Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


It's no secret that I am a fan of August Derleth's writing.  I'm currently reading Restless Is the River, his 1939 novel about Wisconsin in the 1840s.  As usual, I'm struck by how sensual an author Derleth could be.

     Derleth himself was a sensual person, with a large appetite for rich food and for sex.  His other senses -- sight, hearing, smell -- were also very important in his appreciation of nature and his surroundings.  In his novels sex was tastefully glossed over and, to a lesser degree, so was the sensual nature of food.  The other three senses, however, were very important; the senses were an important part of Derleth's most important character, the state of Wisconsin.

     Many novels suffer from an overly descriptive narrative.  It's to Derleth's credit that his descriptive narrative almost always enhances his story.  Here are just a few samples from early in the book.

     Augustin turned at once and led the way along the shore toward the landing, where he paused to wait
     again.  Night had come down now; the stars shone forth in the heavens, bright Jupiter gleaming high in the
     southeast, Arcturus amber in the east, and over the hills which they had descended toward the Wisconsin,
     a great yellow moon had begun to lift itself, outlining hill-lines and trees in a glow of orange and yellow.
     From time to time, bats and nighthawks flashed through the glow, across the moon, feeding on insects in
     the air.  (page 48)

     Here the sense of color ("bright Jupiter," "Arcturus amber," "yellow moon," "a glow of orange and yellow") morphs into a verb "bats and nighhawks flashed").

     A few pages later, Derleth uses smell and sound, combined with a brief physical description, to reinforce the image of a frontier land:

     The air was fresh and fragrant; dew lay heavy on the grass, only the gentlest of breezes blew from the
     south, and all around him rose the countless odors of the spring:  turned earth, opening leaves of maple,
     sycamore, oak, flower fragrance, and the deep richness of wild crabapple, now visible in clumps all over
     the prairie, faint and ghostly in the dawnlight that fanned upward in the east.  Standing there, conscious of
     the sounds of stabled animals not far north of where he stood, he was aware also of other sounds at the
     river's edge, and cognizant again of voices drifting back from the point.  Impulsively he set out along the
     path to the cemetery, past the sheds there, through the deep wood, where old trees towered on the north
     side of the path, and an orchard shone whitely among younger trees on the other.  (page 52)

     Later in the chapter, smell and sound are used to further show the importance of place in the novel:

     The hills in the west were lavender, the line of sky and earth sharply defined.  In the southwest a low bank
     of cloud had risen and lay bright in the sunlight, the countless convolutions of thunderheads singularly
     beautiful against the deep blue beyond.  The music of birdsong was lessened now; instead, from the high
     dome of aquamarine came the whickering of hawks, the cawing of crows. occasional heron and eagle
     sounds, and the clamor of geese in flight.  From the distant bottomland near the river came the shrill,
     incessant crying of curlews, and upland the plover called.  Violets grew quickly where they had paused,
     and on the wind lingered a tantalizing fragrance which Augustin had not before known.  He asked about it
          "That's trailing arbutus," answered Chalfonte.  "It grows plentifully in hills here, but it's almost done
     blooming now." (pages 63-64)



  1. It's pretty remarkable, how much better a writer Derleth was as Derleth than Derleth was as Lovecraft-manque or even as ur-Doyle.

  2. Birthday boy today: August Derleth (1909-1971)