After finishing up my recent series of posts on Lovecraft, I started to feel a giant shoggoth shaped hole in my life. I’ve read and then reread Lovecraft’s stories twice within the last few years, and as much I enjoy them, I reckon I should wait a while before going over them again. Fortunately, the Cthulhu Mythos did not die with Lovecraft, and there’s lots of Yog-Sothothery left to be read. Many, many horror writers have done their best to emulate Lovecraft’s style and expand the mythos he created. I’m planning to do a few posts on this stuff to see how it measures up to Lovecraft’s own writing.
From what I have read, August Derleth seems to have had more of an influence on Lovecraft’s mythos than anyone other than H.P. himself. After Lovecraft died in poverty and obscurity, two of his friends, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, became determined to get a collection of their pal’s tales published. When they failed to find a publisher, they made their own, Arkham House. If it wasn’t for Derleth, it’s possible that Lovecraft would be practically unheard of today.
On top of being a publisher, Derleth was also prolific writer. He wrote many stories that borrowed characters, places and books from the works of Lovecraft. Lovecraft did this himself. His tales often referenced monsters and books from his other stories, but there was never any real attempt to make these things fit together. (Nyarlathotep, for example, pops up everywhere but often in different roles/guises.) Derleth set about to work these different elements into a cohesive framework. He is credited with creating the term “Cthulhu Mythos”.
With this in mind, I decided that Derleth would be the first of Cthulhu’s Disciples to be featured in this series of posts. Here are 4 of his books of Lovecraftian fiction.
The Watchers out of Time
Carroll and Graf – 1996 (Originally published in 1974)
Wait, you said this post was about Derleth! That book looks like it’s by Lovecraft himself! Well, yeah, that cover is a disgrace. It’s common knowledge that Derleth wrote 99% of these stories, occasionally borrowing a phrase from the notes that Lovecraft left when he died. Other publishers were cheeky enough to list Lovecraft with Derleth on their covers of this collection, but this one brazenly lies. This contains the following tales:
- The Ancestor
- The Dark Brotherhood
- The Fisherman of Falcon Point
- The Gable Window
- The Horror from the Middle Span
- Innsmouth Clay
- The Lamp of Alhazred
- The Peabody Heritage
- The Shadow in the Attic
- The Shadow Out of Space
- The Shuttered Room
- The Survivor
- The Watchers Out of Time
- Wentworth’s Day
- Witches’ Hollow
In truth, this isn’t great. Half of the stories in here are about descendants of the Whately family who inherit houses in Dunwich, only to find that their grandfathers were evil wizards. The houses all bear terrible secrets. Some of the other tales are very obvious Lovecraft rip offs. Every time I’d sit down and read one, I’d think, “Oh yeah, I remember this bit.” Some of it’s blatant too; ‘The Watchers out of Time’ is only a variation on Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow out of Time’.
These are Lovecraft knock-offs, and none of them reach the quality of Lovecraft’s best work. That being said, I personally enjoy Lovecraft’s middle tier stuff, and some of these tales aren’t far from that. ‘The Dark Brotherhood’, perhaps the most original tale in the collection, was pretty good. I liked ‘Witches Hollow’ and ‘The Horror from Middle Span’ too. This collection is not essential reading, but if you read it over a few weeks it’s not a horrible experience.
The Lurker on the Threshold
Arkham House – 1945
(The original Arkham House editions of The Watchers out of Time included this novel, but later publishers omitted it and printed it separately.)
See my complaint in the above review of The Watchers out of Time? The part where I said that a bunch of these stories were about lads inheriting houses in Dunwich and then moving in and discovering their grandfather was a wizard? I swear, I wrote that before starting this novel. This is basically the exact same as those stories except it’s far longer and more repetitive. There’s a part at the end where an anthropologist reels out a huge explanation of the relationships between the of the different Elder Gods and Great Old Ones that is kind of interesting, but otherwise this was horribly dull. There’s sections in here that were actually written by Lovecraft, but again, this is Derleth’s story. It’s dumb to have Lovecraft’s name above his on the cover. I was looking forward to finishing this pretty soon after getting started. It made me not want to read anything else by Derleth.
Also, the name of this tale and the entity in it are very similar to Lytton’s ‘Dweller of the Threshold’ from Zanoni. I wonder if that was intentional.
The Mask of Cthulhu
Arkham House 1958
At least half of the stories in this collection are about lads who inherit houses in Dunwich/Arkham/Innsmouth and then discover that the previous owner (usually one of their distant relatives) was a devotee of the Cthulhu cult.
- The Return of Hastur
- The Whippoorwills in the Hills
- Something in the Wood
- The Sandwin Compact
- The House in the Valley
- The Seal of R’lyeh
I honestly don’t know if this collection is any worse than The Watchers out of Time, but the stories in here are so similar to the ones in that already remarkably repetitive collection that I gained little to no enjoyment from reading this book. These tales are so dull that I actually started to wonder if I any longer had an interest in Lovecraftian horror.
