October 28, 2014 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
August Derleth loved Lovecraft’s writing. Unfortunately while he understood the form of the fiction but never quite grasped the mechanism of what made it terrifying. Hence we end up a lot of stories which follow the structure of Lovecraft’s stories – academic protagonists make a terrible, sanity shattering discovery long after the reader figured things out, encountering polyconsonantal entities from beyond time and space, concluding with an italicized sentence – but lacking generally actual scares or sense of cosmic horror. It is like a small child telling a joke – They know the words but don’t understand why it is funny or how to convey the humor themselves.
Working on The Arkham Gazette I’ve been reading a lot of Derleth lately; he made frequent use of the Lovecraft Country setting and Keith Herber used certain parts of of Derleth’s creations in the development of the Lovecraft Country books for Call of Cthulhu. My opinion of Derleth as a horror author has not much improved in these readings though. Frankly, it has been a bit of a chore to grind through these.
Nevertheless, I want to use today’s entry in our October-ganza series to offer some praise for August Derleth, specifically something he did much better than HPL – his female characters. Some may suggest that doing better with women than Lovecraft is a pretty low bar – Asenath Waite aside, there just aren’t that many – but I find this element to be a redeeming feature of Derleth’s works.
My favorite example is Rhoda Prentiss, from the story “The Shadow in the Attic”. Fiancée of the story’s dim-witted protagonist Adam Duncan, it is through her research and quick action that the occult menace of the story is resolved; she is perhaps a prototypical Call of Cthulhu investigator – she avoids the supernatural location, spends her time researching the inexplicable occurrences in several libraries, and then burns the haunted house down.
In honor of Rhoda Prentiss, I present a character write-up of her (as she appeared in the course of that story). The character sketch is drawn from Derleth’s story, though I have filled in some of the gaps with my own supposition…