August Derleth: Cthulhu re-myth

Earlier this year I looked at how Detroit electro outfit Drexciya (perhaps inadvertently) reconfigured the poisonous racism of H.P. Lovecraft’s legacy. That legacy is a complex and problematic one, but one that we’re unlikely to have at all were it not for the heroic efforts of August Derleth.

Derleth (with Donald Wandrei) founded Arkham House Publishers to prevent Lovecraft’s stories falling into obscurity. They heroically kept him in print for decades, and without them – though it’s doubtful he’d be totally forgotten – he wouldn’t be the all-pervasive tentacular figure lurking behind much contemporary horror, fantasy and sci-fi.

However, Derleth himself has a dubious legacy (albeit nothing as problematic as Lovecraft’s racial loathing). He has been, and will no doubt continue to be, derided by Lovecraft fans for the liberties he took with his mentor’s byline.

For years, he took scraps of ideas from Lovecraft’s notes and turned them into stories which he then published as (ahem) “posthumous collaborations”. Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi says the stories

“listed as by “H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth,” were in fact written almost entirely by Derleth. In most cases, the stories were based on one or more ideas noted in Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book…Plotting, description, dialogue, characterization, and other elements were entirely by Derleth. As such they cannot be classified as works by Lovecraft. In some instances Derleth incorporated actual prose passages by Lovecraft into his stories. The Lurker at the Threshold (a 50,000-word novel) contains about 1,200 words by Lovecraft”¹

As far as I can determine from publication history online, the earliest of Derleth’s “Lovecraft” byline stories is the novella The Lurker At The Threshold. Published in 1945, it’s also the longest, the most enjoyable and despite it’s many faults the most successful. All his “H.P. Lovecraft with August Derleth” efforts thereafter were largely just rearranging a small number of elements with diminishing returns, as we’ll see below.

Derleth 1945 - The Lurker at the Threshold
The 1989 Gollancz re-issue I bought, oddly still carrying Lovecraft’s name. Not sure about the red bow. Or the skull, for that matter.

Ambrose Dewart inherits the Billington House near Dunwich. On researching his new home, he discovers that two of his ancestors, centuries apart, had successfully invoked beings from “Outside”. Of course, he isn’t quite able to put all the pieces together, because he refuses to face what’s in front of him. His fascination, as he presses the metaphorical big red button that says “Do Not Touch”, turns into a form of possession by the first, and most powerful, of those ancestors – Richard Billington.

Right from the start, we have a sense of deja-vu. Lurker begins thus:

“North of Arkham, the hills rise dark, wild and wooded, and much overgrown…”

Hmm. Sounds familiar. How does “The Colour Out of Space” begin, again?

“West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut.

The second part of the novella comes after Dewart, in a lucid moment, appeals to his cousin Stephen Bates, and as a result we have Bates’s first-person narrative. Dewart is alternating between two personalities (a none-too-subtle borrowing from the “The Whisperer in Darkness”). Bates has the same puzzle pieces, plus the added bonus of seeing what Dewart is up to when he’s possessed by Billington. But he still can’t face the “light” of the truth (though he quite literally does when it brings his end in the form of flying suns that split apart and reform as Yog-Sothoth).

The tedious final part, “The Narrative of Winfield Phillips” undoes all the build-up of tension by having Bates’s manuscript be examined and discussed by the eponymous Phillips and his mentor, the fantastically named Dr. Seneca Lapham². It’s a long attempt to tie together every myth system – and UFOs – into a codified structure of belief, and here lies another bone that Lovecraft fans pick with Derleth’s legacy.

Lovecraft never structured his Mythos: the term was coined by Derleth, who attaches to each major figure in the pantheon an “element” that they correspond to. He also frames the likes of Yog Sothoth, Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep as being pitched in some cosmic battle that stands as an allegory for the good v evil model of Derleth’s Christianity. In doing so he misrepresented Lovecraft for decades.

In other respects, he mimics Lovecraft perfectly. New England locals speak in dialect, while the main characters’ speech patterns are in standard English, thus echoing HPLs’s classism. To what extent Derleth shared HPL’s politics I don’t know, but in his defence if you’re writing a story “as” Lovecraft there are certain tropes that are expected. For instance, Dewart is described as “brown-skinned” but this simply means a well-tanned White man, and is definitely NOT to be assumed an African-American. He’s also described as lantern-jawed, and with a Roman nose. Take a look at the photo of Derleth at top of the page: am I reading too much into it to see Dewart as Derleth’s alter-ego, being possessed by Lovecraft just as Dewart is by Billington?

There are signifiers that this is not a true Lovecraft story. Dewart drinks endless cups of coffee, and finds reassurance at “the sight and sound of cars speeding along the highway” which is neither a Lovecraftian image nor sentiment. At the (horribly overwritten) climax – itself weirdly compressed, after the pages and pages in which Derleth has explained EVERYTHING in a way Lovecraft would leave to the reader’s imagination – the expulsion of the Other (and victory for bourgeois modernity) comes from a combination of firearms and cement.

