Yesterday marked the anniversary of the death of August Derleth. Just as it was in the case of my C.J. Henderson post which I posted this afternoon, Real Life Stuff got in the way yesterday in regard to getting anything done here at the DMR Blog. As I noted in my previous post on Derleth, John D. Haefele’s A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos is a landmark in both the study of the Cthulhu Mythos and of Derleth himself. I was on the ground floor when it came to Mr. Haefele’s estimable tome, thanks to the cajolings of one Don Herron. I paid sixty dollars for the Harksen edition. It’s worth quite a bit more now. When The Cimmerian Press published the revised edition in late 2014, I was more than happy to post a review at Amazon.
Below you’ll find a revised and expanded version of my review. I would hope I’ve learned something over the last five or so years. One thing that hasn’t changed is my great regard for Mr. Haefele’s book.
“The Case of August William Derleth”
Haefele's tome of eldritch lore and forbidden secrets is big—over four hundred pages of main text—and with good reason. He tackles more than eighty years of Cthulhu Mythos fiction and criticism in a paradigm-shifting fashion. Haefele covers a lot of ground and, thus, this review will be none too short. Read on if you wish.
Like many Lovecraft fans I know, I had long believed Mr. Derleth was guilty of numerous "crimes against Lovecraftianity". I wrote my high school term paper on Lovecraft. During research for that, I stumbled upon rumours of Derleth's wrong-doings and mistakes. However, it was when—about two years later—I read H.P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism (edited by one Sunand Tryambak Joshi) that such whispers were brought out into the light. I'll admit, it was a transformative moment. Therein were essays by Dirk Mosig, Richard L. Tierney and (most importantly) Fritz Leiber. The overall thrust of Joshi’s book was that Derleth got a plethora of things wrong regarding HPL and the "Mythos". The essays by Leiber (then still living and whom I already respected as an author) were what really won me over.
Over the next three decades, I remained a stout "Anti-Derlethian" to the point of taking many of Joshi's later wild statements at (more or less) face value. Yes, I was a one-time "Joshite", receiving imperial decrees from the Poppycock Throne as (un)holy writ. In retrospect, those were bad times. Days and years filled with delusions and misplaced anger.
Don Herron talked me into slapping down sixty dollars for the Harksen edition of Haefele's A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos. That was another revelatory moment (so was reading Joshi's wretched The Assaults of Chaos around the same time, but more on that later).
Let there be no mistake. This book is not only a closely-reasoned defense of August Derleth, but also an invaluable history of the Cthulhu Mythos as a whole and a ground-breaking look at HPL's own "Lovecraft Mythos" tales. Let's get on to the book itself.
A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos (referred to hereafter, usually, as "DM") begins with prefatory intros by W.H. Pugmire and John Haefele. Both ably make the case that Derleth has been unfairly lambasted and his legacy needs reexamination. Haefele outlines his modus operandi (and gives props to Joshi) therein:
"I am grateful for Rise & Fall’s chapter [from Joshi’s The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos] on “The Derleth Mythos,” for it collects in one place all I wish to contest, so much in fact that A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos grew rapidly from article to book-length as I discovered new information. A lesson from Joshi’s earlier scholarship also lights my way: if in appraising Lovecraft we need consider his letters and essays, study his milieu and life-events, and learn his philosophy, so too should we do this for August Derleth. Understanding the Arkham House publishing venture is especially necessary to avoid the complete lack of understanding that persists."
What is good for the goose is good for the gander, eh, Sunand?
The first third of DM (it's divided in three parts) is primarily concerned with HPL and his own "Lovecraft Mythos", along with how he aided and abetted the emerging "Cthulhu Mythos" spearheaded by Derleth. Using Lovecraft's own correspondence, Haefele points out HPL was intent upon creating a setting for his tales with a "coherence" (HPL's own term) analogous to traditional myths. In addition, Lovecraft bemoaned violations to "the style-sheet" and sent Robert Bloch a map of Arkham to keep the youngster on the right track! All of this from the author that ST Joshi, David Schultz and others of the Joshite ilk would have us believe "never intended" that there be any "coherent mythos", nor that HPL ever encouraged any other authors to contribute to said (supposedly non-existent/"never intended by Lovecraft") Mythos.
