Monday, March 18, 2013

Weighed and Found Wandrei

Weighed and Found Wandrei

So, as part of my project of slowly working my way thr. the various WEIRD TALES authors in Lovecraft's circle, I've now reached one who played a major role historically but seems to have been insignificant literarily: Donald Wandrei, one of the older of HPL's young disciples, having corresponded with Lovecraft from 1926 onwards. His role as co-founder of Arkham House means he shares with Derleth the credit for rescuing HPL's work from obscurity, and likewise the blame of ghettoizing said work into small-press-dom. Derleth of course put himself front and center as the defender of Lovecraft's legacy, as well as claiming the right to say exactly what that legacy was, while Wandrei remained more in the background, playing relatively little part from the early/mid 1940s onward aside from his major project of trying to assemble and transcribe virtually the whole of Lovecraft's correspondence --the first volume of which did not appear until more than a quarter-century after Lovecraft's death, in 1965.

As a person, Wandrei seems to have been an internet troll before his time. This book skirts his role in driving Lovecraft's chosen executive, R. H. Barlow, not just out of Lovecraft studies but out of fandom altogether, as well as the question of his knowledge of, or duplicity in, Derleth's various frauds. But it's not a good sign when the biographical essay at the end of the book ("Of Donald Wandrei, August Derleth, and H. P. Lovecraft", by D. H. Olson) starts by arguing that Wandrei was not a paranoid crank, whatever we might have heard. Talk about an "unaccustomed as I am to public speaking" opener! My own feeling, after reading said piece, was that "paranoid, litigious crank" about summed it up.

Still, personality and talent are very different things. There are authors I don't much like whose works I love, and vice versa. Having now read two volumes of Wandrei stories, I conclude that I've read enough -- I'll probably read his novel THE WEB OF EASTER ISLAND (1948) if I ever get the chance, but two thick volumes of over 700 pages of short stories seems a fair trial to say this stuff is not for me. Of the two, the collection of detective stories, FROST (Fedogan and Bremer, 2000) reads like the kind of stories Harry Stephen Keeler was parodying as far back as the 1920s: infallible inscrutable detective, beautiful sidekick, and bizarrely complicated / spectacularly improbable crimes. It's a tradition still alive and well today in manga like DETECTIVE CONAN and KINDAICHI CASE FILES; readable enough but impossible to take seriously.

The other, DON'T DREAM, collects horror and pulp science-fiction stories together -- in fact, I discovered after the fact that it largely replicates the contents of Wandrei's first book, the Arkham House collection THE EYE AND THE FINGER (1944). Those looking for early Mythos tales will come away wanting: aside from references to "the old ones" "the whisperer in darkness" "the color out of space" [sic] and "the call of Cthulhu" -- all in a single more or less irrelevant paragraph in the story "The Lady in Grey" [WEIRD TALES, 1933] -- there's only one truly Mythos story, though not marked as such: "The Monster from Nowhere" (which shd have been titled The Shoggoth from Space). Two variant stories -- "When the Fire Creatures Came" [1932] and its revised form "The Fire Vampires" [1933] introduce the flame vampires and Fthaggua (Derleth's Cthugha) but are schlock science fiction, not horror; something later adopted into the Mythos rather than an intentional contribution.

Most of these stories are predictable, gruesome pulp sci-fi, with a handful of horrors from exotic jungles contributing their bit. He's fond of past-life regression stories (always accompanied by physical regression as well), as well as amoeba-like division and runaway reproduction of monsters (a theme he uses time after time). Although said to have been fond of the prose-poem, the examples included here show he wasn't any good at the form: these are the most static, uninteresting prose-poems I've ever read (and, as an admirer of Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, and Poe, I'm a great admirer of the form). 

