This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Derleth: Cyclopean Fish In a Small Pond
August Derleth, it’s fair to say, has at best a mixed reputation today. Over a long writing career he delved both into the worlds of pulpy genre fiction and more literary fare; the most important of the latter was the regional Sac Prairie Saga, which was praised by many for the regional flavour of Derleth’s local Wisconsin stamping grounds it offered up. Beyond writing, Derleth was also an anthologist, editor, and publisher, and in this capacity played an extremely important role in preserving the work of H.P. Lovecraft after Lovecraft’s death.
Whether this was an essential role, or whether someone else could have done a better job, is a subject where there is room for debate. R.H. Barlow, a young apprentice of Lovecraft’s and one of his closest friends in his later years, had actually been picked out by Lovecraft to take charge of his notes and manuscripts and handle his literary affairs after his death; Lovecraft was very clear on this in naming Barlow as his literary executor in his Instructions In Case of Decease. Derleth, however, had latched onto a passing reference in one of Lovecraft’s letters to him in which Lovecraft said that he might name Derleth his executor, and soon muscled Barlow aside. As a result of these shenanigans, coupled with issues with the renewal of copyright in the material, Derleth’s claim to control the copyright of Lovecraft’s works was tenuous at best.
Moreover, Derleth’s handling of Lovecraft’s works was actually rather shipshod. Whilst some respect is due for his efforts to keep Lovecraft in print, the actual Arkham House editions of Lovecraft’s work were actually rather overpriced for the market and tended to sell poorly – paperback versions licenced out to other publishers tended to do better, which raises the question of whether someone more business-minded could have made Arkham House into more of a success. Numerous errors crept into the texts at Derleth’s hands, which were only corrected thanks to the assiduous work of S.T. Joshi, and in places Derleth outright tampered with the texts; a complete version of The Mound wasn’t released until after his death, for instance, and whilst his more coy take on the plot twist at the end of Medusa’s Coil avoids the use of the term “negress”, it utterly fails to make the implications any less racist. Towards the end of his life, Derleth would have an increasingly fractious attitude towards the Lovecraft fandom, especially those who differed in their interpretation of Lovecraft’s writings.
But this article is primarily a survey of Derleth’s Lovecraftian writings, and therefore it isn’t about editorial accomplishments or his custodianship of Lovecraft’s work, except in two important respects. The first is that his position as co-founder of Arkham House and jealous claimant to the copyright in Lovecraft’s work enabled him to undertake certain dubious activities, in particular passing off his own work as genuine Lovecraft material, which anyone else would quickly find themselves in legal hot water if they attempted it. The second is how, again enabled by his privileged position, Derleth attempted to appoint himself as the prime interpreter of Lovecraft’s material, and overlord of both the realm of Lovecraftiana and the wider penumbra of stories by other hands borrowing Lovecraft’s motifs and ideas.
Derleth, in fact, was the originator of the term “Cthulhu Mythos” as a tag for the emergent shared setting that Lovecraft and other hands were creating, populated by entities like the titular Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep and so on and so forth. Lovecraft, for his part, preferred to use the term “Yog-Sothothery” when referring to all that, which I personally like because it makes it sound less like a consistent setting and more like an activity – a playful game shared between friends, which it largely was. Lovecraft, in particular, did not actually write his stories with an eye to making them especially consistent – the term “Old Ones”, for instance, means various extremely different things in each different story that it is used, for instance, with the Old Ones being decidedly physical space aliens in some tales and mystical otherworldly entities of an immaterial nature in others.
Having a great interest in mythology, Lovecraft appreciated that many bodies of myth are actually rather inconsistent, the result of different storytellers’ yarns being mashed together over time, and had no compunctions as to changing the basis of his fictional universe to fit whatever worked best for the particular story he was writing. Though Lovecraft did think of his writings as being connected, his correspondence reveals that he regards the connections as being philosophical, rather than as being all part of the same fictional universe and capable of being fitted together perfectly without contradiction. Derleth, however, was very keen to present the Mythos as being far more consistent than Lovecraft made it out to be, hence his enthusiasm for coining a term for it. Lovecraft managed to live long enough to see Derleth begin these attempts, and whilst he wasn’t actively disparaging about them he equally doesn’t seem to have had much enthusiasm, his attitude being described as being “bemused tolerance” at best.
For instance, Lovecraft didn’t especially mind the term “Cthulhu Mythos”, but he vetoed Derleth’s original suggestion, “The Mythology of Hastur”, for the very simple reason that Hastur didn’t feature in any of Lovecraft’s stories beyond some very occasional name-dropping. Derleth, conversely, had used Hastur very prominently in his own Mythos writings (most prominently in The Return of Hastur), so pushing that tag for the overall body of work by various hands kind of feels like a self-aggrandising move on the part of Derleth.
This would hardly be the only instance of Derleth attempting a takeover of a microgenre. Over the course of his writing career Derleth maintained a curious duality. His more literary work won high praise indeed, whilst he also turned out an amazing amount of formulaic pastiche, of which his Mythos stories don’t even seem to have been the ones he was most enthusiastic for or produced the most of. For instance, his output of Lovecraftian stories is dwarfed in number and page count by his long-running series of detective stories about Solar Pons – which were Sherlock Holmes pastiches so shameless that the central cast are very obviously the core Holmes characters with the serial numbers filed off, albeit the stories were set in the 1920s and 1930s instead of the Victorian era. In fact, Derleth actually wrote more Pons stories than Conan Doyle wrote Holmes tales.
