26 Feb 2009
by Jeffrey Thomas
19 Comments »
W. H. Pugmire is an irony, a paradox, one of my very favorite writers. Why? Well, he plainly identifies himself as a Lovecraftian author, and clearly writes stories that often link directly to the Cthulhu Mythos, and yet he is also one of the most unique fantasists I have ever read. His work, his voice, is distinctly his own. Where Thomas Ligotti’s brilliant dark stories creep one out for being so bleakly sterile, so lacking in a sense of humanity, Wilum’s work is quite the opposite – seething with tormented, but also exultant, emotion. His stories are often about outsiders finding either ghastly doom or cosmic communion (I guess, depending on how accepting they are of the fantastical events that are presented to them), with a recurring theme of transformation. His style is richly poetic. Here s an excerpt from his story THE MILLION-SHADOWED ONE (which, incidentally, Wilum wrote for my son Colin when he was discovered at age four to be autistic):
“The small creature hobbled close, and I took in the weird shape of its head, the cloudy and colorless eyes, and mutation of its ungodly form. It took my hand and brought it to its wide nostrils. Smiling, it shut its awful eyes, began to shudder, and I felt my blood grow cold as its fleshy form began to blur, to grow momentarily indistinct. And my hand, the hand it held, faded as well, and with that invisible hand I seemed to touch another realm, a place beyond the rim of time and space.”
This excerpt demonstrates so many of Wilum’s skills. Eerie imagery, striking imagination, poetic prose, a sense of the cosmic and a melancholy poignancy, all in one brief passage. That pretty much says it all about Pugmire. Or does it? I decided to let him do the telling, himself, in the following little interview:
Wilum, most of your work takes place in your own milieu of Sesqua Valley, in the Pacific Northwest. How, why, and when did this setting occur to you?
It was around 1974, when I decided to become a famous Cthulhu Mythos writer just like my heroes Brian Lumley and August Derleth. When young Ramsey Campbell first began to write Mythos fiction, which he sent to Derleth, Ramsey set his tales in HPL’s Arkham, Dunwich, &c — and Derleth wisely told him to invent his own setting, based on a place he knew. I instantly wanted to base my milieu on North Bend and the Snoqualmie Valley. It had to have a “qua” sound to it, like so many towns here in the Northwest, so I came up with Sesqua. North Bend’s hypnotic Mount Si became my Mount Selta. Later, the area was used for TWIN PEAKS.
The silver-eyed natives of Sesqua Valley are very attuned to the magic of their valley, as opposed to many Lovecraft characters who are only destroyed by their encounters with the fantastic. And your work contains a lot of supernatural elements, where Lovecraft’s did not. What else do you think differentiates your work from HPL’s, and where do you think your work aligns with his?
The reason I write weird fiction is to pay tribute to H. P. Lovecraft — that was how I began, and that need to pay tribute is still keen within me. I am an OBSESSED LOVECRAFTIAN and hope to remain so forever. When I began writing I was a clueless Cthulhu kid, indoctrinated by Derleth’s TALES OF THE CTHULHU MYTHOS and Lin Carter’s A LOOK BEHIND THE CTHULHU MYTHOS. From those gents I “learned” that the way to pay tribute to HPL was to invent your own Old One monster and your own Dark Book — all of the stupid cliches. As I matured, I sensed that I needed to “return to Lovecraft” and let his fiction alone inspire my Mythos work. But my imagination isn’t cosmic — it’s supernatural. Where my fiction aligns with HPL’s is in my obsession to write Literature, to create literary art, to write beautifully. In themes, we are very different. My fiction is emotional, his is intellectual. Most of his characters flee from the horrors; mine ARE the horrors, or long to be so. But this, too, I learned from Lovecraft, from the endings of “The Outsider” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” where the narrators embrace that which makes them Outsiders.
In recent years I’ve noticed that you have used recurring characters in your Sesqua Valley stories, such as Nelson, the goat-faced sculptress Edith, the canine-faced poet Richard Lund, Adam Webster, the Whateley siblings, and most notably Sesqua’s “firstborn,” Simon Gregory Williams. What inspired you to do this?
In writing about the small town of Sesqua Valley, I had to portray its inhabitants. I love recurring characters like Randolph Carter and Titus Crow. So I just naturally had characters return from story to story. Once in a while I had to create a new one, to help move the series along. My most popular character, and my personal favorite, is Simon Gregory Williams. He’s such a bad-ass freak.
You’ve also been expanding on and revising earlier work, and writing longer fiction than you once did. How did this come about, and how do you think it’s working out for you?
