I am providence the life.., p.154
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 154
A much more sensible piece was J. Chapman Miske’s “H. P. Lovecraft: Strange Weaver” (Scienti-Snaps, Summer 1940), a surprisingly sane, accurate, and balanced biographical article. “For Lovecraft was eccentric to the point of being born ‘out of his due time’. Not freakish, simply different, by temperament, tastes, and, to certain degrees, actions. . . . Lovecraft is dead, but the strange patterns he wove will always be appreciated by a small but intelligent group.”
Meanwhile Lovecraft’s work was being disseminated beyond the confines of the small press. In December 1943 F. Orlin Tremaine, the erstwhile editor of Astounding, contacted Derleth about reprinting Lovecraft in paperback for his company, Bartholomew House. Derleth prepared a list of tales, but Tremaine thought it too long and prepared one of his own. The result was The Weird Shadow over Innsmouth and Other Stories of the Supernatural (1944), the first Lovecraft paperback volume. It contained only five stories. Tremaine requested an initial print run of 100,000, and, incredibly, it must have sold well, for by November 1944 he was proposing a second volume. Interestingly enough, one of his ideas was to issue At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow out of Time”—the two stories he had bought for Astounding—together in one volume. This plan did not materialise, but what did emerge in 1945 was The Dunwich Horror, containing only three long stories.
Lovecraft was also beginning to appear in important anthologies. The most important of all was the inclusion of “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Dunwich Horror” in Herbert A. Wise and Phyllis Fraser’s Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, a landmark volume—probably the finest anthology of weird tales ever published—issued by the Modern Library (now an imprint of Random House) in 1944. It was reprinted frequently and published also in England. Also significant was Donald A. Wollheim’s The Portable Novels of Science (1945), issued by Viking Press and including “The Shadow out of Time.”
The year 1945 was both very good and very bad for Lovecraft. In this year Derleth published H. P. L.: A Memoir through the publisher Ben Abramson, who also simultaneously issued Derleth’s edition of Supernatural Horror in Literature. Derleth’s small monograph can hardly be called a biography, and it is only fleshed out to the length of a small book by the inclusion of several items by Lovecraft in a large appendix. Of its three large chapters two are biographical and one critical; all three are quite undistinguished. Although Derleth had by this time the enormous resources of Lovecraft’s letters at his disposal, he was too busy as a writer and publisher to make careful use of them; he was, in any event, not a scholar in any sense. The work was really nothing more than a means of popularising Lovecraft, and in this sense it may perhaps have succeeded modestly.
Also in 1945 the World Publishing Company issued Derleth’s compilation of Lovecraft’s Best Supernatural Stories. William Targ of World had approached Derleth about the idea in May 1944; he wished a collection of about 120,000 words. Derleth, realising the importance of the venture, solicited many colleagues’ opinions as to their favourite Lovecraft tales; in the end the selection was good, aside from the unfortunate “In the Vault” and “The Terrible Old Man.” The volume appeared in April 1945; a second printing appeared in September and a third in June 1946. By the end of 1946, 67,254 copies had been sold in hardcover—a remarkable figure. From this point on sales tapered off, although by mid-1949 sales had reached 73,716. The paper used for the first three printings is very poor in quality; that for the fourth printing (September 1950) is much better.
Parenthetically, it appears that the emergence of the Best Supernatural Stories put an end to efforts by Winfield Townley Scott to market a collection of Lovecraft’s stories with E. P. Dutton. In 1942 Scott had also queried with Knopf for a collection, but this too came to nothing. Whether Derleth would even have allowed such a thing is, of course, very much in question.
What made 1945 a bad year, however, was a review that some of these items received. In 1944 Edmund Wilson had written “A Treatise on Tales of Horror,” in which he expressed great disdain for most weird stories with the exception of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and a few others. It is clear that Wilson had a prejudice toward genre fiction generally and imaginative fiction in particular, although I must confess that his several attacks on the detective story seem to me pretty much on the mark. But when his article appeared, many readers objected that he had failed to consider the new phenomenon, H. P. Lovecraft. Securing such books as Marginalia, Best Supernatural Stories, and H. P. L.: A Memoir, he rendered his verdict in a New Yorker article on November 24, 1945, entitled “Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous.”