The case of Solar Pons is quite illustrative of Derleth’s tendency to dip into particular niches of genre fiction and, for want of a better analogy, attempt a coup; Pons originated when Derleth discovered that Arthur Conan Doyle had decided not to write any additional Holmes stories, and audaciously wrote to Conan Doyle to seek permission to take the series over. Conan Doyle being alive and disinclined to just hand over his most famous creation to some random Yankerdoodle said no; Lovecraft, being inclined to encourage writers to borrow his ideas and concepts in life and unavailable to say no in death, left behind a legacy that it was much easier for Derleth to hijack and dominate.
Pushing the term “Cthulhu Mythos”, declaring himself Lovecraft’s literary executor, and establishing Arkham House as a sort of spiritual home of the Mythos were not the only means by which Derleth would attempt to dominate the Cthulhu Mythos and its associated fandom. Derleth would use his editorial position as a bully pulpit, slipping into his collections of Lovecraft’s and his own works essays on his view of the Cthulhu Mythos.
This was an idiosyncratic take which has little to no basis in Lovecraft’s actual work. The basic thesis was that Lovecraft’s stories were all linked together by a metanarrative about the benign Elder Gods fighting the evil Great Old Ones – with Lovecraft’s various monstrosities, Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth, Azathoth and the like all being examples of the latter. This is despite the fact that the term “Elder Gods” never appears capitalised like that in Lovecraft, and where it does appear it seems to relate to entities no less abhorrent than those designated the Old Ones. Indeed, where Lovecraft was on a more fantasy-oriented kick he’d depict the benign, nice gods who cared about human beings being little more than the tame, neutered pets of the awesomely powerful and alien Other Gods, served by Nyarlathotep. (Conversely, when he was in a more science-fictional mood, his stories seemed to unfold in a universe which was essentially godless, with the various entities worshipped by human and alien cults being nothing more than especially bizarre aliens.)
Whilst some suggestions exist of animosity between deities in Lovecraft – such as Nodens laughing at Nyarlathotep getting foiled in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath – this doesn’t really involve deities stepping in that much on the side of humanity, as would seem to be necessary if Derleth’s characterisation of one side of the conflict being “good” were to stand up. On top of that, Derleth talked of the whole Elder Gods/Great Old Ones thing as being analogous to Christian narratives about the war in Heaven and fall of Satan and the rebel angels, but this makes a nonsense of Lovecraft’s personal philosophy of atheistic materialism, which he espoused extremely consistently and which is very much evident in his writing.
Derleth attempted to resolve this basic contradiction by claiming that the pattern of this sort of war in Heaven is universal in human culture – a decidedly shaky premise in itself – and also by citing a quote from Lovecraft used so much in Derleth’s essays on the Cthulhu Mythos that in fandom circles it’s even been given a nickname – the Black Magic Quote. Here’s an example of how Derleth would typically deploy it in his little essays:
The pattern of the Mythos is a pattern that is basic in the history of mankind, representing as it does the primal struggle between good and evil; in this, it is essentially similar to the Christian Mythos, especially relating to the expulsion of Satan from Eden and Satan’s lasting power of evil. “All my stories, unconnected as they may be,” wrote Lovecraft, “are based on the fundamental lore or legend that this world was inhabited at one time by another race who, in practising black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again.”
There is a rather unfortunate problem with this statement, aside from its implicit assumption that Christian lore (extrabiblical lore, at that) about Satan is literally correct and is universally reflected in human history (an axiom that Lovecraft, being an atheist and a foe of superstition, would have found laughable). Namely, Lovecraft never wrote that quote, or at least never wrote it in any of the letters available to us. Derleth had, in the process of compiling Lovecraft’s extensive correspondence, received a bunch of letters that Lovecraft had written to composer Harold Farnese, and Farnese had also paraphrased from recollection some of the material in those letters in his correspondence with Derleth, and the Black Magic Quote is one of those paraphrases.
However, no such statement is actually found in any of the letters Lovecraft wrote to Farnese. David Schultz, who first tracked down the quote to Farnese’s letter, offers this quote from one of Lovecraft’s letters to Farnese (dated September 22, 1932):
In my own efforts to crystallise this spaceward outreaching, I try to utilise as many as possible of the elements which have, under earlier mental and emotional conditions, given man a symbolic feeling of the unreal, the ethereal, & the mystical – choosing those least attacked by the realistic mental and emotional conditions of the present. Darkness – sunset – dreams – mists – fever – madness – the tomb – the hills – the sea – the sky – the wind – all these, and many other things have seemed to me to retain a certain imaginative potency despite our actual scientific analyses of them. Accordingly I have tried to weave them into a kind of shadowy phantasmagoria which may have the same sort of vague coherence as a cycle of traditional myth or legend – with nebulous backgrounds of Elder Forces & transgalactic entities which lurk about this infinitesimal planet, (& of course about others as well), establishing outposts thereon, & occasionally brushing aside other accidental forces of life (like human beings) in order to take up full habitation… Having formed a cosmic pantheon, it remains for the fantaisiste to link this “outside” element to the earth in a suitably dramatic & convincing fashion. This, I have thought, is best done through glancing allusions to immemorially ancient cults & idols & documents attesting the recognition of the “outside” forces by men – or by those terrestrial entities which preceded man. The actual climaxes of tales based on such elements naturally have to do with sudden latter-day intrusions of forgotten elder forces on the placid surface of the known – either active intrusions, or revelations caused by the feverish & presumptuous probing of men into the unknown.