Stanley Sargent. He kept daring me to try and write a novelette. I never thought I could. I knew I wanted to grow and mature as a writer, and one way of maturing was to write longer tales. So I began to experiment. After coming home from my first Lovecraft Film Festival, I had to complete THE FUNGAL STAIN. I told myself, “Okay, I’m gonna write a story and it’s gonna be FIFTY PAGES!” Instead of writing that story in longhand, the only way I used to compose, I typed the rough on the typer, so that I knew it would come to fifty typed pages. And when I completed that polish of “Your Metamorphic Moan,” it was fifty pages exactly! And now it’s much easier to write stories of length, although I still suck at plotting. My finest story is the one I wrote for Joshi’s BLACK WINGS anthology, “Inhabitants of Wraithwood.” It is also my longest tale, over 13,000 words. Now, I approach story ideas in a different way, as a mature artist with new-honed skills. But my core inspiration remains the same — to pay fictive tribute to Lovecraft.
Besides Lovecraft, who are some of your favorite authors? And please don’t say me!
Honey, I haven’t been able to read your books cos I wasn’t online, didn’t have a charge card, couldn’t find your novels in stores. So, big Wah! But when I go to WFC this year I’m gonna hunt for some of your Lovecraftian novels. Maybe I’ll read one of them to you on cassette (ha ha). I don’t read modern horror. My one modern book addiction is biographies of writers, painters, poets, bohemians — those I DEVOUR! My favorite authors are Oscar Wilde, Henry James, William Shakespeare, Thomas Ligotti, Franz Kafka. I have a passion for poetry. I recently got the Penguin collections of Maugham’s short stories, and I’m enjoying those. I need Literature with a capital L. I need works that nourish my mind and soul, that instill within me that burning ache to join the club and write, write, write!
What is your work routine like? Do you write in the day, in the night? For long or short stretches? Do you listen to music while you write, and do you drink your favorite orange cappuccino during this time?
Oh my gawd! — orange cappuccino was such a drug, as you well recall. Now it’s too harsh, I cannot drink it! Real coffee gives me heartburn. When I returned to Mormonism six years ago, I tried to give up all forms of coffee, but that proved as impossible as giving up Dior lipstick. Now I drink General Foods decaf French Vanilla — it’s my fake coffee heaven. I have no routine because I lack all discipline, alas. This is my last month of working one day a week at the pizza joint. Since going online I am now accessible to publishers and I’m getting more and more offers. So I need to write full-time. A little over a year ago I moved in with my mom, who is crippled with age and can no longer live alone; and I have some very wealthy friends who are supporting me as Patrons — so deliciously Victorian! I try to write whenever I can. If the weather is good and mom wants to do yard work, then my writing day is pretty much shot. I spend a lot of time sitting here before my keyboard TRYING to write. Or I’ll sit here and read Wilde, Poe and Lovecraft and make notes which bloom into inspiration for stories. I need absolute silence when I’m writing, can’t listen to Barbra or Boy George — although I’ve tried, but then two hours have gone by with me sitting here singing “People” and “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?” but with nothing on my laptop screen. When it does begin to flow — and that is when I am the happiest girl on earth — then I write very very quickly. Zoom! I now write all roughs right on ye laptop, then I go and polish, restructure, rewrite entire pages. I’ll print out a page that seems okay and read it aloud, and then do some more polish on it. The important thing, for me, is to always be here, sitting at the keyboard, trying to write, or pretending that I’m trying to write. Sooner or later, it begins to flow.
How did you become attracted to writing? And why weird literature?
I‘ve always written. As a gay boy I wrote my own Broadway musicals, book, lyrics and music. As a young Mormon I wrote skits and little plays for the church. When I discovered FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND I began to do my horror film fanzines, and for the one I did in college I had Robert Bloch write a tribute to Forry Ackerman. When the church sent me to Ireland as a Mormon Missionary, they wouldn’t let me watch horror films — too evil. I was corresponding with Bloch, so I began to buy his books, and also anthologies that had his stories in them. I got hooked on weird fiction, had to buy a wee suitcase just for all of the British horror paperbacks I was collecting. When I love something, I need to express that love with writing. So I began to write horror fiction. Came home and discovered Arkham House and became a Cthulhu nut. The more I studied Lovecraft’s fiction and read his letters, and the more I read S. T. Joshi’s LOVECRAFT STUDIES, the more I wanted to write mature, artistic Lovecraftian fiction. I’m now just beginning to do so.
Could you provide us with a little more background, if you would?
