Derleth, August (William)
August (William) Derleth 1909–1971
(Also wrote under pseudonyms of Stephen Grendon and Tally Mason) American novelist, short story writer, poet, nonfiction writer, biographer, critic, editor, and publisher.
Derleth wrote or edited more than 150 books, including poetry, fiction, biographies, histories, juvenile fiction, mysteries, and supernatural tales, during a career that spanned nearly fifty years. While he began his career as a mystery writer, Derleth gained his most serious critical attention for his semiautobiographical "Sac Prairie Saga." These works, which revolve around the people and events in the fictive town of Sac Prairie, Wisconsin, were praised for their attention to detail and their vivid descriptions of nature. Totalling thirty-eight volumes, including poetry, prose, and character sketches, the Sac Prairie Saga evinces Derleth's ability to depict both the peacefulness and the tension in small-town life.
The Sac Prairie series covers the time period from the early 1800s through the mid-1900s. While the works in this series are highly praised for Derleth's descriptions of natural beauty, some critics maintain that his preoccupation with the land indicates a lack of feeling for his characters and makes it difficult to sustain interest in them. Derleth's characters generally are loners who exhibit what he called "the night that is in each of us." Most of Derleth's stories are concerned with the themes of love, courage, and honor and are infused with a wistful, nostalgic tone that often includes gentle humor. Among the more highly praised Sac Prairie works are the novels Still Is the Summer Night (1937), Wind Over Wisconsin (1938), and Evening in Spring (1941), the short story collection Country Growth (1940), and two volumes of poetry, Hawk on the Wind (1938) and Man Track Here (1939).
While he was involved in writing the Sac Prairie works, Derleth began another series, the "Wisconsin Saga." The five novels in this series, Bright Journey (1940), The House on the Mound (1958), The Hills Stand Watch (1960), The Shadow in the Glass (1963), and The Wind Leans West (1969), often have as their subjects actual people and events in the history of Wisconsin. These volumes maintain the same subdued tone as the Sac Prairie Saga, for Derleth concentrated on similar themes and carefully detailed his settings. However, this series, like the later volumes of the Sac Prairie works, was not well received by critics; they considered his later works monotonous, repetitive, and crowded with superfluous characters and incidents.
Two other series for which Derleth is known are the Judge Peck stories and the Solar Pons mysteries. Also set in Sac Prairie, the Judge Peck works, which include Murder Stalks the Wakely Family (1934), The Seven Who Waited (1943), and Death by Design (1953), are cleverly plotted detective stories that have been well received by devotees of the genre. The Solar Pons mysteries, including In Re: Sherlock Holmes, The Adventures of Solar Pons (1945) and Mr. Fairlie's Final Journey (1968), have been praised as among the best Sherlock Holmes imitations as well as being entertaining and intriguing in their own right.
Although Derleth was recognized as an important regional writer during the 1940s and 1950s, he became better known in subsequent years as the founder of Arkham House, which published a number of well-known writers in the supernatural and fantasy fields, including Robert E. Howard, Lord Dunsany, Robert Bloch, and Algernon Blackwood. Derleth also oversaw the publication of the first novels of science fiction writers Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, and A. E. Van Vogt. His most famous literary association, however, was with H. P. Lovecraft, whose works he promoted for critical and public attention. Derleth also wrote numerous stories based on notes and fragments Lovecraft had left and published them under joint authorship. These works are collected in the volume The Watchers Out of Time and Others (1974). Derleth also tried his hand at writing science fiction, but his accomplishments in this field are considered slight in comparison to those in his Sac Prairie series.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., Vols. 29-32, rev. ed. [obituary]; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4; Something about the Author, Vol. 5; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9.)
H P [H. P. Lovecraft]
Dear A. W.:—
Your novelette The Early Years [the initial draft of the novel which was to become Evening in Spring] duly came, and I have read it with the closest attention. Truly, it is a splendid piece of work…. I knew from your isolated fragments that you had the real stuff of literature at your command; but now that I see some of these arranged in a proper organic relationship, my opinion takes an additional upward soaring! There is profound and subtle beauty, splendidly modulated, in this sequence of dream-glamourous pictures. You have a keen and sensitively selective eye for details and sensations and images, as indeed I realised before. Now I see that you are equally felicitous in arranging these things in a significant, revelatory, and aesthetically satisfying form. It seems to me that you are coming to handle words and sentences more and more skilfully and adequately—you will recall my mentioning, in years past, that carelessness in this field … was one result of your over-voluminous writing which ought to be corrected a bit. Time, I imagine, is supplying this correction—for this novelette has passages of beautiful and musical language as well as of poignant imagery and convincing emotion. There is no mistaking the right of this piece to be considered as serious literary expression. (pp. 141-42)
[The] sketches all have the feel of genuine life and sincerity about them. They create a...
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H P [H. P. Lovecraft]
Dear A. W.:—
… Five Alone is such a magnificently balanced bit of atmosphere and inevitability that I don't see how any fully awake and sober editor could possibly reject it. The steady growth of your work is surely heartening to see, and I can easily imagine what your place in the literary field will be a decade hence. About the objection to the odd constructions typified by "she walking out" … or "she perfectly natural" …, I must say that I am inclined to agree with the pedagogical commentator. These constructions, whatever their abstract syntactical merits, are so conspicuously unidiomatic that they tend to attract attention to themselves and thus halt the imaginative progress of the reader. An author's object should be the art which conceals art, hence obtrusive singularity is always to be shunned…. This story is certainly a most remarkable piece of work—full of the horror (also to be noted in early New England) of exaggerated instincts in remote and lonely places. I can't think of anything that could be done to better it as a whole….
H P [H. P. Lovecraft], in a letter to August Derleth in February, 1932, in his Selected Letters: 1932–1934, Vol. IV, edited by August Derleth and James Turner, Arkham House: Publishers, Inc., 1976, p. 11.
(The entire section is 212 words.)