All of that within the first fifty pages. Let me reiterate: JDH backs up his assertions with an almost embarrassing abundance of quotes (usually explained in full context) throughout this book. One of its cardinal virtues, in my opinion. Haefele early on delineates the difference between the ground-breaking "Lovecraft Mythos" and the subsequent "Cthulhu Mythos" developed by Derleth, Howard et al:
"When applying the term Lovecraft Mythos, we should be thinking of a Mythos that is at its core fundamentally different than the Cthulhu Mythos, because Lovecraft was, from the beginning, always alluding to a reality that is larger than anything intimated in the sets of attributes spun in all efforts that are attempts to define the Cthulhu Mythos. We should remember that the Cthulhu Mythos branched away from Lovecraft’s conceptions very early—branched laterally, so to speak—so they would conform naturally to the requirements of genre entertainment, and could also be used (mainly by Derleth) for a plethora of different artistic or commercial purposes."
Haefele also says this:
"But the multi-author Cthulhu Mythos and single-author Lovecraft Mythos are not now—nor were they ever—exactly the same things. They are from their origins different enough to warrant careful parsing whenever these terms appear—often interchangeably—especially in earlier analyses or fictive passages."
JDH then goes on to point out that HPL, just before his untimely death, wrote that he definitely planned on using "Mythos" elements in whatever new tales he might write. In fact, HPL used Mythos elements in every tale he penned in the last ten years of his life ("The Colour Out of Space" squeaking by, admittedly). While Lovecraft did not invent the label "Cthulhu Mythos" (Derleth did so), the Man from Providence certainly had the concept in his mind, as Haefele points out here:
"Joshi admits in Rise & Fall that Lovecraft himself “tossed around the terms ‘Cthulhuism,’ ‘Yog-Sothothery,’ and ‘the Arkham cycle’ in letters,” but adds disingenuously, “it is by no means clear what Lovecraft meant by these terms.” Seriously? Does anyone else believe that they who received these letters did not have a perfectly good idea what Lovecraft meant?"
There is also this quote from HPL to Derleth:
“I like to have others use my Azathoths & Nyarlathoteps—& in return I shall use Klarkash-Ton’s Tsathoggua, your monk Clithanus, & Howard’s Bran.”
Obviously, I'm not going to quote every page, but this should give a good indication of Haefele's insight and amazing trove of Lovecraftian correspondence. The rest of this section of the book documents Lovecraft's overwhelmingly positive opinion of Derleth as a writer (which opinion HPL voiced to several other correspondents), as well as the substantial possibility that HPL used Derlethian concepts in some 1930s tales. In addition, JDH examines Lovecraft's "revision" tales (and their attendant "Mythos").
So ends "Thus Spake Lovecraft". Let's move on to "Thus Said Derleth".
In this middle portion of DM (the lion's share of the tome), Haefele squarely addresses numerous issues associated with Derleth and his role in the Mythos. For instance, he looks at the fact that Derleth's earliest Mythos tales, such as "Lair of the Star-Spawn", are repeatedly and unfairly held up as representative of AD's overall Mythos output. Also noted are the frequent years-long gaps where Derleth wrote no Mythos tales at all, despite being accused later by Joshites of relentlessly cranking out Mythos yarns year after year.
JDH also reveals the many pressures behind the scenes at Arkham House. The necessity of keeping the imprint afloat quite likely motivated Derleth to write many of his later Mythos tales. If Arkham House had gone under, then the "Selected Letters" volumes would never have been published and Lovecraft scholarship would've been set back decades, if not forever. Derleth was the driving force behind gathering HPL’s correspondence while it was still extant. Yet one more thing to thank him for. Derleth kept Arkham House afloat during a time when weird fiction was wildly less popular than it is now. Any modern small publishers in the field would do well to study his methods, albeit making adjustments for different technologies.
To my mind, one of the most important take-aways of this section is that Derleth indisputably was better-regarded in the post-war years than HPL (a situation which would reverse later, obviously). His championing of Lovecraft and the publication of HPL's works in fine hardcovers helped bridge the gap to the HPL renaissance in the '60s (which AD was largely responsible for). The entire topic is extremely complex and Haefele, being the preeminent scholar of Derleth and Arkham House, is precisely the man to clarify and explicate the issues.
