Rediscovered: John D. Haefele on the History of Arkham House

Our resident expert in everything Arkham returns to review a new (if repurposed) book on the fabled press. John D. Haefele certainly burst fully-formed on the scene with his A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos, but he’s done a ton of stuff on the subject, most recently a run of articles appearing in Crypt of Cthulhu. See his Amazon page for a thorough list of books, chapbooks, monographs, web and print surveys. He knows the turf.

Take it away, John:

The introduction to S. T. Joshi’s Eighty Years of Arkham House: A History and Bibliography, released in 2019 by his own imprint, the Sarnath Press, concludes with this positive note:

Arkham House remains the most significant small press in the history of weird fiction, and its legacy remains imperishable. It has inspired legions of other small presses to take up the work of publishing the leading luminaries in this field, and for that alone it will deserve to be remembered.

Considering that Joshi at every opportunity—for more than four decades—has spent his time maligning Arkham founder August Derleth (among the legion of opinions, citing his “incompetent and error-riddled editions of Lovecraft’s work”), his current verdict for purposes of this book seems. . . perhaps “generous” is the word?

“Jarring” might be another.

In 1939 Derleth and his co-founder Donald Wandrei published the first Arkham House: The Outsider and Others, by H. P. Lovecraft, but for most of the years before his death in 1971 the press was a solo operation by August Derleth. He paid the bills—which greatly exceeded publishing income—wrote all of the promotional materials, did bookkeeping, shipping and handling of orders. His vision initiated all of the innovations and successes for which Joshi praises the publishing firm in his nine-page introduction.

During his tenure, Derleth launched two additional imprints that complimented Arkham House: Mycroft & Moran and Stanton & Lee. Taken together, the books published with Derleth at the helm—what we Arkham collectors refer to as the Classic Era—dwarf everything that came after his death, often dubbed the Modern Years.

Derleth, of course, set down the template for this book in Thirty Years of Arkham House (1970), where he covered 125 items. Joshi was hired to do Sixty Years of Arkham House (1999) as a further authorized bibliography for the press, which incorporated the entirety of the previous book and followed Derleth to the letter—and added the roughly one hundred titles released during the intervening years. (It’s too bad Joshi didn’t wait out the next decade this time to do the more perfectly apposite Ninety Years of Arkham House.)

The effort Joshi put into this new book, however, seems to be wanting.

After admitting the book’s “inevitable” resemblance to Sheldon Jaffery’s Arkham House Companion (1990)—one book listing the contents of an Arkham being similar to another book also listing the contents of an Arkham—Joshi reiterates from his Sixty Years preface that he compiled all information “independently.” Strangely, despite listing the book in the reference bibliography included, he doesn’t refer otherwise to Leon Nielsen’s Arkham House Books: A Collector’s Guide (2004), the most recent such reference after Sixty Years of Arkham House.

Likewise, Joshi repeats that he is the first to include the contents of the house magazine Arkham Collector (1967-70). Joshi apparently forgot that I compiled exactly the same detailed list in 1997 in The Arkham House Supplement: Bibliographical Additions, Comments, Marginalia (on pp. 82-87), right before he released Sixty Years. The Supplement was my first book, I suppose, in a run of only some 45 copies, most of them distributed to the membership of the Esoteric Order of Dagon amateur press association. Joshi was the compiler for EOD mailings at that moment, so all the submissions went through his hands.

Eighty Years picks up right where Sixty Years leaves off—yet, even including items without assigned numbers, Joshi adds to the tally of the three major Derleth imprints only 13 books.

Scarcely worth the effort.

Especially since this grand total represents only six more books than Leon Nielsen listed in his guide. Six. Nielsen’s 240 entries against Joshi’s new total of 246. Such small numerical advances hardly seem to warrant new books.

Even if Joshi did compile every iota of even his newest information “independently”—and was lucky enough Arkham House/Mycroft & Moran/Stanton & Lee managed in combination to publish 13 more books—the worth of such a bibliography is in the asides, the deep knowledge that may be imparted to the prospective Arkham House completist.

Joshi ignores most of the charming items of Arkham House ephemera, the stock lists and brochures that drummed up orders to keep the company afloat. The only published sources on these items are the 1985 chapbook The Phil Mays Collection of Arkham House Ephemerae released by the bookseller Roy Squires, and the greatly expanded “Arkham House Ephemera: A Checklist of the Classic Years” Don Herron complied for the October 2002 issue of Firsts: The Book Collectors Magazine. Any book that purports to combine history with a bibliography of Arkham House, given today’s interest in the publisher, leaves the job half done if it doesn’t include the hundreds of booklets, brochures and other advertising items, always chock-full of original “autobiographical” material in terms of the life of the press.

The closest Joshi comes to acknowledging the ephemera is the handful of pieces he incorporates into his primary Arkham list, which—unlike most printed ephemera—were issued with intentions that they would be of lasting significance, because they fulfill some sustained reader interest. Taking cues from Jaffery, Joshi includes exactly the same ones: Derleth’s bibliographical Years of Writing chapbooks, and the AH 1939-1964: 25th Anniversary booklet. Except, Joshi demotes them, removing Jaffery’s separate ID numbers.

