Table of Contents
I. Return II. Any Hour, Any Year III. Too Early Seen Unknown
IV. And Known Too Late! V. Way to the Open VI. Whoever Knocks
VII. Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow VIII. Out, Out, Brief Candle!
Any Day Now
The House of Moonlight
Where the Worm Dieth Not
The Night Light at Vorden's
Quality Paperback, 350 pp.
ISBN 1-896648-96-7 @ $20.00
Hard Cover with Dustjacket, 350 pp.
ISBN 1-896648-95-9 @ $28.00
Introduction by Peter Ruber
Critics often link August Derleth's Sac Prairie Saga with such regional landmarks in American fiction as Zona Gales's Friendship Village, Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, and Sinclair Lewis' Main Street. The saga was ambitiously conceived during the author's teenage years. While his school friends ran loose, created mischief, or worked on their family farms and businesses in and around Sauk City, Wisconsin, August was writing and regularly selling stories of the macabre and the supernatural to pulp magazines like Weird Tales. These potboilers served as a training ground that developed his literary skills for the serious writing he believed he was capable of producing.
He envisioned the Sac Prairie Saga as one of the most ambitious literary projects ever undertaken in American letters, consisting of at least 50 books of novels, short stories, journals, poetry and miscellaneous prose. Leslie Cross, the former literary editor of the Milwaukee Journal, who tracked August's career for many decades, once said that the Sage of Sauk City had dreams of becoming the Wisconsin Balzac.
August had a compulsive nature that always motivated him to map out literary projects that were larger than life – or beyond reasonable expectation – and he gave the Saga his best effort. In the end, the final tally of Saga books actually published stood at nineteen – thirty-five if you add in his poetry – far short of his original goal. Or so I thought.
For years I asked myself if he had run out of steam, if the words stopped flowing from his pen. But at the time of his death, in 1971, he was still writing and planning new books about his fictional microcosm with the same fervor that possessed him forty years earlier. Certain events and circumstances derailed the publication of many books over the years. Some were under August's control, others were not. The most significant derailment occurred in 1946 when August parted with Chas. Scribner's Sons, the first major publisher of the saga, after a ten-year association.
It was a matter of principle, he told me, during one of our meetings. He felt Scribner's was not doing enough to advertise his books, was too slow in negotiating foreign editions, particularly in Great Britain, where publishers were beginning to take an interest in his work. And there was the matter of his last book for Scribner's, The Shield of the Valiant (1945). The entire first printing was sold out before the first review ever appeared and the publisher was considerably late in getting a second printing into distribution, due to wartime rationing of paper. By that time reader interest had piqued because they were unable to buy the book, and the second printing was slow to sell.
Then the publisher inadvertently violated a contract provision the author had insisted upon several years earlier. To wit: the author had the option to purchase all copies to be remaindered at the prevailing rate; and if the book was to be declared out of print, he also had the right to purchase the printing plates for scrap value. The several hundred unsold copies of The Shield of the Valiant were remaindered without his knowledge and August let the publisher's business manager know precisely how he felt about the situation. He was never one to mince words when he had an ax to grind.
In his letters I find that August had also become suspicious that the publisher had fallen behind in paying royalties, something his editors Maxwell Perkins and William Weber vehemently denied. Frequently he ordered books from Scribner's publishing list and from Scribner's bookstore, and asked that they be charged to his royalty account; and then he lost track of the amounts. Perkins, in particular, was hurt by these allegations. He had gone out on a limb any number of times to obtain royalty advances larger than the publisher normally paid, because he hoped they would give his author financial freedom while he worked on his novels. Perkins greatly admired the young writer: he wanted to craft him into another Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Wolfe, writers whom the editor had carefully nurtured like small children during their growing years.
Finally, after the publisher delayed several times in following through on potential foreign sales, August turned his books over to an agent specializing in reprint and foreign sales. That did not please Maxwell Perkins; and thereafter there was a distinct cooling in the relationship between author and publisher. In 1946 August wrote to Perkins' associate William Weber that he would no longer submit new books to Scribner's. When Weber received this terse letter, the editor scribbled "I don't know whether to cry or cheer!" across the top before passing it along to Perkins. This remarkable correspondence of nearly 1,000 letters is currently being edited for publication. It documents a unique literary relationship filled with ambition, expectations, and the cold realities of the publishing world.
But the differences between author and publisher were more than just about money and the botched business over The Shield of the Valiant and foreign sales. August always had a small but steady income from his magazine writings, which he hoarded like a squirrel.
