John D. Haefele’s “A Look Behind S. T. Joshi’s Review”

It might surprise S. T. Joshi to know how many of our associates in the world of Lovecraft scholarship and fandom are asking that I rebut his scathing review of A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos: Origins of the Cthulhu Mythos.

In that review Joshi reacts to everything he expects me to be saying, while failing to comprehend what is actually said. He does all that he can in one review to draw attention away from the book itself, to deter people from reading it and from deciding for themselves what to believe.

For the record, I do not agree with any of the points Joshi makes in his overlong review — not one.     

Joshi is the official editor for the amateur press association devoted to Lovecraft and weird fiction, Esoteric Order of Dagon. He gathers and mails the various fanzines and journals to the membership, something he has been doing since the 1980s. In 1983, if only occasionally, I began a personal correspondence with Joshi, and it was at his suggestion I joined the EOD in 1994 — making his too-clever remark that I am a “Johnny-come-lately” highly suspect, when we have been moving in many of the same circles for thirty years.

In the August 2007 mailing, Joshi announced to the EOD he had written 80,000 words of The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos. He even patted himself on the back, declaring, “When tackling the absurdities of August Derleth and Robert M. Price I believe I have been commendably restrained.”

Magnanimously, following publication in 2008, already aware there was controversy brewing, he posted the following in his webpage autobiography: “My treatise, The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos (Mythos Books, 2008), appears to have aroused some discussion, as was its purpose” — italics mine.

It must never have occurred to Joshi that I might share my opposing viewpoint beyond the insular world of the EOD — that I would do an end-run and bring my case before the public at large — and so he feigns something akin to astonishment when the book is presented to him by the publisher. In a July 24, 2013 blog he writes:

In Copenhagen, Henrik gave me a copy of John D. Haefele’s A Look Behind the Derleth Mythosa welcome gift (in spite of the fact that it appears to kick my butt on nearly every page), since the book is an attractive but quite expensive hardcover edition. Let’s hope a paperback edition can appear in due course of time. I may write a polite but firm review of this book presently.

At least once before, Joshi had been presented the published book, but refused it.

But on his blog for July 30, 2013 he states:

I have now had the misfortune of reading John D. Haefele’s A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos (H. Harksen Productions, 2012), one of the most pernicious and misguided books on Lovecraft ever written. I feel obliged to write a lengthy and somewhat severe review of it, lest its manifest errors, distortions, misconstruals, and outright lies be unchallenged.

What a revelation it all pretends to be!

But was it really? Joshi already had read most of my work in the EOD.

A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos was begun quite openly in 2006, when I began sharing drafts in my journal Hesperia No. 44, inviting open discussion. Joshi, who as editor seldom makes comments about member contributions, nevertheless made frequent, encouraging comments about mine in the “official organ” of the association, Nuclear Chaos; and on May 20, 2007 in an email wrote, “I’ve decided to go ahead and write a little book on the Cthulhu Mythos … I may well reevaluate some of my positions in light of your comments.”

In Nuclear Chaos No. 140 (2007), Joshi wrote, “Hats off to John Haefele for his exceptionally acute analysis of the ‘Derleth Mythos,’ even though his take on it is significantly different from mine.”

In Hesperia No. 49 (2008), I made this comment: “I appreciate the gracious comment you made in Nuclear Chaos about my work. I’ve been hoping that you and others wouldn’t resent my articles. It’s ironic that you — like August Derleth a generation ago — have positioned yourself on the subject of Lovecraft with such authority, that few points can be made without bringing your name into the discussion.”

In Nuclear Chaos No. 141 (2008), Joshi said, “John Haefele comes through with another fine installment of his monograph on August Derleth and the Mythos”; and in Nuclear Chaos No. 143 (2008), he wrote, “John Haefele’s continuing ruminations on August Derleth demand our respect.”

In Nuclear Chaos No. 148 (2009), Joshi added, “I cannot help directing readers to John Haefele’s pungent rebuttal to my own comments on the Cthulhu Mythos.” Only now I could sense a slight change in his attitude, so I wrote back in Hesperia No. 57 (2010), “Well, ‘pungent’ is a term I hope in the end will not apply to my rebuttal of your analysis of the Cthulhu Mythos in Rise & Fall.”

