When Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax published his now-classic Advanced D&D Dungeon Master’s Guidein 1979, he highlighted “Inspirational and Educational Reading” in a section marked “Appendix N.” Featuring the authors that most inspired Gygax to create the world’s first tabletop role-playing game, Appendix N has remained a useful reading list for sci-fi and fantasy fans of all ages.
In Advanced Readings in D&D, Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more. Welcome to the seventh post in the series, featuring a look at the stories of August Derleth.
August Derleth is a controversial figure in “spooky nerd” circles. On one hand, people often think that he diluted the horror of Lovecraft’s stories and put Lovecraft’s name on things Derleth himself had actually written. But on the other hand, Call of Cthulhu is still filled with pages of weird stuff he invented. Some of the charges I think are deserved, some I think aren’t, and some of his achievements are often overlooked, or are just tarred with the same brush of distaste. How many people would have read Howard Phillip’s writings if not for Arkham House? Ultimately, Derleth’s legacy is editorial. He was the one who pounded the Mythos into a shared universe rather than just a series of Weird Tales. Say what you will about the man, but without him we probably wouldn’t be talking about “Lovecraftian” horrors in the first place. Then, well, there are issues that I think really are totally petty—like calling the Lovecraft-o-verse “The Cthulhu Mythos” instead of “Yog-Sothothery.”
That is really the best you can do, grumble about branding? I’ll tell you what; Cthulhu might not be at the center of Lovecraft’s universe in a cosmological sense—that’d be Azathoth, right?—but he sure looms large in the public eye. He’s the “charismatic megafauna” of Lovecraft’s writing; you could argue that he became the brand because of Derleth’s naming of the milieu which I’ll grant is a decent theory, but I think there is just something there. I think old squiddy is just the most recognizable face for the “brand,” so to speak. Heck, I sympathize with Derleth on that topic: even Tim and I are calling this reread Advanced Readings in Dungeons and Dragons rather than something with “Appendix N” in the name, because we wanted people to know what it was just from the title alone.
The real bone of contention here, and one that I do very much sympathize with, is that Derleth basically got the major themes and “moral” of Lovecraft all kinds of wrong. And there’s his “posthumous” collaboration in which he pulled a Christopher Tolkien and fleshed out Lovecraft’s notes, only with less faithfulness and verisimilitude than Tolkien. Most crucially, he introduced a Manichean cosmology—a battle of good and evil, which is utterly anathema to the powerful overriding subtext of Lovecraft’s writing—in which the universe is so strange as to be incomprehensible, so uncaring and amoral as to be monstrous. Throwing some Hermetic elementalism on top of Lovecraft’s alien god-things isn’t cricket, and creating a whole category of “Elder Gods” to oppose the inscrutable malevolence of the Old Ones just isn’t very…lovecraftian.
You know what it does sound like, though? Dungeons and Dragons. The Elder Gods and a primal war between good and evil (and/or law and chaos) is exactly what Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson gave us. I’ve always said—heck, I said it in my musings on D&D Next’s cosmology—that the demons and devils and evil gods were the coolest part of Dungeons and Dragons mythology. Bahamut is okay, Saint Cuthbert is alright, but really who can compare with Demogorgon, Lolth, Vecna, Tiamat and their ilk? Nobody, that is who, but you can see how the dualistic viewpoint of Derleth (along with Elric and Poul Anderson) influenced both the development of divine alignment in D&D, the Inner and Outer Planes, and more importantly, the pantheon construction of their fantasy worlds (along with liberal borrowing from real world mythology).
How is his writing? Fine. He writes…well, he writes Lovecraft fanfiction, basically. Aptly, but that is what it is—and I mean no disrespect to fanfiction authors or Mister Derleth. His Mythos stuff was just one facet of his writing; I thought about reading some of his historical fiction or detective genre stuff, but I didn’t think it was really in keeping with the spirit of the thing, guessing that Gygax was almost certainly referring to his horror writing. Derleth’s horror is a little overly enthusiastic with the peppering of “name brand” Mythos stuff; if there is a creepy library there is certainly going to be a Necronomicon and Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and if there is a cult they are probably going to talk about Cthulhu and the Deep Ones, if there is a place it’ll be anchored between the landmarks of Miskatonic University and Arkham. There will probably also be mention of “le Comte d’Erlette,” who is a Mythos figure that Lovecraft created as an homage to his buddy August.
Derleth has his own quirks, his own little signature ticks. He loves talking about architecture; “gambrel” is his favorite word. You know how we all affectionately joke about Lovecraft’s overuse of “eldritch” and other pieces of vocabulary that he kept in heavy rotation? Well, in that lizard man story, for instance, Derleth doesn’t even use the word “squamous” once, but in probably half of his stories he makes sure we know what kind of roof the house has. “The Survivor” was the first story of his I read and I immediately thought of two things: the Spider-Man villain The Lizard and…the half-baked idea I’ve had for an antagonist in my game based on The Lizard. Derleth’s story helped me come up with some new angles of approach, so right there, right off the bat, I’m already finding something. Oh, plus I really dug the story about the Yithian—I won’t tell you which one that is, no spoilers; I’ll let you figure it out yourself.
My thesis on Derleth is this: it is easy to dismiss him for failing to “get” the cosmological and existential horror of Lovecraft, but there are other themes in H.P. Lovecraft’s work that Derleth is really on point about. Haunted houses, for instance; Derleth totally gets that. Actually, that is what a lot of his stories center around, and they rank right up there with Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls.” “The Peabody Heritage” is more Judeo-Christian than most, being a pretty classic “black mass” story about witches—if you are interested in the real roots of the fiction of the witches esbat, I highly recommend Carlo Ginzburg’s work, by the way—but it is right on the money. Derleth “gets” Lovecraft’s ideas of decaying upper class families, of inherited destiny, of “bad blood.” There is plenty to enjoy here…it just isn’t as “first tier” as Lovecraft. The reason we have that tier in the first place is in large part due to Derleth, however, and just think of how much thinner the Call of Cthulhu book would be without him.