The Horror of Sauk City
Note: this article originally appeared on the site Third Coast Digest in 2013.
Just outside of Sauk City, there is a quiet road that leads to an estate. On that estate, there is a cozy-looking sandstone house, surrounded by trees, called the Place of Hawks. And within the Place of Hawks, one of the most quietly influential publishing houses in the United States was born.
Both houses – publishing and domestic – were built by August Derleth. From his first published story in 1926 to his death in 1971, Derleth established himself as one of Wisconsin’s most prolific and diverse writers, the author of over 150 books. His output spans a vast array of genres, including poetry, non-fiction, mystery, juvenile adventure, historical fiction and biography, but his best known works are the “Sac Prairie Saga,” a series of books that take place in Sac Prairie, a fusion of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac. The saga’s crown jewel is often considered to be 1961’s Walden West, Derleth’s attempt to emulate Thoreau’s similar East Coast chronicle through journal writings about his fellow Midwesterners.
Derleth was larger than life in his writing legacy and in life itself. One writer noted that he looked more like a football player or lumberjack, and when fellow Wisconsinite Frank Lloyd Wright told Derleth that the Place of Hawks looked more like a barn, Derleth himself had the witty reply: “Why not? A bull’s going to live in it!”
Yet this bull’s biggest contribution to American literature came not from his own writings, but from the writings of others, carefully curated and edited. And those writings couldn’t have been more different from his own. While Derleth’s works focused on the very real world of middle Wisconsin, the works he edited and published talked of terrifying ancient monsters, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, aliens, barbarians and all other things that go bump in the night. These stories now make up the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, but at the time Derleth began his career writing for the pulp magazines, they were often lumped together in one category: “weird fiction.”
For 32 years, Derleth oversaw Arkham House, a specialty publishing imprint that offered the rare opportunity for authors of weird fiction to have their works published in book form. From Derleth’s office inside the Place of Hawks came a catalog of historically significant publications. The first book by Ray Bradbury, one of science fiction’s most famed and read writers. The first book by Robert Bloch, the Wisconsinite better known as the man who wrote Psycho. An early work by Robert E. Howard, crafter of Conan the Barbarian; the U.S. debut of British horror writer Ramsey Campbell.
And, most significantly, The Outsider and Others, the first published collection of stories by H.P. Lovecraft, a man now considered second only to Edgar Allan Poe in his importance to American horror writing.
It’s a powerful legacy to leave behind, and it all began with one story – the one a young Derleth sold in 1926, at the age of 16. The story was a vampire tale titled “Bat’s Belfry,” and he sold it to a publication that billed itself as “the unique magazine”: Weird Tales.
DAYS OF PULP FICTION
Even beyond its role in publishing Derleth’s early stories, the history of Weird Tales is tied tightly to that of Arkham House itself. Many of Arkham House’s early books were collections of stories that had first appeared in the pages of the magazine and similar pulps – inexpensive magazines published up until the ’50s that commonly were themed to focus on the maxi-genre of “weird fiction.”
Robert Bloch, one of Derleth’s colleagues and a future Arkham House author, first encountered Weird Tales as a young boy at the Northwest Railroad Station in Chicago when his aunt offered to buy him a magazine to read on a train trip. It was an experience he would later chronicle vividly in his autobiography, Once Around the Bloch.
“Literally hundreds of periodicals — including the popular weekly and monthly pulp magazines — ranked in gaudy array. Row after row of garish covers caught the eye — romance, mystery, detective stories, westerns, and every variety of sports. There were even pulps devoted exclusively to railroad yarns, pirates, WWI air combat. I stared at them, fascinated by the abundance of riches.”
After careful scrutinizing, Bloch picked up a copy of Weird Tales and was hooked.
Weird Tales was founded in 1923 and ran for 279 horror-filled issues before folding in 1954. It featured the work of hundreds of pulp fiction writers. Some writers were so prolific that they would write multiple stories per issue, using pseudonyms. Derleth was one of the magazine’s most frequent contributors, writing under his own name and as “Stephen Grendon.”
Robert Bloch’s family moved from Chicago to Milwaukee, where they settled on the East Side. Bloch continued to read Weird Tales, later recalling in his autobiography that he would wake up early on the first of every month to rush down the street to the Ogden Smoke Shop. There he would plunk down 25 cents (a quarter of his monthly allowance) for a copy, then rush home and ravenously read it.
Bloch’s favorite Weird Tales writer was a man relatively unknown outside of the magazine’s readership: Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Eager to read more of his work, Bloch sent him a letter, asking where he might be able to find more of his stories. To his surprise and delight, Lovecraft not only wrote back, but gave a detailed listing of his magazine stories and offered to send him some tearsheets to borrow and read.
