Derleth-er of Two Evils

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.

In my previous Derleth article we took a look at Derleth’s wider importance to the Cthulhu Mythos fandom and his early works, in which he developed the various ideas he tried to promote as unquestionable holy writ as far as the interpretation both of the Mythos in general and (bizarrely) Lovecraft’s own works were concerned. We’d just seen them come to a mature form in 1944’s The Dweller In Darkness.

Following the Trail to the Threshold

1944’s other Mythos offering from Derleth was The House On Curwen Street, which is an important one to our journey through his work because it is the first episode of The Trail of Cthulhu and is our introduction to Professor Laban Shrewsbury, the character who connects the various episodes of that serial. Shrewsbury is an expression of the well-worn occult detective archetype along the lines of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence or William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, bearing the scars of his encounters with the Mythos and using his mastery of sinister eldritch lore to foil the agents of the Great Old Ones.

Brian Lumley, on asked how much he modelled his own occult detective Titus Crow on Laban Shrewsbury, said that he actually wasn’t so keen on Shrewsbury as a character because he sort of pops up fully-formed here and doesn’t really get any subsequent character development. That’s a good observation, though for the purposes of this story it is less of an issue since he isn’t so much a protagonist as an oddity to be observed by the protagonist. It is more of a problem over the course of the Trail of Cthulhu serial as a whole, since each part of the series presents the reader with a different narrator with Shrewsbury settling into the role of party leader and driving force behind the protagonists’ efforts, so Shrewsbury becomes the hero of the series by default simply because he’s the character who appears most regularly.

The basic character concept of Shrewsbury isn’t that bad, mind; presenting the reader with this long-time Mythos investigator who has ended up all scarred and strange and alienated from ordinary society by his experiences and turns to occult means and violent, explosive strategies in a personal crusade against the Mythos is a character type which on the one hand doesn’t have much direct precedent in Lovecraft but on the other hand feels like a very natural fit for the Lovecraftian cosmos. Even though Derleth’s take on the Mythos canon and metaphysics have fallen out of favour in Call of Cthulhu RPG circles, for instance, he does offer a model for Call of Cthulhu play, particularly in the late stages of long-running campaigns where investigators who have survived a run of investigations and delved into some tomes and mastered some magic start using this knowledge against the Mythos and end up walking a fine line between being defenders of humanity and losing all sensible contact with it and becoming a Mythos threat in their own right.

The major issue I have with Shrewsbury here, and this remains very much true over the course of the entire Trail of Cthulhu sequence, is that his interactions with the Mythos are altogether too clean. The House On Curwen Street, and The Trail of Cthulhu in general, pivots firmly away from Derleth’s earlier version of his canon in which the Elder Gods can be called on to blast Old Ones into chunks and toss them into the sea with wild abandon and towards his later iteration of his canon (which he kept maintaining was Lovecraft’s canon despite the fact that he himself was making these changes to it) where the Elder Gods aren’t really available to show up at the beck and call of human beings and if you want supernatural aid against the Old Ones you need to obtain it from diametrically opposed Old Ones. Shrewsbury’s agenda is to thwart the rise of Cthulhu, in Derleth’s system Hastur has a big grudge against Cthulhu, so the powers that Shrewsbury calls on – the otherworldly library of Celaeno, the Byakhee entities which can carry you off to various locations across the world and around the universe, and so on – are all associated with Hastur.

The problem is that Hastur never does anything with this.

What Shrewsbury is doing here is, when you look at it, pretty goddamn Faustian, in the sense that he is literally invoking a Great Old One with magic spells in order to fight a Great Old One he considers to be a bigger threat. The natural expectation is that at some point Hastur, who isn’t exactly a cuddly cosmic bunny, will use this relationship to corrupt or contaminate Shrewsbury and his allies or hijack their efforts towards his own ends, but he never, ever does, despite the fact that he and his minions have really quite ample opportunities to do this. Nor do Shrewsbury and his buddies ever experience any negative effects from their regular use of really quite startling magical power beyond the realms of human experience.