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I found a second-hand copy of Derleth/Lovecraft’s The Shuttered Room (one of Panther Horror’s superb 1970s Lovecraft series) for a very reasonable 35p, in about 1990 or so. Naively I thought that HPL had written everything except the climax of each story because they all – indeed all of Derleth’s Cthulhu stories – end in italics, to lend a sense of heightened drama!

This collection gathers most of Derleth’s (ahem) “posthumous collaborations”, written in the 1950s. Even though these have the distinct feel of the literary equivalent of B-sides or studio out-takes, at the time I enjoyed them and took them at face value. But they don’t stand much scrutiny when you know the facts of their composition.

Like a musician armed with a sampler, Derleth creates new stories out of bits of existing ones, so the effect is a Lovecraft-flavoured cut-up-and-collage. It’s almost impossible to read them on their own terms, so dependent are they upon Lovecraft’s.

There is, however, the compensation of playing Lovecraft Bingo. I spotted at least 5 “gambrel roofs”, countless uses of “batrachian”, a couple of “icthyic”, a single “eldritch”, and flocks of bloody whippoorwills.

Now, to cut Derleth some slack, HPL was notably generous towards his coterie of young correspondents, and certainly meant for them to expand on the themes and ideas he came up with, with no consideration given to future bibliographers or cultural commentators.

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Atavism is a key Lovecraftian trope – the past returning to haunt the present – as if HPL himself had some fear (I may be stretching it a bit) of racial “impurity” in the past that might come back to undermine his own ethnic self-perception. To what extent Derleth felt this I’ve no idea, but he flogs the idea to death throughout his Cthulhu tales. “The Survivor” may be a poor story, but it’s the template for much of Derleth’s subsequent Lovecraft efforts.

“Wentworth’s Day” shares little with the others in this volume except the New England setting. It’s like a poorer version of W.W. Jacobs’s classic “The Monkey’s Paw” but instead makes explicit what that tale left to the reader’s imagination. It isn’t bad, but is completely undone by the inadvertently comic image of the final sentence.

“The Peabody Heritage” remixes “The Dreams In The Witch House”, but as a remix it’s more Jive Bunny than Andrew Weatherall. In what’s already a familiar scenario, our protagonist inherits a property. He is plagued by dreams which feature an entirely unimaginative warlock wearing an actual black conical hat. Really, August? It’s at this point that you begin to notice something else: that Derleth lacks imagination. Now that’s a harsh thing to say of any writer, especially one as prolific as Derleth, but – and perhaps the constraints of writing “as” someone else, decades after that author’s death, places certain restrictions on what can be written – he creates almost nothing to even approach the cosmic terrors of his mentor. Exciting extradimensional angles are hinted at but left unexplored, and are indeed superfluous to what’s a “standard” satanic witch cult story. For such a brief story, it’s a concentration of all that’s bad about these (ahem) “posthumous collaborations”: we also learn that Poles are superstitious, reinforcing HPL’s protestantism and his suspicion of anyone not of North-Western European descent.

It gets better/worse. Next up is “The Shadow out of Space” – doesn’t that sound like “The Shadow Out Of Time”, that late, great, dimension-bending Lovecraft tale? Well, yes, and that’s because it’s a complete rip-off of it. This is a shameless rewrite, putting Derleth’s borrowings elsewhere in the shade: he barely even changes the title! And he uses the opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu” as the (uncredited) epigraph! But how could he credit it if this story is indeed “by” Lovecraft?

This story also ties “At The Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” together – it mentions the events of both stories – bringing them together into the same universe in a way HPL never quite did: he seemed content to let any links exist merely as possibilities. What Derleth does – in codifying the Mythos – makes the fictional universe smaller and safer: the exact opposite, surely, of Lovecraft’s intention.

“The Lamp of Alhazred” is a gentle, almost touching, elegiac fictionalisation of HPL’s own life, in which “Ward Philips” receives a bequest from his late grandfather: in this case, a magical lamp which opens up the mind to divine – and distinctly hallucinatory – vistas. There’s a Mobius element at play, though, in having a character based on a real writer be inspired by a lamp belonging to one of his own creations.

Finally, “The Shuttered Room” is one of the better stories, though I’m reminded of the apocryphal rejection letter: “your manuscript is both original and good. Unfortunately, the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good”. This is a direct sequel to “The Dunwich Horror” and what horror it evokes – and it does a reasonable job – it owes almost entirely to that (significantly better, and far more unsettling) story. Disappointingly, it also tries once again to tie together separate HPL stories: a (literal) marriage of Dunwich with Innsmouth which again rather than bringing cohesion to HPL’s worldview only makes it a bit more airless and cramped.

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You can always spot cover art by someone who hasn’t read the book. “‘Watchers’? Let’s have eyes, but you need a face for that, so we’ll have a skull because this is Horror. ‘Time’? Well, I’ll put in a clock. And a random snake.”