Much of Lovecraft’s work was dubbed by Derleth as the “Cthluhu Mythos,” a series of connected storylines where curious minded explorers uncover godlike beings known as “the Ancient Ones,” like the squid-faced, bat-winged Cthulhu, or the space entity Yog-Sothoth, depicted as a mass of tentacles and glowing spheres.
Lovecraft’s life became a mythology of its own. His is the classic and tragic story of a writer who lived in poverty, with his work largely unknown during his life. After his death, his work slowly became popular and celebrated around the world, a huge influence on future horror writers like Stephen King and Clive Barker.
Most of Lovecraft’s life was spent in Providence, Rhode Island, where he boarded with his elderly aunts, living off a meager inheritance and occasionally selling his writing. His own output was small as he focused a lot of his time on letter writing, ghostwriting and revision work. One of Lovecraft’s ghostwriting collaborations was penning a story for Weird Tales credited to magician Harry Houdini titled “Imprisoned With the Pharaohs,” in 1924.
Most of what is known about Lovecraft, everything from his writing habits to his great love of cats, is from examining the thousands of letters he wrote in his lifetime. The people he corresponded with were fellow weird fiction writers or would-be writers. This group is known as the “Lovecraft Circle” and would exchange story ideas and offer opinion and criticism (and sometimes a shoulder to cry on.) Although he met some of his pen pal colleagues, Lovecraft corresponded with others for years and never met them in person.
Derleth first wrote to Lovecraft in 1926, and the two writers went on to exchange approximately 1,000 letters over 11 years, but never met. Derleth was a fan and promoter of Lovecraft’s work and Lovecraft, likewise, was a fan of some of Derleth’s work. He boasted of Derleth’s diverse skill in a letter to Lovecraft Circle writer E. Hoffmann Price, telling him he would send him copies of some of Derleth’s regional themed short stories.
“You will see in these things a writer absolutely alien to the facile little hack who grinds out minor Weird Tales junk,” Lovecraft wrote. “There is nothing in common betwixt Derleth A and Derleth B- no point of contact in their mental worlds- and yet one brain houses them both…artist and businessman, standing back to back and never speaking!”
Robert Bloch also continued his correspondence with Lovecraft, who encouraged him to try his hand at writing. Bloch sold his first story — “The Secret of the Tomb” — to Weird Tales in 1934. Early in their correspondence, Lovecraft suggested that Bloch show some of his work to Derleth, who wasn’t impressed.
“I sent one of my efforts to August Derleth, whose reaction was not quite as favorable,” Bloch wrote. “To put it bluntly – and he did – Derleth told me flat out I would never be a professional writer.”
Despite this initial rejection, Derleth soon re-evaluated Bloch’s work and the two became friends. Derleth would go on to publish Bloch’s first book, The Opener of the Way, in 1945.
By 1953, Bloch and his family had moved from Milwaukee to Weyauwega, where he would pen his most famous work, Psycho. The book was inspired by a ghastly true crime story from a neighboring city, Plainfield, in 1957: The mentally ill Ed Gein was revealed to have had robbed graves and murdered two women, then used their body parts to make furniture and other artifacts in his home. Bloch used this horrifying taxidermy and small town setting to create his most memorable character, Norman Bates.
Despite his move far north, Bloch often visited Derleth out in Sauk City. On one such trip, he and Derleth discussed subsidizing a trip for Lovecraft to come visit Wisconsin over the summer. It never came to pass. On March 15, 1937, Bloch got a somber phone call from Derleth — Lovecraft was dead at age 46.
PRESERVING THE LOVECRAFT LEGACY AND NOTABLE FINDS
Lovecraft’s sudden death came as a shock and loss for his entire circle. Derleth found out about Lovecraft’s death in a letter from Howard Wandrei, one of Lovecraft’s correspondents.
“I read (Wandrei’s) letter on my way into the marshes below Sauk City, where I frequently went to sit in the sun and read, and where that day I had along a volume of Thoreau’s Journal. Instead of reading, however, I sat at a railroad trestle beside a brook and thought of how Lovecraft’s best stories could be published in book form,” Derleth later recalled in the introduction to his retrospective book Thirty Years of Arkham House.
Derleth began speaking to Howard’s brother Donald Wandrei, who was living in Saint Paul, Minnesota, about collecting Lovecraft’s stories into a book format. After the two writers collected a 553-page volume of Lovecraft’s stories from Weird Tales, they took turns showing it to their respective publishers. They were both rejected.
