Editor Spotlight: W. H. Pugmire

It is a strange and curious fact that I found myself as an author and Lovecraftian only after I began to live the punk rock lifestyle. Before then I had a sense of being different, but it wasn’t until I stuck that pin in my ear and shaved off some of my hair that I began to truly feel like The Outsider. […] I mentioned Lovecraft in the early issues of Punk Lust, and was delighted when I’d go to local gigs and people would come up to me and shout with drunken fervor, “Ia! The Crawling Chaos!” This was way back in the days before Lovecraft became a game. People who knew of him had gained this occult knowledge by reading Lovecraft’s fiction. […] And now we have a most wonderful occurrence: punk kids are growing  up to become remarkable horror authors, often blending  punk with their macabre fiction. This is only natural for those of us who portray our personal lives and loves in our horror fiction.
—W. H. Pugmire, “Lustcraft” in Tales of Lovecraftian Horror #4

Following the death of August Derleth in 1971, the Mythos slowly opened up to a new and more diverse set of writers. During the 1970s and ’80s, the largest development of the Mythos and Lovecraftian fiction outside of Arkham House occurred in small-press magazines—cheaply printed paper pamphlets, mostly written by and for amateur fandom. Amateur press associations such as the Esoteric Order of Dagon (EOD) would compile magazines for mass-mailings, allowing wider dissemination of new poems, short fiction, and articles about Lovecraft and the Mythos to be disseminated outside of the editorial control of any one publisher.

Many Mythos writers would be featured prominently in magazines, including Brian McNaughton, Robert M. Price, Stanley C. Sargent, and Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire—a queer punk writer, editor, and poet, the self-styled Queen of Eldritch Horror, whose magazine credits include Midnight Fantasies (1973–76), Old Bones (1975-1976), Queer Madness (1980-1981), Visions from Khroyd’hon (1976), and Tales of Lovecraftian Horror (1987–99). In Tales, Pugmire described a forward-looking approach to Lovecraft and his fiction:

Lovecraftian horror is my obsession. When nothing else can cure bordeom, I need only turn to one of countless books or magazines, and suddenly my gloom is gone. And when I’m feeling very bold, I try my hand at writing my own. […] And yet, when I decided to finally try to edit a magazine of Lovecraftian fiction, I discovered that I was a bit uncertain as to just what I was looking for as an editor. I found that I was unable to describe what I meant by “Lovecraftian horror.” I knew that I did not want trendy Cthulhu Mythos fiction. I am not anti-Mythos; but I hate the way it has usurped other forms of Lovecraftian horror.
—W. H. Pugmire, “Lovecraftian Horror” in Tales of Lovecraftian Horror #1

At the time, considerable Mythos fiction was being published in ‘zines like Crypt of Cthulhu (1981-2001, 2017- ) and Chronicles of the Cthulhu Codex (1985-2000), as well as the Chaosium Call of Cthulhu Fiction anthologies beginning with The Hastur Cycle (1993). It was a period of reprinting long out-of-print favorites, of re-discovering and re-publishing the original text of Lovecraft’s stories, and endless pastiches, sequels, prequels, and original works tying into the Mythos of various levels of quality and originality. It is to this outpouring of Cthulhuiana that Pugmire speaks:

The Mythos has been overused, and most of the newer tales bore me, be they by fans or pros. I find very few of them truly “Lovecraftian,” seeming more like the kind of thing Derleth was wont to write. I have no intention of publishing Cthulhu Mythos stories in TOLH. The small press has the delicious ability to act as an alternative to what is trendy, popular, and commercial. It is this alternative side of Lovecraftian horror that I hope to present. (ibid)

