Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Solar Pons

So, was August Derleth dim?

I've always assumed the answer was "no" -- after all, he was a correspondent of the quirkily erudite Lovecraft, who did not suffer fools gladly; the founder and manager of a successful small press, who got into print some authors of real talent who might otherwise have languished; and the author of many books on a wide variety of topics. Granted, a lot of what he wrote was pastiche, which takes a lot less talent than writing original works, but good pastiche takes not just panache but a good deal of knowledge about the original being imitated. But now I'm beginning to wonder.

Most people know him mainly through his "posthumous collaborations" with Lovecraft, which were in fact written entirely by Derleth under the pretext (i.e., deliberate deceit) that he was finishing a Lovecraft manuscript (a Lovecraft story sold for more than a Derleth story, which is why he often tried to pass his work off as someone else's). And while he's been duly credited for preserving Lovecraft's memory and keeping him in print*, it's universally agreed that he deliberately misrepresented Lovecraft's underlying philosophy and substituted his own beliefs instead. But what if he simply grossly misunderstood Lovecraft on a fundamental level?

I suppose what's shaken me is my just having finished THE CHRONICLES OF SOLAR PONS [1973], a (posthumous) collection of Derleth's Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and it's made me realize that Derleth didn't know nearly as much about literature, particularly detective literature, as I'd assumed. I'd picked up a library discard of MEMOIRS OF SOLAR PONS [1951] years ago at a library sale for a quarter and, more recently, MR. FAIRLIE'S FINAL JOURNEY [1968], the only novel in the series, at the latest Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair. Both are amusing mainly in the shamelessness of their direct borrowings, which far exceeds that of his 'Cthulhu' stories -- as an analogy, if Derleth is to Lovecraft as Terry Brooks is to Tolkien, then Derleth is to Conan Doyle as Dennis McKiernan is to JRRT. But what's more surprising is that in this latest collection at least Derleth gets things wrong.

"Wrong" not in the general sense of misrepresenting the spirit of the stories, though that's there too (as when Pons shoots a woman dead in a fashion more suitable to a psychopath like Matt Helm than a consulting detective of the old school, or in the story in which Fu Manchu is the beneficent defender of wronged womanhood). Rather, wrong as in presenting Hercule Poirot as French ("The Adventure of the Orient Express", p. 58), or when a book collector displays some of his treasures, including a signed copy of EDWIN DROOD ("The Adventure of the Unique Dickensians", p. 233). There's nothing wrong in making mistakes -- we all slip up once in a while -- but to write an adventure intended to display your knowledge of Dickens and not get the Dickens parts right is dumbfounding.

So, I'm currently at a bit of a loss. Perhaps I'll be in a more charitable mood later, but right now I'm entertaining the thought that Derleth had energy and enthusiasm but not erudition, and it might be this that separates him from HPL more than anything else.


current reading: THE LEGEND OF SIGURD & GUDRUN

*[a claim S. T. Joshi has recently called into question]


David Bratman said...

Is there any possibility that the signed copy of Edwin Drood is a deliberate joke?

As for calling Poirot French instead of Belgian, if it can't be ascribed to ignorance (and in Derleth's case probably not), it still sounds more like sloppiness or forgetfulness rather than being actively dim.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David.

Yes, I wondered if it were an in-joke, but I could see no sign of it if so. Here's the relevant passage, in which Solar Pons (/Homes) and Dr. Parker (/Watson) enjoy a Dickensian Christmas feast with two ardent collectors, one of whom shows off his treasures:

"Snawley [the collector] unlocked his cabinet and handed Pip [his servant] a book or two, and carried another himself. They brought them to the table, and Snawley took one after the other of them and laid them down lovingly. They were inscribed copies of DAVID COPPERFIELD, EDWIN DROOD, and THE PICKWICK PAPERS. After Auber [the rival collector] had fittingly admired and exclaimed over them, our client went back for more, and returned this time with copies of THE MONTHLY MAGAZINE containing SKETCHES BY BOZ, with interlineations in Dickens's hand.
. . . A parade of books and papers moved from the cabinet to the table and back to the cabinet again -- letters in Dickens's hand, letters to Dickens from his publishers, old drawings by Cruikshank and 'Phiz' of Dickens's characters . . . so that it was late when at last Snawley came to his recently acquired treasure, and brought this too to the table"

--this new acquired treasure, a fourteen page manuscript of material omitted from Dickens' MASTER HUMPHREY'S CLOCK, turns out to be a forgery, as Pons shows by examining the watermark (it having been made by a papermaker who set up shop a year after Dickens died).

So, DROOD, the story Dickens was writing when he died, which he never finished, and which only appeared in book form after his death, is here presented as if an autographed copy of the book were nothing surprising -- and not just to casual bibliophiles but to the two most rabid Dickens collectors in the world. If this is supposed to be tongue-in-check, I'm not picking up on it: I think it's just Derlethian carelessness and lack of detailed knowledge about the topic of his story.

By the way, to me it's interesting reading this story because Derleth himself on at least one occasion committed forgery, in the notorious case of the Sheridan Le Fanu story "The Churchyard Yew".