“Dispatches from the Gutter of Heaven”
by Jose Cruz
Root around in the subterranean fiction of Matthew M. Bartlett long enough and you’ll be sure to find paradise. A strange form of paradise, perhaps, but the genuine product nonetheless; where else might one feel such complete shirking of inhibitions, such total submission to forces greater than ourselves? Weaker men have called this madness, but how can one transcend to total bliss without first divesting themselves of such anchoring preoccupations as reason and normalcy? If heaven truly is a place on Earth, then it is undoubtedly a Weird one.
And that place can only be bleeding Leeds, Massachusetts.
Reading certain passages from Gateways to Abomination, it’s tempting to categorize Bartlett in the school of shock mongers and mistresses who peddled their gruesome wares during the Horror Boom of the ’70s and ’80s; a man in the deep woods who suddenly and inexplicably vomits black worms and a crusted hermit delighting in the exquisite pain of his cancerous navel have the ring of cheap, tawdry theatrics, the kind showcased by many a paperback original to entice bored shoppers from the checkout line and enter a world where the prose was just as dry and creaky as the skeletal children who begged for purchase from their holographic covers. And while it’s true that Bartlett does maintain a literary heritage to these retro penny dreadfuls, the magic of his work lies in his ability to invigorate the most outlandish image and mundane setting with the lyricism of a poet drunk on the scatty wine of his most personal nightmares.
This power is made possible through Bartlett’s honesty as a writer. There is no posturing, no superficial desire to provoke a reaction from the audience. The piles of shit wearing party hats; the double-fanged fathers returning to reclaim evil sons; the leeches who soar through the air on banshee shrieks of static; all of these are in some way integral to Bartlett’s identity. They are his creative tumors, cleaved from his brain and latched to the bloodspattered page, instantly infectious to all readers who dare stalk the twisted byways of his feverish imagination.
Because Bartlett is an honest writer, he writes honestly about the area he calls home, namely the environs of western Massachusetts. It is a place of history and legacy, of families known and unknown, of uncompromising filth, of vibrant beauty found in the darkest of corners. Bartlett romanticizes this environment, but that is not to say that he beautifies it. His fascination does not end with the picturesque tourist shops and majesty of the wood. He romanticizes the dirt and squalor too, the physical and mental fissures of this Bad Place, the dilapidation. He is perhaps at his most personal in “when i was a boy – a broadcast”, a story that could surely pass as biography even with all its demonic fantasies intact. His depiction of an adolescent’s sexual longing for the sleazy mother of some neighborhood playmates gets to the very heart of an aspect of humanity that many writers tend to shy away from, namely our inherent desire to roll around in scum when the occasion calls for it. This is meant in the most literal sense possible. Bartlett’s fiction likes to poke at the scabs and pick the nose of good taste and then look at the discoveries it has uncovered in the process. The narrator of “when i was a boy” wants nothing more than to burrow deep into the rotund ass of his friends’ mother and revel in its musty odor. Though the reader may never have possessed this specific thought, it still speaks truthfully to the fact that in the end we are, all of us, a pack of primitive animals who, were it not for the constructs of society, would have no trouble shitting where we ate or doing anything else there for that matter.
It seems only natural that a radio should relay these messages to us. The radio is, after all, a room full of secret voices, one whose door can be opened by the gentlest turning of a dial. We walk through this room at every moment of the day, but it takes the antenna for us to pick up the wavelength, to hear the muttered prophecies and stranger-than-fiction truths that reside within it. The voices are like those nasty thoughts we try to keep pent up within our own locked rooms – how good it would be to feel the squash of carrion underneath my foot, to smell the gamey trickle of menstruation – and it is through these tapped broadcasts that our secret desires and true selves are revealed. It takes a mighty conduit to beam this dirty monologue to our ears, and Bartlett is our modern Opener of the Way.
Having been thus opened, we plunge our hands into the filth of our exposed souls and become blessed, rising on singed angel wings and leaving behind the withered facades of our civility to the worms. And as we rise, a voice echoes down from the dark clouds, a melody stuttering through static.
Heaven, it sings to us. I’m in heaven…
Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of the Haunted Omnibus [note from Brian: truly the blog that the Conqueror Weird aspires to.]. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.