“Some Distant Baying Sound” (2009) by W. H. Pugmire

Now, as the baying of that dead, fleshless monstrosity grows louder and louder, and the stealthy whirring and flapping of those accursed web-wings circles closer and closer, I shall seek with my revolver the oblivion which is my only refuge from the unnamed and unnamable.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound”

St. John is dead, and Christina Sturhman takes the revolver out of her mouth, determined not to end her life in so cowardly a fashion. She travels instead to Sesqua Valley, the secret corner of the Pacific Northwest which W. H. Pugmire has built and claimed for his own, to ask for help from the strange beings there—the sorcerer Simon Gregory Williams, his assistant Marceline, and his brother the poet William Davis Manly. Ever following her is the hound…

Like “Houndwife” (2010) by Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Some Distant Baying Sound” is in ways a continuation and a tribute to H. P. Lovecraft’s seminal tale of two grave-robbing decadents who eventually unearth something profane and come to a grisly end because of it—and it is interesting and sometimes enlightening to see what two different authors will make of the same material, and the different directions they will take from the common beginning in Lovecraft’s story.

Both Pugmire and Kiernan take Lovecraft’s story essentially at face value: though they may add details, they subtract nothing, and by luck they happen to focus on different aspects of the story, so the three stories could almost form a little trinity—such is the way the Cthulhu Mythos grows. The major difference is that Pugmire makes the unnamed protagonist of “The Hound” a woman, where Kiernan implicitly suggests they were male. The latter is more likely Lovecraft’s intention, but the story is ambiguous enough to permit either reading.

The question of why Pugmire went with this interpretation is an open one. Both Lovecraft and Pugmire’s stories have Sturhman and St. John in an intimate friendship, but not explicitly a romantic or sexual one…and even if it were sexual, there is no reason why it could not be homosexual; Pugmire has depicted gay men in relationships in his fiction before. Having Sturhman as female perhaps side-steps any question of sexual attraction to two great beasts of Sesqua Valley, Simon Gregory Williams and Williams Davis Manly, allowing them to be platonic enemies and friends, respectively…although again, Pugmire has never shied away from the inhabitants of the valley having a fluid sexuality.

Upon arriving to meet Simon Gregory Williams and his assistant, Sturhman succumbs to Marceline’s seduction rather easily, though the subtle insinuation of Simon orchestrating the affair for his own purposes raises questions of consent. This gives an opportunity for Pugmire to indulge in the sensual, poetic prose that he is known for, and it is a curious coincidence that both Kiernan and Pugmire, following their own muses and devices, both feature lesbian sexuality so openly in their tributes…although there is a bit of play to be considered between sexuality and gender identity in the two stories.

What is the gender of the Hound/sphinx entity, which pursues in the three stories? In Lovecraft’s original, gender is unknown and irrelevant: it is the figure of pursuit. “Houndwife” suggests implicitly that the Hound is a male figure, but the gender (and even reality) of the Hound is again left ambiguous, and again is irrelevant for the Hound’s function in the story. Yet in “Some Distant Baying Sound,” there is a crucial binary presented by Williams Davis Manly, between the female and male sphinx, and this indeed turns out to be the case because in the story the distinction becomes a necessary one. In all the story, the actual gender of the Hound/sphinx is relevant only insofar as it relates to their relationship with the individual being “hounded,” and as this never includes sexual predation, gender largely doesn’t enter into the plot.

The denouement of “Some Distant Baying Sound” comes in a rush. The early parts of the story had a rather dream-logic pace that fits with Pugmire’s style and his characterization of the Valley itself. The pieces fit together well enough, but the expected confrontation turns into more of an acceptance of self—one more obvious in hindsight, and which yet leaves some unanswered questions…although it seems clear that Sesqua Valley has gained a new permanent resident.

Neither Pugmire or Kiernan’s stories offer a particularly deep exegesis of the Mythos, although fans might appreciate their attention to detail, and the subtle expansion of certain elements connected to the jade of Leng. These are not tributes meant necessarily to explicate a murky corner of Lovecraft’s world, but sensual explorations and extrapolations of the basic atmosphere and key elements of “The Hound.” Celebrations of the mood that Lovecraft evoked, with mysteries yet remaining mysterious and some graves left unspoilt for the next generation of necrophiles.

“Some Distant Baying Sound” was first published in Pugmire’s collection Weird Inhabitants of Sesqua Valley (2009), and republished in his collections The Tangled Muse (2010) and Uncommon Places: A Collection of Exquisites (2012). Unlike “Houndwife,” “Some Distant Baying Sound” stands less well on its own. Full appreciation requires at least a passing familiarity with either Lovecraft’s story or Pugmire’s Sesqua Valley tales, and preferably both. Given that the story is published primarily in Pugmire’s own collections, among his other Sesqua Valley tales, this works out fine. If at some future date it ends up in an anthology next to “Houndwife,” the editor might need to add a bit of clarification for readers unfamiliar with Pugmire’s corpus.

