From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Weird Inhabitants of Sesqua Valley by W.H. Pugmire

Reviewed by Richard Dansky

One of Lovecraft’s great achievements was to use the elements of regional fiction—patois, rustic settings, and so forth —to tap into the cosmic. The juxtaposition of locals nattering about whippoorwills down in the hollow with the intrusion of something as utterly unearthly as Yog-Sothoth creates cosmicism where none ought to be found, and thus achieves something remarkable.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and Lovecraft’s brand of cosmicism has become part of the background noise. As the list of mind-shattering interdimensional entities grows with each new anthology and each new author eager to make their mark in Mr. Cthulhu’s neighborhood, the cosmic landscape of Yog-Sothery has become largely familiar territory.

Which makes W.H. Pugmire’s Weird Inhabitants of Sesqua Valley all the more interesting, because he takes Lovecraft’s innovation and turns it on its head. Recognizing that it’s the mythology of the Cthulhu Mythos that’s the shared starting point for most readers these days, Pugmire inverts the model and uses the cosmic as a gateway to his regionally defined, deeply personal stories. Everyone in his mythical Sesqua Valley knows about Nyarlathotep and the Book of Eibon; it’s part of the standard conversation. Indeed, the notorious Richard Upton Pickman makes an appearance in the book, and there’s more than a nod to “The Hound” as well.

But it’s because of this casual secret knowledge, which the reader and the characters both share, that the reader is then invited into this small, closed community. The result is a collection of Mythos stories that are, in many cases, deeply personal, as opposed to the usual gibbering and incipient cosmic doom. Pugmire’s Sesquans may not like people—indeed, they may not be people—but they do genuinely seem to like their little corner of the world, and have no interest in covering it with ravening shoggoths three layers deep.

The highlight of the collection is undoubtedly “The Million-Shadowed One”, which reaches remarkable heights of feeling in the story of the closest thing Sesqua can produce to genuine parental love. “An Eidolon of Nothing” is a love story with a nod to “Charles Dexter Ward”, a rumination on what makes us human even beyond death and resurrection. And “Visions of William Davis Manly” mixes supernatural and poetical obsession to their logical conclusions in a satisfying, almost elegiac way. Shorter pieces like “Totem Pole” and “Swamp Rising” have the feel of some of Lovecraft’s early work, complete with nasty ends for boorish, ill-educated outsiders, while “And Drink the Moon” holds an echo of the Dreamlands.

As a collection, Weird Inhabitants is probably best read one or two stories at a time, instead of at one sitting. There’s a thematic similarity in several of the stories’ ending, rendering them less powerful if they’re read one after another. And of course there is the love-it-or-hate-it nature of even the best Lovecraftian style, which can make for slow going after a while. Still, there are many pleasures to be had in this iteration of the tales of the Sesqua Valley, some of them unexpected but all of them surprisingly humanistic in a way that brings Lovecraft’s own techniques full circle.

Weird Inhabitants of Sesqua Valley
W.H. Pugmire
Terradan Works
$15.00 | tpb | 123 pages
ISBN: 978-1448699544
September 2009

Other Works by W.H. Pugmire: