Derleth Forsake Me Oh My Darling

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.

Now that we’ve got The Lurker At the Threshold in our rear-view mirror, we can fairly quickly wrap up the rest of Derleth’s Mythos work. By this point, he had dug out the creative rut it would remain within, and the rest of his Mythos pieces would primarily consist of riffs on the Standard Narrative, further episodes of Trail of Cthulhu following the format of the first two episodes, and fake collaborations with Lovecraft. Let’s hold our noses and see what’s next on the platter.

Beyond the Threshold and Following the Trail Off a Cliff

1947 would see Derleth offering us a standalone story (later included in The Mask of Cthulhu). Something In Wood is actually pretty neat, offering a break from the Standard Narrative for once and a genuinely strong image for the ending. The plot concerns an art critic whose take on modern efforts evolves and changes as a result of a Cthulhu idol coming into his collection, actually feels like a nice riff on the way Lovecraft’s restrictive aesthetic and critical viewpoint evolved over the course of his life. The story is, for most of its brief span, somewhat more subtle than Derleth’s usual fare, with the lone overt supernatural manifestation that narrator experiences first-hand being a bit more original than Derleth’s usual default set of phenomena. It certainly helps that there is no heavy-handed namedropping of Lovecraft (or the convenience of mail order from Arkham House!), and no Derlethian Mythos Dump to wreck the flow of the story, Derleth for once being willing to write a brief piece without padding. For once, the ending actually feels climactic instead of rushed, even though it is another paragraph of overexcited italics.

That said, the story isn’t perfect. For one thing, it displays Derleth’s tendency to belabour points when Lovecraft would have treaded more lightly; what would have been a passing reference to Clark Ashton Smith’s sculptures in Lovecraft becomes a dead horse beaten into the dirt under Derleth’s pen. In addition, in the idol’s depiction of Cthulhu attended by two piping servitors, we see another tendency of Derleth’s – taking attributes ascribed to one Lovecraftian deity, in this case Azathoth, and generalising them to others without really thinking about it. Another aspect is the way he often talks as though all the Old Ones are polymorphic tentacular things like Cthulhu, which rather undermines the very varied descriptions Lovecraft offers. (Indeed, aside from Ithaqua, Derleth’s descriptions of the Old Ones tend to fit this model unless there is a significant precedent to the contrary in Lovecraft).

He also ascribes the “piping servitors” thing to Nyarlathotep in The Dweller In Darkness, though at least in that case Nyarlathotep is very, very closely associated with Azathoth, to the point where in The Rats In the Walls Nyarlathotep is described as being a demonic ruler at the centre of the universe attended by pipers in terms pretty much identical to those used to describe Azathoth in subsequent stories, but here it just seems like Derleth doesn’t especially care about the differences between Mythos entities, which would be fair enough if he hadn’t put an exceptional amount of energy into pushing an elemental theory which in principle should emphasise the differences between them.

The following year would see Derleth returning to bad habits in another Standard Narrative piece, The Whippoorwills In the Hills (also collected in The Mask of Cthulhu). As the title implies, this is an attempt to riff on the real-life folklore tidbit about whippoorwills that Lovecraft used in The Dunwich Horror and pad it out to build a whole story about it. This fails fails, not least because Lovecraft kind of said all that need be said on the theme as a throwaway side note in his own story; the fact that Derleth even attempted it illustrates tendency of him and other pastiche artists to latch onto allusions in Lovecraft and try to build stories around them, persisting even when it becomes evident that the chosen foundation is too weak to carry the story.

The piece isn’t without its merits – it includes a rather clever use of the telephone party line to allow the narrator to gather information (Lovecraft having used it for more melodramatic purposes in The Dunwich Horror), and the bit where the narrator discovers his cousin’s clothes dropped on a chair beneath the attic window, like he had vanished leaving his clothes behind, a genuinely effective moment in an otherwise humdrum tale.

Unfortunately, these thin merits are massively outweighed by the story’s flaws. There’s a Derlethian Mythos Dump, of course, this time (probably due to the Dunwich Horror connection) very much based around the Arkham Horror-esque idea of the Old Ones all being trapped behind Gates – including Cthulhu, in keeping with Derleth’s attempted retcon of The Call of Cthulhu that we’ve already seen in The House On Curwen Street. Once again, only a thin slice of the information given is at all germane to the plot.

Derleth attempts to mimic Lovecraft’s depictions of rural New England accents, but it rings false here. Likewise, the final paragraphs shamelessly filk the ending to The Rats In the Walls; Derleth doesn’t quite do a find-and-replace on the closing rant to that to substitute “the whippoorwills in the hills” in place of “the rats in the walls”, but he comes very close. The term “cargo cult” is a bit problematic, steeped as it is in the exact same patronising thinking as the “black people would worship phonographs” quote in The Lurker At the Threshold, but I think you could credibly accuse Derleth of indulging in cargo cult writing here (and in many other of his Mythos stories) – by blindly mimicing Lovecraft’s authorial habits, Derleth hopes to get the same results, but doesn’t because he clearly has very little grasp of why Lovecraft wrote the way he did or why Lovecraft’s stories were effective in the first place.

