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.
Continue reading “Dermore I See Of Him, Derleth I Like”