Vintage Treasures: The Trail of Cthulhu by August Derleth

Vintage Treasures: The Trail of Cthulhu by August Derleth

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The Trail of Cthulhu by August Derleth (Ballantine, 1976). Cover by Murray Tinkelman

August Derleth is revered among modern fans chiefly for his singular accomplishment: founding Arkham House to publish H.P. Lovecraft. The fact that Lovecraft, who remained obscure throughout his life and was published solely in low-circulation pulp magazines like Weird Tales, is remembered at all is arguably due to the tireless efforts of Derleth and his fellow editors, who reprinted Lovecraft in quality hardcover editions and brought his work to a wider audience.

Derleth was also a prolific writer, and here his reputation is less steller. He chiefly wrote what we’d call Lovecraft fan fiction today, and his adventure-themed tales were often very far removed from the cosmic horror tone of his idol. Perhaps his most popular story cycle was The Trail of Cthulhu, a series of interconnected stories that chronicle the heroic struggles of Laban Shrewsbury and his associates against the Great Old Ones, especially Cthulhu. Perry Lake at Goodreads has a fine (and very concise) review.

Derleth never really understood Lovecraft’s mythos, with a cold, unfeeling universe and humanity as an afterthought. But Derleth did understand a derring-do adventure with good guys versus bad guys, and that’s exactly what he wrote here. Laban Shrewsbury is probably the only real hero in the Mythos and in him we see the terrible costs of staring into the Void. This book is a treat for all fans of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Hugo Negron offers a counterpoint that’s a little harsher, but equally on target I think.

August Derleth had always written a lesser imitation of Lovecraft’s works and subverted HPL’s Cthulhu Mythos… from alien creatures/a universe that were indifferent to mankind to a good guys vs. bad guys God/Satan overture that was as far away from Lovecraft’s concepts as one could go… This book seemed to promise quite the adventure – a mysterious wizard-like professor, putting together a team to go around the world to locate and destroy the top organization that worships Cthulhu and eventually Cthulhu himself!… Five interconnected stories or chapters, each told from the viewpoint of one of Professor Shrewsbury’s companions as they are introduced to the Professor and pursue a singular adventure (until all of the companions join up at the end)… It’s a decent enough read for a fan of the genre, as I am, realizing you are getting Lovecraft lite, but boy, what this premise could have been…

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The Trail of Cthulhu (Arkham House, 1962). Cover by Richard Taylor

The Trail of Cthulhu was originally published in hardcovered by Arkham House in 1962. Here’s the complete contents.

“The House of Curwen Street” (Weird Tales, March 1944)
“The Watcher from the Sky” (Weird Tales, July 1945)
“The Gorge Beyond Salapunco” (Weird Tales, March 1949)
“The Keeper of the Key” (Weird Tales, May 1951)
“The Black Island” (Weird Tales, January 1952)
A Note on the Cthulhu Mythos by August Derleth

The Trail of Cthulhu was reprinted in paperback by Ballantine in 1976. It is 216 pages, priced at $1.50. The cover art is by Murray Tinkelman.

See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.

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Mario Guslandi

Pretty good article, John!

Joe H.

I do like that Ballantine cover — my original copy of Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath was in the same style (I think it was their first set of Lovecraft reprints after the BAF editions, but before the black & white Michael Whelan covers).

I know I’ve read at least some Derleth, but I have to admit I’ve never been a fan. I do respect everything he did to found Arkham House and keep Lovecraft et al. in print, but I do think he misunderstood Lovecraft at a fairly fundamental level.

Thomas Parker

When I look at the Arkham House books on my shelf, any quibbles about Derleth “not getting Lovecraft” (an arguable assertion in any case) are rendered completely moot. The only proper statement I can make about the man is to acknowledge how very much I – all all other lovers of the fantastic – owe him.

James McGlothlin

Derleth, I believe, was actually a fairly well-known regional writer in his day. I recently was helping to clean out a relative’s house who had passed away and they had a collection of “American” short stories, not horror or fantasy. August Derleth had a story in there. I kept the book, but haven’t read the story yet.

Thanks for the article John. Regardless of his brand of Cthulhu, he shouldn’t be forgotten.

John E. Boyle

Although I prefer his Solar Pons stories to his other writings, I think that Derleth doesn’t receive enough credit for his work as an editor and publisher. If you take a look at the bibliography of Arkham House (either Wikipedia or Infogalactic), you’ll see an immense list of works by authors of Weird Fiction that included Robert E. Howard.

August Derleth was responsible for keeping the work of many great authors in print, not just H.P. Lovecraft.

Salute, Mr. Derleth!

Bob Byrne

‘He chiefly wrote what we’d call Lovecraft fan fiction today.’

My, my, my: what am I going to do with you, John?

Derleth wrote more stories about Solar Pons, than Arthur Conan Doyle did about Sherlock Holmes. He also wrote other mysteries, including the Judge Peck series.

And he was an award-winning writer of regional non-fiction.

John R. Fultz

I know a lot of Lovecraftian “purists” don’t like TRAIL OF CTHULHU, but I personally love it. I discovered this book in the library when I was a freshman in collage–and I couldn’t put it down. I had read a few HPL stories, but this was HPL on steroids–a fast-paced globe-hopping adventure that played over the background of HPL’s Cthulhu Mythos. It set me on the path to read a lot more mythos-related books, such as Lumley’s THE TRANSITION OF TITUS CROW. TRAIL OF CTHUHLU may feel more like a good game of the CALL OF CTHULHU rpg than one of HPL’s original creations, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s a creepy and exciting read–one that would make a really cool film as well.

John R. Fultz

D’oh! That’s “college” not “collage” LOL

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