Derleth’s basic failure to understand how to construct a Lovecraftian story is illustrated by the conclusion of this one, in which the tale frustratingly comes crashing to an end more or less as soon as the truly interesting plot developments start! As with The Lurker At the Threshold, it feels like Derleth realised he was getting close to his target word count and then just sprinted to the end; in this case, the end result is that the story feels like it spends most of its time on building up to bad things happening but doesn’t actually give us a satisfying taste of the bad things actually happening..

In 1949 Derleth seems to have decided to continue The Trail of Cthulhu, the serial having otherwise been stalled since 1945. The third episode, The Gorge Beyond Salapunco, is an absolutely pointless story in which, guided by Professor Shrewsbury in dreams and never seeming to be in any credible peril (there’s various dangers ranged against him but none of them come close to hurting him, thanks in part to a handy Mnar stone), the intrepid Claiborne Boyd goes on a journey to blow up the same damn shrine to Cthulhu that Professor Shrewsbury already blew up in the first episode! I honestly think that Derleth wrote the last three episodes of Trail without bothering to reread the first two for consistency purposes, because this is only the first of many massive contradictions which the final episodes of the sequence would open up.

Aside from the fact that it involves useless busywork to destroy something whose destruction was emphatically completed to Professor Shrewsbury’s satisfaction in the first episode, there really isn’t much else to say about Gorge, beyond pointing out some appalling racist snobbery in the narration, which says that South Pacific artwork is “hideous” and Canadian First Nations people are “repellent”. (I would be more willing to ascribe this to the attitude of the narrator as opposed to Derleth had Derleth not heartily endorsed the suppression of First Nation religions in other stories.) The piece is more or less entirely devoted to delivering a Derlethian Mythos Dump and restating the background of the Trail series without doing anything new or appreciably advancing Shrewsbury’s agenda (or even offering any firm pointers as to what his end goal is). It reads like it was intended to reintroduce pulp readers to the series, which on the one hand would be fair enough since it had been absent from the pages of the pulps for four years, but since the followup wouldn’t appear until 1951 it feels like a wasted effort.

That followup would be The Keeper of the Key, yet another story in which Shrewsbury approaches a brand new Watson (“Nayland Colum” this time, though the distinction hardly matters), offers up a Derlethian Mythos Dump, and then they have an adventure, which thanks to the page count taken up by the Mythos Dump and the recruitment process is rather perfunctory. The incredibly formulaic nature of the episodes of Trail is one of the things which make it such a bore to read as a standalone book, and the mass of exposition means that the episodes don’t make good standalone stories either. Why not just have each story narrated by Phelan, considering that the characterisation of Shrewsbury’s various Watsons is nigh-identical to Phelan’s?

The story is essentially a sequel to Lovecraft’s The Nameless City, and has Phelan and Colum undertake a perilous overland journey to find it so they can summon and interrogate the ghost of Necronomicon author Abdul Alhazred. On a whim, Derleth seems to have decided that the Nameless City is sacred to Hastur, but this sets up a morass of utter contradictions. For instance, why bother with the overland journey at all, when the Byakhee should be entirely capable of visiting one of their own boss’s major centres and the duo are not doing anything here which they couldn’t attempt on a quick Byakhee trip? The land journey seems to happen solely to provide a mechanism to introduce Colum, an entirely pointless character who could quite easily have just been replaced with Phelan.

An even greater contradiction is set up in the form of a completely needless wrinkle Derleth decides to add to the process of Byakhee travel. It turns out that the Byakhee don’t physically take their passengers to Celaeno at all, but dump them in stasis pods in the Nameless City whilst the travellers astrally project there. This would make sense were it not for the fact that at the start of The Watcher From the Sky Andrew Phelan spontaneously returns to the same apartment he vanished from with the aid of the Byakhee, wearing not the clothes he was wearing when he was taken but a simple robe which he claims he had been wearing on Celaeno. This is impossible to reconcile with the stasis pods unless we are to believe that Phelan came back to Nameless City, replaced his usual clothes with the robes for the sake of making a grand entrance, and then pointlessly lied about it. Also, Phelan’s claim in that story that he had to return to boarding house room because that was his point of contact seems utter bullshit in light of this.

The whole stasis pod issue makes the fact that Hastur doesn’t take the opportunity to meddle with and corrupt Shrewsbury and his crew, who have willingly placed themselves within Hastur’s power, even more ridiculous. In particular, it raises the question of where the transportees’ Mnar stones are during all this. If the stones remain with their bodies, then Hastur could mess around with their disembodied, astrally projected spirits to his hearts’ content. If the Mnar stones are somehow mystically transported with their spirits, then Hastur can mess with their bodies. And if the Mnar stones can somehow simultaneously defend both the body and the spirit despite the two being separated by light years, that makes the stones even more absurdly overpowerful and underscores their ability to rob these stories of all tension.

The basic idea of raising the spirit of Abdul Alhazred to talk about Mythos secrets with him is fun, but Derleth botches it. For one thing, in order to drag Alhazred’s body to the Nameless City, Derleth is forced to declare certain facts set down in Lovecraft’s History of the Necronomicon as unfacts. This is not only bad form when dealing with a shared setting – it’s a basic breach of the “yes, and” rule – but once again, it makes a farce of Derleth’s vision of the Mythos as a coherent, consistent setting and mythology.

Even if you accept Derleth’s alterations to Alhazred’s biography without a fuss, though, the fact is that two of the three enquiries made of Alhazred are utter bullshit. Asking after the original manuscript of the Necronomicon is fair enough, but asking if Cthulhu is in R’lyeh is pointless – Shrewsbury already knew that Cthulhu was in R’lyeh from his experiences in The House On Curwen Street, and whilst in principle Cthulhu could have left in the meantime, in practice I’d have thought an active investigator with multiple assistants like Shrewsbury is in far better a position to pick up on that news than the sad ghost of a dead wizard that lurks dormant in a ruined city in the middle of the Arabian desert.

On top of that, asking for the location of R’lyeh is doubly pointless because Shrewsbury not only visited there in the first episode, but he was actually given precise latitude and longitude details for it down to the minute! This is yet another incident which makes me think that Derleth forgot about what happened in the earlier episodes, didn’t bother to check, and didn’t bother to revise the episodes for publishing Trail as a standalone novel.

The Trail of Cthulhu limped to an end with the 1952 publication of its final episode, The Black Island (a title which I can’t help mentally singing to the tune of a certain classic KISS song whenever I read it). For much of its page count, the story feels extremely empty, with the latest utterly forgettable recruit to Shrewsbury’s crew having very little to do and seeming crowbarred in so that Derleth a) can just mindlessly follow the formula of the previous episodes and b) can provide yet another rehash of the “oh no, my ancestry!” subplot of The Shadow Over Innsmouth for the sake of padding the story out. In terms of the main plot, there is much time wasted on speculation about the location of R’lyeh, despite the fact that Shrewsbury’s been told exactly where it is in two different episodes so far. (Granted, Alhazred’s hints were bit vague, but again, in the first episode the dockworker gives the latitude and longitude with down-to-the-minute precision.)

Once they finally decide that R’lyeh is where they have been repeatedly told and empirically discovered that it is located, we then are treated to the feature of Trail everyone remembers: namely, the bit where they have the US military nuke Cthulhu. That’s entertainingly ostentatious, of course, but somehow Derleth manages to make nuking a Great Old One seem drab and anticlimactic. Perhaps part of the issue is that we already saw Cthulhu blown up by more conventional explosives in the first episode, so the nukes don’t show us much new beyond establishing that Cthulhu can come back from even bigger explosions and isn’t too worried about radiation.

On top of that, the fact that Shrewsbury can call on nukes raises a whole bunch of questions. If he has that level of governmental influence, why isn’t the US government doing most of the investigating? An aerial reconnaissance mission could track down the surfaced R’lyeh nice and quickly, especially given the clues already obtained, and the federal government has already genocided Innsmouth once.

A slight note of Lovecraftian pessimism at last works its way into Trail at the every end, with the implication that the party is going to be hunted down and murdered one by one, just as soon as they can be caught without their star-stones. Unfortunately, the rest of Trail as a whole looks even worse when you consider that the death of Abel Keane, right at the end of the story, represents the first time the forces of the Mythos strike any effective blow against Shrewsbury and his party whatsoever, emphasising the general lack of a sense of threat that the novel suffers from.

The only reason that The Black Island is not more anticlimactic is that a true anticlimax needs to be disappointing compared to the buildup leading up to it. With its plot holes, apparent disinterest in continuity or consistency with earlier episodes, entirely disposable new protagonist, and mixture of lazy ripping-off of Lovecraft and pushing of Derleth’s version of the Mythos, all tied together with a rushed ending that doesn’t really seem to accomplish everything, The Black Island is the shitty, disappointing ending this shitty, disappointing novel thoroughly deserved.

By 1953 Derleth would complete the last two stories to be included in The Mask of Cthulhu. The House In the Valley is yet another riff on the Standard Narrative, complete with a Derlethian Mythos Dump – this time explicitly presenting the Mythos as a riff on “ancient Christian legend” in an instance of Derleth tipping his hand as far as his agenda goes. (The Derlethian Mythos Dump this time also includes a bit of waffling about the raid on Innsmouth which talks about how the US Navy’s depth charges didn’t reach R’lyeh, which given that R’lyeh is very well-established as being in the Pacific and Innsmouth is on the Atlantic coast hardly needed stating.)

Due to Derleth’s various clumsy writing habits, I can’t say it’s an exceptionally good story, though it is at least one of his better Standard Narrative efforts. In particularly like the twist where the narrator starts writing like they forgot their old interests in favour of Cthulhu worship and were losing their sense of self – for instance, the narrator fails to recognise paintings he came to the titular house to paint as his own work, and doesn’t recognise his own art supplies as belonging to him but instead ascribes them to some invader or spy.

