[This is a slightly revised reprint of a column which originally appeared in the August 26, 2004, issue of Hellnotes.]
August William Derleth is well-known for his connection with H.P. Lovecraft, but he was also a prolific author in his own right, having published 150 books and scores of short stories as well as editing dozens of anthologies. He was the most frequent contributor to Weird Tales magazine, having sold them approximately 150 stories. In addition, about 40 manuscripts have been discovered since his death that haven’t yet been published.
Derleth was born on February 24, 1909, in Sauk City, Wisconsin, where he spent most of his life. Sauk City and the neighboring village of Prairie du Sac, which are along the Wisconsin River, were combined by Derleth into the fictional town of Sac Prairie, where he set much of his fiction. He started writing when he was in school, and the first story he sold, “Bat’s Belfry,” was written when he was 15 and was published in Weird Tales. In high school, Derleth encountered the works of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who would influence him for much of his life.
He was graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1930. His thesis was “The Weird Tale in English Since 1890,” which was based heavily on Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” After college, he worked briefly as a magazine editor in Minneapolis, then returned to Sauk City to write. He built a house in 1939, which he named Place of Hawks, and that house became the base for both his writing and his business enterprises. He married Sandra Evelyn Winters in 1953, and they had two children. They divorced in 1959. Derleth died on July 4, 1971, in Sauk City.
He was active in his community, both local and state-wide, was concerned about the environment, and wrote many pieces about Wisconsin history. He published several volumes of his journals, which were filled with details of nature, weather, and people. He wrote more about the Wisconsin River than anyone else.
In fiction, Derleth wrote mostly horror, fantasy, and mystery, with some science fiction and poetry, and he edited a lot of science fiction. He sometimes wrote quite fast, boasting that some early novels were written at the rate of 10,000 words a day. He published some of his work under the pseudonyms Stephen Grendon, Tally Mason, Kenyon Holmes, and Michael West.
In an essay on Derleth, Paul Spencer writes that he had “a clear, cool style, restrained in tone and often elegant in phrasing; an emphasis on character and psychological insight; ingenuity in twisting familiar supernatural themes into bizarre new shapes; and, frequently, a mordant sense of humor,” and that he demonstrated early on “his ability to tell a quiet, understated little narrative, free of rhetorical embellishments but powerful in its psychological implications.”
Besides stand-alone novels, Derleth wrote four series of novels. The Solar Pons series were mysteries about a detective, based on Sherlock Holmes, which were set in London, though Derleth had never been there. After Derleth’s death, the series was continued by Basil Copper. The Peck series was about Judge Ephraim Peabody Peck, an elderly and slightly eccentric resident of Sac Prairie who solved murders. There were ten novels in the series, from Murder Stalks The Wakely Family in 1934 to Fell Purpose in 1953. In 1935, Derleth published Place of Hawks, a collection of four novellas, which was the first volume in the Sac Prairie Saga. The Saga was the fictionalized chronicle of the history and people of Wisconsin, from the early pioneers through the 1950s, concentrating mainly on his home region. The Saga came to consist of nearly 40 volumes: novels, collections, journals, poetry, and autobiography. With the publication of the earliest volumes, Derleth achieved critical acclaim and won a $2500 Guggenheim Fellowship. The Wisconsin Saga was in a similar vein, but it had a wider focus as it explored the history of the entire state of Wisconsin and featured real people and historical incidents.
Derleth also published hundreds of poems in various magazines, which he collected in over 20 volumes. His poetry covered a variety of subjects, including nature, love, and the people of Sac Prairie.
Derleth was heavily influenced by Lovecraft, who was his mentor. They corresponded for 12 years, though they never met. After Lovecraft’s death in 1937, Derleth put together a book of Lovecraft’s stories and tried in vain to get it published. This led to his founding in 1939, with Donald Wandrei, the publishing company Arkham House, which he started specifically to publish the works and letters of Lovecraft. He is particularly noted for this feat as he saved many of Lovecraft’s works from being forgotten. Arkham’s first book was The Outsider and Others, a huge volume containing most of Lovecraft’s stories then known to exist. Early sales were slow, but Derleth noted that because of “the enthusiasm shown by buyers, that there might be a market for small editions of books in the general field of fantasy, perhaps with emphasis on the macabre or science-fiction.” However, this was a labor of love as Derleth noted in 1970 that Arkham had continually operated in the red and required his personal funds to stay in business. Arkham’s second volume was published in 1941, Someone in the Dark, which was a collection of Derleth’s horror stories. Arkham eventually published almost everything by Lovecraft, including fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and letters, as well as works by other old masters and by then-new authors, such as Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell, and Ray Bradbury. Arkham House continues publishing to this day.
Derleth finished stories Lovecraft started, working from his mentor’s notes and fragments, and wrote Lovecraft pastiches. The latter were considered feeble attempts as they merely imitated the most overt aspects of Lovecraft’s writing, and the plots were usually just variations on familiar themes. In writing these stories, Derleth invented the term “Cthulhu Mythos” to describe the mythology behind Lovecraft’s fiction, and he codified the Mythos, bringing it in line with his own Christian beliefs about the battle between good and evil. In 1945, The Lurker at the Threshold was published by Arkham House. Though Lovecraft was listed as the primary author, the book was written almost entirely by Derleth based on a fragment of a few hundred words left by Lovecraft.
The August Derleth Society was founded in the late 1970s to study Derleth and to study and preserve his works. It publishes a quarterly newsletter, sponsors the annual August Derleth Prize (awarded to the most talented writers among the graduate students in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin), supports the August Derleth Young Writers Project (for third- and fourth-graders), reprints about four to five Derleth books per year, prints previously unpublished Derleth material, and holds the annual Walden West Festival, among many other activities. This year, the Festival will be held on September 22 and 23 in Sauk City.