His explanation? “Not part of the Arkham House list.” One wonders why they show up in his book, in that case.

Joshi likewise “un-numbers” Lovecraft’s Autobiography [:] Some Notes on a Nonentity, a chapbook traditionally stamped with the publisher’s imprint, and offered for sale in Arkham’s regular Stock Lists as a limited release. Neither did Derleth number this item in 1969, but Joshi misses the opportunity to delve into possible reasons.

Also lacking separate numbers are both versions of Lovecraft’s The Shunned House, an attempt made by W. Paul Cook in 1928 to release what would have been Lovecraft’s first book. The pages had been printed and organized into signatures for binding, but the project fell through. While some experts understandably relegate the unbound House signatures to a non-Arkham status, no expert worth his salt categorizes as less than full status the bound edition that has “Arkham House” printed on the spine. Derleth’s edition was the first time any of the surviving sheets were bound commercially.

Perhaps the numbering ambiguity in Sixty Years is what prompted Nielsen’s bibliography to reintroduce the numbering system favored by collectors in the field. In Eighty Years, Joshi undoes it all again. Odd for a work he claims is geared for “a wide variety of individuals, from collectors to librarians to scholars to general readers.”

Sixty Years had adequately covered the period when Jim Turner acted as editor for Akham House—Turner probably signed that book’s contract with Joshi and afforded him insider access to company records. But the more recent intervals, with Peter Ruber as editor, followed by the team of Robert E. Weinberg and George A. Vanderburgh (whose name Joshi misspells throughout), are responsible for every one of the 13 new titles we find in Eighty Years.

Not surprisingly, Joshi gives them short shrift.

Joshi’s Baker Street Irregular entry (at this writing Arkham’s last book) is complete—he identifies both limited printings, the “Presentation” and “Author’s” editions—but for Vanderburgh’s 17 lettered Shunned House Facsimile copies, each with a pasted-in pocket holding a rare unused signature from the actual 1928 printing, there’s not a word.

In addition, Joshi inexplicably assigns a single number to four different collections of Derleth’s weird tales promoted by Vanderburgh in 2009 as “The Macabre Quarto”— though not necessarily a set, each could be purchased separately. (Nor does Joshi indicate that all of the Quarto books were available in limited hardcover editions, as well as softcover.) The result of this single entry is more ambiguity. Nor is this combo-entry much different than if Joshi had included his own “pure text” series of Lovecraft volumes in the Jim Turner era as one unit, per the pre-release “The Arkham Lovecraft” hype.

Joshi listed 19 entries for Mycroft & Moran in his 1999 bibliography, which Nielsen upped to 20, which is where Joshi left it.

If he had done the homework—perhaps contacted George Vanderburgh—he could have added the ten Steve & Sim titles George published under the M&M banner 2001-2010, and even some later collections featuring Carnacki and Dupin. More than doubling the ranks of post-Sixty Years releases. One wonders how “independent” Joshi felt he had to be if he didn’t interview the last living Arkham House editor.

Stanton & Lee, alas, is more neglected. Total books add up to 16, same as in Sixty Years—same as Nielsen. And once again two S&L books from 1971 left out of Sixty Years are omitted: This Undying Quest, by Grant Hyde Code, and Night Letters, by Francis May.

Joshi is barely phoning it in. Checking the list of the “Lost” Arkhams—proposed titles that never saw print from the press—Joshi’s new list is Jaffery’s list. Both, if one looks closely, name 62 of these lost titles, if you include several titles Joshi kept from Jaffery, but only in small print and without his separate number. Besides this, Joshi finds several mainstream Derleth titles to add, but deducts an equivalent number of what he deems “minor title variants”—inconsequential categories, but which offset each other when it comes to counting.

What is consequential is that Joshi’s “Lost” list lacks important additions he should have listed, including such provocative titles as Ghost Stories by R. H. Malden, Collected Weirds by Fitz-James O’Brien, a Selected Tales of Lord Dunsany omnibus, The Gargoyle by Marjorie Bowen, and a Farrar, Straus & Young sci-fi anthology titled Morning Stars.

Personally, and making use of only published records, I could have added a baker’s dozen lost titles—at least.

And at eighty years after the birth of the press—beyond updating what was already there—why not a list of publishers that were so influenced by Arkham House they chose to carry on, for a while, where Derleth left off? Why not direct the Arkham bibliophile to Mirage, Carcosa, Whispers Press, Fedogan & Bremer, and others? One might make the case that the Joshi-affiliated Necronomicon Press and Hippocampus Press fall into this tradition.

Simple lists, easy to populate. A trove of hard data. How nice it would be to have it all in one place.

Instead, exploiting a benchmark opportunity apparently to make a buck.

Once again leveraging Derleth’s reputation.

“Arkham House remains the most significant small press in the history of weird fiction, and its legacy remains imperishable.”

At least Joshi got that part right.

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