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Eldrich Horrors and Batrachian Monsters
on September 23, 2014
_The Watchers Out of Time_ (2oo8) is a collection of fifteen old fashioned supernatural stories credited to H.P LOVECRAFT and august derleth. In fact, the stories were written exclusively by August Derleth between roughly 1953 and 1966. They were claimed by Derleth to be "posthumous collaborations" based on unpublished Lovecraftian writing. But Lovecraft scholars like S. T. Joshi long ago established that Lovecraft's contributions to these tales was minimal-- sometimes amounting to only a line or two. All of the stories in this book have been listed as "spurious Lovecraft stories," though publishers never seem to tire of palming them off as genuine Lovecraft stories. They range in quality from the awful ("The Shuttered Room" and "The Horror from the Middle Span"), to the routine pastiche ("The Shadow Out of Space" and "The Peabody Inheritance"), to the mildly imaginative ("The Survivor" and "The Gable Window"), to the above average ("The Fisherman of Falcon Point" and "The Lamp of Alhazred"). Since I have discussed many of these stories and their origins in some detail in reviews of other collections,* I have decided to look at Derleth's stories from another angle in this review. How well does he handle Lovecraftian diction-- words like cyclopean, eldrich, and antediluvean? (I systematically eliminated specialized words like Necronomicon, Dagon, Cthulhu, and Abdul Alhazred.)
Let us start by looking at the diction describing two monsters appearing in these pages:
"There, squatting in the midst of the tumbled bedding from that long-abandoned bed, sat a monstrous, leathery-skinned creature that was neither frog nor man, one gorged with food, with blood slavering from its batrachian jaws and upon its webbed fingers-- a monstrous entity that had strong, powerfully long arms, grown from its bestial body like those of a frog, and tapering off into a man's fingers, save for the webbing between the fingers..." ("The Shuttered Room,"158)
"This was the thing I had killed. Half-man, half-saurian, it was a ghastly travesty upon what had once been a human being. Its clothes were split and torn by the horrible mutilations of the flesh, by the crusted skin which had burst its bonds, its hands and unshod feet were flat, powerful in appearance, claw-like. I gazed in speechless terror at the shuddersome tail-like appendage which pushed bluntly out from the base of the spine, at the terrible elongated, crocodilian jaw, to which still grew a tuft of hair..." ("The Survivor," 24)
The first creature is a froglike monster (and therefore an amphibian). The second is a crocodile-type monster (and therefore a reptile). Derleth is thus perfectly correct to use "batrachian" ("amphibious") to describe the first creature. But in the buildup to the second tale, Derleth not only uses reptilian adjectives but also "batrachian" and "ichthic" ("fishlike") to describe his monster. The words may be visually impressive, but the biology isn't very sound.
But when we get to "The Fisherman of Falcon Point," we are clearly back to the word as it is meant to be used, describing a strange company of creatures off Devil's Reef, "neither entirely human nor entirely batrachian, amphibian creatures that passed through the water..." (165). They are gilled but leave webbed footprints on land.
The word "rugose" ("ruffled") has only one specialized use in the book that I know of-- but a noteworthy one. "Rugose cones" (102) is repeatedly used to describe the giant aliens from the library in "The Shadow Out of Space". I have not checked to see if Lovecraft used the word in "The Shadow Out of Time," but I bet he did.
"Eldrich" (meaning old and uncanny) is a word that Derleth loves to use. A partial listing of this word includes: "eldrich things" (4), "eldrich rites" (15), "eldrich customs" (32), and "eldrich books" (99). Perhaps I should say to readers at this point that "eldrich" never modifies _anything_ good. So if you are approached by a dark stranger with reptilian eyes and cold, fishlike breath and webbed fingers who offers you a position as a member of an eldrich organization, _turn him down flat_. Then pack your bags and get out of town while the getting is good.
I was never able to detect the use of "cyclopean" in this collection. But I did detect the use of "megalithic" (117) masonry to describe the alien architecture in "The Shadow Out of Space" and several uses of the word "colossal". Nor did I spot the use of "antediluvian" (before the flood). But there was a pretty impressive description of the "primeval Old Ones" (25). Here are some other Lovecraftian words that I have culled from the collection at random: "miasma" (13), "hallucinatory" (14), "gambrel-roofed" (25), "compendious" (31), "leathern" (58), "mummified" (58), "subterranean"(87), "phenomenom" (76), and "cataclysmic" (92).
So how well does August Derleth do when it comes to handling Lovecraftian diction? Pretty well, actually. I suspect that he uses some of the words a bit more than Lovecraft himself actually used them in his own stories. There are a few places where he slips over the meaning of the words. But not many. On the whole, his usage of words like batrachian, saurian, eldrich, ichthic, rugose, and subterranean seem to be those of a writer who knows their meaning.
You can argue that Derleth's diction is not as _creative_ as that of Lovecraft. But this is surely nit-picking. It is certainly a fairly good imitation. In this collection, you will find an assortment of Elder Gods, eldrich rituals, and batrachian, saurian, ichthic, and skeletal creatures. Plus several witches and warlocks. They may not be authentic Lovecraft stories. But they are authentic Lovecraft imitations.
*See my reviews of _The Survivor & Others_ (1957), by H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth and _The Shuttered Room and Other Tales of Horror_(1971), by H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth