Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Story That Should Not Be.

August Derleth is a writer both revered and reviled by mythos fans. While this man did the public service of founding Arkham House and keeping Lovecraftian horror alive, he also took it upon himself to take fragments that had been tossed aside by better writers and continue those stories after the writer's death as "collaborations." The back of my Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard collection includes an unfinished Conrad and Kirowan fragment entitled The House. My Nameless Cults collection includes a copy of The House in the Oaks, Derleth's completion of that fragment. This stroke of luck gives me the dubious honor of being able to compare both forms of the story and conclude that its for the best if writers leave unfinished works alone.

See, it wasn't actually Derleth's parts but Howard's that bogged the story down. This isn't a knock on Howard's skill, because the fragment is an unfinished unedited story. But what Derleth does for the first half of House in the Oaks is reprint all of Howard's fragment The House with only elaboration and no discernable pruning. By the time Howard stopped writing he had introduced Conrad, Kirowan, the mystery about the poet Justin Geoffrey, and the House. All necessary elements Derleth continued with when writing his story. Howard also introduced the artist Skuyler and the mayor of Dutchtown. Derleth kept both of these characters. They serve as exposition that could easily have been given by Conrad and disappear during the second act. And by that I don't mean disappear as characters are meant to disappear in a horror story, but they go off in their own directions and don't have any actual bearing on the plot.

Here's the thing:  Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft? These guys aren't normally found in English books as masters of the art form of the short story but they damned sure knew what the hell they were doing with it. These old pulp mag writers either became experts at polishing and pruning and editing their works or they didn't get published. Even paid by the word they didn't waste a single one getting the point across. Every sentance drove the point of the story home by adding to the plot or by adding to the atmosphere. So when the legendary Robert E. Howard makes a story start with four characters introduced not all at once (as a group in an argument, as he did in Children of the Night) but one by one in their own separate elements, either he's going to fucking use four characters or he's going chuck a couple of them to tighten up the story later in the drafting process.

Derleth came up with a good story, I think. But it was a two person story. There was no reason for all four of them to go to the house as the story unfolded, or even for the other two characters to have appeared in person. The exposition from the conversations with the artist and the mayor could easily have been worked into things said by either Conrad or Kirowan. Conrad was already noted as having corresponded with the mayor, any exposition or permission the character gave in person could have been from a letter. Even Skuyler's big important moment when he tries to break into the house but was stopped by Conrad could easily have been transferred to Kirowan. (I've read nothing of the character to suggest he was above property damage under the circumstances). There was no reason to have those characters there other than because Howard introduced them. Derleth should have either made use of them or cut the last two pages from Howard's prose and started his own part earlier.

No doubt Howard fans would have cried out in horror at the butchering of his words, but when has that ever stopped a writer?

Personally, I'd have preferred if he just wrote his own story because while House in the Oaks actually turns out to be a good tale its hardly a satisfying end for a character like Conrad. In it, James Conrad finds himself preoccupied by the House and spends a night there. He is tormented by dreams and ends up dying after attempting to burn it down. He only explains the matter in a letter to his good friend Kirowan.

Now, an occultist who ends up becoming obsessed with a gateway to the next world is a very satisfying story provided that occultist has not already encountered other worlds on two--possibly three--distinct occasions and been close to other people who have also encountered those worlds. I could see this happening to a brand new character, but not freaking Conrad. There is, I supposed, the slightest basis for an argument that he's a different character because he's called James in this story and John in another. But 1) character names change in drafts and 2) he's best friends with a sensible narrator named Kirowan, a guy who is understood to accompany him on any stupid errand than he embarks on.

Anyone who can read knows this isn't a fitting end for Kirowan, so Derleth's story wouldn't have worked with the roles reversed either.

I'd even go so far as to say it wouldn't have worked with O'Donnel, because while O'Donnel would've burnt down the house I can't see him following it up with suicide. I can see him following it up by digging up the oak trees by hand and then hunting down the Geoffrey family to make sure the weird genes didn't get passed on. (Because when that sort of character loses his sanity, he takes a whole bunch of people with him.)

This story would've worked with any new character, or any unfleshed out names from Howard's series like Taverel or Clemants. It doesn't seem right to off Conrad that way, though.

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