THOUGHTS ON HAEFELE'S A LOOK BEHIND THE DERLETH MYTHOS

by Jeffery Scott Sims

[In composing this essay, I use as my basis the second edition of Haefele's volume, that of 2014 by the Cimmerian Press, which I am given to understand is better organized, providing greater clarity. The first edition, already a dreadfully expensive collector's item, I have not seen.]

Introduction

This is not a book review. Nor is it, in any particular, a critique of the monumental work by John D. Haefele, A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos: Origins of the "Cthulhu Mythos." Rather, having read the book-- and reread it, and read it again-- I feel so many ideas raging round in my brain that I am overcome by a feverish compulsion to express them. Why now especially? After all, the odyssey of H. P. Lovecraft and his tales, his literary heirs, and the formulation of the Cthulhu Mythos have been meat and potatoes to me for a long time. During a span of decades I have read much, of fiction and non-fiction, imbibed many ideas, come away with many curious impressions. Much I have learned, much I have thought I knew.

For a fact I can state that in recent years I have become increasingly disconnected intellectually from what has been passing for the mainstream of Lovecraftian criticism. I began to detect a strange narrowing of focus in such studies, an intensification of destructive revisionism which has come to exalt incivility of critique, verging on and then toppling into gross unprofessionalism. Having been downright appalled by the tenor of portions of S. T. Joshi's The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos, I fairly gave up on such stuff, proudly concluding that I had lost touch with the new methods of literary criticism, that I could not force myself to mine through the nastiness to the undoubtedly golden nuggets beyond. I did not read any more of that kind of material, indeed bade it good riddance, until by fortuitous chance Haefele's book came my way. I read it with trepidation.

The scales fell from my eyes. So, in this day and age, one may write about Lovecraft and company without vicious sneers, without outrageous demands for philosophical or socio-political conformity. This much amazed, but how much more that the author seemed to be, in general, speaking my mind! All of those issues that kept grappling with painful hooks at my attention, issues which I feared were incapable of radiant resolution these days; they are all in this book, calmly discussed, intelligently addressed. The only mental walls through which I had to bash were my own preconceptions.

August Derleth saint or sinner, hero or villain of the Lovecraftian literary cosmos: how critical a clear appraisal of the man truly proves to an understanding of Lovecraft, his work, and all that has been developed since by Derleth and his colleagues. On that point, apparently, if nothing else, all agree. As I struggle to make sense out of masses of information, my ideas rearrange, realign. I know more than I did. With knowledge so fresh, my views may require time to coalesce. I allow for a current state of flux.

What follows, hopefully in not too discordant or disjointed of a fashion, are the random thoughts engendered by my reading of Haefele's volume on wide ranging topics Lovecraftian. Who knows what will come from all of this? It feels good to write about it.

Previous Doubts

I give myself this much credit, that I had long sensed August Derleth was not getting an entirely fair shake from his detractors. Even as the compilation of accusations heaped to Everest heights, I deemed it necessary to offer the fellow respect, grudgingly, for pledging himself to the exorbitant task of rescuing the Lovecraft legacy from encroaching oblivion. Derleth, after all-- I mean, fair's fair, right?-- was the guy who founded (with important help from Donald Wandrei) Arkham House, for decades the finest publisher and repository of weird fiction, including the Lovecraft oeuvre. Whatever his "crimes," he deserved mega-kudos for that. Granting that he was not in every respect the best man for the job, he was the man who did the job. History didn't indicate that anybody else was up to it, and my conjectures as to possible alternate universes in which Derleth did not factor failed to yield happy outcomes.

Philosophy seems to enter into a lot of these pro- and anti-Derleth debates. Well, I am philosophically disposed against conspiracy theory, always have been, so the constant snide insinuations that Derleth was trying to pull a fast one, that he deliberately obfuscated the Lovecraft "message" in order to salve his own psyche, struck me as bizarre, more weird than anything the Master ever concocted. That Derleth may have stumbled, got some things wrong, slipped here and there; yes, I could buy that, because anyone is capable of error, and this Lovecraft business can get pretty complex when one digs into it. I allowed for mistakes, not for creepiness. That being so, I simply never felt in tune with all the savaging attacks.

