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Tag Archives: August Derleth

First and foremost, a shameless plug for a talk I’m giving September 30th.  It should be crazy good fun…I promise lots of pictures and humorous anecdotes.  Also, I don’t actually drink, and I’m given free alcohol coupons by way of reimbursement…so I might just be able to spot you a beer if you show up!

Anyway.  I’ve been thinking a lot about evil in Lovecraftian horror stories because I’ve started reading Clark Ashton Smith.  (No, I haven’t yet finished The Cthulhu Mythos, yes, it was getting too painful, yes, I will finish it at some point…I swear.)  Smith writes a lot about evil–evil sorcerers, corruption in the church, necromancy, the worship of demons.  And yet I haven’t encountered anyone complaining about his incorporation of evil into the mythos the way that EVERYONE seems to hate on Derleth (myself included).

I almost double-majored in Contemporary Literature, but one introductory class made me floor it out of there.  (As it turns out, I am much better at enjoying books than I am at reading enough into the subtext to generate papers on the topic.)  I seldom regret this decision, but I can’t help but think that if I had stuck with my original plan, I’d be much more adept at explaining why the evil of Smith is so much more effective in the Lovecraftian cannon than the evil of Derleth.  But I’ll give it a shot anyway.

First of all, I categorically reject the notion that incorporating themes of evil into the Lovecraft cannon goes against Lovecraft’s original intentions.  My guess, however, would be that evil was a fundamentally human invention: there may be savage cults and witches and warlocks and those with intent to do harm or seek vengeance, but the cosmic entities they worship and struggle (in a usually futile attempt) to control exist outside our knowledge to the point where assigning them values of “good” or “evil” is almost humorous.  They are a means to an evil, human end.  I feel that this theme is very well represented in Lovecraft’s stories, and Clark Ashton Smith makes great use of it.

Second, and perhaps more divisively, I tend to believe that it’s not necessarily a grave violation for Lovecraftian characters (and, by extension, Lovecraftian readers) to interpret cosmic horrific entities as evil.  We’re as limited as the characters in the sense that our ability to interpret the universe is bound up in the same heuristics we use to make sense of everyday life.  And, in the context of Lovecraftian horror, those heuristics are absurdly limited.  This is why we react to Lovecraftian character’s abrupt descent into insanity with bemusement rather than horror.  For instance, how are we meant to interpret the end of At the Mountains of Madness*?

He has on rare occasions whispered disjointed and irresponsible things about “The black pit,” “the carven rim,” “the protoShoggoths,” “the windowless solids with five dimensions,” “the nameless cylinder,” “the elder Pharos,” “Yog-Sothoth,” “the primal white jelly,” “the color out of space,” “the wings,” “the eyes in darkness,” “the moon-ladder,” “the original, the eternal, the undying,” and other bizarre conceptions…

I’m not sure we’re meant to read this and be overcome with horror.  I think we’re supposed to read this and think, “…?”  My guess is that the disjointed phrases are supposed to emphasize how little we know and create a sense of general unease rather than abject terror.  Who knows.  Regardless, I think it’s an acceptable tendency for protagonists to assume that the monstrous, faceless entities that cause destruction and insanity wherever they shamble must be evil; it’s much easier to accept that such cosmic entities are deliberately malicious rather than completely indifferent.

So–wherein lies the difference between the evil of Smith and the evil of Derleth?

http://www.eldritchdark.com/galleries/by-cas/

For starters, the evil beings of Smith look creepy as shit.

Derleth’s evil cosmic entities have a tremendously human backstory.  The Great Old Ones are constantly entwined and embattled with each other: Tsathoggua hates Nyarlathotep, who happens to be Cthulhu’s half-brother.  They all got thrown out of paradise one day by the benevolent Elder Gods, and now they’re scattered across the universe in various cosmic prisons, each of them struggling to regain ascendance.