The title says it all:
I regret that, after examining these books, I am no more enthusiastic than before. . . . the truth is that these stories were hack-work contributed to such publications as Weird Tales and Amazing Stories, where, in my opinion, they ought to have been left.
The only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art. Lovecraft was not a good writer. The fact that his verbose and undistinguished style has been compared to Poe’s is only one of the many sad signs that almost nobody any more pays real attention to writing.
And so on. It is scarcely worth dissecting the errors and misconceptions in even the above passage, let alone the piece as a whole. Wilson should have realised that Lovecraft’s tales, regardless of their merits, were not “hack-work” because they were at least written with a sincerity of purpose lacking in most work of this kind; and as for the comparison with Poe, Wilson cannot comprehend how T. O. Mabbott (who wrote a fine appreciation of Lovecraft in Marginalia) actually likes Lovecraft: evidently the leading Poe scholar of his generation is lacking in critical judgment on the very issue of Lovecraft’s similarity to Poe! The fact is that Wilson has merely tossed off a book review without much thought behind it—a point emphasised by the number of factual errors made in the piece, a result of his extreme carelessness in reading some of Lovecraft’s tales. Certainly, on the basis of this review Wilson would not deserve the title—which he does indeed deserve on the basis of his work as a whole—of America’s leading literary critic of the period.
What is interesting, however, is the praise of Lovecraft that sneaks through Wilson’s hostility almost in spite of himself. He first echoes Vincent Starrett in saying “Lovecraft himself, however, is a little more interesting than his stories,” citing his erudition and praising “Supernatural Horror in Literature”; he finds Lovecraft’s letters full of wit and humour; and at the end he even concludes:
But Lovecraft’s stories do show at times some traces of his more serious emotions and interests. He had a scientific imagination rather similar, though much inferior, to that of the early Wells. The story called “The Colour out of Space” more or less predicts the effects of the atomic bomb, and “The Shadow out of Time” deals not altogether ineffectively with the perspectives of geological eons and the idea of controlling time-sequence.
What is abundantly clear is that Wilson actually found Lovecraft the man rather fascinating—and his work perhaps a little more disturbing than he cared to indicate.
There is, indeed, a curious and little-known sequel to Wilson’s evaluation of Lovecraft. In his play, The Little Blue Light (1950), there are clear references to Lovecraft at various points. When a friend of Wilson’s, David Schvchavadze, later made note of these allusions, Wilson “livened up considerably and produced a book of Lovecraft’s correspondence, which he had obviously read and enjoyed.” (This must have been after 1965, when the first volume of Selected Letters appeared.) Wilson, unfortunately, never had occasion to voice his reevaluation of Lovecraft in print.
It is difficult to gauge the actual effect of Wilson’s attack on Lovecraft’s subsequent critical reputation. Certainly Derleth must have fumed over it, and not long after this time he seems to have ceased sending out Arkham House books to mainstream reviewers, thereby augmenting the ghettoisation of Lovecraft and weird fiction generally. And ye
But Lovecraft’s own work was continuing to be disseminated widely. Philip Van Doren Stern arranged for a paperback edition of Lovecraft, The Dunwich Horror and Other Weird Tales, to be published with the Editions for the Armed Services. This volume, costing 49¢, appeared probably in late 1945 or early 1946, and introduced Lovecraft to large numbers of servicemen still stationed in Europe after the war. It is an excellent collection of twelve of Lovecraft’s best tales. Avon issued a paperback in 1947, The Lurking Fear and Other Stories.
In 1945 Derleth published another volume, The Lurker at the Threshold—“by H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth.” This volume is the first of his sixteen “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft, and opens up what is perhaps the most disreputable phase of Derleth’s activities: his promulgation of the “Cthulhu Mythos.” The history of this long and sordid affair is very involved, but requires treatment in detail.