One point of interest I noticed when reading this one was how underground caves and tunnelings in Lovecraft tend to lead to labyrinthine darknesses beyond, to an almost Hollow Earth extent, but in Derleth they just tend to lead to the sea. He apparently seems to think that such a feature is necessary if Cthulhu is to be involved in a story, probably as a consequence of his elemental theory – a classic example of Derleth cooking up a problem for himself needlessly which he then solves in a heavy-handed way. It’s this sort of feature that makes it feel like Derleth is purveying an abbreviated Mythos, cutting a bunch of corners and leaving out a lot of stuff and reducing the Mythos to a set of rules he could reliably churn out stories in a formulaic manner by following. Derleth even seemed to accrete new features to this formula over time – for instance, the loitering, threatening Bud Perkins here reads like a redo of the loitering, threatening Lem Whately in The Lurker At the Threshold.

The House In the Valley also, through comments about “psychic residue”, suggests that Derleth had a fine line in Fortean interests that went further than even Lovecraft’s mild interest. (Lovecraft namedropped Charles Fort in a couple of stories, but was far too much of a materialist sceptic to give much credence to the phenomena chronicled in Fort’s books.) This interest also surfaces in The Seal of R’lyeh, the final story in The Mask of Cthulhu, in which Charles Fort is named alongside Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and R.H. Barlow as writers who got too close to the truth and as a result died an untimely death.

Derleth namedropping Barlow in this way is, to be honest, pretty rich considering how Derleth had rather ruthlessly usurped Barlow’s post as Lovecraft’s chosen literary executor under a (demonstrably incorrect) pretence that Lovecraft had promised the post to him, as documented by S.T. Joshi in I Am Providence. It is a shame that Derleth didn’t get around to acknowledging Barlow’s own contributions to weird fiction and the preservation of Lovecraft’s work until 2 years after Barlow’s death.

As far as the story goes, it is a take on the Standard Narrative rendered somewhat nonstandard by the introduction of a romantic angle, with the narrator having a Deep One love interest in the form of tsundere mermaid Ada Marsh. There’s almost an interesting parallel that could be drawn there between the narrator’s awakening Deep One nature and a process of sexual awakening, which could perhaps have been explored better had it not been weighed down by the confining baggage of the Standard Narrative. Who knows what strange explorations you will get into when you let go of your inhibitions and kiss a fish?

Rather than dig into this angle, though, Derleth instead just does yet another repetition of the “ow, my ancestry!” subplot from The Shadow Over Innsmouth, regurgitating the story’s racist aspects uncritically. (Fans of Mythos-flavoured racism will appreciate that the Tcho-Tcho are namedropped here, though Derleth seems to have decided that they live in Tibet instead of Burma.) A substantial amount of the story involves there being some sort of doubt as to the location of R’lyeh like it is actually mysterious, which I guess it would be for most people, except that the narrator and their cursed relative both had access to and read Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu, so they have fairly stark evidence (given that Lovecraft is a credible source of Mythos knowledge in Derleth’s stories) that R’lyeh is not off Innsmouth in the first place, and they even have a precise longitude and latitude for it. Moreover, the relative in question was close enough to the Innsmouth Deep Ones that he could have just asked them, since they presumably knew where it was.

One thing which does amuse me about the story is that the timing of the narrator and Ada’s discovery of R’lyeh as part of their plan to wake up Cthulhu roughly coincides with the timing of the nuking of R’lyeh at the end of The Trail of Cthulhu, so though the story by itself ends with the implication that they are going to wake up Cthulhu and end the world, reading it in conjunction with Trail suggests that they just get nuked.

Huckster for Hastur

Subsequent to writing The Seal of R’lyeh in 1953, Derleth would not compose any new Mythos stories under his own name; instead, having more or less gotten away with it in conjunction with The Lurker At the Threshold, he pushed his subsequent stories as being collaborations between him and Lovecraft. This is even more nonsensical than the claim that Lurker was a collaboration, because at least that novel contained some text and ideas by Lovecraft, even if those tiny sprinkles were dwarfed by Derleth’s contributions.

From this point on, at most the Lovecraft contribution to the story would be a one-line plot seed from his Commonplace Book (his notebook of story ideas and random thoughts), with Derleth doing all the fleshing out, and many stories would contain no Lovecraft whatsoever.

1954 saw Derleth penning The Survivor, the first of these stories based on a Commonplace Book entry. Like Lovecraft’s own The Last Test, this is a tale which would flow better without the crowbarred-in Mythos references, but in its tale of a medical pioneer who found a bizarre means of survival it’s actually quite fun and original. The one benefit of Derleth resorting to mining the Commonplace Book for ideas, after all, is that it at least prompted him to do something which wasn’t the Standard Narrative or an application of the Trail of Cthulhu formula for once.

Certainly, the appearance of The Survivor in the July 1954 issue of Weird Tales must have inspired a certain amount of interest – enough, at least, to prompt Derleth to produce an entire volume of such “posthumous collaborations” in the form of 1957’s The Survivor and Others, which collected the title story and six freshly-penned pastiches. Part of me suspects that Derleth turned out the other six in a bit of a hurry, because some of them are rather slight. The Gable Window, for instance, is another riff on the fragment The Rose Window which informed The Lurker At the Threshold, and there really isn’t much to say about it beyond that the new monster breed it adds to the Mythos – Sand-Dwellers – are ruined slightly because part of what is supposed to make them scary is that they look like koalas, and although koalas are apparently mean little snots in real life in their appearance they are friendly-faced cuddle-clouds and it’s impossible to find them spooky..

