BookMusings: (Re)Discovering Pagan Literature

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Author Interview: David Barker and W.H. Pugmire



[Today, we sit down with David Barker and W.H. Pugmire. The author of numerous works of weird fiction, horror, and fantasy, they recently collaborated on Witches in Dreamland. Here, they discuss weird fiction, their collaboration, and they future projects.]


BookMusings: How would you describe your personal spiritual path? 


W.H. Pugmire: My spiritual path is inspired in part by the Mormon (Latter-day Saint) religion, and partly by aesthetics, in that I view my life as a writer a source of spiritual and intellectual nourishment.


David Barker: I’ve always believed in the spiritual realm as a natural aspect of the cosmos. A purely mechanistic universe makes no sense to me. I believe in the existence of spiritual beings, whether you call them gods or ghosts or whatever. I think some are malevolent towards humans – you could call them demons – while others are benevolent – or angels, if you will. Still others are indifferent to humans; we are too puny and limited to be of interest to them. I’ve never been attracted to organized religion. Religious groups, being human hierarchies, seem inherently corrupt to me. But I am attracted to religious buildings, religious art, relics of saints, and such. Spiritual beings and places feature in much of my weird fiction, and I often play with the idea that a character isn’t sure if a paranormal entity is “good” or “evil” or a mixture of both.


BookMusings: If you could correct one common misconception about weird fiction, what would it be?


W.H.P.: I would insist that weird fiction does not necessarily deal with sex and gore, unless it is a part of the splatterpunk movement, in which such boring things are emphasized. My own fiction stands as testimony of mood and atmosphere as core elements of effective weird writing.


DB: The one common misconception I would correct is that weird fiction is a less legitimate form of literature than so-called “mainstream” literary fiction. Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley are universally recognized as two of the greatest authors writing in English, and they wrote what we now call weird fiction. All forms of fantastic fiction – horror, fantasy, science fiction, etc. – were ghettoized in the 20th century, and therefore widely belittled or outright ignored by critics and scholars. That was a mistake in judgment, one that is being corrected as the merits of weird fiction and other forms of fantastic literature are reevaluated.


BookMusings: You recently collaborated on Witches in Dreamland. Congratulations! Firstly, how did you come to co-write the book?


W.H.P.: I've always wanted to work on a novel, but I am not by nature a novelist. So David Barker suggested that we work on a novel together, and we each wrote separate chapters. To my  dismay, I became a bit disillusioned with my work on the book mid-way, and thus the latter chapters are almost all written by David; but he did such an outstanding job that I think it turned out to be a good thing! 


DB: Wilum and I had just completed our second collaboration, In the Gulfs of Dream and Other Lovecraftian Tales, which was published by Dark Renaissance Books, which also published our first collaboration, the novella The Revenant of Rebecca Pascal. Editor Joe Morey at Dark Renaissance Books suggested that we write a novel set in H. P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, and we both liked the idea. Wilum started off by writing a Prologue and the first two chapters, which introduced his three main characters, set the tone for the novel, and established the primary plot. Then I wrote a chapter introducing another main character and a sub-plot. After that, we generally traded off writing chapters. There were times in the book when Wilum was having writer’s block and so I wrote two or maybe three chapters in a row, and then he would jump back in with his next brilliant chapter. Generally, Wilum wrote about his characters – Simon Gregory Williams (the beast of Sesqua Valley) and witches Edith Gnome, Agnes Aspinwall, and Rebecca Pascal – and I wrote about mine -- witches Mandy Peaslee, Charles Morelle, and “The Enchantress”, and non-witch Penelope Armitage, but there were scenes in which I wrote about Wilum’s characters in addition to my own.


As Wilum says, I wrote much of the ending, but I think he understates the extent and importance of his contribution to the book. I could not have written what I did without having Wilum involved. He is such an amazing prose artist, his work is so suggestive and evocative, that it stimulates my imagination; he literally gives me ideas I wouldn’t have otherwise formed. In addition, he sets the bar so high in terms of emotional depth of character, richness of atmosphere, sensuality of description, and sheer intelligence of ideas, that I do my best work in a desire to at least approach if not equal his level of artistry. I have learned a great deal about writing fiction – what is possible, what I can strive for – by studying his work. In terms of simple word count, my guess is that I wrote 65% and he wrote 35% of this book, but his share is fully equal to my share of the book’s overall literary value. If we were gold miners, I would say he’s digging purer ore than I am.


BookMusings: Without giving away too much, can you tell us why it is *Simon* who must accompany the young witch into Dreamland?


W.H. P.: Simon is a busybody who wants to be involved in all supernatural goings-on in Sesqua Valley. But his participation in the journey is in fact superficial, and thus he is "discarded" mid-way into ye narrative. His lack of personal power in the dreamland realm probably came as a bit of a shock to him, wounding his enormous ego.


DB: My sense of this (and I may be mistaken) is that although Edith Gnome is often annoyed by Simon, she respects his powers of magick and is confident that he will be able to protect the young witch Agnes in her quest through the dreamland of witchery.


