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Review – A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos by John D. Haefele

What is A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos?

For decades critics have portrayed August Derleth as an intractable, foolish and at times even villainous man, tainting his legacy in the history of the modern weird tale. This book contains new, comprehensive scholarship, and with sharp arguments and solid evidence John D. Haefele dismisses the criticism and demonstrates why it is time to re-establish Derleth’s reputation. Ground-zero of the controversy are Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” with H. P. Lovecraft, involving his pastiches and the debate concerning the Cthulhu Mythos vs. the Derleth Mythos. All this, and much more, John D. Haefele looks at and engagingly analyzes. With surprising, yet convincing, results. It is time to set the record straight. This book belongs on the shelf between Carter’s A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos and Joshi’s The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos. A must for anyone interested in Lovecraft, Derleth, Arkham House and the history of the modern weird tale.

Review

A LOOK BEHIND THE DERLETH MYTHOS: ORIGINS OF THE CTHULHU MYTHOS by John D. Haefele is a nonfiction book discussing the role of August Derleth in the creation of HPL’s modern mythology. More precisely, it is more of a rebuttal to S.T. Joshi’s THE RISE, FALL, AND RISE OF THE CTHULHU MYTHOS. If you haven’t read that, the book is going to be pretty nonsensical.

August Derleth is controversial in certain parts of HP Lovecraft fandom. By which I mean the literary types who know who he is. For most people out there, who know who HP Lovecraft is, a lot larger group than used to exist, they primarily know him through Cthulhu plushies, board games, tabletop roleplaying games, as well as video game adaptations.

Go a little further and you’ll know him through his inspirations to authors like Stephen King as well as maybe spin off novels set in his world. Only by the time you pass them do you know about the guy who founded Arkham House and is a guy who either saved HP Lovecraft’s legacy or stole it for his own use. Really, he did a little of both.

If you’re a person who isn’t part of the snobbish literary criticism crowd or obnoxiously entitled fandom academic (of which I am a proud snobbish Literature Masters waving member of both–seriously, even I hate myself), you probably need a rundown of who August Derleth is. The short as well as mostly inaccurate version is he was a Weird Tales writer that Lovecraft mentored as well as inspired.

When Howard Phillips went the way of all flesh, they worked with the man named HPL’s literary executive (RH Barlow) with the permission of Howard’s Aunt to republish the man’s work. Eventually, she, too, passed and August froze Barlow out. August also wrote “collaborations” which was, as far as anyone can tell, were just him slapping Howard’s name onto his own stuff. He also created a shared mythology from Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothery that (arguably) didn’t really exist in the original stories. Lovecraft was consistent in his mythology in his stories but often contradictory across them, something I consider a benefit rather than a flaw.

Working in other people’s worlds is by no means unusual behavior for August Derleth as HPL fandom often overlooks the fact that he also wrote the Solar Pons Sherlock Holmes-esque stories that the Doyle family asked him not to. About seventy of these stories no less. To give a sense of August Derleth, take note that he wrote Arthur Conan Doyle and asked him for permission to take over writing Sherlock Holmes when the author decided not to write anymore. Derleth cast a far wider net than HPL’s works even if he’s most famous for working within other people’s worlds (and did plenty of original material himself). This isn’t to be criticized any more than Roy Thomas’ work with Conan or other comic book writer famous for preexisting properties.

A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos requires the five-paragraph introduction above because it is not a laymen’s novel about Derleth, the Cthulhu Mythos, S.T. Joshi’s dislike of Derleth, and a bunch of other arguments that newcomers to the Mythos will have no idea what they’re referring to. It’s a bit like coming into a Reddit argument several posts in. If you’ve just seen The Last Jedi today and come in with opinions on it, don’t be surprised if you find that a lot of people have already expressed where they stand on the battle lines.

I’ve got no real skin in this game or I’m moderate to neutral on the subject. Derleth’s detractors tend to be Lovecraft purists while I came to the HPL through Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow (influenced by Derleth) and the Call of Cthulhu tabletop game (ditto). I even made a homage to both in the Re’Kithnid, a fictional tome by “Brianna Lethder.” However, I feel ninety percent of this book is just going, “Well, actually, Derleth got Lovecraft just fine!” Which is not the best use of a scholarly treatise.

The book is, essentially, one long apologia for August Derleth and that’s fine.  I feel a better use of this book’s pages would have been explaining how Derleth built a coherent mythology from a bunch of disparate sources, shared the works of a writer he loved, and inspired a bunch of other writers just like HP Lovecraft wanted to (and did). No one really should care about whether Derleth was Catholic or not (assuming all writers can only write what they believe in personally) or preferred writing cosmic horror versus pulpy tales of good versus evil. They should care about his treatment of intellectual property and misuse of a man’s name. Essentially, this book feels like it misses the forest for the trees when discussing the legacy of Derleth and his relationship to Howard Phillips.

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