by Kris Lawson
Unless you're a fan of horror and weird fiction, or a devotee of small presses, you're not likely to have heard of Arkham House. Founded in 1939, Arkham House has published nearly 200 books of fiction and poetry. Sixty Years of Arkham House, compiled by Lovecraft biographer and horror fiction editor S. T. Joshi, is the publishing house's own retrospective. Tellingly, the book limits its explanatory text to two essays and numerous notes; the bulk of the volume lists all the works published and their dates and contents. An odd addition is the list of "lost Arkhams," books that were announced or planned but never came into existence, typical of Arkham's concentration on the fantastic and the imaginary.
Based in Sauk City, Wisconsin, Arkham House was the brainchild of August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, both friends and correspondents of H. P. Lovecraft. Two years after Lovecraft's death in 1937, Derleth and Wandrei, despite being impoverished writers themselves, decided to start Arkham House in order to bring the writer's fiction, poetry and collected letters before the public.
Derleth and Wandrei poured their money into the new enterprise, and Derleth took over editorial duties while Wandrei served in World War II. Soliciting orders through ads in the popular magazine Weird Tales, Derleth hoped to get enough subscriptions in order to publish 1,268 copies of Lovecraft's The Outsider and Others, a collection of short fiction. At $3.50 a book--an expensive price at the time--Outsider's pre-orders numbered only 150, but Derleth went ahead and had the whole lot printed anyway. This was typical of Derleth, and Arkham House hovered on the brink of financial disaster for many years. Derleth stored unsold books in his own house, commenting wryly at one point in his essay "Arkham House: 1939-1969," that "a small publishing business like Arkham House could afford very little overhead."
On the heels of their initial Lovecraft offering, the next book to be printed was a collection of Derleth's own short stories. After returning from war, Wandrei began to edit collections of Lovecraft's letters, which were eventually published in five volumes. Lovecraft's stories and novels, elaborate, multi-layered tales of the supernatural (though Lovecraft preferred the label "weird fiction"; his personal philosophy posited that there was no supernatural, only human inability to perceive the handiwork of vastly powerful alien beings who ruled the universe), were to become solid successes for Arkham House. Although their sales remained small, this limited success encouraged Derleth and Wandrei to collect Lovecraftiana, compiling Lovecraft's marginalia and writing essays about Lovecraft's life and influence on them as writers.
Arkham's catalogue grew to range from the classics of the genre (J. Sheridan LeFanu, Walter de la Mare), to pulp fiction writers such as Lovecraft's fellow Weird Tales alumnus Robert E. Howard, to more modern writers (Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith). But Derleth wanted to find new writers of "weird fiction" as well as famous names such as Lord Dunsany, Ray Bradbury and A. E. van Vogt. He published the first collections of short stories by Bradbury and Fritz Leiber, both of whom came to dominate the fantasy field. Arkham survived its first decade but their support base declined drastically in the early 1950s, as customer reaction to competitors flooding the horror/supernatural market brought a slump in the market. Competition also forced Arkham to raise its prices, but it continued to produce only hardcover books. (the press didn't issue its first paperback until 1979.) Derleth continued to search out new writers, and even resorted to printing a few vanity books for authors willing to pay the costs in order to keep Arkham afloat.
Along with collections of essays, fiction and poetry in the "Arkham Sampler" and "Arkham Collector," Derleth and Wandrei printed some of their own novels, as well as those of their friends and associates. Derleth also wrote and published what he called "collaborations" with Lovecraft, finishing story fragments or fleshing out Lovecraft's undeveloped story ideas. As Lovecraft's critical reputation has grown, due in no small part to Derleth's efforts in promoting his work, these "collaborations" have not, ironically, stood the test of time. Derleth's original work better shows his writing talent. Responding to accusations that he was profiting from running Arkham House, Derleth wrote defensively, "Far from growing rich on the proceeds of Arkham House, the fact is that in no single year since its founding have the earnings of Arkham House met its expenses." He contributed part of the earnings from his own writing to the company accounts, and his prodigious output continued throughout his life. A workaholic, Derleth not only ran Arkham House but also managed to write 150 books of his own before his death in 1971.
Later editors brought their own style to Arkham House. James Turner took over in 1975 and shook up Arkham tradition by not only concentrating on new writers at the expense of the old, but also daring to print the first outright science fiction titles in the early 1980s. Science fiction was a wise addition, and has come to dominate Arkham's present-day list, with works by Lucius Shepard and Ramsey Campbell. But it was their emphasis on the authors of an earlier era as well as printing numerous volumes of poetry that has given Arkham House the aura of an elder statesman in the world of genre publishing.
Arkham House books, originally sold for as little as $3.50 in some cases, are now among the most collectible of supernatural fiction. For first editions, prices now run as much as $600. After sixty years in a very specialized field, Arkham House has outlived its competition and managed to survive in a world where the major publishers are consuming each other in order to survive. Derleth, of course, would have liked that image.
Editor's note: for a review of Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters by H.P. Lovecraft, see our accompanying print edition (Spring 2001, vol. 6, no. 1)