“Pugelbone” (2010) by Nadia Bulkin

For it is of old rumour that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnel clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Festival”

Set in an unknown but recognizable tomorrow. In the crowded urban structure known as the Warren, people live in close proximity. Isolated from the outside, both physically and economically, the Meers (Meerkats) grow up in the crush of humanity, amid an urban ecosystem grown subterranean and strange with a new horror, one the children call…Pugelbones.

“Pugelbone” is not a Cthulhu Mythos story; there are no quotes from the Necronomicon, no reference to any recognizable corner of the Miskatonic Valley, no alien gods and sinister cults. Yet Nadia Bulkin’s story is built up from a base of Lovecraftian literary DNA, like a slab of artificial meat grown in a lab. A product of the strange and marvelous now, hacking the genetic material of “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls” and building it back up into something you can sink your teeth into.

The protagonist Lizbet was born a Meer. A girl that just liked to break things. An outsider among an outsider group, she is at once sympathetic and unreliable. All she wants is custody of her daughter—and the only way to get it is to interact with the unsympathetic bureaucracy as represented by Dr. Roman. These are adult fears: poor people trapped in a system they never built or opted in to, trying to navigate the weird social spaces of interviews with indifferent people that decide their fate. “Pugelbones” is Lizbet’s story—the story she tells Dr. Roman, to try and win back her daughter, and the story of telling that story, as Roman deflates, dismisses, and directs the conversation. A “passive listener” that has all the power in the relationship, and diminishes Lizbet with insinuation.

Yet Dr. Roman never denies the essential reality of the Pugelbones.

In Lovecraft’s stories like “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls,” the underground space—a favored personal image which appears in his stories—contains or did contain other horrors: a teeming mass of humanity or near-humanity. Societies that set themselves apart, to live, work, breed, and die down there. Written before Lovecraft’s period in New York City, it is still tempting to see an echo in these stories of urban fears, the great crowded tenements and filthy streets. Contemporary concerns, expressed in Lovecraft’s own language and filtered through his own prejudices, but still tapping into the 1920’s zeitgeist. Lovecraft’s stories are told from the interloper’s perspective, from those who had not been born and  bred.

What would “The Lurking Fear” read like, if told from the perspective of a Martense?

[…] a degenerate squatter population inhabiting pitiful hamlets on isolated slopes. Normal beings seldom visited the locality till the state police were formed, and even now only infrequent troopers patrol it. […] With whimpering insistence the squatters told tales of a daemon which seized lone wayfarers after dark, either carrying them off or leaving them in a frightful state of gnawed dismemberment; while sometimes they whispered of blood-trails toward the distant mansion.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Lurking Fear”

Nadia Bulkin’s story works because some of those horrors present in the early 20th century still haunt us in the early 21st century. The poor may not be seen as “gently descending the evolutionary scale” as Lovecraft put it, but the Meers are no less the subject to prejudice and stereotype. Lizbet is subject to the same prejudices that Lovecraft’s Catskills white trash, with the added bonus of being a woman, and a single parent, with all the additional onus that brings. These are all adult fears, the kind of tangible horrors of desperation that can face anyone today. Bulkin taps into the same zeitgeist as Lovecraft did; her story works because the situation is presented so realistically.

The Pugelbones are the element of the weird which is interwoven with the more mundane horrors of child protective services and overpopulation, and like many Lovecraftian horrors they are very material entities. An undiscovered species, urban predators. The truth about them is not half as terrible as Dr. Roman’s towing the official government line about their existence, or her insinuations about Lizbet’s relationship with them. They are the great mystery of the piece, only half-glimpsed through the Meer’s story, their presence told in piles of trash and smears of blood.

Yet the story is theirs, as much as it is Meers: these Lovecraftian beasties are essential to the piece, and Bulkin wisely keeps them off the page for most of it. Readers get hints of them long before they see them, rumors and legend before the Pugelbones appear in a scene. Rather than being specifically horrific themselves, the Pugelbones are the catalysts for the human horrors; the outside element that disrupts the human narrative, like the xenomorphs of Ridley Scott’s Alien, the one terrible unpredictable event which starts off the cascade of adult fears.

Chthonic_FC_01-712x1024Nadia Bulkin’s “Pugelbone” first appeared in ChiZine (Oct-Dec 2010), and was reprinted in her collection She Said Destroy (2017), and Cthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth (2018). Bulkin has been prominent the last few years in various anthologies, and her corpus of Lovecraftian and Mythos fiction includes “Red Goat Black Goat” (2010), “Truth is Order and Order is Truth” (2014), “Violet Is The Color Of Your Energy” (2015), “Pro Patria!” (2015), “There Is A Bear In the Woods” (2016), “I Believe That We Will Win” (2016), “Empire Down” (2017), and “A Dream, and a Monster at the End of It” (2017).

“Flash Frame” (2010) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

After that he killed the time at a cheap cinema show, seeing the inane performance over and over again without paying any attention to it.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch House”

Scene: Mexico City, 1982. A character in its own right, which fills in the role of the story just by showing up. The narrator is a freelance journalist, hard-boiled as they come, carefully devoid of name or gender. The framing of the story is so slight, the reader might gloss over it: the narrator is in the present day, where Wikipedia makes a mockery of research, but recalling an incident from 28 years prior. A new editor wants something better than the usual stories, the journalist sniffs around for one—and finds it, at an adult theater named El Tabu, where a cult does private screenings, once a week.

