This story appeals to me more than most of the things I’ve written this past decade. I am fond of the image of the woman with her weird masked face, and was delighted when two pictorial renditions of that image were included in my first American collection, one by my editor and publisher, Jeffrey Thomas, and the other gracing the superb cover illustration by Earl Grier. There is a lot of peculiar passion in this story, and it gets me, deliciously. I was delighted to be able to write it in memory to HPL’s great buddy and fellow weird author, Frank Long. “The Child of Dark Mania” originally appeared in The Pnakotic Series.
—W. H. Pugmire, “Afterword” in Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts 113
Frank Belknap Long, Jr.’s “The Horror from the Hills” (Weird Tales Jan, Feb-Mar 1931) is one of his most famous additions to the Cthulhu Mythos—mostly because the novella incorporates a lengthy sequence borrowed from one of Lovecraft’s letters (with permission), describing a Roman dream in ancient Iberia. The main antagonist of the novella is Chaugnar Faugn, which in turn was inspired by a small statuette of the elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha that Long’s aunt Cassie Symmes had gifted him.
Long is busy on a horror tentatively called “The Elephant God of Leng”—based on a curiously carved idol his aunt lately brought him from Europe, plus a suggestion or two of mine.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 2 Feb 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 204
The appropriation of an Indian religious icon was not uncommon in Weird Tales during the period. Readers might compare the elephant-headed Yog-Kosha from Robert E. Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant” (Weird Tales Mar 1933), or the eponymous idol in Seabury Quinn’s “The Green God’s Ring” (Weird Tales Jan 1945). Inspiration comes where it does, and the “Exotic East” was an important inspiration for many pulp writers, and a draw for many pulp readers—and we can perhaps be grateful that Long drew a distinction between the benevolent Ganesha and the malevolent Chaugnar Faugn.
While “The Horror in the Hills” has been long recognized as a part of the Mythos, there has never quite been a distinct “Chaugnar Faugn Cycle.” Lovecraft would include Chaugnar Faugn among the deities in “The Horror in the Museum” (1933), and Long would revisit the character in his poem “When Chaugnar Wakes” (Weird Tales Sep 1932), and a few others have tried their hand at it, notably Robert Bloch with “Death is an Elephant” (Weird Tales Feb 1939), Joseph Pulver, Sr.’s untitled poem that begins “Elephant Lord, Chaugnar Faugn,…” (Cthulhu Cultus #12, 1998), Robert M. Price’s “The Elephant God of Leng” (Black Book #1, 2002), and W. H. Pugmire’s “The Child of Dark Mania” (1996).
As with “An Imp of Aether” (1997), “The Child of Dark Mania” is one of a series of stories that Pugmire wrote in the 1990s in homage to various weird authors that had come before; and as with “Imp” this one has been revised in its various publications, so that while the basic elements of the story remain, the details shift a bit depending on whether you read it in the original Pnakotic Fragments (1996) fanzine, the Tales of Sesqua Valley (1997) chapbook, or paperback publication in Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts (2008) or An Imp of Aether (2019).
Most of these changes are minimal—the consolidation of paragraphs, another word or sentence of description, etc. One notable change is the name of the protagonist, a writer of horror fiction who in the original is Frank or Franklyn, and in the 2019 version is “Sonny” or Francis—no doubt to more closely associate the writer with “Sonny” Belknap, as Lovecraft used to call his friend.
She went to a stand and unwrapped a piece of plastic, from which she removed a cone of incense. This she placed next to me on the bed, along with an incense burner shaped as an Eastern deity, an elephant god whose name I could not recall.
—W. H. Pugmire, “Child of Dark Mania” in An Imp of Aether 169
In keeping with his usual style, Pugmire is not so unsubtle as to name Chaugnar Faugn directly. The story is all the more effective for not being another gushing bit of fanfiction that tries to dump a vast chunk of Mythos lore on the reader. Nor does Pugmire try for anything grandiose; this is a quieter tale than “The Dunwich Horror” or “The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff, somewhat closer to Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” in scope—and Melissa is perhaps a close cousin to Helen Vaughn as portrayed in Helen’s Story (2013) by Rosanne Rabinowitz.
Instead, it is a very slight, intimate story, content to communicate the plot by image and intimation, and leave the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. One of the most distinct such images is worth going into a little more deeply:
I tired but found it impossible not to study the grotesque cloth mask, and the bizarre shape that moved beneath it. I had known that Melissa had been born with birth defects, and we had assumed that this had been the result of Diane’s consumption of foreign opiates. (ibid. 168)
Savvy readers might draw any number of references: the masked high priest not to be described in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, perhaps—but also Joseph Merrick, the Victorian performer billed as “The Elephant Man,” who would wear a hood or mask to help conceal his features when in public.
There is that sense of empathy for Diane, the wild child who had “journeyed with a gang of lesbian witches” and returned pregnant, disapproved of by her family, and forced to raise her daughter alone…and now might lose her, as Melissa comes of age—which is the only odd part of the changes between editions. In the earlier versions of the text, Diane gave birth eighteen years before the start of the story, in the 2019 text this is shortened to eight. Whether this is an error or meant to invoke the quick growth of Wilbur Whateley is not clear, and doesn’t effect the final story much.
In conception, Pugmire’s Chaugnar Faugn is more intriguing than Long’s. Here, the deity has an aspect reminiscent of Pan, Bacchus, or Dionysus, who might attract very Lovecraftian maenads, drunk on the cosmic wonder of it all…and dance.
My blood froze as she bent low and kissed the shadow of the rigid god, and I inwardly cringed when that blasphemous silhouette began to blur and bend. (ibid. 171)
Why did Diane flee to Sesqua Valley? Perhaps because that was Pugmire’s corner of Lovecraft Country, and he wished to draw to himself those dark, shining jewels of the Mythos he prized. There is a jealous tendency to the valley, magnetic and sympathetic, like calling to like. The Child of Dark Mania fits in well among those shadowy residents.
The latest version of the text, titled “Child of Dark Mania,” can be read in 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).