“Houndwife” (2010) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

In the coffin lay an amulet of curious and exotic design, which had apparently been worn around the sleeper’s neck. It was the oddly conventionalised figure of a crouching winged hound, or sphinx with a semi-canine face, and was exquisitely carved in antique Oriental fashion from a small piece of green jade. The expression on its features was repellent in the extreme, savouring at once of death, bestiality, and malevolence. Around the base was an inscription in characters which neither St. John nor I could identify; and on the bottom, like a maker’s seal, was graven a grotesque and formidable skull.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound”

“Houndwife” is a tribute to Lovecraft, and a continuation. It is not a pastiche, as are so many Mythos tales, because it does not attempt to borrow or even suggest anything of Lovecraft’s prose style, however much it may take specific images and ideas from his stories; break them apart, expand on, and rework them. Lovecraft’s story is a background episode: it is unnecessary for the reader to have knowledge of “The Hound” to appreciate and understand “Houndwife,” but those who have read both have perhaps a greater understanding than those who have only read one. It stands on its own, but together they suggest more. That’s rare.

Caitlín R. Kiernan has style.

“Houndwife” revolves around several of her familiar foci—lesbians, the American South contrasted with New England, the Lovecraft Mythos, ghouls, the Church of Starry Wisdom, the occult, and broken perception. The protagonist is an unnamed woman, unlearned but highly intuitive: wisdom borne of experience contrasted against book-knowledge. And this is the story of how she went through a transformative experience, died and was buried, rose again. Not as a martyr or a messiah, not quite as a sacrifice. The experience changes the protagonist, unglues her from the understanding of time. The reader experiences in a linear fashion the protagonist’s now decidedly nonlinear existence.

Lovecraft’s jade amulet from the corpse-eating cult of Leng is the Chekov’s gun of the piece, waiting to be fired. The central mystery of the curious hound-sphinx remains, refracted through the protagonist’s shattered timeline. Only once in a thousand years is a woman chosen to be the houndwife. What that means, ultimately, the answers the Starry Wisdom (and the readers) want, are not readily forthcoming. This is not a Mythos story with passages of long exposition on cosmology or the family trees of the gods: this is a prose poem to experience. Answers, if there are any, will come with reflection.

Aside from the excellent prose styling, and the masterfully done nonlinear structure of the narrative, “Houndwife” is an exemplar of Kiernan’s careful handling and development of characters and relationships, which is part of what sets her work apart from many Mythos writers. While Kiernan has written erotic works, this is not one of them: the lesbian relationship between the protagonist and her girlfriend Isobel Endecott is not there for titillation, but to drive the connection between the protagonist and the cult, and contrast the ties between Isobel and the cult and Isobel and the protagonist. Glimpsed only in fragments, the sense is there of a real relationship, one where both partners are clearly distinct, but a strong attraction and attachment binds them—although strained and slightly alienated by the ritual of death and rebirth.

That too is one of Kiernan’s familiar themes, the strained relationship despite mutual attraction, and is reminiscent of her earlier story “At the Gates of Deeper Slumber” (2009), where the unnamed narrator and Suzanne are not the perfect lesbian couple: they have disagreements, fights, and flaws. They quibble and worry over gender roles and each other’s space. Suzanne refers to the narrator as a “butch dyke” in reference to the persona she projects, but the narrative itself reveals the uncertainty and discomfort—perhaps even jealousy—that accompany the invasion of her home by the Shining Trapezohedron. The narrator cannot give full force to her worries for fear of alienating her partner, and it is the fear of losing Suzanne that is the consuming dread of the piece, more than anything else. Kiernan has revisited this theme of love, loss, and the Shining Trapezohedron in her later piece “Ex Libris” (2012).

The “Kiernan Mythos” is a bit hazier than comparable efforts by other writers, her contributions tend to be free-standing, without the need for strong tie-ins, though they may exist if you look for them: Isobel Endecott probably related to the Endecotts of “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008). She has developed no single common setting like Lovecraft’s Miskatonic region, Ramsey Campbell’s Severn Valley, or W. H. Pugmire’s Sesqua Valley, although certain works like the recent Agents of Dreamland (2017) and Black Helicopters (2018) are tied together, and she has four connected stories in the “Dandridge Cycle”, but she does not invent new gods with unspeakable names or eldritch grimoires which are consistent in story after story. Kiernan’s Mythos tales like “Houndwife” are strange growths sprouting from the Lovecraft Mythos, new stories growing from old soil, each unique and distinct.

I should hope that not even the most die-hard admirer of H. P. Lovecraft’s work would date argue that “The  Hound” (1922) is a well-written story. And yet I love it. Despite all it’s garish purple-prose histrionics, the story pushes my buttons. So, it was probably inevitable that I would someday write a tribute to this minor Lovecraft tale, and in March 2010 that’s exactly what I did.
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan vol. 2, 360

“Houndwife” was first published in 2010 in the Sirenia Digestand first saw print in Black Wings of Cthulhu 2 (2012). It has been reprinted in hardcover twice in her collections Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan vol. 2 (2015) and Houses Under the Sea: Mythos Tales of Caitlín R. Kiernan (2018).