JOHN D. HAEFELE. A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos: Origins of the Cthulhu Mythos. Odense, Denmark: H. Harksen Productions, 2012. 371 pp. $59.95 hc. Reviewed by S. T. Joshi.
John D. Haefele, a longtime fan of H. P. Lovecraft and (especially) August Derleth, has undertaken an heroic task: to rescue Derleth from the decades of abuse he has taken for his propagation of numerous errors, distortions, and outright lies about Lovecraft’s fiction and general philosophy, and his writing of dozens of “tales of the Cthulhu Mythos” that widely depart from Lovecraft’s conceptions and are, to compound the injury, pretty awful tales in their own right. To this task Haefele brings weapons of surprising weakness—nothing like incisiveness of critical analysis, but merely a mass of verbiage and obfuscation, as if the sheer tsunami of words will overwhelm his perceived opponents (chief of them, to be frank, is myself). Haefele claims magnimously that his “strategy is to muster the facts and let them speak for themselves.” But in fact his choice of “facts” is highly selective and his interpretation of them so severely biased and prejudiced—in favour of Derleth, in what he avowedly sees as a necessary counterweight to the “anti-Derlethianism” of myself and other critics—that his own screed becomes considerably more one-sided than the critics he is seeking to refute.
The essence of the Derleth Mythos is as follows:
What has Haefele’s treatise done to overthrow or mitigate any of these points? Nothing. I repeat—nothing.
Do Elder Gods—benign gods eager and willing to assist humanity against the “evil” Old Ones—exist in Lovecraft? It does not appear so. The term “Elder Gods” certainly does not exist, although phrases similar to it do; but, paradoxically (from the Derlethian perspective), they seem to be applying to the Old Ones! Are there any entities in Lovecraft who embody “cosmic good…and cosmic evil” (as Derleth states in “The Return of Hastur”)? Haefele tries mightily to prove it, or even to render it vaguely plausible, but fails every time. In all Lovecraft’s work, there is only a single comment that might be construed as justifying the existence of such a Manichean set of entities—and that occurs, bizarrely, in the revision “Out of the Aeons.” There the high-priest T’yog (whom Haefele erroneously identifies as the “narrator” of the story, when in fact his narration is being paraphased by the actual narrator, Richard H. Johnson, curator of the Cabot Museum of Archaeology) claims that “he felt sure that the gods friendly to man could be arrayed against the hostile gods” (HM 273). Well, this sounds promising! But who does T’yog identify as the “friendly” gods? “[He] believed that Shug-Niggurath, Nug, and Yeb, as well as Yig the Serpent-god, were ready to take sides with man against the tyranny and presumption of Ghatanathoa” (HM 273). In other words, the very gods whom Derleth would identify as the “evil” Old Ones! Haefele is curiously silent about a celebrated quotation in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” that largely undermines his argument: “He [Randolph Carter] wondered at the vast conceit of those who had babbled of the malignant Ancient Ones, as if They could pause from their everlasting dreams to wreak a wrath upon mankind. As well, he thought, might a mammoth pause to visit frantic vengeance on an angleworm” (MM 433–34). Odd that this is not cited in Haefele’s interminable book!
And as for Nodens, who in the Derleth Mythos is as it were the boss of the Elder Gods, Haefele quotes the well-known comment in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath: “And hoary Nodens raised a howl of triumph when Nyarlathotep, close on his quarry [Randolph Carter], stopped baffled by a glare that seared his formless hunting-horrors to grey dust” (MM 406). But, aside from the fact that Nodens is here acting merely as a kind of cosmic cheerleader and does not actually intervene in Carter’s battle against Nyarlathotep, there are precious few moral overtones to the Carter-Nyarlathotep struggle; if anything, it is more of an aesthetic struggle, since Carter’s quest for his “sunset city” is being foiled by Nyarlathotep.
Haefele repeatedly attempts to argue that the “Great Old Ones” really are “evil” or “malevolent” after a fashion—but these qualities are only attributed to them by the human narrators in Lovecraft’s tales, who naturally see these immense forces as inimical to human life. As early as “The Shunned House” (1924), Lovecraft was emphasising this “relativity of morals” in regard to various alien entities: “Such a monster must of necessity be in our scheme of things [my emphasis] an anomaly and an intruder, whose extirpation forms a primary duty with every man not an enemy to the world’s life, health, and sanity” (MM 252).