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[In "Murder Stalks the Wakely Family," seven] persons living in the little town of Sac Prairie, Wis., receive invitations—they might almost be called commands—to call at midnight on Satterlee Wakely, a man who is hated by virtually everybody who knows him…. [The four who accept the invitations] arrive at Wakely's house so nearly at the same moment that they all go in together. They find Wakely dead with a knife stuck through his neck…. But this is only the beginning. Three more murders are to follow before Judge Peck … discovers the secret that is at the bottom of all the killings and finds the killer. Judge Peck is not a particularly brilliant detective, but he is patient and persistent, and those are the qualities that the case seems to call for.
For the most part the story is told from the viewpoint of Judge Peck and his fellow investigators, but in two places the author departs from this plan and puts himself in the place of the person about to be killed, thus marring the unity of the story for no other purpose, apparently, than to add a slight touch of horror. However, it is not likely that the average mystery fan is fussy about such things so long as he is provided with plenty of bloodshed, and there is no lack of that in this book. (pp. 12, 21)
Isaac Anderson, in a review of "Murder Stalks the Wakely Family," in The New York Times Book Review, March 18, 1934, pp. 12,...
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[In "The Man on All Fours"] we have some not unpleasant sleuthing by Judge Ephraim Peck, who appeared in "Murder Stalks the Wakely Family," ferreting out a coil of fatal violence at Senessen House, the seat of the strange clan of mentally deranged and otherwise suspicious folks near Sac Prairie, Wis. Who stabbed Ray Horrell, son-in-law of old Mrs. Gravisa Senessen, matriarch of the house, unless it was maybe the beldame herself? And what caused the rest of the lively doings in the murder mansion? There are sixteen people to watch…. Ye author succeeds in keeping his secret to the final chapter, which is as it should be.
Will Cuppy, in a review of "The Man on All Fours," in New York Herald Tribune Books, November 18, 1934, p. 18.
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The little Wisconsin village of Sac Prairie is the scene of ["Three Who Died"], as of the other stories about Judge Peck, who is Mr. Derleth's pet sleuth. The judge and his friend, Dr. Considine, have just returned from a fishing trip. They learn that during their absence two persons have died and a third is at the point of death.
There is, at first, no suspicion of foul play, but larger developments make both Judge Peck and Dr. Considine suspicious, and investigation shows that all three of these persons have been murdered. A puzzling feature of the case is that there is no apparent motive, nor is one discovered until the pasts of the persons concerned have been thoroughly raked over.
The solution at which Judge Peck finally arrives appears to be the only logical one, even though it is one which it would be difficult to prove to the satisfaction of a jury. Fortunately, that is not necessary. Mr. Derleth has pictured a series of rather improbable crimes in a community of people whom it is a pleasure to meet, but who are not particularly exciting.
Isaac Anderson, in a review of "Three Who Died," in The New York Times Book Review, March 31, 1935, p. 14.
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Whoever conceived the idea for "Place of Hawks" has, with the best intentions, done August Derleth a disservice…. [The] first sample of his [short stories] to appear in book form is a literary hybrid that misses both ways. Composed of four long stories which together attempt to constitute a unified pattern, it cannot by the most elastic definition of the term he called a novel; as a representative collection of short stories it is a singularly poor job of selection. I am afraid that readers encountering Mr. Derleth for the first time in these pages will notice his faults and overlook his talents, as they would not in a less tricky and arbitrary arrangement.
It is easy to understand the temptation to those responsible for assembling the volume's contents: Mr. Derleth has written an unusual story, a haunting and oddly poetic boyhood memoir of an old Wisconsin family, the last of the line, whose strain has become darkened with an obsession verging on madness and at times slipping over the border. He has written another with the same setting and a somewhat similar subject…. It sounds good. It sounds very good. But it just doesn't come off.
The author handicaps himself at the start by choosing to cast all four episodes in the first-person narrative form, and by making the narrator a very young child. This is a mechanism difficult enough to employ naturally in isolated stories; when used as it is here its artificial...
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Edith H. Walton
In "Place of Hawks," a series of four novelettes so closely interrelated that they practically form a unit, Mr. Derleth deals with the kind of material which William Faulkner has copyrighted, though his point of view is essentially different. Horror and madness are his principal themes, but they are presented sanely, with pity and compassion.
Mr. Derleth has a highly developed sense of form. The pattern which he has chosen to bind his four tales together is so logical and apt that "Place of Hawks" resembles a novel rather than the usual collection of stories. His mouthpiece is a young boy, Steve Grendon, who is in the habit of driving round the countryside with his grandfather, a doctor….
Each of the four families whose stories Mr. Derleth tells is burdened with obsessions and clutching vainly at sanity. Linda Grell, knowing that her possessive family is close to madness, struggles without success to escape their hold. Rella Farway, driven over the borderline by her fanatic hatred of the land, involves the whole Farway clan in her mania for destruction. Mrs. Ortell, intelligent and self-sacrificing in her moments of lucidity, solves the problem of approaching madness with a fine dignity. The decline of the Pierneau family, upon whom lies the hidden curse of miscegenation, has a tragic beauty consonant with their past.
To deal credibly with such melodramatic material is not an easy feat. Mr. Derleth...
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Edith H. Walton
"Still Is the Summer Night," Mr. Derleth's second novel, again has Sac Prairie for a background. This time, however, the emphasis is different [from that in "Place of Hawks"]. Though his story ends in violence, though his three young Halders act out a stormy triangular drama, his characters this time are normal and subject to normal passions. They take an active, vigorous part in the life of Sac Prairie—a town which, in the early Eighties, still retained lingering features of a typical frontier settlement. (pp. 7, 18)
On the outskirts of the village, crouching at the edge of the prairie, lay the prosperous Halder farm. Here, in apparent amity, dwelt old Captain Halder, a Civil War veteran; his sons, Ratio and Alton, and Ratio's beautiful young wife, Julie. As the book opens, however, the seeds of disunion and disaster have already been sowed. Handsome, arrogant, fretted by domesticity, Ratio has turned from Julie and is carrying on a sordid intrigue with a village girl. Julie guesses what is happening, and though her first pain has been somewhat stilled, she is angry, wounded, and eager for certitude. Alton, who loves her deeply but silently, is a helpless spectator in this early stage of the drama….
From here on the course of the story is not hard to predict. Having learned to depend on Alton for comfort and sustenance, Julie soon responds to the gentle urgency of his passion. Secretly, they become lovers, and in...
