One thing I often claim about my faith (and which outsiders generally snort at) is the size of the Mormon umbrella. Doctrinally, we welcome every truth, every person, every thing. All things are of God and part of being One and True is that we cover everything.
Brigham Young: “In a word, if “Mormonism” is not my life, I do not know that I have any. I do not understand anything else, for it embraces everything that comes within the range of the understanding of man. If it does not circumscribe every thing that is in heaven and on earth, it is not what it purports to be.”
That’s the Mormonism I believe in.
Yet, if you look around, our critics have a point. We appear to be rather homogeneous.
Even here in the radical middle we tend to, over time, draw our circles smaller and smaller. Think of how many Zarahemla Books releases have received our attention. And I’m about to give Angela Hallstrom her fourth (fourth!) AMV interview. Regarding Zarahemla’s new fiction collection.
Clearly we are at risk of becoming provincial.
I mention all this to explain why I am so thrilled when I meet an art-making Saint who could never pass for Gerald Lund in a crowded room.
Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire is a faithful artist could never pass for Gerald Lund in a crowded room. I caught up with him via email for a conversation.
Th: All I know about your connection to the faith is what I read in the interview you did with Jeffrey Thomas or saw in the YouTube video you posted today (thanks for the hint–I hadn’t thought to look for you there). And my first reaction is almost one of relief. Although Mormonism offers a huge umbrella, just about anyone you ask will have the same stereotype of Mormons and I lovelovelove that you just don’t fit easily into that narrow preconception. Tell us a little bit about yourself as a Latter-day Saint.
W.P.: My pa was a Midvale, Utah Saint, met my ma when his navy ship was stationed in Seattle. Ma has never joined the church. They went to live in Utah, then my mother’s father was murdered for being a “red” during the communist witch hunt in the late 1940′s and my parents returned to Seattle to deal with that, and mom refused to raise her children to be Utah farmers, so dad got a job at Boeings. Grew up in Seattle 4th Ward, began my mission in Ireland and was there for 18 months, then the beginning of gnarly health problems resulted in my being transfered to the Arizona/Las Vegas mission, where my mission president was Oscar McConkie, younger bro of Bruce R. I was one messed up Elder and a pathetic trial to my companions, who were for the most part patient and understanding. Began to write weird fiction in Ireland, under the influence of Robert Bloch, with whom I was in correspondence. When he was a kid he was pen pals with H. P. Lovecraft, and my friendship with Bob led to my reading Lovecraft, which became a huge obsession. Upon returning home I had a love affair with a male-to-female lesbian fantasy novelist, who caused a huge scandal when I brought her to the Young Adult Sunday School class I was teaching, which led to questions of my sexuality. My Bishop asked me if I was sleeping with her, and I said, “Yes, but we’re both gay so it’s cool.” After a shocked pause my Bishop asked if I was queer, which led to a few months of LDS psych treatment, during which I decided to be all-the-way-gay and requested excommunication. I attended my excommunication court in semi-drag. I never turned anti-Mormon, but I worked very diligently to lose my testimoney of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Didn’t work, and in the Spring of 2002 some Elders knocked on my door and, out of curiosity (so I told myself) I began to take the discussions. After their third visit they challenged me to pray, so I did so when alone. It was like a flipping tidal wave. My prayer was one fundamental question to God: “Do you exist?” His answer was simple and direct: “I live. The Church is true. Come home.” Honey, I was shaking, sobbing, I felt the spirits of my dead father and Grandfather (Grandpa Pugmire went with me through the Salt Lake Temple when I got my endowments before flying off to Ireland, and he was the most spiritual man I’ve ever known). I was so annoyed, because I didn’t want to change my lifestyle and I scolded myself, “That’s what you get for praying, girlfriend.” My lifestyle at the time was queer punk transvestite, so at times I’d attend church with traces of last night’s drag and pink and green hair, &c &c. I was such an extreme case that it took the High Priests two years to decide I was cool enough for re-baptizm, which happened on March 7, 2004. It took so long because I insisted that if they let me back in I will be a totally queer Mormon, but celibate. I’ve been celibate since 1985 so that was no problem. My romances have all been non-sexual love relationships with punk rock boys. Two years ago my Stake President sent a request to the First Presidency for my restitution of all blessings, but they said “not yet.” It may be that I am too perverse to be a priesthood holder, but that’s okay. My promise to God and Christ is that I will never go inactive again, whatever happens. It is a promise I shall keep all my mortal days.
