Chapbooks, Collections, Dave Felton, Dim Shores, Dunhams Manor Press, Dynatox Ministries, Episodic, Folk Horror, Leeds, Matthew M. Bartlett, Michael Bukowski, Moloch House, Month of Bartlett, Muzzleland Press, Nathan Ballingrud, Sam Cowan, Satanic, Sean M. Thompson, WXXT, Yves Tourigny
Well, here it is! The final ceremony for the Month of Bartlett! Walpurgisnacht!
We had a great time. Some of my favorite people chipped in for posts, all of which floored me. Now for the conclusion.
I promised some big news, and hell, you’re getting it. But first…my review of all of Matthew M. Bartlett’s work. THEN you get the big announcement. If you can’t wait, skip to the end. But if you can, then I suggest you enjoy some pleasurable suspense.
THE WORKS OF MATTHEW M. BARTLETT
A COMPLETE REVIEW OF ALL MATTHEW M. BARTLETT’S PUBLISHED WORK
(as of April 2016)
GATEWAYS TO ABOMINATION
You’re browsing on Amazon, looking for some quality, indie weird fiction. As you do this you stumble across a rather interesting book with very positive reviews. You read a few, and though they are quite favorable, you read two words that inherently evoke suspicion: “self-published”. So much self-published trash these days. But S.P. Miskowski, Scott R. Jones, Michael Wehunt, and Kristi DeMeester all gave it five-star ratings. You scroll back up and get a better look at the cover.
It’s of a town or a city, pleasant urban buildings nestled together amidst suburban touches of shrubbery. Quite nice, really, except there’s something strange – the buildings seem to be a collage of sorts, simple drawings crudely cut out of paper. The cover seems to be weathered, too, worn and used. A pulpy caption towards the bottom advertises sensational diabolism, next to a rather interesting logo reading “GARE OCCULT”. You see naught of this. It’s just a city. Except for a rather strange figure – but its hard to see what that is.
But no, not just a city – a dark shape looms above. It looks to be a radio antenna. But surely it is too large! Why, the largest building is not half its height!
And then you see the goat. It’s almost the same color as the background, so its difficult, but you make it out. Four-horned, smugly smiling, watching over the city with red scribble eyes. The figure near the city is the goat as well, now with a human body, welcoming you to the dark.
That cover art is by Katie Saulnier. That weathered, worn design and occult logo is by Tom Pappalardo. And that book is Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett.
It is quite difficult to categorize this book. The cover reads “Collected Short Fiction”, but I often refer to it as an episodic novel, though even this seems inaccurate. The book consists of pieces bordering on what you might call flash fiction, short-short pieces that read like fractured nightmares. But all share a loose connective tissue that ties them together.
There is a small suburb in Massachusetts named Leeds. And things have gone terribly wrong.
Take the opening piece, “the woods in fall” (all titles are in lowercase), only two and a half pages and not even the shortest in the book. A man is listening to his radio when the cat dials it all the way to the left. Something he hears makes him walk into the woods, where he meets a withered figure who promptly vomits worms. It’s strange and disorienting, yet it manages to sum up all of the connected elements of the book – Leeds, the woods, and the dark radio station WXXT.
Most pieces are the length of “the woods in fall”, if not shorter, with only a few delving into longer territory, but all of them – all of them – manage to punch you in the gut. Take “the ballad of nathan whiteshirt” – it’s only a little over one page, and still managed to be one of the most unnerving reading experiences of my life. Part of this is because of Bartlett’s language. One of the most poetic writers working today, Bartlett manages to make the words ooze off the page and infiltrate your senses. Some reviewers have described getting sick while they read the pieces, the most infamous being “the theories of uncle jeb”, where the titular uncle opens his cancerous navel to let onlookers see inside.
I AM Cancer, he’d intone, and he’d grasp the folds of his stomach, gaping wide his navel, which was never properly tied off (according to Father), stretching it wide, a hole you could pop a child’s head into (if you were of a mind), and the smell was low tide and sprawling arrays of fungus sprouting in the folds of a field of mildewed clothing, of dank basements and bile-strangled wells, carrion and the faeces of the squatting dead.
That is quite nauseating, as is “a world of lucretias and ledas”, where the narrator, Jebediah Blackstye, stares at the streaks in his long black stools.
The stories are interrupted by disturbing news transmissions from “Uncle Red”, who describes all sorts of grisly phenomena in the Leeds/Northampton area. Through these segments and others we learn that the dark influence of WXXT, a witch-cult who have gone to radio, has gone back to at least 1802, and quite probably earlier.
