We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.- H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
Across from Lueders Road in St. Aloysius Cemetery, Sauk City, Wisconsin, is the grave of August Derleth, founding editor-publisher of Arkham House. On the other side of that road is Arkham House itself, the place where Derleth devoted the last thirty-two years of his life ushering macabre writers out of the obscurity of the pulps and into the hardcovers of an entirely new niche in genre fiction. “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” reads Derleth’s epitaph, in Thoreau’s words, “and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” A prolific writer of everything from regional Midwestern literature, children’s books, and Sherlock Holmes pastiches to supernatural horror, Derleth’s career in writing was a lifelong venture into strange woods. But of all the unbeaten paths he took along the way—as parole officer, Wisconsin Education Board president, literary editor, university lecturer, and novelist—unarguably his foray into publishing was his most important contribution to literature.
Like all good tales of death and necrophilia, the story of Arkham House begins not with its founding but in the passing of a close friend: H.P. Lovecraft. Like Edgar Allan Poe, whose writing style is cited above all other influences for informing the stylistic conventions of the weird fiction genre, Lovecraft and his literary accomplishments went largely unnoticed and unappreciated during his lifetime. Both masters of horror suffered a similar fate: to die deranged, penniless, and unread, in great physical pain and psychological misery.
Literary critics often write off H.P. Lovecraft as a hack who suffered from rampant "adjectivitis" and an affliction known as misanthropy. Lovecraft was many things, including a racist, a social Darwinist, a fascist, a misogynist, an anti-Semite, and a misanthrope—but he was not a hack. Part of what has ushered Lovecraft into the literary canon is exactly his "purple prose" and his rejection of the staid dictates of literary realism—the same can be said of Edgar Allan Poe. In the English translation of H. P. Lovecraft: Against The World, Against Life, the French novelist and critic Michel Houellebecq argues that Lovecraft’s esoteric style amounts to an subversion of literary realism. Lovecraft's overdescription of the abstract is an exercise in the failure of literary realism to come to terms with the truly alien forces that he believed were at work in the universe. Lovecraft was an avowed atheist, rationalist, and materialist, whose "cosmicist" philosophy can be described as an inversion of Enlightenment principles. Not only does cosmicism reject all of humanism’s anthropocentric notions, but it casts humanity as an unimportant part of a cosmos governed by alien forces that are ultimately indifferent to human ideals. Lovecraft’s "God" is helpless and inane, existing outside the human definitions of good and evil:
[Outside] the ordered universe [is] that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes. - The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kaddath
Understandably, fans and scholars of Lovecraft would be upset when August Derleth, in expanding upon Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, reinterpreted the mythology through a Judeo-Christian lens by describing its "gods" as corresponding to the four elements and dividing them into camps of good and evil alignment. At the same time, Lovecraft’s fans owe their enthusiasm for Lovecraft’s work to the same man, for without Derleth’s tenacity, the Cthulhu Mythos and its creator would have disappeared into oblivion shortly after his death.
On March 10, 1937, Lovecraft died of malnutrition and intestinal cancer, believing himself a literary failure. He only wrote for two magazines other than Weird Tales—Amazing Stories and Home Brew. None of his stories were ever successfully published in book form; in 1924, he wrote Shunned House, which was printed in 1928 by Recluse Press, but was never bound or distributed. G.P. Putnam’s Sons rejected Lovecraft’s stories, and even At the Mountains of Madness did not initially make it into print. His autobiography, published posthumously, was entitled “Some Notes on a Nonentity.”
The Old or Ancient Ones, the Elder Gods, of cosmic good, and those of cosmic evil, bearing many names, and themselves of different groups, as if associated with the elements and yet transcending them: for there are the Water Beings, hidden in the depths; those of Air that are the primal lurkers beyond time; those of Earth, horrible animate survivors of distant eons. August Derleth, The Return of Hastur
Five days after Lovecraft’s death, August Derleth’s colleague, Donald Wandrei, wrote to his fellow writer to inform him of the author’s passing. Derleth wrote back, insisting to Wandrei that they work together to publish Lovecraft’s work. After Charles Scribner’s Sons refused to publish the collection of stories Wandrei and Derleth put together, the two borrowed a name of one of the fictional New England locales in Lovecraft’s stories and formed Arkham House to publish the manuscript themselves. Arkham House had thirteen hundred copies of The Outsider and Others printed for five dollars (or $3.50 if preordered). They advertised in Weird Tales and other pulp magazines. The book sold poorly, and only one-hundred fifty preorders were filled, but Derleth and Wandrei nevertheless believed a market for Lovecraft’s fiction existed. Arkham House emerged in an era when science fiction and fantasy was relatively unknown. In 1941, Derleth published a collection of his own short stories, Someone in the Dark, at two dollars a copy, in an effort to keep Arkham House alive.
By 1942, Derleth was left to manage Arkham House by himself as Donald Wandrei was drafted into World War II. That year, Derleth published Clark Ashton Smith’s Out of Space and Time and a second collection of Lovecraft stories, Beyond the Wall of Sleep. The press run was limited to 1,217 copies due to World War II restrictions. When copes of Beyond the Wall of Sleep sold out in 1944, Derleth’s beliefs about the market were affirmed, and he decided to broaden the mission of Arkham House—in addition to preserving Lovecraft’s writing, Arkham would exclusively publish unknown authors from the weird fiction genre and out of print titles. The first to join the ranks were the rest of Lovecraft’s confidants: Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard. Between 1944 and 1945, Derleth brought in Henry S. Whitehead, Evangeline Walton, and J. Sheridan LeFanu, as well as completed Lovecraft’s short story, “The Lurker at the Threshold,” from the author’s notes.