Struggling, I think, is the key word in that paragraph.  Derleth’s evil is not omnipotent.  It’s weak, it’s sneaking and striving for a chance to get a foothold.  To be fair, evil sneaking in the back door is very much an accepted, valid horror trope (see The Exorcist, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby).  But this rings extraordinarily false in the context of Lovecraft’s work: Great Cthulhu waits dead and dreaming, not gritting his teeth and wringing his tentacles and plotting revenge.  Cthulhu is worshiped, but one doesn’t get the sense that he’s infinitely grateful to his cultists for helping ease him back into power.  One gets the sense that he is hungry.

Compare that to Smith’s incarnations of evil.  In one of his short stories, Smith hypothesizes that there’s an element of pure evil in the universe–we as humans can only see it filtered through humanity, in petty instances of crime, hatefulness, and murder.  A devotee of evil–a traditional Lovecraftian cultist–decides to create a device in order to experience pure cosmic evil, and it goes about as well for him as it would for any cultist.  The sense of evil here is creepy (as is the devotion of someone who’s dedicated their life to worshiping evil), but I don’t think it’s the source of the horror.  The horror comes from the invocation of cosmic forces, which we are powerless to control.  Evil, in this case, didn’t come knocking on the back door looking for an entry: it was deliberately sought out, and the consequences of this incautious act were inevitable.

There’s a fantastic element to Smith that I quite enjoy–you don’t see it as much in modern mythos fiction.  There are evil emperors and sorcerers in control of fantastic, malign gardens and hideous labyrinths, all described in loving detail.   But beneath the poisonous flowers and contorted statures and acid baths, there’s the same sense of powerlessness: people try to fight the evil, to be sure, but evil always wins.  It’s not even really in question, despite the best and most sincere efforts of humanity.  Not a single one of the evil entities ever seem threatened by the angry do-gooders who confront them.

Evil can (and often does) fit seamlessly into Lovecraftian fiction, as long as it can co-exist with a sense of indifference and the ultimate powerlessness of humanity.  On Friday, I’ll talk about a handful of my favorite mythos stories that unabashedly incorporate themes of good versus evil.

The Cultist

*Beating a dead horse, I know.  I swear there’s a purpose to this, though!

 

 

A note on today, and the previous 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. Last day, last day, I swear…

So. I’ve now read approximately 500 pages worth of Derleth’s take on Lovecraft. I’ve got about 200 more to go before I exhaust my very limited library. I’ve been surprised by the ending approximately once in twenty-odd stories. Not once have I been frightened, unnerved, or even mildly off-put (unless you count all the babbling about elemental beings). If Derleth had tried to submit one of them to a modern weird anthology, I doubt very much it’d ever make it out of the slush pile*.

However, in the middle of this somewhat reluctant education, I read “The Lamp of Alhazred”, published 1957. It’s not a horror story by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a tribute to Lovecraft, but calling it a tribute seems a little too trite.

The story is an imagined history of H.P. Lovecraft’s life—from sad childhood to lonely adulthood to death by cancer. The only difference is the source of his inspiration: an oil lamp, inherited from a mysterious relative, said to show the most beautiful and the most horrible things. He lights it, and realizes that where the lamp shines, he can see images of the most spectacular and horrible landscapes imaginable. He begins to write, applying names and inventing stories. The reeking, recently exposed island of black basalt becomes R’lyeh. The decaying, gray ocean-side town with the malign black reef becomes Innsmouth. And so he continues, writing (to no great success) until it becomes clear that he is ill, and the illness is grave. Weak, with only days left to his life, he lights the lamp again, and sees now the wooden groves of his childhood that he’s loved and missed all his life. And this time, he’s able to enter them.