Another rather insubstantial story is Wentworth’s Day, which despite the Dunwich locale is basically a rather simple conventional ghost story, not a Mythos tale, riffing on a Commonplace Book idea. The actual execution is a little bit obvious and heavy-handed, and the plot seems to require some truly absurd coincidences of a sort Lovecraft wouldn’t have liked. (What are odds, for instance that the narrator would choose to pick up his host’s copy of the Seventh Book of Moses and read aloud the incantation for raising the dead repeatedly before going to sleep?) Ultimately, Derleth adds nothing to the original Lovecraft plot seed save for a bunch of words which weigh down and obscure the spookiness of the essential central concept.

Of course, Derleth couldn’t keep away from his Standard Narrative for long, and he reverts to it in The Peabody Heritage, which seems to riff a lot on Lovecraft’s The Dreams In the Witch-House – for instance, there’s a plot point about a secret room with the bones of sacrificial victims stashed inside, and the protagonit has dreams of being drafted into witchcraft practices, though without the extradimensional excursions this time. (Teleportation through funky angles is still a feature of the story, wild trippy journeys through other planes of reality when passing through the angles is not.) In fact, by and large it’s a sort of non-Mythos take on the Standard Narrative, much of the execution here being fairly conventional Dennis Wheatley Stuff, with the conclusion actually being quite effective for once.

Another non-Mythos story is The Ancestor, which represents perhaps the most laughable of all the many goofs Derleth made in his mishandling of Lovecraft’s material. You see, Derleth assumed that the note that he developed the story from had been jotted down by Lovecraft as a potential story concept, but it wasn’t – instead, it was Lovecraft’s summary of the plot of Leonard Cline’s The Dark Chamber, Lovecraft being in the habit of taking such notes on others’ work when he was particularly impressed by it. As a result, by writing a story following the plot outline, Derleth inadvertently plagiarised Cline’s novel.

The story itself is a mashup of crank ideas about hypnosis and memory recall of a sort rather reminiscent of Scientology. In particular, the idea that the human mind records literally everything that a person experiences, to the point where you can recall memories from the womb, is the central thesis of the original Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, and the exploration of past lives through such technique was an early and infamous wrinkle in the whole Dianetics/Scientology package.

Come to think of it, it’s entirely possible that Derleth was deliberately having a bit of a poke at Hubbard and Scientology here; after all, the original Dianetics controversy had played out only a few years before, and given that it had started in the genre press and had gone on to become a brief nationwide craze and considering that Derleth seems to have had a general interest in offbeat and Fortean theories it seems extremely likely he would have become acquainted with the matter. Then again, the story also its into a tradition of past-lives stories that preceded it (Robert E. Howard would write a bunch) and which would follow on long after it (for example, the de-evolution of the experimenter at the conclusion of the story is highly reminiscent of the later phases of Altered States).

Switching back to the Mythos again, The Shadow Out of Space is essentially an exercise in retconning Lovecraft’s The Shadow Out of Time to better fit Derleth’s Elder Gods/Ancient Ones mythology. Aside from the infuriating spectacle of Derleth attempting to retroactively gain Lovecraft’s approval for his take on the Mythos by presenting it in a story supposedly coauthored by Lovecraft, the tale makes it really clear that Derleth simply didn’t understand The Shadow Out of Time to begin with.

For one thing, he depicts the cone-shaped variant of the Great Race of Yith as existing on other worlds in other star systems, failing to get the point that these were just bodies that the Great Race took on prehistoric Earth and they wouldn’t bother propagating such bodies across the universe when they could just mentally project themselves and hijack established bodies better-adapted for their local environs in the first place. In addition, he gives them an agenda to invade human society which makes no sense and contradicts the original story massively – we already know from The Shadow Out of Time that they are going to invade the post-human beetle entities instead, and indeed half the shock of that story is that they consider our time to be an interesting period to study but not somewhere they want to live. And, of course by implying that Earth is of massive cosmic importance due to it being the central battleground between the Elder Gods and Old Ones, Derleth turns Lovecraft’s philosophy of cosmic nihilism on its head, so the story presents implications and sentiments which Lovecraft would never have willingly set his name to.

The final story in The Survivor and Others is The Lamp of Alhazred, in which Derleth rather uncharacteristically takes a stab at mimicing Lovecraft’s Dunsanian fantasy style rather than his later materialistic SF-horror approach. In presenting the life of Ward Phillips, Derleth crafts the story into a rather charming tribute to tribute to Lovecraft, with biographical details and local Providence scenery used sensitively without being hamstrung by excessive Elder God nonsense and other Derleth bad habits. That said, it’s basically the account of the lifelong philosophical and aesthetic evolution of a character who is a thinly-veiled version of Lovecraft, who concludes the story by returning to the beloved realms of childhood, which is more or less precisely what Lovecraft offered in The Silver Key, and with sufficient self-awareness that the perspective offered by Derleth here doesn’t really add much.

