Monday, March 1, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Lamp of Alhazred

August Derleth is sometimes treated with disdain by devotees of H.P. Lovecraft and I can see why that is the case. His role in relation to HPL is not dissimilar to that of L. Sprague de Camp in relation to Robert E. Howard: instrumental in popularizing the work of his predecessor while fundamentally misunderstanding it. Unlike De Camp, who not only misunderstood Howard but also, on some level, disliked him, Derleth was one of Lovecraft's biggest fans and, like many a fanboy, he attempted to find ways to twist Lovecraft's conceptions to suit his own predilections. The results, as one might expect, bordered on fan fiction and, yet, for all that, I still think there's something of value to be gleaned from his efforts, however different they clearly are from Lovectaft's own.

One of Derleth's better efforts in my opinion is "The Lamp of Alhazred," which originally appeared in the October 1957 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The short story focuses on thirty year-old Ward Phillips, who receives the titular lamp as a bequest from his grandfather, Whipple, who had died seven years earlier. The lamp, held by Whipple's lawyer until Ward "was mature enough to inherit his grandfather's 'most priceless treasure'," is a most peculiar object, unlike any he had ever seen.

The lamp of Alhazred was unusual in its appearance. It was meant for burning oil, and seemed to be of gold. It had the shape of a small oblong pot, with a handle curved up from one side, and a spout for wick and flame on the other. Many curious drawings decorated it, together with letter and pictures arranged into words in a language unfamiliar to Phillips, who draw upon his knowledge for more than one Arabian dialect, and yet knew not the language of the inscription on the lamp. Nor was it Sancrit [sic] which was inscribed upon the metal, but a language older than that – one of letters and hieroglyphs, some of which were pictographs.

Phillips is entranced by the lamp and spends much time polishing it and then filling it with oil. One night, he lights the lamp and is "mildly astonished at the warmth of its glow, the steadiness of its flame, and the quality of its light." He then sets himself to writing verse in his library. After a time, though, finds that "wherever the light fell, there, superimposed upon the books on their serried shelves, were such scenes as Phillips could not have conjured up in the wildest recesses of his imagination." These scenes depicted events far in the past, when the Earth was young, as well as far-off places like fabled Irem, the Mountains of Madness, and Kadath in the Cold Waste

These visions inspire Phillips, who uses them as the basis for his fictions, which find not only a ready audience but become "parts of the lore of Phillips' innermost being." 

He brought Arkham into reality, and delineated the strange high house in the mist; he wrote of the shadow over Innsmouth and the whisperer in darkness and the fungi from Yuggoth and the horror at Dunwich; and in his prose and verse the light from the lamp of Alhazred shone brightly

If it weren't already apparent, it should now be quite clear that Ward Phillips is a stand-in for Lovecraft and Derleth is telling a fanciful version of HPL's life, albeit a somewhat happier one, devoid of the indignities and deprivations that marred much of the real Lovecraft's adulthood. This becomes even clearer if you're familiar with some of Lovecraft's letters, whose contents Derleth uses to describe Ward's rambles through rural Rhode Island. Unlike Derleth's other "posthumous collaborations" with Lovecraft, these borrowings add verisimilitude and poignancy to "The Lamp of Alhazred," which, at its base, is a work of hagiography. Derleth clearly admired and loved the elder author, with whom he began a correspondence in 1926, when he was only 17 years-old. Whatever else one may say about August Derleth, he was H.P. Lovecraft's friend and supporter (many of Lovecraft's stories only received publication because Derleth surreptitiously submitted them, for example) and "The Lamp of Alhazred" is a strangely affecting tribute to the Old Gent of Providence.


  1. The best I can really say about Derleth's Mythos work is that he meant well, unlike (say) Brian Lumley. And if I'm being honest, I find his "Solar Pons" stuff to be as enjoyable a Sherlock Holmes pastiche as I've ever encountered. Haven't read any of his other work but I'm told his kid's books were well-written.

  2. Another detail of Lovecraft's life that Derleth used here: Whipple Phillips is the name of Lovecraft's maternal grandfather.

  3. I would like to add that very very likely, if it was not for Derleth, none of us would have heard of HPL. much of his work was published posthumously, and while Weird Tales often put his work on the cover, where did they get it? Augie D

    1. Not to mention that Derleth co-founded Arkham House, the major publisher of Lovecraft's work in book form.

    2. The same is true for most of Robert E. Howard's work.

      The influential versions of those books for early D&D, and many of the common tropes in the game are from the de Camp versions.

      A lot of pulp stories might never have been saved, given the condition of pulp preservation today, if not for the people that it's so popular to talk shit about today.

    3. Is there a market for printed pulp novels today? Anything beyond pathetic mom porn and YA wonders aimed at barely literate 14 year olds? SF/F is ruled by a few gigantic media brands and conglomerates which have no tolerance for anything other than bland mass market sludge designed for the lowest common denominator.