Disciples: Long, Derleth, Wandrei, and Others - H. P. Lovecraft and His Influence - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Disciples: Long, Derleth, Wandrei, and Others
H. P. Lovecraft and His Influence
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

One of Lovecraft’s earliest literary colleagues—one whom he met even before he began publishing in Weird Tales—was Frank Belknap Long, Jr. (1901—1994), whose early work is full of fiery imagination but who, in the course of a long life, was compelled to write oceans of hack science fiction and even a few romance novels that did little to relieve the poverty that dogged his final years. Long came in touch with Lovecraft in 1920 in the amateur movement, and both were early contributors to Weird Tales. Many of Long’s early tales are sadly mediocre, but “Death Waters” (1924) and “The Ocean Leech” (1925) are powerful tales of horrors from the sea. Still better is “The Man with the Thousand Legs” (1927), perhaps Long’s greatest single horror tale. It uses the documentary style—a succession of diary entries, “statements” to the police, and even a “Curious Manuscript Found in a Bottle”—to convey its effects. The science fictional premise of the story—a scientist’s discovery that “etheric vibrations” (Rim of the Unknown 68) can cause bodily change, such as the growth of new legs—is merely the occasion for some spectacularly powerful scenes of sea horror, as a man turns into an unthinkably bizarre monster:

For a moment the thing simply towered and vibrated between the two boats and then it made for the cutter. It had at least a thousand legs and they waved loathsomely in the sunlight. It had a hooked beak and a great mouth that opened and closed and gulped, and it was larger than a whale. It was horribly, hideously large. It towered above the cutter, and in its swaying immensity it dwarfed the two boats and all the tangled shipping in the harbor. (Rim of the Unknown 71)

All these tales seem merely anticipations or preparations for what may well be Long’s greatest tale, “Second Night Out” (published in the October 1933 Weird Tales under the charmingly lurid title “The Black, Dead Thing”). In this account of a nameless, monkey-faced creature that haunts a ship sailing to Havana, we are treated to a feat of verbal witchery Long has rarely matched elsewhere. The whole tale must be read to appreciate the finely modulated prose that carries the reader along from first sentence to last. Perhaps the only drawback is the utter lack of explanation as to the nature of the monkey-faced monster or the reason why it is haunting the hapless ship.

Lovecraft’s direct influence on Long appears in three celebrated stories. “The Space-Eaters” (1928) is a a wild, histrionic, and rather ridiculous story. In its attempt to hint at Lovecraftian cosmicism—to “suggest a horror that is utterly unearthly; that makes itself felt in terms that have no counterparts on earth” (Hounds of Tindalos 62)—the story lapses into bathos in its idea of monsters eating their way through space. Substantially better is “The Hounds of Tindalos” (1929), which may perhaps betray the influence of Lovecraft’s “Hypnos” and “The Call of Cthulhu” in various particulars, but which nonetheless remains a breathtakingly cosmic narrative. Halpin Chalmers, repudiating Einstein and other modern astrophysicists, declares that it is possible to go back through time; and he does just that, seeing a vast panorama of history. The tale in its latter sections becomes acutely chilling when Chalmers unwittingly arouses the Hounds of Tindalos (“They are hungry and athirst!” [Hounds of Tindalos 101]) who move through the angles of space to pursue him. As for the short novel The Horror from the Hills (1931), it had best be passed over in merciful silence. Although including a verbatim extract from a Lovecraft letter, it is a confused attempt to interpret Lovecraftian cosmicism through the lens of the adventure story and the science-fantasy tale; its only novelty (if it can be called that) is the introduction of the entity Chaugnar Faugn, the elephant god of Tsang.

The rest of Long’s voluminous work, sadly, does not require commentary. He wrote some able stories for John W. Campbell’s Unknown, notably “Dark Vision” (1939), a chilling tale of a man who suffers an accident in an electrical power plant and subsequently gains the unwanted power to probe other people’s subconscious thoughts; and “Johnny on the Spot” (1939), which in under a thousand words effects a marvellous fusion of the supernatural tale with the hard-boiled crime story. But Long, through economic necessity, was subsequently forced to churn out so much hackwork that his early tales are all that tend to be remembered; and even these, in part, as with Long himself, are remembered largely because of their relation to Lovecraft.