In these stories Derleth pushes to organise different entities and elements of Lovecraft’s tales into his cohesive mythos. He distinguishes between the benevolent Elder Gods and the malevolent Great Old Ones like Cthulhu, Shub-Niggurath and Nyarlehotep. Derleth is reverting to pre-Lovecraftian good vs. evil horror. For me, a huge part of the appeal of Lovecraft’s monsters is their utter disinterest in morality, and the the binary structure of Derleth’s system makes his villains here a little too similar to Dennis Wheatleyesque black magicians, doers of evil for evil’s sake. There’s a time and a place for that kind of thing, but it isn’t in Lovecraftian horror. Derleth also classifies the great Old Ones by their elemental force. (The three I mentioned above are linked with water, earth and air respectively.) This is dumb. I want crawling fucking chaos, not a god damned overgrown pokemon.
The Trail of Cthulhu
Arkham House – 1962
After finishing The Mask of Cthulhu, I was loath to begin another book by Derleth, especially one with a similar title to that piece of crap. Fortunately, The Trail of Cthulhu turned out to be a significantly more enjoyable book.
This is a collection of 5 short stories that combine to form a novel. They’re about a collection of men who come into contact with Laban Shrewsbury, an eyeless academic who needs their skills in hunting down the mighty Cthulhu. These stories were written over the course of 8 years, and they weren’t compiled until almost 20 years after the first one was published. In each tale, Derleth has to lay out the background information for his readers. All of these stories contain very similar passages explaining the conflict between the Elder gods and the Great Old Ones, the separate Lovecraftian deities, and the forbidden books. While I have already complained about repetition in Derleth’s other books, it was far easier to stomach here. Remember that these stories were originally published years apart. A bit of a reminder would have been necessary for the original readers, and I’m glad the stories weren’t edited or abridged for this collection. Also, these 5 tales have almost identical plot structures, but this isn’t as annoying as the similar plots in Derleth’s other books. The tales in The Trail of Cthulhu form a cohesive whole. They are part of a series. A certain amount of repetition in a series makes sense. The repetition in the other books is annoying because it makes it seem like Derleth only had one idea.
These are the stories:
- The House on Curwen Street
- The Watcher from the Sky
- The Gorge Beyond Salapunco
- The Keeper of the Key
- The Black Island
This is not a great book. I wouldn’t even say it’s a good book. It’s horribly overwritten, and I had to force myself to get through it. All that being said, this is Derleth’s best book of Lovecraftian fiction.
Throughout this post, I tried to refer to Derleth’s work as Lovecraftian fiction rather than Lovecraftian horror because at no point during the 1000 or so pages I read by him was I afraid or even remotely creeped out. These stories have none of what made Lovecraft great. When I was slogging through these books, I kept wishing I was reading ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’ or ‘The Whisperer in the Darkness’ instead. Honestly, even the best of Derleth was pretty boring. Derleth wrote a lot, and he might have written other books of Lovecraftian fiction. If he did, I don’t want to read them, but I probably would if they weren’t too hard to track down.
The man himself
I have been very critical of Derleth’s writing, but I want to acknowledge that I have been comparing him to one of the most important horror authors of all time. (It’s hard not to do so when you’re looking at work that Derleth tried to pass off as having come from Lovecraft.) While his fiction may have been second rate, fans of modern horror owe a lot to this man for bringing Lovecraft’s work to a far bigger audience. August Derleth, I salute you.
I’m hoping that the other authors of Lovecraftian horror are going to be better than this crap. I’m considering looking at either Robert E. Howard or Robert Bloch next. I was going to do Clark Ashton Smith, but I realised as I was writing this post that I actually did a post on his Cthulhu mythos stories a few years back. I seemed to have a real bee in my bonnet about the poor quality of the physical book when I was writing that post though, so maybe I’ll do a more level headed post on Klarkash-ton’s Cthulhu mythos tales soon.
3 thoughts on “August Derleth’s Cthulhu Mythos Fiction”
My partner bought me the Night Shade Books five-volume series of Smith’s fantasies. Probably more than you want to read. Although, I did read them, one volume after the other, and think Smith actually varies the style and variety of his stories enough that this does not become tedious. (The stories are arranged in what the editors think is chronological order.)
I find it difficult to draw a hard and fast line between what Smith wrote that should be considered Lovecraft-influenced, and what not. Take the Averoigne stories. They are clearly Smith’s own. And yet some HPL terminology flitted into them, and HPL borrowed from them on occasion himself (although I don’t recall them turning up in his stories). And while some have happy endings, some reflect a triumph of moral ambiguity.