Wilum H Pugmire very kindly agreed to provide the blurb for Joseph Rubas’ After Midnight so we sent the Tickety Boo horror correspondent to chat with him. J D Worthington is a fan of the Lovecraftian author and this is a great interview for lovers of the great man’s work.
I suppose first it would be best to get some basic biographical information out of the way first. Born 3 May 1951, correct? And were you born in Seattle or elsewhere? If elsewhere, when did your family move to Seattle?
Yes, May 3rd. I’ve always enjoy’d pointing out that it’s the first date mention’d in Jonathan Harker’s diary. Born and raised in Seattle, and have lived here always except for when I left for two years on my mission and lived in Ireland, Arizona and Nevada
You were, I believe, raised in the Church of the Latter Day Saints; is this right? And how do you feel about the period of your mission? This was when you began writing seriously, but what else would you have to say about it now? What impact has your belief had on your life? What, if any, were the periods where you were distanced from the church — not only officially, but where you possibly rejected your faith yourself? What changed that? And finally, what influence do you think your religious views have had on your work, either obvious or subtle? (In particular, I think of your contrasting your own approach to HPL’s “non-supernatural cosmic art”, where you once described your own as “supernatural up the arse”.
I was raised in the church. My pa was a Mormon cowboy from Utah. Mom never joined the church, and was hostile toward it after dad’s death. I didn’t want to go on a mission, but it was expected of me. My first day in Ireland the Zone Leaders took me and the other greenies on a tour of all the bombed-out places, and I was terrified. I had no strong religious convictions, and suddenly there I was going door to door preaching the Gospel. I was a very poor missionary, a “problem missionary,” and I got so homesick for America that I faked I was getting sick from all of the coal smoke. I thought they’d send me home early, but instead I got transferred from Ireland to the American desert, working in Tuscon and Las Vegas. But those two years planted seeds. I left the church because I came out as queer, but I never completely lost my testimony or felt hostility toward the church. I was excommunicated for 25 years, which in the Mormon world is a kind of death; and then two missionaries knocked on my door and I began, as a lark, to have them come visit me, and it led to my regaining my testimony of Christ and being re-baptized in 2002. I told my church leaders that if they allowed me to return to the church I would be a “totally gay” Mormon. It isn’t easy, but I love my religion and believe its doctrine absolutely, although I have quarrels with some issues such as gay marriage. I have always believed in the supernatural, have had visitations from ghosts, practiced as a solitary warlock — and to be a Mormon is to accept some of the most outlandish supernatural beliefs imaginable. I think all of that led to my strong inclination to write weird fiction that is audaciously supernatural, and to invent Sesqua Valley, with which I wanted to create a setting that was a blend of Lovecraft’s Dunwich and Dreamlands.
Aside from Lovecraft, what writers would you list as major influences? What ones would be minor ones? You have frequently made nods to Wilde, and even to Henry James; how would you describe their influence on your work and writing?
I never had any interest in literature until I got into Lovecraft as a missionary in Omagh. I wasn’t allowed to attend horror films, with which I was obsessed as a kid, and I was corresponding with Bob Bloch, who had written a piece for a horror film fanzine I published just after high school. So I began to buy Bob’s books and then anthologies in which he was one of several writers, and that led to my addiction to horror fiction. Then I came out as queer, and that led me to read queer writers such as Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf; and when I read their biographies I was introduced to other writers that sounded interesting, and soon Literature became my passion. I related to writers who were very serious about being artists. Henry James was extremely devoted to his Art, and his short stories fascinated and delighted me, remaining my favorite short stories to this day. His language, his aesthetics, deeply affected the way I wanted to write, and so I began to concentrate on writing prose that was beautiful and poetic. As I matured, I realized that this was Lovecraft’s goal as an author — the creation of Literary Art. Thus my passion for HPL increased dramatically, and I made it my “mission” to write Lovecraftian fiction that was my own thing and yet Lovecraftian to the core.
I have long noticed a tendency in your shorter tales to set aside the usual rules of “realism” in fiction, and to even (on a literal reading) to have a rather illogical structure or relationship between events; yet these tales still work very well. I may be mistaken, but this reminds me very strongly of some of the work of such writers as Maupassant, Gautier, and the like, as well as a strong strain (in atmosphere) of Baudelaire. Do you yourself see such a relationship?
Yes, the relationship with French writers such as Maupassant, Gautier, Baudelaire and others has been one of the key influences in the way I imagine the stories I want to write, and this too is an effect from the study of Henry James, who was so influenced by French writers. I love to write the “impossible” first-person narrative, in which the person telling the tale does not survive the story and cannot possibly be recording its events in any realistic way. Thomas Ligotti has also been a key influence in this striving for a sense of weird unreality that is as compelling as it is nonsensical.