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"Still is the Summer Night," by August Derleth, is far more than a regional story with a vivid background. In the story of the lives of its prairie people, it traces, page by page, the invisible pattern, even though it never refers to pattern at all. Even though Julie does not see that she could have acted differently, even though Alton "was not concerned with moral aspects," still the old Greek emergence of cause and effect sets the book far beyond tale-telling.
And Mr. Derleth tells a tale, absorbing enough in itself, and knit with the land. He has Hardy's sense of the soil, the "roll and wheel" of stars, of the seasons, of live things and growing things. These are as vivid to him as are human emotions, and noble.
His special background, once considered so empty, is given its own shapes and colors—the little town on the long river, the raftsmen, the taverns, the show-boat, the talk in the homes, the flow of life in the fields. Political figures of the day move there, but only as bits of color, like the hawks and the hills; so that whatever it was that they did seems to matter not at all. But the four high characters, in their relations to one an other, matter much—as if relationship and attitude were all there is to be accounted for, in the end.
In a tale sordid enough in other hands, these three—Julie, her husband, Ratio, his brother whom Julie loves—are like blind, masked figures, moved...
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Rose C. Feld
To August Derleth the saga of Wisconsin is not a tale of heady conquest, but one of understanding of the suffering and betrayal experienced by two races which could not live together in peace and equality. And, giving meaning to the tragedy of a people doomed to extermination, is ["Wind Over Wisconsin"], the story of friendship between two men, Black Hawk and Chalfonte Pierneau, holding each other in high esteem and affection but powerless to stem the tide of affairs which separate them. Each suffered pain and disillusion, but at the end it was the conquering white who found it hardest to swallow the defeat and humiliation of the conquered….
Besides telling the story of Wisconsin of this era, Mr. Derleth tells the story of Chalfonte's courtship of his second wife, but so powerful is the drama and romance of the country that the personal drama is dwarfed by it. Mr. Derleth has recreated the scene with power and with tenderness and the men who walk through it carry their strength and their weakness with unerring direction. A vast amount of historical research has gone into this book, but beneath the scholarship one finds something deeper, a love for the land which is Wisconsin…. And because Mr. Derleth is a poet, this book takes on the stature of a singing epic concerned alike with white man and red.
Rose C. Feld, "Untamed Country of the 1830's," in New York Herald Tribune Books, April...
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[In "Wind Over Wisconsin"] August Derleth invites inspection of a significant moment in the history of his own state…. [He] wishes to throw a bridge across an obscure interval of history, linking the familiar country of the present to the terra incognita of the past. His impulse is honest and admirable; but his execution of the plan is ineffectively engineered.
The chief difficulty lies in Mr. Derleth's inability to bring his characters to life. Each of them wears a label around his neck and shows the strain of carrying it. Chalfonte, American-born son of a French settler of aristocratic birth, is the stout-hearted idealist. Hercules Dousman, fur tracer, is the realist with a clear-eyed view of destiny. Black Hawk is the "noble savage." Each of them bears an embarrassing resemblance to the Fourth of July orator, complete with soap-box. There is a flash of purple in every casual utterance.
More disastrous, still, is the fact that the narrative breaks in two. The only link between the part dealing with the Indian campaigns against the settlers and the part dealing with opening of the land is that the central character, Chalfonte, presides with amiable ineffectuality over both. The effect of climax persistently eludes Mr. Derleth's eager efforts. The book collapses into a series of scenes out of a pageant, played by characters all of whom are under-developed, some of whom have been created for the sole purpose of dying...
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Although August Derleth, the author of several published novels, has been writing poetry for a decade or more,… ["Hawk on the Wind" marks] his first appearance in book form as a poet. A marked individuality is the striking characteristic of these pieces, individuality of form as well as of thought. August Derleth has an ear acutely tuned both for meter and rhyme. In respect to the latter he is most subtle. Not merely at first glance at the page but after reading for several lines one believes him to be writing vers libre. Then gradually there intrudes a teasingly pleasing doubt which presently gives way before the perception of the negligently carried rhyme scheme. And the reason the rhyme was not noticed earlier is because, on analysis, the usual sharpness of the effect is found to have been muted by the uneven length of Mr. Derleth's lines. That is to say, unconscious expectancy being thwarted, the mind of the reader has been pleased with the blend of sound without having been halted by it. The result is one of overtones one often misses in more formally rhymed poetry….
August Derleth is from Wisconsin, and the human strength and individuality of those whose lives went to the building of that State are the very soil of much of his verse and the source of his power. Yet here again is subtlety. Mr. Derleth is not writing history, he is writing poetry; and in poetry, as he perceives, it is the thought evoked, rather than the thought...
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["Hawk on the Wind" is Derleth's] first volume of poetry. Chosen from hundreds of poems which he has written in the past decade, the selections in this book are an integral part of the story of Wisconsin which Derleth aims to tell in the "Saga."
He is a competent poet. His verse is smooth and pleasant to read, not too experimental in form, and never obscure. He expresses his love of nature and his knowledge of the Wisconsin countryside with delicacy and beauty. He is somewhat preoccupied with an awareness of the passing of time and the inevitable changes that time brings. He says, in effect, this sort of thing again and again…. (p. 52)
In his poetry Derleth does not reveal emotional, spiritual or intellectual depth of experience. He is always the observer who describes what he has observed in precise and lovely verse but he does not disclose what he thinks is the meaning of the beauty of nature, of life, of death or of time. (p. 53)
Ruth Byrns, in a review of "Hawk on the Wind," in Commonweal, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, November 4, 1938, pp. 52-3.
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Edith H. Walton
Clinging still to Sac Prairie—the small Wisconsin town which has been the scene of all his stories—August Derleth has written a brief novelette whose mood is that of poetry and legend. Its patterned prose, its air of melancholy, its rueful echoes from a more idyllic past, all remind one of Willa Cather—and especially of the Willa Cather who wrote "Lucy Gayheart." Renna, however, the hauntingly lovely heroine of "Any Day Now" is made of more fiery stuff than Miss Cather's pitiful Lucy….