Th: You’re a writer. A pretty prolific short-story writer. Give us a primer on you and short stories and Sesqua Valley and whatever else we need to know to understand what you’re all about as an artist.
W.P.: I’m basically an underground (non-commercial) Lovecraftian artist, writing modern tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. Writing such fiction seems to be a phase that young horror writers pass through on their way to indivual voice and vision. I decided early on that writing Lovecraftian horror WILL BE my authentic and personal voice and vision, and to that end I have stayed true. I believe that a writer can stay true to herself and express his personal psyche in the Lovecraftian subgenre, and so I have stayed in the Cthulhu Mythos gutter, despite advice from my professional buddies to grow up and expand my vision. But the Lovecraftian genre is now so utterly a part of my soul that I feel I can only be fully myself as an artist therein. I have no interest in commercial success, but I care enormously about critical recognition. The one critic whose opinion means anything to me is S. T. Joshi, the world’s leading H. P. Lovecraft scholar, and in his book from last year, THE RISE AND FALL OF THE CTHULHU MYTHOS, he praised my work — so I feel that I am on the correct path as an artist. My rich reward will come this October, when Centipede Press publishes an illustrated hardcover omnibus of that fiction which I consider my finest. (A book that was edited by my hero, S. T. Joshi!) I am now writing a collection of new Sesqua Valley stories, all of which are inspired in some way by the horror fiction of Robert Bloch.
Sesqua Valley is my Lovecraftian locale, invented in 1974. Lovecraft, in his tales, has mythical New England towns such as Arkham, Dunwich and Innsmouth, in which he sets his tales. Sesqua Valley is my own such locale, inspired by North Bend and Mount Si, which were featured on the tv show TWIN PEAKS. Unlike Lovecraft’s fiction, my weird tales are supernatural to the max, and in Sesqua Valley anything can happen. The trick is not to get too carried away so that a sense of strange reality can co-exist with all the freaky stuff going on. My newest book is a collection of tales set within the valley, WEIRD INHABITANTS OF SESQUA VALLEY.
Th: I admit I have only read one of your stories (which was called “Totem” or “The Totem” and is about someone who has drifted away from their Sesqua Valley roots, but when an outsider attacks those roots, he takes a stand) (clearly one could choose to find an autobiographical metaphor in that story) (am I reading too much into it?), but I have also read a couple responses to your work from others steeped in Lovecraftiana and something that struck me was how your work differs from Lovecraft’s. Lovecraft’s monsters are so distance, so incomprehensible. Yours are so close and present. I admit that change feels very Mormon to me. The elder gods are not so far away–the heavens are opened–do you feel that your work is on some level a Mormonizing of the traditional Lovecraft tradition? And whether it is or not, how does your faith inform your work?
W.P.: “Totem Pole” is autobiographical, but not in the manner you imagine. I invited a gay punk freak home with me to make the guy I was living with jealous, but the dude I brought home was so stupid and obnoxious that he drove me crazy. So I wrote “Totem Pole” and cast this annoying fellow as the character who gets murdered. Writing can be SO therapeutic! When I wrote the story, I was very far from the church and had no intention of returning. Returning came as a shock to me, and for weeks I kept muttering, “Girlfriend, WHAT are you doing!!!!” As Latter-day Saints we know that God lives and His spirit is ever-present–our relationship with the Holy Ghost is utterly intimate. To cultivate that intimacy is a powerful weapon against confusion and doubt. I think this “nearness” of deity is reflected in my use of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, and it is very LDS. Of course, most of my fiction was written before I returned to the fold. One reason it took two years for the High Priests to allow my re-baptism was because they were concerned about the book I had just published, which had aspects of homo-eroticism. When I told them that I was proud of the book, one Brother asked, “How can a Latter-day Saint be proud of writing such a book?” I replied, “A Latter-day Saint didn’t write it–a queer punk transvestite did.” I had to promise them that I would no longer write homo-erotic sex scenes, but I never really wrote that many anyway. My eroticism is subtle, not graphic, as is most of the violence and gore of my tales.
Everything in my work is an expression of intimacy: with darkness, with death, with love and hate and terror. I want to make you taste that velvet kiss of fear. I want to let you know that terrible ache in the soul that comes from being an outsider. I want to make you tremble for one loving touch, whether or not the hand that caresses you is living or dead, human or ghoul. I have not purposely attempted to Mormonize my weird fiction–my purpose is to be Lovecraftian and perversely myself; yet being Mormon is so life-defining that it has to have an effect on my approach to art. The chief influence in my life these past twenty-something years has been punk rock, and it is actually being a hardcore punk that taints how I am LDS, a writer, a man.
