Friday, December 11, 2009

The snow, the beautful, lovely snow, drifting and falling about her...

Great Tales of Horror - THE DRIFTING SNOW by August Derleth
Originally published in
Weird Tales, February 1939

I spent most of my life in that part of Central Wisconsin that author August Derleth christened the state's "Great Dead Heart" - a flat and featureless region either side of the geographical spine that is Interstate 39. Beating at its very core is the hamlet of Plainfield, where residents still speak of "Eddie" and the hideous things that Mrs. Gein's boy did prior to his November arrest in 1959. As stunned as the rest of the nation was to learn of Ed Gein's atrocities, there was a muted understand among many Wisconsinites. They knew that, in a place like the Great Dead Heart, winters could be long, bitter, merciless, forcing the simple folk to hunker down and pray for an early Spring that seldom arrived. These were the perfect conditions to drive the easily-susceptible quietly, irrevocably mad. In Wisconsin, Winter was a time of abject horror.

No other author devoted more of his career to the horrors of the Badger State than native son Derleth. He grew up in Sauk City and, after a time spent in Madison earning his college degree, returned to his tiny home town to write. And write. And write. By Derleth's account, he was able to produce over a million words a year, and state library bookshelves groan under the weight of Derleth's journals, volumes of poetry and short stories, extensive Wisconsin histories, and an array of novels in genres as diverse as love stories, detective fiction, science-fantasy, and, of course, horror. As the locals called him, "Augie" began writing at the age of 13, and within three years was able to sell his first short story to the Magazine of Record where Dark Fantasy was concerned, Weird Tales. He became a regular contributor, as well as a close friend of such peers as Manley Wade Wellman, Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, Donald Wandrei and H.P. Lovecraft.

After Lovecraft's death in 1937, Derleth and Wandrei attempted to interest publishers in compilations of their late friend's work, but when no company would bite, they created Arkham House, named after HPL's fictional Massachusetts setting for much of his work, and began publishing the work on their own, operating out of Derleth's own home and adjacent stone shed. (Derleth is credited with coining the term "Cthuhlu Mythos" to describe HPL's universe of dark Elder Gods, with hundred of writers later contributing
to the Mythos, including Derleth). Within a few years, Arkham House was issuing volumes that became instant collectors' items, and written by everybody who was anybody in the Dark Fantasy field, including Ray Bradbury, Robert E. Howard, Algernon Blackwood, and the first US editions of works by UK authors Brian Lumley and Ramsey Campbell. The imprint continued for years after Derleth's death in 1971, but has unfortunately not published a new title since 2006.

When Derleth's "The Drifting Snow" was published by Weird Tales in 1939, it was under the pseudonym Stephen Grendon, a Derleth creation that made it seem as if the magazine had more contributors than it did. Years later, the author would use that same name as his alter ego in a series of ten juvenile mysteries - a la Hardy Boys - known as the Mill Creek Irregulars, and based on stories from Derleth's own childhood. I don't recall where I discovered this story first - it is one of the most-anthologized tales of (unusual) vampirism ever written, and was later collected in the 1948 Derleth story compilation Not Long for This World, but I do recall reading it for the first time and being thrilled that the text mentioned the city of Wausau, only fifteen minutes away from where I grew up. Derleth had an ability to weave all of Wisconsin into his terror tales, and, even though the area known to us Badgers as "Up North" sounds ever so much closer to God, it is a destination which lies in an altogether quite different direction.

Remember - Snow Vampires may be beautiful and enticing, but for your own sake - leave the curtains closed during a snowstorm.

You can read "The Drifting Snow" here. Any anthology of classical vampire fiction that does not include the story should be viewed as suspect.


panavia999 said...

Great comments! Blackwood's "The Transfer" is also available in the linked book, one of my faves.
Thanks for posting.

Jay Watson said...

This is one of the best commentaries I've read about Derleth and his work. Great job Steven, thank-you.
(from a guy who lived four years in Wausau, WI, and one in Waterford, WI)

senski said...

Thank you, kind folks! And I'm sure I'll be spotlighting an Algernon Blackwood tale before too long, panavia...

Rogue, when were you in Wausau? I'd like to know and place that according to the cinema situation there at the time. (And while I live in Muskego - technically - I can walk 50 paces from my home and be in Wind Lake - or 5 miles from Waterford!)