A Belated Thank-You

Dave’s Introduction to a volume of August Derleth short stories titled That is Not Dead: Black Magic and Occult Stories, volume 3 of 4 being produced by The August Derleth Society in conjunction with Arkham House Publishers, February 2009.


Eugene Olson, my 11th grade American Literature teacher, read and wrote fantasy fiction. I really wanted to read fantasy, but in 1961 the genre was hard to find in Clinton, Iowa. (I didn’t dream of writing professionally at the time.) Over the Christmas holidays, Mr Olson loaned me a copy of the September, 1950, issue of Weird Tales (a legendary magazine which I’d never seen).

The magazine changed my life. It wasn’t the fiction (though that issue included The Pineys, the subject of my first contact with the author, Manly Wade Wellman) but rather the small display ad for Skull-Face and Others by Robert E Howard.

I’d read Conan the Conqueror, the abridged version of Howard’s Conan novel, and I really wanted to read more of his work. It didn’t seem likely that Skull-Face was still available, but it would only cost me a stamp to learn: I wrote the publisher, Arkham House, in Sauk City, Wisconsin.

I got back an immediate reply on Arkham House stationery, saying that Skull-Face was long out of print but that many other titles were available in the enclosed catalog. The note was signed by August Derleth, a name I was familiar with as editor of anthologies which I’d read in the library.

There were indeed other titles available. I bought some, then bought more; and I began to buy new books as they were published.

I exchanged occasional notes with Mr Derleth. For example, I translated a distich by Lovecraft (That is not dead which can eternal lie/And with strange eons, even death may die) into Latin (I was a Latin major). Mr Derleth thanked me and said that the only way he’d passed Latin at the University of Wisconsin was by blackmailing the instructor. “I didn’t care that he was homosexual, but I needed a passing grade.”

Sauk City wasn’t far from Eastern Iowa, where I was born and raised. In the summer of 1965 I gathered my courage and asked Mr Derleth if I could visit. He agreed, so shortly before the start of classes in the fall my fiancée and I drove north to Sauk City.

Finding Sauk City was easy enough, but then what? We stopped at the post office. I went in and asked in a loud voice, “Excuse me? Can someone direct us to Arkham House?”

The handful of people present stared at me blankly.

“Ah…,” I said. I remembered that Mr Derleth had named his house, so I said, “That is, Place of Hawks?”

More blank looks.

Wondering if somehow I’d gotten to the wrong town after all–Sauk City’s present population is about 3,000 people, and it didn’t seem larger then–I said, “Ah, Mr August Derleth’s–”

“Oh!” said the clerk. “You’re looking for Augie Derleth’s place!” And gave us very simple directions to the house.

April Derleth–she would have just turned 11–opened the door to my knock; her brother Walden, a couple years younger, stood behind her. Mr Derleth boomed for us to come upstairs; he was in the office. (I won’t keep repeating the word ‘boomed’, but feel free to substitute it any time I say, ‘Mr Derleth said.’)

The office was to the right of the stairs. Bookshelves were built around the outer curve of the vast semicircular desk, and the top was littered with more books and papers.

Mr Derleth had just gotten up from a huge typewriter. I asked if it was an electric (I’m not sure I’d ever seen an electric typewriter, but I knew they existed.) Mr Derleth said (boomed, remember) that it was an Olivetti manual machine, the only decent typewriter made; electric typewriters didn’t hold up!

Mr Derleth gave us a capsule tour, displaying his files of comic strips as well as Lee Brown Coye’s art for Three Tales of Terror and the cover proofs for Colonel Markesan. I commented that I didn’t like the color of the latter (Musk Green). Mr Derleth assured me that it was the correct color; and that since he’d written the stories, he should know.

We then went into the stock room (to the left as you came up the stairs) where we chatted further. He waved a copy of the Ballantine paperback of The Survivor and Others (stories which Mr Derleth had written from plot germs gleaned from Lovecraft) and said he didn’t plan to bother with more paperbacks: “There’s no money in it for us.”

And he showed me the book that had just come in from the printers: The Inhabitant of the Lake, by J Ramsey Campbell. He gave me the background.

A British teenager named John Campbell had sent Mr Derleth a Mythos story set in Lovecraftian New England. He’d written the youth back, telling him to change his name (the famous SF editor and writer John W Campbell was still very much alive) and not to use an American setting of which he was ignorant. Campbell (he dropped the J also after this first book and has for more than forty years been simply Ramsey Campbell) had rewritten the story as directed. It still had serious problems, but Mr Derleth had done a massive edit and bought it for an original anthology he’d published through Arkham House.

The next thing he knew, Campbell had sent him a book-length collection of stories. Mr Derleth said he’d groaned, “… because I simply didn’t have time to edit all those stories.” To his surprise and delight, the stories didn’t need editing. Mr Derleth had taken one for the next AH anthology, and he’d published the rest as the book which I now held in my hands.

I looked at the biographical sketch on the back flap. Ramsey was a year younger than me (he was eighteen at the time; sixteen when he’d sold his first story) and looked no more than fifteen in the accompanying photo. I’d always told myself that when I was old enough, I’d sell a story; quite obviously, I was more than old enough.

I didn’t say anything at the time, however. I went home with the books I’d bought (I’d set aside fifty dollars for the purpose) and started my third year at the University of Iowa. Only then did I write Mr Derleth a note, asking whether I might send him a story for the series of original anthologies he was doing. He agreed, though without enthusiasm.

I prepared to write the story by reading Mr Derleth’s third collection of fantasy short stories, Not Long for This World. (I’d bought it before I visited.) I figured that was an ideal way to learn what the editor really thought a fantasy/horror story ought to be.

On its face that was a clever notion, but I ignored the forward to the collection in which Mr Derleth stated explicitly that the stories were fillers intended for the back pages of Weird Tales. They were mediocre pieces which he’d rejected from the two previous AH collections of his work. I read the forward, but the clear meaning of the words doesn’t seem to have penetrated my understanding.

I wrote with determination until I’d finished my story. It was 1,800 words long (roughly seven typed pages) and titled Post Mortem. (Remember, I was a Latin major.) Mr Derleth sent it back, saying that all right, I had a pretty good plot outline: now I needed to write the story. And by the way, the title was terrible.

I buckled down to expanding the story to 3,500 words. (I don’t think it was really quite that long, but I told myself that it was.) I changed the title to After Death.

The story came back again, but this time Mr Derleth said that I was almost there. I should edit out the purple passages and then he would buy it.

At that point I hit a brick wall: I didn’t know what a purple passage was. Remember, I was modeling the story on Mr Derleth’s own work; as a fillip, I even concluded with a line of Italics.

The letter this time didn’t accompany the returned manuscript. Mr Derleth told me that the story still wasn’t right; that he’d have to give it a heavy edit. I should compare the printed version with my carbon and learn how not to write a story the next time. He was enclosing a check for $35 for this purpose; if that wasn’t acceptable, he’d return the story and have nothing further to do with it.

I was devastated. I accepted the offer, but it was over a year before I tried again to write for publication. The final insult was realizing that I was so naive that I hadn’t known I was supposed to keep a carbon.

To this day I don’t know what Mr Derleth changed (not much, I suspect) beyond cutting a reference to The Bride of Frankenstein and (again) the title. The story came out as Denkirch, the name of the lead character, in the 1967 anthology Travellers by Night.

All this should have been a sidelight to the career of a moderately successful attorney. I sold Mr Derleth three more stories, the last on July 3, 1971–the day before he died of a heart attack. If things had gone in a normal fashion, that would probably have been my last fiction sale.

Things weren’t normal for young American men in the late ’60s, however, especially after Mr McNamara, the Secretary of Defense who had been overseeing the Viet Nam War, provided a final gift to the American people by eliminating the draft deferment for graduate students. I was drafted out of the middle of Duke Law School.

Like many other veterans, I came back to The World with no physical injuries but in a very disordered frame of mind. Mr Derleth had given me the tool which I’ve used to keep myself between the ditches all of those years since: the ability to write.

Sure, he was rough as a cob–but if Mr Derleth hadn’t given his time to the incredibly naive kid (which should be obvious to anybody who reads this account) who visited him in August, 1965, I don’t know what would have become of me. The result wouldn’t have been as good, and it might have been very bad indeed.

So thank you, Mr Derleth. If we’d become friends over the next fifteen years (as I did with Manly Wade Wellman) I might call you Augie, but we weren’t on informal terms in life. I’m not going to change that now.

There’s nobody who has done more to earn my thanks.

–Dave Drake, October 2008

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