Admittedly, Shrewsbury has no eyes but is able to somehow see psychically anyway and has some degree of precognition, and it is implied that all of that is down to his wild prior experiences, but firstly that’s all stuff that happens before the beginning of the story and secondly all of those changes are basically upgrades, giving Shrewsbury minor superpowers with no real downsides aside from necessitating the use of sunglasses, and that’s only a downside because it inadvertently makes him sound like a humble old professor trying slightly unconvincingly to look like a badass like Walter White in Breaking Bad when he starts wearing those sunglasses and that porkpie hat when he’s being Heisenberg.

Even if this were a fantasy story in a sort of Dungeons & Dragons vein, in which it is fully expected that characters will use magic like it’s just some ordinary tool, the extent to which Shrewsbury and his allies put their physical and psychic safety in the hands of fucking goddamn Hastur the fucking Unspeakable, Jesus fuck Shrewsbury what the fuck do you think you’re fucking doing??? would be astonishing. In a weird tale/cosmic horror context, which is the genre Derleth is still in theory working in, it is absolutely screaming out for some sort of plot twist wherein Hastur tries something dubious. Even in the extremely pulp adventure take on the Mythos Derleth rolls out for The Trail of Cthulhu (which is a bit more keen on two-fisted action and less big on downer endings than the bulk of Derleth’s Mythos work), the lack of any corruption or blowback or even minor complication arising from Shrewsbury and pals dabbling with this stuff is utterly astonishing and makes it feel less like they are calling on the perilous powers of the Great Old Ones and more like using a nice reliable smartphone app to order pizza or something.

I mean, seriously, even Warhammer 40,000 stuff gets this point right: make use of the gifts of the Ruinous Powers, and they will make use of you.

Another mistake that Derleth makes is that he gives Shrewsbury and their crew tools which are, frankly, a little too good to allow for much tension. Inspired, perhaps, by certain Lovecraft references to the Elder Sign and by the mention of stones carved with swastikas being left behind by the South Seas tribes who genocide the original Deep One colony in The Shadow Over Innsmouth as charms against the baddies, Derleth here invents the Mnar star-stones, which basically function for the purposes of Derleth’s Mythos as working like crucifixes work in old Hammer Horror vampire movies, only even more so. The minions of the Old Ones cannot go after characters brandishing a Mnar stone, and the stones can also be used to seal the Gates through which the Old Ones are constantly trying to get to Earth and gobble us all up, and so on and so forth. They are so overwhelmingly effective that essentially so long as a character has one, there isn’t really any tension involved in the story, because they’re not going to get hurt. (They also seem partly inspired by the star-stones mentioned in At the Mountains of Madness, but in that context they were the Old Ones’ currency, so Shrewsbury and his crew are literally keeping monsters at bay by waving money at them.)

They are also responsible for a honking great plot hole for the entire series: if they keep the agents of the Old Ones at bay, and Shrewsbury and his assistants carry them at all times for their personal safety, how do the Byakhee approach them in order to whisk them away to safety? After all, the Byakhee should in principle be held at bay by the stones just as much as any other servitor species of the Old Ones would. Perhaps the stones’ protection doesn’t work if the bearer has specifically invited the interaction, but that never comes up in the story so it’s sheer speculation and it makes the whole “why doesn’t Hastur corrupt them?” issue even more acute. Even if you infer that the stones’ protection is specifically variable enough to allow for the bearers to make extremely precise exceptions, like “You are to carry me safe, unharmed, and unchanged to Celaeno”, without compromising the rest of the protection, for reasons I will go into in the discussion of a subsequent episode this still wouldn’t work to protect them from Hastur.

Incidentally, the way the stones are used to protect and maintain the wards on the Gates, and Shrewsbury’s agenda of locating and destroying the Gates, is highly reminiscent of the classic Arkham Horror boardgame, which seems to take a lot of influence from this story specifically. The Gates seem to be Derleth’s attempt to reconcile Lovecraft’s otherwise utterly unreconcilable depictions of the Old Ones, wherein in some stories like The Dunwich Horror they are spectral, invisible inhabitants of other dimensions, whereas in other stories like The Call of Cthulhu they are eminently physical entities with a tangible material substance to them. Of course, in Lovecraft the explanation of this is that he wasn’t trying to work with a consistent mythology but changed it up to suit the needs of each story, but that wouldn’t work for Derleth’s attempt to push his interpretation as canon, so here he has the Old Ones being trapped behind the Gates which stop them physically entering our universe.

