Quality Paperback, 318
ISBN 1-896648-29-0 @ $20.00
Hard Cover with Dustjacket, 318 pp.
ISBN 1-896648-29-0 @ $28.00
Note: additional short stories were found in the Papers, but not enough to make another book.
Foreword by August Derleth
My Great-uncle Joe and Great-aunt Lou Stoll, with Gus Elker, have appeared in magazines and newspapers from one end of the country to another, to say nothing of Canada; they have got into short-story collections and been put into textbooks and anthologies for college and secondary school use; and somehow or other a remarkable number of people have made their acquaintance. Presumably most of those people have known someone just like these energetic and lively oldsters, but once in a while someone writes to ask whether there "really were such characters."
And, of course, there were. Great-aunt Lou passed to her reward only a few Aprils ago at an advanced age which must surely have seemed to her testimony of the Lord's approval of righteous living; Great-uncle Joe had gone ahead, and she had had no doubt that wherever he was he was "stirrin' up things." Gus Elker was not one man, but four. Perhaps it would take four men to make one Gus Elker. I put him together almost four decades ago, for the single purpose of pursuing and finally vanquishing the wrong fox, and I have been pursuing him through more than fifty adventures ever since.
And these tales are for the most part quite as real. Indeed, I have restrained myself from writing some stories which might have seemed far too incredible for fiction. But then, it is a truism that truth is always stranger than fiction, and these people my great-uncle and -aunt, and Gus Elker may seem too good to be true to some readers. They seemed so to me, too, They seemed so to Great-aunt Lou as well; she read most of these stories with delight when they appeared in Household and Progressive Farmer, the Atlantic, Scribner's, the Yale Review, the Farm Journal, the Toronto Star, Extension, and elsewhere, and invariably ended up with a little shake of her head which was neither in approbation nor disapproval, and a pointed, "That boy!"
I can still hear her saying it. I expect to continue to hear it like a spectral whisper every time I finish a story about her and great-uncle and Gus Elker, just as nowadays when I go past the Fair Valley store I find myself back in those halcyon years when the old farm was just over the ridge and all the hills and meadows down to the river and up on the other side were filled with the promise of bucolic adventures which my Great-aunt Lou, my Great-uncle Joe, and Gus Elker seemed to attract to themselves with astonishing ease. And I suppose, if it comes down to it, there are fewer words I would rather hear again than my great-uncle's persuasive "C'mon, Old Timer!" and my great-aunt's admonitory, "You, Boy go along and see he don't get into any trouble."
But, of course, I will never hear them again. Except by going back into the years gone by and remembering like this, which makes it possible for others to hear them, too.
Place of Hawks
Sac Prairie, Wisconsin
11 January 1970
Introduction by Peter Ruber
On July 4, 1971, while our country was celebrating its anniversary, I received a phone call that stunned me. It was from Kay Price, August Derleth's secretary. She said the indestructible writer had had a fatal heart attack. He had driven into town early that morning to do some errands. When he returned home, he sat down under the big oak tree in his lawn, the spot where he said he wanted to die, and waited for the ambulance to rush him to Sauk Prairie Hospital. He was pronounced dead at 10 o'clock that morning at the age of 62.
It took several days for this news to impact me, to realize that I would no longer hear his deep, booming voice answer the telephone with "This is God." Not everyone appreciated his warped sense of humor.
As a writer, August Derleth wore many hats. As a personality he was, to put it mildly, one of the most colorful egotists I had ever known. He was also a creative genius whose literary output would have satisfied a half-dozen writers. He was a man of contradictions who deliberately created his own legend before time and others could do it for him. He had a great love of the past and that was reflected in his writings.
He was usually out of step with the times and with the society around him, and he cared little of what people said about him "as long as they spell my name right," he was fond of saying. And in a small rural community like Sauk City, Wisconsin, he was usually the center of controversy. If it wasn't forthcoming by its own momentum, his impish nature would set it in motion.
August loved audiences, and he played to them with the consummate skill of a politician. In the company of fellow writers he was boastful, often bawdy, and prone to exaggeration. At civic meetings he was combative and obstreperous, and would deflate his detractors with verbal pyrotechnics that would bring a professional orator to tear. But he would ooze with charm in the company of women, young and old. He had an extraordinary bass-baritone voice, cultured, and actorish, as though he had spent decades on the stage playing his favorite Shakespearean roles. He was driven by a monstrous ego, yet he was honest and self-effacing about his own writings. He loved literature and discovering new writing talent, whom he regarded as humanity's last barrier against the onslaught of a mental stone age. He was intensely loyal and generous to his friends and correspondents.