The Adventure of the Bum Rap

Another factor preventing me from embracing the near monolithic new view was the embarrassing fact that, broadly speaking, I admired the genre fiction of August Derleth. Many of the complaints hurled at him were tied to the subsidiary charge that Derleth was a lousy writer. Try as I might, I could not agree. Given the voluminous nature of his literary corpus, I could not (still can not) claim expertise, and-- I must make this point early-- right now am in the process of re-exploring his Mythos tales, so I will not dwell on those here, but a great deal of everything else of his always seemed to me of entertainingly high caliber. To date I am mostly knowledgeable of his ghost stories and the Holmesian pastiches starring Solar Pons. The spooky tales I hugely enjoyed. A single volume in my collection contains "Mr. George," "Mara," and "The Extra Passenger," three of my favorites. As for the Pons stories, I loved them all, considered them legitimate carry-ons from Doyle. These opinions have never wavered. Not all of his stuff affected me this way, but enough to cause generic slurs on his authorial capacity to grate. Whatever his faults, I had to accept Derleth as one of the big boys, a super-star in his line.

Publish or Perish

I take satisfaction from Haefele's reconstruction of history, in which he finds most of Derleth's Lovecraftian activities, post 1939, related to his overarching goal of maintaining Arkham House as a flourishing institution. If what I read be accurate, Derleth had a tough row to hoe, and despite his efforts, whatever one may think of some of his tactics, it seems near miraculous that he managed to keep that house off the kindling pile. As the argument goes, Lovecraft sold well-- eventually-- so Derleth sold Lovecraft any way he could, which boosted the publisher, making possible the realization of other worthy literary projects. To that extent, I approve. Under Derleth, Arkham House excelled in its fundamental tasks. Would that its post-Derleth record were as stellar.

One scurrilous charge that especially brings bile into my mouth is the popular claim that Derleth fed off of Lovecraft's corpse by using his mentor's writings and ideas just to puff himself up. It's suggested that Lovecraft was immediately a treasured commodity, that Derleth got hold of the loot and selfishly milked it for all it was worth. Haefele's history appears to decisively smash this charge. At first it was difficult to give Lovecraft away, outside of the pages of Weird Tales, and Derleth's publications of the Master's stories in book form didn't abruptly yield big bucks. Indeed, several of those volumes were produced by his firm because, for so many years, no major publisher would touch the stuff. Once again, I have to give Derleth a big hand. I see nothing malign in this.

Voices of Wisdom

At the present moment, less convincing to me is the attempt to rehabilitate Derleth's many characterizations of Lovecraft's fiction. I see that they are seldom intended as formal criticism; I grant that most are meant as fetching ad copy; I allow for a reading of Derleth's statements which does correspond to elements in Lovecraft's work, and which are often describing the Cthulhu Mythos in general. Having bent over backward that far, I'm still nonplused by the degree to which Derleth errs when delineating the crucial components that set Lovecraft apart. This I can't easily escape: had I only Derleth's descriptions to go by, I would lack deep understanding of the rare bird that Lovecraft is.

Haefele doesn't sweep this under the rug. To the contrary, he zeros in on those pitifully few occasions, most of them early on, when Derleth's colleagues, notably Smith, Bloch, and Leiber, question his discernment. They occasionally dispute points, may see beyond him. Wherein lies the difficulty? I'm tempted to conclude that Derleth always remains a good old-fashioned pulp hound at heart, and that he deems Lovecraft not a literary god but a student, writ large, of the same school. That being the case, Derleth can't bring himself to take "angel on pinhead" disquisitions seriously. He has his personal conception of what matters Lovecraftian, what counts artistically and thematically in the Mythos, and beyond that perhaps has no desire to look.