Unfortunately, another vast, yawning plot hole emerges here: since it seems from the story that Shrewsbury can very effectively destroy Gates with conventional explosives – he does it once in Salapunco, in an incident revisited later in The Gorge Beyond Salapunco, and he does it again on friggin’ R’lyeh itself – why couldn’t the Elder Gods have just smashed the Gates themselves once they tossed the Old Ones through? The question is never addressed, because the only possible answer is “they had no good reason not to smash the Gates, but if they did this story wouldn’t happen”, and if you’re telling a story which can only happen because characters entirely under your control failed to do something the story itself suggests that they were perfectly capable of doing (if only by showing human beings being able to do the exact same thing) then that’s a huge issue with the way you have constructed your story and setting and you need to go back to the drawing board and start again, or even better just toss your ridiculous self-contradictory story in the bin, August, you total fucking incompetent hack, seriously, do you even read through and think about the implications of your own shit?

As you might tell, I really don’t like The Trail of Cthulhu. It’s only going to get worse, as in later episodes Derleth actually seems to forget stuff that was established in earlier episodes, creating massive contradictions and plot holes and making it very obvious that he never actually sat down and read over the previous episodes with an eye to ensuring internal consistency when writing subsequent episodes. It’s deeply ironic that a writer who was so extremely invested in presenting the Mythos as having this very specific canon and having this broader internal consistency was so incredibly bad at keeping his own personal mythology in order.

Don’t even attempt the headache of reconciling The Trail of Cthulhu with other Mythos stories; it isn’t possible. Even if you could somehow reconcile all the times it flatly and directly contradicts itself, it pushes all sorts of ideas which aren’t reflected in other stories. In particular, the idea that the Old Ones can’t come to this world unless specifically called through their Gates is palpably untrue – it isn’t even clear that it’s true in The Call of Cthulhu itself (nothing that Johansen and his crew do on R’lyeh before Cthulhu shows up and starts bullying them could really be interpreted as summoning him), and it’s only The Dunwich Horror which really suggests that there might be something to the idea. It isn’t even true in Derleth’s own wider body of work – it’s really hard to read the Ithaqua stories, for instance, as suggesting that Ithaqua is imprisoned to more or less any meaningful extent.

I should probably give some sort of description here of the plot of The House On Curwen Street, since it and the other Trail episodes are distinguished by for once not really following the Standard Narrative, but instead following a different but equally formulaic novel: each episode is a document written by a different narrator, with each narrator having been recruited into the fight against the Mythos, usually by Shrewsbury or one of Shrewsbury’s existing agents, and then some fairly generic violence happens and the narrator has to vanish off into the moony twilight to get away from Mythos reprisals.

This time around, the episode is presented as a document written by Andrew Phelan, a young man who is hired by Shrewsbury as a secretary. Shrewsbury specifically wants someone who is deeply unimaginative, so that they won’t ask too many questions which might lead to their peace of mind becoming endangered; in the form of Phelan, who seems to have no objections to bizarre nonsense like taking secret notes from a secret hidey-hole and sees no reason to speculate as to why Shrewsbury has such a hiding place, he seems to have found a candidate who fits that description to the point I’m not altogether sure Phelan would pass the Turing Test.

Naturally, however, strange dreams brought on after being dosed with a curious wine by Shrewsbury find Phelan realising that Shrewsbury has brought him in for a far more dangerous task than just being a live-in houseboy and note-taker, and he discovers that Shrewsbury has in fact been engaged in a globe-trotting magic-toting bomb-tossing campaign against the Great Old Ones. I think part of the point of the story is that we are meant to be unsure early on whether Shrewsbury is a cultist or an enemy of the Old Ones, but the incident early on when he lies to a cultist in Salapunco and claims to be a fellow coreligionist is so clearly meant to be Shrewsbury pulling a fast one that this potentially interesting direction for the story never really gets a chance to develop.

Part of what is so enraging about the story is that it hits on some nice ideas that Derleth never does anything useful with. The actual mechanics of summoning and using the Byakhee (down the space-mead, blow the whistle, ride the bird) is entertainingly odd at least, and the overall plot makes for something a bit different than Derleth’s standard narrative, though in the long run it became just another formula for the purposes of the Trail episodes. The basic idea of Celaeno – an otherworldly library storing on vast tablets ancient wisdom stolen from the Elder Gods – is a fun one, but it’s never really used as anything other than an escape hatch.