Following The Survivor and Others, Derleth wouldn’t put out a further tome consisting exclusively of his “posthumous collaborations”. (Remember, The Watchers Out of Time and Others came out after Derleth’s death.) Rather than gathering a whole bunch of them together at once, he would sprinkle them more thinly, turning out one here and a couple there. Generally these latter-day stories would be written for two specific purposes. The first such purpose was to fill out the page count in one of the odds-and-sods collections of obscure Lovecraft scraps and other peoples’ essays on Lovecraft which Arkham House was putting out in order to thoroughly scrape the bottom of the Lovecraft barrel, ol’ HPL being consistently their best earner. The other purpose was to allow Derleth to put Lovecraft’s name on the cover of a multi-author horror anthology from Arham House, despite not having any actual Lovecraft to add to it. This last purpose, in particular, feels like a deeply unethical scam, a contrivance to dupe unsuspecting readers into thinking that the anthologies in question contained some rare Lovecraft piece when it was just more Derlethian tat.

The first of the Lovecraft odds-and-sods collections to have its page count rounded out by some Derleth pieces was 1959’s The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces – yes, Derleth was egotistical enough to make his own story the title piece. To be fair, The Shuttered Room is actually quite good; it starts off looking like it’s going to be another Standard Narrative piece, but veers away from it. Yes, it’s yet another sequel to Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, but this time the actual horror is less in Deep Ones themselves and more in Luther Whateley’s patriarchal response to his daughter sleeping with someone and having a kid out of wedlock. The conclusion of the story (delivered, in keeping with Derleth’s bad habits, in an excessive block of italics) makes it clear that the horrific events occured because Luther shut his Deep One grandchild away and wouldn’t let it leave, rather than giving it the freedom to grow up and go hang out with Uncle Cthulhu. (There’s also no Elder God nonsense.)

The other fake collaboration in The Shuttered Room is The Fisherman of Falcon Point, a very brief spin on classic mermaid legends updated for the Innsmouth setting. There’s no Derlethian Mythos Dump this time, and the story is mildly atmospheric, but suffers from the fact that it doesn’t really offer any new ideas but just reheats mermaid-themed tales the reader has almost certainly encountered before.

The first anthology to get spruced up with a spurious, fraudulent Lovecraft credit by virtue of a fake collaboration was 1962’s Dark Mind, Dark Heart. The story in question is Witches’ Hollow, which starts out as an interesting and original piece about a school teacher who notices that something is a bit off about one of his students – and the kid’s entire family, for that matter. Unfortunately, the tale collapses into lazy Derlethianisms, including yet another Derlethian Mythos Dump – this time a particularly obnoxious and useless one, given that it adds nothing to the story beyond offering an explicit declaration that it is a Mythos story.

The story is weakened even further by Derleth abruptly throwing in a Laban Shrewsbury/Seneca Lapham-type character who fixes everything. Once again, we have a Mythos-buster who has an ample supply of Mnar stones (which seem to be absurdly common, Derleth’s Laban Shrewsbury-types always having plenty on hand to deal with problems). Once again, the Mnar stones are really ridiculously potent when it comes to their protective capabilities, with the result that they more or less shut down any risk or threat that might otherwise be conveyed in the story.

Another anthology to receive the dubious blessing of a Derleth fake collaboration was 1964’s Over the Edge, into which Derleth inserted The Shadow In the Attic – or, as I like to think of it, The Curious Incident of the Boob In the Night-Time, since first supernatural incident is naked ghost lady manifesting in narrator’s bed, which he becomes aware of when he inadvertently grabs her spooky breast.

The story otherwise starts out as a take on the Standard Narrative that takes an odd turn when narrator’s fiancée Rhoda shows up. Rhoda is actually kind of great – she’s a badass investigator not afraid to take matters into her own hands, she goes and hits the books herself and thus spares us a Derlethian Mythos Dump, and at the conclusion of the story she sets fire to the house to destroy its evil and rescues the narrator from attic window with a ladder. It’s frankly a shame that we don’t have more stories about her.

Part of me wonders whether the story is meant to be a psychosexual self-parody, based as it is on the bizarre notion of a modern-day Mythos wizard summoning an otherworldly succubus to dress in a maid’s uniform, wear a rubber mask with attached wig to conceal its eldritch nature, and do housework. I am not sure whether Derleth realised how fetishy that comes across, but let’s face it, the whole “sexy succubus maid in a disguising gimp mask” thing is very, very fetishy, and in this light the narrator being rescued by his tough, no-nonsense girlfriend takes on a rather Freudian spin.

The Dark Brotherhood and Other Pieces was another Lovecraft odds-and-sods collection; like The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces, most of the titular pieces weren’t even by Lovecraft, the genuine Lovecraft in there consisted of pretty inessential material, and the title story was a faked-up collaboration. To my great surprise, it’s actually pretty good! The protagonist “Arthur Phillips” is clearly inspired by Lovecraft, with his biographical details extensively exploited and titles of his poems and stories slipped into the text with, for once, some actual subtlety.

