I’m familiar with Pugmire via Jeffrey Thomas, whom I’m working with on another project. I stumbled on Pugmire’s Sesqua Valley in Thomas’ tale “Through Obscure Glass” in his short story collection, Unholy Dimensions. It took me awhile but I finally got around to reading the work by the author himself.
Pugmire’s style is refreshingly different from other Mythos authors. He injects high romance, gothic tragedy, and a lyrical language that never takes itself too seriously. There is a veritable rogue’s gallery of personalities dwelling in Sesqua Valley, but its heart and soul is the juxtaposition between two ethos: the romantic poets William Davis Manly and Adam Webster contrast with the capriciously decadent Simon Gregory Williams. They are all creatures of shadow from another realm bound to Sesqua Valley. The Valley and its environs are hedged by the twin-peaked Mount Selta and a mass grave termed by the inhabitants of the Hungry Place. Sesqua’s denizens can leave but few choose to do so; outsiders on the other hand, rarely survive the experience. With this framework in place, Pugmire mines Lovecraft’s Mythos in new ways.
“Some Distant Baying Sound” is a sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Hound,” a surprising romance from the perspective of a female protagonist mourning the death of her sorcerer lover. It is poignant and sad in its longing, and like so many conclusions in Pugmire’s work, ultimately transformative. 5 out of 5.
“Totem Pole” is short, written from the perspective of Webster. It’s heavy with Mythos allusions and at just four pages it follows a similar arc to the first story at a rapid pace. 4 out of 5.
“Swamp Rising” is narrated by Williams and features a standoff of sorts between him and Manly, with poor mortal Randy Lurt caught in the middle, desperate to rescue his pregnant wife and child who have merged with the beyond. In Williams’ eyes Lurt is so far out of his league to be almost inconsequential; it’s much better to have Williams as a protagonist than to be inside his head. 3 out of 5.
Richard Upton Pickman makes an appearance in “Into the Depths of Dreams and Madness,” and here Williams plays a much more compelling role as his muse. Pickman’s and Williams’ encounter gives a fresh perspective on both their fates. 4 out of 5.
“An Image in Chalk,” also narrated by Webster, features a witch named Doris Fleck who, unlike the other deluded fools that wander into Sesqua Valley, knows exactly why she’s there. I enjoyed these types of tales, where foolish mortals flout Sesquan convention. 5 out of 5.
“The Million-Shadowed One” is a moving tribute to Jeffrey Thomas’ autistic son. Pugmire is at his best when he digs deep into his turgid well of emotions. The Sesquans handle the encounter with an otherworldly being with surprising sensitivity. 5 out of 5.
“And Drink the Moon” is another tribute, this one to a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, H. Warner Munn. Pugmire knew Munn well, a rare direct connection to the past that other Mythos authors can only dream of. Pugmire provides a fitting tribute by affixing Munn’s proxy permanently in Sesqua Valley. 5 out of 5.
“An Eidolon of Nothing” features Williams out of his element but taking on a mortal wizard, Edmond Wye. This story and its sequel “One Last Theft” are my favorites. In both tales Williams isn’t all-seeing and all-knowing. In “One Last Theft” he is vexed by Stefan Wilkes, a cultist of Nyarlathotep who hopes to become one of his Million Favored Ones. His one upmanship reaches its peak when he punches Williams in his sneering face. Despite their power, Pugmire isn’t afraid to put his creations in their place in the uncaring cosmos, and it’s clear Nyarlathotep rules above all. Both: 5 out of 5.
“Visions of William Davis Manly” frames Sesqua Valley in a modern context. Manly created a book of poems titled Visions of Khroyd’hon, and its distribution outside the Valley lures unsuspecting readers to their doom. Williams reveals that Manly is now missing; without Manly to counterbalance Williams, the Valley’s future is uncertain. It’s a fitting conclusion to the collection of stories. 5 out of 5.
If there’s a criticism of this book, it’s that the collection is really for fans of Pugmire’s previous stories. Being new to Sesqua Valley, I had to read the stories a few times to place each character in context. That grounding is critical, because the short stories can be so ethereal, the visitors passing in and out of the Valley so quickly, that the reader is left wondering who’s who and what’s what. Weird Inhabitants of Sesqua Valley really should be part of a larger collection, but that’s easily remedied by buying Pugmire’s other books.