Discuss: Was Derleth indispensable?

August Derleth

August Derleth

Put another way: If August Derleth had not rescued H.P. Lovecraft’s work from literary obscurity, would someone else have done it?

Please comment below with your opinion on this.

My opinion is that perhaps someone else would have, but it’s far from inevitable that they would have; and even if someone else had, it probably would not have been to the degree that Derleth was able to do so.

I’m not exactly a fan of Derleth’s writing or his attempt to “organize” the Mythos, but that said, in my opinion we owe him a great debt.

21 responses to “Discuss: Was Derleth indispensable?

  1. We can’t say with certainty that someone else would’ve rescued Lovecraft from obscurity. What we do know is that Derelth DID do exactly that.

    Much like Peter to Jesus though, his popularization of the ideas completely missed the point. Yes, we owe him for the publicity, but we don’t owe him for the harm done to the mythos and cosmicism.

    I say the two actions cancel each other out, so we are safe to ignore him without feeling bad about it.

  2. I am glad you brought up this topic, thanks. Not only do I feel we owe a debt to Derleth for promoting the publication of Lovecraft’s work, I am one of a tiny minority who doesn’t feel that Derleth’s own writing deserves the excoriation it usually receives. Yes it was a pastiche of Lovecraft’s work, but some of it was rather enjoyable. In respect to the changes he made to Mythos which were major (mainly introducing Good vs Evil) I can understand folks being upset about that aspect, but a large percentage of current Mythos authors (Lumley comes to mind) have also followed that tack, but only Derleth gets the criticism.

  3. Someone else would surely have brought about the publication of Lovecraft’s fiction in book form if Derleth had not done so. Many of HPL’s teenage fan friends went on to become major editors and publishers in the fantasy/sf genre. Don Wollheim, Doc Lowndes, and others, would have published Lovecraft, and they did include Lovecraft tales in the books and magazines they edited. Too, Robert Bloch would surely have used his fame and influence in seeing that Lovecraft’s finest work was published in book form, if no one else had done so.

    But Derleth went the extra mile. I doubt that anyone would have bothered or even thought about publishing Lovecraft’s letters if Wandrei and Derleth had not done so; and it is because they did so that so many of those letters were not lost or discarded. And Derleth had Lovecraft’s friends write their memories of HPL for publication, and thus we have so many records of E’ch-Pi-El by those who knew him well, and these memoirs help to counter the stupid myths and lies that so many, today, try to pass off as fact in their squalid books “about” Lovecraft, or in their pretentious psychoanalytical examinations of Lovecraft’s life and Works. Derleth gave us much. My life would be far less wonderful if not for my beloved library of Arkham House books.

  4. Although I found the phrase “posthumous collaboration” presumptuous, I did enjoy his story “The Lurker at the Threshold” and found it very Lovecraftian, perhaps because it was written from notes or fragments of Lovecraft’s. I don’t really know the history of the man but am grazing through the wikipedia entry on him. I do remember reading some people thought he’d pretty well messed things up and was not such a good person but that’s all I’ve heard. What I have of Lovecraft is mostly from the series of books written in the 80s with fantastic snippets of one large painting on the covers.

  5. I do think Arkham House was crucial to keeping HPL’s work in circulation, which made it possible for new generations of readers to discover him. I don’t know enough about the history of AH to say how important Derleth (as opposed to Donald Wandrei) was to its existence/success.

    I actually have a soft spot (or perhaps just morbid curiosity) for Derleth’s work, clunky as it is at times.

  6. It’s a difficult question to answer simply because Derleth did so much to promote Lovecraft’s stories no one else was needed. I doubt anyone else would have created a press devoted principally to promoting Lovecraft’s stories and bringing them all, even his juvenalia, into print. I always had a great respect for Derleth. Back when I first started reading horror fiction back in the 60s Derleth’s anthologies were regularly appearing in paperback form in the UK. These were some of the best anthologies ever published. Though I am no fan of his Mythos fiction, he was no mean writer when it came to other supernatural horror stories. To me Derleth was always inextricably linked with HPL and I must admit it saddens me that he comes in for so much criticism these days. One of my prized possessions is a rejection letter signed by him not all that long before his death.

  7. I do think that we owe Derleth a great deal of thanks not only for preserving HPL’s work but for promoting others like Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith and REH. It’s debatable whether someone else would have published HPL if Derleth hadn’t but I think that we can safely say that if Derleth had not done so when he did, the state of Lovecraft’s acceptance as a major writer and the level of criticism and scholarly works available now would not exist.

  8. Briefly: No, he wasn’t indispensable. There were various highly regarded literary figures (Hammett, Benet, Mabbott) who were already expressing respect for Lovecraft’s work. Prof. Mabbott quotes HPL’s Poe researches in some of his own editions of Poe, for instance. Given the interest in some of these figures, eventually someone would do the research, and Lovecraft would have been “rediscovered”. Add to this the fact his work had already been included in various anthologies in his lifetime, and many an editor sought rights to reprint his stories even before the “Lovecraft phenomenon” began to take form.