We have seen that as early as 1931 Derleth had become fascinated with Lovecraft’s pseudomythology, seeking not only to add to it but investing it with the name “The Mythology of Hastur.” Indeed, it was exactly at this time that Derleth wrote the initial drafts of several stories, both on his own and in collaboration with Mark Schorer, which—though most were published much later—put the seal on his radically different treatment of the mythos. One story in particular, “The Horror from the Depths” (written with Schorer in the summer of 1931; published in Strange Stories for October 1940 as “The Evil Ones”), is very illuminating. Farnsworth Wright rejected this tale not only because he thought it too derivative of Long’s Horror from the Hills but because
you have lifted whole phrases from Lovecraft’s works, as for instance: “the frightful Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred,” “the sunken kingdom of R’lyeh,” “the accursed spawn of Cthulhu,” “the frozen and shunned Plateau of Leng,” etc. Also you have taken the legends of Cthulhu and the Ancient Ones directly out of Lovecraft. This is unfair to Lovecraft.
When Derleth relayed Wright’s complaints to Lovecraft, the latter gave them short shrift: “I like to have others use my Azathoths & Nyarlathoteps—& in return I shall use Klarkash-Ton’s Tsathoggua, your monk Clithanus, & Howard’s Bran.” Derleth seemed to use this single sentence as justification for his subsequent “additions” to Lovecraft’s mythos, but he seems to have failed to notice the very preceding sentence: “The more these synthetic daemons are mutually written up by different authors, the better they become as general background-material.” The term “background-material” is critical here: whereas writers like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard really did use various elements of Lovecraft’s mythos merely as random allusions to create atmosphere, Derleth set about resolutely writing whole stories whose very core was a systematic (and, accordingly, tedious) exposition of the mythos as he conceived it.
Relatively few of the stories Derleth was writing at this time actually got into print before Lovecraft’s death, since they were repeatedly rejected. “Lair of the Star-Spawn” made it into Weird Tales for August 1932; its mention of the Tcho-Tcho people was picked up by Lovecraft in “The Shadow out of Time.” “The Thing That Walked on the Wind,” also written in 1931, was published in Strange Tales for January 1933. This tale actually does refer to the various components of the Lovecraft mythos in a random and allusive way, and is a relatively competent piece of work. One comment made by Derleth to Barlow in reference to it in 1934 is of supreme interest: “According to the mythology as I understand it, it is briefly this: the Ancient or Old Ones ruled the universes—from their authority revolted the evil Cthulhu, Hastur the Unspeakable, etc., who in turn spawned the Tcho-Tcho people and other cultlike creatures.” This, in essence, is the “Derleth Mythos.” Virtually all the elements are here, chiefly the good-vs.-evil scenario (the “Ancient or Old Ones” become the “Elder Gods” in later tales) and the “revolt” of Cthulhu, etc. The notion of the gods as elementals is already faintly present in “The Thing That Walked on the Wind.”
Derleth put the seal on his disfigurement of Lovecraft’s mythos in the story “The Return of Hastur,” begun in 1932 but put aside and not finished until April 1937. It was published in Weird Tales for March 1939 after being initially rejected by Wright. Some correspondence between Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith concerning the tale is highly revealing. Even before reading the story, Smith—responding to Derleth’s attempts to systematise the mythos—commented:
As to classifying the Old Ones, I suppose that Cthulhu can be classed both as a survival on earth and a water-dweller; and Tsathoggua is a subterranean survival. Azathoth, referred to somewhere as “the primal nuclear chaos”, is the ancestor of the whole crew but still dwells in outer and ultra-dimensional space, together with Yog-Sothoth, and the demon piper Nyarlathotep, who attends the throne of Azathoth. I shouldn’t class any of the Old Ones as evil: they are plainly beyond all limitary human conceptions of either ill or good.
Smith was clearly responding to Derleth’s attempt to shoehorn the mythos entities into elementals. Then, a little later, Smith wrote: “A deduction relating the Cthulhu mythos to the Christian mythos would indeed be interesting; and of course the unconscious element in such creation is really the all-important one. However, there seems to be no reference to expulsion of Cthulhu and his companions in ‘The Call.’” Here again Smith is trying to steer Derleth on to the right track, since he knew Lovecraft repudiated Christianity. Then, after reading “The Return of Hastur,” Smith wrote: “One reaction, confirmed rather than diminished by the second reading, is that you have tried to work in too much of the Lovecraft mythology and have not assimilated it into the natural body of the story.” Derleth was very fond of making lengthy catalogues of mythos entities and terms in his tales, as if their mere citation would serve to create horror; he also hammered home his conception of the mythos in story after story, since he had evidently come to the conclusion—one that some politicians of today have also discovered—that if one repeats something often enough, no matter how false, people begin to believe it. Smith’s strictures had absolutely no effect on Derleth, who assumed that his views were self-evidently correct and was seeking only commendation and support for them.
