Thursday, June 11, 2009

Derleth Revisited

So, it turns out my local library is rather good at Interlibrary Loan. I'd tried them a few years ago and given up; turns out I shdn't have been asking for articles but for novels. In just the last month they've not only gotten me more Derleth, a David Lindsay I need to re-read, and a Henry Whitehead I'd started at Kalamazoo but not had time to finish.

Which brings me to THE SOLAR PONS OMNIBUS, a voluminous two-volume set of some thirteen hundred pages which, so far as I can tell, collects together all the short stories plus the one short novel. I haven't gotten that far yet, but I was struck by two passages in the opening piece, "From the Notebooks of Dr. Lyndon Parker". In one passage, he talks about how autographed books sometimes get sold by heirs who don't realize what's on a book collector's shelves (p. 35). This struck a chord because my wife has three books autographed by Harry Stephen Keeler, the famously quirky mystery writer, which she bought years ago. What's more, two of them are autographed to August Derleth himself, and obviously came from his collection. Did his heirs not appreciate what he had?

A few pages later Derleth (or, rather, the character who serves as his spokesman) makes some comments that are interesting
in light of Derleth's own history as a forger (building much of his career on passing off his own work as that of others). Pons gives as his opinion that it's better that collectors who bought books with forged autographs in them not know the signatures are fake; in his opinion, most people are happier thinking they have a genuine autograph than knowing the truth. I disagree with that entirely, but does it suggest that on one level Derleth's own misrepresentations were his little way of trying to make the public happy? That is, fans want another Lovecraft story, so Derleth writes one and claims he's just tidied up and completed an unpublished draft, when in fact he's created the whole thing himself? Or is it more a case of Derleth being like the mildly vindictive painter in another story ("The Adventure of the Aluminum Crutch"), who unfairly lost a competition when young and devotes the rest of his life to creating forgeries of paintings by famous artists which none of the art critics who rejected him can tell from the real thing?

Hard to say, though I lean towards the more cynical interpretation by looking at how Derleth made a career (and considerable profit) out of linking his name to Lovecraft. With some forgers, it's clear what the motives are. I'm beginning to suspect that Derleth, by contrast, was a rather complicated person and that his rationale(s) might be complex as well.

--John R.

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