To ensure there was no misunderstanding, I included the following in my editorial remarks in Hesperia No. 58 (2010), to reiterate what I had been saying all along:

 

“The first and most important thing I want to clarify, before any reader gets the wrong idea, is that I am not criticizing in Hesperia EOD editor S. T. Joshi, not generally and certainly not personally. Truthfully, I am one of S.T.’s biggest fans. On the strength of the Big Two alone, biography and bibliography, S. T. secured his place as the most prominent of the Lovecraft scholars, and with the stunning clarity of The Weird Tale and H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West, most formidable of the critics.

“But I do disagree with S. T. in two important areas—and because his work often and prominently includes what I would overturn, I feel I must confront what he has written directly and openly. Here is what I said about this once before:

“Since our own S. T. Joshi put out (with nary a dissenting voice) the definitive-by-default Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos, he and that book in particular is the springboard I use to frame my own ideas on the subject. S. T. and I disagree in two fundamental areas: the Lovecraft Mythos, and what they mean; and, the literary reputation of August Derleth, the person and his accomplishments. Still, my comments directed at S. T. should be viewed in a somewhat general context, since I write knowing a majority of my readers are on his side of the fence—I believe that in addressing S. T. this way, I am in fact speaking to the group. (Hesperia 56)

“Fortunately, S. T. made it clear that he expected and will encourage the debate he knew would surely follow publication of Rise & Fall. And, frankly, one who does not address Joshi head-on in this arena has little hope of persuading anyone else. My ruminations here and elsewhere about the Mythos is my way of working through the two assumptions (generally accepted, it seems) I find difficult to swallow: first, that Lovecraft carelessly allowed inconsistencies and outright contradictions to creep into his painstakingly crafted creative works; and, second, that August Derleth could have been so absolutely wrong about everything. With regard to the first, I admit that Lovecraft may have intended to foster ambiguity in some situations, and also that certain of his concepts were evolving, but neither to a great extent. My own experiences reading Lovecraft suggest that many of the inconsistencies or contradictions turn upon re-reading (which I am doing now) into ‘irony’ or ‘foreshadowing’, or something else that I would argue was very deliberate.

“What I will finally say about August Derleth, with regard to the pastiches and ‘collaborations,’ must wait until I am done compiling A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos later this summer or in the early fall.  I will say here that the time is past where critics need to marginalize what Derleth did or what he had to say on these subjects. Rather, the unbiased study of Derleth’s contributions should prove both rewarding and enjoyable.”

 

And perhaps I had been just imagining things, for in Nuclear Chaos No. 150 (2010) Joshi wrote, “In my estimation, the top awards [in this mailing] go to … John Haefele, with his thought-provoking essays”; and also from Nuclear Chaos No. 150, “John Haefele as always contributes a thought-provoking discussion of the Lovecraft Mythos.”

Because Joshi knew all along exactly what I was doing, it can only mean that he believed my ideas would never reach beyond the EOD. It is apparent now, not that have I been overestimating Joshi, but that he made the mistake of underestimating me.

I confess that as a twenty-year fellow member of the EOD I was disappointed to see how his review turned into a vicious attack on me personally. To justify this he makes the untrue accusation, “So eager is Haefele to denigrate my work that he resorts to verbal abuse.”

But the loaded words in my book — infrequent as they appear — only target entrenched ideas; and from those Joshi finds four instances (from a 371 pp. book) to cite as examples of my “verbal abuse”:

“hogwash” appears once, referring to the idea Derleth believed Lovecraft had made a “mistake” by not adding a fire elemental to the pantheon;

“rubbish” appears once, referring to the idea Derleth had difficulty selling Mythos stories and was forced to publish them himself;

“absurd” appears only once in connection with Joshi (whose own comment cites “absurdities”), specifically that Derleth is inconsistent or confused with early portrayals of his own gods;

and

“preposterous” (maybe I am missing something, but searching now I find I do not address Joshi using this word anywhere in my book).

 

I leave the reader to judge if A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos: Origins of the Cthulhu Mythos is “pernicious and misguided,” full of the “errors, distortions, misconstruals, and outright lies” Joshi complains of in his July 30, 2013 blog. Or if I just demonstrate that Joshi is completely wrong in almost everything he says in Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos about Derleth — and how his solemn dogma on the wondrous oeuvre of Lovecraft himself is severely and painfully limited.

 

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