Into “Pioneer House”: A Look at the Award-Winning Short Story

I’m honored that my story “Pioneer House” has been voted Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy Short Story of 2021 in the annual Critters Readers’ Choice Poll. My heartfelt thanks to all the fans and friends who made this possible.

Set in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, “Pioneer House” brings big Stranger Things energy to a classic weird-fiction tale inspired by Lovecraft’s “Strange High House in the Mist.” It is my third published story to be set in Junzt County, a fictional Texas Hill County country that is my answer to Lovecraft’s Arkham.

Told through the eyes of Essie Parr, an archetypical ‘80s small-town Texas girl who dreams of escaping the narrow confines of her small town and the life that seems foreordained for her there, “Pioneer House” is story of her closest friend, Gavin Sadler. One of those sublime creatures who is in the world but not of it, possessing an uncannily broad vision even as child, Gavin finds an unlikely kindred spirit in Pioneer House, a local landmark wrapped in mystery. The structure becomes Gavin’s true passion and obsession.

Gavin was an extraordinary person in an ordinary world. I think he felt connected to Pioneer House, with all its mystery, wonder, and terror. It was a window to something beyond the banality surrounding him. His nature wouldn’t let him choose otherwise. I doubt he even wanted to.

Essie Parr, Pioneer House

And what about Pioneer House, the ‘strange, high house’? In the 1830s, when the non-native settlers first arrived in what would become Junzt County, Pioneer House was already there. The Georgian-style mansion, two and half stories tall, with its steeply-sloped roof, wrap-around porch, and diamond-paned windows, sits empty atop Brockenburg, a lonely granite dome towering over the surrounding hills.

The Brockenberg Lights

As Gavin and Essie dig deeper into the riddle of Pioneer House, they discover a legacy of ghost lights, anomalous fog, strange electrical effects, and unexplained disappearances.  Along the way, they confront high school bullies, gatekeeping librarians, janitors with mysterious pasts, and an enigmatic man donning the attire of centuries past – building toward a climatic encounter with the ultimate threshold guardian, Pioneer House itself.

Behind the Story

Junzt County originated as the setting for a Call of Cthulhu campaign I ran in 2014. I wanted a fictional setting in a region I know well (in this case, the Texas Hill Country) that I could populate with people, places, and folklore that felt authentic in the same way Arkham feels authentic. While, over time, I found Junzt’s County’s own distinctive flavor and heartbeat, my earliest strokes of world-building following strongly in Lovecraft’s footsteps. Inspired by the eponymous dwelling in Strange High House in the Mist, Pioneer House became one of the first data points to appear in my mental map of Junzt County. But, other than a name and image, Pioneer House took years to flesh itself out in my mind – the details, the history, the enigmas.

Enchanted Rock, the inspiration
for Brockenberg.

Brockenburg, the granite dome that is home to Pioneer House, is based on Enchanted Rock, a real-world geological formation in Gillespie and Llano Counties, Texas. Of course, having the chance to remake it in accordance with genre conventions, I made it bigger, lonelier, weirder.

When I began writing fiction in 2016, I realized Junzt County made a very natural setting for a certain kind of story. To date, I have about ten Junzt County stories published, penned, or in progress. While the original Call of Cthulhu campaign that birthed the region was set in the ‘80s, the Junzt County stories’ settings range from post-Civil War to the present day.

The ‘80s also felt right for “Pioneer House,” contemporary enough that most of its elements of childhood and adolescence would feel familiar to readers, yet enough removed from the present to allow it a certain dreamlike or fairytale quality. On a more pragmatic level, technology available in the 80s and early 90s allowed some interesting narrative possibilities…but not so many possibilities as to make the protagonists’ task too easy.

Currently, Pioneer House is available in “Pizza Parties & Poltergeists,” an anthology of ‘80s-themed supernatural and horror stories from 18th Wall Productions. Later in 2022, it will be rereleased as part of a collection of Juznt County stories, also from 18th Wall (I’m very grateful for their ongoing support for my Junzt County endeavors). In addition to “Pioneer House,” the collection will contain two previously published stories: “Totmann’s Curve” (now expanded to novel-length) and “So Lonesome I Could Die.” It will also feature three new stories: “The Eyeteeth,” “Family Style,” and “Everybody Needs a Friend.”

That Which Cannot Be Undone: Q&A with Cracked Skull Press

(TL, DR: Check out the Kickstarter for That Which Cannot Be Undone, an exciting anthology of Ohio-themed horror upcoming from Cracked Skull Press)

Note from JB: Although I’ve lived most of my life in Texas, my earliest years were spent in Ohio – born in Columbus and toddling around Mansfield. I remember feeling overwhelmed and unnerved by the imposing Romanesque edifice of the Ohio State Reformatory (not that, as a four year-old, I was using phrases like “imposing Romanesque edifice”), still in operation at that time.