It would be difficult to find two individuals of such opposite temperaments as the two founders of Arkham House, August Derleth (1909—1971) and Donald Wandrei (1908—1987), who both came in touch with Lovecraft in 1926. Derleth is, perforce, the more significant literary figure, but Wandrei’s weird work is of substantially higher quality. Derleth, a larger-than-life persona who modestly declared himself the “Wisconsin Balzac,” was bluff, outgoing, filled with immense energy and self-confidence, and a certain cocksure arrogance. He produced nearly 200 books in his lifetime, ranging from poetry to anthologies to children’s books to detective stories to novels to collections of tales. Still a renowned figure in his native state, he spread himself so thin in so many directions that he never attained the national reputation he craved.

For Derleth, the weird was only a sideline, and it showed; so many of his tales—gathered in seven collections from 1941 to 1976, all published by Arkham House—are routine and mechanical that their sole purpose appears to have been to provide revenue so that he could generate the mainstream work for which he acquired a fleeting fame. That work—sensitive historical novels set in his native Wisconsin—are indeed of substantial merit, especially such early specimens (drafts of which Lovecraft read) as Place of Hawks (1935) and Evening in Spring (1941). Indeed, they are of such quality that one is almost dumbfounded that Derleth’s weird work could be so poor.

What strikes one after reading the entire corpus of Derleth’s supernatural fiction is how remarkably conventional it is—and (at least in the tales not directly inspired by Lovecraft) how reliant it is on standard motifs, especially the supernatural-revenge motif embodied in a ghost that seeks to kill or victimise its murderer. So many of Derleth’s tales are of this sort that their plots become immediately recognisable after the initial scenario is established. Derleth also wrote so hastily that he failed to realise the promise of some potentially interesting tableaux: for example, “The House in the Magnolias” (1932) tells of dead slaves who are revived as zombies to work on a plantation in New Orleans—but there is not the slightest attempt to draw out the obvious sociopolitical implications of the situation. Slightly better is “Carousel” (1945), where a little girl develops a curious rapport with the ghost of a lynched black man.

Far and away Derleth’s best supernatural tale is “The Lonesome Place” (1948), a poignant display of a small boy’s fear of the dark, embodied in a “lonesome place” that he dreads to traverse when running some mundane errand. Derleth has ably captured, in language of admirable simplicity and elegance, the terror of his young protagonist:

… up there, ahead of you, there was the lonesome place, with no house nearby, and up beyond it the tall, dark grain elevator, gaunt and forbidding, the lonesome place of trees and sheds and lumber, in which anything might be lurking, anything at all, the lonesome place where you were sure that something haunted the darkness waiting for the moment and the hour and the night when you came through to burst forth from its secret place and leap upon you, tearing and rending you and doing unmentionable things before it had done with you. (5)

Derleth attempts to repeat this general scenario in “A Room in a House” (1950), but this tale is less successful. “Mara” (1948) is a fine account of a revenant, with a sexual frankness and emotive plangency rare in Derleth’s weird work (but common in his mainstream work). “The Dark Boy” (1957)—ably adapted on Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery”—is a similarly delicate tale of a schoolteacher who wins over the ghost of a dead boy by refusing to be afraid of him and showing him the affection and attention he seeks.