Not only is this a summation of much of Lovecraft’s horror fiction – especially the more science fiction-oriented stuff he wrote from The Call of Cthulhu onwards – which is extremely recognisable in his work, and excellently sums up what he was going for, but it’s also the closest anyone can find to the Black Magic Quote in Lovecraft’s letters to Farnese, and as you can plainly see it’s so radically different in conception as to be basically mutually exclusive with it. Later in life, when asked by Richard Tierney about the source of the quote, Derleth insisted it was in Lovecraft’s correspondence somewhere but didn’t have it anywhere close to hand – but given how carefully Derleth preserved so much Lovecraft material, and given how unthinkable it would be for him to destroy a letter containing a quote he’d put so much importance of them, one can only conclude that Derleth simply went off Farnese’s quote and then, after that, may well have forgotten that it was only a second-hand paraphrase rather than a direct quote..
Whilst it is minutely possible that Lovecraft did write the Black Magic Quote, it’s so at odds with the actual philosophy offered up in his works that I am more than willing to believe that Lovecraft simply never wrote it. For one thing, if the Black Magic Quote were real, that would mean one of two things: either Farnese destroyed it, but somehow managed to remember the Quote perfectly, or Derleth received it with the Farnese letters but ended up misplacing it or destroying it, which would seem to be a bizarre thing to do with a letter he kept relying on in his essays.
Moreover, whilst readers can, as they have every right to, have varying opinions of Lovecraft’s qualities as a writer, one thing you can’t really do is argue that he was incompetent when it came to expressing his philosophy through his stories; had Lovecraft intended to use the Black Magic Quote as the basis of all of his stories, it would be much more evident from said stories that that was the case, and he wouldn’t have written so many stories that fly in the face of it. (The Mi-Go, for instance, don’t seem to have suffered any undue effects from dabbling in occult weirdness at all, and the Great Race of Yith likewise get away scot-free; the Elder Things decline not because they were being punished by any external force for their use of anything resembling black magic, but because of more long and drawn-out processes of social stagnation. Azathoth is the brainless king of the entire universe, and Nyarlathotep doesn’t seem to be even remotely restricted or imprisoned in his activities.)
Derleth’s conception of the Mythos, however, went well beyond the Elder Gods/Old Ones clash and the Black Magic Quote. It had many more specific features, like an association between the Elder Gods and Betelgeuse and the division of the Old Ones into four types based on the classical Greek elements like they were Pokemon or something. None of this has even the slightest basis in Lovecraft’s fiction, but Derleth constantly insisted they were integral to the whole setup, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever.
No evidence, that is, except that which he fabricated – because as well as pushing his own peculiar take on the Mythos in his own work, Derleth would write a whole swathe of stories that he passed off as collaborations between himself and Lovecraft, with Lovecraft’s name first. In fact, they were nothing of the sort. At best, a tiny amount of the text would be based off Lovecraft’s notes, or a note from Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book – his posthumously-published notebook of story ideas – and at worst the stories contained no genuine Lovecraft ideas whatsoever. Derleth described this as “posthumous collaboration”, and as well as this being impossible – at best, you can have “posthumous completion” of an unfinished tale – the end result contains far too much Derleth and far too little Lovecraft for the billing as “H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth” to make the slightest shred of sense. At most, the stories should be billed as being by “August Derleth, from an idea by H.P. Lovecraft”, or simply “August Derleth”; as it stands, some sloppy publishers even present them as being entirely written by Lovecraft himself!
Derleth went so far in trying to control people’s interpretation of Lovecraft’s work and the Mythos as a whole that it puts rather a large shadow over all of his positive contributions. For instance, one of the things we can give Derleth some credit for was his continuation of Lovecraft’s mentoring of younger authors, giving big breaks to Brian Lumley (whose work is often not to my taste but is undeniably popular with some) and Ramsey Campbell, one of my personal favourites. Even this, though, is somewhat poisoned by Derleth’s weird attitude towards the Mythos; for instance, he encouraged Ramsey Campbell not to write stories based on entries in Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book and to avoid writing tales set in Lovecraft’s invented New England settings and instead focus on geographic areas he had more personal familiarity with.
That’s good advice, but there’s a huge problem with it – Derleth did both of those things extremely frequently, making this a classic case of “do as I say, not as I do”. At best, this suggests that Derleth was a roaring hypocrite; at worse, it seems like Derleth was less trying to improve Campbell’s material and more trying to keep Campbell off turf that Derleth wanted to keep to himself. (Moreover, in earlier years – when his hold over the Mythos was less secure – Derleth actually bullied C. Hall Thompson into ceasing to write Lovecraftian fiction; possibly the fact that it was markedly better than Derleth’s own made Derleth feel like his throne was threatened.)
There have, over the years, been occasional attempts to defend Derleth’s reputation, and especially his own Cthulhu Mythos writings. Robert M. Price, an occasionally-controversial figure in Cthulhu Mythos fandom and criticism himself, has occasionally stood up for Derleth, though even then he is more than ready to point out when Derleth’s writing completely goes off the rails. More recently, John Haefele has published A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos, a book-length defence of Derleth’s Mythos writings flawed by a tendency to fly in the face of well-established, settled Lovecraftian scholarship without supporting evidence and make wild claims about figures like S.T. Joshi. Joshi, for his part, offers a devastating takedown of the book on his website which, though occasionally intemperate, is well-argued and makes its shortcomings all too obvious. The main point where I disagree with Joshi is in his dismissal of being entertaining as a criteria for fiction – I think a better rebuttal to “Derleth’s stories don’t need to be high art because they’re just simple entertainment!” is “Actually, they aren’t entertaining at all, so they fail even by that standard”.