    However… had Derleth (and Wandrei, and Barlow) not done what they did to preserve his work, much of his lesser work, especially the ephemera, would likely have been lost, and that would have been a sad detriment to those of us who go beyond the fiction itself — and let’s face it, that is only ONE aspect of the interest of Lovecraft, however great that aspect may be.

    So no, I don’t think he was indispensable, or that HPL would not have found his following had Derleth not have been there and done what he did… but what he did, despite many flaws, also provided a great service, and it likely sped the process up in some ways (as well as retarding his acceptance in others).

  9. Derleth and Arkham House did much to preserve the Lovecraft legacy. The debt we owe to August Derleth and to Arkham House at preserving and popularizing the works of HP Lovecraft is unquestionable. Unfortunately many of the the anthologies such as the ‘posthumous collaborations of stories said to be ‘inspired’ by unpublished Lovecraft stories, notes, and letters were actually written by August Derleth. It is difficult to determine which parts (if any) that Lovecraft wrote. Some parts of the stories, such as the descriptions of Dunwich are clearly from the ‘Dunwich Horror.’ Additional story elements seem to have been borrowed from ‘Dreams in the Witch House.To many ‘Mythos’ purists this is heresy. Because of the ethical question these stories remain controversial to this very day.

  10. I totally agree. Yes, I would prefer that Derleth had not tried to “Christianize” the Mythos, good versus evil and all that, but his contribution to the world for keeping Lovecraft’s work alive far outweighs all that.

  11. Somebody else would have probably rescued HPL’s writings but Derleth and Wandrei’s accomplishment was that they were on it almost immediately and that probably saved some things that would have been lost otherwise.

  12. It’s a moot point. What if Derleth hadn’t pulled HPL from obscurity? we’re venturing into “It’s A Wonderful Life” territory. HPL would have remained obscure. Stephen King would have been deprived of a major Muse. “Carrie” would never have been written or filmed. Sissy Spacek would never have been a star. A whole generation of dark fiction writers and filmmakers wouldn’t have found their niche – I could go on and on, but back to reality…
    Sam is right – Derleth brought a scholarly focus to the man’s works whereas someone else might have just called the world’s attention to it as “just another pulp writer.” And let’s not forget that he bolstered and encouraged Lovecraft while Lovecraft himself was disparaging his own efforts. Lovecraft didn’t have a happy life and maybe – just maybe – Derleth’s support made the end of that life a bit brighter.

  13. I fall pretty easily into the Derleth camp. I think he was the right guy, in the right place, at the right time, with the right idea. Someone else might have accomplished what he did, to a greater or lesser degree, but those hypothetical saviours aside, what Derleth really did was kickstart the process by which Lovecraft’s work permeated pop culture. Without his pastiches (whatever your opinion on their worth), or the Lovecraftian work of those he encouraged (Campbell, Lumley, etc.), the Cthulhu Mythos might not exist as it does today.

    Basically, if he WEREN’T indispensable, would we be even having this conversation? Whatever you think of him, dude made himself the gate and the key, to mangle a quote. It’s because of Derleth and Arkham House that I got to read Lovecraft, Copper and a host of other writers I might otherwise have missed.

    Also, TRAIL OF CTHULHU is pretty great. Any story wherein an eyeless Doc Savage pastiche drops a nuke on Cthulhu gets two big ol’ thumbs up from me.

  14. Hi, Mike.
    I agree that someone else would have “rescued” H.P.L’s work but I think that the important issue is that Derleth handled it in a manner that was respectful and retained an integrity that the work deserved and also in a manner that Lovecraft would have been happy about. Can you imagine how things might been if someone else, perhaps a corporation that may have altered the content and turned it all into something cheap and unworthy of the author’s original. e.g. “Plan 9 from Innsmouth!”. Not that I don’t love a bit of good shlock, but I feel Derleth retained the literary integrity that the work deserved.

  15. Judging by all the other things from the pulps which have survived, I don’t think Derleth was a requirement. Lovecraft would have been rediscovered eventually. Derleth just ensured it happened sooner.

    But Derleth/Arkham House’s acting within the lifetimes of the Lovecraft Circle almost certainly led to the preservation of many of HPL’s letters. How many next-of-kin would have thought files of old, hard-to-read mail from some forgotten author were worth preserving?

  16. The ‘Call of Cthulhu’ RPG has brought a lot of people to Lovecraft and I have to wonder if the game would ever have existed without Derleth’s ‘good versus evil’ vision of the Mythos.

  17. I think that we owe the man a great debt.
    He (and Donald Wandrei) championed Mr. Lovecraft when it seemed that no one else would. Would/could some one else have done it? Possibly, but that is just conjecture on my part.
    Could he have run things differentlly Mythos wise? I think so, but that’s beside the point. I’m more than glad that he did what he did with HPL and all of those other Weird Tales authors.

  18. I realize there is a great need by those fans that follow Abrahamic religions to make the work of HPL “part of their own”, but not all of us that are fans see Derleth as a positive….

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