Moreover, there’s a certain nasty streak to Shrewsbury’s tactics that could have done with being explored more. The sheer violence he is willing to bring to bear against Mythos entities is actually somewhat shocking – for instance, he specifically times his demolition mission in Salapunco to coincide with a cult ceremony, in such a way that casualties could be expected and do in fact occur. Had Derleth stopped to think about how grim that actually comes across, there was scope here to ponder just how far one can go in fighting the Old One before one becomes a danger to other human beings on a different scale. Here, however, Derleth never really challenges Shrewsbury’s tactics, making this another incident where Derleth seems to portray the violent suppression of indigenous religions as a good thing. It’s worth noting that there is no hint that the Salapunco-based cult is considered at all aberrant or pariah by other indigenous groups; conversely, in Lovecraft’s own stories (and despite the contempt he regularly espoused for other cultures) he at least had the neighbours of his native cult groups regard the cultists with fear and loathing, emphasising the Cthulhu Cult/Deep Ones’ status as an alien imposition on human cultures from outside.

This is hardly the only instance in the story of Derleth implementing ideas from Lovecraft but either making them worse or at the very least failing to make them congruent with the Lovecraft stories he is trying to follow up on. The mentions of Innsmouth suggest that here, as in other Derleth stories, we are expected to believe that Innsmouth has a bustling non-Mythosy population who know nothing of town’s dark parts, which is sharply at odds with the depiction of the town in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, in which there are not that many outsiders and most of them seem aware on some level that something is up. The section in which Shrewsbury and Phelan blowing up a Gate on R’lyeh to stop Cthulhu getting out is a bit of a rehash of the end of The Call of Cthulhu, except in the original story there was no such Gate. The spectacle here of Cthulhu getting non-fatally blown up by explosives would be repeated in the final episode of Trail.

The R’lyeh episode is preceded by the second most absurd thing in the story, in which we are asked to first believe that a delirious dockworker who had been taken to R’lyeh by Deep Ones was somehow able to get home, and secondly and even more incredibly we are expected to believe he was able to guess and recite a precise latitude and longitude for R’lyeh down to the minute. (Which is presumably the information that allows Shrewsbury and Phelan to fly their Byakhee there.) The abduction of the dockworker seems to be entirely pointless beyond plot convenience, allowing him to escape so as to get the relevant information to Shrewsbury; whilst aliens having unknowable motivations are very Lovecraftian, aliens whose motivation is solely “do stupid stuff that helps the author progress the plot with no apparent benefit to myself” are just ridiculous.

The most absurd thing in the story is the ending, where Derleth is able to somehow able to find an even sillier way to end a story which is presented as a diegetic document written by the narrator than Lovecraft’s occasional habit of having the narrator continue to write when they should either be fleeing or dead. Here, Phelan escapes Mythosy pursuers by calling out the chant that summons a Byakhee to fly him to safety. The last words in the story are the start of that invocation, suggesting that – despite time very much being of the essence – Phelan wrote down the chant even as he started saying it. It looks even worse in context than I have made it sound because it is clear that Phelan is writing the end of the document in a hurry, so there’s no prospect of him throwing it in for dramatic or artistic effect. Derleth’s chronic inability to actually think through what it does and does not make sense for a character to write down in these diegetic narrative documents puts Lovecraft’s occasional invocation of poetic licence in the shade.

The second episode of Trail, The Watcher From the Sky, emerged the following year. This tale is the odd one out in the sequence, since it casts Phelan and not Shrewsbury as the mysterious and more knowledgeable investigator who recruits the narrator (Abel Keane) to help fight the Mythos. However, Derleth does such a poor job of characterisation that he has Phelan talking like Shrewsbury for much of the story (and indeed, the narrative voice here is near-indistinguishable from Phelan’s narrative voice in the previous episode), making the substitution rather pointless.

The episode is basically a sequel to/rehash of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, in which Phelan and Keane burn a large section of Innsmouth to the ground. One questions why they are doing this solo, when the federal authorities in that story proved themselves extremely happy to blow up great chunks of the town and toss much of its population in concentration camps. Perhaps they considered the federal authorities incompetent, for in order for the story to work the feds must have very badly botched the followup to their original raid.