Perkins felt that August should devote himself completely to writing his Sac Prairie Saga books and the historical novels that were forming the foundation of his Wisconsin Saga – to tweak every creative syllable, so that his work would achieve the kind of reputation he believed it should have. That meant crafting only one book at a time which Scribner's wanted to bring out at 18-month intervals. Perkins often recommended that the young author get a regular job to support himself, and slowly work on each book during evenings and weekends, until it was finished. Then go onto the next project.
That was untenable to a mind bursting with stories and a desire to be free of the constraints associated with working in an office. Instead, he pushed forward at a rapid pace, writing detective novels, mystery and macabre fiction for the magazines, as well as poetry, so that he had money in the bank and could spend two or three months polishing a novel to his own satisfaction.
He constantly hounded Perkins for royalty advances on the premise that he needed the money to live on while he worked on the novels; but in reality the advances usually went to pay off the huge charges he ran up with Chicago bookseller Ben Abramson. Even the $2,000 Guggenheim fellowship Perkins helped August obtain through his sponsorship went to pay for binding his enormous collection of newspaper comic strips that dated back to the 19th century, and not for living purposes.
Between 1935 and 1946 August wrote fifty-one books – eleven alone in the year 1945 – which resulted in a Life magazine feature on the prolific young writer. This output raised considerable questions about the quality of his work, and Perkins frequently despaired that August was diluting himself by writing too many books in too many different veins. When the inevitable break occurred, it also brought an end to the Sac Prairie Saga for twelve years.
His published output during those twelve years was not as productive as the previous decade, but he still managed to write forty-three books (and an astounding eighty-seven were to follow between 1958 and 1971). Most of them were not of any lasting importance, to be sure. It was the usual melange of mystery and macabre fiction, edited anthologies of science fiction and the supernatural, and a fair amount of poetry. Much of his poetry was self-published in elegant limited editions through small presses. Publishers also signed him to contracts to write histories about Wisconsin and biographies for young readers.
Having had the foresight to purchase all remaining copies and the printing plates to his Scribner's books, he reprinted and distributed them through Arkham House (a publishing house he had created in 1940 to perpetuate the fantasy fiction of his friend and mentor H. P. Lovecraft), and therefore was able to keep the Sac Prairie Saga before the reading public. Ultimately, his sales of these books exceeded those of the original Scribner's editions. He also brought out a new collection of short stories in 1948, Sac Prairie People, based on material which had been sitting in Scribner's vault since the early 1940s; and in 1951, he published a limited edition of his novella, The House of Moonlight, through Carroll Coleman's Prairie Press. Except for Village Year (1947) which was already under contract to Pellegrini & Cudahay, a journal book that Scribner's didn't think it could sell, this was the extent of the Sac Prairie books to appear during so-called silent years.
The Sac Prairie Saga came back to life unexpectedly in 1958. In the previous year, after Charles Pearce, publisher of Duell, Sloane & Pearce, lectured at the University of Wisconsin on writing and publishing, he was approached by Prof. Robert Gard who suggested that Pearce commission a series of novels for high school readers set in various states of the Union by authors who were closely associated with their native states. Gard added that August should be the one to write the book set in Wisconsin. Pearce, who founded his company in 1940, was well acquainted with August. In fact, he almost accepted the author's first Sac Prairie journal book that year, but declined at the last moment because he felt his company was too young to gamble on such a non-commercial literary property. He liked Gard's idea so much that he launched the series, immediately.
August wrote The Moon Tenders in three weeks. It wound up selling more than 30,000 copies and critics said it had all the charm of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Thus began a decade-long relationship that revived both the Sac Prairie and Wisconsin sagas, and the publication of several of his very best books. He also repeated the characters in The Moon Tenders in eight more junior mystery novels for Pearce. As entertaining as they were, none had the rustic charm of the series original. These, too, were set in Sac Prairie, in the 1920s. August's association with Pearce came to a sudden end in 1968. Meredith Press acquired Duell, Sloane & Pearce and one other fine publishing house, and cut loose all literary properties that weren't instant best-sellers. It wanted to concentrate on publishing cookbooks and other mindless hackwork.
Several of the books Pearce published were books August had written in earlier years, namely Countryman's Journal, which was based on his 1942 and 1943 columns for Outdoor magazine; and the short story collection Wisconsin in their Bones. During the hiatus between Scribner's and Duell, Sloane & Pearce, August did not let grass grow under his feet. He wrote more than a dozen Sac Prairie saga novels and novellas, which were never published in book form, although a few were serialized in magazines. He tucked them away for the future and they were only recently discovered by his daughter April and given to me for publication, along with many other writings that will eventually fill more than twenty "new" books.