“the ballad of ben stockton” parts one and two describe a visit to the dentist gone horribly wrong. This one in particular is likely to unnerve anyone, as it goes right for the jugular of mutual discomfort. “when i was a boy – a broadcast” describes a young boy’s lust for a corpulent older woman, feeling almost painfully personal and disturbing. “the arrival” parts one and two – presented in reverse – introduce that goatish creature we saw on the cover, the sinister Ben Stockton, who carries an overwhelmingly oppressive air of menace about him. “the gathering in the deep woods” follows a man attending the titular gathering, while “cat-tails and rushes” describes the wreckage after an overwhelming fire. “the investigator” hints at a fascinating plot-line – WXXT’s battle with the F(ederal) C(ommunications) C(ommission), who will stop at nothing to end the witch-cult’s reign of terror.
Bartlett has an eye for the most upsetting images in literature – a dog with multiple and grotesque breasts, drowned men reclining in bathwater, two men grappling over a hook of meat – and yet there’s a darkly comic element to it. There are actual moments where you’ll laugh out loud, which makes the whole thing more unnerving. WXXT twists everything around it, and that doesn’t only include the book. It twists you, the reader, transforming your perception into an ungrounded nightmare.
It’s only appropriate, then, that the collection should end with “the reddening dusk”. Like the opening piece, it captures the essence of the book, but in a slightly different way. While “the woods in fall” was more of a quiet horror story, “the reddening dusk” is a delirious fever-dream, rupturing the surface of reality into sheer horror. Reading it was almost a guilty experience for me, heightened by the fact that I enjoyed it so much.
As you can see, it has been difficult for me to form my thoughts on this into a coherent post. But know this – Gateways to Abomination is a terrifying experience of a book. I was literally disoriented after reading the book. It’s a masterpiece in any genre and it deserves your applause.
What – another book? That’s exciting…
Buy Gateways to Abomination here. Not “You can buy it” – BUY IT. I have no words to describe how completely freaking awesome it is, which is why this review was so disorderly. How could anything be better than this? How do you follow something like this up?
Gateways to Abomination floored me, but…Creeping Waves. WOW. I knew it was going to be good, but I never expected something like this.
First, you’ve got that Nick Gucker cover. Nick Gucker! Illustrator of gross and drippy phenomena! He doesn’t disappoint here. Look at all of the disgusting, Bartlettian phenomena – a ossuary WXXT booth, dancing embryos playing with a hanged man (this one is out of view, as its cut off by the spine), a man wrangling worms, a black Satanic snake, Ben Stockton beckoning a child whose mouth is crammed with tiny teeth…all under the landscape of a distorted fair, clownish monoliths rearing up to the sky. Holy hell.
Nathan Ballingrud provides a beautiful introduction, describing how Bartlett burst onto the scene and how he’s back with a vengeance in Creeping Waves. But, as wonderful as it is, it doesn’t even begin to cover the contents.
The book opens with an eerie prologue narrated by Ben Stockton, reminiscing on the genesis of WXXT and covering some ground for those who haven’t read Gateways to Abomination. It is followed by “Spring Thaw”, a short, creepy piece that hints at the horror to come. But the real fun begins with “Rampage”. It’s a dark story. A really, really dark story – one that seems to take some concepts from “path” (a story in Gateways) and warps them into a much more morbid idea. After “Rampage”, you’re doomed.
The book is much more intertwined than Gateways. The whole WXXT gang is back, and the FCC is still after them. What silly shenanigans will they get up to this time? Thematic elements from “Spring Thaw” are woven through the contents. A certain narrative – one about a faded cult leader named Vernon Golden – is serialized throughout the book, along with Anne Gare’s Rare Book and Ephemera Catalogue (discussed in the Companions section). There are sequels, prequels, references and opening chapters. Old ideas are elaborated upon, and new ideas rise along with them.
The book is considerably longer than Gateways, so I’ll focus on the more traditional narratives, the first of which is “Master of Worms”. A dark story about a twisted family patriarch, Bartlett starts off restrained before delving into unbridled surrealism. The opening scene is one of the most shocking things I have ever read.
Next up is “Night Dog”. Wow. This has to be one of the scariest stories in the book. A man named Wendell, working at the ominous Annelid Industries International, has his world turned upside down – no – has his world puréed in a goddamn blender by a strange man who proclaims horrifying revelations as the company meeting approaches. There were times during this story when I was thinking “No, no, NO” as things went from bad to worse to hopeless. Probably my favorite of the longer narratives.