The idea is that an heir to the Marsh fortune has turned up years after the events of Shadow, and started up all the Deep One-related funny business all over again, with the aid of the town’s leading women who remained behind after the raid. We are basically asked to believe that the federal government hasn’t noticed this at all, though the idea that they wouldn’t at least check up occasionally on the town, especially given what they must know from the raid and the huge red flag represented by the Marsh refinery started again, is a bit much.

In addition, we are supposed to believe that whilst the male Deep One leaders vanished into the water when the raid happened, the women stayed behind and were basically left alone. Why, for crying out loud? The original story makes no suggestion that this happened, and it makes absolutely no sense for the feds to not arrest the women too, given that they are also Deep One-human hybrids. You don’t generally go in for the ethnic cleansing of an entire town and then decide you aren’t going to drag the women off to the camps as well as the men. Phelan’s reluctance in this story to assassinate the Marsh women, given that it comes from a man on a mission of genocide, ends up feeling less like an ethical qualm and more like Phelan being simultaneously too patronisingly patriarchal to imagine that women might be bloody-handed Cthulhu cultists in their own right and completely failing to understand the point of his job of extermination.

Supposedly, the Deep One conspiracy operates more subtly now, but when Keane and Phelan interview a grocery store clerk (riffing on a scene in which the narrator chats to the exact same clerk in Shadow), it becomes evident that the power of the Deep Ones in the town is no less pervasive and obvious than before. Why don’t any of the innocent residents call the feds in? Wouldn’t they have been emboldened by the successes of the last raid? For that matter, wasn’t the town basically controlled to such an extent that there were no innocents left save for guys like the grocery store clerk who were posted there for work and made a point of not drawing attention to themselves? Surely most of the new population are, well, new, and not so prone to be cowed by Deep One intimidation as the beaten-down old population? Surely one of them would have called feds on the first sign of the old trouble starting up?

Another issue with Phelan’s investigation is that it seems intent on uncovering secrets which are obvious to us and equally obvious to him, to the point where it’s weird that he didn’t just skip straight to burning the town down. Even if you haven’t read The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Derleth overplays his hand to such an absurd degree that it is hard to imagine how anyone would be surprised by the ending. Derleth’s attempt to make a big revelation out of the fact that Ahab Marsh is a Deep One is ridiculous and just makes it look like Keane is incompetent and hasn’t been paying attention. Worse, it makes it look like Derleth himself thought his readers were complete idiots who would actually be surprised by this.

The story also suffers a bit from Derleth ascribing some rather absurdly powerful qualities to Keane’s earthly, conventional hypnotic skills. Phelan’s own hypnotic capabilities are basically superpowers, though at least he has the fact that he’s been hanging out with Shrewsbury in Celaeno to account for this. Speaking of magic powers, once again, we have a story that ends with the narrator writing down the start of the chant to summon the Byakhee, in a context when they should have just been busy saying it without writing it!

Crossing the Ethical Threshold

1945 also saw Derleth the first of his alleged collaborations with Lovecraft, and the only one which actually contains any appreciable chunk of text or ideas originating with Lovecraft. Derleth claimed that The Lurker At the Threshold was an unfinished novel he had put the final touches to, but this very clearly isn’t the case if you look at the source material he was drawing on. What Derleth seems to have done is take three fragments Lovecraft produced in October 1933 – The Round Tower, The Rose Window, and Of Evill Sorceries Done In New-England, of Daemons In No Humane Shape – and simply acted as though they were all intended to contribute to the same story, despite the fact that they contain no suggestion of being mutually connected in such a way.

The first two were mere notes on a location and object respectively, which Derleth incorporated to varying extents into the novel with some changes here and there. (He dispenses with Lovecraft’s conception of what the Rose Window is more or less entirely.) The third fragment was written as an extract from a Cotton Mather-esque compendium of New England folklore, and is the only piece from which a substantive amount of text is reproduced here; even then, in terms of word count the novel is around 97.5% Derleth, so the fact that Lovecraft is billed as a co-author – let alone the primary or sole author, depending on the edition – is manifestly absurd.

