In Essential Solitude, a Vital Friendship

It’s understandable that Arkham House would have wanted to produce the Selected Letters series – a five-volume collection of correspondence cherrypicked from the massive amounts of letters Lovecraft produced in his lifetime. After all, he was far more prolific a letter-writer than he was a short story author, poet, or essayist, so when those other wells has been tapped, tapping the letters was a good way to get more Lovecraft after there.

Furthermore, August Derleth himself was one of Lovecraft’s regular correspondents, and putting out these collections gave Derleth a chance to show the world a side of Lovecraft which he’d seen but nobody outside of Lovecraft’s circle of contacts would have. The fact that these were specifically Selected Letters, however, allowed Derleth to remain a certain amount of leverage over the fandom.

As I’ve outlined previously, Derleth used the infamous “black magic quote” to push his particular interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos as the “canonical” one, despite the fact that if we accept it as true, it makes Lovecraft look like an incompetent writer who couldn’t adequately communicate his ideas in his actual stories, and the “black magic quote” seems to fit Derleth’s stories (written before and after Lovecraft’s death, some of them misattributed to Lovecraft) far better.

That quote supposedly came from one of Lovecraft’s letters, but as best can be determined Lovecraft never wrote it – or at least, if it exists in any of his letters, none can be found that reproduce it, and the overall philosophical thrust of Lovecraft’s writing would seem to be against it. Precisely because Derleth was sat on top of the pile of surviving letters and choosing which got out to the public, though, it was always possible for Derleth to brush off objections by saying “Well, it’s got to be somewhere here, I just can’t find it right now.”

It’s even possible that Derleth knew that he didn’t have any original for the quote, just a rough second-hand paraphrase (which turns out to be of a passage which says exactly the opposite), but frankly I don’t credit Derleth with that level of intellectual honesty: after all, this is the guy who passed off a bunch of stories as lost Lovecraft tales or “posthumous collaborations” when they were nothing of the sort.

Hippocampus Press have, over the past few years, tried to step into the gap here, producing a Collected Letters series edited by David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi which compile as many of Lovecraft’s surviving correspondence as they can (rights issues causing complications in a few cases). These gather together Lovecraft’s missives by correspondent, by and large, with the first part of the series being Essential Solitude, a two-volume collection of the letters of Lovecraft and Derleth.

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Hastur Be Seen To Be Believed

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 the 1990s Chaosium decided to put out a series of Cthulhu Mythos short story anthologies as an adjunct to the Call of Cthulhu RPG. To oversee the line they engaged the services of Robert M. Price, who at the time was prominent in Lovecraft fandom as the editor of Crypt of Cthulhu. The Price-edited entries in the series tended to fall into one of two categories; compilations of works by a particular prominent Mythos author (such as the Lin Carter, Robert Bloch and Henry Kuttner collections I’ve covered previously), and “Cycle” books.

These latter tomes were based around the idea of choosing a particular Mythos entity or subject and collecting together the major stories that dealt with the concept in question, as well as stories which seemed to influence the original conception of the idea in question. In principle, this is actually a pretty good idea, because it would allow you to place Lovecraft’s stories in the context of the broader tradition they were a part of. The concept stumbled when Price took the approach of building these cycles around individual creatures and entities, rather than around broader themes.

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Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 4

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.

The story so far: August Derleth’s put out the original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos anthology through his Arkham House publishing imprint, and after he died the original Tales was revised by Jim Turner. Arkham House attempted to follow it up first with New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by Ramsey Campbell, which was a bit hit-and-miss, and the rather more successful Jim Turner-edited Cthulhu 2000.

However, Arkham House’s star was well and truly fading by the 1990s, despite these Mythos-related efforts and others (such as the issuing of new editions of Lovecraft’s works with the texts corrected by S.T. Joshi). With the death of August Derleth and the copyright on Lovecraft’s work coming closer to lapsing worldwide, the fandom was less inclined to look to the publisher as being the be-all and end-all of the Mythos; the backlash against Derleth’s heavy-handed pronouncements of canon gathered pace, and new sources of Lovecraftian writing and criticism appeared here and there. In addition, Jim Turner’s personal take on the Mythos and his lauding of high literary value and science fiction-oriented works over pastiche earned its own backlash.

Against this background, a new publisher arose – Fedogan & Bremer. This small press aimed to produce books more oriented towards the old style of Arkham House, before Turner’s custodianship took the publisher on a different path from the one it had taken under August Derleth. (This was not an overly adversarial situation, though – they saw their books distributed via Arkham House, for one thing.) Like Arkham House, some of their material has disappeared into the aether whilst others have been reprinted as trade paperbacks by other publishers – with a few even making it into Ballantine’s line of Lovecraftian releases, putting them on the same level as their issues of Arkham House material.

Among the more prominent Fedogan & Bremer releases are a number of anthologies edited by Robert M. Price, who at this point had established himself as a loud voice in Cthulhu fandom. Up to this point, Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos had tended to represent an unattainable high point in the ranks of Mythos anthologies; Price tilted directly at this windmill..

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Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 1

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.

Despite the fact that even during Lovecraft’s own lifetime the Cthulhu Mythos was well-established as a multi-author shared world type of affair, and despite the fact that the various contributions to it tended to be in the short story format, it took a surprisingly long time for a fully Mythos-themed short story anthology to appear. In the first few decades of Mythos fandom, when August Derleth exerted a lot of influence over the field and Arkham House as close to being the de facto “official” publisher of such material as anyone could claim to be, Arkham didn’t really put out any all-Mythos multi-author anthologies, unless you count books put out under H.P. Lovecraft’s byline that included falsified collaborations by August Derleth or essays by Lovecraft Circle members. Instead, Mythos stories were sprinkled among other material in Arkham House’s genre anthologies.

That changed in 1969 with Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos; this inspired a trickle of other all-Mythos multi-author anthologies, like the Lin Carter-edited Ballantine Adult Fantasy series entry The Spawn of Cthulhu from 1971 (an anthology now largely redundant due to the material mostly being reprinted in other, more easily-available sources), or the DAW Books release The Disciples of Cthulhu from 1976, to Arkham House’s own New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos from 1980. In the 1990s, the pace of such publications picked up, in part because of figures from fandom like Robert M. Price gaining prominence as anthologists and in part because of Chaosium starting up their own fiction line as a tie-in with the Call of Cthulhu RPG.

The anthologies I am going to review in this article series will cover Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and subsequent Arkham House releases that can be seen as sequels to it, as well as two series of anthologies that can be seen as attempts by prominent Lovecraft critics to craft their own take on Tales – one anthology grouping is by Robert M. Price, whilst the other is by S.T. Joshi.

Continue reading “Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 1”

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.

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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.

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Dermore I See Of Him, Derleth I Like

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.

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