“…Fiction that is Audaciously One’s Own”: An Interview with W.H. Pugmire
I first stumbled across author W.H. Pugmire’s pale green visage on Thomas Ligotti Online a few years ago. Shortly thereafter, I discovered his Youtube videos — exuberant video blogs (“vlogs”) that always strike me as part Lovecraftian documentary, part drag show, and part monster movie. Indeed, in these 10-20 minute vlogs, Pugmire is just as likely to chat about the virtues of Mac cosmetics as he is to reminisce about the times he spent hanging out with pulp author H. Warner Munn or corresponding with Robert Bloch.
Of course, W.H. Pugmire is also a damned good horror author who somehow manages to be both devotedly Lovecraftian and utterly unique. I find that he particularly excels at the prose-poem, and I’m not alone in that assessment. S.T. Joshi has referred to Pugmire as “the prose-poet of the horror/fantasy field; he may be the best prose-poet we have.” Pugmire has been involved in the horror genre for about four decades, and has had stories reprinted in the Year’s Best Horror Stories series as well as multiple mass market publisher anthologies. The small press, however, is Pugmire’s home. Hippocampus Press has recently published his latest book, Uncommon Places, and Pugmire has many other small press books available as either collectible hardcovers or affordable trade paperback editions.
In our interview, we discuss his recent health problems, his correspondence with Robert Bloch, and the significant changes he’s seen in the horror field over the last forty years.
Nicole Cushing: First off, many readers may be aware of your recent poor health. How are you feeling these days?
W.H. Pugmire: My health is precarious. I’m tired all the time, and often so weak that I’ve started to use my father’s old metal cane when walking. I want to think that much of it is mental and not real, but the weakness feels real indeed — the tightness in my chest, the difficulty in breathing. I am attending the Lovecraft Film Festival this week-end, and it will be a major “test” to see how well I survive among lots of activity. I plan on taking it easy, but I get so excited when meeting Lovecraftians that I may overdo it.
N.C.: My understanding is that you once, in your late teens or early twenties, participated in an ongoing correspondence with Robert Bloch. Do those letters from Bloch still survive? What sort of things did you talk about? Is there any possibility of the letters finding their way to publication some time in the future?
W.H.P.: All of my letters and postcards from Bloch are in a wee suitcase that I purchased in Ireland. The suitcase contains all of my correspondence with the original Lovecraft Circle. I have since given the suitcase to Greg Lowney, who is ye official Keeper of ye Pugmire Collection. I initially contacted Bob to write a tribute to Forry Ackerman for my horror film fanzine, Fantasia, in 1970. I was, at the time, convinced that I wanted to be a horror film actor, as I was obsessed with horror films as a teen. Then when I got shipped to Ireland to serve as a Mormon missionary, my superiors banned me from going to horror films, so I thought, “Screw you, I’ll read horror fiction instead.” I began to buy anthologies that contained stories by Bloch, and this served as my introduction to weird fiction. I was soon hooked and buying lots of paperbacks, and thus I bought that wee suitcase in which to carry them. Bob encouraged me to write, in an oblique kind of way. I never sent him my stories, as he sent his to HPL, because I didn’t want to bug him or “use” him. But he was always kind in encouraging my writing, and he helped me to meet other horror writers through correspondence.
N.C.: In previous interviews you’ve said that you want nothing more for your career than to be considered a Lovecraftian writer – that you’re happy to dwell in H.P.L.’s shadow. However, since I’ve started reading one of your newest collections (Uncommon Places),I’ve come to suspect you might be selling yourself short. I think you have a voice distinctly your own. You may often play with plot devices and settings used in Lovecraft’s stories and poems, and it’s clear you have a passion for all things Lovecraftian. But you also play with the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde. Moreover, your tales and prose-poems are innervated by a surreal energy and a sensuousness rarely seen in Lovecraft.
I’m curious what you think about this assessment of your work. Is it time to admit that you’re more than just Lovecraft-with-lip-gloss?
W.H.P.: I have often felt that it was expected of me to “grow up and stop trying to be H. P. Lovecraft.” Writing Lovecraftian fiction is seen as a youthful phase that we pass through on our way to writing our own thing. I reject that mindset. For me, writing Lovecraftian weird fiction IS my own thing, and I am never more MYSELF than when I am Lovecraftian. Being Lovecraftian is my identity as an artist, and it becomes more important the older I grow. I want my work to prove that one can dedicate oneself to writing Lovecraftian horror and yet still make a real solid vital contribution to the genre, with fiction that is audaciously one’s own. Part of my uniqueness is that I bring in all of the other writers with whom I am obsessed, Wilde and Shakespeare and Kafka and Henry James, and stir them into ye mix. And then I add a pinch of punk rock and drag queen fabulousness, and oh girlfriend, look what we have!
N.C.: You have a dedication to working in the small press, and you’ve said you have no interest in being a commercial writer. But I have to ask: have you always felt this way? Has there ever been a time that you felt the temptation to write a novel, land an agent, and seek to make your living from your writing? What are some of the advantages of working in the small press? Some of the drawbacks?
W.H.P.: When I first started writing I was obsessed with being a FAMOUS and SUCCESSFUL Mythos writer. Didn’t take me long to realize that it was a youthful fantasy. So many of us want to be KNOWN as a writer before we have actually produced much work. We want that special feeling that comes from saying, “I’m a writer.” So I went through my first youthful clueless phase, and then I stopped writing for several years and became heavily involved with the Seattle music scene. Then I started writing for Jessica Salmonson’s wee zines, Fantasy Macabre and Fantasy & Terror. I submitted “Pale, Trembling Youth” to Jessica, knowing she loves ghost stories, and she asked if she could work on it. Then she shocked me by selling it to Dennis Etchison for Cutting Edge. I was suddenly in a real book, a book that had a story by my hero, Robert Bloch! It felt amazing. I love being published. But I never had any desire to find an agent and make writing a boring profession. It was always to be “my art,” and writing for the small press made it possible for me to write what I wanted to write in the manner I wished to write it. I never go out looking for pro markets to write for, I just wait for editors to ask me for submissions. I want to be unique and do my own thang, I want to be Lovecraftian up ye arse. I don’t want to have to conform as a writer so as to write for some commercial market, to have to consider what sells and what doesn’t. Boring! The small press is the future of weird fiction, of that I have no doubt.
N.C.: You’ve been around the horror fiction scene for decades. I’m sure you’ve observed many changes over the years. What’s the best change you’ve seen in horror during that time? What change gives you the greatest concern?
W.H.P. The biggest change is the Internet, I think. I refused to get online for years, until S. T. Joshi became my main editor when I wrote my first book for Hippocampus Press. I typed that entire book on my electric typer, then made xerox copies of everything and sent it to S. T., who then had to scan the entire thing. When Jerad (Walters) said he wanted to publish a Centipede Press omnibus of my work, S. T. demanded I get hooked up and get email and thus send him my stories as Word docs. So my buddy and Savior Greg Lowney got me hooked up, and it completely changed my writing life. Too, the Internet has made it possible for more people to buy my books, through Amazon and such, and that has made a huge difference in book sales. And then I discovered that I can promote my books using YouTube, and I can dress up freaky and make a fool of myself as well! Sweet!
The downside is that the Internet has, I think, led to the death of the small press horror journal, those wonderful wee zines such as Deathrealm and Lore and The End. Lore is still going, I’m happy to see, but so many others have died. Too, we’ve lost the art of correspondence. I used to live for writing letters. I told myself that if I got online I wouldn’t let email stop me from real correspondence. But it has. And that is a real loss, I think.