Of all the men who clustered around Renna, met her at the station when she came home on holiday, made her name a byword for glamour, it was Doctor Joe who was clearly her favorite. Every one, Joe included, expected him to be her choice. When the hour struck, however, one magic midsummer night, Renna could not bring herself to say yes to him…. [She] was thwarted by the memory of her big, wonderful mother, who had been so fiercely ambitious for her child. "No young doctor," that dead voice had said. So it was that Renna wantonly denied love—and found too late, when Joe was lost, was married, that she would give anything to retract that denial. So she came, after Joe's death, to live achingly and wholly in the past.
This, in essence, is the very simple plot of "Any Day Now." Being an old plot, though a good one, the book would amount to little if Mr. Derleth had not invested it with special graces of atmosphere and style. The...
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The promise that was revealed and widely recognized in August Derleth's first book of poems, "Hawk on the Wind," is … richly realized [in "Man Track Here"] Mr. Derleth has matured amazingly in a year's time, and now stands well out from the ruck of young poets. He is no imitator, no follower of schools and trends, but displays an originality and independence which made Edgar Lee Masters and Sinclair Lewis single him out as an important figure. His debt, if he has one, is to Walt Whitman and the early Masters; he is the poet of Sac Prairie, a lyrical Lewis.
Mr. Derleth has evolved his own verse schemes, although they take their departure from those of Whitman and Masters. But there is none of the sprawling formlessness of Whitman, or the flatness of much of Masters. He is at all times musical, though as with Gerard Manley Hopkins, it is necessary to attune the ear to his music. Once it becomes familiar, the reader finds no lack of it. He writes largely of things and people, but more of the things of nature that he knows better now than of the people about whom he has much to learn. He is refreshingly free from added ideologies, and very much in the great tradition of English poetry.
Mason Wade, "August Derleth's Poems," in The New York Times Book Review, August 20, 1939, p. 9.
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Pioneer life in Wisconsin, as August Derleth writes of it, takes on the serenity of rural New England. The perils and heroism and general surcharge of drama that readers … have long associated with the winning of the West are oddly veiled by the bland scenes and situations of ["Restless Is the River"]. The whole surge and sound of immigrant life appear muffled, and in many pages there is no sound whatever. It may very well be argued that Mr. Derleth's naturalism is nearer to the truth than either the heady romance or the bleak realistic novel on the same subject, but his careful skirting of emotional conflicts and crises leaves a work of good intention with only a sheep-grazing excitement.
The central situation tells of the Hungarian Count Augustin Brogmar, whose liberal sentiments made it necessary for him to flee to America to escape Metternich, and Brogmar's wife, Eleanor, who fled with him and was never able to adjust herself to a new wilderness life. This is a situation familiar to fiction and interesting only in so far as some freshness and new insight are brought to bear upon it. The Countess Brogmar is created in a monotone pattern wherein we are told that the crude life of Wisconsin in the 1840's makes her yearn for the elegance of her past, but her homesickness is so evident from the beginning and continues with so much repetition of incident—it would be distressing to enumerate how many times she sits brooding before the...
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What is important and good in ["Restless Is the River"] lies in the interwoven background details, incidents not so much personal as communal. These facets of land development, with attendant intrigues and none too savory politics … are necessary to a full picture of the era. Pervasively beautiful, slower to change, are the turning seasons on the prairie itself. But because of the non-selective, diffuse, sometimes lush writing (half as long, the book might be more effective) the significant is often lost among the insignificant, the good color of reality robbed by the synthetically romantic. For the authenticity of its background material, however, and its truly epic score, "Restless Is the River" may well be commended.
Ruth Lechlitner, in a review of "Restless Is the River," in New York Herald Tribune Books, October 15, 1939, p. 12.
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August Derleth has staked out an unchallengeable literary claim upon a part of the state of Wisconsin. He calls his town Sac Prairie. The story of its settling and its development has supplied him with material for a series of historical novels of which there are more to come. And the contemporary life of the same community is reflected in the group of tales that make up ["Country Growth,"] his latest volume.
Around the theory of regionalism, Mr. Derleth has put a neat, tight fence, giving to its vague formality an effect of intimacy and coziness. The effect of a comfortable familiarity with the scene is heightened by the fact that many of his stories are told in the first person from the point of view of a boy, growing up in Sac Prairie and watching with humorous shrewdness the behavior of his Great Aunt Lou, his Great Uncle Joe, and a group of other villagers in all of whom he has the closest kind of neighborly interest.
Mr. Derleth strikes his happiest vein in these unpretentious but often deeply moving folk tales. What seems pretentious in his historical novels, what seems over-wrought in all his longer works of fiction seldom appears in this volume to plague the reader out of his wish to remain sympathetic with his talent. Here he is direct, simple, humorous, and hearty—all without the disquieting trace of self-consciousness that mars his more ambitious work.
Best of all these stories is "Buck...
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Harry Thornton Moore
There are twenty stories in ["Country Growth"], and in each of them the most consistent character in all Derleth's serious writing appears—the Wisconsin landscape, which is conveniently varied … by prairie, hill country and cliff-edged river. The people in the stories are the people Derleth knows so thoroughly, the small towners and farmers of the region.
A few of the stories in this book are predominantly lyric in tone, but most of them are traditionally conceived sketches and fables of Sac Prairie inhabitants. "Goodbye Margery" and "Girl in Time Lost," which begin and end the book, are examples of the first method; they are subjective idylls about the same love affair, and they skillfully invoke the atmosphere of a small town of yesterday, the hushed heavy summer evenings with the boy and girl walking through the streets, hardly articulate even in quarrel. Many of the remaining stories are lightly comic, with town gossips and shrewd farmers figuring largely in their personnel. Several of these concern a single family, viewed from a boy's angle of vision. "A Holiday for Three" is the chronicle of a bicycle tour made by the boy and his great-uncle and another farmer, Gus Elker, who cover an amazing amount of Midwest territory on their odd trip. Although the story is partly spoiled by the forced humor of its ending, the middle parts of it contain some energetic contributions to American humorous literature. Occasionally, in some of...
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Robert Van Gelder
[Because] of a curious quality of realism, of common experience, "Country Growth" touches the edge of that universality that is the province of the great books. Though Mr. Derleth's stories are not really memorable or major in their effects, they can be honestly recommended not only to good readers but even to … book-throwers….
