“Pale, Trembling Youth” (1986) by W. H. Pugmire & Jessica Amanda Salmonson

Dykes, kikes, spics, micks, fags, drags, gooks, spooks…more of us are outsiders than aren’t, and that’s what the dear young ones too often fail to understand.
—W. H. Pugmire & Jessica Amanda Salmonson, “Pale, Trembling Youth”
in An Imp of Aether 173

This brief story could be a memory—and probably it is, several memories, all bundled up together. Pugmire & Salmonson had history like that. Punks. Not pop-punk, queercore, or Riot Grrrl, but the older, original punk rock, the substratum on which the newer sounds and aesthetics and even politics are built. Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs. The same visceral rebellion that John Shirley would pay tribute to in A Song Called Youth trilogy (1985-1990), the same energy and themes that would show up in the early cyberpunk fiction of Pat Cardigan, Bruce Sterling, and William Gibson. Writers whose vision of the future would give inspiration to Cthulhupunk works like “Star Bright, Star Byte” (1994) by Marella Sands.

“Pale, Trembling Youth” isn’t Cthulhupunk. There’s nothing of the Mythos in its few pages, no dark cults or alien entities. It is a spiritual by-blow, the kind of story that feels like it should have inspired something. Reminiscent of “Beckoner of the Nightwatch” (1989) by Jessica Amanda Salmonson and Pugmire’s editorial vision on Tales of Lovecraftian Horror. There’s Lovecraft in the literary DNA, but not the part of Lovecraft enshrined in pop media as Cthulhu and the Necronomicon.

It’s “The Outsider.”

Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft. Such a lot the gods gave to me—to me, the dazed, the disappointed; the barren, the broken.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider”

Lovecraft’s universe is amoral, mechanistic, often antagonistic to human life. Yet it is not without empathy, nor is it incapable of inspiring sympathy. Wilbur Whateley was recast as a sympathetic figure in stories like Stanley C. Sargent’s “The Black Brat of Dunwich” (1997) and Robert M. Price’s “Wilbur Whateley Waiting” (1987). The sympathetic view of the Innsmouth residents is at the heart of “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys and “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” (2016) by Sonya Taaffe.

At it’s heart, there is horror in “Pale, Trembling Youth”—but not quite eldritch horror. The real, visceral, street-level horrors of kids burning bright, ignorant of history but starkly brilliant, the stars that flare twice as bright and half so long—runaways tired of getting beaten by their parents, living rough on the street, burning the candle at both ends with speed, finding beauty in noise, seeking and finding their own self-destruction. Nameless kids dying sad deaths far too young.

So there’s nothing new. Least of all pain. It’s the oldest thing around. I want to tell them, “Yes, you’re outsiders. Yes, this thing you’re feeling really is pain. But you’re not alone.” Or not alone in being alone. A poison-bad planet. For everyone.
—W. H. Pugmire & Jessica Amanda Salmonson, “Pale, Trembling Youth”
in An Imp of Aether 174

The narrator is nameless. The place is real, in Seattle. You can go and visit the park, see the pipes. There is a very Lovecraftian construction to the story, though a sneaky one. A chance meeting, a tale that Zadok Allen might have told for a bottle, but offered for free. Sudden impulse driving the narrator on…and after that…maybe a touch of M. R. James. Mythos? No. Lovecraftian? Absolutely.

“Pale, Trembling Youth” was first published in Cutting Edge (1986); it has been reprinted many times, most recently in the collection An Imp of Aether (2019).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

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