August Derleth, Final thoughts
“There was something about him where he stood all by himself under the trees and the stars, on the edge of the streetlight’s glow in the darkness, that was symbolic of many men and women, not alone in this Sac Prairie, but in all the Sac Prairies of the world, something which spoke, out of that pathetic, ludicrous figure, of the spiritual isolation of so many people, something which made the thoughtful onlooker to wonder what thin line divided him from that other, knowing perhaps that the distance of chance or Providence was less great than the few steps separating one from the other in that darkness.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re switching gears with only one more week left in the Lovecraft series, I reflect back on the time we’ve spent talking about and analyzing August Derleth, the self imposed protégé of Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
To be brutally honest, I’ve not been a huge fan of August Derleth’s work. On the surface it seems like he hits all the bullet points, however his writing style is not conducive to the style of horror in which Lovecraft wrote. I’d actually be much more interested in reading some of his other works…in fact the quote from the introduction to this essay comes from a different story he wrote entitled, “Walden West.”
Derleth is one of the earlier instances of what I would consider calling the “story smith,” or campfire story teller. What I mean by that, is a few things… the text is very general and basic. The plot is straightforward and direct. The story is a direct line. Think about authors such as Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and Stephen King. These are not authors who spend time worrying about their word selection. These are not authors you would consider to be necessarily literary. This is not a bad thing, it’s just a different style of writing.
Lovecraft was something all together different. He was incredibly perfidious, and every word was placed in just the right place. Looking back on his stories they were difficult and complicated and, sometimes, hard to process. But that’s what made him so perfect for this kind of horror. Lovecraft’s description is written in a such a way that at first glace (or first read as it were) it doesn’t seem particularly scary, but the more it sits with you, those little turns of phrase bloom like fungus in your brain and you begin to think about the stories when you least expect them.
Derleth isn’t like that. He tries to alter his writing style to match Lovecraft’s, but instead of being insidious, it just becomes more drawn out. He uses run-on sentences and labyrinthine verbiage, but instead of feeling more like Lovecraft he ends up just sounding pretentious.
It’s a bit unfortunate that Derleth decided to publish these stories as H.P. Lovecraft instead of himself, because, quite frankly, the stories would have been far greater had he just not tried to copy Howard’s style. A very specific story I can reference is “Witches Hollow” which was an utterly unique tale; told in an entirely different voice from the rest of his Lovecraft knock offs. In my opinion this was his best story because it wasn’t trying to clarify what Lovecraft had done before. It wasn’t trying to prove that it was a part of the Lovecraft ethos, it was just a great story that used elements created by Howard Phillips and moved out onto it’s own. This is what Lovecraft wanted his created world to be anyway. Other authors like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Bloch, and later like Brian Lumley and Thomas Ligotti utilized the mythos as a unique genre rather than an homage to Lovecraft himself. Stories like this always turn out better because you can be yourself without being beholden to what the previous author wanted.
The other downfall with Derleth is his preference for quantity. He was known to have said that he could sit down and write a “quality story” every day. The issue is that he never checked his facts, nor did he care overly much about grammar and spelling errors (this is an assumption on my part because of all the syntax, grammar, and Lovecraft facts which were incorrect. He may be very happy with the outcomes here). You could say the same about Carroll and Graf (the publisher of the books I read by Derleth…which I probably wouldn’t recommend if you could find another version), and it’s possible that it’s their oversight here and not his. But the larger issue is Derleth changing facts of Lovecraft to fit his story.
Let me clarify here. If Derleth were writing these stories as he should have been, using his own name, then I’d have zero problem with him changing facts or bending the narrative, but the moment he uses the name Lovecraft and doesn’t use his own name, that sullys the name of Lovecraft. You’ll see people online saying they hate Derleth for what he did. They hate him for using Lovecraft’s name and producing the stories he did, and there is some validity to thier argument.
I’m a little torn, because I truly believe that Lovecraft would not be in the public consciousness like he is now had it not been for Derleth creating Arkham House Publishing and continuing to produce stories in Lovecraft’s name all the way into the 70’s. Even companies such as Chaosium who produced multiple board games and the role playing game Call of Cthulhu, utilized more elements of gameplay from Derleth (The Investigator trope, and the Elder Sign) than they did from Lovecraft. Derleth is forever entrenched into this sub-culture, whether you like it or not.
Which proves that his stories had something to show off. Derleth is basically Lovecraft lite. I’d highly recommend starting with Derleth if you’ve been having difficulty breaking through the language barrier Lovecraft presents. Derleth’s stories are simpler and considerably less nuanced, which makes them easier to digest. One can get a feel for the world Lovecraft created without taking a deep dive – then once you feel the hook, you can jump into Lovecraft proper and get the real experience.
We’ve come a long way in the past four years. I started out not really knowing where to go with this project and it’s been so rewarding and fun to get the full experience of two different authors in one. I’ve also come to a brand new group of people and have met some great folks discussing the nuances of these authors. I really wasn’t sure if I was going to keep going, but the experience has been so great that I’m going to move onto a new author whom I’ve always wanted to dig deeper into but have been too scared to.
When I was a kid I read “The Hobbit” and I loved it. I tried to read “The Lord of the Rings,” but I had difficulty getting past the language. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I finally read those stories, but there were so many loose threads in that book that left me wanting more. There’s an entire history beyond the novels of those worlds and that’s what I intend on jumping into next. We have the last installment of “The Lurker at the Threshold” next week, then one final “last thoughts” on Lovecraft himself, before we switch genres and head straight into “The Silmarillion” by J.R.R. Tolkien. Join me and let me know your thoughts!
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