Mr. Derleth takes Sac Prairie, Wis., as his setting, writes of a Main Street as viciously gossipy, false-fronted and backward as Gopher Prairie ever was, but he sees it from the inside, not judging, understanding the necessities behind the seemingly senseless taboos, and not impatient with these necessities….
He writes good stories, and one good thing about them is that they show no trace of manner; they are not, apparently, even self-conscious. It is evident that he is a writer who is in little danger of writing himself out.
Mr. Derleth handles a variety of situations well, but is at his best with humor. He writes humor as it should be written, with natural characters, believable situations, and no straining for effect. The humor is robust, but not with the false heartiness that too many of the regional writers assume….
It should be added that Mr. Derleth does not edit himself any too well. He writes, it is evident, by ear rather than by plan, and has a tendency to waste effects in unnecessary verbiage. But as the fault of so many of his...
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The Christian Science Monitor
Though [Derleth's] novels have won for him wider recognition, it is probably true that his short-story techniques is the better. The novels, for all their sincerity and the high quality of their style lack something of drama and sharp emotion. The short stories possess either keener emotional urgency or as a substitute have humor or sympathetic insight. As narratives or as character studies they are interesting, and always they are written with beauty, precision, and a canny selection of details.
Some readers may accuse Mr. Derleth of being sentimental. In his stories of romance and emotion he shows a pronounced taste for the nostalgic and wistful and in the novelette called "The Intercessors" a disposition to stress lacrimae rerum—as he says, "time lost, time past, time gone."
This is well enough when it is done with a spontaneity that convinces. But, once in a while, there creeps in a faint suggestion of bookishness and too studied effect. Not often. It certainly does not happen in the lovely little tale of adolescent love which opens ["Country Growth"]—"Good-Bye, Margery."
Mr. Derleth is not only a novelist and a storyteller, but a poet. This would be evident if "Hawk on the Wind," "Man Track Here," and "Here on a Darkling Plain" had never been published. In his prose as well as in his verse he shows the poet's eye. This is especially true when he write, in words bathed in cool color, about...
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Harry Thornton Moore
Like the other books in the Sac Prairie Saga, ["Bright Journey"] stands by itself as a separate story. But it does not differ essentially from Derleth's previous novels of man vs. wilderness, and, despite some temperamental variations, [the principal character] Dousman strongly resembles Baron Pierneau, American-born scion of French aristocrats ("Wind Over Wisconsin") and Pierneau's cousin, Count Brogmar, Hungarian patriot exile ("Restless Is the River"). There is, indeed, a disturbing sameness, at more than one level, in Derleth's historical novels, and though he can present the background material of his stories vividly—the wilderness, the fresh lakes, the Indians with their dignified poetry of speech, the brave little frontier towns, the "voyageurs" or trappers—the background material comes to give the effect of presenting again and again the same moonrise or forest-clearing or the same conversation between repeated characters. The reader of the entire series begins to wish that August Derleth would concentrate his talent on fewer volumes and strive a little more for depth, a little less for breadth. These restrictions do not apply to the novels when read singly: like the others, "Bright Journey" is an excellent and sometimes beautiful presentation of frontier Wisconsin.
Harry Thornton Moore, in a review of "Bright Journey," in New York Herald Tribune Books, October 27, 1940, p. 20....
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The hero [of "Bright Journey"] Hercules Dousman, is a historical character. He was a 12-year-old boy in Mackinac when the British took Fort Michilimackinac in one of the early campaigns of the War of 1812. Later, when he grows up, he paddles up the Fox and down the Wisconsin River to assume charge of the Prairie du Chien post of Astor's American Fur Company…. Mr. Derleth's Dousman is almost Sir Galahad on the frontier. He marries the half-breed girl who dies in giving birth to his daughter; always he is the Indian's friend; when the woman he loves leaves [her husband] because of his drinking, he urges her to return to her husband. Realizing that the fur trade is bound to decline, he buys land the value of which went up with every new settler. He foresees that Prairie du Chien will some day become an important grain shipping center….
Mr. Derleth tells his story simply and directly in the calm pace and timeless manner of the old historical novel. He describes with convincing detail the growth of the small trading village into a river town, the retirement of the animals and Indians and the great brigades of French-Canadian trappers before the steady advance of hordes of tree-felling, land-hungry settlers. When he remembers what the greed of men has destroyed, the carrier pigeons and the buffalo, for instance, he regrets that the Dousmans are so few and the slaughterers so many. The sense of place and the sweep of historical events are...
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What Mr. Derleth has done [in "Village Year"] is simply to set down the observations that personally interested him day to day or month to month [in and about Sac Prairie]; and his book thus has the distinction and personal appeal of an entirely unforced chronicle from a little American town and a loved American countryside. "Village Year" is not a memory of pioneers nor a picture either of revenants seeking rural simplicity or survivors still enisled in it, but an actual evocation of a fairly typical community in its ordinary life today. And because Mr. Derleth has a poetic love for Nature and awareness of Nature's richly varied minutiae, there is often a haunting beauty in these journal entries as the seasons move across the Wisconsin scene….
Most of these country details … are of concrete observation rather than mood or symbol.
There are plenty of people to be met, and met again, in this flow of a few village years. And introduction to village neighbors will no doubt give many readers their liveliest interest in August Derleth's book—especially when the characters are odd, like the gentle old man who has taken on the tremendous task of snaring infinities in evangelistic words, or the delightful garden-lover who keeps bees and weaves rugs for sale. These people are sketched with a few lines for the most part and with a proper casualness. But the very slightness of the portraits is a token of the naturalness...
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Harry Thornton Moore
In many ways "Village Year" is the most satisfactory part of the [Sac Prairie] series yet to appear, for it has the virtues of the others without their weaknesses, and adds a definite quality of its own. It is not intended to be a record of the bridge parties and local visits which are duly reported in the local press but, rather, it is meant to preserve the little things, the daily between-the-lines life of a village….