Against this background, and with my Lovecraft series behind me, I consider this to be a ripe time to take a look at Derleth’s Mythos stories and discuss their merits – or, more often, their distinct lack thereof.
Derlethian Sources, and a Note on the Standard Narrative
So, how are we to go about doing this? In terms of obtaining Derleth’s fake collaborations with Lovecraft, it is easy enough. The first of these, the novel The Lurker At the Threshold, is widely available, as is a compilation of all the short stories Derleth pushed as being genuine Lovecraft, The Watchers Out of Time and Others. (Even the publication history of these books reveals how controversial Derleth’s misattribution of these stories to Lovecraft was. Watchers originally came out in 1974, some three years after Derleth’s death, in a first edition from Arkham House which also included Lurker At the Threshold (not included in subsequent reprints from other publishers), and its release was almost immediately overshadowed by Arkham House co-founder Donald Wandrei – then locked in a dispute with the company – writing to reviewers exposing Derleth’s deceitful claims of merely “completing” these stories from unfinished drafts by Lovecraft.)
When it comes to Derleth’s stories under his own name, a compilation has come out – titled, quite aptly, In Lovecraft’s Shadow – but it’s a bit dear and frankly this material isn’t worth shelling out top dollar for. Instead, I’ve gone with whichever sources I have to had or can obtain cheaply. The seminal Cthulhu Mythos anthology Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos – in both its original Derleth-compiled form and in the revised version prepared by James Turner – includes a couple of Derleth stories. Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos, a similarly well-regarded anthology compiled by Robert M. Price with an eye to making an “alternate” take on Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, compiles others. Aside from these, Derleth put out two books through Arkham House exclusively devoted to his Mythos tales; The Mask of Cthulhu contains standalone stories, whilst The Trail of Cthulhu is a linked series of stories featuring the character of Professor Laban Shrewsbury. Mask and Trail have been compiled into a single volume (with a spectacularly ugly cover) as Quest For Cthulhu.
Between the two Tales anthologies, the volumes compiled in Quest, and the Lovecraft collaborations, we’re going to be able to cover almost all of Derleth’s Mythos material. We are missing a few stories, but I’m inclined to argue that the fact that nobody – not even Derleth himself – seems to have seen fit to compile them outside of Derleth-focused collections suggests that they aren’t especially scintillating examples of his work. In this article I am going to tackle the stories in a rough chronological order, based on their known publication or completion dates, since I think this reveals how Derleth’s hucksterish exploitation of Lovecraft’s legacy got even more brazen over time.
Before I get onto the stories, I want to spend a moment to talk about a thing I call the Standard Narrative. You see, Derleth’s Mythos stories are so formulaic that a whole stack of them all have the same basic plot: some guy, usually but not always the narrator, inherits a spooky old house from an ancestor or relative of dubious reputation. They move in, with perhaps some unnerved whispering from superstitious locals, and soon a number of very vague supernatural manifestations take place. They spend much time reading spooky old tomes left behind in the house, read a whole bunch of waffle about Derleth’s personal vision of the Mythos, and sooner or later get dragged into nasty Mythos happenings, quite often as a result of some form of possession or supernatural influence which makes them do various nasty things.
The Standard Narrative is a mashup of Derleth’s own habits and various motifs borrowed from a range of Lovecraft stories. The end results, like tea from the drink dispensers in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is something which is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Lovecraft, in the sense that Lovecraft never quite ended up telling a story according to this model. (The closest he came was probably The Diary of Alonzo Typer, but that was a revision of a story originally written by William Lumley rather than a piece Lovecraft necessarily thought up all by himself, and even then that has some significant differences – for one thing, Typer is way more clued-in on Mythos matters from the start than any of Derleth’s doomed inheritors are.)
I am outlining the Standard Narrative here because, frankly, reiterating it each and every time Derleth uses it would become atrociously tedious. It is a creative rut that Derleth would frequently return to, with decidedly mediocre results.
From Early Scribblings to the Start of the Trail
The first story Robert M. Price chooses to preserve in Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos is The Lair of the Star-Spawn, a piece that Derleth co-wrote with Mark Schorer, who would be a fairly accomplished academic critic in the long run. Derleth and Schorer had been boyhood friends, and had decided it would be fun to churn out some entertaining little pulp horror stories for the magazine market; renting a cabin on the Wisconsin River for their summer holiday, they spent their time penning a number of collaborations, of which this was one.
Price’s decision to include this story seems to have been motivated more by its importance to the development of Derleth’s ideas about the Mythos than by its own intrinsic quality. It was, in fact, the first Mythos story that Derleth worked on, and the story in which he first laid out his underlying mythology of the war between the Elder Gods and the Old Ones – though the use of the terminology is rather muddled and confused here, as though he hadn’t settled on what to call them. You have the assumption of the Old Ones being imprisoned deliberately, by external forces, you have the baddies being associated with Rigel and Betelgeuse whilst the good guys are associated with Orion, you have the very stark good-vs.-evil presentation of the supernatural entities; it’s all here.
That said, some of the aspects of Derleth’s Mythos aren’t fully devleoped here. For instance, the story can be read as implying that only some of them are – only Cthulhu, Hastur, Lloigor and Zhar are mentioned here, and if Cthulhu wasn’t mentioned the story would have basically no connection to Lovecraft’s work since Lovecraft never used Hastur except as a name to occasionally drop here and there. (This is the only story by Derleth I am aware of where Lloigor and Zhar take centre stage, though Colin Wilson would later adopt the name Lloigor and use it for a much more interesting yarn that radically broke from Derleth’s conception of the Mythos.)
