Monday, June 5, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Shuttered Room

After last week's review of The Fungi from Yuggoth, I found myself thinking about poor old August Derleth and the vitriol he's received over the years from admirers of H.P. Lovecraft. On many levels, I completely understand the venom directed at him. His vision of what he termed "the Cthulhu Mythos" stands in stark contrast to HPL's understanding of his own work. While Lovecraft espoused a cosmicism verging on the nihilistic, Derleth offered instead a more conventional (and pulp fiction-inspired) good versus evil philosophy, one in which brave men of erudition, armed with all manner of occult armament, go toe to toe with the alien forces of the Mythos and win. To purists, this is an unforgivable sin.

I find it difficult to disagree with the purists, simply on the level of basic reading comprehension. Derleth does not seem to have understood Lovecraft or his worldview – or, if he did, he chose to set aside that understanding, substituting in its place something he felt more suited to turning the Mythos into a money-making operation. That Derleth spent decades asserting the sole right of his publishing venture, Arkham House, to control of Lovecraft's copyrights and legacy only adds more fuel to the anti-Derlethian fire that continues to rage to this day.

Yet, for all that, I find it difficult to condemn him for the role he played in warping the popular understanding of H.P. Lovecraft and his works. As I have argued elsewhere, his pulp-inflected version of the Cthulhu Mythos deviates wildly from Lovecraft's original, almost to the point of becoming a parody of it, but, without it, I don't think, for example Call of Cthulhu would have been possible, let alone most other pop culture examples of so-called "cosmic horror." I don't think this can be reasonably disputed, though I am sure there are purists who would be willing to give up Call of Cthulhu or Hellboy or Quake in exchange for a world free from Derleth's abhorrent misinterpretations of Grandpa Theobald's unwavering cosmicism.

I am not one of them, which is why I still retain some fondness for some of Derleth's Mythos fiction, including his many "posthumous collaborations," like "The Shuttered Room," which first appeared in a 1959 anthology of the same name. The story concerns the return of Abner Whateley to his hometown of Dunwich after years away "at the Sorbonne, in Cairo, in London." Abner, we learn, was different from the other Whateleys in that, from early childhood, he wanted to get as far away from the lands of his ancestors as possible. He feared "the wild, lonely country" of his birth and his "grim old Grandfather Whateley in his ancient house attached to the mill along the Miskatonic." Only family business could bring him back.

And nothing was stranger than that Abner Whateley should come back from his cosmopolitan way of life to heed his grandfather's adjurations for property which was scarcely worth the time and trouble it would take to dispose of it. He reflected ruefully that such relatives as still lived in or near Dunwich might well resent his return in their curious inward growing and isolated rustication which had kept of the Whateleys in this immediate region, particularly since the shocking events which had overtaken the country branch of the family on Sentinel Hill.

If this set-up seems all too familiar, it's because it is. Leaving aside Derleth's lifelong obsession with "The Dunwich Horror," the HPL story that provided him with the foundation stones for his interpretation of the Mythos, the set-up of "The Shuttered Room" is one we've some many times before in Lovecraft's stories – and Derleth's imitations of them. From "The Festival" and "The Call of Cthulhu" to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and many others, a recurring plot element of Lovecraft's work is the return of a protagonist to the home of his ancestors or relations that leads to unexpected (and frequently unwelcome) revelations about the world and himself. I can't really fault Derleth for making use of it here, since he was only following in the footsteps of his friend and mentor. Nevertheless, its use does make it clear that "The Shuttered Room" is yet another pastiche rather than something more original.

Abner his inherited his grandfather's old home upon his death. Once he arrives there, he finds an envelope, inside of which is a letter written in "spidery script" that explains why his grandfather, Luther, had insisted he come back to Dunwich after so many years away.


When you read this, I will be some months dead. Perhaps more, unless they find you sooner than I believe they will. I have left you a sum of money – all I have and die possessed of – which is in the bank at Arkham under your name now. I do this not alone because you are my one and only grandson but because among all the Whateleys – we are an accursed clan, my boy – you have gone forth into the world and gathered to yourself learning sufficient to permit you to look upon all things with an inquiring mind ridden neither by the superstition of ignorance nor the superstition of science. You will undersrand my meaning.

It is my wish that at least the mill section of this house be destroyed. Let it be taken apart, board by board. If anything in it lives, I adjure you, solemnly to kill it. No matter how small it may be. No matter what form it may have, for it seem to you human it will beguile you and endanger your life and God knows how many others. 

Heed me in this.

The letter reminds Abner of how, when he was a boy, his "enigmatic, self-righteous" grandfather had reacted strongly at the mention of his mother's sister.

The old man had looked at him out of eyes that were basilisk and answered, "Boy, we do not speak of Sarah here."