The small press publishing during Tales of Lovecraftian Horror’s run is a far cry from the desktop publishing and print-on-demand world of today, which led to the explosion of Mythos anthologies in the late 2000s and 2010s headed by editors like Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles of Innsmouth Free Press, and far and away from the mass-market anthologies produced by Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran, or Joyce Carol Oates for the literary and academic market. It was a more punk enterprise, full of DIY energy and freedom to experiment, and Pugmire wanted to focus on more than just tentacled beasties and moldy grimoires that aped the outward tropes of the Mythos but missed the essence:

Lovecraftian horror conveys mood, atmosphere, and situations that were dear to H. P. Lovecraft and are evident in his own spectral and cosmic fiction. […] Just as Lovecraft scholarship is growing, so too should Lovecraftian fiction go forward, becoming much more than it has been. Instead of writing formula stories, we can use Lovecraftian themes as a foundation on which to try to build our own unique fiction. […] A good Lovecraftian tale should, I feel, express things that move us to profound emotions. Using HPL’s fiction, his dreams as they are recorded in his published letters, we can find inspiration for our own tales of dread. Writing horror fiction  is not an attempt to escape from reality, rather, as it was with Lovecraft, it is an expression of those aspects of reality that move us creatively, as artists. And as humans. (ibid)

Pugmire’s influence as an editor in the first three issues is often overlooked. Tales of Lovecraftian Horror published Thomas Ligotti, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Ann K. Schwader, and other noteworthy writers; the second issue published Robert M. Price’s episode of “Herbert West—Reanimated,” which has gone on to spawn a weird and convoluted continuity that is still being continued today by Peter Rawlik and others in books like Legacy of the Reanimator (2015) and Reanimatrix (2016).

In part, this may be because the series was published by Cryptic Publications, with the assistance and guidance of Price—and lapsed after the third issue, only to be reanimated in 1996 with Price as editor, though he assured readers that Pugmire was still the guiding spirit (and associate editor). That spirit was always one that sought individuality. Pugmire would write his own corner of the Mythos with his Sesqua Valley tales and others but as an editor, he wanted his fellow writers to go beyond Lovecraft, not be restricted by him. In one editorial Pugmire recalled:

While editing the early issues of this magazine, I received a submission froma bloke who, in his letter of introduction, expressed his desire to become “the new Lovecraft.” I find this utterly absurd. There will never be another Lovecraft, because HPL was absolutely and unively himself. Let us strive with our horror fiction to be ourselves, to write the tales that only we can tell. We may fall short of our goal, but at least we have made an honest effort, rather than being content to mimic a boring Mythos formula that is void of any hint of Lovecraftian ambience.  Listen to the fear that haunts your soul and sears your throbbing brain. then you will truly write fiction that expresses authentic respect for our beloved Grandpa Theobald.
—W. H. Pugmire, “Lustcraft” in Tales of Lovecraftian Horror #5

Some Lovecraftian fiction today certainly echoes Pugmire’s sentiments. Anthologies like Chthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth partake of Lovecraft without being slavishly devoted to his Mythos—and in general, there seems to be fairly wide appeal to the idea that originality and quality of writing mean more than trying to write after Lovecraft (or Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, etc.). Pastiche still has its place, but Pugmire was one of the voices that called for writers to move beyond that…and to really emphasize that what is important about Lovecraft is not the person of Cthulhu or the use of the Necronomicon, but simply that Lovecraft was original. The artificial mythology that Lovecraft and his contemporaries created strikes a chord in readers, even today because it is different from the hoary tales of gods and demigods, heroes and fables in Bullfinch’s Mythology.

Pugmire saw in Lovecraft something that spoke to him, and that spoke to others:

Other punk kids are joining the throng. […] They have oddly-colored hair and pierced faces; they listen to death metal and goth rock; they are avid fans of H. P. Lovecraft. Our ranks are growing, and our voices will be heard. Our horror fiction will wear within its soul our punk rock angst. Our fiction, like our music, will be the voice of the Outsider.
—W. H. Pugmire, “Lustcraft” in Tales of Lovecraftian Horror #4

Wilum H. Pugmire passed away on 26 March 2019. We will not see his like again.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

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