[Derleth] deepens the value of his village setting by presenting in full the enduring natural background; with the people projected against this the writing comes to have the quality of an old Flemish picture, humanity lively and amusing and lovable in the foreground and nature magnificent beyond. This book is filled with accounts of the author's travels through the Sac Prairie region and his nightly walks to the marshes by the river, where he notes the different bird calls and compares them with the findings of other naturalists. The progress of flowers in the spring is carefully watched, and when the geese go honking south in October, their departure is reported.
All the human figures in these journals are not seen in the humorous light that bathes most of them—there are relatives and friends, young and old, who died as the years pass, and the significance of their lives and deaths is thoughtfully (though not sentimentally) noted. Within such a small concentrated circle of humanity, birth and...
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Edith H. Walton
"Evening in Spring" is a light lyric story, half comic, half tender, which has to do with the ardors and the sorrows of first love. It is the story of how Steve lost his heart to Margery Estabrook while they were both still in high school and of how their young touching idyl—so innocent and so poignant—was thwarted by the meddling and the opposition of their elders. Because Steve was a Catholic while Margery was not, both their families did everything in their power to keep the two apart, hounding them with commands, reproaches, accusations and tears….
As one can gather, this simple, artless story is almost unimaginably old, and it would be difficult to freshen it into vivid life. Mr. Derleth, frankly, has not done so, and where his young lovers and their transports are concerned his book, though gently lyric, is insipid and monotonous. What distinguishes "Evening in Spring," what saves it from plain dullness, is first the author's evocative picture of a Wisconsin country town and second his humorous appreciation of character. Such color as there is in this novel is largely provided by Steve's eccentric relatives—from astringent Grandfather Adams, an old love of a man, to that appalling religious zealot, Aunt May. Here Mr. Derleth is in his element, and very funny indeed—but for the rest I cannot hand him so much. Perhaps it is time that he turned his eyes from Sac Prairie and from wistful memories of his boyhood and found...
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The Christian Science Monitor
[In "Evening in Spring" the] idyl of Steve and Margery is full of wistful beauty, enhanced by the author's unfailing consciousness of the poetic qualities of the background. The poet in August Derleth is always near the surface, whether he is writing poetry, fiction, or biography. Skies, hills, trees, marsh, rivers, and wild life make clear images on his sensitive intelligence and affections. The fragrance of corn and clover, of mint and oak leaf are in his nostrils. Hawks riding the wind, owls softly sobbing in the dark, hills surging upward to the sky, trees pressing close upon small houses are constantly in his memory. Through this book winds are ever stirring, a west wind touching Steve's eyes and lips, small breezes scuttering the dry leaves and growing into a wind that tears at the autumn foliage, "a wind that blows over all the earth, a wanderer, too, alone." Loneliness is the motif of this book, the essential loneliness of Steve, despite his love, his boy companions, his myriad kinsfolk and his responsiveness to village life.
Contrasted with a delicate lament for the shattered crystal of first love and with the poetic background is a full gallery of comedy characters, even of burlesques. The people of Sac Prairie are a collection of oddities, not all of them malign but many of them eccentric even in their good nature. In Steve's own family his grandparents and possibly his father are exceptions. Altogether the village...
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The Oliver Mackenzie, carrying a show boat troupe, plied its way up the Mississippi River each Spring from St. Louis to New Orleans and back again in the Fall. In November, 1916, the season was mild and the old boat traveled up the Wisconsin as far as Sac Prairie, where the captain docked to give a performance of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." They had been nursing the leading lady through an attack of appendicitis and when they reached Sac Prairie she was too ill to play. But a young amateur actress in town who knew the part of Little Eva was recruited for the performance, and when the Oliver Mackenzie steamed away that night Jennie Breen was aboard eager to take the first step toward a great theatrical career. She had no regret about leaving home because she had been badly treated by her parents and she hated little towns, but she was sorry to desert Davey, her childhood sweetheart, who could not leave his mother to follow her.
There are several vivid descriptions of river life and of the Sac Prairie atmosphere, but ["Sweet Genevieve"] is a series of predictable incidents taken from the yellow pages of stock…. You know that ultimately young love will conquer all obstacles; but if the author makes you believe it, it is because he has drawn a skillful picture of Davey, the boy who waits back home, the only credible character of them all.
The author is at his best when he gives us the flavor of the seasons, the life in the...
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William Rose Benet
The poetry of August Derleth, a versatile and voluminous poet from Sac Prairie, often reminds of improvisation upon the piano…. ["Rind of Earth"] is thoroughly American in grain. The poem about the young men in "Yesterday, Tomorrow, Always," the train in "Transcontinental," "River Going By," the American myths in "Raftsman, Lumberjack," the poem about the radio, such things as these not only have flowing theme-molded rhythm, but close observation and the pulse of life. Sometimes I think Mr. Derleth may be too musical for his own good, but, in a day when so few poets seem to give the actual movement of a poem any attention, he restores an element that was badly needed.
William Rose Benét, in a review of "Rind of Earth," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXVI, No. 34, August 21, 1943, p. 11.
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Vivienne C. Koch
There are valuable elements in August Derleth's diligent loyalty to the Sac Prairie region with which his voluminous writings have become identified: He is intimate with the cultural and social history which made that area one of the strongholds of a free-thinking, slavery-abhorring liberalism in the middle decades of the last century. He has a kind of nostalgic ancestor-worship for the resourceful, colorful French and German pioneer stock, who, as refugees from their native lands, combined to give Sac Prairie a moral climate as exhilarating and liberating as the air of the lovely Wisconsin country in which it lay. And, lastly, he has a feeling for the Sac Prairie terrain which is both affectionate and knowledgeable.
Yet, with all this, Mr. Derleth does not make credible his novel of Hasso, a hunchback German émigré, and his search for vengeance. Hasso seeks the murderer of his dearly beloved younger brother, Josef, who had been brutally shot down by a mercenary who fled Germany and who is thought to be living in the Sac Prairie region.
"Shadow of Night" is the slow-moving, discursive account of the psychological conflict that is set up in Hasso, a cultured and naturally gentle man, when he comes face to face with his intended victim, Odo Gebhardt, and finds him to be a hardworking, respected and liberal farmer. But Hasso's internal conflict is unconvincing. The initial premise on which it must rest is never...