Aunt Sarey had offended the old man in some dreadful way – dreadful, at least, to that firm disciplinarian – for from that time beyond even Abner Whateley's memory, his aunt had only been the name of a woman, who was his mother's older sister, and who was locked in the big room over the mill and kept forever invisible within those walls, behind the shutters nailed to her windows. It had been forbidden both Abner and his mother even to linger before the door of that shuttered room, though on one occasion Abner had crept up to the door and put his ear against it to listen to the snuffling and whimpering sounds that went on inside, as from some large person, and Aunt Sarey, he had decided must be as large as a circus fat lady, for she devoured so much, judging by the great platters of food – chiefly meat, which she must have prepared herself, since so much of it was raw – carried to the room twice daily by old Luther Whateley himself, for there were no servants in that house, and had not been since the time Abner's mother had married, after Aunt Sarey had come back, strange and mazed, from a visit to distant kin in Innsmouth.

 And there it is! One of the reasons I chose to write about "The Shuttered Room" is because it's a great example of one of Derleth's great flaws: his fanboyish desire to find a way to connect the disparate parts of Lovecraft's works into a unified whole. Hence, in this story, he finds a way to link "The Dunwich Horror" to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" – in addition to extensive borrowings, references, and allusions to many, many HPL stories and ideas. "The Shuttered Room" is thus a showcase of Derleth's almost adolescent adoration of Lovecraft.

And yet, for all of that, it's not a terrible story. Indeed, it's cleverer than one might imagine, since the story's revelations about Abner's grandfather, Aunt Sarey, and why the mill section of the house must be destroyed are not quite what you might expect. Indeed, Derleth almost comes close to offering an inversion of and commentary upon "The Dunwich Horror." At the very least, this isn't a simple retelling of his favorite Lovecraft tale, which sets its apart from much of his other contributions to the Mythos.

This isn't to say that "The Shuttered Room" is a great work, but it's nevertheless engaging in a predictable sort of way – the literary equivalent of "comfort food." It's also the kind of story that hits home, I think, just how much Call of Cthulhu and contemporary "Lovecraftian" media owes to Derleth. "The Shuttered Room" is not a story HPL himself could have written, but it could easily be the basis for a CoC scenario, an episode of The X-Files, or a Stuart Gordon movie. Sometimes, that's enough.


  1. without Derleth, no one you know, no one reading this, basically, NO one would remember HPL at all. there are tons of way more popular writers, etc that are all forgotten by later generations. the treadmill of popular culture.

    Who here remembers Bing Crosby? some I am sure, but he literally had 3 of the top five movies in a year, and 5 of the top twenty songs that year. he was bigger than the beatles. and now, he is a trivia question.

    HPL was a third string genius, who would have been completely fogotten except for collectors of Pulp Magazines like Gary Gygax.

  2. Lovecraft himself left the notion that there might be a “Mythos” by including references to his creations in multiple stories. It’s not just The Dunwich Horror that mentions Yog-Sothoth; At The Mountains of Madness discusses the war between the Elder Things and Cthulhu’s race; Nyarlathotep appears everywhere… I haven’t read any Derleth, but it sounds like he was elaborating on hints already planted.

    1. But there's the rub, Lovecraft was deliberately contradictory about similar terminology. "Elder Things" is an artificial taxonomy, a Chaosium-created convenience. In the story, they are "Old Ones". In The Call of Cthulhu, Great Cthulhu is the High Priest of the Old Ones, "though he spies them only dimly". Derleth was piecing together bits of lore that were never intended to fit together neatly.

    2. That’s a good catch, that I instinctively used the CoC terminology. But I don’t think that using the term “Old Ones” to refer to different things really contradicts my assertion. A better objection might be how protagonists think Kadath and Leng refer to locations on our Earth, rather than in dream. But that could just be confusion on their part, that they don’t really have a clear picture.

      Which is maybe your point? That Derleth coalesces Lovecraft’s hints into a definitive framework when it should have been left vague? I agree that that is a mistake, that the protagonists and reader can’t know the full truth without making a mockery out of the idea that such truth would drive people mad. I think “The King in Yellow” handled this better by never even hinting at what lay in anything after the supposedly banal Act I.

      Anyway, this is a subtle and understandable mistake on Derleth’s part, unlike his recasting of the Mythos as some Manichaean battle.

    3. Yeah, it sounds like we are largely on the same page. I tend to think that Derleth's approach was equally marred by his attempts to reconcile various incompatible fragments scattered through Lovecraft and others and also his systematizing everything as "good guys" and "bad guys", but I suspect that it all had to do with his unexamined Catholicism. My understanding is that Lovecraft was deliberate in his attempts to make those various fragments contradictory, though as I can't find a statement to that effect at the moment it could well be me misremembering. I know that Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea were also explicit about attempting to introduce a contradiction on every page of Illuminatus!, and that might be somehow conflated with Lovecraft in my memory, or something.

  3. Derleth is given a negative light in the past 20+ years, but despite J.T. Joshi's rants on how non-Lovecraftian his stories are, if it wasn't for Derleth and Arkham House, HPL would have been a minor footnote in the annals of horror fiction.

  4. I've calmed down a lot about Derleth since I first encountered his Lovecraft pastiches... and I do appreciate his Arkham House preservation of Lovecraft (who I first heard of long before CoC).
    And I'll still prefer Derleth's flavor of the Mythos over Brian Lumley's 'guns against Cthulu' stuff every time.