In spite of all this, Haefele still has the chutzpah to declare that “we find Elder Gods in Lovecraft’s fiction”!
Haefele gets himself into further hot water by attempting to defend Derleth’s repeated claims that Lovecraft’s pseudomythology is somehow “parallel” (or even “similar”) to the Christian mythos. Haefele, whose training in philosophy is about as rudimentary as his training in literary criticism, claims that the various battles between cosmic entities in Lovecraft’s tales (the Old Ones of At the Mountains of Madness vs. the Cthulhu spawn, for example) somehow attest to this “similarity.” I had already stated that these battles have no particular moral overtones; in fact, if anything they embody Lovecraft’s adherence to the tenets of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, which propounded a complex theory about the rise and fall of successive civilisations; and Haefele does not do much to overthrow this basic conception. Instead, he quotes Donald R. Burleson discussing “The Whisperer in Darkness”: “The figure in the great easy-chair speaks…and tells of the great revelations in which Wilmarth is to share, including ‘the black truth veiled by the immemorial allegory of Tao,’” which Burleson believes (correctly) demonstrates how Lovecraft “deftly interweaves known bodies of mythic tradition into the flow of his own Mythos.” But how does this have any relevance to the idea of “parallels” to the Christian myth? Taoism is not Christianity; and Lovecraft’s very general notion that all human myth is a dim echo of the Old Ones has no bearing on the matter of any specific “parallels” between the Lovecraft Mythos and Christianity.
Haefele goes on to say that Lovecraft’s various parodies of Christian myth (such as the “crucifixion” of Wilbur Whateley’s twin at the end of “The Dunwich Horror”) testifies to the “similarity” of his mythos with Christian myth. This is analogous to contemporary religionists’ oxymoronic claim that atheism (a denial of religion) is itself a religion. Haefele also misunderstands David E. Schultz’s conception that Lovecraft was creating an “anti-mythology.” This does not refer to such parodies of Christianity, although that may be a small part of it; rather, it is a much more deep-seated subversion of all religions and myths, whose central premise is the close relationship between man and the divine.
Much of Haefele’s discussion of the matter rests upon his analysis of the so-called “black magic quotation” (or BMQ, as he conveniently abbreviates it). This, you will recall, is what was once the most celebrated and widely quoted statement attributed to Lovecraft: “All my stories, unconnected as they may be, are based on the fundamental lore or legend that this world was inhabited at one time by another race who, in practising black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside ever ready to take possession of the earth again.” David E. Schultz discovered that this quotation was not in fact by Lovecraft but by his correspondent Harold S. Farnese, who in a letter to Derleth in April 1937 claimed to be quoting the remark from a Lovecraft letter. Derleth seized upon the quotation and used it everywhere he possibly could. But the revelation of the spuriousness of the quotation materially destroyed the plausibility of the Derleth Mythos as a legitimate extension of the Lovecraft Mythos.
Haefele cannot give up the fleeting hope that the quotation might actually exist in some missing letter by Lovecraft. He states that Farnese wrote seven letters to Lovecraft and that only two by Lovecraft survive: “This suggests at least four from Lovecraft unaccounted for.” But that does not follow: Lovecraft did not in fact reply to each and every letter sent by a correspondent, and it is likely that Farnese sent Lovecraft several letters in succession and that Lovecraft replied to them in a batch. Farnese himself admitted to only one missing letter beyond the two that survive. In any case, Haefele in this matter is acting as a kind of magician: he is fabricating a piece of evidence (i.e., the existence of the BMQ in an actual Lovecraft letter) and then—hey! presto!—making it disappear.
But mercifully, Haefele doesn’t make much of the slim possibility that the quotation actually comes from Lovecraft. He takes a different tack, asking whether the BMQ “really strays so far from orthodox Lovecraft.” Well, yes it does. Let us consider the central issue of “black magic.” The term was originally defined as referring to the practice of a magic or sorcery deemed blasphemous and heretical by Christian teaching—something that a cosmic “god” from outer space is not likely to undertake. Even if the term is used more loosely, it is entirely inapposite to the events in Lovecraft’s stories. Haefele confuses the practice of black magic among human beings (or, in a few cases, the alien worshippers of the Lovecraftian “gods”), which can be found in abundance in Lovecraft’s tales, with such a practice by the “gods” themselves. For that is what the BMQ is stating: black magic was practiced by the “race” of gods—not their human or alien worshippers.