It would have been bad enough for Derleth to expound his conception of the Mythos in his own fiction—for it could conceivably have been assumed that this was his (legitimate or illegitimate) elaboration upon Lovecraft’s ideas. But Derleth went much further than this: in article after article he attributed his views to Lovecraft, and this is where he stands most culpable. In this way Derleth impeded the proper understanding of Lovecraft for thirty years, since he was looked upon as the “authority” on Lovecraft and as his appointed spokesman. The first published article in which Derleth propounded his views was in “H. P. Lovecraft, Outsider,” published in an obscure little magazine, River, for June 1937. By this time Derleth had conveniently found the fictitious “All my stories . . .” quotation supplied by Farnese, which he would use repeatedly to bolster his conception of the mythos. The critical passage in this article is as follows:
After a time there became apparent in his tales a curious coherence, a myth-pattern so convincing that after its early appearance, t
The disingenuousness of the passive voice here (“it was given a name”) is evident: it was Derleth who had given the mythos this name. Later, citing the “All my stories . . .” quotation, Derleth commented that this formula is “remarkable for the fact that, though it sprang from the mind of a professed religious unbeliever, it is basically similar to the Christian mythos, particularly in regard to the expulsion of Satan from Eden and the power of evil.”
The charade continued. In “A Master of the Macabre” (Reading and Collecting, August 1937), an article that had begun as a review of the Visionary Shadow over Innsmouth but awkwardly turned into a memorial tribute, Derleth cites both the fake “All my stories . . .” quotation and the real one (“All my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large”), which, as any intelligent person should have been able to tell, directly contradicts the fake one!
Derleth completed his co-opting of Lovecraft with The Lurker at the Threshold and its successors. Here he has taken two separate fragments by Lovecraft (“Of Evill Sorceries Done in New England . . .” and “The Round Tower”), totalling about 1200 words, and incorporated them into a 45,000-word novel. There was no explanation of this in the novel itself, but by the time Derleth published a collection of these “posthumous collaborations,” The Survivor and Others (1957), he wrote on the copyright page: “Among . . . Lovecraft[’s papers] were various notes and/or outlines for stories which he did not live to write. Of these, the most complete was the title story of this collection. These scattered notes were put together by August Derleth, whose finished stories grown from Lovecraft’s suggested plots, are offered here as a final collaboration, post-mortem.” There is considerable prevarication here. “The Survivor” is based upon some very sketchy notes (mostly dates) written on a newspaper cartoon. “The Lamp of Alhazred” (1954) is actually an affecting tribute to Lovecraft, taking many passages directly from Lovecraft’s letters, especially the one about his rambles in Neutaconkanut Hill in the fall of 1936. But all the other stories are derived from entries in the commonplace book. “Wentworth’s Day” is based upon this plot-germ: “Hor. Sto.: Man makes appt. with old enemy. Dies—body keeps appt.” “The Peabody Heritage” is based upon this: “Members of witch-cult were buried face downward. Man investigates ancestor in family tomb & finds disquieting condition.” “The Fisherman of Falcon Point” comes from this: “Fisherman casts his net into the sea by moonlight—what he finds.” The most amusing of the lot is “The Ancestor.” Here Derleth stumbled upon Lovecraft’s “A List of Basic Underlying Horrors Effectively Used in Weird Fiction” and, thinking these Lovecraft’s own plot-germs rather than conceptions extracted from published works, wrote a story that turned out to be an unwitting plagiarism of Leonard Cline’s The Dark Chamber. What is also interesting is how many of these “posthumous collaborations” turn out to be “tales of the Cthulhu Mythos,” even though the plot-germs themselves gave not the remotest indication of such a thing.
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