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.)