Furthermore, the Elder Gods actually show up to save the narrator and destroy the menacing entities; their appearance is couched in quasi-angelic terms, presenting them as saintly beings literally riding down on space steeds like some cosmic cavalry here to save the day; they don’t really do that in Derleth’s later writing, possibly because they were too much of a deus ex machina even for Derleth. (They’re even thoughtful enough to teleport the narrator and his buddy to safety, though a discordant note is added when you consider that the narrator is supposed to have died shortly after writing the story.) Moreover, the Elder Gods just plain slaughter Lloigor and Zhar outright, two Great Old Ones simply hacked into lumps of decaying flesh. Since they were able to do this so easily, that rather raises the question of why they bothered with the imperfect stopgap solution of imprisoning the Old Ones when, on the basis of this story at least, they were entirely able to just kill them and had absolutely zero qualms about doing so.
As well as originating Derleth’s “war in Heaven” take on the Mythos, the story is also the origin of the Tcho-Tcho, who are basically an entire ethnicity of people who are evil because they are evil because they are evil. The story is set in Burma in theory, though in practice most of the cultural details involved seem to be pure fantasy; the distastefulness of a story about a white explorer discovering devilish little foreigners up to no good is scarcely made less racist by the fact that at the midway point the narrator basically stops doing anything proactive at all and becomes nothing more than an assistant to Dr. Fo-Lan, a Chinese super-genius whose characterisation basically plays the whole “inscrutable wisdom of the East” stereotype to the hilt, uses his telepathy to call in the cosmic cavalry, and talks in great fat dumps of exposition.
Derleth and Schorer were deliberately writing this one for the pulps and it really does show, with depth of characterisation and craft of prose neglected in favour of cheesy fun which would go down easier without the racism and heavy-handed pushing of Derleth’s take on Mythos. Lovecraft actually read and seemed to enjoy this one, at least to the point of namedropping the Tcho-Tcho in his own stories, which I suppose may have encouraged Derleth to believe that his take on the Mythos had Lovecraft’s blessing, but we know from Lovecraft’s own work that what is true for one story is not necessarily true for another, and that even if he did like the story that doesn’t imply that he set any great stock on it having some sort of “canonical” status.
The second story that Price picks out for Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos is The Thing That Walked On the Wind, which is Derleth’s first story about perhaps his most widely appreciated Mythos creation, Ithaqua. I say “creation” advisedly, mind, because the story takes an awful lot of inspiration from Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo, which itself drew heavily on (but differed in some important respects from) the folkloric figure that appears in the legends of many Algonquin-speaking peoples. Derleth does at least make a point of tipping his hat to his influences here, slipping in a reference to Blackwood to acknowledge his influence; the plot point where the narrator is presented with a bunch of pulp magazines with Lovecraft stories in them as some sort of source of deep Mythos knowledge is kind of heavy-handed and risible.
This latter, in fact, is an especially obnoxious early iteration of the Derlethian Mythos Dump – this being Derleth’s terrible habit of interrupting the flow of a story completely in order to give a long introduction to the Cthulhu Mythos as he interpreted it at the time of writing, which he rarely resists doing and which is more or less always to the detriment of the story. Somehow, Derleth considered this sort of mass dumping of setting information to be appropriate storytelling, even if only a fraction of the information spewed at the reader in this manner was actually germane to the situation at hand.
Even when Lovecraft was at his most expositional when it came to setting information, as in stories like At the Mountains of Madness, there was at least always a point to it – for instance, the massive information dump in At the Mountains of Madness is arguably half the point of the story, being as it is focused on a history and overview of Elder Thing society. The Derlethian Mythos Dump, conversely, has him copy-pasting more or less the same slab of information into every story of his without exercising any judgement or discernment in terms of what facts are useful to support the plot and the theme and the atmosphere of the story, often because Derleth wasn’t writing with plot or theme or atmosphere in mind at all but was just spitting out Lovecraftian syllables and calling it a Mythos story like the utter hack he was.
That said, despite including the dreaded Derlethian Mythos Dump, The Thing That Walked On the Wind is one of Derleth’s better stories, precisely because it does actually show some command of atmosphere and finds Derleth engaging interestingly with some of the themes he is working with. In particular, he picks up and runs with the idea found both in Blackwood and the folklore of the Wendigo affecting people’s minds and changing their personalities. Here, this is translated into the idea that Ithaqua abducts you for the space of a year or so, dragging you off on a nightmare tour of the various other realms the star-winds touch as they blow their way across the cosmos. The bits with the returnees mumbling the praises of Ithaqua is genuinely chilling (pun most definitely intended), the implication being that you cannot experience what they have experienced without being left awestruck and humbled before the Wind-Walker, and Derleth goes further by providing them with not just psychological changes but physiological changes.
Like I said, Ithaqua might, despite all this, be Derleth’s most broadly popular contribution to the Mythos. Almost all of Derleth’s other ideas have their detractors, to the point where by this point they are almost entirely out of favour, but people do still occasionally go back to the Ithaqua well, especially with in tabletop RPG circles, possibly because here Derleth is building on an already very solid story in the form of the Blackwood original and the folklore which informs it, and “mysterious entity which manifests with the wind” is an interestingly different aesthetic from most of Lovecraft’s soupy goopy scaly tentacle thingies. It’s also one of the few stories where Derleth’s keenness on ascribing an elemental nature to things isn’t entirely inappropriate, partly because he just does this with Ithaqua rather than trying to do it with all of the Old Ones. And the conclusion of the story is, perhaps, the only point in Derleth’s writing where I feel like he comes close to hinting at greater wonders and terrors than those described in a Lovecraft-like way, so kudos there.
