"Though it was not immediately foreseen, Arkham House had its inception in the death of Howard Phillips Lovecraft on March 15, 1937”. These words of reflection penned by August Derleth some 20 years after the creation of Arkham House (AH) show the initial purpose of AH, but they also foretell what was to become of this now historical icon in the world of small pulp publishers. AH not only thrives today as a result of the vision of August Derleth and Donald Wandrei; the company brings the past alive through the works of Lovecraft, Derleth, E. Hoffman Price, and Nelson Bond.
AH published its first book, The Outsider and Others by Lovecraft, in 1939. More than sixty years and 200 books later, Lovecraft remains on the center stage of its success while introducing fans to new authors to the world of the macabre, fantasy, and horror. New authors like John D. Harvey (The Cleansing) bring exciting energy to readers while keeping the integrity of the mission set forth by AH’s founders. The works presented by AH over the years would excite the likes of Lovecraft and his fellow pulp fiction authors.
Soon after Lovecraft’s death, Derleth received a letter from Wandrei with news of the death of Lovecraft on March 15, 1937. In the afternoon of receipt of the letter, Derleth wrote Wandrei “that something should be done to keep Lovecraft’s work in print”. The two young writers later agreed that collecting the stories was not enough; they needed to be published. They did so and passed along the manuscript to Derleth’s then publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons, which rejected the idea. Thus, Arkham House was born.
Derleth writes, “There was never any question about the name of our publishing house. ‘Arkham House’ suggested itself at once, since it was Lovecraft’s own well-known, widely-used place-name for legend-haunted Salem, Massachusetts, in his remarkable fiction; it seemed to us that this was fitting and that Lovecraft himself would have approved it enthusiastically”. He continues, “But by this time two years had elapsed since Lovecraft’s death, and by the time initial announcements of the work appeared in “Weird Tales”, offering prepaid advance-ordered copies of The Outsider and Others – a title selected because it had once been mentioned by Lovecraft himself as a possible collection of his work, and because Lovecraft was in a very real sense, as well as in his own concept of himself, an outsider in the twentieth century”.
The book would sell slowly but this did not discourage these young entrepreneurs. Derleth noted because of, “the enthusiasm shown by buyers, that there might be a market for small editions of books in the general field of fantasy, perhaps with emphasis on the macabre or science-fiction. To that end, I prepared early in 1941 a slender edition of my own best stories in the genre and submitted them, according to contractual obligations, to Charles Scribner’s Sons. Up to this time there had been no thought of publishing through Arkham House the work of anyone but H.P. Lovecraft; it remained for William C. Weber of Scribner’s to suggest that my collection, Someone in the Dark, ought properly be published under the Arkham House imprint, since a specialized house could very probably do better with such a book than could Scribner’s.” After giving it much thought, Derleth took Weber’s advice and Someone in the Dark was published by AH at $2.00 a copy, and outsold the first book and Derleth expanded into other works. In 1942, Wandrei was inducted into the U.S. Army and was forced to hastily sever ties with AH. In that same year; Clark Ashton Smith’s Out of Space and Time was introduced. In 1943, the second Lovecraft work was an omnibus, Beyond the Wall of Sleep. The work was limited to 1,217 copies because of World War II restrictions.
The first four books published by AH gained momentum in sales by the end of 1943 and it was obvious the books would be sold out by 1944. It was not until 1944 that Derleth and Wandrei began to return their initial investment in AH. By this time, Derleth was even more convinced that there was a small but distinct market for these collections and he was determined to publish as many of these works as possible, with “emphasis on the hitherto unpublished, but not scorning the works long out of print”. During this year, Derleth commissioned Wisconsin artist Frank Utpatel to design a house colophon, which made its first appearance on Donald Wandrei’s The Eye and the Finger. AH pushed ahead with three other titles that same year. In 1944 and 1945 AH introduced works by Lovecraft, Henry S. Whitehead, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Evangeline Walton, and J. Sheridan LeFanu. AH also published The Lurker at the Threshold, a novel suggested in notes and fragments written by Lovecraft and finished by Derleth.