August did not look like a writer: his body had the barrel chest and arms of a weight-lifter, his face was weatherbeaten from decades of daily hiking over the fields and woods and bluffs around his home town of Sauk City. I often thought he looked like the pugilist who had stepped into the boxing ring one too many times. His hands were uncommonly large, his fingers short and stubby, like a carpenter's. They belied their dexterity to fly over the keys of a typewriter with the speed and grace of a professional typist.
He liked to dress casually in faded brown or gray wrinkled corduroy slacks and a dark green velour pull-over shirt that had seen better days. I once asked him if they were custom made as he must have had a dozen of these mismatched outfits of varying earth colors, which aged with him. He wore them everywhere. He had no compelling reason to put on a suit and tie when attending literary events at the University of Wisconsin or when he lectured before countless groups around the state. If the women's committees who often sponsored these lectures wanted him to dress up, they had to pay a steep price. Every article of clothing from ties to dress shirts, jackets, and slacks, etc. had an escalating price that was formally printed like a menu.
It was not uncommon for him to wear a tie with a T-shirt just to be contrary. "If I have to be uncomfortable, they're damned well going to make it worth my while," he used to say. He hated shoes, except in winter, and stuffed his feet into a pair of sturdy leather sandals. He wore them even to New York, when he stopped over for a few days to visit me in 1965, after a New England walking tour of the home towns of Emerson, Thoreau, and H. P. Lovecraft.
He had an extraordinary collection of books and periodicals which he had been collecting since his youth. I knew he had devoured every word like a thirsty sponge. When he built his now legendary home, "Place of Hawks," in 1939, bookshelves were designed inside the walls and were enclosed by hinged panels so that he could stack them three deep and keep from having to dust them. Place of Hawks is now an official landmark in the National Historical Register.
We had a friendly correspondence for a decade, exchanging letters about mutual literary interests and business. I became his primary publisher in 1965, after Duell, Sloane & Pearce's parent company, Meredith Press, decided to shift its editorial focus to more commercial literary properties. Having a New York publishing imprint for the Sac Prairie Saga was important to August; and having an established writer with his credentials on my list was a distinct advantage to me. It was the ideal foundation for a business arrangement. The association gave him control over what he wanted to have published, instead of being subjected to the usual editorial board scrutiny at Duell. In addition to my retail and library distribution, August distributed his books to his Arkham House patrons, and benefitted from the maximum distributor discount on top of his royalties, thus maximizing his income.
But getting his books into print was often a stormy affair. August wasn't the easiest man to work with. He was bull-headed, opinionated sometimes he was just damned pushy. Not all of his publishers understood his compulsive need to be in control. I would often infuriate him by not jumping at his advice. He was involved with all aspects of production, from cover designs to page layouts, and we frequently locked horns over these issues.
I thought his artistic taste in jacket illustrations was murky, especially the one he insisted upon having for The Wind Leans West. I lost that battle. Later, I simply went ahead and had jackets designed and printed without submitting them for his approval. I generally liked the woodcuts made by his old friend artist Frank Utpatel. They had a rustic charm that suited Wisconsin Country. He was miffed that I neglected to let him see the cover art for Three Straw Men, his tenth and last Steve Grendon/Sim Jones junior mystery novel. But he said it was "stunning" after receiving the proofs and admitted that it was the best-looking book of the series. Such admissions were rare, of course. Getting him to apologize for having offended you by something he had said was even rarer. I know of only one incident when he did though I am convinced his apology was made reluctantly.
As I look back at those brief years of friendship, from an even greater expanse of time, it pleases me to know that I did publish three of his best books Wisconsin Country, Collected Poems, and Return to Walden West. High on his own list of favorites were another nine or ten that would also be my choices as well. Few writers can claim to have written a dozen books worthy of survival in the literary floodgates. Even the great names in literature aren't always remembered for more than three or four really outstanding productions. The rest don't measure up. August also wrote a lot of books in that category 138 to be exact.
Many were potboilers or contract histories and biographies, or books for young readers, and lots of detective stories and fantasy/macabre fiction and ghost stories, too, for which he had different audiences. They weren't as important as his best books, but neither were they hack work. August wasn't a hack. Even his entertainments were a cut above the mainstream of commercial writing. He was the atypical full-time writer whose primary goal, as he saw it, was to earn a decent living so that he had the financial freedom to spend extra time on an occasional important book one like Walden West, which he worked on for fourteen years, and its sequel, Return to Walden West, which took him eight years to write. These two books were more important, in his mind, than all the others combined. They were journals that reflected his cumulative philosophy about man and nature surviving in his fictional milieu of Sac Prairie, Wisconsin his homage to Thoreau and Emerson, whose writings had influenced him greatly throughout his life.
