August Derleth's The Watchers Out of Time: Fifteen Soul Chilling Tales by HP Lovecraft [and August Derlerth]

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BLOT: (22 Nov 2010 - 07:17:08 PM)

August Derleth's The Watchers Out of Time: Fifteen Soul Chilling Tales by HP Lovecraft [and August Derlerth]

Note, like a lot of the book reviews that are about to be posted en masse this one was originally posted on Goodreads (link to original review). This version represents an edited and expanded rewrite. This review, more than most, contains very very little of the original review and is greatly expanded.

I read this years ago, and hated it. I am not even sure why it got my dander up that much, but I have ideas. I had read the Arkham House collection—The Dunwich Horror and Others (or something to that effect)—and loved it. Changed my view of what sort of things work well as horror. Around Evergreen, it was one of the few books available (and this was the Jefferson Davis Community College library) that had Lovecraft, as opposed to just mentions of Lovecraft. After I had read it, I had nothing else to go on...until I got The Watchers Out of Time shortly after moving to Huntsville. I even bragged to a friend about how awesome Lovecraft had been. Then I read it, and it piecemeal stories with derivative plots and stilted writing. It was like taking a friend to see some movie, because the director or star is usually top notch, and it's worse than dreck drivel. You stand there, money spent, and you feel not just betrayed but also like you have publicly declared your utter lack of taste. Sure, Lovecraft has some issues in the writing department ("The Dunwich Horror" starts off in a heady blend of mood setting and adverb vomiting), but this was not to be admired.

It was not until later that I found out the truth of this volume: it is not Lovecraft. This is the collection of "collaborations" that Derleth wrote, in varying degrees but some suspect nearly totally, based some how on the notes of Lovecraft. Some might have been sentences, story fragments, discussions they had. At any rate, Lovecraft's presence in here is mostly in the types of stories, not in the actual words. Once you realize this, you can enjoy this more. For what that is worth.

A friend recently got it for me as a birthday gift, this newer edition, and so I started re-reading it. It's not that bad (how amazing a review is that? "It did not kill me...") A weird mix of new ideas, "sequels" to Lovecraft stories that did not need sequels, ret-conning of Lovecraft's mythos, and fanfic. A few of the more originally minded stories, and even those are a new and bold definition of original largely based on being the opposite, could probably be added back to a collection of Lovecraft proper and not be detested outright. Still, there is as much to like as to hate, here, and a couple of the stories are quite interesting on their own. I liked the "Dunwich Horror" sequel: "The Shuttered Room", but mostly to the degree that sort of sounds out like a good friend describing the build up to an RPG session (Derleth was spinning Call of Cthulhu RPG adventure hooks before RPGs were even invented, who knew). My other favorites would have been the somewhat uneven "Wentworth's Day" and the needed-a-slightly-different-punch "The Ancestor" (which is basically the story of Altered States but less New Agey and more reptilian). In fact, "The Ancestor" is potentially the most important of the tales because it directly folds back on the most common theme of Lovecraft's horror: there is no particular dignity in being human.

Nadirs include the "The Lamp of Alhazred", which would have earned groans if given away for free on a Lovecraft fan board (Just picture the user name, now, "Auggie D"), and the end of "The Witches Hollow", when a complete lack of tension or danger is created by deus ex Great Ones. Elder things. Outer Gods. What. Ever. Seriously. I once posted to the alt.horror.cthulhu newsgroup a list of things that could make the story better, and there were about a dozen. I was a crappy writer at the time, probably still am, but even I could see a dozen flaws in that story that needed to be fixed. Whether it is worse than "The Street" or "Polaris" is beside the point. Those two read like juvenalia that are only being reprinted now because who their writer became. "The Witches Hollow" reads like something that a grown man wrote and delighted in writing about how big and badass the black depths of horror are, and how it doesn't really matter because bits of shaped pottery are all that it takes to whip them back.

Derleth's name in the Cthulhu Mythos is assured—he named the damned things after all—but this book shows why the Mythos, already showing old age and cracks in their first test-drives by other pilots, needed Lovecraft to glue them together. His style of horror, to what degree of Machen or Blackwood or Dunsany or Poe pastiche that is, is hard to pastiche itself. You have to look at a Universe that seems not to care, to embrace the science that proves it, and then write about how horrible your central philosophy is. I'm not sure if Derleth had the requisite self-hatred to pull this off.

BY WEEK: 2010, Week 47
BY MONTH: November 2010

Written by Doug Bolden

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