Classic Review: The Strange Dark One
I do not usually review short story collections. My focus in these reviews is almost always on the coherent narrative arc that a novel provides. Sometimes you will find a short story collection that contains a story arc. Fix-up novels used to be the backbone of the science-fiction and fantasy publishing industry. A way for short story sales to be doubled up with royalties to create an ongoing income. The Strange Dark One is not a fix-up novel. All of the short stories within it are separate, with their own characters and plots. The only coherent connections between the stories are Lovecraft’s own personal Satan, Nyarlathotep and the author’s own personal contribution to that mythos, Sesqua Valley. A place that is so overwhelming in its personality that it could be considered the main character in itself.
Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire is a unique voice within the broad field of authors writing in the Lovecraft Mythos. There is an entire cottage industry of small publishers producing a dearth of content relating to the infamous author and while there is undeniable quality to their work, doubtless spurned on by the intense competition within their niche, there is also very shallow representation of Lovecraft’s observations of the world as something unknown and terrifying. In very few of these stories do you get the sense that they amount to more than the sum of their parts. Haunting alien gods become the rubber-masked monsters of the pulp era. The writing is contemporary and utilitarian, designed to move the story along as quickly as possible. That is not the case in Pugmire’s work.
Lovecraft wrote in a purple prose that was archaic even for his time, the authors that he loved were from decades or centuries before and he mimicked them as he developed his voice. This is where Pugmire most closely resembles his idol. The prose contained within these stories is intricate, elaborate and overwrought. Drifting between poetry and prose as it meanders through the hidden paths of the story. Their main point of difference is that where Lovecraft reviled and feared the unknown, Pugmire adores it. The title of “outsider” is the highest acclaim that you can receive in his fiction. Lovecraft took all of his fear and embodied it within a monster, Pugmire wants to be that monster. In Pugmire’s writing humanity is a deplorable state and any creature beyond it is a noble goal. Within Sesqua Valley the majority of the characters are not human and those who are human are either dragged outside of that state over the course of the story or become meat for the grinder, food for those who have done better.
The self-indulgent prose can be a struggle to get through and because many of the stories in his collections were written over a spread of years and appeared in different magazines over similar time-scales you notice a certain degree of repetition within the stories. Not only in his favourite words and choice phrases but also in story elements. Bohemians, artists, singers, poets and occultists are at the heart of the stories. Not just as the characters but as a flavour to the text. Pugmire’s decadent writing is representative of the Bohemian ideal. Art for the sake of art, and in an increasingly cynical and popularity driven publishing industry that is a breath of fresh Sesqua Valley air.