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A note on the posts to come: As I wrote last week, I’m pretty uncomfortable with the apparent tendency of Lovecraft scholars to write off Derleth entirely. But I knew almost nothing about him as a writer, so I picked up The Watchers Out of Time and The Cthulhu Mythos. Having read an arguably representative sample of his weird fiction, I realized my feelings toward his work were extremely complicated, difficult to organize into a single post. As such, this week’s longer posts will be devoted to Derleth.

So, for today: The good

It seems only fair that I start this post with a confession—I was pretty much ready to write Derleth off entirely about halfway through The Watchers Out of Time—and I still wouldn’t include him on my personal list of the best mythos writers in existence.

But the truth is, not only was he responsible for protecting and promoting Lovecraft’s legacy, there’s a lot that Derleth did right.

He’s anti-technobabble*: One of my least favorite tendencies of Lovecraft is the constant dropping of tantalizing hints that go absolutely nowhere. Quick! Tell me about Shub-Niggurath! Yes, she is the Black Goat of a Thousand Young, but where is she from, and where does she dwell? Who worships her? Why do they worship her? I have no idea. If you read Lovecraft and Lovecraft alone, you’ll be familiar with the name and title, and that’s it. I’m not exaggerating. The name is mentioned three or four times in his authored work**: once as an exclamation (a la Iä! Shub-Niggurath!***), and in later works as a name and a title. Praise the Black Goat of a Thousand Young, I guess, but why?

Shub-NiggurathThe Black Goat of a Thousand Young, for a certain definition of the word “goat”

Maybe some readers are much more accepting of the use of this sort of jargon—it’s scene-setting, it’s mysterious. I just find it frustrating. While Derleth certainly uses plenty of mysterious incantations and arcane quotes from various texts, he’s significantly more devoted to explaining the who’s and why’s of old one worship and genealogy. I do take some issue with how he explains the deities and the abominations that occasionally traipse across earth, but that’s a post for tomorrow.

He’s liberal: Lovecraft was, by pretty much every account, a bigoted ass. His stories are chock-full of swarthy, shifty-eyed foreign-types, dark-skinned natives worshipping unspeakable abominations, cats named with ethnic slurs, and absolutely useless woman. (See “The Thing on the Doorstep” for a great example of the woman issue—the strong, menacing female character turns out to be literally possessed by the spirit of her dead father.) None of that is present in any of the Derleth stories I’ve read, beyond a few stereotypes about drunken Native Americans****. And I was very pleasantly surprised by “The Shadow in the Attic”—the protagonist is a typical Lovecraft type, a blustering academic fellow. But he just so happens to have a fiancée: an intuitive, intelligent woman who recognizes the evil machinations underlying a strange clause in a will. Her bookish lover scolds her for her irrationality and begs her to be logical, even as things get stranger and more menacing. And, like all Lovecraftian academics, he gets sucked in beyond the point of escape—but she’s there to save the day. The story ends on a snippy note, by the chastened but still persnickety man of letters:

Women are fundamentally not rational creatures. Nothing will shake her free of her notions about the house on Aylesbury street. It annoys me that I find myself unable to come up with a more rational explanation myself…

He’s a good writer: In On Writing, Stephen King vividly describes the learning process he went through to become the writer he is today. For quite some time, whenever he wrote, he’d unconsciously replicate the style of whichever writer that particularly interested him at the moment. Looking back on it, he notes that this period of replication was both inevitable and essential—by taking on and removing the identities of the authors he admired, he was learning about himself as a writer—likes, dislikes, preferences, you name it. So, if you read The Watchers Out of Time in the order it’s written (each story arranged by date, as I did), you might be tempted to give up the entire experiment a third of the way through the book (as I was.) The first few stories read like an inept imitation of Lovecraft, which, frankly, they most likely were. Ham-fisted country dialect spoken by wizened elders who know too much, batrachian everything, lists upon lists of weird titles found on some mysteriously vanished professor’s shelves, so on and so forth, with endings that telegraph themselves from the opening line and foreshadowing that beats you over the head, leaving you bruised and bloody. But I pressed on*****, and by the end of the book, the fog had lifted. Derleth tried on Lovecraft’s prose and liked it, but with time he found his own voice. The stories in The Cthulhu Mythos are refreshingly clear, and full of new deities and abominations entirely of his own creation.

In essence, Derleth began by parroting Lovecraft, but ultimately he wrote to the point where his own tone—curious, detail-oriented, and wry—began to shine through. He wasn’t a complete acolyte—he recognized that his own world-view was very different from Lovecraft’s, and he came to write accordingly. Buuuuuuuut

(and of course there is a but)

therein lies the problem, or part of the problem, anyway. To be continued on Wednesday…

The Cultist


*Or whatever the Lovecraftian equivalent of the term might be.

**He goes into a bit more detail in his ghostwriting/edits, but that’s a post for another day.

***Embarrassing admission for your Monday morning: I never learned what umlauts mean, in terms of pronunciation, so I have NO idea how you say this. Eeee-ahh? Eye-ahh? Eeee-ay?

****It really says a lot about the racism inherent to Lovecraft’s writing that I’m so willing to write off a “half-breed” whose tongue is loosened by liberal applications of fire-water, but here we are.

*****Mostly because I thought I might use the material write yet another hilarious “terrible mythos fiction” post, but hey, you know, I’m of the mindset that it’s okay to do the right things for the wrong reasons.

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