And even if the “gods” did practice such black magic, was it in any way instrumental—as the BMQ unequivocally states—in their being “expelled”? Expelled from what? The earth? The universe? Well, it certainly seems as if the various entities (Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, etc.) roam pretty freely wherever they like. Even in “The Dunwich Horror,” the most Derlethian of Lovecraft’s tales, there is no explicit comment that the Great Old Ones have been “expelled” from anywhere; what Armitage says is that there is “some plan for the extirpation of the entire human race and all animal and vegetable life from the earth by some terrible elder race of beings from another dimension…the Elder Things wished to strip it [the world] and drag it away from the solar system and cosmos of matter into some other plane or phase of entity from which it had once fallen, vigintillions of aeons ago” (DH 185).
As for the notion that the Elder Gods “imprisoned” the Great Old Ones (a comment made explicitly by Derleth in “The Return of Hastur” and elsewhere), only one entity is so imprisoned: Cthulhu. And why is he imprisoned? Is it for practicing “black magic”? Is it by the hands of some race of entities called the Elder Gods? Lovecraft is in fact wondrously silent about these matters. All he says (in “The Call of Cthulhu”) is that the Great Old Ones came from outer space but “were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea”; at some point “the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, [will] rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway” (DH 139). (Let us add the caveat that this is coming from the old mestizo Castro, and it is not clear whether he is reflecting metaphysical “reality” or merely his cult’s wishful thinking; there is a strong suggestion, I believe, that it is the latter.) But aside from Cthulhu (and that is the only “god” that Castro could possibly be talking about), what others are “imprisoned”? Certainly not Azathoth, who is at the center of “nuclear chaos.” All the other “gods” appear also to have eluded the Elder Gods’ jail cells.
Haefele descends to the nadir of imbecility in defending Derleth’s preposterous statement that Lovecraft’s gods are “elementals.” Let us recall precisely what Derleth said: “…Nyarlathotep…correspond[s] to an earth elemental; Great Cthulhu, dweller in hidden R’lyeh deep in the sea—correspond[s] to a water-elemental; Hastur the Unspeakable, who occpuies the air and interstellar spaces—correspond[s] to an air-elemental”; to which Derleth adds modestly, “I myself added Cthugha, corresponding to the fire elemental Lovecraft failed to provide” (“H. P. Lovecraft and His Work,” 1963). Let us pass over the plain fact (which Haefele does his best to obfuscate) that Lovecraft does not refer anywhere to Hastur as an entity, even though Derleth falsely claims that Hastur was part of the “roster of the Great Old Ones as they were originally conceived.” How exactly Derleth made the other designations is unfathomable; as Dirk W. Mosig long ago pointed out (and which Haefele fails even to address), the fact that Cthulhu is imprisoned in his underwater city of R’lyeh, and the fact that he too came from the “interstellar spaces” (as do Yog-Sothoth and Azathoth, apparently—so why aren’t they air elementals, even though there is no air in space?), militate against the view that water is his native element! And why Nyarlathotep would be an earth elemental is also not apparent.
And yet, Haefele attempts to come to Derleth’s defence on even this indefensible point—and falls hard on his face time and again. Haefele actually thinks he has found traces of the elemental idea in such random phrases in Lovecraft as “crackings and rumblings from the ground” (DH 158). So finding the word “ground” in a Lovecraft story suddenly validates the idea that the Old Ones are elementals? Yes, my friends, this is exactly what Haefele says. But he is strangely silent on the precise way in which the specific gods in question (i.e., Nyarlathotep and Cthulhu, or even Hastur in Derleth’s conception) could embody the specific elements they are thought to embody. I once stated a tad satirically that Derleth had to come to Lovecraft’s rescue in the invention of the “missing” fire elemental Cthugha. Haefele delicately states that this idea is “hogwash,” but what other interpretation is possible? If, as both Derleth and Haefele assert, Lovecraft was diligently crafting the Cthulhu Mythos throughout the last decade of his life, in both original stories and revisions (and apparently giving “permission” to other writers to elaborate it too), how is it possible that, in all the wealth of this fictional output, he could have come up with only three of the four elementals? It is to laugh. Haefele finally throws up his hands and blames Francis T. Laney for the inclusion of the elemental idea—as if Derleth was so passive and inept that he simply took up the idea from a fan, and as if he had not already broached the idea fairly extensively in several stories before Laney ever showed up on the scene!