There was to be a third and final book in this trilogy called Annals of Walden West. He had planned to begin writing it in earnest during the summer of 1971. But he never did. Portions of the book were in outline, perhaps 150 pages of rough sketches and memories, observations and notes, which wound up at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, along with his personal papers and manuscripts. I was finally able to read them about a year ago. They were fragmented and scattered in content and left no clear footprint of where he planned to take the book. I am certain, though, that it was all very clear in his own mind. He had the acumen to work out and organize a book in his mind long before he ever sat down to write it. And when he did, it would flow like an unending waterfall.
Though he had the mental discipline to write every day, and had an extraordinary imagination for plotting story lines, he was undisciplined as an artist, and often wrote too swiftly in too many literary genres something critics hung over his head like the sword of Damocles. He agreed. The bulk of his Sac Prairie Saga some 50 books of novels, short story collections, journals and poetry were all written between 1935 and 1969. Many of the later Sac Prairie books were based on manuscripts he had actually written years before, but had put aside for a rainy day a time when he needed to come up with a manuscript on short notice. Some had not been finished because he had lost interest in them, or they weren't coming along as he had anticipated.
The early decades of his writing career were a fertile and creative period during which he demonstrated his eminent gifts as a story teller. Because of his impatience and compulsion to write in large volumes, he did not always polish and craft his historical novels as much as he could have. While they read well enough, his obsession with historical accuracy often was at the expense of dramatic incident and the entertainment they were supposed to provide. I thought The Wind Leans West was stodgy, but I published it anyway, in 1969. It surprised both of us that Publishers' Weekly gave it an enthusiastic review. August himself reviewed it in his weekly Capital Times literary column panning it royally. He said it was the dullest book he had ever written. The book sold very well despite his acerbic self-criticism, because readers thought it was a publicity stunt. It wasn't. He applied the same critical standards to his own books as he did to those of other writers.
His short stories, on the other hand, are models of construction and are fused with some of the most memorable characters in American literature. August was always at his best when he wrote about people he knew personally: he saw a great warmth and humor in the simple human experience of living in a small rural farming community in the decades before World War II, and one can revisit and enjoy them as much as snapshots in a time capsule.
Writers no longer write the kind of short stories you will read in this collection because writers like August Derleth have vanished in this fast-paced world of ours. Gone, too, are the editors of the "little" magazines and journals that once nurtured literary talent like a pecious natural resource. In a letter Frederic Babcock sent me in the early 1960s, after his retirement as the long-time editor of the Chicago Tribune's Sunday Magazine of Books, he lamented the disappearance of the small literary journals and the "pulp" magazines which had provided the training ground for so many of the important writers of his time.
There is too much hard-boiled realism in today's literature; too much psychological drama. We live in a pop culture where heroes and heroines pass quickly through their fifteen minutes of fame. And so we tend to forget the writers who once were important, or those whose gifts were often overlooked by the general reading public. Like yesterday's newspaper headlines and the politicians just voted out of office, the survival of some our best writers often rests solely in the hands of the faithful few who burn candles and keep their flames alive.
The stories in Country Matters hold a special meaning for me. I have been waiting to publish them for more than a quarter century. It was one of two manuscripts the author had sent me only months before his death. Unfortunately, August and I did not have a formal publishing contract. We never did for any of the eleven books I published during the last six years of his life except for simple letters of agreement outlining royalty terms. That was all we needed as friends and businessmen who trusted each other.
When August died, so did that trust because his literary executor had other plans, a private agenda that never got off the ground. The endless delays waiting for the author's estate to be settled caused me to lose my window of opportunity. The audience August had built up so methodically with a constant stream of books began to drift away, as it always does when there is no new material forthcoming to fuel the legend. Country Matters languished on my shelves along with his last novel, Linda Frayne, and five novels that August had written for Redbook magazine between 1939-48. One of these, Wind in the Cedars, was high on his books-to- publish list. Plans are underway to bring all of the Redbook novels into print over the next few years.
This wasn't the first time the publication of Country Matters had been delayed. Charles Scribner's Sons almost published it as a sequel to Country Growth in the mid-1940s, but an unpleasant split over subsidiary rights between author and publisher put the manuscript back on the shelves. The manuscript surfaced again in the late 1950s when Duell, Sloane & Pearce began to publish an extensive series of August's Sac Prairie books; but it was ultimately rejected because the publisher felt the market would not support it. Despite receiving excellent critical acclaim, August's 1961 short story collection, Wisconsin in their Bones, did not have an outstanding sale, proving once again that people will devour short stories in magazines, but seldom in hard covers.