It's a narrow view, not entirely satisfying, but one that Haefele smartly equates with the equally slender, more fashionable modern criticism post-dating Derleth. If Derleth focuses too much on pulpy narrative, his hecklers (too often a fitting term) tend to wrap themselves in ideological cocoons, missing much of the grisly fun that Lovecraft is supposed to provide. I have to admit this much: had I only the commonly current critiques to go by, never would I guess what a thrill it is to read Lovecraft.

Where was Everybody?

Difficult it is to sweep away Derleth's historical stance on the Mythos as rubbish, when for so long a span, despite sporadic disagreement, so many did accept it as serviceable. Haefele notes casual assent to the Derleth propositions, eventually or in degree, by Wandrei, Smith, and more among the next generation of fans, all of them dedicated readers of Lovecraft's "testament." If Derleth be pathologically wrong, why don't we read veritable howls of protest? It didn't happen, not once, during Derleth's lifetime, when it really mattered, when it would have counted most. Leiber's marvelous seminal essay "A Literary Copernicus" (in some respects the best analysis to this day) comes closest, but even it comes off as an incisive competing view rather than as a devastating replacement. He acknowledges possibilities that sound somewhat Derlethian. If nothing else, Lovecraftian contemporaries of yesteryear were a more broadminded or easy-going bunch, and that also goes for Lovecraft. Where was he when Derleth "transgressed?" He saw what was developing among his author fans during those early years, could have called out a writer who, in his opinion, ridiculously crossed the line. He didn't do it. He didn't mind a bit.

A Collision of Goals?

I gather that Derleth wanted to keep his old friend in print, hoped that he would receive his due as an author of eerie tales... and maybe that's about it. The new school, on the other hand, want Lovecraft accepted as a Great Writer, taught in college courses alongside Hemingway and Camus, the subject of assigned papers and pop quizzes. Is that the source of emotional contention? I can't pontificate; too much mind-reading required. If it be, then I find interesting how the Lovecraft "boom" exploded with precious little help from academia. Perhaps Derleth knew what he was doing. I'm afraid that, to this day, Lovecraftian criticism remains more a cottage industry than a burgeoning arm of the professional literati. Wait a minute-- afraid?-- I couldn't care less! I don't mind, understand, but Lovecraft's "acceptance" will never, never constitute my yardstick of his worth.

That Old Black Magic

That beastly quote, if quote it be, relayed to Derleth by Harold Farnese in 1937; no, it does not sound much like Lovecraft, certainly not if meant as the author's all-inclusive philosophical stance. However, Haefele's analysis places this nagging, infuriating datum within a marvelously sane perspective. If we reject outright lies or the most egregious contortions of memory, what answer remains? The strong possibility exists that Lovecraft, c. 1932, wrote something at least resembling this, perhaps for a more limited purpose than the bare, out of context statement suggests. Derleth, with nothing up his sleeve, accepted it in good faith, forever after viewed Lovecraft, and the developing Mythos, at least partially through that fogged lens.

Having allowed this much, the deadly quote, with all its associations and ramifications, still irks. It is a blasted misleading phrase, at best tying in to certain stories-- of course "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Dunwich Horror"-- completely missing the boat with others. Take it, then, maybe, as the reworking of a stray comment, an unremarkable conclusion. Unless the original surfaces (hold not thy breath!) and bears out its apparent implications, I must reject it as a deeply meaningful statement from the Master. I wish Derleth had similarly perceived. The reasonable expectations of his readers demanded more from him.

The Meaning of Meaning

Having read a billion of his letters, and heard from all his buddies, I'm no longer convinced that any of Lovecraft's isolated statements as to his literary intentions carry massive weight. I resist accepting that a single one of them is ever uttered as an ironclad literary blueprint, adhered to until the last ditch. At times they strike me only as intellectual burdens, fuel for latter day debates that wander far from an appreciation of the man's artistic merits. I can't avoid fretting that all such arguments end up ignoring the one inescapably valid datum: that H. P. Lovecraft is an author of unique horror stories; that, all he set out to be; that, all he is. Monstrously off base, damnably minimizing of the fellow? I don't think so. If his goal be to covertly propound ideology, why does he restrict himself to the narrowest of genre compositions? Lots of other types of story-telling would serve him as well or better. Lovecraft shares with me a love of the strange and the terrifying. That's it, that's the ticket, he and I are old mates, going back quite a ways now, and we understand.

