Everything in the world can be divided into four types of thing. Well, maybe, five. It depends whose system of philosophy you tend towards and whether you think that aether or the quintessence is a type of thing. Classical Western thought, Babylonian, Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese – all of them have an elemental system to categorise the composition or our sensory experience of the world and universe into easy to understand varieties of stuff. Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Metal, Wood, Aether in some combination of four or five. It’s a universal pastime and goes back millennia. Sorting stuff into buckets to make sense of the world is satisfying through all civilisations, but oh, what terror lurks when you find something that resists your buckets of understanding?
During the earlier part of the 20th century H.P. Lovecraft, a reclusive young man, wrote several stories and sold them to ‘Weird Tales’, a pulp magazine, in an effort to support himself and his aging mother. His financial situation was poor. His grandfather was Whipple Van Buren, a wealthy mining entrepreneur. However, on Mr Van Buren’s death, the estate was mismanaged and mostly lost leaving nothing to pass down to Lovecraft. When he was three, his father became psychotic, was committed to Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island where he died shortly afterwards. Later in his life, his mother was also committed to Butler Hospital where she too died. He’d been writing since he’d suffered a sickly childhood filled with night terrors. After school, he didn’t go out into the world to work, instead he stayed at home with his depressed mother in a life of isolation. As well as his stories, he was forced to ghost write for others including Harry Houdini in order to support himself.
The worlds he wrote of were deeply unsettling. An amoral universe in which the cosmos was completely unconcerned with mankind, yet the fate of individuals was inescapable and normally bleak. Those so afflicted sought forbidden knowledge in an effort to thwart the plans of malign entities threatening civilisation. Sons suffered for the sins of their fathers. Science is weak and powerless, only able to demonstrate just how little we know to our profound horror. Religion is either menacing or inadequate in the face of such terror and awe. A dark, romantic world of unearthly and incomprehensible powers; this is the world of H.P. Lovecraft.
Contrast this with the life of August Derleth. He was raised in Wisconsin, among nature and books. He loved to hike along the Wisconsin river and its islands, he organised ramblers’ clubs and recorded what he saw. As a child he would visit the library three times a week, reading its collections voraciously. Among his favourites were the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, transcendentalist writers who wrote of a simple life among nature, based upon self-reliance and the inherent good within individuals, as well as cultivating a distrust in social organisations such as political parties and organised religion. After completing university, he got out and did things. He became a parole officer, organised a men’s club , was clerk and president of the local school board and lectured on regional American literature. He became the editor ‘The Capital Times’, one of the two main newspapers in Madison, Wisconsin. Like Lovecraft, Derleth started writing from childhood too, although it took him 40 attempts to get a story published; a gothic tale also published in ‘Weird Tales’. He went on to write ‘The Sac Prarie Saga’, a world of stories set in a world very much like that of the town in Wisconsin he grew up in, and very much reflecting his ideals of a love of nature and self-reliance, all connected to the stories he learned in his childhood. Complementing this were the Solar Pons tales. These were a set of detective stories which were a pastiche of the Sherlock Homes.
Despite these very different backgrounds, Derleth and Lovecraft were correspondents. Lovecraft had become an insatiable letter writer after his mother’s death, corresponding with a wide range of people on an even broader range of subjects. In his relatively short period of letter writing (roughly 15 years), he managed to write in excess of 100,000 letters. There was a mutual admiration of the other’s work and both wrote stories for ‘Weird Tales’. Lovecraft went as far as adding a character as an homage to Derleth in his stories; le Comte d’Erlette. However, their time corresponding was cut short by Lovecraft’s untimely death at the age of 47. He died relatively unknown, with no works published outside the pages of ‘Weird Tales’, and in poverty. Derleth and Donald Wandrei, another contributor to ‘Weird Tales’ and Lovecraft correspondent, took it upon themselves to get his work published. No publishing houses were interested, so in another act of self-reliance, Derleth and Wandrei set up Arkham House, specifically to publish and popularise Lovecraft’s body of work. The first volume was published in 1939, two years after Lovecraft’s death, a large collection of his short stories.
As Lovecraft had left notes and some unfinished stories, Derleth took it upon himself to complete them and publish them under both his and Lovecraft’s name. He went further and began writing his own stories set in Lovecraft’s terrifying universe. As with the Sac Prairie Saga, this universe needed an encompassing term. Derleth named it ‘The Cthulhu Mythos’, and himself a posthumous collaborator with Lovecraft. The expanding universe gained many readers, primarily because of Derleth’s activities, and it is down to him that the name H.P. Lovecraft is now so well known. Along with that popularity Derleth also introduced something else. He brought rules and a canon. Lovecraft had called what he did Yog-Sothothery, a term used in the context of a place he could go to, explore and write about. Derleth’s encapulation of universe as ‘The Cthulhu Mythos’ was the first move to systemising and taming it.
Derleth began imposing his own world view on Lovecraft’s world. Whereas Lovecraft had written in a world of awe inspiring beings that defied description, understanding or even comprehension, Derleth need these beings to conform to more comfortable for the mind to contemplate. Originally, Lovecraft had write about The Great Old Ones, beings of unimaginable geometry and motivation, whose power rendered morality unable to cope with their actions. They were neither good nor bad, they just existed. Humanity was inconsequential in the face of this amorality. Derleth introduced a new set of ancient beings, The Elder Gods, who were locked in an ages old conflict with the Great Old Ones. In this development, the Great Old Ones were ‘bad’, their actions destructive and actions malign. The Elder Gods were ‘good’, interventionist and benevolent. A more familiar bipolar morality crept into the amoral Lovecraftian universe.
Derleth went further, classifying the Elder Gods and Great Old Ones into groups according to the elements. It was an effort to systemise Lovecraft’s universe, unfortunately it was a universe concentrating on chthonic entities as the name of Cthulhu might suggest. Earth and water deities were over-represented. Derleth was forced to promote minor characters from the footnotes of Lovecraft’s universe and even invent entirely new entities to make the universe fit his system. Was this was because the unbounded and almost omnipotent awe and terror of Lovecraft’s creation inspired fear and a desire to contain and limit it in Derleth or whether this was a more general impulse to make worlds, even fictional ones, fit his understanding of the world? It’s been much criticised since, although Derleth’s work in bringing Lovecraft’s works to a wider audience are appreciated. Derleth also has defenders who comb Lovecraft’s work and letters in an effort to prove that he’d laid the ground for Derleth’s elemental efforts or would have wanted it that way. It seems that some are going beyond classifying Lovecraft’s fiction and are endeavouring to systemise Lovecraft himself into the modern cannonical needs of the Cthulhu Mythos.
What Derleth did seems to be one of the first and perhaps more extreme examples of fan fiction. Extending an authors fictional realm with the projections of the fan’s personality, shaping it to their own tastes and maybe taking off what they see as extraneous and unwanted elements. Universes that only exists as data on paper very much more tractable than the one we live in. Reshaping someone else’s world is alternative to adapting to a real one and to sublimate fears and desires. If the pathology that needs to sort a world, fictional or otherwise, into buckets and to contain it gives comfort in the real world, why not?