What Began as an Article About August Derleth
by Richard H. Fawcett
What began as an article about my favorite August Derleth stories set me to thinking about what constitutes great writing. Is it measured by the number of people who profess admiration of a work? If so then the theories of Steven Hawking should be best sellers, but only a handful of people can understand them! Do great writers sometimes write trash? Of course. Do good writers sometimes rise to greatness? After I'd driven myself crazy thinking about all this, I finally concluded, it didn't bear thinking about. Read what you like & if it's great to you, then so be it!
I do believe, however, that August Derleth was one writer who occasionally rose to greatness. I'll let you know what I think is some of his best work, & you can decide for yourself whether they represent great writing, merely good writing or just plain awful. Along the way we'll discuss what I consider the great works of some other authors.
Among Derleth's more than 150 novels, short story collections, etc. many consider the novel Evening In Spring to be his best. I've always thought it to be a piece of youthful sentimentality (Not that I'm opinionated) & vastly inferior to Walden West which is a kind of prose Spoon River Anthology. Perhaps the fact that Derleth was once engaged to Edgar Lee Masters' daughter has something to do with the similarities. However, I have found in my 67 years of reading (less four years pre-kindergarten) that it is not uncommon for me to sometimes prefer more obscure works of great writers to their more popular ones, Dickens being a case in point. I happen to think that Barnaby Rudge is as good as anything else he wrote. Nor was Steinbeck far off the mark with In Dubious Battle.
Other great works I'd recommend include Kazantzakis' The Saviours Of God, St. Francis, & The Last Temptation Of Christ. His Zorba is more popular, but not at the literary or philosophical level of these other works. And when it comes to choosing the great books of the 20th century, John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany has to be up there somewhere. And most recently I've added Correlli's Mandolin by Louis De Berneieres to my list. Of course this list is nowhere near complete. These are just a few that come to a mind with more dead brain cells than live ones.
So let's ask the question again. Why? Why are these author's works so much more memorable to me than others? Is it because I read them recently & have forgotten the others? I don't think so. Some were read in the 50's, some in the 60's others in the 70's, 80's & 90's. So where lies the why?
I think it's because these novels have two things in common. The are coherent, comprehensible & most important speak to the triumph of the human spirit. Two qualities, I believe have to be present in every angst-filled literary work in order for it to achieve the level of greatness. I'm reminded of the recent work by Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible. A brilliantly written work that is so damn depressing that I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. In the end it becomes nothing more than a brilliantly-written chronicle of human misery, something we have more than enough of in this world without adding to our burden.
But what happened to Derleth? Where do horror stories fit in all this? What does horror have to do with the triumph of the human spirit? Probably nothing. It may be that we simply like to scare ourselves from time to time. But I suspect that most of us cling to the superstition that if we can imaging something it gives us a kind of protection against it actually happening to us, an amulet against evil if you will.
The best horror stories ever written may be Ray Bradbury's "The Next in Line" & Robert E. Howard's "Pidgeons from Hell". But I' sure you disagree. This is what makes us different!
And now, at last, Derleth's best, or perhaps just as a starter: "Three Gentlemen in Black'', "The Sheraton Mirror", "The Drifting Snow", "The Lonesome Place", "The Dark Boy," "Miss Esperson". And in non-horror, the short story "The Telescope". Now you can add on from here. And what makes these stories memorable? Their comprehensibility & atmosphere. Derleth at his best could handle atmosphere as well as anyone. His tales may not have the depth or the convolutions of a Karl Wagner, but they are immensely entertaining & provide an excellent protection against imagined evil.
Am I consistent in my reasoning? Probably not. James Joyce's ULYSSES remains one of my favorites. Of course I did read that book back in the 60's which may explain everything. And if I like nice, simple, comprehensible plots, why do I enjoy Ramsey Campbell so much? The first time I read Ramsey I thought he was awful & I wrote an angry letter to James Turner saying as much. But then I read him again & discovered that I hadn't been paying attention. That may be why Joyce & Ramsey come to mind at the same time. They may be at different literary levels, but they have in common the fact that you have to pay attention. They, like Faulkner, may not be a relaxing read, but if you're rested they're well worth the extra effort. Being a generally lazy reader I may not always list these writers among my favorites, but don't confuse favorite with best, they are not always synonymous.
Favorite or best? We could go on forever. The list keeps growing & for different reasons. Were I to reread Derleth I'd probably add & delete. We change, our tastes change. There are thousands of books & stories that we haven't read, books & stories that have yet to be been written. That's the joy of the chase & one of the things, like grandchildren, that makes life worth living.
June 4, 2001
Copyright © 2001 by Richard H. Fawcett.
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