Sure, he has his personal views, some rather off the wall, expressed on just about every subject under the sun, and those views will seep into his fiction at whiles, but it's a grotesque mistake to define that fiction in non-literary terms. A biography of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, I suppose with regret, must necessarily incorporate clinical maunderings on militant atheism, blinkered politics, blatant racism, and untutored punditry, but must we accept that this junk defines Lovecraft's contribution to the world? I'm sorry, but that stuff isn't the meaning of the Mythos. If it were, there wouldn't be one-- not for me, not now, not ever-- and no one practicing within the genre need feel compelled toward extraneous ideas in order to be considered "pure."

Mythos: Lovecraft, Cthulhu, et al.

If we must categorize, I see good sense in defining a Lovecraft Mythos (his relevant tales) subsumed within a broad range of stories by many authors which can, for the sake of tradition, be deemed the Cthulhu Mythos. The latter, having risen, has not yet sunk, and I suspect that it will not do so as long as Lovecraft fans exist. Too many readers and authors continue to be drawn to the Mythos, for many reasons and with many motives. I reject the notion that any of them are, a priori, wrong.

I employ a simple, practical definition of the Cthulhu Mythos: those stories to which I have been led through my fondness for Lovecraft. Naturally those include his own. Of course they include the works of his disciples and those who came after them, the succeeding generations. Most, if not all, of these stories can be readily defined by their Mythos trappings. As a practical matter I also incorporate, perhaps in a special sub-category, those Lovecraftian forebears who, to a degree, pointed the way for the Master. It was Lovecraft who took me by the hand and walked me to the counter piled with the books of Chambers, Machen, and Blackwood. Because of him I read Hodgson's The House on the Borderland and The Night Land. In historical retrospect, there's something to be said for the notion that Lovecraft did not originate the Mythos (or even his Mythos), but that he constitutes its prime conduit.

Derleth Mythos, as a formal term, does not suit, and I prefer not to employ it. If I did, must I also accept a Long Mythos, a Bloch, a Kuttner, Lumley, Copper, etc.? Please, spare me. I refuse to get so tangled up among divisions, when my main goal is to enjoy weird tales. There's a place for analyzing and critiquing the variations among these and countless other authors, but my standard will ever be: is this a good story? If yes, then I'm not going to jump through hoops laboring to pigeonhole it.

Inclusion vs. Exclusion

Pondering this puts me that much more in mind to rebel against the very notion of a single exact, unquestionably accurate decree as to what Lovecraft means (and what others should). In this goose-stepping, politically correct age of ours, adherence to a thread-thin "true" view may emotionally satisfy, may seem to some morally mandatory, but that is a terrible way to approach literature, especially a body of writings as rich as the Cthulhu Mythos. There's simply too much within that world of ideas and "sensory impacts" to hamstring it with doctrine.

Haefele's distinction between Derleth's "inclusive" view of Lovecraft's work and the Mythos, one which incorporates all elements, juxtaposed to that of later critics employing "exclusionary" principles in order to glean fundamentals, logically appeals. It elegantly explains the apparently radical differences between the two camps. This analysis fills me with joy, because it makes possible the holding of both views simultaneously, without mental agony or confusion. Among Lovecraft fans, there don't have to be white hats and black hats. The excuse for argumentative crudities evaporates.

Lovecraft, a la Derleth

Considered thus, Derleth's formulation of his Lovecraftian corpus-- whatever its quality-- becomes understandable, if not always the most pleasurable. He does, after all, derive practically all of his elements, directly or indirectly, from the Master. Haefele lists the obvious concrete aspects, examples being: wars or conflict among the Mythos entities; some beings presented sympathetically, others with antagonism; magic as a genuine force. Clearly Derleth draws upon this material, with never a dream that in doing so he violates the cardinal rules of Lovecraftism.