It’s a love letter, but not in the usual sense of the term, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it almost made me cry. I might be wrong, but I think everyone loves or has loved someone whose life has been too hard, too sad, or just so much less than it should have been. It’s not fair. It’s heartbreaking. And so this story, published 20 years after Lovecraft died, feels raw. It’s by far the most emotional mythos story I’ve ever read, because the subtext is so bright and painful and clear: I’m sorry your life turned out this way. I wish it had been better. I hope you were happy, I hope you died satisfied, but if I’m being honest with myself, the sad, horrible truth is that I’m pretty sure you weren’t, and you didn’t. You deserved more.

It’s not a tremendously relevant story to this narrative, but it’s one of the most unexpectedly beautiful things I’ve ever read.

But, to step back, and put this entire week into perspective:

How to explain how I feel about Derleth? In an odd way, it can best be understood in the context of a conversation about modern art. (Fair warning: It was a conversation that made me feel—and will doubtlessly make me look—like an unevolved simpleton at best and a misogynistic philistine at worst, but it illustrates the point better than anything else I can come up with.)

The subject of the conversation was an artist named Judy Chicago. We were talking about one of her prints that—to summarize my really, really long diatribe—I didn’t like at all. It expressed a fear of aging in a way that struck me as horribly privileged, out-of-touch, and whiny. And this, of course, led me to rant about her other work.   For example, I wasn’t sold by the argument that a photograph of a woman removing a tampon was IMPORTANT, because this was a sight familiar to pretty much every woman and yet it was never once shown in the world of art. This was because I felt that there were far more universal sights and experiences that the art world had chosen not to celebrate**. And I was deeply irritated by The Birth Project, in which she celebrated her “primordial female self ” despite the fact that she was childless—it struck me as she was trying to vicariously win value and validity as a female.

The artist wasn’t phased by my irritation. Instead, he pointed out that it’s not tremendously meaningful to view Judy Chicago outside of a historical context. By being so loud, so strident, so irritating, so gratuitous (okay, these are mostly my words) she made it possible for women to be in art in a way that they hadn’t before. And once those women were in art, they didn’t need to just parrot her style and message—they could be themselves. If life were fair, Judy Chicago shouldn’t have had to exist—but it’s not, she got frustrated and protested through her art, and the resulting benefit to the field (in the panoply of new and exciting perspectives from female artists) was undeniable.

Judy_Chicago_The_Dinner_Party

The Dinner Party, 1939 (image from Wikipedia)

And that is, more or less, how I feel about Derleth. For the most part, I don’t enjoy his stories, not even a little bit. I’ve been dragging on writing this week’s posts, and I really couldn’t figure out why, until I realized that instead of being inspired and excited by the horror stories I was reading in my free time, I’m just sort of clumping along like a high school student reading My Ántonia***. (But don’t worry—I rushed off and bought two new promising anthologies this weekend, so I’ll be back to my breathless nerdy self in no time.)

But, in order for horror to evolve, for modern Lovecraftian fiction to be able to embrace the delightful protean form it has today, I truly believe that Derleth had to exist. He single-handedly rescued Lovecraft from obscurity. I mean, the man made up his own freaking publishing company when that failed, because he truly believed that these works were too important to be ignored—and if that’s not beautiful, I don’t know what is. And no, I don’t like his writing, but he showed everyone what the genre could do. Lovecraft created one of the most beautiful and flexible literary framework I’ve ever encountered. Derleth inserting water elementals and black masses and italics for emphasis does nothing to cheapen that. And I wouldn’t be surprised if his take on Lovecraft inspired many a horror fan, who read his works and said—“No, this isn’t right at all, I can do better.” And that’s not an insult to Derleth. That desire, to improve and expand and explore, is what has kept the field alive, and so tremendously rich.

And so, that is why I will always be grateful to Derleth, and on some level, I hope you will be too.

The Cultist

 

*Unsolicited manuscripts sent directly to a publisher or agent. I…might be…writing a little bit outside of the realm of the blog, and so that term has entered my vocabulary.

**For example: Sneezing and farting simultaneously in public, and wondering which one everyone heard.

***The famous 1918 novel by Willa Cather, much lauded by literary critics for its bold decision to not include any trace of a plot whatsoever.