So passionate is Haefele in defending Derleth from every possible imputation of error or fraud that he commits absurd gaffes of his own. Let us consider the simple fact of the very coining of the term Cthulhu Mythos. I pointed out that Derleth’s use of the passive voice in a statement in his early article “H. P. Lovecraft, Outsider” (1937)—“Bit by bit it grew, and finally its outlines became distinct, and it was given a name: the Cthulhu Mythology”—“concealed” the fact that it was Derleth himself who coined the name. Haefele comes back with the assertion that, in an article published thirty-two years later (“The Cthulhu Mythos,” 1969), Derleth finally admitted that “Lovecraft never so designated it.” The exact relevance of this later remark is not obvious. What bearing does it have on the article of 1937, which never mentions that Lovecraft did not come up with the designation himself?
Haefele also seeks to rebut my comment—“He [Derleth] was not within his rights to foist his interpretation of the Mythos on to Lovecraft, as he did repeatedly in article after article”—by saying that Derleth’s various articles were really all based on chapter 3 of H. P. L.: A Memoir, with little revision thereafter. How this fact is of any relevance is also not evident. It reminds me of the (unfair) comment by Igor Stravinsky that Vivaldi didn’t write 600 concerti, he wrote one concerto 600 times. The fact that all Derleth’s articles on the Mythos are largely based on a single ur-text still means that these articles appeared separately, in different venues, over the course of decades; and they still propagated error after error upon each reiteration.
Haefele also attempts to come to Derleth’s defence by maintaining that these articles were really marketing gimmicks designed to promote Arkham House publications. Even if this were the case, it does not justify the ridiculous errors and distortions found in them. Haefele also claims that Derleth was not writing specifically about Lovecraft in these pieces but about the “Cthulhu Mythos” as it had by then evolved. This assertion is flatly false—and (to use one of Haefele’s favourite words) disingenuous to boot. Consider one of many remarks that could be cited from the 1969 article: “It is undenitably evident that there exists in Lovecraft’s concept [my emphasis] a basic similarity to the Christian Mythos, specifically in regard to the expulsion of Satan from Eden and the power of evil.” I have already demonstrated that this is rubbish; and it is specifically making a comment about Lovecraft and not about the “Mythos” as a whole. In any case, even if it is about the latter, there is a fatally twisted logic in defending Derleth on this score. Under Haefele’s scenario, Derleth altered Lovecraft’s vision, and then wrote article after article (or the same article many times over) claiming that this new (and, let us be frank, perverted) vision is the Mythos. It is as if a wife killed her husband and then asked for sympathy by claiming she was a widow.
Haefele also claims that Derleth always asserted that Lovecraft was an “important writer.” Is that so? Consider the end of “H. P. Lovecraft and His Work,” the introduction to The Dunwich Horror and Others (1963), where Derleth states that Lovecraft’s “place as a major writer in the minor macabre divison of literature is secure” (my emphasis). If that isn’t a backhanded compliment, I don’t know what is. The implication clearly is that Derleth, in contrast, is a major (or perhaps, if he had a spasm of unwonted humility, minor) writer in the major field of mainstream fiction. (As things currently stand, Derleth doesn’t even register as a writer of even a minor sort in mainstream literature.)
As for Derleth’s weird fiction, Haefele presents still more bizarre defences. He dismisses his early Mythos writing—from 1931 to 1937, including such tales as “Lair of the Star-Spawn,” “Ithaqua,” “The Thing That Walked on the Wind,” and “The Return of Hastur”—as “juvenilia.” Once again, he is both wrong and disingenuous; for he has to know that the term is not used in the manner he wishes to use it. Derleth was between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-eight when he wrote these stories; “juvenilia” is used only for work written before a writer attains his or her majority. Under his definition, Lovecraft’s “The Tomb” and “Polaris” would be juvenilia. Derleth was a full-grown adult when he wrote these tales; they may be juvenile, but they are not juvenilia in any meaningful sense of the term.
