Wilum on the Line
I believe that Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire, the Oscar Wilde of our time, is the most revered and beloved figure in the Lovecraftian movement today. And he deserves it. He is a genuine “character,” and this is by no means beside the point.
In his fascinating book The Philosophy of Horror, Noel Carroll explains, quite convincingly in my opinion, that the secret to horror is what the great anthropologist Victor Turner calls “liminality.” He studied rites of passage from one life-stage into another, a field pioneered by Arnold van Gennep. The sacraments of Roman Catholicism mark most of the transitions (and thus transformations) through which people proceed in all cultures and throughout history: birth, puberty, vocational ordination, marriage, retirement, and death. Each stage is virtually a new life, the entrance upon it a rebirth. The greatest of these is the puberty rite. In it, the new adult is initiated into the secrets of sex, death, and the sacred. Turner wanted to know why such rituals were associated with symbols, masks, etc., that combined features of diametrically opposed creatures: chimeras, sort of like totem poles. What does such mixed symbolism have to do with the rites of life passage? Simply that the initiate himself becomes a boundary-breacher, a “monster” of sorts, as he, e.g., engages in ordinarily forbidden behaviors (think of bachelor parties) in ceremonies that are literally marginalized, often conducted outside the settlement. The initiate may even become or embody the boundary he is crossing, as in the ouch-inducing practice of sub-incision, slitting open the underside of the penis in order to create a male vagina. This is to become, symbolically, a hermaphrodite, breaching the boundary between the genders in the process of transitioning from pre-sexual child to sexual adult. Thus the appropriate ritual-mythical characters on stage for the ritual are also living instances of category transgression.
Mythical entities share this character because they, too, bridge a chasm between the real world and the unseen world of the divine and the supernatural: angels (winged men), griffins, centaurs, demigods, virgin mothers, minotaurs, etc. And so do the classic monsters of horror: the Wolfman, the Gillman, and the various tribes of the living dead: vampires, mummies, zombies, the Frankenstein monster. They are all door men attending the horror hotel. So are horror authors.
Liminality also marks prophets, shamans, and seers because they, too, are living portals to the unseen worlds. Ritual transvestism is a recurring feature of oracles and seers. The ancient cave painting of the Dancing Sorcerer shows a man wearing a deer skin and antlers. Believe me, we are getting close to Pugmire. You see, only a thin line (there’s liminality again!) separates the prophet from the poet. Artistic inspiration (the Muse) is pretty much the same thing as prophetic inspiration. In both cases we are talking about a very thin veil between the conscious mind which holds the pen and the vast subconscious which tells it what to write. Aleister Crowley has a great discussion of this in Moonchild. Abdul Alhazred is a prime example. He was typical of the Arabic kahin, or poet-soothsayer, inspired by the jinn, desert spirits.
And that’s Pugmire.
And of course he’s flaming queer. That’s a case of liminality, too. The connection between homosexuality and artistic creativity is evident. Homosexuality is interstitial. Wilum the Hopfrog’s Lovecraftian credentials would be impressive in any case. He belongs to that “greatest generation” of fans who actually knew some of the Founding Fathers of the Weird Tales tradition. He has written distinctive fiction. He has designed and published some small press marvels. He is hilariously witty. But I think the defining characteristic of this strange man is his perfect liminality.
Robert M. Price is an American theologian and writer. He teaches philosophy and religion at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary, is professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute, and the author of a number of books on theology and the historicity of Jesus, including Deconstructing Jesus (2000), The Reason Driven Life (2006), Jesus is Dead (2007), Inerrant the Wind: The Evangelical Crisis in Biblical Authority (2009), The Case Against the Case for Christ (2010), and The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul (2012).
A former Baptist minister, he was the editor of the Journal of Higher Criticism from 1994 until it ceased publication in 2003, and has written extensively about the Cthulhu Mythos, a “shared universe” created by the writer H. P. Lovecraft.
Browse Dr. Price’s books at Amazon.
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Never having heard of sub-incision I google image seached on my laptop while I was microwaving hotdogs for my sons lunch.
Cthanx for both enlightening me and grossing me out.
Excellent essay from the ever brilliant Mr. Price.
Wonderful, Bob! I count it a rich blessing to have known some of those who wrote for WEIRD TALES and knew E’ch-Pi-El. No one, no one can, replace the void left by Vernon’s death. I continue to dedicate tales to his sacred memory. It gave me great pleasure to finally write my own sequel to his “The Haunter of the Graveyard.”