After this story Derleth didn’t get any Mythos stories published for about six years or so, though he was still working on them – in particular, his next published Mythos tale, The Return of Hastur (the first collected in The Mask of Cthulhu) was apparently shown to Lovecraft, who supposedly gave some feedback on it. It finally saw the light of day in 1939, two years after Lovecraft’s death, and if Derleth really did implement Lovecraft’s suggestions I can only shudder to think what a mess the first draft was, because this is a huge mess.
Once again we get a Derlethian Mythos Dump, including direct citing of Lovecraft’s fiction as a source of Mythos information, although at least this time around there’s a contextual reason for it being overblown and muddled and somewhat nonsensical because it’s in the form of a ranting lecture given by a rather frazzled character. (In terms of Derleth’s development of his take, he actually still seems to be tweaking with the Elder God/Old One nomenclature and division here, but otherwise it’s mostly in place, and we even get a citation of the R’lyeh Text, one of his own contributions to the expanding library of Mythos tomes in the vein of the Necronomicon.) We also see here a very early story in the mode of Derleth’s Standard Narrative, in that it includes the basic plot points of “dude inherits house, continues the researches of the former owner, and succumbs to Mythos corruption” motif, though it’s of the variant where the dude in question is not the narrator.
To be fair, though, Derleth had not yet buried himself quite so deeply in the rut that the Standard Narrative would prove to be. No, here the downfall of the story is in its conclusion. Aside from the rather over-the-top plot point of one of the characters wiring their own house with explosives so that the narrator can use a detonator hidden in the garden to below the place up, Derleth treats us to a truly absurd climax in which after the explosion Cthulhu himself – who we are told earlier has actually woken up and emerged from R’lyeh – pops by to duke it out with the manifested Hastur, before an Elder God zaps in to send them back to their respective prisons.
You would think that such an epic confrontation would deserve a certain amount of narrative space, but actually it is rushed to an astonishing extent, barely described and over in course of a paragraph, so not only does Derleth bite off way more than he can really chew when it comes to executing such a surreal sequence of events in a way which seems meaningful and appropriate to the more low-key story leading up to it, but he doesn’t even try to adequately do the idea justice. Perhaps he realised that the mental image created of Cthulhu being physically tossed back to the sea like an unwanted catch is especially risible and would seem even sillier if actually thought through and given more description, but that’s a reason not to include something so silly in an ostensibly serious story, not to not bother to properly do the work of describing it.
The theme from The Return of Hastur of someone falling afoul of a deal made with Mythos entities returned in 1940’s The Sandwin Compact, also collected in The Mask of Cthulhu. The story sees Derleth engaging in an occasional game of his which I like to call Guess the Old One, where he gives a bunch of fairly generic clues as to which of the Old Ones might be responsible for the supernatural manifestations involved in the story and I think part of the pleasure for the reader is supposed to be which Old One is the big bad this time – or, as is the case here, which of several competing Old Ones (Cthulhu, Lloigor, and Ithaqua) are responsible for which incident. Unfortunately, the game is slightly ruined by the fact that Derleth would apply so many of these manifestations – spectral winds, damp doorknobs, mysterious sloshing footstep noises and the like – to so many of the Old Ones that the distinction is basically arbitrary.
The involvement of Lloigor here raises an interesting question of how much Derleth was standing by The Lair of the Star-Spawn. On the one hand, Lloigor’s close association with the Tcho-Tcho is still pushed; on the other hand, the activity attributed to Lloigor here is much more reminiscent of depictions of Ithaqua rather than the way Lloigor was depicted in that story. This is the sort of thing which totally would not be an issue had Derleth not put as much energy as he did into pushing the idea that the Mythos had a consistent, coherent canon; then, at least, you could defend him by suggesting he was indulging in the same sort of deliberate inconsistency that Lovecraft was. As it stands, it seems that this is an inconsistency that cannot be chalked up to a deliberate artistic decision so much as Derleth simply not being very good at the sort of mythological consistency he claimed the Mythos was about.
1941 would yield the third and final story chosen by Robert Price for inclusion in Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos, Ithaqua. As the title implies, this is basically a rehash of The Thing That Walked On the Wind, right down to Mountie boss John Dalhousie appearing in both stories and the tales taking place in the same general remote forested region of Canada. That said, for once I am actually glad Derleth chose to recycle an old story idea, here, because in many respects it’s a more effective tale than the original. The presentation of Mythos lore here comes across more naturally and with less overkill than the standard Derlethian Mythos Dump, the horrific manifestations are genuinely weird, and Derleth remembers to bring back and focus on the most successful and eeriest aspects of the original story, like how those snatched away end up mumbling the praises of Ithaqua. The story also breaks from Derleth’s usual practice in presenting a downbeat ending which does not degenerate into a shouty paragraph of overexcited italics, unlike much of Derleth’s work in this vein.
In addition, for once Derleth’s musings on the nature of the Old Ones under discussion actually are vaguely interesting. The discussion of Ithaqua’s nature is mercifully bried and seems to inadvertently cast doubt on Derleth’s elemental classifications of the Old Ones by suggesting that what Ithaqua represents might not be reducible to the classical Greek elements. There’s also an interesting mention of Hastur being the master of the elementals, which I think can very viably be read as Derleth scaling back his elemental interpretation to apply only to a subset of Mythos entities. (In Derleth’s stories Hastur and Cthulhu are feuding, so if Hastur is master of the elementals and Cthulhu is a peer and nemesis of Hastur, logically it seems like Cthulhu probably isn’t an elemental.)