Of Derleth’s specifically Lovecraftian work, almost nothing charitable can be said. It would be bad enough to point to the grotesque weaknesses of such collections of stories as The Mask of Cthulhu (1958) and The Trail of Cthulhu (1962), which subvert Lovecraft’s bleak cosmicism for a naive good-vs.-evil struggle whereby humans implausibly manage to triumph over the “evil” cosmic entities of the Lovecraft pantheon; it was far worse that Derleth generated more than a dozen “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft (now collected in The Watchers out of Time and Others, 1974) in which he took random entries from Lovecraft’s commonplace book and turned them into dreadful narratives—almost all of them “tales of the Cthulhu Mythos,” with Lovecraft’s name at the top—that, like his own tales, unwittingly parody the work of the author he professed to admire. Derleth also did Lovecraft scholarship a severe disservice by propounding a seriously erroneous view of Lovecraft’s work—a view that, because of Derleth’s eminence as Lovecraft’s publisher and champion, was accepted without question by all but a few readers and critics and hindered the proper understanding of Lovecraft’s work and thought for decades.

It is evident that Derleth is significant in the realm of supernatural fiction not for his own writing, but for his editing and publishing. His numerous anthologies—Sleep No More (1944), Who Knocks? (1946), The Night Side (1947), and several others—helped substantially in establishing a canon of weird fiction. In the 1960s he pioneered the editing of anthologies of original fiction. The books he published in his more than three decades as director of Arkham House were on the whole judiciously selected, and in some cases pioneering, as in his publishing of the first books by Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, and Ramsey Campbell. The value of this work can easily allow us to forgive and forget Derleth’s other deficiencies—in his own writing and in his misguided championing of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

Donald Wandrei was the polar opposite of Derleth: brooding, introspective, even misanthropic, he remained mostly in his native Minnesota except for occasional stints in New York, where he sought and failed to establish himself as a fiction writer and dramatist. After an initial burst of writing, he entered the army and then spent much of the rest of his life taking care of his ailing mother and sister, writing little and doing little for Arkham House except editing Lovecraft’s Selected Letters. Wandrei, like Derleth, began writing weird tales at an early age, and his science fantasy “The Red Brain” (1927) contains no little infusion of Lovecraftian cosmicism. Lovecraft recognised that Wandrei possessed an innate sense of the cosmic shared by few of his colleagues—a sense exhibited strikingly in the science fiction story “Colossus” (Astounding Stories, January 1934).

Many of Wandrei’s early tales are full of powerful imaginative touches, even if the prose and execution are not always flawless. “The Lives of Alfred Kramer” (1932) tells of a man beset with racial memory, so that he becomes increasingly primitive and finally ends as a mass of protoplasmic slime. The story was published about the time that Clark Ashton Smith wrote “Ubbo-Sathla,” a very similar story; but there seems to be no influence one way or the other. In “The Man Who Never Lived” (1934) a man taps into the “universal mind” (115) and sees events of the remote past, all the way back to the beginning of the universe; he then disappears.

Much of the best of Wandrei’s weird work similarly straddles the line between horror and science fiction—inevitably so, as by the 1930s he recognised that he would have to expand his markets to the science fiction pulps to make a proper living as a writer. “When the Fire Creatures Came” (apparently written in the early 1930s but not published in Wandrei’s lifetime) speaks apocalyptically of fire creatures in a meteor (the influence of “The Colour out of Space” becomes evident) who seek the “life-current of human beings” (45) and ultimately kill millions before they are subdued when scientists induce titanic rain showers. Somewhat similar is “The Destroying Horde” (1935), where spherical jellylike creatures cause havoc, killing thousands; they are finally identified as immense one-celled amoebas. “Giant-Plasm” (1939) is one of Wandrei’s best tales, telling of a hideous grey-white substance that the crew of a shipwrecked vessel find on a volcanic island. Here Wandrei abandons the occasionally florid prose of his earlier work and narrates the tale simply and effectively.

Wandrei’s single most powerful weird tale may be “The Eye and the Finger” (1936), published in the prestigious Esquire. This mad tale of a man who comes home to find a living eye on his bureau, and then a hand hanging in mid-air pointing at the window, suggests surrealism, and the lack of any explanation is the great virtue of the tale. Again, simplicity of narration is the key:

He seized the hand, intending to hurl it far out the open window.