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 (and now, a bonus post on Monday!) will be devoted to Derleth.

Lovecraft scholars don’t like Derleth. Just on principle, this struck me as tremendously wrong—like remembering someone who risked life and limb saving Mozart’s original scores from a fire as, first and foremost, a person with a terrible ear. Don’t we owe him at least a little of our respect and consideration?

But, there’s a key difference between respecting a person and insisting he’s a great writer. So, while I definitely want to honor Derleth and give him his due as a key figure in the history of modern horror for the role he played in popularizing Lovecraft*, I also wanted to take the opinions of those far more learned than I into consideration. So, in today’s posts, I’ll try to address what I see as the main academic criticisms of Derleth’s fiction.

Criticism: It seems that Lovecraft wanted the central figure of his horror stories to be Yog-Sothoth, a mysterious, all-powerful cosmic entity. Derleth shifted the focus away from Yog-Sothoth to emphasize Cthulhu: hence, the Cthulhu Mythos instead of Yog-Sothothery.

Do I agree? Not really, though I see how it raised the potential for future problems

Why? Yog-Sothoth sees all and knows all. He grants his followers knowledge, but too much knowledge brings certain doom—given this aspect of his nature, I completely see why Lovecraft wanted him at the forefront of his mythos, as it encapsulates the key aspects of his horror philosophy. But, in terms of seizing the public’s imagination…Remember my post in which I complained that squids aren’t scary? Well, get a load of Yoggy**:

Imagination called up the shocking form of fabulous Yog-Sothoth—only a congeries of iridescent globes, yet stupendous in its malign suggestiveness.

Yep. He’s literally made out of bubbles.

mrbubble_logo

I’m the gate, I’m the key!

Derleth, I think, was much more politically savvy than Lovecraft. He worked as an editor for the Madison Capital Times, and so I think he had a much better idea of how to get attention. So, in addition to toning down the unbelievable racism and sexism, he also found a figure that was much more conventionally monstrous, and thus more likely to grab attention. And in that, he succeeded tremendously. But therein lies the key, unavoidable problem in making Cthulhu the central figure: he IS much more conventionally monstrous. By focusing on him, you’re running the risk of cheapening the mind-bending, cosmic element that makes Lovecraft horror so great.

Criticism: Derleth focuses too much on the battle between good and evil. Many of his stories involve blatant references to Satanism in the same breath that they mention Cthulhu. In doing so, he puts the mythos in distinctly Judeo-Christian terms: it oversimplifies the themes immensely, and cheapens them.

Do I agree? Yes, although I’d argue that excellent mythos fiction *can* embody themes of good and evil.

Why? From a fan’s uninformed perspective? Honestly, it’s just really jarring. Black masses, demon familiars, witches and sorcerers…I love mythos fiction for its sheer inventiveness, and none of these things are particularly novel. They can be made to be novel, absolutely—but Derleth doesn’t really seem to strain himself to try. So, I would have to agree: whenever the focus is on devil-worshippers and whatnot, the stories themselves just seem much, much less compelling.

But! Two points in Derleth’s favor. The first is the fact that, despite several criticisms I’ve read, the sense of inevitable doom remains the same regardless of whether or not the abomination is evil or just incomprehensible. Most of his protagonists don’t make it out unscathed—the narrator might be fine, but the unsuspecting/undereducated victim that saw fit to monkey around with skin-bound tomes is almost certainly fucked beyond any recognition. And I would argue that themes of good and evil can be blended seamlessly into a great mythos story. It’s very easy to mistake the Lovecraftian abominations as evil: they’re so destructive (and their cults are so bloodthirsty) that of course they seem almost satanic in nature. And even if they’re not evil, those surrounding them usually are. Take T.E.D. Klein’s Black Man with a Horn, one of my favorites of all time. It begins with a missionary fleeing a group of, in his words, the most purely evil people he had ever encountered. Straightforward, Judeo-Christian—but it’s an amazing story, because the theme of good versus evil is used to advance the plot, not define it. And it does make sense. Evil-doers, potential evil-doers, evil cults, or sorcerers—why wouldn’t they be attracted to a source of inconceivable, destructive power? The problem with Derleth isn’t that he incorporated religious struggle—it’s that he didn’t do it in a very interesting way.

