Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"When we are Lovecraftian, we are ourselves - utterly."

I have read that Lovecraft is a mask I wear, that as an author I am not myself. What wondrous idiocy. I am never more "myself" than when I am Lovecraftian, for he has molded what is best within me. I came to him as a child, wide-eyed and ignorant. I am wide-eyed still (but hopefull a wee bit wiser). Through my Lovecraftian vision I have seen the verdant Sesqua Valley, that sequestered place of wonder that exists only as a symbol of Lovecraftian passion. To have found it was a rich reward. At the end of lonely day, I drift in dream to the valley, and there I find the freedom to be myself absolutely. - from "The Saprophytic Fungi" (The Fungal Stain and Other Dreams)

Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire (1951-) is an author of poetry and short stories set in the world of the Cthulhu Mythos. He began writing fiction while serving as a Mormon missionary in Ireland, encouraged by his correspondence with Robert Bloch, creator of Psycho and fellow Lovecraft protege. Today, Pugmire, the self-proclaimed "Queen of Eldritch Horror," is widely considered the finest Lovecraftian writer of the modern era. He is published primarily by small presses and has appeared in many anthologies.

Thus far I have read two Pugmire books. The first one is Sesqua Valley and Other Haunts (2008), which I received for Christmas. I opened it on Christmas Eve and enjoyed it so much that I immediately ordered The Fungal Stain and Other Dreams (2006) the next day with the B&N giftcard I received. Many aspects of the Cthulhu Mythos are so iconic that it's easy to fall into the trap of pastiche, but I found Pugmire's works to be very much his own. His primary contribution to the Mythos is Sesqua Valley, a hidden region on the West Coast accessible only to individuals of sufficient aesthetic persuasion. Its native denizens are born out of the mist at the base of Mount Selta, where they eventually return after venturing into the greater world to "locate those rare souls who have tasted the dark secrets." Sesequa resembles Innsmouth somewhat in its isolated, magical locale and its people's unique "Sesqua Look," which calls to mind a wolf or toad. Their progenitor is the charismatic Simon Gregory Williams, a skilled sorcerer and player of the enchanted flute. He is grotesque and seductive, a lover of mischief and adventure reminiscent of Anne Rice's Lestat. Altogether the most memorable character I have encountered in some time.

As his nuanced portrayal of Williams indicates, Pugmire's approach to Lovecraft is one of subversion. The staid world of academia and New England aristocracy is largely absent. Our protagonists are the monsters and outcasts the Gentleman from Providence so disdained: Goths, witches, drug addicts, struggling artists, zombies, and the inhuman spawn of the Valley itself. Strong women abound too, something sorely needed in the Cthulhu Mythos, and sexuality tends to be fluid. Instead of simply cosmic terror - although there certainly is that - Pugmire evokes rich, textured atmospheres of pagan mysticism that recall the best of Arthur Machen. While the dread Old Ones dream beyond the reach of three-dimensional space, there is fear and wonder in crumbling books of arcane lore and in dances at midnight in the deep forest. Calling it "magic realism" feels trite but there is very much an openness and acceptance towards the terrible beauty of the universe where Lovecraft only saw madness, horror, and doom. Sesqua Valley is not a cesspool like Innsmouth or Dunwich but a sanctuary for visionaries and lonely creative people who stumble upon it by chance.

In the works of W.H. Pugmire I have experienced that rare sensation of kinship with an author. I drank in eagerly his haunted settings and journeyed into other realms alongside his many enraptured humans. I'm afraid I simply cannot pick and choose any individual pieces to discuss, as is properly done in reviews of short story anthologies. Instead I can only say that I look forward to reading more, particularly those Innsmouth and Dunwich stories he says he is currently writing. (Guess what my two favorite Lovecraft tales are.) There are several additional Pugmire stories available online courtesy of the Lovecraft eZine (here and here) and I strongly recommend them all. Metal fan I am, I will end by dedicating to Sesqua Valley this song by Satyrian.

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