Haefele goes on to say that Derleth’s own tales somehow “instigate[d] a handful of the better cosmic notes we sense in Lovecraft’s later stories.” On what basis does he make this whopper of a claim? On the basis, apparently, that Lovecraft made a tip of the hat to Derleth’s Tcho-Tcho people in some late stories! The idea that any of the hack fiction written by the “self-blinded earth-gazer” Derleth could somehow have inspired the cosmic reflections of Lovecraft in his prime is ridiculous on its face; and Haefele makes himself the more ridiculous for making ludicrous assertions of this sort.
And Haefele inevitably falls into the fatal error of defending Derleth’s Mythos tales as “entertainment.” Indeed, he goes on in a bizarre manner to say that “Derleth—unlike Lovecraft—never set out to break new ground. Rather, it was all an exercise in formula, wherein he depicted literary objects, actions, motifs, and events readers were familiar with, all to achieve genre-fiction’s chief object, which is to be entertaining” (italics in original). Oh, my dear man, where to begin in correcting you? Bad genre fiction strives to be “entertaining,” because it cannot be anything else; it is the classic defence of bad writing, used time and again by popular writers and the sycophants who lick their boots. Good genre writing is “entertaining” and much more—it says much about the human race and its relations to the universe, whether it be the hard-boiled crime stories of Raymond Chandler or the dense science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke. (Haefele commits another gaffe by saying that “Relating Derleth’s Mythos to Lovecraft’s work is somewhat analogous to considering Hamilton or ‘Doc’ Smith’s work in the genre of science fiction in light of Heinlein and Asimov, or perhaps Clarke”—failing to point out that Derleth followed Lovecraft, therefore representing a decline from a loftier aesthetic height, whereas Hamilton and Smith preceded Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke.) The fact that Haefele cites bonehead critics like Lin Carter who were apparently “entertained” by Derleth’s stories hurts his case more than it helps it.
But the whole issue of “entertainment” is worth pausing over. What’s wrong with “entertaining”? The critical issue becomes: Who is entertained, and how? Pornography and crossword puzzles entertain those who partake of them, but that doesn’t confer any aesthetic value to pornography or crossword puzzles. And then there is the awkward question: What if popular writing does not “entertain”? No doubt Haefele would say that this is merely the reaction of an inveterate snob; but I’ve never been convinced that there is anything bad in being a snob of this sort. There is so much literature out there to read that it doesn’t seem productive to waste time on inferior products; and if they fail to “entertain” even on their humble level, then the author would appear to be in deep trouble.
So biased is Haefele that even when he makes some good points, they are tainted by his Derleth obsession. He whines that scholars like myself and others have criticised Derleth’s Mythos stories for their endless catalogues of Mythos “gods” and other elements, each of them with precise, clinical descriptions of their nature and function (from “The Dweller in Darkness”: “He spoke of beings whose very names were awesome—of the Elder Gods who live on Betelgeuse, remote in time and space, and who had cast out into space the Great Old Ones, led by Azathoth and Yog-Sothoth, and numbering among them the primal spawn of the amphibious Cthulhu, the bat-like followers of Hastur the Unspeakable, of Lloigor, Zhar, and Ithaqua, who walked the winds…”—and much more to this effect, ad infinitum and ad nauseam). Haefele maintains that Lovecraft did the same thing on several occasions. Where exactly? In that famous catalogue of names in “The Whisperer in Darkness.” Silly me!—how could I have forgotten? But wait…wasn’t that catalogue a random list of elements that was effective (if indeed it was so) precisely because the elements were left undefined? Haefele also cites the list of human and other entities into which the minds of the Great Race had entered in “The Shadow out of Time,” but this is entirely irrelevant, since these entities are not part of any theogony or cosmic pantheon.
Haefele goes on to say that the catalogues of Mythos entities in Derleth’s stories might have been useful to readers of the period (say, the 1940s), when the details of the myth-cycle were not as familiar as they are now. In the first place, even if this were true, it doesn’t justify the perversion and distortion of the Mythos that Derleth instigated in story after story; and secondly, a great majority of even the stories’ original readers would already have been familiar with Lovecraft and therefore not needed the laborious and time-wasting summaries Derleth provided. (Sorry, I’ve lapsed into an overuse of Derlethian italics.)