Criticism: Seriously, WTF is with all the elementals?

Do I agree? No in principle, yes in practice

Why? This requires a bit of clarification. Derleth liked to define his abominations as of the earth, air, fire, or water. For example, Cthulhu is a water elemental (obviously); Ithaqua (basically the Wendigo) is an air elemental; and C’thalpa (Ithaqua’s mortal enemy, don’cha know) is a fire elemental. I HATE this. I don’t get the point, I don’t think adds anything to my understanding of the story, and whenever it comes up, I feel like I’m watching Captain Planet.

captain planet

 

Ithaqua!  Ithaqua cf’ayak vulgtmm!  Cthulhu fhtagn!  Shub-Niggurath!  C’thalpa!  With our powers combined…

But…as I’ve said many a time, the beauty of Lovecraft’s writing is how flexible it can be. So, in principle, I fully support Derleth’s right to experiment with this. But—I am only about halfway into The Cthulhu Mythos at this point. If the heart elementals show up, I might have to quit.

I’m ending on a snarky note, but on Monday, I’ll tell you about the one story Derleth wrote that made me completely re-think his work. Stay tuned!

The Cultist

 

*I will actually be giving a talk to this effect in the near future! Look for a short video sometime in September, assuming I figure out how to work a camera and upload a movie to the internets.

**Forgive me, oh Yog-Sothoth, and accept this paean in your honor.

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…

flogging_a_dead_horse

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.

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.

A week or two ago, I shared a link to one of my favorite Lovecraft mythos songs, “Banned from Arkham”*. It’s pretty great—Terrance Chua’s parodies are always spot-on, and I love how it pays homage not only to Lovecraft but also a number of his contemporaries/protégés. And so, of course, I had to listen to it again. But this time, I noticed a detail that had escaped my attention previously—“A tentacle snagged August, but we didn’t really mind.” I knew that this had to be a reference to August Derleth, but I didn’t understand the casual hostility at all.

I knew Derleth about as well as I currently know Clark Ashton Smith or Frank Belknap Long, which is to say, not well at all. I know that Long did the Hounds of Tindaloos, and for some reason Lovecraft liked to refer to Clark Ashton Smith as “Klarkash-Ton”, which is kind of adorable in a probably-not-meant-to-be-adorable way, but that was about it. Some initial probing indicated that Lovecraft seemed to like Derleth quite a bit, writing him into his works as “l’Comte d’Erlette”, the shadowy author responsible for the infamous Cultes des Goules**.   But even this reference was re-worked in future stories to deride the man—a 1976 reference by Eddy C. Bertin described the mysterious tome as “”rather disappointing because its author had possessed more fantasy than knowledge about the hideous things he was writing about.” Damn.

On the surface, I feel as though I ought to defend Derleth against the raging hordes, as we have a lot in common: both fervent appreciators of Lovecraft, both interested in expanding and refining the mythos, both students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (to my delight, I discovered that he was born and buried in Sauk City—not the sort of person you imagine arising from a good old Midwestern farming town). But as I read more about his contributions to the mythos, the source of the lingering irritation becomes immediately apparent.

