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A note on this week: As I wrote a few days ago, 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.

Well, you were warned: Today and Friday, I’ll be discussing that which drives me nuts in Derleth’s fiction. Friday will be all about the content—specifically, the changes Derleth made to Lovecraft’s original vision that really seem to irk serious Lovecraft scholars. Today’s post is about things that irk me*:

Nothing is allowed to stand alone: One of the things that kind of grew increasingly irritating as I read more and more was Derleth’s dogged determination to link every part of the mythos together. Pretty much every protagonist encountered in a Derleth mythos story is, in some way, tied to the residents of Innsmouth or the Whateleys. You can’t just have a story about Cthulhu—it has to be noted that he’s allied with Azathoth and Dagon and everyone else, and he’s the half-brother of Hastur, and the lot of them were expelled into space by the beneficent Elder Ones (more about that on Friday). Lovecraft is definitely guilty of mythos info-dumps in his incantations and scrawled notes written by people going insane (“AAAAAAHHH ai’alghyay’a Nyarlathotep Chthulhu Tshup Aklathep**” and so forth), but Derleth is determined to tie everyone together into one delightful infernal family. And I don’t think it always works so well. By emphasizing the pantheon—family ties, inner battles, and the like—we’re putting the unthinkable into deeply human terms. I think the overall effect is weak.

Derleth is VERY concerned that you’ll find the unthinkable a little too thinkable, and as a result, everyone’s priorities are skewed: The abominations of Lovecraft are unknowable and incomprehensible. We know this because everyone who encounters one either goes completely insane or completely fails when he tries to put words to paper. (Yes, the “It was just so terrible there’s literally no way I could be expected to describe it” does get old, but it is, at least, completely in line with the universe Lovecraft created.***) Derleth really, really wanted his abominations to be equally incomprehensible. He did this by making his protagonists tell you that they really, REALLY didn’t understand what was going on. At all. Despite the fact that point #1 (the fact that all of the gods are organized into neat lineages, with clear goals and motivations) necessarily refutes a complete lack of understanding. Even more weird, the protagonists are all very clear that the HORROR of NOT REALLY GETTING IT is far worse than the horror of, say, getting their face eaten off. It’s a little perplexing when the narrator pauses while getting menaced by Nyarlathotep and his faceless, formless minions to fret that his true fear is that he will never fully comprehend the situation.

You’ll only be surprised if you’re not paying attention: I’m not sure if it was the style of the times or he had little faith in his readers (or he was afraid that they’d be lost by Lovecraft’s subtlety), but Derleth is by no means a master of foreshadowing. And by that I mean, he foreshadows all the damn time, in the most obvious possible way, and uses these hints over and over and OVER again in all of his stories. It’s really kind of disappointing. The Watchers Out of Time ends with a fragment that was uncompleted when he died, but I was not perturbed by the lack of an ending.  I was 98% confident that I knew where the story was going. AND ALL OF HIS STORIES ARE LIKE THAT. I can’t even blame being too familiar with the mythos because he goes off-script too much for that to be the reason. But let’s see…Let’s say you’re a Derleth protagonist. You’ve bought a mysterious, evil professor’s house. The professor died, recently, but no one really saw his body, and he was buried on the grounds. You keep smelling the scent of reptiles (whatever that might be), and then you find all his old notes indicating that the secret to immortality might lie in attaining a semi-human, semi-reptilian form. You keep seeing this strange figure haunting the grounds, and you suspect that your neighbor is parading around in a reptile mask to mess with you. (I’m not even making this up.) If you register one ounce of surprise when an ageless, half-man half-lizard creature shows up to reclaim his property, you pretty much deserve whatever’s coming, abomination-wise.

Everyone is an idiot: BUT EVERYONE IS ALWAYS SURPRISED. Many of his stories feature the world’s most moronic protagonists. To be fair, this gets a bit better as time went on and his work got stronger, but it’s still unbelievably off-putting. Everyone tries to explain away their TOTAL CREDULITY—I’m a man of science, I’m a logical person, I know this sort of thing isn’t real even when a freaking tentacle is making its way through the foyer and a succubus has taken up residence in the attic—and it falls unbelievably flat. Derleth also has an annoying habit (probably taken from Lovecraft, though I don’t honestly remember seeing it that much) of concluding each story with a sentence in italics that ends in an exclamation point, regarding some summarizing detail of the inexplicable horror just to drive the point home.

I’m not exaggerating in the slightest. You remember that story above, with the reptiles and silly lizard mask? How do you think it’s going to end? Well…


Just a little more…

All this I saw before a merciful unconscious overcame me,–for I had seen enough to recognize what lay in that coffin—him who had lain there in a cataleptic torpor since 1927, waiting his turn to come back in a frightfully altered form to live again—Dr. Jean-Francois Charriere, surgeon, born in Bayonne in 1636, “died” in Providence in 1927—and I knew that the survivor of whom he had written in his will was none other than himself, born again, renewed by a hellish knowledge of long-forgotten, eldritch rites more ancient than mankind, as old as that early vernal earth on which great beasts fought and tore!

(To the narrator’s credit, this is a hell of a long thought to think before succumbing to unconsciousness.)

But. If someone were to ask me why Derleth was a pale imitation of Lovecraft, I’d show him or her this post, but nearly all serious horror authors would indicate that I’ve been griping about the peeling wallpaper when the whole damn foundation is set to crumble. Stay tuned for Friday’s post…

The Cultist


*Because of course a biology grad student who has read a bunch of horror fiction and has OPINIONS on it, goddamn it, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as S.T. Joshi and Robert M. Price. Why the hell not?

**The Infernal Star Toad with A Million Young, who kills its victims by showing them pictures of its children until their brains implode. From Terry Pratchett’s Moving Pictures.

***I like to think that “The Unnameable” (1923) is more or less a deliberately raised middle finger to everyone who complains about this sort of thing: in this story, H.P. Lovecraft Randolph Carter is talking to a friend who kind of pooh-poohs the notion that some horror can’t be readily perceived by the five senses****, and, as a result, spends the night at an abandoned house where an inexplicable presence is said to lurk. And, wouldn’t you know, they get attacked, and in the final passage, his friend is forced to recognize that Carter is ACTUALLY 100% RIGHT, BOOYAH.

It was everywhere — a gelatin — a slime — yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory. There were eyes — and a blemish. It was the pit — the maelstrom — the ultimate abomination. Carter, it was the unnamable!

****There are in fact way more than five senses*****. For example, touch can be broken down into a number of components (pressure, heat, pain) that count as individual senses. The sense of proprioception lets you know where your body is in space, the sense of balance keeps you upright…but we will give Lovecraft a pass on this one.

*****When I was in grade school, my school counselor told us all there were actually SIX senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, and YOUR FEELINGs. Make of that what you will.

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