Then “Rangel”, the next longer narrative, comes along. I think it’s safe to assume that this is Bartlett’s most successful story – it’s in the contents of the Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume Three (ed. Simon Strantzas, series ed. Michael Kelly) and was considered by Ellen Datlow for her latest volume of the Best Horror of the Year. Not only that – originally published as a chapbook by Dim Shores (with creepy illustrations by Aeron Alfrey), it sold out of not one but two limited editions. Reading it, one can certainly see why. I’m not going to talk too much about the plot, but instead I’ll just say this: Halloween parade in Leeds. Something to see! This was my introduction to Bartlett, and look where I am now – reviewing all of his work…
“The Egg” is a deliciously nasty tale, probably one of Bartlett’s most brutal compositions to date. A family is raising chickens – they wanted pets, and chickens were just the best fit for them – and decides to leave the radio on for their comfort. Life lesson: chickens + WXXT = bad news. My description makes it sound almost comical, but trust me, “The Egg” is anything but – and it features one of the cruelest endings in literature.
“Little Leeds” isn’t that long, but I wanted to pause on it because…well, you’ll see. Bartlett has a story coming out soon that ties very smoothly into this, and…well, I don’t want to spoil the fun. A rebellious girl joins a group of teens in the woods. Needless to say, things get very strange very fast.
“The Purging of My Uncle’s House (The Time of the Black Tents)” is a continuation of “the sons of ben” from Gateways to Abomination. This tells of a grim family reunion in an old, secluded house, while some sort of dark ritual takes place outside in the woods. Dripping with mystery and terror, this is a highlight story in the book – and it also brings up more questions about the “Real Leeds”, a ominous location referred to throughout the book.
The exploits of Vernon Golden creep through the book. A bygone leader of a forgotten cult, he contacts the son of a couple who once were amongst his followers, telling him that he needs help fighting the devil in Massachusetts. Of course, nothing is quite as it seems, and the plot takes frantic twists and turns in a delightfully dark form.
The real climax to the book is “Baal Protects the King” (parts one and two). I honestly cannot bring myself to describe this story, and, to be honest, I don’t know if I even really could. It’s a onyx goblet brimming with blood, a raging hurricane of nightmarish imagery and haunting ideas. Its intensely disturbing scenery will stay with you for days after you read it.
Creeping Waves is, as of this date, Bartlett’s masterpiece. It’s…it’s…it’s the best thing ever. It’s the most distressing reading experience I’ve ever had. It’s dark, it’s devilish, and it’s disturbing.
I really can’t describe it better than that.
I’m not gonna spend too long on Dead Air since it’s no longer available to the public. Let’s just say that before Gateways and Creeping Waves, Bartlett published a book that reads like an embryotic version of both. It’s extremely rare and hard to find, but I suggest you try to track it down – it’s a treasure. While some pieces are recycled into the newer collections, most of it is basically new, and boy, is it a disturbing book. Since it is an older book, certain characters are almost radically different – Ben Stockton, for example, is more…human than his powerful, demonic contemporary. It also features many eerie photographs, some of which are found in Creeping Waves. But I digress – it’s an excellent book, but I shan’t taunt you with an unavailable book.
THE WITCH-CULT IN WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS
The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts features thirteen one-page entries, each about a dark figure who turns to occult forces. Not all of them have to do with Leeds, but the ones that do expand upon the WXXT mythology. For example – we learn more about old Anne Gare, who runs an ominous bookshop in the twisted town, while we also learn about Virginia Willaby, whose charming home was host to a horrifying event known as “Black Thanksgiving”. It also features absolutely gorgeous illustrations by artist Alex Fienemann, each depicting the witch in question. All of these creepy contents are thus wrapped up into a lovely-looking book, and is a must-own for fans of New England folklore (even though there are no actual folktales contained herein). I would find it hard to imagine that anyone wouldn’t enjoy this book.
Buy The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts here.
ANNE GARE’S RARE BOOK AND EPHEMERA CATALOGUE
Now sold out, this book contains several descriptions of evil tomes that Anne Gare possesses. Most of this material can be found in Creeping Waves, but some entries cannot, while Creeping Waves has some new entries of its own. Highlights include the Libellus Vox Larva, which, I think its safe to say, is the Necronomicon of Bartlett’s work; the Stockton Pamphlets, which detail the sinister activities of a colonial Leeds coven; and The Barkerton Parade and Others, a collection of shockingly violent horror stories. Some entries feature snide commentary by the cataloger – presumably Gare herself – which provides some humor amidst the darkness. Overall, a fantastic book. (As if you didn’t know I was going to say that.)
UNCOLLECTED SHORT FICTION
SPETTRINI (chapbook; limited ed.)