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New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review
So long identified in poetry with the Wisconsin scene, with his sagas of Sac Prairie told in quiet, conventional, repetitious patterns, August Derleth surprisingly ventures beyond the regional viewpoint and into new forms with ["And You, Thoreau!"]. The love scenes in the second grouping, both erotic and symbolic,… might be taken, unsigned, as the work of almost any poet published by New Directions except Derleth. The first grouping, "Homage to Thoreau," with its Mid-Western nature images, is more characteristic. But the poems show much more skill and technical variety than Derleth's earlier work. The tribute to Thoreau, too, seems strongly, sincerely felt….
"In New Forms," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, August 5, 1945, p. 8.
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Richard A. Cordell
This latest in the long series of Sac Prairie stories ["The Shield of the Valiant"] will add little to the reputation of Wisconsin's most noted regional novelist. The book needs tightening and pruning; the many narrative threads, each interesting in itself, are not skilfully woven into a fabric and pattern of meaning and general interest. The episodic form of the novel lures the author into verbose byways of almost irrelevant anecdote and frequent paragraphs of tedious moralizing. Many tried-and-safe ingredients of popular fiction are here: the banker's son falls in love with a brash but pure girl on the other side of the tracks; the liberal son is at odds with his stuffy, reactionary father; malicious village gossip is the motive power that turns the wheels of the plot; the tolerant, tobacco-loving, Going-My-Way sort of priest is contrasted with the bigoted cleric more Catholic than Christian; there are fights, adultery, and suicides, and brave deeds of the few men of good will in the community. The Gordian knot of indecisions and confusions is cut sharply by Pearl Harbor, a useful deus ex machina to end more than one recent novel.
Derleth's faithful readers will find his good things here, too: his keen knowledge of village and country life, his affectionate descriptions of the Wisconsin River and Valley, the pleasant reappearance of such old friends as Steve Grendon. Many will find, however, the over-all impression of the novel...
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["The Shield of the Valiant"] proves once again that one must live in a small town most of his life really to know its overall pattern, and that Derleth himself is no outsider as far as Sac Prairie is concerned. There is a tie-up between the different lives he describes and the petty intrigues, the malicious gossip and the often desperate attempts to escape loneliness even in a place where there are no real strangers, which is almost always authentic.
Unfortunately the novel also proves again that authenticity isn't the only component of good writing and reading. There are things of authentic importance and others of authentic unimportance; in his frenetic attempt to record every last dance tune that Rena Janney ever sings, and conversation with a dictaphone accuracy, Derleth hasn't taken the time to distinguish between the two. When he does, he will be a far more competent writer, and his books … much more widely read.
William Kehoe, in a review of "The Shield of the Valiant," in The New York Times Book Review, November 18, 1945, p. 13.
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[The twelve stories in "In Re: Sherlock Holmes"] are all in the pastiche vein and all written by Derleth himself…. The resulting book inevitably lacks variety, although some of the individual selections are not without a certain charm and an engaging fidelity in form and spirit to the originals they imitate. A few, like "The Adventure of the Norcross Riddle" … and "The Adventure of the Late Mr. Faversham" … are good enough detective stories in their own right; most of the other episodes are over-long and, it must be confessed, a little tedious, even to the confirmed Sherlockian, when read in close sequence.
Howard Haycraft, "Holmesian Pastiches," in The New York Times Book Review, December 2, 1945, p. 32.
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"Village Daybook" consists of selections over a period from Derleth's diary. If mediocrity and brilliance are marks of authenticity in a diary, this is thoroughly authentic. On May 16, Sac Prairie produced the phenomenon of dogs barking at a car: "Quite evidently the dogs, for lack perhaps of anything better to do, enjoy the chase after cars that pass during the night." I believe it…. On the other hand Mr. Derleth records with rare skill the beauty and movement of nature. He never fails to please as he describes the weather, the birds, flowers, fish and animals. One who loves the outdoors will be fully rewarded with his nature passages.
Mr. Derleth has affection for his townsmen and they, evidently, for him. The items of daily gossip and reminiscences add up to a comfortable completeness of village life. Unfortunately, it is largely a surface description. He has not learned to analyze and handle people as effectively as he does Mother Nature. Commenting on an exchange of conversation about the weather on Christmas Day, he reflects, "that the essential pulse of village life beats in just such trivial exchanges, which occur constantly and forever: the talk of weather, of sun and rain, of fog and cloud, of storm and wind throughout every season …" That may be the pulse, but it is a long way from the heart of village life. Weather and other trivia are universal symbols of communication, but each village has its unique secret in the...
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Solar Pons is not precisely either an imitation or a parody of Sherlock Holmes. One might almost call him an understudy, and a triumphant one—a necessary replacement filling the abhorrent vacuum created by The Master's retirement….
The first book collection of Pons adventures, oddly entitled "In Re: Sherlock Holmes," appeared in 1945, to the deep gratification of all who have read and reread the sixty tales of the Holmesian canon and hungered for something new and yet the same. Now at last we have the long-awaited sequel…. "The Memoirs of Solar Pons" …; and once again the habitués of Holmes' 221B Baker Street can move to Pons' Praed Street with happy confidence.
The title is misleading; no equivalent of the seemingly tragic Reichenbach disaster befalls Pons. But the eleven stories … are all in the grand tradition of magnificently sinister plotting and spectacularly logical deduction. Each devotee will have his favorite; this department elects "The Adventure of Ricoletti of the Clubfoot." A passing Watsonian reference to this gentleman and his abominable wife has long titillated readers. The story as Mr. Derleth reveals it could not have been conceived along more nobly classical lines.
Anthony Boucher, in a review of "The Memoirs of Solar Pons," in The New York Times Book Review, August 26, 1951, p. 20.
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[August Derleth] has made a new collection of his poems ["Rendezvous in a Landscape"] in four groups, "Homage to Thoreau," "Homage to Robert Frost," "Homage to Psyche," and "Homage to Edgar Lee Masters." The first is the longest and the best poem in the book. The poet uses brief prose passages from Thoreau's "Walden," and plays poetic variations on each one, expanding that severe economy into the wealth of its implications. This is done with genuine love and admiration, and with genuine creation. Twenty-eight poems are offered to Frost, also with sincerity, as homage.
