RETROSPECTIVE: The Trail of Cthulhu by August Derleth

Monday , 6, July 2015 15 Comments

This is unmitigated fan fiction. It is brazen and utterly shameless about it, too. As I read this I kept looking back to the front to confirm that these stories really did appear within the pages of Weird Tales magazine. They really did! Evidently the editor liked them well enough for it to be worth their time to keep having August Derleth back again and again. But it’s shocking to see that this sort of thing not only predates the internet, but that it also was worth publishing– in both magazine and paperback format.

I admit, Derleth really does understand the basic structure of a Lovecraft story. He has the protagonist that spends most of the tale in denial about the freaky stuff he’s coming across. He has the suspense gradually building as otherwise innocuous events add to the the guy’s cognitive dissonance. He knows how to implement those Lovecraft style “kickers” where you suddenly find out that this thing you were fretting about is actually much more horrific than you thought could be possible.

It’s not bad. But it’s not Lovecraft. And it’s because of derivative works like this that when we say “Lovecraftian” today, we aren’t really referring to Lovecraft’s writing half the time. No, we usually mean something much closer to this. The moment we start talking about the “Cthulhu Mythos” we’ve fairly well departed from Lovcraft already. He wrote most of the stories that now fall under that heading more or less independently. Even when he did have aspects of several horrors colliding within a single story, he didn’t tend to throw too many at the reader at a given time. He usually only gave a brief glimpse of just one aspect of his setting even when he did have in mind how it might all fit together. In contrast, Derleth serves up a circus featuring a rundown of the entire menagerie with each installment. And there’s always multiple monster types getting into each other’s business.

Lovecraft’s oeuvre is so compelling this pretty much works anyway. And if you’re a fan, you can’t help but get into it. For instance, this scene from early on had me all at once slapping my knee, pointing, face-palming, and shouting in an odd combination of glee and horror all at once:

Never have I felt such extreme and immediate revulsion as I did at the sight of the man on the stoop. There was, admittedly, no streetlight for some distance, and the light which flowed from the hall was so dim as to be more confusing than helpful, but I am prepared to swear that not only was there a grossly batrachian aspect about the fellow’s face– irrationally and yet perhaps not inappropriately, there flashed into mind at once the oddly fascinating depiction by Tenniel of the frog footman of the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland— but that his fingers , where one hand rested upon the iron rail of the stoop, were webbed. Moreover, he exuded an almost overpowering odor of the sea– not that smell so commonly associated with coastal areas, but of watery depths. One might have thought that from his oddly wide mouth there would issue sounds  as repulsive as his aspect, but on the contrary, he spoke in flawless English, and inquired with almost exaggerated politeness where a friend of his, one Señor Timoto Fernandez, had called here.

“I have no acquaintance with Señor Fernandex,” I answered.

He stood for a moment, giving me a contemplative stare which, had I been prey to imaginative fear, would most certainly have chilled me; then he nodded, thanked me, bade me good night, and turned to walk away into the foggy darkness. (pages 11-12)

Okay, I really do jump at the chance to return to Innsmouth and see what’s going on there a few years after what Lovecraft showed us in one of his most famous stories. I want to know more about Devil’s Reef. I want to see what goes on in those Esoteric Order of Dagon meetings. I want to know more about what these horrific beings are really up to. Even if it’s put together by a guy that can’t hold a candle to Lovecraft, I really would read something like that.

But I have my limits. The pastiche thing can go too far, as this passage indicates:

“Certain parallels present themselves with damning and inescapable deductions to be drawn. For instance, Dr. Shrewsbury vanished within a year of the publication of his book on myth-patterns. The British scholar, Sir Landon Etrick, was killed in a strange accident six weeks after he permitted publication in the Occult Review his paper inquiring into the ‘Fish Men’ of Ponape. The American writer, H. P. Lovecraft, died within a year of publication of his curious ‘fiction’, The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Of these and others, only Lovecraft’s death seems devoid of odd accident. NB: Some inquiry into H. P. L’s allergy to cold is indicated. Also note a pronounced aversion to the sea and all things pertaining to it, carried so far as to inspire physical illness at sight of sea food.

“The conclusion is unavoidable that Shrewsbury and Lovecraft, too– and perhaps Etrick and others, as well– were close upon the track of some momentous discoveries concerning C.” (page 109-110)

You know, I read that and I don’t know if I want to cry or pull my hair out. On the one hand, it’s a fitting tribute to a brilliant man that died too soon. On the other… well, it’s kind of tacky.

That is not, however, the thing about this book that makes me want to throw it against the wall. Really, the most irritating thing about this is the patron-like character that knows more about the occult than just about every Lovecraft protagonist put together. His solution to every thing is to find the portals through which Cthulhu is threatening to break through and then blow them up with nitroglycerin or dynamite. He has an unlimited supply of magic items that protect him and his minions from most Mythos type antagonists. If the really scary stuff is ever threatening to show up, he has a potion he can drink and a whistle he can blow that will together summon a giant bat creature that he can fly to a magic safe house in space.