Th: This is something all saints have to deal with: how do we balance our different communities? Professional, artistic, geographical and religious communities do not perfectly overlap. I mean–I know more queer Mormons than the average person, but you are the only hardcore-punk queer transvestite rebaptized active Mormon I think I’ve met. So I’m thinking you might have some insight on balancing community loyalties.
W.P.: When the High Priests were debating on my return, I was very blunt in telling them that if they allow my re-baptism I would remain the person I am, but that I would strive to keep the commandments and stay celibate. For me there is no choice–I cannot be false to my nature–I WON’T. Although I’ve been celibate since 1985 (my three-month stint as a male whore turned me off sex for life), I am queer to the core of my soul. Long live the Queen. I think some members may see this as a form of stubborn rebellion, but it’s simply honesty. I will not live a lie. That’s why I had no choice but to return to the Church. I got on my knees and I prayed, and I had an answer from God that traumatized my soul. To deny that experience would make me a gutless hypocrite. I used to have a fantasy that one of my roles as a queer Mormon was to fellowship other LDS homosexuals–the missionaries used to take me to talk to gay investigators or inactive queer LDS lads. But, no–my only “role” as a Latter-day Saint is to worship Heavenly Father and Christ and keep the commandments–that is all.
When I attended World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City in 2008, I spent the first two days dressed down. Finally, for the mass book signing session, I dressed up, and that’s the photo on my Wikipedia page. Visiting Temple Square for the first time since returning from my mission in 1973 was overwhelming. As a kid, when we visited my pa’s family in Midvale, I would take the bus to Temple Square and go visit the Christus, with which I was utterly obsessed. When I went to see it again during my days at the horror con, I was so overwhelmed by its beauty and by my testimony of the Restored Gospel that I just sat down and wept. Yet when I went to take the tour of the Convention Center, they seemed a bit perplexed by the ENSIGN cover of Joseph Smith safety-pinned to the back of my jacket; maybe I was dressed “too rad” to be allowed a tour. So, in the back of my mind, I am always prepared for troubled reactions or rejection because I’m such a freak. One thing that really bugged me was how disgruntled members of the ward would come to me to complain about policy regarding gay marriage and all of that boring stuff. It was like I was expected to stand there in the foyer and “trash” the church with these angry self-righteous fools. The spirit of contention is SO non-fabulous. I’ve now moved in with my mother and live in the house I grew up in, and thus returned to my old ward. Unlike the ward I’ve been attending since re-baptism, the ward I’m in now knows next to nothing about my history or lifestyle, with some few exceptions. I feel no need to come out. I just want to be a ward member. They know I’m a little different because I’ve got Brigham Young’s picture on the back of my jacket, and some of them have noticed the occasional black nail polish. So, when you’re an outsider, you’re always waiting for trouble. It’s a very punk rock mentality–whenever you leave your house, a part of you is always ready to encounter those who hate you for what they fancy you represent.
Th: I suppose we’ve about maxed out the standard internet attention span, so to wrap things up, what lies in the future for Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire?
W.P.: I am working on two new books. Maryanne K. Snyder and I are writing a series of mostly non-Lovecraftian tales, and hopefully by the end of this year we’ll have enough tales for a wee volume. Our first story was published in WEIRD TALES in 2008, which was so rad because that is the magazine that Lovecraft wrote for in the 1920′s and 1930′s. And I am slowly working on a new collection of Sesqua Valley stories, each of which is inspired in some way by the work of Robert Bloch. I plan on having a lot of fun writing it, and hope to have it completed by end of October. I have a hankering to write a sonnet sequence concerning the Prophet Joseph Smith, but first I need to carefully re-read Richard Lyman Bushman’s definitive biography and study the DOCTRINE AND COVENANTS in depth. I have the D&C on audio cd, so I spend a lot of time listening to it and dreaming of the early days of the Church. I didn’t know until I returned to the fold that I have pioneer ancestors who moved to Nauvoo from England shortly before the Prophet’s murder. Learning that gave me a strange intimate feeling when reading the D&C–it wasn’t just a book of scripture, it’s part of family heritage. I love that I have that history, and I hope to honor it with my service to the church. Selah.
Disclaimer: During the interview, Brother Pugmire offered to send me a copy of his latest book and I accepted. This in no way influenced the beginning of the interview (as it hadn’t happened yet) or the end of the interview (at least, best I can tell).