The tale involves young Arthur Phillips in a time of his life when he was very withdrawn from society and prone to long nighttime walks, reminiscent of Lovecraft’s own years of hermit-like existence after the end of high school and before he was drawn out of his shell through his discovery of amateur writing circles. There are two major deviations from biography here: firstly, the existence of Rose, a friend of Mr Phillips who shares his nocturnal habits and a companion we can only wish the real Lovecraft had met, and secondly their weird encounter with a cabal of gentlemen who all are the spitting image of none other than Edgar Allen Poe, who turn out to be the first wave of a good-old fashioned Bodysnatchers-style alien invasion.

The Lovecraft connection, aside from the biographical details, seems to be solely in the appearance of the aliens, which resemble the cone-like prehistoric bodies of the Yithians in The Shadow Out of Time, but they behave so unlike Yithians that this seems to be only an aesthetic tip of the hat – this does not seem to be a Mythos tale. All in all, it’s actually quite a good story, and my only complaint is that Derleth put it out under Lovecraft’s name rather than taking the credit for himself!

1967 would see Arkham House once again issuing an anthology of stories featuring a faked-up Lovecraft collaboration for the sake of getting Creepy Howie’s name on the table of contents. The Horror From the Middle Span is yet another take on Derleth’s Standard Narrative, this time mildly spiced up by the inclusion of a fun folkloric idea of burying a suspected sorcerer beneath the middle span of a bridge. Literally nothing else stands out about it; it is about as mechanical and formulaic as Derleth’s material gets.

Derleth would repeat this little scam to get Lovecraft’s name on the cover of Dark Things in 1971, one of the last projects he oversaw for Arkham House. This time, the story in question is Innsmouth Clay, which is basically a Mythosy take on Pygmalion. We once again have the motif of the supernatural nude woman getting into bed with someone in the dead of night, though here the gentleman she chooses to visit is more appreciative of the gesture than the narrator of The Shadow In the Attic.

The story suffers largely from its connection to Innsmouth, which is a bit of a problem given the premise. Derleth opts to include an extensive visit to the town which largely involves him ripping off incidents from Lovecraft’s original Shadow Over Innsmouth – most particularly, the extended conversation the protagonist of that story has with Zadok Allen. Derleth even repeats the point of the informant being plied with booze, which leads to a huge plot goof – there’s a saloon operating openly in 1928, in a town which only a month prior to this story had been raided by the Feds, no less! Even at height of dodgy Deep One activity in Innsmouth, the narrator of Shadow had to resort to black market booze supplies, since even as blatant as the Deep Ones were being in that story they weren’t stupid enough to invite Federal reprisals during the height of Prohibition. Derleth had lived through the era of Prohibition himself, so there’s really no excuse for this oversight.

Finally, there is The Watchers Out of Time, which debuted in the posthumous collection of the same name. This is a fragmentary peace left unfinished when Derleth died in 1971; it would be a form of poetic justice for some random author to completely rewrite the thing until only shades of Derleth’s original remained and then present it as a posthumous collaboration with Derleth, but instead it is presented as Derleth left it. It is another Standard Narrative featuring a riff on Lovecraft’s The Rose Window and hints that the narrator is an unwitting Deep One hybrid, so you can more or less guess how it’s going to go even though Derleth never wrote an ending.

Derleth: Tyrant of the Playhouse

What are we to make of the tangled mess of Derleth’s jealous custodianship of the Cthulhu Mythos and Lovecraft’s legacy, his own works, and the sleazy hucksterism involved in his “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft? How should we view this rather dubious segment of his varied writing career?

At the end of The Trail of Cthulhu, Derleth provides an essay on the Cthulhu Mythos – one of an interminable number of very similar such pieces he would litter the landscape with. In this, he correctly disputes the assertion by some that Lovecraft took the Cthulhu Mythos seriously (at least to the extent of believing it was real on any level). Where Derleth goes wrong in his own work is that he forgets that Lovecraft took writing seriously. Lovecraft was consistent in his refusal to adapt his own style to commercial tastes; you may dispute how successful he was at this, but in his work under his own name he consistently made every effort to write in the style he considered most appropriate to the story at hand.

Conversely, many of Derleth’s pastiches involve the undignified spectacle of Derleth simultaneously being shamelessly self-promotional and turning his stories into adverts for Arkham House publications whilst, at the exact same time, attempting through the “cargo cult” writing I have noted to mimic (unconvincingly) the style of Lovecraft’s consciously uncommercial style. This marriage of nakedly commercial motives to a clunky writing style is a marriage even more doomed than that of Lovecraft to Sonia Greene. Both Lovecraft and Derleth’s styles can be described as being wooden, but Lovecraft’s is carved, like it were produced by an old-fashioned carpenter who had some sense of pride in his craftsmanship; Derleth’s is the Mythos equivalent of Ikea flat-pack furniture.

We know from his literary works that Derleth could do better – so when he fails this hard, it is hard not to see this as suggesting contempt for the form. Simply put, I believe Derleth just didn’t care and wasn’t even trying very hard, phoning it in because he figured pulp audiences wouldn’t mind anyway. In short term, of course, this worked just as intended, but in the long term his reputation as a writer has suffered for it.

