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The Fungal Stain and other dreams

by WM Pugmire

( Hippocampus Press, 2006; 179 pages; $15.00; 0-9771734-3-7.)

Review by William P Simmons

cover scanThere is no doubting the influence that H.P. Lovecraft exerted over macabre fiction. Nor may his stylistic ingenuity be doubted, capturing as it did the nihilistic mystery and opulence of an unknowable universe. Combining symbols of archetypal supernatural terror with materialistic concerns and a cynical intellect, Lovecraft sought escape from, and a better understanding of, the natural world through the interpretive lens of Fantasy. W.M. Pugmire shares this preoccupation, refuting scientifically held laws and holding them up against the reflective mirror of art. Despite his obvious (freely admitted) indebtedness to Pulp Fiction (or perhaps because of this) Pugmire is a fringe artist, seeking neither commercial success nor critical acceptance but an intimate escape from the mundane world. He achieves this admirably, with emotional intensity and a palate of wide-ranging ideas, using Lovecraft's ideals and imagery, subjects and fictional decorations (tomes, objects, etc) as a starting point from which he ascends to strange terrors wholly his own. The results of these travels through strange eons -- journeys inwards as well as through time, space, and cultural myth -- are captured in The Fungal Stain and Other Dreams, his newest collection.

While several writers have found inspiration in Lovecraft's fiction, resulting in an influx of stories written in 'homage' of his work, many of these pastiches lack originality and aesthetic power. Only a few of these authors have managed to find their own voice. Bloch, Leiber, and Wandrei all reached vistas of mystery and awe, terror and beauty, independent of their mentor. Add to this list Mr. Pugmire, who evokes a primal sense of awe comparable to Lovecraft without resorting to outright mimicry. Rather than toil within pre-established characters or conventions already established by the grand old man of Providence, Pugmire establishes his own voice and style -- albeit in Lovecraft's shadow (a place, I think, he is delighted to occupy). Reaching depths of terror and beauty in prose as poetic as it is concise, Pugmire has found that combination of psychological precision and mannered discipline that lent such believability and wonder to Lovecraft's fiction. This is most evident in "An Eidolon of Nothing," wherein hoary dimensions of time and sorcery are anchored by all-too-real human desires, and further emphasized in the vignettes "Hour of the Their Appetite," "The Sign that Sets the Darkness Free," and "Jigsaw Boy." These explosions of dark wonder are as emotionally powerful as they are brief, testifying to Pugmire's ability to vivisect our interpretation of the cosmos in a matter of few paragraphs. Several of the author's icy prose poems display the author's understanding that fear and awe are close cousins, handmaids to the same primal impulses. Each of these emotionally draining nightmares combines the universal paranoia of Lovecraft with the emotional overflow of a Romantic writer, all leading to his love affair with decaying splendor. At the same time, "The Fungal Stain" and "His Splintered Kiss" resonate with a lyrical delight in morbidity comparable to the Decadent school of the "Yellow Nineties."

While several of Lovecraft's thematic obsessions and tropes are made use of in this collection, they are baptized by Pugmire's personality. In short, Pugmire may be considered a practitioner of the Cthulhu tradition but he inspires dread through his own unique manipulation of said conventions, allowing inspiration and an organic sense of discovery to lead him. Including a novelette located in his fictionalized Sesqua Valley (a microcosm every bit as realistic in its details of culture and history as Arkham or Dunwich), this collection also includes a prose poem sequence similar in tone to some of Machen's finely wrought emotional invasions, and surrealistic vignettes that remind one of not only Clark Ashton Smith but the early fantasies of Lord Dunsany and opulent dream pieces of John Gale. Perhaps no one can describe this collection better than the author, who states that these are "Lovecraftian dreams as thresholds to alien emotion, dimension, salvation, damnation." Each piece is an expressionistic passport to unknowable dimensions of mystical nightmares and dreamscapes, inviting us to leave ourselves for a moment. We are asked not only to depart from our skins and minds, but from the very world we think we know, as Pugmire challenges our concepts of reality. What remains is both horrifying and tantalizing, a siren's song that makes destruction and oblivion almost attractive. A medicine for mediocrity, the 25 selections are all generally what they claim to be -- dreams. Nightmares. Visions. Hallucinations ... Or perhaps a truth far greater than what we have been taught to believe constitutes waking reality. And this is Pugmire's greatest achievement, making us doubt our finite understanding of either ourselves or the greater universe around us.

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