In other words, this is precisely the sort of innovations you need to apply to Lovecraft’s work in order to make it compatible with the typical movie plot or role-playing game scenario. In fact, if you were running a convention game and incorporated elements of what is presented here to people that are familiar with Lovecraft’s themes but that have not read the stories in this volume, you could probably make a few people very, very happy. One section in particular that I would recommend incorporating into your game would be the chance for the players to find The Nameless City and actually summon the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, the author of the infamous Necronomicon:

I watched Professor Shrewsbury encircle the sarcophagus and both of us with a large band of blue powder, which he immediately set afire. This burned eerily but brightly, so that the entire room was illumined, and the sarcophagus stood out in high relief. My employer then constructed a series of cabalistic designs on the floor and the sarcophagus, again completely encircling it. Thereafter he took from his person certain documents which resembled those transcriptions from the Necronomicon he had given me to read, and from one of them he recited in a clear voice.

“Him who knows the place of R’lyeh;
him who holds the secret of far Kadath;
him who keeps the key to Cthulhu;
by the five-pointed star, by the sign of Kish, by the assent of the Elder Gods, let him come forth.”

This he recited three times, at each adjuration completing a drawing on the floor. At the conclusion of his recitation, he waited. Now there occurred a most unusual and slightly disturbing phenomenon. I felt myself surrendering something of myself, as were I drained of my very life-force, and at the same time there was a movement above the sarcophagus, at first little more than a stirring of air, then a gradual misting, and then before my eyes the remnants and tatters of clothing in the sarcophagus began to lift up into the air and take ragged shape about the misting which was growing steadily denser, losing its opacity for darkness, so that presently there hung above the sarcophagus a spectral image, a blasphemous caricature of a man which had neither body nor face, but only a semblance of each, with black, glowing pits where eyes should have been beneath a torn burnous and a dark shapeless body, very thin, upon which the tatters of garments which long ago were flowing robes hung loosely. This terrifying apparition hung in the air motionless. (page 162-163)

If you play it right, that is sure to be a crowd-pleaser– although I would recommend role-playing a sufficiently creepy voice rather than follow Derleth’s lead by having the players play out a tedious game of twenty questions with this thoroughly iconic figure.

There’s not much else here that I’m inclined to adapt to my games. I personally think Derleth’s framing of the Cthulhu Mythos pretty well neutralizes the whole point of Lovecraft’s stories. Mostly, though, I just can’t understand it. Each installment has a few passages where he sums up the relationship between a good dozen monstrosities, but these brain dumps read more like name dropping than any serious attempt at conveying something significant about the setting. And unlike similar passages by Lovecraft, they are all more or less interchangeable.

Of course, with Lovecraft being gone, I can see why fans would be happy to take just about anything that kept this informal franchise going. On the other hand, there are developments here that I just flat out detest. I cannot stand the particular spin given to cultists here:

Their references to the Ancient Ones intimated too of feuds among these beings, between Hastur and Cthugha on the one hand, and Gthulhu and Ithaqua n the other; evidently these beings were united only against the Elder Gods, but vied with one another for the worship of their minions and the destruction or seduction of such inhabitants of their regions as came within their orbits. (page 198)

This is not at all what I took from my own reading Lovecraft. The codification of all these bizarre creatures into a formalized “Mythos” has undercut the verve and the fantastic diversity that made them so compelling in the first place. And the cultists that were all so different from each other in Lovecraft’s work, the way they all seemed to be up to something different. This makes for a fairly good premise for a fantastic tabletop game like Klaus Westerhoff’s The Stars Are Right. But really, this sort of thing just doesn’t feel like a Lovecraft story.

*** SPOILER WARNING!!! ***

It’s the climax that really takes the cake, though. I mean, I could see it coming… but I kept reading anyway because I just couldn’t believe that August Derleth would really do it.

Overhead roared an aeroplane, making for the island.

“There it goes,” cried General Holberg. “Please look away. Even at this distance the light will be blinding.”

We turned obediently.

In a few moments the sound came, shockingly. In another few seconds the force of the explosion struck us like a physical blow. It seemed a long time before the General spoke again.

“Look now, if you like.”

We turned.

Over the place where the Black Island had been loomed now a gigantic cloud, mushrooming and billowing skyward a cloud greater than the size of the island itself, of white and grey and tan colors, beautiful in itself to see. (page 210)

Yeah. He did it. He nuked Cthulhu from orbit. I don’t even think that should really even work. I’m inclined to declare that the plot here was derived from completely sophomoric late night gaming sessions, but tabletop roleplaying games were a long way off when Derleth was writing these.

