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The Watchers Out Of Time by H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth

01/06/2009. Contributed by Neale Monks

Buy The Watchers Out Of Time in the USA - or Buy The Watchers Out Of Time in the UK

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pub: Del Rey/Ballantine. 289 page enlarged paperback. Price: $14.00 (US), $16.50 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-48569-6.

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A controversial book, this. While H.P. Lovecraft certainly contributed to all the tales in this volume to some degree, all were substantially re-written by August Derleth before they were published. Nobody really knows how much Derleth changed the stories though, but many of the themes have more in common with the writings of Derleth than those of Lovecraft.

Most notoriously, Derleth transformed the amoral universe of the Cthulhu Mythos into one centred around a straightforward battle between good and evil with the Elder Gods on the one side and the Old Ones on the other. That's usually put down to Derleth's traditional Christian beliefs and stands in stark contrast to Lovecraft's rather anti-religious atheism.

Those readers initially drawn to Lovecraft because of his dark, nihilistic storytelling have consequently found Derleth's version of the mythos distasteful. That's a shame, because Lovecraft was famously open-minded when it came to lending his literary creation to other writers. While the sense of 'cosmic horror' that defines Lovecraft's work is largely missing from the stories in this collection, that isn't to say that they're a bad read.

Far from it in fact. Derleth was at least Lovecraft's equal when it comes to being able to tell a story. All fifteen stories here are highly readable and those Lovecraft fans who've already exhausted the main canon, these extra tales will be a delight.

Several of the stories are highly derivative. 'The Shadow Out Of Space' for example is a sort of parallel to an older Lovecraft novella called 'The Shadow Out Of Time'. Derleth essentially recycles the same plot points through a different set of characters, the main difference in content coming from how the beings known as the Great Race behave. In Lovecraft's original story, the Great Race are not hostile to humanity and make no attempt to manipulate or otherwise impact upon the modern world. By contrast, the Great Race in the 'The Shadow Out Of Space' are more aggressively acting to ensure their concealment, to the degree that they start persecuting the narrator once he learns too much.

Similarly, 'The Shuttered Room' draws equally on 'The Dunwich Horror' and 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth'. Set in the classic Lovecraft country of rural New England, as always we find a reclusive antiquarian having to deal with a dark inheritance, in this case a dilapidated house with a dangerous secret. Other stories are more original, including the somewhat mawkish 'Lamp Of Alhazred', a (very) thinly veiled homage to the life and death of Lovecraft told through the trope of a magical lamp.

On the other hand, even the more original tales like 'The Ancestor' and 'Innsmouth Clay' lack the sheer originality of those stories written by Lovecraft alone. There's a certain amount of repetition as well and the lack of variety in terms of location and characters makes the collection a little tedious if read from cover to cover. All things considered, the biggest flaw to this book is that the reader simply doesn't know where Lovecraft's writing ends and Derleth's writing begins. That Del Rey have issued this book with Lovecraft's name in big letters at the top is at best sleight of hand, leading readers to assume that what's presented here are genuine bona fide pieces of Lovecraft's work.

Even the suggestion that these stories are collaborations is misleading, since they certainly weren't written by the two authors working together. The lack of a scholarly introduction is a particularly grievous oversight. Even those that are critical of Derleth accept that he was instrumental in ensuring that Lovecraft's work became better known to readers outside his immediate circle of friends and fellow writers. But without a historical frame of reference or some explanation of how the stories in this collection were written and published, it's difficult for the reader to fully appreciate what they are and what they are not.

So while fun to read and a useful addition to bookshelf of any Lovecraft fan, 'The Watchers Out Of Time' is a slippery collection difficult to place in its correct literary context.

Neale Monks

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