Linda Frayne is one of the many novels that almost made it to publication several times before this present edition. It was written in 1940 as Homeward Now, The Swallows, and it sat on Maxwell Perkins' desk for more than a year before he decided against publishing it. Editor William Weber called it a "sweet tale written in Derleth's quiet style." Both men felt it was too short as a book; readers in those days demanded books of hundreds of pages for the $2.00 they were willing to spend. And so the manuscript sat on August's bookshelves for thirty years before he broached me about possibly publishing it. I agreed to do it and he completed a revision of the manuscript only a few months before his death, never realizing that his meddling literary executor would doom it to oblivion for another quarter of a century, like the Gus Elker stories in Country Matters.
At the time we discussed Linda Frayne, August was not sanguine about its sales potential, saying that this old-fashioned melodrama set in Sac Prairie and Chicago during the years of the first World War, was now too far removed from the kind of contemporary fiction readers were used to. He was right, of course, but he had a warm spot in his heart for the story. And since I had no problems selling any of his books, I saw no reason to turn it down.
There were also bigger fish that I wanted to fry and this was a step toward them. The bigger fish included The Wind in the Cedars, a psychological novel with supernatural overtones – part of the quintet of Redbook novels.
He also aroused my interest in two contemporary novels he had written during the 1950s which he said he would like to publish in the near future – The Forts of Reason and The Drought of March. These vanished after his death and only came to light in June of 1996 along with many other manuscripts in his former home, Place of Hawks. The Forts of Reason, unfortunately, was not complete. August had written only the first section of a novel in the style of The Shield of the Valiant. The Drought of March, however was complete, as were other novels like Cassandra, The Dark House, Marius, The Odyssey of Janna Meade, The Lost Heart, The Mona Lisa Smile, Shane's Girls, Gina Blayne, which will finally see publication in the years to come.
Has time aged Linda Frayne even more over the last quarter of a century? Undoubtedly it has. It is still a story frozen in time as all of Sac Prairie was. August fell under the spell of the inhabitants of Sauk City early in life, collecting their stories and legends like other people collect hubcaps and recipes. Here he found all the hate, greed, lust, love, sacrifice, courage and human drama that writers feast on for their inspiration. He didn't have to leave the countryside and move to a sprawling metropolis to find his material. It was all around him for the taking; and he understood it better than anybody else.
After a while, time stood still for August Derleth, too. He was never able to escape the cocoon he had spun around himself; he found it difficult to write about people in contemporary settings. He was always too obsessed with the past: he was in love with history and with the days of his youth. August was well aware of this himself and said to writer Norbert Blei in what proved to be his final interview: "....It would be in vain hope that people would turn from Love Story and books of its kind to Walden West.... The milieu of Walden West is fundamentally alien to all but a relatively small core of perceptive and sensitive readers, because even the majority of people who live in the small towns prefer not to see them as they are and thus struggle against identification, reader-identification, that is, with its people. Moreover, mass communications have gone a long way toward eradicating a certain image, type or whatever you choose to call it. For instance, my once popular Gus Elker stories of bucolic comedy (originally in Atlantic and Scribner's, etc.) couldn't find a market today – nothing to do with them as stories, but simply because today's editors are too far removed from the kind of people in them, and assume that today's readers are too, and that is very likely true."
Although the Sac Prairie Saga declined in popularity after his death, August's macabre fiction is still in high demand. Many of his genre books continue to be reprinted here and abroad, and his short stories have appeared in more than 200 anthologies since 1971. Lately there has been a growing demand for his Sac Prairie books, which have become hard to find in used bookstores and often command outrageous prices.
What makes the people in his Sac Prairie stories so believable is that they are all drawn on real people that once lived in his hometown. The names have been changed, but the citizens of Sauk City often recognized themselves. At any given time, half the town was mad at him for being in one of his books or stories; the other half mad because they weren't.
In "The Author in His Native Place," an October 10, 1957 lecture August presented before the Northwestern Wisconsin Education Association (Eau Clair), he related an amusing incident that occurred after the publication of his journal book Village Daybook. A local tradesman, who had read the book, told a man named "Smith" that Smith's wife was mentioned in Village Daybook, but he quoted that passage out of context. Infuriated, Smith ran home, told his wife, and then called Derleth. I quote from the lecture:
"She insisted that something must be done. It so happened that had been one of my bad days. I had so much work that I had to forego lunch – always a mortification for me – and I had just time enough at noon to lie down for ten minutes or so. Ordinarily, I am as tractable as an amiable collie, but in such unusual circumstances, my tractability had worn thin. I had just lain down when the telephone rang, and I went somewhat crossly to answer it. The following conversation took place.
