John D. Haefele’s “A Testament to His Influence”

letters to arkham

To celebrate the third edition of John D. Haefele’s A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos going live on Kindle — illustrated in full color from his pristine holdings of Arkham House books and ephemera — we present a review intimately connected with this latest revision to his modern classic.

Haefele took the opportunity as the text leapt from book to eBook to make a few dozen minor tweaks of wording (nothing I’d consider of consequence). But specifically to mark the third incarnation he also added three new riffs which take the critics who disagree with him, stand them against the wall, and slap them around some. The fact is that Haefele knows this turf, and they don’t.

I’ll see if I can talk Haefele into letting me spotlight my fave of the three here on the blog in a few days.

The one angle that everyone agreed needed an actual update was reference to various uncollected letters exchanged between August Derleth of Arkham House and a would-be young writer from England then going by the name J. Ramsey Campbell, which among other things would result in 2,009 first edition hardcover copies of Campbell’s first book, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants — and from there, a long and distinguished career.

Those letters have been collected since Haefele’s trade paperback hit print a year ago, so he updated his text to account for it — and adds this review of the book here on the side. (And for the curious, Derleth’s review of Campbell’s initial foray into the weird — while not used in Letters To Arkham — does appear in Derleth Mythos.)

Letters — if available, the backbone of biography. Would Lovecraft be quite the icon he is today without his thousands of letters backing up his fiction?

Here’s Haefele:


I see that Ramsey Campbell, a longtime favorite author of mine, will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the World Fantasy Convention in New York this year, scheduled to be held November 5-8 in Saratoga Springs. I applaud this recognition. I read and reread Campbell’s fiction and nonfiction, with appreciation.

Several years ago, when the book was first proposed, I read Letters To Arkham from the electronic file that its editor S. T. Joshi sent me, plus I checked some of the originals stored at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, which houses the “August Derleth Papers.” I contributed to the book more than a dozen footnotes, a fugitive Campbell letter, and a transcript of Derleth’s Capital Times review of Campbell’s first book, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants — and see now that all but the review made the final cut.

My small participation was largely due to the knowledge I’ve accumulated about August Derleth, who was Campbell’s friend and mentor and publisher. Derleth is widely-known and well respected even beyond this field, for his fiction and nonfiction, and for being an “all-round bookman” — one of the greatest ever. And, undoubtedly, Campbell’s stature in the field of supernatural-weird fiction warrants the further close study Letters To Arkham will abet.

The initial thread that connected Derleth and Campbell is a common appreciation of weird fiction author H. P. Lovecraft. Letters To Arkham, comprised of letters never meant for publication, offers their fresh and candid views about Lovecraft and things related; not least, the Arkham House publishing program, HPL’s method of writing, and his attitudes towards sex. Here, too, are reactions to Colin Wilson’s negative criticisms of HPL appearing in the late 1960s, and his efforts writing HPL-type Mythos-fiction — for example, Derleth unabashedly complaining about Wilson’s “almost unbearably dull The Philosopher’s Stone,” which is the same novel that Joshi claims (in The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos) to find “engrossing,” to such an extent that he labels it “one of the finest homages Lovecraft has ever received” (one more intriguing moment of disagreement in the saga of Derleth vs. Joshi!).

The timeframe for Letters To Arkham is the last decade of Derleth’s life, fraught with periods of illness and hospitalization; but his letters — most written to a still-adolescent Campbell — are nonetheless informative and literary, and very entertaining. We begin here to sense the treasure still lurking in the “August Derleth Papers” — material enough for dozens of compelling compilations with the interesting and influential personalities whom discuss with Derleth philosophy and aesthetics, politics and business, and the history of weird fiction in America. Indeed, within its scope Letters To Arkham has the value-added potential to be remarkable in another way, if it fosters publication of additional volumes of Derleth’s extant correspondences.

Coincidentally, in a recent issue of the August Derleth Society Newsletter, we find two more transcribed letters by Derleth written to Harold C. Simons in the late 1940s, which explain how this fund grew: “You will understand what I mean when you know that a single mail sometimes brings as high as 100 letters to be answered,” Derleth tells Harold in one. In the other he adds: “The reason I answer letters at once is simply because if I do not, they accumulate out of all proportion to their meaning … Rather than permit that to occur, I prefer to answer them as they come in.”

