Of Doomful Portent: an Advent Calendar of Grotesque Horrors
by Matthew M. Bartlett
The storm of the century. A Satanic church. An ominous winter procession. A parasite and a pope. A pig head and a radio. Faces beneath stomachs and corporate demons and funeral attacks and radios and men in the woods and a hair monster and some very peculiar dolls.
All of these, and more, lurk in the pages of Matthew M. Bartlett’s latest endeavor, a collaboration with incredibly talented digital artist and game designer Yves Tourigny. This isn’t the first time Bartlett’s been mentioned on this site (nor, I pray to God – or whatever it is he holds holy – the last), since his work is so utterly different from virtually anything I’ve ever encountered, and Of Doomful Portent: an Advent Calendar of Grotesque Horrors displays his continued ability to get under the skin in ways that are funny, horrifying, and (as the title suggests) extremely grotesque.
Of Doomful Portent is structured as a mosaic of sorts, much like his debut collection Gateways to Abomination and its “sequel” Creeping Waves. It consists of twenty five flash fiction pieces, the longest clocking in at around three pages, which eventually very loosely connect with each other. While Of Doomful Portent doesn’t quite reach the intertwined crescendo that the full-length collections/novel(la)s do, there are indeed several recurring elements (some more subtle than others): the ominous Mr. White Noise, the cannibalistic Pope Sevenius, and the Goetic demon Gaap amongst them.
Of course, WXXT and Leeds are present (as they always are), but they seem to step back a little for this one, letting the grotesque imagery play out while they loom silently in the background. Without WXXT’s special kind of madness as prevalent as it usually is, the whole thing feels colder, bleaker, more alien. This is, of course, apropos for the winter season.
Yves Tourigny’s illustration for “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, or The Pig of the Ritual Dream”.
Bartlett has always had keen eye for language and imagery, but here he dials it up to eleven. Some of these fragments read like nightmares I have actually had, which gave the whole thing an uncomfortably personal feel. The descriptions are truly revolting, with one particular passage (in “Encounter with Pope Sevenius”) being so utterly appalling that I had to take a quick breather before continuing. Others are more subtle in their creepiness, like the unsettling “It Was a Turkey”, the outright disturbing “Father Light”, and a bone-chilling little yarn called “The Ash-Eaters”.
It’s not a 24/7 assault, however; Bartlett allows humor into the horror to further screw with the reader’s sense of place. Shorts like “The End of the Family Line” gave rise to a chuckle, whilst the final “chapter” – a dark fragment called “Hurt Me Henry” – had me both laughing and shuddering in nearly the same breath.
Yves Tourigny’s chapter opener for “It Was a Turkey”.
Yves Tourigny’s illustrations elevate this book from a collection of exceptionally grim and bizarre horror shorts to a work of artistry. There is an image for every story, and each one is pitch-perfect. Whilst many traditional illustrations are usually only present to compliment the writing, Tourigny’s art adds flavor to and even improves the stories, giving a whole new dimension to Bartlett’s grisly winter menagerie. They do so much more than what is usually expected of an artist that I couldn’t help but be awed. Tourigny and Bartlett had previously worked together on the interior art of Bartlett’s “B-sides” collection Dead Air, but in the chapbook format they really shine together.
Every story features an illustration, but that’s not all: preceding each “chapter” is a demented snowflake with a thematic (or literal) tie to the story, beautifully designed to accentuate the titular Advent theme. The sheer love of the genre and of the craft is evident in everything Tourigny’s brought to the table so far, and Of Doomful Portent is no exception.
Detail of Yves Tourigny’s illustration to “The Highway Procession”.
The project (referring to it as a “book” would be almost demeaning) is on target for an extremely limited release at NecronomiCon Providence 2017. This edition, I am told, will take the subtitle’s Advent Calendar reference to a new level. It will likely be released in a more traditional physical/eBook format later on, allowing the sheer miracle of this project to be unleashed upon the world. (Since this is being posted before the project’s release, I am unable to provide a link at the bottom. I will update this post when it’s widely available.)
This genuinely may be my favorite Bartlett production to date. While this features the same flavor of unhinged imagery we’ve seen in Gateways to Abomination and Creeping Waves (both undeniable masterpieces already!), there is a particular potency to its darkness: a kind of manic nihilism that I haven’t sensed before. Coupled with Tourigny’s illustrations this makes for a genuinely haunting experience, one that will follow the reader long after they have laid down the book, settled down, and curled in bed on a long winter’s night.