Arkham’s two imprints, Mycroft and Moran and Stanton & Lee, existed only briefly in Arkham’s history. The former, named after characters in Sherlock Holmes stories, was devoted to publishing Derleth’s “Solar Pons” series, which were Derleth’s Sherlock Holmes pastiches. Stanton & Lee published a children’s book written by Derleth and illustrated by Clare Victor Dwiggins entitled Oliver, the Wayward Owl.
Arkham House was never financially stable in any of its sixty-five-plus years. In 1946, Derleth acquired Algernon Blackwood, H. Russell Wakefield, and A.E. Coppard, but his house operated consistently in the red; in order to keep the company afloat, he would funnel the income from titles he authored into Arkham House’s shrinking profit margin. “The fact is that in no single year since its founding,” wrote Derleth in Thirty Years of Arkham House, “have the earnings of Arkham House met the expenses, so that it has been necessary for my personal earnings to shore up Arkham House finances.” Despite the publisher’s many financial hardships, Derleth’s Arkham House survived its competitors, who rose up after Derleth brought weird fiction to the public eye: Gnome Press (1948-1962), Fantasy Press (1946-1951), and Prime Press (1947-1951) included. Only Advent Publishers (1956) and Mirage Press (1967) continue to exist alongside Arkham today.
Before the 1950s threw a wrench into the operations of independent publishers, Arkham House was known for the quality of its hardcovers and binding (the house did not issue a paperback until 1979), as well for its publisher’s perspicacity for acquiring new talent. In 1947, Derleth published Ray Bradbury’s first collection of short stories, Dark Carnival. Happy to have his writing see the light of day, the unknown Illinois writer said of Derleth, “I’m grateful to August Derleth for changing my life and giving me hope.” Like the first edition of The Outside and Others, the first edition of Dark Carnival, which sold for three dollars in 1947, is now worth thousands of dollars to collectors. In addition to Bradbury, Arkham House was the first to publish A.E. van Vogt, E.E. Smith, Fritz Leiber, and Isaac Asimov in hardcover, and Derleth was the first to introduce American audiences to British science fiction and fantasy novelists L. P. Hartley, Cynthia Asquith, and William Hope Hodgson. But by the twentieth century’s fifth decade, large publishers like Doubleday and Scribner decided that it was time to capitalize on Derleth’s nascent niche market. They grabbed up many of Arkham’s star authors (including Asimov and Bradbury), forcing Arkham House to scale back its titles. Unable to compete, Derleth focused on publishing Lovecraft’s many letters during the 1960s in lieu of more titles.
Throughout the sixties, Derleth anticipated the death of Arkham House and the death of the market for small, independent publishers. He invested over twenty-thousand dollars of his private funds into the company during this period, until his death at sixty-two in 1971.
That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die. H.P. Lovecraft - The Call of Cthulhu
Despite Derleth’s fears, however, horror fiction became popular in the seventies with the success of novels like William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) and Stephen King’s Carrie (1974). Derleth’s estate fell into the hands of his children, April and Walden Derleth. Though the details of the dispute have never been made public, Derleth’s estate appointed a fan named James Turner (who had no editorial experience), as editor-in-chief of Arkham House following Derleth’s death. Donald Wandrei, who had been involved in Arkham House since his return from World War II as its managing editor, left the company after Turner’s appointment.
Under Turner, Arkham House’s focus shifted from weird fiction and fantasy to science fiction. In 1974 and 1975, Turner introduced science fiction authors Michael Bishop, Greg Bear, and James Tiptree, Jr. The Wind From a Burning Woman became Arkham’s fastest selling anthology, but success came at the cost of alienating Arkham’s traditional readers.
The eighties invited Lovecraft biographer S.I. Joshi to collaborate with Turner on adjusting Arkham’s continuing mission. While Turner felt that part of Arkham’s mission was to keep publishing important authors on the house’s backlist, Joshi urged the editor to look for new acquisitions. In the eighties and nineties, Arkham House published the compilation Arkham’s Masters of Horror and John D. Harvey’s bestselling horror novel, The Cleansing. Alexander Jablokov’s 1994 The Breath of Suspension, which merged the supernatural horror of weird fiction with more traditional science fiction, was also a success. The Derleth estate, however, felt that Turner had allowed Arkham to veer too far from its roots, and in 1995, April Derleth fired Turner. He immediately set to starting up Gryphon Press, whose first title was published in 1997, but he suffered an untimely death in 1999.
April Derleth became president of Arkham House in 2002, having appointed Robert Ruber as her consulting editor. The house’s new mission is to return to classic weird fiction. In 2005, Arkham House was awarded the World Fantasy Award for Small Press Achievements—the trophy was a bust of H.P. Lovecraft.
For over more than sixty-five years, Arkham House has published two-hundred titles, surviving both the rise of the mega-publishers and the evolution of a genre that has mainly subsisted on the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft. From the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Arkham has kept alive Lovecraft’s otherworldly nightmares and influenced authors like Stephen King and Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy); artists like H.R. Giger (Alien movies), Clive Barker (Hellraiser), Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, The Watchmen and From Hell), Mike Mignola (Hellboy) and Neil Gaiman (The Sandman series); and directors such as John Carpenter (In the Mouth of Madness), Stuart Gordon, and Robert Wise. Adored by old-school Dungeons and Dragons role-playing gamers, the iconic Great Old One Cthulhu and its mythology were incorporated into the game by the late Gary Gygax; Chaosium Games and Wizards of the Coast followed suit with the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. And in 2008, no comic convention in the country is without bumper stickers advocating “Cthulhu for President.”