Haefele spends several chapters of his book defending Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft—another case of defending the indefensible. Haefele just cannot bring himself to admit that the very act of writing these works was deceitful and duplicitous. The bottom line is: How do you collaborate with a dead man? The fact that others had done it before (e.g., attempts to complete Dickens’s Mystery of Edwin Drood) does not justify Derleth’s procedure—especially the manner in which he did it, specifically in the act of putting Lovecraft’s name first, as if he were the instigator of the work and Derleth merely “completed” it (the designation “Completed by August Derleth” appears on several of the collaborations when first published).
Let us take the case of the first and longest of the collaborations, The Lurker at the Threshold. Haefele unwittingly provides ammunition to the opposition by unearthing a damning statement (published in the fanzine Shangri L’Affaires in 1944) that “Among the mss. left by the late great H. P. Lovecraft was the complete outline of a novel, together with some fragments of that novel.” What an incredible whopper! If Derleth really expects anyone to believe that the little scrap of paper now called “The Round Tower” (scarcely 200 words in length), along with the bit of prose called “Thaumaturgicall Prodigies in the New-English Canaan,” amount to a “complete outline of a novel,” then he could probably have sold that person a nearby bridge. Haefele dutifully declares that Derleth removed the reference to “complete outline” in later discussions of the novel, but he stoutly (and falsely) maintains that Derleth was still not trying to deceive anyone, which of course he was. As late as 1969, in his article “The Cthulhu Mythos” (the introduction to Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos), Derleth was still describing The Lurker at the Threshold as Lovecraft’s “unfinished novel,…which I completed and saw published in 1945.” If Haefele really thinks this is an accurate reflection of the true state of the case, then I don’t know what would pass as a lie or an equivocation in his eyes. Haefele, incidentally, does not quote this passage—strange oversight! I thought naively that he was just going to cite facts and let them speak for themselves…
As for the other “posthumous collaborations,” Haefele attempts to make the case that (a) Derleth was merely trying to sell Arkham House books, and (b) he was trying to bolster Lovecraft’s reputation. But the first reason does not provide any justification for writing stories with a dead man’s name attached to them, and the second reason would only work if the stories themselves were good stories. But they aren’t. Haefele repeatedly makes a fool of himself by trying to defend the literary quality of these wretched tales (even as “entertainments”), when the overwhelming consensus of modern opinion is that they are hackwork whose permanent inhumation can only be a blessing both to Lovecraft’s and also to Derleth’s reputation.
Nevertheless, Haefele continues to state, over and over again—as if mere repetition would serve in place of reasoned argument—that Derleth’s attaching of a dual byline to these works was “the right thing to do, despite how much of the actual writing he [Derleth] did” (Haefele’s emphasis). He whines querulously that Lovecraftians don’t object when film “adaptions” [sic] that pervert or dumb down Lovecraft’s ideas are presented on a yearly basis. Once again, the relevance of this remark is a trifle unclear. Is Lovecraft declared to be a “collaborator” of these film adaptations? Is he, for example, referred to as the author (or even the co-author) of the screenplay? This is one of many times in his book that I almost begged Haefele to shut up, to preserve what scraps of intellectual decency he might have left. But he doesn’t shut up. He goes on and on and on… After chiding me for maintaining (plausibly) that “The Horror in the Museum” is a parody, Haefele presents a much more absurd argument for arguing that “The Dark Brotherhood” is a parody—but the fact that a story has in-jokes (which it does) doesn’t make it a parody. And why does Haefele, in his otherwise exhaustive treatment, remain stonily silent about “The Ancestor”? This is the tale, you will recall, that Derleth thought he was writing up from a plot-germ of Lovecraft’s; but in fact it is a synopsis of the novel The Dark Chamber (1927) by Leonard Cline, so Derleth has performed a piece of unwitting plagiarism. I suppose it is a small mercy that Haefele doesn’t attempt to defend this piece of literary buffoonery.