“Flash Frame” is a member of an obscure club, literary kin to Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images (1989), Theodore Roszak’s Flicker (1991), Simon Spurrier and Smudge’s Chiaroscuro (2000 AD Prog 1507-1517, 2006), and John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns (2005). Weird fiction where instead of a forbidden book or manuscript, the central mystery revolves around a film. A throwback to the idea that the camera captures something more than mere image. Lovecraft toyed with a similar concept in his story “Nyarlathotep”, but the possibilities remained undeveloped until succeeding generations of writers brought it to the page and the screen.

The story is lean, devoid of excess description or introspection from the narrator, who remains very grounded—like a journalist, presenting the facts and their impressions, not their theories. Unlike many Lovecraftian tales, the horrors are described, sometimes in terse but graphic detail; it’s the surrounding mythology which is only hinted at, a blank space left for the reader to fill in by reading between the lines…and that is not the Cthulhu Mythos. Not explicitly.

The book is rigidly suppressed by the authorities of most countries, and by all branches of organised ecclesiasticism. Reading leads to terrible consequences. It was from rumours of this book (of which relatively few of the general public know) that R.W. Chambers is said to have derived the idea of his early novel The King in Yellow.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The History of the Necronomicon

Before Lovecraft ever put together the idea of a shared universe, Robert W. Chambers some names from Ambrose Bierce’s stories “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886) and “Haïta the Shepherd” (1891) for stories in his weird fiction collection The King in Yellow (1895); Lovecraft and his contemporaries would go on to add elements from that seminal work to the Cthulhu Mythos, but the “Yellow Mythos” as an original expansion of Chambers’ work and shared concept in its own right, not dependent on Cthulhu or the Necronomicon (though occasionally tying into it), has developed a fairly dedicated audience and coterie of contributors.

“Flash Frame” sits in no easily definable frame of Mythos reference. Moreno-Garcia doesn’t play the game of name-checking popular entities like Cthulhu or Hastur, no tomes pop up in the course of the story, and even the name of the cult is an unfinished, undefined ellipsis trailing off into disinterest. The framework of the narrative borrows strongly from the Lovecraftian tradition, but it isn’t written to be a defined part of the shared universe. It exists as it’s own thing, ambiguous enough to suggest an avatar of the King in Yellow or Nyarlathotep without needing to nail it down with exact certainty what is going on or what entities are involved. The narrator probably doesn’t even know. They heeded the warning.

The story works as well as it does because the narrator and the setting are absolutely grounded, far way from the poor pasticheur’s focus on cramming Mythos references into the story, Moreno-Garcia makes sure the character of the narrator and the city are well-defined, because they help carry the story. Readers believe that El Tabu existed, and that’s because it, or something like it did—in the Mexico City of the author’s youth.

Well my Mexico, the Mexico of my youth is quickly eroding through the work of time and distance, although I suppose that is true for any of us when we look back at our youth. What is captured in the stories is my vision of a time and place that was and never was because any time we look back we distort the place we came from. The factories near my home are gone, they’ve built expensive condos. The butcher moved. The park got a makeover. So every time I go back to visit I’m looking at a superimposed image of what was there and what is there now.
—Silvia Moreno-Garcia, “An Interview with Silvia Moreno-Garcia”

This transposition of the Mexico of yesterday and today is brought home in the end of the story, where the frame completes itself and the narrator brings the story back from 1982 to the present. El Tabu is gone, replaced by a block of condos. But something survives…

“Flash Frame” was first published in the Cthulhurotica (2010) anthology, edited by Carrie Cuinn. It contains sexually explicit imagery, but the way sex is presented in the story is as a vehicle for horror, rather than a mechanism of reproduction. The yellow woman is an intrusive, otherworldly element, the juxtaposition of carnal imagery with the vivid description of imposition and disgust demonstrates the violation of the narrator’s personal space—even into their mental space. There are always images we cannot unsee, sounds we cannot unhear, words we cannot unread. The narrator’s response to this unwanted contact is not arousal, but unease and revulsion…not because of risk of pregnancy, or rape, but from mere exposure.

This is an aspect of sexual horror which is often overlooked: the exhibitionist who violates taboos of acceptable dress—in the past, exemplified by the naked man or woman in the trench coat, today the unsolicited dick pic—and it is different from biological contagion. An STI can be treated like any other disease, but information cannot be so easily forgotten or erased; nor can the subject forget their inherent vulnerability. A victim can potentially fight back against a physical assault, but it is impossible to close oneself off completely from all unwanted sounds and images…though the narrator, who has given the matter some thought, definitely makes a considerable effort to do just that.

“Flash Frame” has been reprinted in The Book of Cthulhu (2011), and in Moreno-Garcia’s collection This Strange Way of Dying (2013); it was also adapted on Tales to Terrify (2012). Despite her success with short stories and novels, Silvia Moreno-Garcia is perhaps better known as publisher at Innsmouth Free Press, and together with Paula R. Stiles edited works including Historical Lovecraft (2011), Future Lovecraft (2011),  Innsmouth Magazine (2009-2014), Sword & Mythos (2014), and She Walks in Shadows (2015, also published as Cthulhu’s Daughters).