Arguably, that’s in the context of aggrandising Hastur, one of Derleth’s pet Old Ones – remember, before he hit on the term “Cthulhu Mythos” Derleth tried to push the name “Mythology of Hastur” for the various bits of Yog-Sothothery by Lovecraft and others, before Lovecraft shot it down by pointing out that he personally had barely written anything about Hastur. That said, at least it does so by giving him a bit of character – “Old One who is a spooky wizardy puppetmaster of various elemental beings” has a bit more flavour to it than “Old One who is a tentacle guy who lives on Aldebaran and dislikes Cthulhu”. This was probably not Derleth’s intention, but a delicious idea, as is the way the mention of elemental forces of Good and Evil implies that such concepts are mere puppets that exist to serve the will of Hastur.
This sort of thing makes me inclined to think Derleth’s work would be much less contentious if he had followed the lead of Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard in concentrating on developing his own mythology with allusive connections to others, rather than trying to push his way as the One True Mythos which represented what Lovecraft was really aiming for all along. Derleth cooking up all of these elemental connections for entities of his own invention (or which, in the case of Hastur, were left almost entirely undefined in their original contexts) feels like much less of a wild misrepresentation and misunderstanding of other peoples’ work than Derleth making bold statements about the true nature of Cthulhu or other entities invented by other hands. Ithaqua is a better story than many in Derleth’s portfolio precisely because he concentrates on his own corner of the Mythos more than meddling in others this time.
There is, however, a major flaw to Ithaqua: whereas in The Thing That Walked On the Wind the ethnicity of Ithaqua’s worshippers was not specified and implications were dropped that Ithaqua worshipped worldwide, here the cultists are specifically presented as First Nations people and the overall message of the story is “indigenous religions are bad and the Canadian government is entirely justified in forcibly suppressing First Nations cultural practices”, which given the history of such repression is a pretty reprehensible angle to take. Then again, at least by spoiling an otherwise good story with racism Derleth can claim to have written a truly Lovecraftian tale.
The same year also saw Derleth putting out Beyond the Threshold, the first of his stories he selected for inclusion in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. It’s another instance of his Standard Narrative, using the variant where the person who comes into a dodgy inheritance is not the narrator. That said, it’s a better iteration than usual, with dialogue that actually sounds like words that human beings may exchange with one another and a believable setting in Derleth;s own home turf in Wisconsin. One may well wish that he’d set more Mythos tales in his home state since, as with Lovecraft, his direct experience of its local colour greatly improves the texture of the story.
Once again, Derleth resorts to citing Lovecraft himself as an in-universe source of Mythos lore, but actually takes it further by specifically citing The Outsider and Others, the first major collection of Lovecraft’s work, which of course Derleth himself published and had a financial interest in the success of through Arkham House. The story also continues the Sandwin Compact’s recasting of Lloigor as an air elemental, despite his original appearance in The Lair of the Star-Spawn showing him being imprisoned deep underground, which in this story is supposedly a characteristic of earth-type
pokemon Old Ones.
Otherwise, it’s a fairly predictable riff on Derleth’s Standard Narrative, with aspects of the Ithaqua stories worked in (though with the racism mostly dialled back, aside from a passing mention of how nasty the Tcho-Tchos are). It suffers from the Derlethian Mythos Dump syndrome, though it’s a bit less incongruous this time since it forms a natural part of protagonist thinking through what has happened, and Derleth’s elemental framework is actually vaguely relevant this time, though the supernatural manifestations are of a sufficiently mixed and nebulous nature that it’s possible to interpret it as being a flawed theory that isn’t really true.
1944 would bring forth The Dweller In Darkness, the other story of his Derleth thought worth including in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. In its focus on odd Mythosy things happening in the woods it feels a bit like a riff on the Ithaqua stories, but it benefits from being set in territory well-known to Derleth (it’s another Wisconsin story) and from Derleth using a slightly novel story concept for him. (It essentially boils down to the protagonist and his buddy showing up in the wake of someone else’s botched investigation of the Mythos, and barely succeeding at escaping the hornet’s nest the previous investigation stirred up.)
That said, it’s still marred by some of Derleth’s bad habits and constant recycling of ideas. (It even ends with a big ol’ paragraph of italics, a trope that Derleth was shamelessly fond of but never really worked very well.) This is another story in which The Outsider and Others is hyped by virtue of it being included in a pile of Mythos tomes, with the promotion of the book hitting the point where Derleth made sure to mention that Arkham House is the publisher of the book and copies are available via direct mail order. Yet again, we get a bunch of cool supernatural manifestations which are more familiar from the Ithaqua stories – a mysterious wind which is heard blowing loudly but can’t be felt and doesn’t stir the branches of the trees, victims snatched away to accompany the Old One of the story on its cosmic travels, and so on – but applies them, apparently arbitrarily, to Nyarlathotep, making Derleth seem too dependent on a limited range of tricks.
Speaking of Derleth using a very narrow palette of techniques in his Mythos stories, once again we have a Derlethian Mythos Dump. This time, is seems to reflect further evolution of his conception of the Mythos, and in particular the place of the Elder Gods in it. Derleth seems to have realised that having the Elder Gods ride in like the cavalry to save the day in The Lair of the Star-Spawn and The Return of Hastur was a bit of a heavy-handed deus ex machina, and also raises the question of why people don’t just summon the Elder Gods whenever they have an Old One problem. Here, then, Nyarlathotep is defeated not by summoning the Elder Gods but by summoning the fire entity Cthugha, another Old One who happens to be opposed to Nyarlathotep.
