The Strange Dark One. Tales of Nyarlathotep by W H Pugmire
A few reviews ago, I was asking myself why I continue to read horror. The answer I offered then was that the discovery of Victorian and Edwardian authors during the 1950s set me off on a hunt. Like these more modern people who obsessively seek out roller coasters in the hope of matching or beating their last white-knuckle ride, I live for finding my next frisson of alarm or fear when reading. Ironically, as I’ve grown older and more “sophisticated”, the thrills are fewer and farther between. Too many modern authors either try to get an effect simply by being more extreme, or they slavishly follow the magic formulae that used to work twenty or thirty years ago. The area in which it’s most difficult to hit the right contemporary note is the Mythos. For all his faults, and there were many, H P Lovecraft was a very sophisticated writer for his day. This was not simply in the level of creativity where he excelled by creating a detailed context for his fiction, but also in the rather florid writing style which, probably more by accident than anything else, suited what we’ve now come to call cosmic horror. As the years have passed and more people have come to play in the Lovecraftian sandbox, it’s become very difficult to keep the content fresh. To be considered “good” today, you have to be way better than those writing twenty and more years ago.
The Strange Dark One. Tales of Nyarlathotep by W H Pugmire (Miskatonic River Press, 2012) is my second look at this author. In the late 1990s, I read Tales of Sesqua Valley and thought the content quite interesting but the style somewhat overdone. With Pugmire becoming a more regular figure on the Lovecraft scene, I though the time had come for another look. We start of this slim collection with the titular story, “The Strange Dark One” and we’re immediately pitched back into Sesqua Valley. For those of you new to this author, the valley is home to a group of beings who are not, strictly speaking human. Although they have have taken human form and some might say this involves acquiring a soul as well, they have created an enclave for themselves. Most human folk never manage to find this “hidden” valley and its community. You need to have an affinity with outside forces to gain admission. Of course, having found your way in, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever be able to get out again. This time, the granddaughter of a book dealer who has taken over the business on her grandfather’s death, decides to sell some of his old books to a man from the Sesqua Valley. This is sufficient connection to open the door for her. What she finds proves upsetting as she learns not everything comes without a price to be paid. Although it has moments when the prose rescues the rather thin plot, I found the whole rather mechanical. “Immortal Remains”, on the other hand, is shorter and has a more pronounced sense of wonder about it. The young being confronts the ineffable and, after initial and not unexpected apprehension, embraces the chance to merge. It’s a pleasing balance between the prose style and the content.
“Past the Gates of Deepest Dreaming” is less successful because the conversations between all the interested parties both within and without the valley, lack credibility. People don’t speak to each other like this in real life. They speak using ordinary words even though what’s going on around them is wholly extraordinary. Indeed, it’s the incongruity between the everyday and the weird that heightens their and our emotional responses. This story is just trying too hard to use the heightened prose style throughout. It’s the same with “One Last Theft” where there are some genuinely strange vocabulary choices to distract the reader from a reasonably interesting plot. For example why “debauch” a plot rather than frustrate it? And what are we to make of this question, “Will you tell me of your rhubarb with the beast?” This must be an American usage of rhubarb meaning dispute or argument. “The Hands That Reek and Smoke” is more naturalistic and, set in a city, is more effective as Nyarlathotep offers himself as a muse. “The Audient Void” is another linguistically overwrought story with oddities, e.g. “. . .a blackness that whirled with spectral sentient.” “Some Bacchante of Irem” again falls into this strange hinterland of quite interesting plot and language which I find a poor fit. Finally, “To See Beyond” proves to be the most successful story as the series character from Sesqua Valley recruits an author from the human world and introduces him to a musician.
Taking an overview, we have some interesting plot ideas and, at times, the use of heightened language is very effective. But when the plot calls for the denizens of Sesqua Valley to interact with humans, I think the dialogue should moderate to something more everyday. The dissonance in the juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary will usually enhance the sense of wonder. When everything is at the same linguistic pitch, it produces a slightly monotonous quality — no thrills for the roller coaster fans among you. This is also my first look at this small press. Sadly it fails to give the most professional impression. The type setting is left justified only and there are some setting mistakes, particularly in the use of linefeeds. Surprisingly, there are proofreading errors, e.g. entré as the past participle instead of entrez the imperative. So overall, I’m not beguiled (the author’s favorite word) by The Strange Dark One. Tales of Nyarlathotep as either a text or a physical object, although jacket artwork and internal illustrations by Jeffrey Thomas do hit the right notes.