Derleth and Wandrei were determined to have the book, which they titled The Outsider and Others, see print. They soon agreed to self-publish the book, making it the first published under the Arkham House imprint. The title was a tribute to a fictional New England town that Lovecraft used as a backdrop for several of his stories.
The Outsider and Others was slow to sell, but the taste of publishing encouraged Derleth and Wandrei to encourage them to keep trying. They published a compilation of Derleth’s weird fiction, titled Someone in the Dark, in 1941, following it up with Out of Space and Time, by Lovecraft Circle member Clark Ashton Smith, in 1942 and their second Lovecraft collection Beyond the Wall of Sleep in 1943. With four books in print, Arkham House began to see a return on their investment.
Derleth’s best judgement as an editor was the risks he took on younger writers. In 1947 he published a collection of short stories by a young pulp writer named Ray Bradbury, titled Dark Carnival. Bradbury drove Derleth crazy with constant revisions on the volume up until the publishing date, finally sending the final manuscript in with this note attached:
“Dark Carnival was completed under severe strain. I’ve been having the devil’s own time with my personal life in the last six months and this is not conducive to continuous and productive writing. There are times when I am certain that all good writers should be castrated and chained to their typewriters, it would be much simpler.”
Dark Carnival was the only Bradbury book published by Arkham House, but it was far from the only work published: In the years to follow, Bradbury would gain acclaim for his novels The Martian Chroniclesand Fahrenheit 451, making him another successful writer with ties back to the Place of Hawks.
ARKHAM HOUSE’S SECOND GENERATION
Arkham House was never truly financially successful, but the publishing house grew in the decades following its founding nonetheless. August Derleth’s son, Walden, says his father’s success stemmed from his incredible work ethic, and helped the company grow far past the confines of his office.
“He stored books all over the house, but mainly the basement and upstairs in a spare room where he packed the books and got them ready to ship,” Walden said. “In 1968, business had grown so much that he built a warehouse on his land to operate out of, but from 1939- 1967, it was all done out of the house.”
And then one sudden event changed everything. On July 4, 1971, August Derleth returned from a walk to the post office feeling weary and ill. He laid down to rest, and died of a heart attack that same morning.
In the years since, Derleth’s impact on the sci-fi and fantasy genre has gone largely unrecognized, according to his son. “There’s so many times when an award is presented or a biography is written and they forget to mention Dad. I really wish Dad would get credit for what he has done – not just for Lovecraft’s popularity, but for the entire fantasy genre,” Walden said.
But Derleth’s large body of work lives on, thanks in part to the August Derleth Society, formed in 1978 to preserve his legacy. The group works to keep his books in print, and celebrates his work at an annual Walden West Festival held each year in Sauk City.
Arkham House lives on too, although its survival was not as certain. Derleth had predicted that Arkham House would likely die with him and he was nearly right, thanks to a legal battle that cropped up between his founding partner Donald Wandrei and Derleth’s law firm, both of which claimed the rights to the Lovecraft books’ copyrights, which temporarily derailed Arkham House’s attempts to move on in Derleth’s absence.
After a few interim hires, James Turner was named as Arkham House’s new editor in 1974. He began putting projects into production that had been laying dormant since Derleth’s death as well as acquiring new material, including a foray into projects more akin to traditional sci-fi. But after he and August Derleth’s daughter, April, came into conflict over creative differences in 1996, he left the company and she took over as president and CEO.
2014 marks the 75th anniversary of Arkham House’s founding, and while the company is still largely unrecognized, it is still offering an outlet for the publication of “weird fiction.” In 2009, Arkham House teamed up with Canadian publisher George Vanderburgh and his imprint Battered Silicon Dispatch Box to publish a four-volume book set titled The Macabre Quarto in 2009, celebrating what would have been Derleth’s 100th birthday. And while April Derleth may have passed away in 2011, her children Damon Derleth and Danielle Jacobs carry on the family legacy, guiding the little Wisconsin imprint that made a big contribution to American literature.
More articles I’ve written related to Arkham House and H.P. Lovecraft:
Bloch-buster: Milwaukee’s Connection to Psycho, H.P. Lovecraft, and Robert Bloch, Milwaukee Record, 2015
The Lovecraft Expert: An Interview with S.T. Joshi, Innsmouth Free Press, 2013
My new book Apocalypse Any Day Now: Deep Underground with America’s Doomsday Preppers is out now from Chicago Review Press wherever books are sold. You can order a copy here: www.chicagoreviewpress.com/ApocalypseAnyDayNow