The deficiencies, as we have seen, pile up to such an extent that you could call a collection of Derleth’s Mythos work At the Mountains of Mediocrity. Lovecraft was painstaking about order of narration and establishment of mood and atmosphere. Derleth is sloppy about it. In his better stories, Derleth sometimes shows that he can do a good job of both, at least until the point where he succumbs to his perennial urge to do a lore dump, which almost inevitably interrupts the flow to one extent or another. In his worse stories, he just recites the facts of the story in chronological order in a straightforward way sprinkled with his cargo cult imitation of Lovecraftian prose, with any spooky moments or evocative atmospheres evoked only momentarily and apparently by accident.

Moreover, whilst Lovecraft did occasionally return to the themes and ideas of previous stories – see, for instance, how the third segment of The Call of Cthulhu cannibalises the earlier Dagon – this tended to reflect how his philosophy had developed over time, and he always seemed to have something new to say – and when he didn’t, he didn’t bother writing. Derleth, conversely, works with a very limited set of ideas which he rehashes and recycles endlessly, either because he genuinely wasn’t imaginative enough to come up with new ones or was just too lazy to do so.

Robert M. Price has defended Derleth’s rehashing of ideas as being an example of intertextuality, no different from Lovecraft riffing on Poe and Machen for plot elements of At the Mountains of Madness or The Whisperer In Darkness, but whereas Lovecraft transforms and reconfigures the ideas he borrows and gives them a new context and substance, Derleth simply copy-pastes. There is a point where “intertextuality” wears thin as an excuse for creative laziness, and Derleth goes well beyond it.

The fact is that Derleth’s Mythos writing is, for the most part, simply terrible. Since Derleth was running Arkham House at the time he put out this stuff, you can argue that a good proportion of his Mythos work is effectively self-published, and it’s the worst sort of self-published work at that – utter trash which only got out because there wasn’t an editor or a publisher in a position to say “no” to him. If this were all there was to it, then that would be one thing: Derleth would hardly be the only author to not really “get” Lovecraft’s original vision and to write their own, weird, divergent takes on the Mythos. Derleth, however, went further, and mounted an all-out campaign to have his take be generally accepted as the “correct” one, regardless of what Lovecraft’s stated intentions may have been and despite a near-total lack of textual support in Lovecraft’s fiction.

Derleth must surely have known on some level that his take on the Mythos was utter bullshit, its ideas originating far more with him than with Lovecraft himself. Even though he latched onto the black magic quote as supposed evidence in support of it, it’s clear that he was pushing his vision of the Mythos as far back as The Lair of the Star-Spawn in 1932, which would have been well before the garbled quote got reported to him, and it was surely evident to him that the textual evidence for the whole Old Ones vs. Elder Gods thing was incredibly tenuous. Let’s remind ourselves that the closest anyone has found is Nodens laughing at Nyarlathotep’s failure in Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, but of course this laughter doesn’t really help Randolph Carter there in the slightest and there’s no suggestion there that Nodens was some sort of super-powerful entity capable of beating Nyarlathotep into submission and imprisoning him. As for the elemental stuff, not even the black magic quote offers any support for that – Derleth concocted it, so far as I can tell, out of thin air, along with the whole idea of Betelgeuse being the home of Elder Gods.

Moreover, Derleth doesn’t seem to have understood what the whole business of Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothothery was even about – rather than looking to the work of others in the Lovecraft Circle, Derleth’s writing is focused on Lovecraft and only Lovecraft, with other authors only very, very rarely being mentioned. Oh, sure, Derleth talks a lot about how a range of different authors contributed to the Mythos,, but he more or less ignores all their work in constructing his stories; in particular, whenever he chooses to rip off an earlier story for ideas, it’s almost always one of Lovecraft’s stories he’s riffing on. It’s almost as though he considers only his work and Lovecraft’s to be of genuine importance or something! An alternate explanation, of course, is that Lovecraft was dead and therefore could not complain, whereas most of the other original Lovecraft Circle were still alive and able to object.

(The major exception to the above was Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo, which Derleth ripped off shamelessly for his Ithaqua stuff, but of course Blackwood predated the Mythos writers rather than being a peer of theirs. It’s notable that the one time Derleth actually showed the wavering ghost of something that could be mistaken for imagination when it came to selecting some idea to borrow, he ended up coming with his best-loved addition to the Mythos.)

Perhaps the most galling thing about all this is the way that Derleth extensively used Lovecraft’s name, and his privileged access to Lovecraft’s writing, to fabricate entirely baseless support for his take on the Mythos. Not only is this in incredibly bad taste, but it also ended up having a bad effect on Lovecraft’s own reputation as a writer; you can still occasionally run into people who think that Lurker At the Threshold was genuine Lovecraft, for instance.

The simple fact is that whilst Derleth’s Mythos writing resembled a shoddy third-generation photocopy of Lovecraft’s worst habits, his Mythos-related career is nothing like anything Lovecraft wrote. It’s more like Weekend At Bernie’s.

5 thoughts on “Derleth Forsake Me Oh My Darling

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