"‘Derleth. Is this you?' roared Smith.
"‘Yes,' I said.
"‘Say, what right have you got to use my wife's name in your book?'
"‘What's the matter? Has she been canonized?'
"When he understood what this meant, he roared all the louder. ‘Derleth,' he said, ‘we're going to sue you.'
"‘That's the best news I've had in a week,' I said. ‘The book hasn't been selling very well, and a good suit is just the publicity it needs. We'll sell another thousand copies easily. Of course, it'll be a five-ring circus, Smith, and you'll be the clown in every ring – but you shouldn't mind doing your bit for American literature.'
"This took him considerably aback. He grew a little cautious. I needled him deliberately. ‘Come now – don't back down. You see your lawyer and I'll see mine – let's do it today.'
"‘Well, I want you to know that my wife is prostrated,' he said then.
"I barked a horse laugh into the telephone. ‘I know your wife,' I said. ‘Nothing short of the kick of a mule would prostrate her.'
"He was unwise enough to repeat this to her. I could hear her scream of rage as if she were in the room with me. Finally I said, ‘Look here – you'd better look into the book before you try to go into court with it.'
"That was the last I heard of that particular suit, and the others came to no more."
I also found the following anecdote in a lecture called "The Problems of a Writer" that August presented sometime in 1958. This is a particularly good place to print it because it deals with Renna Gluyk, the lead character in Any Day Now. Renna also walks through Linda Frayne and other Sac Prairie stories as a secondary character. He wrote:
"I served a long apprenticeship in the writing of purely imaginative fiction and in the construction of thematic novels before I learned very much at first hand about the potential reactions of people who discovered that they had been used in fiction. My first experience came about this way. I happened to walk into the home of a middle-aged friend over twenty years ago and came upon her sorting old photographs. When I sat down, she tossed one of them over to me.
"'Recognize her?' she asked.
"I said I did not.
"‘Oh, you've played bridge with her many times – right here in this house,' she answered.
"The photograph was that of a strikingly beautiful woman, who would have rated whistles on any street in any age. She was young – in her late teens perhaps, or early twenties, and I was sure I would have recognized her had I known her.
"My hostess finally identified her as cousin Renna, then a woman in her middle fifties, gone to fat, but still attractive, a spinster. And why, I wondered instantly, had so beautiful a woman never married?
"I suppose, in a very real sense, that inquiry began a series of inquiries into the lives of my fellow citizens which will probably not end until I shuffle off to this mortal coil. In a small town like Sauk City, when you want to learn something, you customarily go directly to the subject. If she doesn't want to tell you, you suggest that you'll ask another lady, and you name her greatest known enemy. So you hear her story. Of course, you go to the other lady anyway, guessing that the truth lies somewhere between the two stories.
"But in Renna's case, it was impossible to go to her. She had been gone from Sauk City for a long time, except on holidays. She worked in Milwaukee, in Chicago, and was at that time in St. Paul. I conducted a judicious inquiry which came up against a blank wall. Renna had been the acknowledged belle of Sauk City from about 1895 to 1915 – a long reign. She had never known any lack of beaux. Why then, spinsterhood?
"At last I asked the village librarian, a well-educated woman, one of the first women to be graduated from the University of Wisconsin, and she had the answer in an anecdote.
"One evening, as she was coming home from Madison on the Milwaukee Road spur from Mazomanie, she found herself all alone in the coach with two traveling salesmen – they were called drummers in those days – whose conversation she could not help overhearing, since they sat directly in front of her. The two young men were discussing their sweethearts, who, evidently, lived in Sauk City. One thing led to another, and it developed that each intended to propose during this stay in Sauk City – for the salesmen of that day made Sauk City headquarters for visits to all the stores in all the villages and hamlets of the vicinity. They compared rings. And, of course, finally they compared girls – and discovered they were each about to propose to Renna.
"Her failure had lain in this – she had been the same charmer to all the men who dated her, and a comparison of notes convinced each of them that he meant nothing to her except a pleasant companion of an afternoon or evening, and, since Renna was the daughter of the owner of the hotel where they stayed, they naturally concluded that it was to her interest to see to it that they enjoyed their stay in Sauk City.
"So I wrote the story. Because, twenty years ago, Renna was one of a group of middle-aged spinsters who called themselves ‘the old girls,' and used to team one another by suggesting that ‘any day now the right man'll come along,' I called the story, a novelette, Any Day Now, and with it made my first sale to that group of magazines known as ‘the slicks' – Redbook bought the story and scheduled it for the May 1938 issue. Not until the moment that I held the proofs in my hand did I think of Renna, of Renna's reaction – and of those laws which protect innocent laymen from the exploitation of wicked authors!
