Skulls in the Stars

Sesqua Valley and Other Haunts, by W.H. Pugmire

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One of H.P. Lovecraft’s enduring legacies as a writer is the creation of a cosmology that could and would be imitated by his followers.  Many great authors of horror fiction got their start writing Lovecraft pastiches, such as Brian Lumley and my absolutely favorite horror author Ramsey Campbell.  It is almost a tradition for all respectable horror writers to write their own Lovecraft homage; Stephen King, for instance, wrote the short story Crouch End (1980).

So many authors use Lovecraft as a starting point to find their own voice and interests; there are other authors, however, who find themselves a comfortable niche writing in and adapting Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos to their own ends, and they stay there.  The natural question to ask: do authors like these stay with the mythos because it stimulates their creativity, or because they lack it?  I was very curious to see if any of the modern mythos writers were any good.

My Amazon “favorites” page brought the work of W.H. Pugmire to my attention, in particular his compilation, Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts:

I had heard Pugmire’s name before, as super-Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi had some kind words about Pugmire in his history/commentary The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos (2008).  I was in the mood for some mythos writing, so I gave Sesqua Valley a try.

I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised!  Pugmire draws insipiration from Lovecraft’s ideas and settings, but he bends and twists them to his own ends to present genuinely unsettling stories.

Pugmire himself is a sort of curious character, as one can see from his Wikipedia entry (and his MySpace page).  As of this writing, he has published exclusively short fiction related to Lovecratian mythos, though his MySpace page indicates that he has branched out and will soon be publishing a collection of “more modern stuff”.

One of the things that Lovecraft is known for is inventing entirely fictional regions of New England and using them as a backdrop for his tales.  All Lovecraft fans are familiar with the cities of Arkham, Innsmouth, and Dunwich, and Arkham’s venerable Miskatonic University.  In 1974, Pugmire created the Sesqua Valley as the setting for his stories.  As he notes in the afterword to his first story,

This was the first Sesqua Valley story that I wrote, when I invented the valley in 1974.  I had recalled August Derleth telling Ramsey Campbell that rather than setting his Lovecraftian tales in HPL’s New England, to invent a region of his own homeland.  This seemed excellent advice.  As a kid I always spent two weeks of every summer with my cousins in North Bend, and was captivated by Mount Si.  When I created my own Lovecraftian set place, I knew it would be a haunted version of North Bend.  Imagine my delight when the television show Twin Peaks chose the same locale over a decade later as the inspiration for their uncanny series.

The town of Sesqua Valley is remote, situated in the vast wilderness of the valley and overshadowed by two massive peaks that look like “wings folded on some gigantic daemon’s shoulders.”  The natives of the Sesqua Valley are reclusive and suspicious of outsiders, and all share a secret of the true nature of the valley.  Outsiders who enter the valley are driven out, killed — or consumed by the valley itself.

The first story of the collection, O, Christmas Tree, is an introduction to the valley and a more or less standard Lovecraftian-style tale: a newcomer to the valley unknowingly runs afoul of its unspeakable denizens and pays a horrible price.  Though somewhat standard, the story is still excellently written.

From there, the tales go in a dramatically different direction and follow an insider’s view of the Sesqua Valley.  We are introduced to the lives and untimely deaths of Sesqua’s inhabitants, and their relationships, aspirations and conflicts.

My impression is that Pugmire’s primary use for the valley (his primary ‘theme’, perhaps) is to explore the darker aspects of love and relationships — obsession, jealousy, rage, and so forth.  The stories have a wonderfully nightmarish quality to them, and I very quickly worked my way through the entire collection.  The imagery used is extremely strange and suggestive, and I found myself thinking about some of them long after I finished the collection.  My favorite in the collection is the story, “Immortal Remains”, which describes an ancient lonely tomb at the top of a hill, the inhuman mummy that lies within, and the woman who is drawn to it.

One aspect of the stories initially troubled me, though in fact it says more about me than it does about the writing itself.  The romantic relationships described in the stories were primarily homosexual relationships.  This in itself wasn’t troubling, but the characters in the stories are also very twisted in their nature.  I found myself initially taking away the message, “gay relationships = twisted” instead of the more general “relationships = twisted”.  This really was my problem, not a problem with Pugmire’s writing — he’s writing what interests and affects him.  I suspect that because I haven’t read a lot of stories with gay protagonists, my brain was automatically highlighting the “gay” part.  Once I read a few stories in, though, I managed to get over myself, so to speak — and I would say that I learned a little about myself in the process.

So, I found the answer to my question: can some writers, such as W.H. Pugmire, stay with mythos writing and create something new and powerful?  I would say yes; the Sesqua Valley stories are dark, disturbing, and enjoyable.  I’m sure I’ll be looking up more of Pugmire’s work in the future.

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