Most astonishingly, Derleth actually admitted that the fragments probably weren’t meant to all go into the same story and barely any of Lurker was actually by Lovecraft in an issue of The Arkham Sampler, Arkham House’s newsletter – which makes the attribution of the book to “H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth” on the Arkham House edition all the more extraordinary, since at best it could be described as being by “August Derleth, after an idea by H.P. Lovecraft”. At this stage, at least, Derleth does not seem to have been out to deceive, though other publishers have gone even further and dropped Derleth’s name from the front cover entirely, and having crossed the line once like this must have made it all the more easy for Derleth to pass off further work of his as spurious Lovecraft collaborations like this..

The novel unfolds in three sections, each with a different narrator, with accompanying shifts in style as the narrators change. (The first has a standard reliable disembodied depersonalised non-diegetic narrator, the other two are first-person narrations provided by characters in the story.) Indeed, had I not known just how little of Lovecraft there was in here, I might have imagined that he’d done a first draft of the first section, in which Derleth does the best job of mimicing Lovecraft’s authorial voice, and had provided notes towards the second, with the third being entirely Derleth’s invention, rather than the novel being almost entirely Derleth’s fabrication. (One wonders, in fact, whether Derleth intentionally shifted his narrative style over the course of the novel so as to better create this impression.)

The plot, in particular, is all Derleth, Lovecraft having suggested none of it in the fragments drawn on, and as a result it’s basically a long, drawn-out take on his Standard Narrative, and it becomes obvious that it is to be such by the end of the first segment. This tells the story of how Ambrose Dewart takes possession of an ancestral home out in the forests outside Arkham, and starts researching the history of his infamous ancestor Alijah Billington and the strange, ancient-looking round tower erected in the woods that seems to be connected to some unusual goings-on. (The actual supernatural manifestations seem reminiscent of those Derleth ascribes to Ithaqua in the relevant stories, though by this point he’d already copy-pasted them to so many other Old Ones as to be of little use in narrowing down the field.)

Despite the New England setting, I have to wonder how much Derleth drew on his own familiar Wisconsin woodlands in his depiction of the forested estate, which is one of the more vivid and memorable locations that Derleth placed his Standard Narrative in. The richness of this early section is enhanced somewhat by the fact that this is the bit which contains the most Lovecraft – we are introduced here to more or less all the details from the October 1933 fragments that Derleth would go on to use to develop the story further, and the prose style is an imitation of Lovecraft’s which is a bit variable but often passable. Another Lovecraftian touch is the adoption of ideas from the broader world of weird fiction, rather than the sort of extremely incestuous, inward-looking, constant recycling of very Mythosy plot elements that Derleth more usually went for; there is, for instance, a riff on Arthur Machen’s The White People, in form of a child’s diary stuffed with sinister implications missed out on by the child themselves due to their inexperience, though Derleth doesn’t commit to the exercise (he paraphrases the diary rather than presenting us with the raw text) and he doesn’t go especially ambiguous with it.

Perhaps part of the reason this section feels appropriately Lovecraft-esque is that Derleth seems to model it on an existing Lovecraft story; in its piecing-together of historical evidence it feels a lot like a riff on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, particularly in the way that Alijah Billington seems to have been, much like, Joseph Curwen, an infamously feared and hated figure from local history. (Though unlike in Charles Dexter Ward Derleth seems to feel the need to throw in a dodgy Native American shaman in the form of the character of Quamis in order to act as a corrupting influence, in contrast to Lovecraft’s willingness to have Curwen be perfectly rotten off his own bat.)

Several plot features, in fact, seem taken almost directly from Charles Dexter Ward; for instance, both stories share the feature of a portrait revealing that the present-day protagonist looks extraordinarily like the dodgy ancestor they are researching, and it closes with a cache of letters which rip off the correspondence of Joseph Curwen from Charles Dexter Ward so closely that they even simply reproduce some of the text thereof. That said, it is at least somewhat interesting to see Derleth adopt Lovecraft’s pseudo-documentary style of writing for this section, and there’s actually quite an effective part when Dewart scans the letters pages of the Arkham newspapers from Alijah’s time, discovering a flamewar between Billington and his detractors which played out in the letters pages; as well as paying a subtle tribute to Lovecraft’s own occasional forays into the letters pages, the segment gives a nice idea both of Alijah’s character and the activities of his adversaries, giving us the general outline of how the investigations of their era went without having to overtly and explicitly spell it all out for us.