"I showed the story to my librarian friend, who said at once that no one who had known Renna even casually could fail to recognize her in this full length portrait. I began to have qualms – a little late. So, when I got an advance copy of the magazine, I tore out the story and mailed it without comment to Renna in St. Paul, and thereafter I sat watching every mail for a letter with a lawyer's return address on the envelope. – But nothing came. There was only a dreadful silence from St. Paul.
"Some months later, I met one of the other old girls on the street. She taught in St. Paul, and had come home for the summer. I asked her what Renna had said about Any Day Now.
"She laughed. ‘Oh, that story!' she said. ‘Well, Renna went out and bought 65 copies of that Redbook, sent them all to those friends who didn't know her in Sauk City, and said, ‘This is the true story of my life!'
"I learned, you see, that there was never any real danger of legal action if an author glamorizes a woman sufficiently. And in Any Day Now Renna was made a woman of undeniable glamour.
"As an aside, I want to tell you about a purely practical problem which was brought about by the publication of Any Day Now. The story was told from the point-of-view of Renna, and something like 5,000 women wrote to the editor of Redbook wanting to know how a man could get inside a woman's mind like that. Letters always impress editors, who want to please their readers. So, because Any Day Now was essentially a triangle story, told from a woman's point-of-view, I was never thereafter able to do anything for Redbook but triangle stories from some woman's perspective!.... [it] became a major problem to introduce something novel and different in each of the five novelettes and five novels I subsequently wrote for that magazine."
All of the characters in the remaining five novelettes in this collection were drawn to some extent on incidents that occurred in Sauk City – or at the very least composites of several people with a dash of the author's imagination. One interesting fact that I have learned recently concerns the story "The House of Moonlight."
On October 13, 1951, August wrote the following to writer-critic-editor Anthony Boucher: "The House of Moonlight is the fifth of the quintet originally begun with Five Alone (carried on with Nine Strands of the Web, Farway House, Place of Hawks), and published in 1935 as Place of Hawks, sans this new title which I couldn't undertake at that time (I was ca. 21 when these four studies in abnormal psych. were published as Place of Hawks, and the theme of The House of Moonlight was too difficult for me). I finished The House of Moonlight in January 1949, I think. In the panoply of the Sac Prairie Saga, this is a Dr. Jasper Grendon story...."
Dr. Jasper Grendon was, of course, the grandfather of young Steven Grendon, who narrates this brooding tale; and Steven Grendon, as most readers of the Saga know, is the fictionalized incarnation of August Derleth. Even when his stories are purely imaginative, they appear to be real because of the continuity of characters throughout the many Saga novels and stories. We meet Steve Grendon at various stages of his life – as a youngster vacationing at the farm of his Great-aunt Lou and Great-uncle Joe Stoll in the delightful Gus Elker stories; as a pre-teenager in the Steve/Sim junior mysteries; as a high school student in love, in Evening in Spring; and later as a young writer in The Shield of the Valiant. This quasi-autobiographical literary technique goes a long way toward creating the illusion that the Saga was based more on fact than on fiction.
August changed writing styles as easily as a chameleon changes it's colors. The Gus Elker stories in Country Matters are light-hearted and mischievous. By contrast, the stories in this collection have a quiet narrative that is sometimes dark and hypnotic and the reader is quickly drawn into the story and is held captive. August never injects overt violence or sex into his stories, but there is always an undercurrent of potential violence and repressed sexuality. He hated physical violence and could not write a scene filled with blood and gore. As to the repressed sexuality of his characters, I think we'll leave that discussion for the future.
August Derleth was a born storyteller who could evoke great warmth and sympathy for his characters, even when he might not have liked them very well – like those he wrote about [his] Aunt May. It is interesting to note that the greater portion of the Sac Prairie Saga was devoted to stories about women, and he had an uncanny knack of seeing into their minds. (His male characters are, for the most part, either weak-willed and emotionally high-strung, or autocratic and possessive.) There is a common thread to all the women in these stories – Linda Frayne, Renna Gluyk, April Kinney, Celia Valden, Vanessa Vorden, and the others. They have courage and determination; they want to escape from the entrapments synonymous with small town life, and to be free of unhappy relationships and manipulative parents. Not all their lives end happily. Some are shattered, others end in tragedy.
August Derleth is one of only a handful of writers whose work I can reread simply because his characters are so memorable and believable. And the stories in this collection are among my favorites.
– Peter Ruber
Oakdale, New York,
19 August 1996