Still, a few stories stand out. "The Destroying Horde" [WEIRD TALES, 1935] seems to be the origin of the famed DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS monster 'the gelatinous cube' (deadly because perennially underestimated). "Spawn of the Sea" [ibid, 1933] is a too-obvious prequel to Hodgson's great tale "The Derelict", with bits from Poe's PYM thrown in (Wandrei testifies elsewhere "The discovery of Poe was the greatest literary event of my life" -- p. 356).  It's interesting to note that the opening story here, "A Fragment of a Dream" [1926] features a green sun, but this seems serendipitous; the chances of Tolkien's having seen it -- either in its first appearance in the MINNESOTA QUARTERS [1926] or its reprinting in W. Paul Cook's fanzine THE RECLUSE [1927] or in the Arkham House collection [1944] -- seem effectively nil. Also of minor interest is a Wandrei essay "The Imaginative Element in Modern Literature" which defines all "imaginative literature" as falling into three groupings: ghost stories, horror stories, and "pseudo-scientific romance" (p. 361). It's a good indicator of just how narrowly fantasy can be defined, but wholly inadequate when compared to, say, "On Fairy-Stories" or "Supernatural Horror in Literature": Wandrei was no Tolkien or even a Lovecraft.

There is one outstanding story in this collection, however, which makes the whole seven-hundred-page slog worthwhile just to discover it: "Strange Harvest" (WEIRD TALES, 1953). One of Wandrei's later tales, it's wonderfully atypical. If I came across it anonymously in an anthology I wd have instantly identified it as the work of Rbt Arthur (one of the great unappreciated authors of the era, best known for his later work on Alfred Hitchcock anthologies). It's not an original idea -- all the plants in a remote region gain sentience, and object strongly and effectively to the local farmers' baffled attempts to harvest them -- but handled extremely well, with great humor and effectiveness. The escaping apple orchard, who replanted themselves in a spot more to their liking and whom the would be harvester unwisely pursued, was my favorite bit, but it's hard to resist a line like "Not least among the remarkable events in Shawtuck County that morning was the saga of the fugitive potatoes." (p. 304). That line pretty much tells you whether this is a story you'd like or not. For me, the answer is v. much yes; I'll be hanging on to this volume solely for the essay on Wandrei at the end and this story.

Finally, there's a puzzling passage in Wandrei's deposition, drawn up as part of his suits and counter-suits against Arkham House after Derleth's death and incorporated into the volume's terminal essay. At one point, after mentioning Lovecraft's having appointed Barlow his literary executor, Wandrei goes on to say

"Lovecraft had also given specific authorization to six persons to use all story ideas in his notebooks, and to use all his Cthulhu mythology, these six individuals including Clark Ashton Smith, Frank B. Long, Derleth, and me." (p. 377)

Now, in the first place this does not ring true to the way Lovecraft approached the mythos, which was much more free-form and informal. That he wd encourage some and discourage others doesn't seem to fit the facts very well. And in the second place, assuming any such document or instructions ever existed, who are the other two names, and why did Wandrei omit them from his list?  I can think of lots of possibilities --Howard? Bloch? Kuttner? Price? Barlow? Leiber? et al. -- but no way to narrow it down plausibly to the ones Wandrei had in mind.

So, done with that. Wandrei's true legacy is not in his works (not the short stories and essays, anyway) but in having co-founded a legended small press at age thirty. Now to see if I can find that novel, or whether Donald's brother Howard Wandrei was any better . . .



David Bratman said...

But you must admit that "Wandrei" is a great name for a Mythos author. Lovecraft ... Derleth ... Wandrei ... all these guys with these wonderfully evocative and strange-sounding names.

Magister said...

What about Wandrei's poetry?

John D. Rateliff said...

Magister: I haven't read any of D.W.'s poetry, so can't make a judgment on that, anymore than I can on H.W.'s artwork. Most of the WEIRD TALES poetry is pretty poor stuff, but there are notable exceptions by C.A.S. and HPL himself (THE FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH).

David: Yes, I love the way names like Frank Belknap Long, E. Hoffman Price, Clark Ashton Smith, and the brothers Wandrei roll off the tongue -- and, to a lesser extent, Robert E. Howard, H. P. L., R. H. Barlow, August Derleth, et al as well. And, though he's not a Mythos author and his talent is negligible in the extreme, have to say Seabury Quinn (in his day the most popular of all the WEIRD TALES authors) had a great name.