The final section of A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos—entitled "Thus Wrote Alhazred" —deals with the last decade-plus of Derleth's life. However, the overarching theme is how the "Cthulhu Mythos" concept that AD co-created with Lovecraft really gathered steam in the '60s and then became the cultural phenomenon we all know in the '70s and beyond.
Intertwined with this, Haefele, in the course of demonstrating "Derlethian" themes in the Mythos which would seem to derive from HPL, also provides the reader with some of the most perceptive Lovecraftian literary analysis ever put to paper. His "looks behind" The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, At the Mountains of Madness and other tales of Lovecraft are nothing short of revelatory. In addition, he brings HPL's Dreamlands tales (and the entire concept of "nested realities") back to their rightful centrality in Lovecraft's oeuvre. In my opinion, this portion of the book is worth the modest cover price by itself. JDH also examines the "Black Magic Quote" and the entire topic of "magic" in the Lovecraft Mythos tales. All in all, it is landmark scholarship/litcrit that leaves me eagerly awaiting Haefele's forthcoming "Great Tales of HPL" volume which will surely bring even more revelations.
For thirty years, Derleth steered the ship of Lovecraft's legacy. For another thirty years, Joshi took the helm. It's time to tack back to a more sensible and rewarding course.
As a postscript of sorts, I'd like to comment on objections raised by Joshites to the "tone" of the present edition [ca. 2014-2015] in regard to ST Joshi. There would seem to be a slight shift in tone from the generally conciliatory/laudatory atmosphere found in the Harksen edition. This is completely understandable, since—despite Haefele's best efforts to keep things civil—Joshi has blitzkrieged the Harksen edition, calling it "sub-literary rubbish", making ad hominem attacks against Mr. Haefele and generally engaging in gibbering tirades. Joshi doesn't seem to understand that rational adults can disagree without resorting to schoolyard tactics.
How anyone can take Joshi's statements regarding "sub-literary rubbish" or "sub-literary hackwork" seriously after reading his The Assaults of Chaos novel is a mystery. That novel demonstrates Joshi's utter lack of judgment in regard to Lovecraftian fiction and revokes his license to heap scorn on even the lamest Mythos scribe. The Assaults of Chaos (more like "The Assault of Banal Erudition Mired in a Scooby-Doo Plot and Turgid Prose") is execrable. It makes Derleth, Lumley and Carter look like titans of the Cosmic Weird Tale. Oh, and the cover is quite lame—and more than faintly ridiculous.
Joshi has been making something of a name for himself as a serial internet stalker and assailant since those frenzied years of 2013-2015. Brian Keene, a well-regarded author working in the horror field, has also suffered the Assaults of Sunand lately. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are others that Mr. Joshi has dry-gulched and waylaid via the InterWebs, but I couldn’t say who, since I wrote him off five years ago and am no longer keeping score.
Sunand Tryambak Joshi is on the wrong side of history. In order to set Lovecraft apart from—and above—his pulp milieu and colleagues, S.T. Joshi has resorted to drastic measures. In STJ’s Procrustean mind, it is apparently better to maim and cripple—if not outright kill—Lovecraft’s creation, rather than have him run with the pulpish beasts. Joshi has gotten to the point where he argues that most of HPL’s output from about 1920-on isn’t really “Lovecraftian.” You can’t make this stuff up.
Yes, Lovecraft wrote some hard things regarding the pulps. He also praised the work of pulpsters like Robert E. Howard and August Derleth. Joshi is having none of that. In order for HPL to sit at the High Table of Literature, Lovecraft must—to Joshi’s way of thinking—clamber over the shattered literary reputations of Derleth, REH and others. Also, the validity of the Cthulhu Mythos must be destroyed. Thus, Joshi’s The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos. It is far more likely that Howard and Derleth—and other contributors to the Cthulhu Mythos—will stand in triumph over Joshi when the dust finally settles. The strange aeon of Cthulhu Mythos Denial is passing and Derleth shall rise again.
You can find the original version of my review here.
My previous post on August Derleth: Regarding August Derleth