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.”

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