The fingers instantly curled around his own, not fiercely, but tugging him along, pulling him toward the window. For a step he followed, hypnotized and unnerved. The hand felt neither living nor dead, neither hot nor cold. Its touch brought unrelieved terror, because it resembled nothing that he knew. It seemed most like the clasp of some fantastic alien, not of this or of any other imaginable world, but of a solidity beyond. It felt like a marginal thing, trapped midway between stone oblivion and tissue of life. (219)

Of Wandrei’s specifically Lovecraftian work some words may be said. “The Tree-Men of M’bwa” (Weird Tales, February 1932) is often assumed to be a Lovecraftian tale, although on what grounds is by no means clear. Surely the unusual name in the title is not meant to evoke such a name as R’lyeh; it is merely a coined name indicative of the African locale of the tale. M’bwa is a dead black man who “moves at the bidding of the master in the Whirling Flux” (55). This master is of “a different universe, a different dimension … He has communion with entities older than earth” (55). This is all pretty vague, and a later reference to the master as “the Evil Old One” (56) is scarcely less so. The tale grippingly depicts the transformation of human beings into trees by means of a drug or potion, but cannot be considered genuinely Lovecraftian in any meaningful sense.

Dead Titans, Waken!—a novel that Wandrei wrote from 1929 to 1931 and, years later, published in a revised form as The Web of Easter Island—is an able specimen, somewhat superior in its earlier version than its later. It is crude in spots, but on the whole a compelling and spectacularly cosmic narrative, especially in its later portions, when the protagonist, Carter Graham, is sent millions of years into the future to continue his combating of the Titans’ return. It has a fundamental seriousness of tone and purpose lacking in Long’s The Horror from the Hills. It could stand, in fact, as the first genuine novel of the Cthulhu Mythos by someone other than Lovecraft. And Wandrei has achieved the feat without a single explicit reference to any Lovecraftian entity or place-name.

R. H. Barlow (1918—1951) came in contact with Lovecraft in 1931 and was appointed his literary executor. Although his small corpus of fiction (at least six items of which were written with Lovecraft’s assistance) is predominantly fantasy in the manner of Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith, Barlow produced two outstanding weird specimens, “A Dim-Remembered Story” (Californian, Summer 1936), a brilliant tale of the far future, and “The Night Ocean” (Californian, Winter 1936), a brooding tale of a dimly glimpsed horror from the sea. Barlow could have done much good work in supernatural fiction, but he ultimately departed from the field and made a name for himself in Mexican anthropology.

Then there is the curious case of American writer William Sloane (1906—1974). He is the author of two remarkable weird novels, To Walk the Night (1937) and The Edge of Running Water (1939), that some scholars maintain were influenced by Lovecraft. The first would seem to be: this haunting and exquisitely written novel of a mysterious woman, Selena, who in succession marries an unorthodox mathematician, Professor Le Normand (who promptly dies by being burned to death in a bizarre manner), and the young Jerry Lister, one of Le Normand’s students, does not on the surface appear Lovecraftian; but at the end we are led to believe that the remarkable qualities Selena exhibits (mind-reading, a curious lack of emotional affect) are the result of mind-exchange by an extraterrestrial. The subtlety and gradualness of this revelation are among the several signal triumphs of this compelling novel. But if there is a true Lovecraftian influence (from, say, “The Shadow out of Time”), Sloane appears to have worked pretty quickly, since Lovecraft’s novella appeared in Astounding at the very time when Sloane must have been writing his book.

The Edge of Running Water is, to my mind, not Lovecraftian at all, and in its attempt to present a pseudo-scientific rationale for the survival of the soul after death—something Lovecraft himself would have found so implausible as to be aesthetically unusable—it presents a bit of a retrogression from To Walk the Night. Nevertheless, this novel too develops cumulative power in its keen character portrayal, although the notion that a machine could be fashioned to pick up the electrical impulses from the dead strains creduility to the breaking point. Sloane, for reasons unknown, wrote no more fiction after publishing these two splendid novels, although he edited a few anthologies of science fiction in the 1950s and worked in the publishing industry for many years. Had he written more, he could easily have become a major figure in the field.