On a recent rereading of some of your work, I see a sort of affinity to some of the works of J. G. Ballard, particularly in regard to the elusive logic and dreamlike feel, the gradual intrusion of a protagonists’ mental reality into the exterior reality; what Ballard might have termed the Immanent content made manifest. Have you ever read Ballard, and if so, which of his works do you think might have resonated with you? Another aspect of your work which I see as very similar is the “apparently” doom-laden fate of so many of your protagonists, which nonetheless have a feeling of a psychic fulfillment. This is a common theme in much of his work, particularly such things as The Drowned World, The Crystal World, Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition, and so on. How much of this, do you think, is consciously imposed as an artistic stance, and how much reflects your own experiences as an “outsider”?
I have never read Ballard, although I should. His being published by Arkham House was one of the reasons I stopped buying Arkham House books, when James Turner was buying books by more and more sf authors rather than the kinds of writers published by Derleth.
Related to this, how do you view a writer using such personal experiences? Do you feel it is best to “putty over” with a fictionalization of such, or is it permissible to more directly deal with the “toxic material”, as it’s been called?
My stories are often, perhaps always, autobiographical in some fashion, and in a few particular cases extremely and directly so. I believe that the more personal you make your fiction, the more it stands a chance of being original. Lovecraft remains powerfully original to this day because his fiction is so uniquely his own creation and contains so much of his audacious personality and imagination. To read Lovecraft is to read an author who has haunted himself. I strive for that as well. I want to be audacious and perversely myself in my fiction. One reason for this is to celebrate what I see as my freakishness, those aspects of my being that, since childhood, my parents and society have tried to quash. This is one reason I remain outlandishly Lovecraftian. People have hinted that I should strive to be more original, more “myself”; and my reply is to be more Lovecraftian, so as to proclaim that when I am Lovecraftian I am completely and utterly myself. There is a tone of defiance in my fiction, as in the way I dress.
You have a tendency to do a lot of revising of your work; sometimes quite drastically. One tale in particular stands out in this regard: “The Hour of Their Appetite”, which still retains much of the same material, yet is almost a completely different story from one version to another. Would you care to comment on your reasons for such revisions; which do you think were more, or less successful?
Revision is a bad habit, and a compulsion. I cannot help myself. If my stories that have been collected in one book are going to appear in a new book, I simply HAVE to revise them, so as to give old readers something new rather than have them pay good money for the same old thing. And I will read over an old story and think, “Oh, I could have done this so different, expressed the idea with better originality,” and so I have to revise it. When Jerad wanted to publish THE TANGLED MUSE, those stories ALL had to be revised, some drastically, because I saw that as being the book I wanted to be remembered for. It had to be the very best book I could make it, and thus EVERYTHING had to be revised. Now I am doing it again. I am going through my prose-poem sequence, “Uncommon Places,” and rewriting sections as complete and individual short stories, and then sending them to Mike Davis for the Lovecraft eZine. Gawd, it’s fun!
You also tend to include a fairly sizeable number of “in-jokes” in your writing, things which the cognoscenti are likely to pick up on, but which more casual readers would not. This happens with character names, or references to Lovecraftian (or Smithian, etc.) story elements and the like. Do you ever feel that your doing so takes a risk of dispelling the atmosphere; or do you feel that it enhances your connection to the traditions you are working in? One such which comes to mind is the naming of your “punk/goth” girl in “Your Metamorphic Moan”, along with her chipping off a bit of Mount Selta. Given that you also have hints of Lovecraft’s “The Hound” both there and in several other tales, is this latter a reference to the origins of that tale (Lovecraft’s chipping off of a piece of gravestone)?
I named the girl in “Your Metamorphic Moan” Aubrey because the young woman she was based on is thus named in real life. I worked with her at the pizza joint where I was prep cook and she a server. I sent her photos to the book’s artist, and his rendition of her on the book’s cover is spot-on, exactly as she looks in life. There are other significant names in that tale. Leonidas Creighton is inspir’d by Lon Chaney Sr. (whose real name was Leonidas) and Lon Chaney Jr. (whose birth name was Creighton). And then there is Klarkson Ash, who has changed his name in homage to Clark Ashton Smith, as is pointed out in the text. This kind of thing is inspired by Lovecraft’s in-jokes in his own weird fiction. I couldn’t care less if it spoils the atmosphere, because it’s fun and it’s in the Lovecraft tradition, and I have to have fun when I write. My work is exquisitely playful, and yet dead serious in its attempt to write worthy weird fiction. The chipping off of stone from the mountain came from the first version of that story, “A Piece of Stone,” a title suggested by J. Vernon Shea. When I rewrote the story as “Moan,” I wanted two kinds of chipping–first of the mountain, and then of Aubrey’s arms, turning her into a Sesquan Venus de Milo.
While you have often called yourself a “fan boy”, it is quite evident to anyone who has followed your work that, while such might well have been the case early on, you have long since established an unique voice of your own; one which uses both a prose and poetic idiom to achieve often very subtle effects which allow for multiple readings of your work on different levels. At what point in your career do you feel this began to be evident? How much does this qualify your classification of yourself as “fan boy” in this regard?