It was 1945 when additional imprints Mycroft & Moran and Stanton & Lee began. The alliance with Mycroft & Moran published Derleth’s Solar Pons adventures, the Sherlock Holmes sleuthing tales. Stanton & Lee published a work by Derleth in collaboration with Clare Victor Dwiggins (Dwig) entitled, Oliver, the Wayward Owl, a children’s book for adults.
Following the lead of the successful LeFanu collection, AH ushered in four British imports: Algernon Blackwood, H. Russell Wakefield, William Hope Hodgson and A.E. Coppard. The year was 1946 and Derleth began to appreciate the lessons of publishing that he had begun to acquire. A major lesson learned by Derleth is best expressed by his own pen: “The experiences of that year… demonstrated conclusively that a small publishing business like Arkham House could afford very little overhead. Indeed, had it not been for the pouring into Arkham House of $25,000 of personal income from my writing over the first ten years, the House could not have survived”.
By 1950, almost a dozen other small houses had followed the lead of AH, and several major publishing houses were bringing out science fiction. It was this heightened activity of the genre that made Derleth realize that the market may have been over saturated and he began to scale back the number of new offerings. It was this move that allowed AH to survive the impending downturn in the market. A wise move as many houses failed to succeed in a market flooded with many offerings of varied quality.
In 1970, with the publication of Thirty Years of Arkham House, Derleth predicted that Arkham House had entered its fourth and “very probably last” decade. Derleth was a writer and had no intention of becoming only a publisher. Derleth noted he was “Far from growing rich on the proceeds of Arkham House”. He continues, “…the fact is that in no single year since its founding have the earnings of Arkham House met the expenses, so that it has been necessary for my personal earnings to shore up Arkham House finances. Despite this prediction, Derleth continued a vigorous publishing schedule through 1970 and into 1971. S.T. Joshi notes later in Sixty Years of Arkham House that Derleth’s prediction was actually a prediction of his own demise sometime in the next decade, thus too the demise of AH. August Derleth died on July 4, 1971. He was 62 years old.
After Derleth’s death, Wandrei offered time and advice to AH, but declined to become AH’s new managing editor. Following Wandrei’s recommendation, AH worked feverishly to clear up the backlog that followed Derleth’s death. AH published Derleth’s discoveries of Ramsey Campbell and Basil Copper.
The arrival of James Turner in 1974 slowly began the shift of AH’s focus from the weird to science fiction. Despite the controversy that ensued among AH’s devotees, Turner published some excellent story collections by Michael Bishop, Greg Bear, and James Tiptree, Jr.
In the 1980’s, S.T. Joshi entered the fray and collaborated with Turner on several significant works. It was an interesting collaboration as one recognized the need to seek out new authors, while the other recognized the value of preservation. Of course, Derleth recognized this worth as well; he not only worked to preserve the works of such authors as Lovecraft, Smith and Seabury Quinn, it was his publication of new authors like Ray Bradbury and Bloch which showed Derleth’s understanding of AH’s need to foster the works of new authors. Essentially, the collaboration marked a return to AH's roots.
Joshi notes the Derleth-Wandrei vision was quite justified by stating that “Lovecraft is the only author from the weird fiction pulps to have secured a genuine place in the canon of American literature, and Arkham House played a central role in continually keeping Lovecraft’s work in the public eye”. Joshi also notes that Derleth’s publication of Bradbury showed Derleth’s “unerring instinct in publishing”. Says Joshi, “Volumes of somewhat lesser lights such as Joseph Payne Brennan and Manly Wade Wellman displayed Derleth’s critical acumen”.
AH has entered the next century and displays most superbly the vision of Derleth with Arkham’s Masters of Horror edited by Peter Ruber and The Cleansing by new-comer John D. Harvey. It is this dedication of AH to publish such works that has kept AH true to its legacy.
Derleth’s writings have undoubtedly helped secure his place in history. The penned word will most certainly outlast the success and failings of a business. One must profess, however, AH may be a legacy Derleth never intended to leave. Now in its 78th year (2017), AH has outlived Derleth. As the leader and elder statesman in the world of genre publishing, AH will surely outlive us all. This is a legacy that Derleth could not have dreamed for this publishing house that started from thoughts of a lost friend while walking through the marshes of Sauk City, Wisconsin.