There was never any question about the name of our publishing house—the imprint to be used on what we then thought perhaps the first of three volumes. Arkham Housesuggested 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 use that this was fitting and that Lovecraft himself would have approved it enthusiastically. […]
Nevertheless, the buyers of our first book were sufficiently enthusiastic to persuade me to believe there might be a market for small editions of books in the general domain of fantasy, with emphasis on the macabre or science-fiction.August Derleth, Thirty Years of Arkham House (1970) 3, 4
Before he was a professional writer of weird fiction, Lovecraft was an amateur. He came out of his shell in the 1910s with the amateur press movement, and his first weird fiction was published not in pulp magazines or anthologies, but in small amateur journals—and he carried that amateur attitude with him for the rest of his life. While Lovecraft did not disdain being paid for his work, he disliked writing for money rather than for art. He loved weird fiction, and that appreciation and passion became a part of his legend.
So too, it became a part of the legend of Arkham House.
It is easy today to consider Arkham House as a mere business venture. It was not the first small press in the United States, nor the first to publish anthologies and novels of weird fiction. The Popular Fiction Publishing Co., the publishers of Weird Tales, had tried their hand at a slim anthology titled The Moon Terror and Others (1927), culled from the magazine; it was a commercial failure that took decades to sell out. More success was found in the United Kingdom with the Not At Night series edited by Christine Campbell Thomson, which had its pick of the most gruesome Weird Tales, and brought writers like H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard into hardback publication.
Yet mainstream publishers, while they might tolerate H. P. Lovecraft in the occasional anthology like Creeps By Night: Chills and Thrills (1931), would never bring out a collection of Lovecraft’s fiction during his lifetime, or in the years immediately after. Nor was Robert E. Howard collected during his lifetime, except for the Western stitch-up novel A Gent from Bear Creek (1937). Popular as they might have been in the pages of Weird Tales, many of the most prominent Weird Talers lacked recognition outside of the pulps and the growing body of organized science-fiction/fantasy fandom.
Imagine for a moment that you were at a newsstand in July 1954, and you put down your thirty-five cents for the penultimate issue of Weird Tales. It was the 278th issue of the Unique Magazine, which during its initial run had been published since 1923. The first story in that issue you might have read was “The Survivor,” one of August Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” with H. P. Lovecraft, worked up from a note in Lovecraft’s commonplace book.
If that story resonated with you—if you wanted to read more from this “Lovecraft” person—how would you do it? Try to buy back issues of Weird Tales? Hope for a reprint in another pulp? Or, perhaps, you would note the advertisement for Arkham House in the back of the issue, and write to them for a catalog, or mail off your check or money order for one of the advertised titles.
That is what Arkham House was, for much of its existence: for decades, it was practically the sole source for Lovecraft’s works and those related to him. As it expanded, it also published works by Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Henry S. Whitehead, Frank Belknap Long, and many more. These were relatively expensive books at the time, in limited print runs, but it was not the limited book market of today. These books took years and sometimes decades to sell through 2,000-4,000 copies.
August Derleth did not get rich off Arkham House. It was a business, to be sure, and he was by necessity a businessman as well as a writer, an editor, and a fan. Yet if it had just been about the money, or just about Lovecraft, Derleth could have stopped long decades before his death and focused more on his own writing. Instead…he inspired competition.
By the close of the first decade of publishing, the seeming success of Arkham House had brought into being a dozen other small houses in direct competition, following the lead of Arkham House.August Derleth, Thirty Years of Arkham House (1970), 9
Derleth doesn’t name names, but Arkham House outlived erstwhile publishers like Fantasy Press (1947-1961), Gnome Press (1948-1962), and Macabre House (1954-1979). With longevity came the legend: Arkham House had not only been the first to publish many works by Lovecraft & co., but those books, once sold out, began to demand higher prices on the used & rare book market. A cycle which still feeds collectors paying fabulous prices even today, with no end in sight.
Like Weird Tales, Arkham House was not some faceless corporate enterprise. The readership was relatively small, and intimate, especially during the first period under August Derleth’s directorship—when Derleth would often personally take and fulfill orders, answer letters, put together newsletters and journals like The Arkham Sampler (1948-1949) and The Arkham Collector (1967-1971)…and it would have been Derleth who received a token of poetic appreciation from a fan toward the enterprise he was so closely associated with:
These are lines by a fan of weird fiction; what else could be “An infamous Abbey with Rat Things,| That leave human bones in their wake,” but a knowing nod to “The Rats in the Walls”? Who might have inspired “A long-dead voluptuous Leman,| Returned now to hold men in thrall” except Clark Ashton Smith? Poetry was a long favorite of fans to pay tribute in weird literature circles; and Judy Reber here follows in the tradition of “Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1942) by Virginia Anderson & “The Woods of Averoigne” (1934) by Grace Stillman, and “The Acolytes” (1946) and “The Cup-Bearer” (1951) by Lilith Lorraine.
In the Arkham House poetry book, The Dark of the Moon (1947), August Derleth inscribed Reber’s copy:
For Judy Reber,
the best of macabre verse,
Cordially, August Derleth
That was the connection between fantasy fans and the director of Arkham House; that was the kind of personal touch which built the legend of Arkham House, above and beyond their catalog. It was the weird community of spooky book lovers, and the experience of being able to order those strange and weird works which were otherwise inaccessible to the average fan which Judy Reber paid tribute.
“Lines On Placing An Order With Arkham House” by Judy Reber appeared on several of Arkham House’s promotional materials from 1965 until 1970. Being ephemera, these small pamphlets and folded sheets are often overlooked by cataloguers, so the exact publication history is obscure. The poem is in the public domain (no copyright registration or renewal could be found), and was last published in Leigh Blackmore’s ‘zine Mantichore vol. 4, no. 1 (2009).
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.
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