BookMusings: Witches in Dreamland was released by Hippocampus Press. Why that publisher, and would you recommend Hippocampus to other authors of weird fiction?


W.H. P.: I believe the novel was first going to be published by another outfit, but they lost interest once they read the work. S. T. Joshi worked on proofreading the book, and he suggested to Derrick at Hippocampus Press that the book would make a worthy Hippocampus title. Because they are the premier publisher of weird fiction, it was logical to offer the novel to them. 


DB: Originally, Dark Renaissance Books was going to publish Witches in Dreamland, but editor and publisher Joe Morey had to shut down his press due to health concerns. Later, another horror publisher considered the book but ultimately passed on it, and then S. T. Joshi hooked us up with Hippocampus Press, who is publishing it, much to my delight. Hippocampus Press is a wonderful, highly esteemed publisher of classic and contemporary weird literature. An author of weird fiction could not do better than to have their work brought out by this fine press.


BookMusings: What sort of research went into Witches in Dreamland? What does your personal library look like?


W.H.P.: The majority of my library is made up of weird fiction titles and studies of Shakespeare. I didn't need to do any research for the novel, because it was a work of pure imagination, my imagination being assisted by my intimate knowledge of Lovecraft's oeuvre. 


DB: I reread all of Lovecraft’s fiction related to his Dreamlands concept a couple times before starting work on this book. I also read four books of nonfiction about the history of witchcraft and witch persecution in Salem, Massachusetts, and in Europe before writing my scenes involving the witches. Whenever I collaborate with Wilum, I research any literary references that he makes in his text to be sure that I understand what his references are based on and how he is using any concepts, characters, settings, or whatever that he has borrowed from Lovecraft, Poe, and other authors. And as I’m writing, I do a lot of Google searches to make sure I am using terms correctly, and to see images of various objects so that I am describing them accurately.


My personal library contains mostly books of classic literature, including classic weird fiction and poetry, and some contemporary weird fiction and poetry. I also enjoy books on archeology, supernatural and paranormal phenomenon, and some modern literature of the 20th century.


BookMusings: What are some of your favorite works of weird fiction? Where would you recommend that readers new to the genre get their start?


W.H.P.: My favorite writers in the genre are Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Carl Jacobi, Donald Wandrei, and several others. Mostly, I was directed through my interest in Arkham House Publishers to read the writers they had published. I would suggest to anyone interested in reading weird fiction to begin with any affordable Arkham House volume, or those anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Steve Jones. 


DB: My favorite weird fiction authors are H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert H. Barlow, Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers, Thomas Ligotti, W. H. Pugmire, Jeffrey Thomas, and Joseph S. Pulver. I would recommend that readers new to the genre start with anthologies of classic horror and supernatural short stories in which they can sample many authors writing in different periods and gain a broad feel for the history of the genre before exploring the works of individual authors in depth.


BookMusings: The Necronomicon is commonly referenced in both weird fiction and fantasy, as a whole. What exactly *is* The Necronomicon?


W.H.P.: The Necronomicon is a grimoire invented by H. P. Lovecraft and mentioned in some of his stories. Readers became fascinated with Lovecraft's hints concerning the volume, and other writers latched onto that and began writing their own stories about the book. Once a rare volume, the Necronomicon now seems to be available in any number of personal collections. Lovecraft wrote his own short history of the book. 


DB: As Wilum explained, The Necronomicon is a fictitious ancient occult book that was created by Lovecraft as a prop that he used in many of his stories. Other weird fiction authors began to also use it in their own stories (usually in a spirit of fun) and then eventually various books were written and published which seriously claimed to be editions of “the real Necronomicon,” but of course they were no such thing. I read an early one of these books and found it of no interest to me as a writer or fan of weird fiction, and since then have ignored the rest of them.


I recall a collection of short stories that Lin Carter wrote which were presented as if they were passages from Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, and it was very good and done in the spirit of Lovecraft’s original conception of the accursed eldritch tome. It was published as a chapbook which I have somewhere, but I don’t remember its title. In a couple of my own stories I have written short passages that are supposed to be quotes from the Necronomicon, which I enjoyed doing as a tribute to HPL. I’m vaguely aware there have been a few anthologies of stories by contemporary weird authors that were presented as if they were versions of the Necronomicon, but I haven’t read these yet and can’t comment on them.


BookMusings: What other projects are you working on?


W.H.P.: At the moment I'm not working on any new project, as I want to wait for the new hardcover collection to be published by Centipede Press. Perhaps in a year or two I'll begin work on a new collection.


DB: I’m finishing up a group of three weird short stories that will be published as a stand-alone chapbook by The Audient Void magazine. I’m also working on a collection of my weird fiction with an editor who I’m not yet at liberty to name, which is planned for publication in 2019.


BookMusings: Which book fairs, conventions, or other events will you be attending in the foreseeable future?


W.H.P.: I no longer attend convention due to wonky health. It's difficult for me to walk around. However, I will be attending the H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon in October.


DB: I’ll be at the Portland H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival in October 2018. Beyond that, I have no convention plans.


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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.


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