Monday, September 16, 2013
Alex Lugo Reviews Weird Inhabitants of Sesqua Valley by W.H. Pugmire
Before I even read the master himself, I was made aware of the existence of Lovecraftian fiction when I stumbled upon a copy of Del Ray’s Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos in a local bookstore. Initially I found the very concept of Lovecraftian fiction to be a bit absurd. How dare someone other than Lovecraft write within the confines of the Cthulhu Mythos? What thief would attempt to profit from what seemed to be poorly masked fan fiction? And most importantly, how in the hell can a writer have a slither of originality if they write using the characters and creations made decades ago by Lovecraft?
It was W.H. Pugmire who made me realize the worth and the power of Lovecraftian fiction. He showed me that to be a successful writer of the weird, one needed to be even more innovative than the typical writer, for the weird fiction writer needs to transcend the world of Lovecraft by adding extensive layers to the mythos, layers that must be entirely the author’s own, all the while complimenting Lovecraft’s original worldview. It is a contradictory, painstaking balance that is needed in order to write Lovecraftian fiction without becoming an imposter. Those who do this are masters of a vast and complicated equation that is as befuddling and confusing as it is simple and overt; in other words, Lovecraft gives these writers the tools of creation, but it is up to the Lovecraftian to use these well-worn tools to ground their own worlds onto a completely separate and scathingly personal plane. Pugmire was the first to show me that such a feat can be accomplished. And he is one of the best at doing so.
In August, I had the great pleasure of meeting W.H. Pugmire for the first time. We had communicated through Facebook and e-mail for several years and it was a pleasure to finally meet him. He was kind enough to give me a copy of his book Weird Inhabitants of Sesqua Valley, a slim volume of consistent, stellar tales. I tend to rush through short story collections, but with this one I took my time (around two weeks), relishing as much as I could from every story. All ten of the stories are truly phantastic. Pugmire evokes a rich beauty in all of his stories, even when describing the most ghoulish and outlandish of situations. With all of Pugmire’s work, I feel a strong sense of contradiction ebbing constantly. Beauty and terror. Love and hatred. Madness and acceptance. Death and transcendence. Homage and originality. Contrast after contrast. And they all build a stunning portrait of a world in which the normal is abhorred, the strange is worshipped, and ascension awaits for every outsider and zealot, whether it be through agonizing resurrection or gentle oblivion. This theme is most prevalent, I feel, in this collection, due to its heavy focus on characters, as the title suggests, and their varied fates. Here in this book are the usual madmen and women we’ve grown accustomed too: Simon Gregory Williams, William Davis Manly, Adam Webster, Cyrus, Nelson, and Maceline. But of even greater interest are the outsiders in these tales, the wayward souls called to the valley in dream and in fervent mania. Whether they be a small press publisher searching for the remnants of a mysterious poet, or Richard Upton Pickman himself, all reach a crossroads of sorts. A place of transcendentalist fervor, a logical next step in their Lovecraftian plunge into the dark seas of infinity. But unlike Lovecraft, these protagonist do not meet their ends by horrific feats of indescribable violence (well, perhaps with the exception of “Totem Pole”) or blabbering madness. With the help of Sesqua’s strange inhabitants, they follow a seemingly logical path into the great inky darkness which they seek; they meet and become one with the horrors Lovecraft himself could only hint at.
One of my favorite stories in the collection is The Million-Shadowed One. It concerns the conjuring of an impish, mute, semi-corporeal creature of both Dunwich and Sesquan origin. Fading in and out of reality, much like the Whately twin, the childish thing seems doomed (or blessed, as is Pugmire’s contradictory nature) to eventually slip out of the realm of mortality, to be one with Yog-Sothoth’s dimensional realm. On this slow slide into tragedy, Pugmire portrays this impish thing as a being of immeasurable wisdom and indomitable love. There is no horror in this story, nothing essentially scary or frightening. It is quite simply a tale of a little boy, an orphaned soul in a world which cannot accept it. Pugmire wrote this upon learning that the book’s illustrator and introducer, Jeffrey Thomas, had a son whom was diagnosed with autism. I have a younger brother who is autistic, and I feel that the way in which Pugmire presented this lost, beautiful soul so perfectly captures the essence of those afflicted with mental illnesses. The uncompromising love, the tangible inability to be accepted; Pugmire, through a Lovecraftian lens, tackles a concept so breathtakingly beautifully and sad. And this tale is only my personal favorite, not what I feel is necessarily the best of the bunch. Quite frankly, the nine other tales in this collection are of equal quality to this one.
Any fan of Pugmire who doesn’t own this book is doing themselves a grave disservice and should pick this up immediately. If you are looking for an introduction to the Queen of Eldritch Horror’s work, look no further. Pugmire has been blessed with many high-end, but very expensive editions, and this affordable paperback can truly be appreciated by any fan of weird fiction. And that includes those who are trepid. Those like me, long ago, who once believed that Lovecraftian fiction could yield nothing of worth. This book will prove such a statement, horribly, tragically wrong.
For Mr. Pugmire; an immense and immeasurable applause.