August 2, 2015
August Derleth, Cthulu Wrangler
Today I continue considering the authors of Appendix N. August Derleth managed to escape my voracious reading attention for a very long time. That is surprising, considering the volume of material he produced. Derleth wasn’t an Asimov-class churner of words, but with over 100 published books to his credit, he was respectably prolific. And, like Asimov, he covered a lot of subject territory in both fiction and non-fiction.
What August Derleth is best known for is his championing of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos. He published collections of Lovecraft’s stories and even wrote a biography of HPL. Additionally, he dove into the Mythos himself, writing several stories of Elder Gods, forbidden books, and the questionable inhabitants of New England.
I found his Mythos stories rather formulaic. A narrator finds himself entangled in the history of either Innsmouth, Arkham, or Dunwich. He’s usually a distant relative of one of the old families. He finds copies of one or more of a set list of titles, which Derleth writes out in full as some sort of talisman of horror, hinting at the nefarious doings of some deceased ancestor. The narrator lays out a string of heavy-handed clues that he himself fails to notice or heed. The story culminates in some supposedly shocking event that the reader saw coming pages ago, and that is made no more shocking by italicizing the entirety of the final paragraph.
Derleth composed these stories competently enough, but they lack Lovecraft’s macabre touch and his vision of existential cosmic horror. The monstrosities Derleth provides aren’t unfathomably alien, they are instead categorized and formally established in hierarchies and relationships. They become familiar and thereby lose much of sense of bizarre terror that Lovecraft brought.
But I think that is why Derleth fits so well in Appendix N. Dungeons and Dragons is fundamentally about cataloging the wondrous, assigning statistics to the fabulous. By his obsessive categorizing, Derleth rendered Cthulu, Hastur, et. al so many monsters to provide high level player characters a challenge.
I don’t mean to be too dismissive. A couple of the stories are pretty good. And one in particular, “The Lamp of Alhazred” captured some ot the lyricism of Lovecraft at his best. Perhaps appropriately so, as this story is a sort of love note to HPL, a nearly metafictional piece of hagiography. And “Witches Hollow” stands up well against HPL’s own Mythos contributions.
But remember that August Derleth wrote more than just Lovecraft pastiches. He also, thankfully, wrote Sherlock Holmes pastiches. Or, more precisely, detective fiction homages, featuring his character Solar Pons. I think this tells us something about August Derleth: the man was an enthusiast. When he liked something he wanted more of it, he wanted to get involved, he wanted to play in the same sandbox. Another reason he fits well into Appendix N, as, after all, what is D&D but an attempt to become more involved in the stories we like? (Besides, of course, the fun of solving tactical problems, killing monsters, and taking their stuff.)
Solar Pons is right in my wheelhouse. I love these stories. At times I find myself surprised to read “Solar Pons” instead of “Sherlock Holmes” or “Doctor Parker” instead of “Doctor Watson.” I fully buy into the illusion. I’m hooked. And gratified to know I’ve got five more Solar Pons collections to look forward to.