Then there are odd bits from my family’s history, more than a few of them touched by the mysterious or the horrific. My maternal great-great grandmother, the automatic writer – a devout Methodist fearful her hand was possessed by the devil himself. My paternal great-grandfather, hanged by his brothers and sisters from the barn door (supposedly because he’d gone to bat and then refused to play the field in one too many games of cornfeild baseball — but I’ve always suspected there is more to the tale), his father returning from town and cutting him down in the nick of time.

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of being involved with Soteira Press’ Horror USA project. Since then, I’ve had an appreciation and affection for state-themed horror anthologies. Combined with the personal history outlined above, I was delighted to discover Cracked Skull Press’ That Which Cannot Be Undone project. They were kind enough to make the time to talk with me about the upcoming anthology.

Q: Cracked Skull Press is a new publishing house. Tell me a little bit about the press, its team, and how it all came together. 

A: Cracked Skull Press is comprised of Ohio-based horror authors David Day, Randall Drum, Ray Pantle, and Rami Ungar. The press was formed because each team member shares a desire to promote horror literature and raise awareness of lesser-known talent within the horror community. The team came together through shared connections in the (horror) writing community.

Q: Your first publication, scheduled for release in October of this year, is an anthology of Ohio-themed horror stories entitled That Which Cannot Be Undone. Tell me how the idea for that anthology came about and what the title means in this context.

A: We wanted our first anthology project to feature horror authors who were born in, or currently live in, Ohio, and it made sense that Ohio should be the setting for each story. We had several concepts in mind, but what really resonated with us was the theme of “that which cannot be undone.” We feel this provides our contributing authors a lot of space to exploit a theme that does not put in place any limitations. In this instance, the theme also makes for a compelling title for the collection.

Q: What are some of your favorite bits of Ohio folklore and urban legend (ghost stories, cryptids, creepypastas, eerie locations, whatever) which inspire you and that you might be hoping will make an appearance within the anthology?

A: Ohio has no shortage of dark legends and equally creepy locations. Legends such as the melon head children–disabled children who were experimented on and now live in the woods outside of the Cleveland area–have provided inspiration for many tales destined to frighten and mystify readers.

Moonville Tunnel

David: I have a special love for The Moonville Tunnel and The Ridges, both in Southeast Ohio. I spent several years living in Athens while in school at Ohio University, and have visited both locations on several occasions. I’ve never had any kind of supernatural experience, but the mood and tone of both places are very evocative.

Rami: I’ve been to several haunted locations in the state, and I experience stuff all the time. My own story takes place at the Ohio State Reformatory, which I can attest to is haunted to the brim. And the Bellaire House in southeast Ohio has a really nasty feel to it. Anyone who goes there is likely to come away a little changed. And there are so many more worthy of writing stories about! Hopefully we’ll see some of them in the anthology.

Ohio State Reformatory (Mansfeild Reformatory)

Q: You already have some excellent authors lined up for the anthology, tell me a little bit about them and, if you’re willing, maybe a few hints about what we’ll see from them in That Which Cannot Be Undone.

A: Ohio has a grand literary tradition and we’re fortunate to have so many wonderful horror authors who made themselves available for our first collection. While we can’t provide a full bio for each author here, we do have several Bram Stoker Award-winners, such as Tim Waggoner, Lucy Snyder, Gary Braunbeck, and Gwendolyn Kiste. We do not yet have the submissions from our contributors, so we can’t provide any insights to their stories.

Q: This year, Michigan beat the Buckeyes 42-27. Can your authors come up with anything more terrifying than that? 

A: Challenge accepted!

“Ohio has no shortage of dark legends and equally creepy locations.”

Q: The Kickstarter for That Which Cannot Be Undone has some really unique incentives, especially at the higher levels. Tell us a little bit about that. 

A: We are really grateful for all of our contributors who have helped us create some very special rewards and incentives for pledging. Many of them have promised signed copies of their work, such as Tim Waggoner’s novelization of the recent movie “Halloween Kills.” But our favorite might be the Baphomet Bash reward, where you and a plus one can come to our release party in October and hang out with the authors who made this anthology possible. Talk about a horror fan’s dream!

Q: Has Cracked Skull started looking beyond That Which Cannot Be Undone? If so, what’s on the horizon for you?

A: Our focus right now is doing everything we can to put together the highest quality  collection of stories we can, with equally high quality put into the production of the anthology. Beyond this first collection, we anticipate our future in publishing to include collections, novels, and more in print and online.

Q: It takes so many things to bring an anthology like this together, what’s been the key to success for That Which Cannot Be Undone?

A: We are grateful for the support we have received from our friends, families, and most of all, our backers on Kickstarter. We hope they are as excited as we are about “That Which Cannot Be Undone” and the future of Cracked Skull Press.

Q: How can my readers engage with Cracked Skull Press online?

A: At this time, Cracked Skull Press can be found on Facebook,Twitter (@CSkullPress) and Instagram (@crackedskullpress). Our online presence will expand later this year.

Check out the Kickstarter for That Which Cannot Be Undone, and look for more great things in the future from Cracked Skull Press.