Only at the very end of his book does Haefele say, a tad unexpectedly and sheepishly, that “I will go on record stating that a campaign is needed to remove forever Lovecraft’s name (except perhaps in a footnote) from most of the Lovecraft-Derleth ‘posthumous collaborations.’” But he confounds this note of sanity by going on to say that, from his standpoint as a “businessman,” these stories still sell books and so the joint byline should be kept! But since Arkham House is itself all but moribund, and since the collected collaborations (The Watchers out of Time and Others) remains in print (with Lovecraft’s name in large letters and Derleth’s in very small ones) from Ballantine/Del Rey (a company that is not hurting for money, so I understand), how is the need to sell books a viable justification for continued deceit? Haefele knows full well that critics like Damon Knight and Avram Davidson chose these collaborations as opportunities to kick Lovecraft’s butt in reviews, and yet he can still maintain ludicrously that they were meant “to further Lovecraft’s literary reputation by all means.” With friends like Derleth, Lovecraft doesn’t need any enemies.
There is, indeed, no limit to the number of misinterpretations, misconstruals, distortions, and outright lies that Haefele commits when addressing my work in particular. Let us take one example and let it stand for the whole. In complaining that I chastise Derleth for being an inveterate imitator, he makes the astonishing charge that I believe Derleth “had nothing of his own to say in any [Haefele’s emphasis] of his writing.” For someone who has dissected my own writings with the fervency of a biblical scholar, it is remarkable that he did not notice my discussion of Derleth’s early mainstream books, Place of Hawks (1935) and Evening in Spring (1941), both of which I have read and appreciated; as I remark in my biography of Lovecraft, these works are “written in a poignant, Proustian, reminiscent vein whose simple elegance allows for evocative character portrayal… Those who fail to read these two works, along with their many successors in Derleth’s long and fertile career, will have no conception as to why Lovecraft, as early as 1930, wrote with such enthusiasm about his younger colleague and disciple” (I Am Providence 680). Could it be, then, that I am not quite as prejudiced against Derleth as Haefele portrays me as being—or that Haefele himself is in riding his own hobby-horse? The suspicion lingers…
So eager is Haefele to denigrate my work that he resorts to verbal abuse. If my work is not “hogwash” or “rubbish,” it is “absurd” and “preposterous.” Haefele cannot, then, be surprised if I have reacted in kind here. But he goes on to make wild and false accusations such as that I “censored” Robert M. Price’s article “The Lovecraft-Derleth Connection.” My dear chap, I reprinted that essay, without alteration, in Lovecraft Studies. Certainly a strange and novel way of censoring a text!
Haefele also distorts my views regarding the overall effectiveness of work by Lovecraft and others. He claims I want to “purge the Lovecraft canon of ‘The Dunwich Horror,’ ‘The Dreams in the Witch House,’ and ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’” (I’m not exactly sure I how would do or have done that, since I myself have reprinted these stories in any number of editions), but my criticism of these stories rests not upon their failure to conform to Lovecraft’s later conception of “non-supernatural cosmic art” (indeed, “The Dreams in the Witch House” is one of the most spectacularly cosmic stories in the entire Lovecraft oeuvre), but because of what I (and others, like Steven J. Mariconda) perceive to be failures based on generally recognised aesthetic principles. I see no reason to engage in blanket praise of everything Lovecraft wrote—even of what Haefele a bit oddly refers to as the Great Tales. Some critical distance is necessary: even Lovecraft nods. Not every story he wrote was great, however popular it may be. Similarly, I have never judged a post-Lovecraftian Mythos story adversely because it fails to depict cosmicism, which is only one element among many that could be elaborated upon by other writers—and these other elements are indeed elaborated upon by any number of writers I myself have published in my Black Wings series and other such anthologies.
Haefele’s overall methodology, especially in addressing my work, involves an endless repetition of the fallacy known as the “appeal to authority.” Whenever he can find anyone at all—ranging from some propeller-beanie writer of a letter to Weird Tales to such a lofty critic as Fritz Leiber—who seems to support his points, he quotes them in the charmingly naïve belief that they must be right; but whenever he finds someone who either agrees with me or disagrees with some of his own conclusions, he quotes them in the self-evident belief that they must be wrong. How convenient! He doesn’t pause to wonder whether the authorities he quotes in support of himself might themselves be mistaken. Multiple people agreeing on an error doesn’t make it true. For instance, in objecting to the whole process of “demytholosing” Lovecraft’s “gods” so that they become nothing more than space aliens, he quotes Leiber as saying: “There is never any question of his [Azathoth] being merely an alien entity from some distant planet or dimension, like Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth. He is unquestionably ‘god,’ and also the greatest god.” But I fear that Leiber is simply mistaken. Azathoth is nothing but pure symbol—a symbol for the inscrutability of a boundless cosmos. Even in a tale such as “The Dreams in the Witch House,” where it is said that “He [Walter Gilman] must sign in his own blood the book of Azathoth,” Azathoth really has no function in the narrative.