They are Derleth poems on the sort of themes Frost might have written, and thus to gather them is to run the risk of sounding like a lesser Frost, and Mr. Derleth unfortunately does. They are beyond question his own experience, but the sound of Frost creeps in….
The Psyche group consists of four love poems, and the poem for Masters is an elegy, which, though it brings Masters to the graveyard in Spoon River to lie among the familiar names from the "Anthology," is a perfectly fitting tribute. The whole design of the book is an interesting lesson in the dangers and possibilities of writing to or about writers.
John Holmes. "Of Time and Place and Versifiers," in The New York Times Book Review, August 3, 1952, p. 6.∗
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There's nothing unconventional about August Derleth's "Fell Purpose" …, the first Judge Peck novel in many years. It's a pure old-fashioned whodunit of the bludgeoning of the social arbiters of a small Wisconsin town—quite, plodding, mildly agreeable, rather like an American equivalent of John Rhode, with little to suggest the originality of the author in other fields or in his noble Solar Pons detective stories.
Anthony Boucher, in a review of "Fell Purpose," in The New York Times Book Review, February 8, 1953, p. 31.
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"All things of live adventuring are kin" is the theme of ["Country Poems"], 30 poems about the birds and animals, cornfields and country church yards of his Wisconsin demesne. He is so much a part of it that he can "look about and see what beauty lies in simple things" and voice what he has seen and felt in lyrics that have the grace to be as simple and direct as the west wind and the chipmunk that he understands alike.
"Sirius: Midnight," with its clear sense of man's "kinship to eternity," is the most original and powerful poem of the book. "Scent of Camomile" is steeped in country living, and both "Mushrooms," with its bold figure of speech, and "The Moon on the Water" are good examples of Derleth's skill in drawing a deep meaning from the small incident.
Russell MacFall, "Skillful Odes to Country Life in Wisconsin," in Chicago Tribune, February 10, 1957, p. 9.
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Victor P. Hass
[Mr. Derleth has written "The House on the Mound" as a sequel to "Bright Journey"] and if it lacks much of the dramatic impact of "Bright Journey," it still is worth the long wait. Indeed, one understands why Mr. Derleth waited so long to write it, for it posed an exceedingly difficult problem: How to give middle-aged, generally eventless love and living the substance of drama.
He has solved the problem, in a measure at least, by telling it "plain." The simple truth is that not much does happen in this novel, and yet it is given stature by the goodness of the people involved. Dousman and his charming wife are persons you can love and respect….
Mr. Derleth writes with deep love of his home state, from its admission to the Union in 1848 to Dousman's death twenty years later. His is a regional novel of a high order of excellence.
Victor P. Hass, "Midwest Millionaire," in The New York Times Book Review, June 22, 1958, p. 19.
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["The Return of Solar Pons"] is an assembly of thirteen short stories about Sherlock Holmes, set forth with all his customary equipment (Watson, room, housekeeper) and in very much the mood and mode of Conan Doyle. Edgar W. Smith, "Buttons" of the Holmesian devotees (or addicts) in this country, finds Mr. Derleth the most consistently successful imitator in Holmesian history. One cannot after all quarrel with the judgment. But imitation is the operative word.
James Sandoe, in a review of "The Return of Solar Pons," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, April 12, 1959, p. 11.
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Victor P. Hass
Few writers at work in America today have been able to register the heartbeat of a place with the fidelity, skill and warmth that August Derleth has brought to his beloved "Sac Prairie."…
With the exception of a small handful, mostly juveniles, I have read all of [Derleth's books], and I have never failed to find enjoyment in them. But much as I have admired his novels and his essays, "Wisconsin in Their Bones" … convinces me that his primary talent lies in the short story.
This, believe me, is a striking collection. Whether Derleth is telling a story of unrequited love, as in "The Christmas Virgin," of savage father love, as in "April Kinney," or of the distressing effects of indecision, as in "The Telescope," he plays a penetrating light on the forces that often make a little town a serene pool one moment and a jungle the next.
Many of the stories here are very thin slices of life, it is true, but all make a point and make it wonderfully well. They make the point also, I think, that Derleth is a far more important writer than is generally granted. In him, regional writing has come to something very close to full flower.
Victor P. Hass, "A Writer at Home," in Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine of Books, January 8, 1961, p. 3.
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Jared C. Lobdell
Mr. Fairlie's Final Journey is the first Solar Pons novel, and one is driven to conclude (a view in which the author concurs) that the novel is not the best form for a Solar Pons adventure—any more than, with the exception of The Hound of the Baskervilles, it was the best form for a Sherlock Holmes adventure. (p. 758)
A Praed Street Dossier is an out-of-the-way sort of work, not a collection of adventures (except for the last 24 pages of the book, which contain two collaborative science-fiction detective stories, comprising what is surely one of the few attempts at this genre and even more surely one of the few successful attempts), but the raw material for a collection. Along with the section on the creation of Solar Pons, and the sciencefiction detection, about half the book … is devoted to the journal of Dr. Lyndon Parker—the Pontine Watson—in the first year … of his association with Pons. Apart from the fact that it makes pleasant reading, the journal is worth noting for Mr. Derleth's strong defense of capital punishment.
The Adventure of the Unique Dickensians … is by way of being a double pastiche—a pastiche of Vincent Starrett's pastiche, "The Adventure of the Unique Hamlet." It is excellent fun. Nevertheless, one looks forward to the promised Chronicles of Solar Pons. The Memoirs are now out of print, but the other seven books are still available, and...
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The Adventures of Solar Pons is utterly different, not only from the works of spoof scholarship, but also from most other works to do with Holmes, for it consists of short stories which candidly confess the intention to copy Doyle as closely as possible. Holmes and Watson in Baker Street become Pons and Parker of Praed Street, and, as Vincent Starrett says in his preface, it is a clear case of impersonation rather than of parody. The stories are mildly amusing, but as the power of the originals rests in their literary style, and as the creator of Pons doesn't have much of it, the appeal of the anthology rather depends on the degree of fanaticism of the collector.
Benny Green, "Rounding Up," in The Spectator, Vol. 235, No. 7697, January 3, 1976, p. 14.∗
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