Thursday, January 10, 2013

From Jon Breen--A Fine Review


From Jon Breen--A Fine Review

Back in 1969, I sent an absurdly premature suggestion to August Derleth that he publish a collection of my mystery parodies under the Mycroft & Moran imprint of his Arkham House publishing operation. A cordial letter indicated he knew my stories and asked me to send along what I had. A subsequent letter quite rightly pointed out I didn’t have enough for a book but made some helpful suggestions: doing Rex Stout and Mickey Spillane in the same story is a bad idea; add some other familiar subjects. As a literary all-rounder Derleth was already one of my heroes, and now he impressed me with his extraordinarily generosity, with all the demands on his time of his own prolific writing and publishing output, in helping out a novice.

Thus I was surprised to learn recently that in the decades since his death Derleth has been the target of attacks for his personal and business practices in s.f., fantasy, and horror fandom. I came across an anthology, published in 2000 and still in print, that I had never heard of before but had to grab. Arkham’s Masters of Horror (Arkham House), edited by Peter Ruber, is ostensibly a collection of stories by contributors over the years to Arkham House’s publishing line, but the substantial introduction and four-or-five-page essays that precede each story add up to a virtual book-length history of the publisher and biography source on its contributors.

Arkham House was, of course, created by Derleth and Donald Wandrei to publish the works of their under-appreciated hero and mentor H.P. Lovecraft. I have read just enough of Lovecraft’s fiction to know he’s not my cup of tea. (I do admire his critical history Supernatural Horror in Literature and enjoy dipping into his letters.) But several of the writers in Ruber’s volume I am especially interested in—Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Vincent Starrett—and the lives of writers in popular fiction genres always interest me.

Ruber’s introduction, “The Un-Demonizing of August Derleth,” is a successful effort to counter the fannish badmouthing of Derleth. In his operation of Arkham House and its imprints, he had to balance his love for what he was publishing and the interests of business, and per Ruber, he accomplished this with integrity, though he was sometimes reluctant to suffer fools gladly.

While I highly recommend this anthology, it suffers the modern plague of terrible proofreading and copy-editing. Ruber frequently uses the word “prolixity” as the noun for the quality of being prolific. I don’t think so.

Speaking of Derleth, one of his stories from the early ‘30s is reprinted in another highly unusual anthology, The Best of 10 Story Book: From Harry Stephen Keeler’s Spicy Magazine 1919-1940 (Ramble House), edited by Chris Mikul. The mag apparently was a semi-slick, under-the-counter fiction-cum-girly magazine, and the anthology includes some period nude photos, tasteful and tame by current standards. Keeler couldn’t pay much, but he boasted of having no taboos, of publishing fiction other magazine editors would not touch. On the basis of Derleth’s “Two Gentlemen at Forty” and Len Zinberg’s “Little Guy,” I believe him. Both stories have a matter-of-fact treatment of homosexuality I never dreamed would have existed in magazine fiction of the ‘30s. (Zinberg later achieved greater fame as Edgar-winning mystery writer Ed Lacy.) Other familiar names in the anthology include Carroll John Daly, Theodore Pratt, Kenneth Fearing, Jack Woodford, Zora Neale Hurston, Vincent Starrett, Harold Q. Masur, and editor Keeler himself with two stories

1 comment:

Mathew Paust said...

Thank you for this, Ed. I hadn't thought of August Derleth in decades, despite having grown up a few miles from Sauk City in neighboring Columbia County. I remember my dad conveying a sort of vague contempt for Mr. Derleth, the kind usually held for local boys who make good but not great and are considered pretentious. I remember my dad deriding Mr. Derleth for marrying "a girl young enough to be his daughter" and for putting on airs.

My dad used Mr. Derleth's failure to become hugely celebrated to try to discourage my aspirations to write. His comments like "He's a very good writer but he still lives in Sauk City and has to work other jobs" were dispiriting. We had none of his books in our house, but at one point I found a couple of Solar Pons mysteries and enjoyed them. But hardly Conan Doyle, my dad would have implied. No shit, Sherlock, I wish my youthful self could have countered, at least in mind.