I am Deuce Richardson and I am a recovering Derleth-hater. Today marks the one hundred and tenth anniversary of August Derleth's birth. Considering statements I made in the past, I feel it is incumbent upon me to lay out some facts so that others may not wander down the same error-plagued path that I did.
I became a fan of H.P. Lovecraft's work while in junior high. I did my Senior English term paper in high school on Lovecraft. Researching the paper, I noticed hints of Derleth committing various "crimes against Lovecraftianity." In college, I read H.P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism. That volume cemented my opinion on August Derleth. He had done horrible things to Lovecraft's Mythos, Lovecraft's literary reputation and had done bad things to other people. Thus spake S.T. Joshi.
I was firmly anti-Derleth for many, many years after that. Then I read John D. Haefele's landmark volume, A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos. I won't go into everything covered in Haefele's book. It suffices to say that reading it, and all of the facts presented therein, provoked an about-face in my views on Derleth. If you are at all interested in the Lovecraft-Derleth-Joshi debate, go forth and buy it yourself. Read it.
One thing that A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos really clarified for me was just how much impact Derleth and his publishing business, Arkham House, had on the weird fiction scene from 1939 to 1971. Arkham House didn't just publish HPL in fine hardcovers and keep his name and works in front of the public. Derleth, in the '40s and '50s, was easily the most high-profile and well-respected author to emerge from the Weird Tales stable. Nobody else was even close. Before he turned thirty, Derleth was praised by Sinclair Lewis and had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. His imprimatur helped legitimize the authors Arkham House published. That is a simple fact.
Who were some of the authors that Derleth published and promoted at Arkham House? Clark Ashton Smith, for one. As this link to The Eldritch Dark shows, from 1942 until 1960--one year before CAS' death--Arkham House published six volumes of Klarkash-Ton's works. During the same period, Derleth placed Smith's tales in no less than thirteen anthologies and seven periodicals. For the last two decades of Clark Ashton Smith's life, Arkham House was his primary publisher. To top it all off, Derleth also purchased thirty or more of CAS' sculptures, which sum would equal at least one month's wages at one of Clark's usual side-jobs.
Robert E. Howard was another author whose works appeared in hardcovers during the '40s and '50s largely due to the efforts of August Derleth. As this link to Howard Works demonstrates, Arkham House published three REH collections and five anthologies featuring Bob's yarns between 1943 and 1963. Derleth and Donald Wollheim were a tag-team keeping REH in print during a very dark time for weird fiction.
It wasn't just the Dark Trinity of HPL/CAS/REH that Arkham House kept in hardcovers during those bad times. Derleth gave William Hope Hodgson his first US publication, hardcover or otherwise, in 1946. Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber and Carl Jacobi all got their first taste of hardcover publication in 1947 courtesy of Arkham House.
When it comes to women in weird fiction, Derleth can hold his head high. In the first fifteen years of Arkham House, Derleth published books by Evangeline Walton, Leah Bodine Drake and Zealia B. Bishop. Evangeline Walton was one of the first authors published by Arkham House after HPL, CAS and Derleth himself.
Near the end of his life, Derleth was instrumental in launching the careers of Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley and David Drake. All three authors are quite forthright in acknowledging the debt they owe Derleth and the gratitude they feel. Ramsey Campbell, especially, likes to point out that nobody seemed to have a bad thing to say about Derleth... until Derleth was in his grave. It was only after Augie's demise that the detractors crawled out of the woodwork, like rats in the walls.
I should also mention that Derleth's Sherlockian tales of the detective, Solar Pons, are quite well-regarded. The best site devoted to them is hosted by the indefatigable Bob Byrne. Check it out here.
Doug Draa, the editor of the estimable Weirdbook magazine, wrote an excellent tribute to Derleth a few years ago. It's jam-packed with great covers of Derleth collections and anthologies edited by Derleth. Check it out here.
To sum it up, I will not say that Derleth never made a mistake or that he was a master at writing cosmic horror. I will say that fans of weird fiction owe him. We owe him a lot.