In what way? Well, when I wrote my potentially heretical post regarding the potentially undeserved popularity of Cthulhu, I might as well have been addressing Derleth personally. He was responsible for the promotion of “the Cthulhu mythos” as an entity. (As well as the term “Cthulhu mythos” itself–Lovecraft himself referred to the cycle of gods/powers/deities as Yog-Sotherthery, after the FAR more powerful and interesting cosmic entity who sees all, knows all, is the gate, is the key, etc.****) But, more importantly to many Lovecraft scholars and fans alike, Derleth introduced an element of morality into Lovecraft’s universe that was previously absent. A devout Christian, he clearly felt uncomfortable with the indifference of Lovecraft’s abominations toward humanity—so he recast them as the embodiment of evil. As such, he pushed a stark, bleak, and inventive body of work back onto well-trodden ground.

But apparently, the introduction of morality isn’t the full extent of his posthumous revisions. While I’m definitely more of a Werner Herzog than a C.S. Lewis, I’ve read some excellent horror stories that blatantly embrace the struggle of good versus evil. (Clive Barker has some absolutely prime examples of this: check out “Hell’s Event”, in which humans literally try to outrun the agents of Satan, or “In the Flesh”, which explores why evil constantly returns to the world.) Derleth—whether goaded on by his faith or his personal view of humanity—could not conceive of a world where the forces of evil ultimately triumphed. In a fair number of his stories, his human protagonists are not victims or mute, horrified witnesses: they are heroes who pull off triumphant escapes.

Because many Lovecraft scholars and anthology editors share this opinion, my exposure to Derleth has been tremendously limited. I went through The Horror in the Museum, an anthology composed in large part by stories written by his contemporaries that Lovecraft read/edited. I was certain that at least a handful of his pieces were included, but I was wrong: A brief essay by Derleth formed the introduction, but that was all.

I’m not willing to write off Derleth completely, for a number of reasons. The first is purely historical. Everyone who enjoys Lovecraft owes August Derleth a tremendous debt of gratitude. It’s largely (if not entirely) thanks to the efforts of Derleth and Donald Wandrei (another writer of weird fiction) that Lovecraft is the most-studied horror writer in existence and not just a pulp punchline extinguished in 1937. Derleth and Wandrei gathered up Lovecraft’s unpublished stories and snippets after he died; after failing to stir up the interest of publishers, they established Arkham House in 1939, their own publishing house. They publicized his work, helping to ensure its immortality.

The second is the fact that perhaps not all of Derleth’s horror fiction should be so easily dismissed. There are, it seems, a large number of mythos stories in which the protagonist is doomed, cosmic balance of good and evil be damned. The writer[s] at Too Much Horror Fiction seem to share this view, highlighting a number of his stories that achieve a subtle horror that we must acknowledge that some of Lovecraft’s writing lacks. (They note that, furthermore, Derleth’s prose itself is more accessible, with “nary an ‘eldritch’ or ‘noisome’ or ‘star-flung’ to be found”*****)

The third is simply the fact that I haven’t read any of Derleth’s Cthulhu fiction; Derleth played an enormous role in making Lovecraft the iconic legend of weird horror that he is today. If I really want to explore the elements that make Lovecraft Lovecraft and drive the popularity of Lovecraftian fiction, it seems like I’ll be doing myself a real disservice by simply ignoring his contributions, no matter how much the purists might scoff. In fact, on some level I think I’m better off reading them as soon as possible, while I remain in relative ignorance and (generally) free from the biases that have shaped our modern interpretation of his work.

So, that being said—anyone ever read Derleth? Where should I start?

The Cultist

 

*Yes, one of my favorites. I have lots of them. I’ll probably write a post solely devoted to the music of Lovecraft in the near future. Shut up.

**Holy shit, don’t you think that would be the best tribute ever? Could you imagine Lovecraft immortalizing you as the author of, like, the Cthäat Aquadingen or something***?

***Yes, I know the Cthäat Aquadingen entered the mythos 20 or 30-odd years after Lovecraft’s death, but you know what I mean.

****Arguable, I suppose, but this is MY house.

*****http://toomuchhorrorfiction.blogspot.com/2010/03/dead-dreaming-is-free-august-derleths.html