A KrallCon 2016 exclusive (though the story will appear in The Stay-Awake Men and Others, a collection coming this December), “Spettrini” focuses on the mysterious disappearence of the titular magician, and what his apprentice does in his absence. Sort of. I don’t think I really described that right, but the story is astounding in its execution. The standout here is how well Bartlett utilizes his descriptive powers. The atmosphere broods from the opening lines, and the setting is so strongly established that you can practically feel the cold night breeze. Since it was an exclusive it got a limited distribution, but I’m excited to see what people think about it when it’s included in the collection. It’s a fantastic story.
CARNOMANCER, OR THE MEAT MANAGER’S PREROGATIVE (Xnoybis #1, ed. Jordan Krall; limited ed.)
A grisly excursion into lust, murder, and meat, “Carnomancer, or the Meat Manager’s Prerogative” (also to be collected in The Stay-Awake Men and Others) follows a man who, working at a convenience store, gets entangled in the madness of the meat manager, Foxcroft. This is one of the nastiest stories I’ve ever read. It’s gruesome and dark – a gross look into the mindscape of a man who needs serious help. In a horrifyingly funny way, the story ends on an almost comical note – closing the story’s warped plotline, though the images and concepts will haunt the reader for a long time afterward.
FOLLOWING YOU HOME (The Siren’s Call eZine #20: Screams in the Night; available online here)
A super-short story, “Following You Home” crams more ideas into its meager two pages then some manage to weave into novels. Merrill, a socially awkward man at an uncomfortable New Year’s Eve party, leaves early, only to be stalked by a frightening figure indeed on his way home. Reminiscent of the best Ramsey Campbell stories, “Following You Home” features a realistic protagonist, a grotesque monster, and a terrifying ending that leaves the reader wondering.
MACHINE WILL START WHEN YOU ARE START (Resonator, ed. Scott R. Jones; available here)
Elaborating on “From Beyond”, this hilariously gross story tells of a creep working at Target who buys the “Tillinghast Masturbator” for sexual pleasure. Unfortunately, the results are kind of alien, and – against the box’s badly misspelled warnings – the guy starts to watch some porn to help along. This does not turn out to well for him. Like “Carnomancer, or the Meat Manager’s Prerogative”, the story ends comically – this time with a practical punchline, a genuinely funny ending that juxtaposes nicely with the earlier gruesome imagery.
…the big announcement…the one you’ve all been waiting for…
The Conqueror Weird is producing a full-length audio drama based on Matthew M. Bartlett’s critically acclaimed book Gateways to Abomination. Yes, you heard that right. It’ll be an audio book of sorts – a weird amalgam of readings, dramatizations, sound effects, and music.
The cast includes Andrew Leman, Sean Branney, Sean M. Thompson, Jose Cruz, Jonathan Raab, Sam Cowan, Matthew M. Bartlett, Brian O’Connell, and more. The production will feature a gorgeous original cover by acclaimed artist Michael Bukowski, along with interior artwork by Yves Tourigny, Dave Felton, and more.
You can listen to a sample track here, read by Sean M. Thompson.
Trailers are on the way, as is the cover. Gateways to Abomination is expected to be released by the Conqueror Weird’s record label, Moloch House, sometime in the summer of next year.
That’s all for the Month of Bartlett, leeches. More transmissions coming soon.
A portrait of Matthew M. Bartlett and his cat Larry by the inimitable Dave Felton, done especially for the Conqueror Weird.
I’m not quite done yet. Just a few tidbits.
In May I’ll be reviewing these books:
- Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt
- The Lure of the Devouring Light by Michael Griffin
- Orford Parish Murder Houses by Tom Breen
- Tomorrow’s Cthulhu, edited by Scott Gable and C. Dombrowski
- Cthulhu Lies Dreaming, edited by Salomé Jones
- A double Scott Nicolay review: Noctuidae and The Croaker
- The Operating Theater by Christopher Ropes
- A double review of Cody Goodfellow’s Rapture of the Deep and The Free School
- The Nameless Dark by T.E. Grau
Also, my first published story, “Woodland”, appeared yesterday in The Yellow Booke, Vol. Three, edited by Michael Kellermeyer. You can read it for free online here, but I hope you consider buying a paperback copy from Amazon here. It’d mean a lot.
“Woodland” is an unusual story. Written entirely in second person, present tense (even though there are a lot of flashbacks) and heavily inspired by the Bob Dylan song “Ballad of Hollis Brown”. It hints at some things that are coming. I hope you enjoy it (if you read it).
That’s all for now.