Sunday, July 4, 2010

Deathday: August Derleth 1909-1971 Writer & Lovecraft Anthologist

August William Derleth (February 24, 1909 – July 4, 1971) was an American writer and anthologist. Though best remembered as the first publisher of the writings of H. P. Lovecraft, and for his own contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos genre of horror, Derleth was a leading American regional writer of his day, as well as prolific in several other genres, including historical fiction, poetry, detective fiction, science fiction and biography.

A 1938 Guggenheim Fellow, Derleth considered his most serious work to be the ambitious Sac Prairie Saga, a series of fiction, historical fiction, poetry, and non-fiction naturalist works designed to memorialize life in the Wisconsin he knew. Derleth can also be considered a pioneering naturalist and conservationist in his writing.

Arkham House and the Cthulhu Mythos

Derleth was a correspondent and friend of H. P. Lovecraft – when Lovecraft wrote about "le Comte d'Erlette" in his fiction, it was in homage to Derleth. Derleth invented the term Cthulhu Mythos to describe the fictional universe described in the series of stories shared by Lovecraft and other writers in his circle. Derleth's own writing emphasized the struggle between good and evil, in line with his own Christian world view and in contrast with Lovecraft's depiction of an amoral universe. Derleth also treated Lovecraft's Old Ones as representatives of elemental forces, creating new entities to flesh out this framework.

When Lovecraft died in 1937, Derleth and Donald Wandrei assembled a collection of that author's stories and tried to get them published. With existing publishers showing little interest, they founded Arkham House in 1939 to do it themselves. The name of the company came from Lovecraft's fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts, which is featured in many of his stories. In 1939 Arkham House published The Outsider and Others, a huge collection that contained most of Lovecraft's known short stories. Derleth and Wandrei soon expanded Arkham House and began a regular publishing schedule after its second book, Someone in the Dark, a collection of some of Derleth's own horror stories, was published in 1941.

Following Lovecraft's death, Derleth wrote a number of stories based on fragments and notes left by Lovecraft. These were published in Weird Tales and later in book form, under the byline "H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth", with Derleth calling himself a "posthumous collaborator." This practice has raised objections in some quarters that Derleth simply used Lovecraft's name to market what was essentially his own fiction; S. T. Joshi refers to the "posthumous collaborations" as marking the beginning of "perhaps the most disreputable phase of Derleth's activities."

A significant number of H. P. Lovecraft fans and critics, such as Dirk W. Mosig and S. T. Joshi, were dissatisfied with Derleth's invention of the term Cthulhu Mythos and his belief that Lovecraft's fiction had an overall pattern reflecting Derleth's own Christian world view.

Still there is little but praise for Derleth for his founding of Arkham House and for his successful effort to rescue Lovecraft from literary obscurity. Ramsey Campbell has also acknowledged Derleth's encouragement and guidance during the early part of his own writing career, and Kirby McCauley has cited Derleth and Arkham House as an inspiration for his own anthology, Dark Forces. Arkham House and Derleth published Dark Carnival, the first book by Ray Bradbury, as well. Brian Lumley cites the importance of Derleth to his own Lovecraftian work, and contends in a 2009 introduction to Derleth's work that he was " of the first, finest, and most discerning editors and publishers of macabre fiction."

Important as was Derleth's work to rescue H.P. Lovecraft from literary obscurity at the time of Lovecraft's death, Derleth also built a body of horror and spectral fiction of his own; still frequently anthologized. The best of this work, recently reprinted in four volumes of short stories–most of which were originally published in Weird Tales, illustrates Derleth's original abilities in the genre. While Derleth considered his work in this genre less than his most serious literary efforts, the compilers of these four anthologies, including Ramsey Campbell, note that the stories still resonate after more than fifty years.

In 2009, The Library of America selected Derleth’s story The Panelled Room for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American Fantastic Tales.

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