The explanation offered of how this summoning works is very reminiscent of the metaphysical underpinnings of summoning offered in Lair of the Star-Spawn, and the apocalyptic ending and the actual aesthetics of Cthugha and his minions as pillars of fire is highly reminiscent of their appearance in that, so part of me wonders whether Derleth was planning to retcon the previous stories at some point to reframe the Elder God appearances as Cthugha manifestations. This would allow Derleth to shift his take on the Mythos so that the Elder Gods would be distant and unsummonable, so that future protagonists’ tendency to use the powers of the Old Ones against the Old Ones (pretty much Laban Shrewsbury’s signature deal in The Trail of Cthulhu) rather than just summoning the Elder Gods seems much more reasonable.
Another interesting aspect of the story is the way Derleth does a riff on a potential interpretation Lovecraft’s Whisperer In Darkness; fans have speculated that the titular whisperer in that story is, in fact, Nyarlathotep himself, summoned to troll poor Wilmarth by the Mi-Go. Here, Nyarlathotep does another impersonation act, though it’s one which makes a bit of a hash of the Whisperer In Darkness connection (why did Nyarlathotep require certain nasty props to pull off the impersonation in Whisperer when he apparently needs no such props here?) and also the story’s own internal logic. (So far as I can make out, Nyarlathotep is summoned to do this by… himself. Which feels a bit redundant. And by yelling his plan in the general proximity of the characters he intends to fool during the summoning, he gives the plan away like a complete buffoon.)
To be honest, this would be much better as a story if Derleth had abandoned the Nyarlathotep connection, which seems to invite comparisons with other stories that this isn’t very consistent with, and had the story revolve around Ithaqua and Cthugha being summoned to fight Ithaqua, not least because this would once again make it a case of Derleth working in his own corner of the Mythos rather than trying to impose his ideas on other people’s bits of it. As it stands, making the story be about Nyarlathotep seems a bit pointless, because particularly with the way Derleth is happy to have the same supernatural manifestations imply the presence of more or less any Old One there’s no compelling reason this story had to be about ol’ Nyarly. (OK, there’s the Whisperer In Darkness connection, but it seems to me that if Derleth was happy to ascribe manifestations he had invented for Ithaqua to Nyarlathotep he should be equally happy to allow Ithaqua to do stuff associated with Nyarlathotep.)
On the racism-monitoring front, one major issue with the story is the way a character is consistently described as a “half-breed”, the term being emphasised more or less every time the character is mentioned. Not only is this offensive, especially in the way the character is consistently depicted as being a snivelling, lowly wretch of a person, but it’s also a term which is actually incredibly uninformative because we are told no more about his heritage than that. “Half-breed” as a descriptor works only if you have even the slightest idea of who the parents of the individual in question were, otherwise more or less any combination of heritages under the sun could be implied. Used here, it’s a descriptor which on the one hand is more or less the only significant tag applied to this character and is used to express a dismissive contempt of him, but at the same time is absolutely no use when it comes to working out what he looks like or what the term is supposed to denote. Derleth, in short, is not only being racist here, but he’s actually incompetently racist.
It occurs to me that it’s interesting that both Derleth and Robert M. Price (who, remember, is an occasional defender of Derleth) seem to have been drawn to pick out fairly early Derleth pieces for inclusion in their respective Cthulhu Mythos anthologies. Part of this may, of course, come from Price modelling his own anthology on Derleth’s, but that still leaves open the question of Derleth’s decision-making process when choosing stories for Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. That anthology originally came out in 1969, by which point Derleth had produced more or less all the Mythos material he ever would; only two pieces postdate it, and one of those is an unfinished fragment.
Indeed, by 1969 Derleth would have been well into the habit of churning out a fake collaboration between himself and Lovecraft for the sake of driving the sales of anthologies, but he seems to have held off for Tales, perhaps recognising the inferiority of such pieces and wanting to save space for the absolute cream of the crop. For Derleth to pick out two stories from the early 1940s as representing the best of his own Mythos work – the two pieces best placed to represent his contributions – rather suggests that he wasn’t especially confident in any of the work he had produced in subsequent decades. To be fair, despite their faults I find them more entertaining than most of Derleth’s work, so the choice seems to be apt, but it’s got to be pretty appalling to realise that your work in an area peaked during this narrow window of time which is now long in the past.
As for Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos, Price’s main criterion seems to have been that authors chosen for inclusion need to have been part of the Lovecraft Circle back in the day, and of course Price had the full run of Derleth’s Mythos fiction to choose from with the benefit of a couple of decades of hindsight and reappraisal. Nonetheless, far from trying to champion any later Derleth pieces Price ends up going even earlier, picking out the two major Ithaqua stories and The Lair of the Star-Spawn. Again, these are tales with some shortcomings, and I have to say I don’t think they even hit the modest standards of Beyond the Threshold or The Dweller In Darkness, but I can see Price’s rationale there: Ithaqua is probably Derleth’s Mythos contribution who has enjoyed the best reception in the wider fanbase (though how much of this is thanks to Algernon Blackwood doing such good work on the original The Wendigo is open to question), and Lair is, despite being trashy and highly rudimentary, extremely interesting as the original source of lots of Derleth’s ideas about the Mythos. And the pieces are all at least slightly more interesting than the Standard Narrative.
From this point on, Derleth’s Mythos writing would become more trite, more formulaic, and more inextricably bogged down in his insistence on an utterly misleading citation of Lovecraft as a co-author. In the next article, I’ll take a look at the inception of Derleth’s Trail of Cthulhu series of linked stories and the first of Derleth’s fake collaborations with Lovecraft, The Lurker At the Threshold.