Rediscovered: Of Derleth and Dreamland


Until I came to San Francisco in 1974, I had lived most of my life only 70 miles from Nashville. I believe it was a couple of years later, during a two year stint in St. Paul, when I landed a copy of the weird fiction zine Ambrosia 2 from 1973, which as it turned out was published by Alan Gullette — still in his teens — out of Nashville. And at some point a few years after that, Alan showed up as a resident in San Francisco and we finally met.

Every few years now, I bump into him.

Over all this time, while I wasn’t paying close attention, Alan has managed to write — and finally assemble under one set of covers — his life’s work in the Lovecraftian weird fiction arena. I presume Intimations of Unreality is his Collected Weird Fiction because he inscribed it for me as his “summum” — and not to say that he won’t get inspired to sit down and do enough material for another book. My Life’s Work, Part II. . . .

So far, I’m enjoying it — I’ve rolled through the first section of vignettes and short stories, pausing before the novelette “The Green Transfer.” The stop mostly is occasioned by the need to read and review three other books in the next few weeks, and also because this kind of fiction deserves some breathing space — you probably don’t get the most out of a binge reading of writers such as Dunsany or M.R. James, you need some time to savor the transcendent wonder, smell the stench of unburied, centuried evil. . . .

In general, I’m not that big a devotee of the vignette, kind of a half breed between poetry and fiction, between a prose poem and a joke — the half-page to three page bits Hammett began his writing career doing (and aren’t we all glad he went on to full short stories, novelettes, novels). Alan’s two-page-plus-a-paragraph tale “A Visit from Ray Bradbury,” about Bradbury dropping in on Alan’s alter ego, seemed like it was going to be kind of goofy or dumb, but he brought it off — a fitting tribute to Bradbury, especially in light of his recent death. The collection starts off with “The Old Man up the Road,” a horror short that evokes the feeling of a fable — and fables are another tough form to bring off successfully.

Much of the first section consists of stories involving incursions into Dreamland, one of the most potent imaginative venues. Lovecraft delighted in his most vivid dreams, and a large percentage of his output plays with those concepts, from early stories such as “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” an almost literal transcription of a dream, to his last story for Weird Tales, “The Haunter of the Dark” — with the novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath being his tour de force on the theme.

Although Lovecraft often bemoaned the fact that his writing wasn’t good enough, that writing for the pulps had tainted his style — and that he wanted to do something pure, uncommercial — the fact was that he was a natural pulpster, raised on a diet of pulp fiction, and has emerged as one of the most significant writers from the wood pulp market. If HPL hadn’t been able to wrangle up such archly pulp adventures as “The Dunwich Horror” to attract a worldwide audience, his name wouldn’t be used as an adjective today, much less understood by a good chunk of the populace.

But if you’re curious about what a “pure” and uncommercial weird story might have looked like, Alan dares tread into that territory. “The Door in Lheil,” for example — first publication in this collection —  showcases a protagonist in “a most peculiar state of extended dream” entering “the vast and sprawling necropolis of Lheil.” And you follow along, down corridors, changes in light and darkness — the whole enchilada is the sort of thing that Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith or Robert E. Howard would use briefly in the course of a longer plotline, but here it is the plot, if wandering along in a dreamscape can be considered a plot.

You want pure, you’ve got pure. I liked it, but then I am sympathetic to much of the fiction Alan features on his website, from horror to the absurd. What can I say? I’ve got wide-ranging, unbiased tastes.

My bet is that the majority of readers will want more of a pulp-style plot. And if that’s the case, then in other stories Alan offers up some Old School Cthulhu Mythos fiction — what Bob Price in the introduction describes as Alan’s “Lovecraftian tales, I’d say, fall into the parameters of classic Lovecraft-Derleth-Kuttner-Bloch pastiche. . . . It is like the ritual repetition of comforting but also challenging litanies.”

I was quite surprised to see how large a role the shadow of August Derleth plays in the first group of stories. As you know, I’ve been plugging John D. Haefele’s new book on how Derleth created the Cthulhu Mythos alongside Lovecraft and others in their circle (just described in the July issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction as “A great intellectual history of Arkham House and the dedicated work of an individual who made sure certain cultural artifacts survived. A real contribution to the study of American fabulist writing.” — see, I told you it was good). I’m sure Haefele will be encouraged by yet another current resurgence for Derleth in these tales.

“Derrick’s Ritual” dates back in its earliest form to 1972, celebrating the writer Arthur Derrick and his weird fiction imprint Dunwich House — so obviously August Derleth and his press Arkham House that nothing more need be said, except that Alan polished the prose up for this printing, and that his initial tribute came within a year of Derleth’s death on July 4 1971.

“The Summons of Hastur” features the Derleth character Laban Shrewsbury, and of course Derleth was big on Hastur. I guess my favorite reference to Derleth thus far comes in “Charles Nathan’s Pipe,” in the aside “A strange rumor involves Clark Ashton Smith’s ashes, and August Derleth’s . . . well, let’s just say that his grave was robbed and a certain appendage severed. . .” — that’s deep, deep weird fiction fan invocation stuff.

I could tell you the basis for the rumors about Smith’s ashes (I was the one who got that ball rolling circa 1975, which you probably do not know), perhaps on another day. But for those who don’t know much about Derleth, all reports suggest that if he hadn’t gotten into writing and publishing, he Coulda Been a Porn Star. A much more fascinating figure than his pipsqueak modern critics might want you to believe.

(The funniest bit in “Pipe” comes when we hear about the need for someone “to defend Nathan against Joe T. Soshi!. . . the well-known Japanese scholar who has devoted his life to Clark Ashton Smith, but who detests Lovecraft, Nathan, and all literary contributors to the so-called Cthulhu Mythos — despite the fact that Smith himself was a contributor.”

(Yeah, anyone who likes Lovecraft but not Smith, or vice versa, just doesn’t really grasp what was going on in the fiction. Say what you will, but Derleth with Arkham House pushed Lovecraft onto the world stage, and had Clark Ashton Smith right behind him — much better grasp of what was going down in Weird Tales than mere critics such as “Soshi.”)

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