But let me come to an end.
Where does August Derleth’s legacy stand? His incompetent and error-riddled editions of Lovecraft’s work have been replaced by accurate editions. His possibly illegitimate grasp of the Lovecraft copyrights has been wrested away from him. His suppression of writers like C. Hall Thompson (who wrote better Lovecraftian fiction than he did) has long ago come to an end. His various articles and books about Lovecraft and the Mythos have faded into oblivion, and even I don’t care much to dispute with them. His Mythos fiction does not appear to have a wide readership anymore, so far as one can judge by its presence in bookstores or its discussion in online venues. So where does that leave John D. Haefele? He is a lone voice crying to “welcome Derleth back in the fold.” Even the members of the August Derleth Society don’t seem to care much about Derleth’s weird fiction, but are rightly focused on his work as regional writer; not one of Derleth’s original collections (all published by Arkham House) is in print. Haefele concludes his book with the plangent remark, “Comment, particularly bad, keeps the pot boiling. When to worry is when people stop commenting.” As far as Derleth is concerned, people—excluding Haefele—stopped commenting long ago. August Derleth is now an irrelevance in the study of H. P. Lovecraft.
I am sorry to report that John D. Haefele does not have the training or the background to be a literary critic or scholar. He is a faux critic, aping the style and mannerisms of professionals but not getting it quite right. (In that sense, he bears to real critics exactly the relation that Derleth bears to Lovecraft—a third-rate imitator.) He has not spent his life in academic or scholarly pursuits, or even in the world of publishing, but in the realm of business; and he is, to be blunt about it, a Johnny-come-lately to scholarly research and writing. This becomes painfully evident in the clumsy and tortured prose in which his entire treatise is written, which at times makes it difficult to understand what his precise point is supposed to be; or in silly gaffes, as in his reference to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as “Sir Doyle”; or in his confusing manner of citation, whereby it is sometimes impossible to tell what primary or secondary source he is citing.
In short, Haefele has written what amounts to a mountainous assemblage of special pleading. He is so intent on using every means of defending Derleth, legitimate or illegitimate, that his book comes across as a partisan screed—much more partisan, as I have stated earlier, than the critics he opposes—in the manner of a Republican political operative launching a polemic against Barack Obama and liberal secularism in general. He shows no compunction in launching snide, captious, pedantic, mean-spirited, and—in the most fundamental sense—intellectually dishonest attacks on myself, David E. Schultz, Steven J. Mariconda, Stefan Dziemianowicz, Donald R. Burleson, and even Robert M. Price (who has shown himself to be something of a Derlethian), all in the cause of vaunting his fellow-Wisconsinite. This makes his fleeting and token words of praise (“This author admires and respects the work of S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz…especially in the field of Lovecraft Studies”) read like a sick joke.
But I fear Haefele has backed the wrong horse. There is no escaping the verdict of history: H. P. Lovecraft was a great weird fiction writer, August Derleth a very bad one. And that is all that need be said.
There might be some minimal interest in conducting a psychological analysis of Haefele’s Derleth-worship. Could it simply be that he is passionately intent on defending the writer who claimed (self-importantly) to be the leading literary figure in his state? This seems insufficient to account for Haefele’s agitated resentment of his antagonists. Perhaps it is that Haefele enjoyed the Derleth Mythos of Derleth, Lumley, and others as a kid and that now, as (aesthetically speaking) an arrested adolescent, he takes mighty umbrage at the reduction of his paragons to the level of hacks and tyros? I think there is something to this conjecture, if the pitiable way in which Haefele defends the purported merits of Derleth’s Mythos fiction is any guide. Only the critically naïve—or inept—could find virtues in this mass of sub-literary rubbish. (The genial W. H. Pugmire, in his preface, now also vaunts Derleth’s Mythos tales, but no one takes him seriously as a critic.) As it is, one can only conclude with a single sentence from Lovecraft that would have sufficed as a review of this book: “We laughed, and hoped he’d soon be sane again” (Fungi from Yuggoth 11.4).