While watching Paul MacClean reviewing the latest edition of Call of Cthulhu the other day I was perplexed when he made a tongue-in-cheek reference to some sort of “Derlethian Heresy”. I had no idea what it could mean at the time, but now I see that it makes quite a bit a sense to pin such a thing on the guy. Derleth had more than a little bit to do with the fact that just about everything you see today with Lovecraft’s name on it has next to nothing to do with the man’s actual work. That’s just galling. And while purists in any genre tend to annoy just about everyone, in this case I’m inclined to cut them some slack. A shared universe where all kinds of creators could riff off of each other was a great idea in theory. But I’m not too impressed with how it played out in this particular instance.

15 Comments
  • Cirsova says:

    I know that Lovecraft seems to have enjoyed the whole ‘shared universe’ thing, but the dreadful amount of Lovecraft fanfiction that’s upheld as staples of Lovecraftian fiction are a big part of why he doesn’t get the literary respect and appreciation he deserves. Derlethian Cthulhu stuff makes me want to throw things, so I just avoid reading post-Lovecraft “Cthulhu” anything, since it has been the dominant flavor longer than I’ve been alive.

    But, as a certain writer once said, fans will eat up anything with Cthulhu and tentacles. If I could’ve lived with being such worthless hack, I’d’ve tried my hand at it a long time ago.

  • He did it. He nuked Cthulhu from orbit.

    Bwahahahaha, you got to admit, you cringe, you wail at the heresy, you flinch…

    …But secretly you think that’s awesome.

    • Cirsova says:

      Yeah, but it would be like if everyone associated Faustian Bargains with that one Punch & Judy where Punch gives the devil a wedgie. It’s about missing the point.

      • Oh, no doubt. I’m just saying, deep down, you have to think the idea is at least a little cool.

        It misses the point, it’s a mockery of Lovecraft’s vision, it lead to many bad pastiches and a false idea of Lovecraft’s mythos, true…but it’s Cool.

    • Nate winchester says:

      Have you or the post author ever heard the legend of the rpg player who won call of cthulhu? (Before I post a link.)

  • Daniel says:

    All right. I will bite:

    If it had not been for the overzealous, mark missing and, yes, even bastardizing yeoman’s work of August Derleth, we wouldn’t even remember a Lovecraft by whom to mock him.

    Derleth was more than just a pastiching fan of Lovecraft, he was a devout Catholic who simply misinterpreted Lovecraft’s mythic uncertainties as incompletely realized. He viewed the unstoppability and dreadful ignorance of Cthulu as a symbol not of cosmic indifference but of willful, diabolic malevolence, one vulnerable to acts and artifacts of faith and faith’s servant, science.

    Now, it is less important that Derleth mangled Lovecraft than that he salvaged him at all following his untimely death. Arkham House books may have been a bit of an amateur embalmer of the master’s works, but better a shoddy mummy than none at all. Call of Cthulhu’s pulpy game style owes about as much to Derleth’s “try to nuke it” approach as it does to Lovecraft’s anti-heroism.

    Based on his relative obscurity for decades even following the mixed honor of Derleth’s devotion, Lovecraft was truly quite close to being as abandoned as a wax cylinder recording of Calvin Coolidge’s campaign anthem.

    • Jeffro says:

      I don’t know that Lovecraft is necessarily even remembered. He is invoked either to showcase his racism while works that have very little to do with what he actually did catch all the glory. He has more of an A. Merritt level of obscurity than his instantly recognizable name brand would indicate.

      I mean really: the person that actually influenced the games and movies that are called “Lovecraftian” was August Derleth. That’s just plain horrific.

      • Daniel says:

        I disagree. Without the admitedly prickly and -yes, hamhanded at times – Arkham House, there would have been no collections of Lovecraft in the 1960s, and thus no chance for Arkham House to begin to correct the errors with Joshi’s help in the 1980s.

        Anecdote: my intro to Lovecraft proper came with the Arkham corrected Dunwich Horror and 11 Others in 1984 or so. This is a direct outcome of Derleth’s legacy, whatever his failures as a fan fiction author may have been.

  • Daniel says:

    A few other observations: Lovecraft died 8 years before atomic weaponry was unveiled to the world in its own for of cosmic power and indifference. As an amateur devotee of science, no doubt would he have addressed the modern cataclysm in some way, possibly in the same way that Rats in the Walls misuses scientific error (Piltdown Man) to nonetheless horrific mythological effect.

    Derleth was a young letter correspondent of Lovecraft’s. Not only did Lovecraft delight in the idea of shared and borrowed universes, he actively encouraged the act. I can’t remember the quote, but he thought that the concept peopled the created false worlds with contrasts and contradictions more like the real world.

    Now, I think Lovecraft would have been disappointed with Derleth’s direct editing errors of Lovecraft’s originals, for sure, but he of course was dead by then, and by his own measure, would have been wholly without sufficient ectoplasm necessary to register a formal complaint.

  • Cirsova says:

    Derleth: a Haiku

    Smashing toy rockets
    against father’s model ship,
    the boy goes “Pshewww, pshewww!”

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