman at Falcon Point” is surprisingly lyrical, “The Dark Brotherhood” great fun (multiple Edgar Allan Poes invade a small town!), and “The Shuttered Room”—often reprinted, twice filmed—surely qualifies as one of the most famous pieces ever to appear with Lovecraft’s byline attached. Whatever their provenance, these tales are guaranteed to be of interest to the Lovecraft fan who has already read everything published under the Master’s solo byline and is ready to branch out into other aspects of the Cthulhu Mythos.

For the reader who enjoys The Watchers Out of Time and is curious to find more horror works by August Derleth, the obvious choice is Who Shall I Say Is Calling? and Other Stories edited by Robert Weinberg and Stefan Dziemianowicz (Batteted Silicon Dispatch Box, available through the Derleth Society). This wonderful collection was put together specifically by the editors in order to provide an easy one-volume “best of” for Derleth’s weird fiction, and many of these stories deserve the name “classic”; they represent great old-fashioned spooky storytelling at its finest. As a bonus, fans of the vintage TV shows Night Gallery and Thriller will enjoy finding the originals of several episodes here, including Gallery’s “The Dark Boy” and “Logoda’s Heads” and Thriller’s “The Return of Andrew Bentley,” “A Wig for Miss Devore,” and the wonderfully pulpy “Colonel Markesan.”

Yet to give a proper representation of Derleth, something in addition to the weird tale is needed. To that end, the creative librarian should consider adding one more title, Village Year (Derleth Society), to the collection. Village Year consists of several years’ worth of journal entries (along with the occasional poem) by Derleth, mostly on the subjects of nature and small-town life in his beloved Sac Prairie, Wisconsin. Here is the opening paragraph:

“Walking through a gentle fall of snow tonight to grandfather Derleth’s, and knowing grandmother to be dying, I could not help thinking of change, and all the aspects of change eternally taking place, some clearly obvious, and so many secret, but no less eventually plain to the eye and heart: the eternal flux—and I thought: It is more than just birth and death, more than a tree gone, a house risen: the slow, inexorable changing of a way of life, the difference between youth and age, in final analysis always the gulf between generations. Snow came down with a faint whispering, and in the melancholy of my occupation with grandmother’s slow dying, I thought of these flakes as voices all around me in the still, windless air, the voices of those people and things long gone, the remote pulse of life gone by.”

Village Year is a beautiful book, one ripe for re-discovery—a journal that deserves to be ranked alongside Walden for its use of evocative detail to conjure a now vanished world, in this case a pre-World War II rural America.

Such writing proves that those who dismiss August Derleth as “talentless” and “a hack” have never read much August Derleth. But because of the decades of hostility and abuse aimed at him by overzealous fans of H.P. Lovecraft, Derleth has become, to appropriate the title of one of his best stories, a kind of “dweller in darkness” himself—a different kind of darkness. Too many readers don’t bother to try his work because of what they’ve heard, and since so many people claim it so loudly, it must be true—mustn’t it?

It isn’t. The literary worlds of the brilliant August Derleth are well worth exploring, and returning his books to the nation’s library shelves would be a great place to start.

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