The Watchers Out Of Time is a U.S. edition from 1991 which collects all of the above tales, and adds a few later ones. By the 60s, Derleth is clearly straining at the boundaries of old forms. He brings in some modern trappings, but is necessarily constricted by the fiction of these works being (at least in some measure) Lovecraft’s. He’s also limited by his considerably less cosmic imagination.

“The Shadow in the Attic”, first published in 1964, is notable for lines that would never, ever appear in a story penned by Lovecraft:

“I thrust forth a hand and encountered, unmistakably, a woman’s naked breast!…[Rhoda’s] were firm, beautifully rounded”

What the fuck?! This, in fact, is a moment of true weirdness for anyone familiar with Lovecraft. What’s more, the protagonist’s fiancee Rhoda is that rare – no, non-existent – Lovecraft chacracter (Asenath from “The Thing On The Doorstep” barely counts): a three-dimensional female, and one who has actual agency, even if she does conform to a streotypical 60s “dolly bird”.

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Aargh! Rugose cones!

“The Watchers Out of Time” (he even just remixes the titles!) is another “Dunwich Horror” sequel, unrelated to “The Shuttered Room”. It builds atmosphere nicely, and the motif of an opalesque “eye” in the study is a nice, quasi-psychedelic touch (Derleth had surely seen the 1970 Dunwich Horror film starring Dean Stockwell).

Again, we get hints of other dimensions, but they act as just so much wallpaper: he lacks the sense of cosmic horror and existential dread of Lovecraft, and writes like someone possessed of the certainties of faith. There’s a definite sense of Manichean good and evil, rather than the far more terrifying indifference of the universe as evoked by Lovecraft.

He also recycles his own idea from Lurker, where Billington (and later Dewart) had an Indian helper called Quamis. Here, we have “Increase Brown”, but how this character would develop we’ll never know because the story remained unfinished at Derleth’s death on July 4, 1971.

As well as his (ahem) “posthumous collaborations”, Derleth – at least in his younger days – published Cthulhoid stories under his own name. The 1969 collection Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos³, which he edited, includes two of his earliest Cthulhu stories, published under his own name. Both, unlike his Lovecraft stories, are set in his native Wisconsin (so at least that’s original). The oldest of these (from 1941) is “Beyond the Threshold”. It has an interesting premise: somewhere in a particular room is a gateway to another dimension, if you can only find it. Our protagonist is recalled from his job at (yawn) Miskatonic University to Wisconsin by his cousin Frolin (Frolin?), because their grandfather aims to end his life of exploring by crossing one final threshold. Keen-eyed readers will spot that the motif of bodies dropped from a great height months after their disappearance, as well as being partly nicked from “The Wendigo” by Algernon Blackwood, is used later in Lurker.

The other story is “The Dweller in Darkness” (sigh). Again, he re-uses Lovecraft’s own ideas in a way that (most of) the other authors in this collection don’t: Derleth doesn’t do himself any favours by including these derivative stories, however young he was at the time of writing.

To be fair to Derleth, he’s good at narrating mundane, everyday events in a way Lovecraft wasn’t, but the resultant tonal gulf between them and the supernatural events means that – even more than he does when writing as Lovecraft – he has to resort to italics to artificially lift the narrative pitch.

Both the stories in this volume actually mention Lovecraft’s work (published by Arkham House, naturally). Lacking the imagination of his fellow Mythos writers, he therefore uses Lovecraft as a shortcut, getting inadvertently postmodern by placing his books into the fiction, placing them on the same ontological level as the terrors they describe.

“Dweller” dates from 1944, the year before Lurker. Thereafter, his innovative – if brazen – technique to overcome Anxiety of Influence was breathtakingly simple: he “became” his own precursor.

In conclusion, then, we have superficially enjoyable stories, themselves resembling Lovecraft only superficially. In trying to extend the pleasure of Lovecraft’s oeuvre, they serve only to thin it out. Derleth is unable to develop Lovecraft’s ideas because he has a different philosophical outlook and little imagination, using Lovecraft’s unique cosmic horror as seasoning rather than as the recipe.

All these stories – with a few ambiguous exceptions – are set before the mid 30s (HPL died in 1937). This lends an extra layer of antiquarianism for stories written thirty years later: they are already (deliberately) dated in style, and by the end of Derleth’s career he’s therefore pastiching his own pastiches. There was – literally – no future in such a project.

 

Notes

¹ https://hplovecraft.com/writings/derleth.aspx

² What is it with Derleth and names? His enjoyably daft Trail of Cthulhu (think The Da Vinci Code with tentacles) features “Laban Shrewsbury” (incidentally also the name of a minor character in Lurker), and he published dozens of stories featuring his Sherlock Holmes knock-off, “Solar Pons”. Yes, that’s right: “Solar Pons”.

³ Well worth reading, it also contains a broad sweep of Lovecraft-inspired tales from the likes of Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long and even a young Ramsey Campbell.

 

Photo of Derleth © 2019 Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets

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