His "good guy, bad guy" approach to devising the narrative of the eternal contest between the Elder Gods and the primary Mythos horrors is, admittedly, a stretch. As sympathetic as I try to be, that doesn't feel right. Recent critics are fond of reproaching Derleth for discerning or insinuating Christian elements into the Mythos. I can conceive of more dreadful enterprises than that (in fact, would style it "The Adventure of the Non-Problem"), yet wonder if more than the man's religious beliefs are involved. Haefele, as I read him, notes that this element isn't pervasive throughout Derleth's stories, nor central to all in which it appears. What impresses me more is his argument that hints in Lovecraft open the gate, maybe just a crack, to this approach. In "The Call of Cthulhu," something restrains (Derleth would say "imprisons") that loathsome monster. What force accomplishes this? Yog-Sothoth, in "The Dunwich Horror," has in eons past been "expelled." Who did the expelling? What power lies behind the magic that mere men utilize to combat these awesome, invasive terrors? I can imagine a clever fellow like Derleth snatching up these suggestive tidbits and running with them. Apparently that's what he did.

Give Me a Good Scare

That's all I want, that's what it's really all about, and that's where I find the biggest problem with too many Mythos authors. As much as I am impelled to defend them against the New Criticism, which seems to demand authoritarian attitudes absolutely contrary to my tastes, the fact remains that most Mythos devotees don't produce genuinely frightening, ice pick in the back of the neck horror stories. Here they let me down. Accusations against August Derleth on this score, when merited, are perfectly proper, and that goes for his equally famous colleagues as well.

There aren't really that many Mythos tales, beyond the Lovecraft core, that give me the shivers I seek and savor. I haven't read them all, and some I read so long ago they've gotten dusty in my mind, but working with what I have, I find slim pickings. A handful of stories do their duty and hit me between the eyes as I require. Just throwing out quick examples, I think of Robert Bloch's story, "Notebook Found in a Deserted House," which I've amused myself with treating as the Lovecraft story that Lovecraft didn't write; Fritz Leiber's Our Lady of Darkness, which contains some remarkably eerie stuff that gets under my skin (I need to study up on that one again); and two by Basil Copper, "Beyond the Reef" and his magnum opus, The Great White Space, both of which I've discussed at length in previous essays.

The stories I do like boast buckets of atmosphere, and I continue to consider that the key to effective Mythos writing. Lovecraft possesses the key, possibly forged it himself, if he didn't purloin it from amidst the ruins of the records hall of the Great Race. Seriously, the one literary concept that Lovecraft hammers home throughout his career is the vital need for appropriate atmosphere in a weird tale. It galls me that achieving such should routinely remain a pole-vaulting hurdle. Conquer that barrier, and so much else falls into place, regardless of intellectual variations. This problem separates Master from minions far more than veneers of ideology. It isn't an insoluble problem. A few have beaten it, now and then. I believe style counts for a lot, and on this issue I assert the best reason for hailing Lovecraft as the Master.

Not My Last Word

I can't call these final thoughts; I haven't fully digested them, so continue to wrestle with much of the foregoing. Where will these ruminations lead? Hopefully they direct me to a more perfect understanding of two major players in the cosmos of the weird. With confidence I state that the literary revisionism of recent decades has fostered views on Lovecraft at least as incomplete as those of the Derleth era, and have made a needless and improper massacre of Derleth's reputation. It is neither necessary nor fitting to drown him in R'lyeh for Lovecraft's sake, and the Master himself would surely take umbrage at the attempt. Both men should be honored for what they achieved, and for what they inspired. Their achievements and their inspirations aren't always the same by any means, but all have their place. Without H. P. Lovecraft there would be no Cthulhu Mythos. Without August Derleth... there would be no Cthulhu Mythos. I think that, while Derleth may not always be sufficient, he is truly necessary.

Give John D. Haefele a gold star for broadening the scope of Lovecraft-related lore. A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos is a powerhouse of a book. One read will set the gray cells firing. Rest assured that more will be heard of the author and his research. The Old Ones threaten to break through again.


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