Tell my sad little life story? I was a weird kid. Believed I was a Witch when very young, as did my older sister. She and I used to practice what we thought was magick. Grew up knowing I was a sissy (loved playing house with the neighborhood girls, but always dressed LIKE them, wearing play dresses &c) and being tormented for it by grown-ups, kids at school, and thus I became an introvert and created my own realms of reality where I could be safe. My best friend in high school was Jewish, and that began a Jewish identification. Later I learned that I AM Jewish on my mom’s side of the family. Fell in love with Streisand while in high school, where I was heavy into drama and was certain that I wanted to be a professional actor. Did theatre for a while when I returned from my mission, but more and more I wanted to be a Mythos writer professionally. Began to visit with Harold Munn, who as a young man used to hang out with Lovecraft, driving HPL around sight-seeing in New England. Came out as queer and everyone freaked out, got kicked out of the church, kicked out of home. Dropped out of the Lovecraft scene and everything and moved in with my granny. Discovered punk rock, and it saved my soul. Did my famous fanzine, PUNK LUST. Returned to writing and sent “Pale, Trembling Youth” to Jessica Salmonson for her FANTASY & TERROR magazine. She added a new beginning to it and sold it to CUTTING EDGE. Returned to writing full-time around 1985, the same time I discovered how much fun it was to walk around Seattle dressed like Boy George, blending drag with punk, safety pins and mini-skirts. Some Mormon missionaries knocked on my door some seven years ago. I told them ain’t no way I’m returning to Mormonism. They said try praying about it. Alone, I got on my knees and had such a violent, overwhelming, shocking experience, felt my dead father and grandfather in the room with me, shaking, weeping, howling, telling God, “Don’t do this, I don’t want to change my life!” But I learned beyond personal doubt that God lives and that he’s a Mormon, so I returned to the church, which has made life extremely interesting, difficult, absurd, wonderful.
You only recently went online, with email, joining message board conversations, and so on. Why now, and how are you liking it?
I said Never Never Never. Beginning with THE FUNGAL STAIN, S. T. Joshi became my “official” editor, the one I always choose to work with. When Jerad Walters of Centipede Press said he wanted to publish an omnibus of my best weird fiction, S. T. hinted that it was time I get email so that I can send him my work electronically instead of sending him typed MSS that needed to be scanned. My patron hooked me up, and I’m totally fucking addicted. Such a cliche. I LOVE meeting Lovecraftians online, talking about Cthulhu Mythos, &c. Best of all is THOMAS LIGOTTI ONLINE, which has become a part of my creative soul, my artistic home.
Please list the books of your work that are available for people to check out, and what do you have coming out in the future?
Mythos Books finally reprinted SESQUA VALLEY & OTHER HAUNTS as trade pb, and it and THE FUNGAL STAIN AND OTHER DREAMS are easily available online, from their publishers or amazon.com. I’ve been having fun going to amazon and writing reviews of my own books. The small press sucks at promotion — at least my publishers do, the wankers — so I’m gonna promote myself, shameless thing that I is. The book I’m really crazy excited about is INHABITANTS OF WRAITHWOOD: COLLECTED WEIRD FICTION OF W. H. PUGMIRE, to be published in hardcover next Spring in time for WHC at Brighton, England, from Centipede Press. It contains all of the stories I think are my best, with some newer ones (I finally, after ten years of trying, wrote “The Tangled Muse,” which will see its first publication in this omnibus). Madame Talbot’s art collaborations with me from The Rocket will serve as art-portfolio, and Harry O. Morris is hopefully going to illustrate. S. T. worked as my editor and has supplied a wondrously kind introduction. I’m hoping to convince Jerad to have the boards yellow with black design, very Aubrey Beardsley. I’ve just completed work on a revised/expanded DREAMS OF LOVECRAFTIAN HORROR for Mythos Books, for which I have written a new 10,000 word prose-poem sequence inspired by Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book. At present I’m working on two new chapbooks, which will combine old and new work, and then I get to work on a new collection for Hippocampus. I’m writing a collaborative book of weird fiction with Maryanne K. Snyder, which we hope to have ready for pitching at the end of next year, Our first story, “The House of Idiot Children,” was published in Weird Tales last year. After that, if I’m still alive, I want to work on writing more Lovecraftian novelettes and maybe (MAYBE) a Sesqua Valley novel.
Thanks so much, Wilum!
Thank you, my dear Jeffrey, my soul-brother in Weird Literature!
Incidentally, in 1997 through my own Necropolitan Press I published Wilum’s chapbook collection TALES OF SESQUA VALLEY, but most of its contents in revised form are now available in his paperback collection SESQUA VALLEY AND OTHER HAUNTS, which I am currently happily rereading. For more information on W. H. Pugmire, check out his entry at Wikipedia, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._H._Pugmire
You can order Wilum’s collection THE FUNGAL STAIN AND OTHER DREAMS here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0977173437/?tag=jeffreythomas-20
…and his collection SESQUA VALLEY AND OTHER HAUNTS here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0978991141/?tag=jeffreythomas-20