My imagination, I feel, is very adolescent, compared to truly mature and original writers such as Laird Barron and Caitlin R. Keirnan. I’m not mature enough or professional enough for many major genre editors such as Ellen Datlow and Stephen Jones. But being a total fan-boy is part of my fun in writing, and there will always be a fan fiction element in my work. Only a deprav’d obsess’d Lovecraft fan-boy wou’d say one day, “Hey, I’m gonna write my own version of HPL’s ‘The Lurking Fear’!!” A truly professional writer would never commit such folly. My adult voice as an author came from my obsession with Henry James, in the early 1990’s, when I determined to write poetic prose that was as beautiful as it was strange. But very little of that maturity is evident in my IDEAS, except when I do the very Bohemian thing that is far more influenced by CAS and Baudelaire and Wilde than by Lovecraft.
You have done much to revive the form of the “prose poem” in weird fiction. Was this something you consciously set out to do, or was it something which you found emerging naturally from the work? Do you think this is generally a viable form for the weird tale, or for fiction in general today?
I first became noted for writing very short yet effective pieces. My love for the prose-poem came when I really began to study Clark Ashton Smith and wanted to write the very compact thing. I started writing my prose-poems sequences, the first appearing in THE FUNGAL STAIN. It so intrigued me, and gave me ways of writing that seemed new and dead poetic, and soon I couldn’t write a book without having a new prose-poem sequence in it. S. T. loves the prose-poem and encouraged me to continue writing them, which inspir’d me to write UNCOMMON PLACES for Hippocampus Press–knowing that I had an editor and publisher who loved the very short prose piece.
Encounters with Enoch Coffin had a somewhat troubled development originally, as I recall. What other of your works have you had difficulties in bringing to fruition, and which ones which you have not developed would you still like to see reach completion?
I had trouble beginning the first two stories for the book, but after that the writing flowed. The troubled development came from the book’s publishing history, which was quite skewed and delayed. The one book that I absolutely ACHE to write and cannot is a book entirely inspired by Clark Ashton Smith. I’ve started it so many times, and always realize that I don’t have what it takes to do the idea justice. But the ache never goes away. I thought, while in Providence last summer, that I was going to write an entire book of stories set in Providence, and Derrick and S. T. said they’d like to publish it–but now I’ve completely lost interest in writing it. I wanted to write a short novel that was inspired by and linked to Derleth’s THE LURKER AT THE THRESHOLD, but my beginnings for it always suck and I now realize I’ll never write it. I may someday write an entire book inspired by Wilde–that idea still seems possible. I tell myself I’d like to write an entire book of tales set in Gershom, my City of Exiles–but then I never write new tales of Gershom.
Is there a particular regime you follow in writing your work, or do you let each piece dictate the manner of its own development? What advice would you have to young or beginning writers on this topic?
My writing schedule, like everything in my life, is ruled by whim and chaos. I completely lack the discipline I would need to be a full-time professional writer. I have to wait until an idea possesses me utterly, and then I cannot STOP writing. My advice to young writers is to learn to love the work–the work, the actual writing, is the VERY BEST thing about being a writer. Too many youngsters want the glory of being a writer, of calling themselves a writer, before they have done any significant work. Do the work, as much as possible, and then you will BE a writer.
Where do you see your work going from here? And on a more general topic, where do you see the weird field going at present or in the future? Do you see it becoming more restrictive because of marketing, or do you think the growing number of “niche” publishing venues allow a greater variety of artistic visions to find their audience?
I cannot predict my future as a writer. I always tell myself I need to take a break, that I’ve written too many books in too short a time. My next book came about as a complete surprise. I decided to publish a collection with my friend David Barker, half of it his work and half of it mine. I had 3,000 words of an old thing that I had discarded, so I sent it to him to see if he’d like to use it for a story of his own. He suggested we work on it together. We did, and to my amazement it grew into a short novel of 33,000 words! It will be my next book, published as illustrated limited edition hardcover and released in time for World Horror Convention. Now David and I are working on four or five new short stories for our collaborative collection, which will be published in 2015. Jeffrey Thomas and I will eventually write an Enoch Coffin novel, but we are both so busy with other projects and aspects of life that it may be a while before we can actually find the time for it. I have high hopes for the future of weird fiction, because we have so many talented writers today. I think the majority of books will be published by specialty houses rather than commercial outfits. I hate the idea of Kindle taking over as the main format in which books are read — but I have a hunch that will happen. I know that I will probably always be writing, until I’m gaga or totally burned out and just stop–but that seems unlikely. I’m one of those lost souls who writes because he needs to–life isn’t worth living when the writing stops.
“In witch-haunted Arkham, the restless spirit of the narrator’s great-aunt, the notorious poetess Rebecca Pascal, takes possession of an innocent woman and brings havoc to all who encounter her. Richard, to whom she bequeathed her house and wealth, is less fortunate than his expectation has led him to believe; his inheritance is something unholy–and he is no match for the machinations of Rebecca and her acolytes. Inspired in part by Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep,” THE REVENANT OF REBECCA PASCAL takes you to ghostly houses and sinister Arkham burying grounds, where alchemy and madness join forces with a daemonic entity aroused from beyond the wall of sleep.”