Derleth, unfortunately, cannot sustain this. This first section of the novel begins to become unglued a bit during a rather meandering Dunwich visit, where the villagers offer heavy-handed plot dumps and Derleth tries to to clumsily imply that the Dunwich folk are Deep Ones, hinting at a crossover which makes very little sense given the facts we already know from The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow Over Innsmouth and which has more or less no relevance to the present plot.

The second section of the book has Dewart’s cousin Bates come and visit, and the narration consists of his account of the trip. It is much more Derlethian in character, especially the conversations – Derleth always having been a bit more comfortable with dialogue than Lovecraft, though here the conversations tend to degenerate into boring, wooden, waffly nonsense (the only memorable bit being a wildly racist suggestion that black people would worship phonographs if they weren’t taught not to, because they’d have no idea how the device worked). Likewise, much of the section involves Bates bimbling about reading books which do nothing except confirm stuff that the reader already knows. (Granted, they provide that information to Bates to, but as we shall see he seems to absorb none of it.)

This includes a long quote from the Necronomicon that is mostly recycled from The Dunwich Horror, next to other Necronomicon bits penned by Derleth supporting his whole Elder Gods mythology; this would be the first instance of Derleth injecting his personal, idiosyncratic view of the Mythos into a work ostensibly by Lovecraft, a particularly obnoxious way of trying to make it look like Lovecraft intended the whole Elder Gods thing all along. The end of Bates’ segment is at least interestingly trippy, but the buildup to this sequence feels wrong, the story shunting from low gear to high very abruptly, and in a way which feels less like a shocking suspension of the ordinary rules of reality and more like Derleth just botched the pacing.

It is in the third and final section that The Lurker At the Threshold both becomes completely Derlethian, and goes completely off the rails, and not in a good way. Abruptly, less than 50 pages before the end of the novel, we are introduced to a new major character and new narrator – a Holmes and Watson duo parachuted in to tie everything up neatly rather than having any of the already established characters do it. The “Watson” and new narrator is one Winfield Phillips, whilst the Holmes in the duo is Dr. Seneca Lapham, who with that name can’t fail to remind the reader of Laban Shrewsbury, given that their initials are the same (if swapped around) and “Lapham” and “Laban” are very similar phonetically. For that matter, there was a vaguely similar Watson/Holmes dynamic between Andrew Phelan and Laban Shrewsbury in The House On Curwen Street, but Derleth goes full-on Conan Doyle here, with Bates coming along to raise the alarming issues surrounding Dewart and the Billington estate like any other client popping by to call on the consulting detective of 221b Baker Street.

As it so happens, the same year as Lurker came out Derleth would also issue the first book-length collection of Solar Pons stories, In Re: Sherlock Holmes. This was a project he was keen enough on to actually create a brand new imprint of Arkham House, Mycroft & Moran, for the purpose of releasing it (and branching out into crime fiction generally), so it’s no surprise that he had Holmes on the mind at this time, and having been cranking Solar Pons stories for even longer than he had been producing Mythos material this was a mode he was both highly enthusiastic for and very comfortable writing in. In that light, it is perhaps not surprising for Derleth to resort to abruptly tossing Dr. Lapham into the mix, particularly if he were otherwise drawing a blank on how to satisfyingly conclude the story.

I suspect he may well have been, because this segment is a rushed, incoherent mess, and in a way which reads like Derleth had written himself into a corner and had to retcon his way out in a hurry. For one thing, at some point after the second account cuts off and the third act begins, poor Bates seems to have become an utter clown. He recounts to Lapham and Phillips how, after the events narrated in the second section, Ambrose and Quamis made him remove a stone with Elder Sign on it from the round tower; Bates doesn’t seem to have any idea what this implies, despite the fact that he has seen basically all the same documentation we have, all of which belabours the point about the Elder Sign’s significance just like Derleth always belabours his plot points.

Once Bates has gone and Lapham and Phillips are left to their own devices, Lapham launches into an honest-to-goodness tutorial on the Mythos, in which he gives long didactic speeches about it and Phillips asks pertinent questions and occasionally goes off to do a bit of fact-checking before the lecture continues. Lapham starts off by paraphrasing the opening of The Call of Cthulhu – you know, the iconic quote about correlating the contents of the human mind and so on and so forth – and then gives a long, boring accounting of the Mythos which is entirely needless because anyone who read the earlier parts of the novel already knows this shit.

Following on from that, he gives a long, tedious explanation of each and every incident in the plot so far, as though reader is totally incapable of connecting the dots. (In the midst of this he goes on this absurd tangent about how he doesn’t believe in coincidences because they are too mathematically improbable, failing to grasp the basic fact that any given set of circumstances is highly improbable and therefore improbable things happen all the time.) Into this Derleth copy-pastes massive quotes from books already quoted earlier in the novel, painstakingly belabouring the reader with information they have already been presented with. Between this and the basic introduction to the Mythos, it’d almost make sense if this novel were serialised in a magazine, though it would be clunky even in that format, and it’s entirely absurd to put it in a book issued from the get-go as a standalone novel.

Much of this long, tedious plot dump seems dedicated to shifting the focus of the novel and retconning who the big bad was. Through the first two segments, it has seemed clear that all this nasty stuff is happening because of the actions of Ossadogowah, one of the sinister spawn of Tsathoggua. For some reason, Derleth seems to abruptly decide that he doesn’t like that idea, and uses Lapham’s lecture to reframe the story so that the big bad turns out to be not Ossadogowah, or even Tsathoggua, but Yog-Sothoth.

Why Derleth felt the need to do this is absolutely beyond me; it only barely fits into the facts as presented so far, it fails to explain why there was so much Ossadogowah stuff earlier on, and all it accomplishes is making this plot dump even more frustratingly long and boring than it already is. Part of me wonders if Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith had a falling out at the time or something, but then why take Tsathoggua out of the equation at the very end but keep the references earlier in the book? What makes this even more maddening is the fact that Tsathoggua and Ossadogowah’s involvement was one of the only ideas in the story that could be traced back to Lovecraft, this being half the point of the Of Evill Sorceries… fragment!

All these tedious explanations and recapping and retconning takes up almost the entire section, sucking all momentum out of the novel; the plot only starts moving again after this massive lesson is done, literally only six pages before the end of the book. We are then treated to Derleth scrambling at full speed through the conclusion of the novel, like a NaNoWriMo author sprinting for the finish line at 11:50pm on November 30th, glossing over masses of material simply by Phillips as the narrator declaring that he doesn’t remember it well, in a big fat middle finger raised to anyone who was hoping for a meaty, substantial, satisfying conclusion to the novel.

It’s particularly frustrating that the novel ends this badly, because I thought the beginning had a lot of promise; the part of the first segment preceding the Dunwich trip is, I feel, genuinely good as far as Lovecraft pastiche goes. That the novel falls apart so appallingly after this strong start is a true shame. It is hard to overlook the fact that the cracks start appearing more or less as soon as Derleth exhausts the ideas Lovecraft set down in the fragments contributing to the tale, and even by Derleth’s extremely lax standards the third segment is outright awful. In fact, it’s so dissatisfying a conclusion that Robert M. Price wrote a short story, The Round Tower, as an attempt to provide a replacement third act for the book to be read in the place of the original third act. Given that Price has far more stomach for imitative Lovecraft pastiche than I do, the fact that even he thinks that the ending of Lurker is unacceptably shoddy says an awful lot.

But you don’t have to take my or Price’s word for it – Derleth himself declared it to be a “decidedly inferior work” on the grounds that he wrote most of it and there’s barely any Lovecraft in it. This raises the obvious question of why Derleth even bothered churning out such trash, and in particular why he was so cavalier with Lovecraft’s name as to stick it on the cover. Given that Derleth clearly didn’t consider it an artistically satisfying piece, it is hard not to suspect that he was in it more for the money than anything else, pushing Lovecraft’s name to boost sales. Lovecraft would have been enraged by such mercenary behaviour, and equally would never have counselled a writer to produce an entire novel which they secretly thought was rubbish and weren’t that keen on.

But apparently, Derleth thought there was a market out there which would eat up this useless drivel, and was more than happy to feed that market. It turns out that the titular The Lurker At the Threshold is none other than a cheap huckster out to sell the weird fiction equivalent of snake oil, with a phony Lovecraft seal of authenticity slapped on the bottle – and his name is not Ossadogowah, or Yog-Sothoth, but August “decidedly inferior” Derleth.

Ok, deep breath. Let’s take a break and get the angry out of our systems before we come back and finish Derleth off, once and for all.

7 thoughts on “Derleth-er of Two Evils

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