Even in these late letters to Campbell, Derleth reports (apart from the shipping of Arkham House books) “an average of 20 letters a day to answer,” adding in another how “50-letter days are not uncommon here,” and in a third, after a three-week vacation: “Needless to say, I came home to work and more work [and] over 500 letters waited for me; it took me 7 hours just to open them all and classify them (i.e., between business & personal). We tackled the business mail at once and got it all answered in four days, but that left about 100 personal mail pieces I had to acknowledge or answer.”

Merely the tip of this iceberg, Letters To Arkham is still a generous book — 419 pages when you include the Index and a bevy of worthwhile supplements. Campbell’s afterword is a genuine treat — short compass, but still fascinating and sharply revealing, good for aspiring young authors — though I wish he had more to say about Derleth. Years ago, the time being right, I similarly wish he’d said more about Lovecraft. But at least he came through in 1973 (in “Derleth as I Knew Him”) with this: “I wanted you to meet Derleth as I knew him. There were many of us, and most were testaments to his influence.”

On the other hand, S. T. Joshi’s seven-page introduction seems rather sparse for two such storied individuals — Derleth and Campbell — and embarrassingly disconnected from the rest of the book. Far too much of this small allocation of words is consumed conducting a familiar routine, setting down his by now seemingly rote set of pet prejudices against August Derleth — most in the second paragraph, no less!

As usual, Joshi insists that Derleth’s ownership of Lovecraft’s work and claims to the Cthulhu Mythos were “shaky” — that in this “prehistoric” period, “half-baked imitations” of Lovecraft by other authors were already “legion” — and that “sadly” (here should appear a crocodile tear emoticon), poor Derleth is to be numbered among this underdone legion.

Doesn’t Joshi understand that but for Derleth and Arkham House Campbell would not have emerged from the legions of Lovecraft imitators at all in the way that he did? More information about Arkham House is called for — perhaps an eighth page to explain what it meant for Campbell to have both his first short story and then an entire collection published under his byline in America, in hardcover, by this reputable and already almost legendary company.

The little we are spoon-fed is stocked with “loaded” words and outright mistakes — for example, Donald Wandrei’s role at Arkham during the 1960s was considerably greater than merely doing the editing of Lovecraft’s Selected Letters, and not “restricted”; the Lovecraft movie deals hardly “filled Arkham House’s coffers,” though they did pay for some of Lovecraft’s books to be issued — so did a most timely movie deal involving Derleth’s own story “The Shuttered Room.”

The only significant difference from his routine list of complaints is that here Joshi identifies Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by Derleth, rightly as a “landmark anthology.” But is this change not self-serving, given Joshi of late is writing and editing Cthulhu Mythos books of his own, and wouldn’t want to appear to be some sort of cultural outsider? (One wonders if he is even self-aware enough to understand he is part of that “legion” he mentions — or that his ill-conceived Lovecraftian novel, The Assaults of Chaos, isn’t even “half-baked”.)

Perhaps the time has come when Derleth’s critics no longer can ignore all his actual achievements, but the slighting continues, even in the title of this book — we have Letters To Arkham, not From Arkham, which subtly demotes Derleth’s contributions, though the collection begins during the peak of his career and when Campbell was still very young and unknown. Compiled carelessly, Derleth’s author-blurb represents him as if he had done little or nothing in literary fields since the 1940s. Why else would anyone omit the autobiographical novel Walden West, for example, or fail to mention a lengthy and distinguished career writing poetry?

Doesn’t Joshi grasp the truth that, but for his own standing in American literature, Derleth wouldn’t otherwise have been able to bring the gravitas to Arkham House publications that set authors such as Lovecraft and Campbell on their roads to enduring fame?

Another slight, though perhaps this complaint falls on the publisher, but I submit that an age-appropriate (mid-1960’s) photo of Derleth is called for, not the one we find on the jacket, from when he was closer to Campbell’s age when they were corresponding. (I suppose we should be thankful, for I own the two-volume, cloth-bound Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth from 2008 — also compiled by Joshi — which lacks any photograph of Derleth, though it has two of HPL.) I would also add that the recent photo of Campbell they use fails to meaningfully evoke the teenager who was writing to Derleth. Why anyone would select such totally backwards images baffles me.

It is too bad that Letters To Arkham is marred by such moments of unreasoning editorial prejudice. The book as delivered is not the unbiased celebration of two remarkable men as it should have been.

And yet, despite the objections I’ve cited above, readers get to study the actual letters and ponder the supplements — they can enjoy Campbell and Derleth and decide things for themselves. I hardly need to say that because of this aspect especially Letters To Arkham gets my recommendation.

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