I am certain this caused August Derleth much consternation and anguish. He felt his best work was in his short stories, not in his novels, and the stories about Gus Elker and Great-aunt Louisa Stoll and Great-uncle Joe Stoll were among his favorites. However, August always was realistic about the fate of his short story collections. As publisher of Arkham House, an imprint devoted to fantasy and macabre fiction that he supported for many years with earnings from his mainstream writing, short story collections were notoriously slow sellers. But August published them with dogmatic determination because he believed in them and their authors. Several had to wait a decade or more before he could afford to publish them; and eventually he did, because he had made a promise to do so. "I always keep my promises," he once wrote to an Arkham House collector. Commercial publishers cannot afford to be so benevolent.
Those who have read August Derleth's Country Growth (1940), Sac Prairie People (1948) and Wisconsin in their Bones (1961), will already be familiar with Gus Elker and the Stolls. They appear no less than sixteen times in these short story collections. Given this opportunity to finally see to the publication of Country Matters, and keep the promise I once made to him, I thought it was the right time to bring all the known "Gus Elker" stories together into a single volume, including four I was able to track down with the aid of Alison M. Wilson's admirable book August Derleth: A Bibliography (Scarecrow Press, 1983).
Two of these ("Feud in the Hills" and "The Old Lady Takes a Hand") require a small explanation. They were published with a different set of characters. Great-aunt Lou Stoll and Great-uncle Joe Stoll appeared as Great-aunt Annie Blake and Great-uncle Ed Blake. Gus Elker was Birdie Jenkins, and Sac Prairie was Badger Prairie. (August used Badger Prairie for all his Redbook novels.) Reassigning their proper names was not an act of literary heresy on my part because the physical descriptions of the characters, their way of speaking, the settings, and everything else about the stories is the same in all the Gus Elker stories. (The incidental characters that appear in these two stories also appear in others in this book.)
Most of the Gus Elker stories were written between 1934 and the late 1940s. A few appeared in the 1950s. "The Tail of the Dog" was Scholastic Magazine's $1,000 prize winning entry for 1959. By then the market for what is commonly referred to as "regional" writing became extinct.
The magazines that had once given voice to them were shouldered off the newsstands by slick advertising-laden drivel; even the countryside of the Elkers and Stolls was being plowed under by urban development. August knew that it was just a matter of time before his own way of life became an anachronism.
I hesitate to claim that this collection contains all Gus Elker stories ever written. August says in his foreword that there were more than fifty. I suspect there were, because August Derleth maintained a meticulous journal of everything he had ever published. It provided him with the data he needed to ensure that hundreds of copyrights were renewed on schedule. He was undoubtedly the most business-minded writer, in this respect, I have ever known. If the magazine appearances of the missing Gus Elker stories are buried in the Derleth archives at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, they haven't as yet been unearthed. Perhaps an enterprising scholar will undertake this project on a future occasion.
Like so many of his books about Sac Prairie, the Gus Elker stories are quasi-autobiographical. The events are seen through the eyes of Stephen Grendon, Derleth's alter ago, who is the narrator for the majority of the stories in the Saga. It is a pseudonym he often used for the fantasy and macabre stories he wrote for the pulp story magazines early in his writing career.
Country Matters captures some delightful slices of American life which the author recalls with warmth, understanding, and good humor. Here we'll learn how Gus Elker outwits the local deputy sheriff, land-grabbing neighbors, and would-be politicians; how he captures a bank robber and turns the tables on a traveling con man; and how he helps Great-uncle Joe Stoll collect a debt from one of the town's leading rascals. And when this unlikely trio plays matchmaker to star-crossed lovers, the outcome is always fun and predictable. Each story is a gem in its own right, and you'll experience no small measure of regret when you've turned the last page of this book. You'll wish there were more.
The protagonists are unforgettable: little Gus Elker scurrying across the fields, with his sad, lugubrious eyes, his straw-colored half-moon moustache draped around his mouth, wearing overalls and shirts two sizes too big for him; and over-stuffed Great-uncle Joe Stoll, with his puffy jowls, anxious to give up an afternoon of potato planting or plowing for an adventure with Gus, perhaps to track a silver fox or catch a pesky hawk or to turn the tables on someone who deserved to be trounced. And Great-aunt Lou, who looks disapprovingly over the tops of her glasses that are always sliding down her great hooked nose. She knows their foolishness will just get them into more trouble than they can handle, but she usually knows how to keep the men from making complete fools of themselves.
As I said, there are no writers like August Derleth around today who can write books like Country Matters. And as he lived with his memories of Great-aunt Lou Stoll and Great-uncle Joe and Gus Elker long after they were gone, so shall you.
April 1, 1996
Oakdale, New York