Not that anyone’s watching, and those who are have probably figured it out already, but–this site is now closed. It’s been a blast, but I just don’t have my heart in it anymore. (Also, some of my older pieces make me wince.) Thanks for tagging along!
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.
Update: you can now buy a standard paperback of Of Doomful Portent here on Amazon.
Anthologies, Chapbooks, Conspiracy Theories, Corporate Horror, Jonathan Raab, Joseph Pastula, Leeds, Matthew M. Bartlett, Monsters, Occult, Orford Parish, Orford Parish Books, Sean M. Thompson, Tom Breen
Letters of Decline: Four Tales of Job Interview Horror
by Joseph Pastula, Matthew M. Bartlett, Sean M. Thompson, and Jonathan Raab
Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the second installment of “What in Beelzebub’s unholy name have those Orford Parish Books boys gotten up to now?” You may remember the first time we looked at the exploits of Orford Parish Books, probably because it wasn’t too long ago as the blog flies. That post covered such diverse topics as murder houses, picture books, the American flag, and wrestling.
Now we zone in a bit on their most recent publication, a self-styled “split chapbook” entitled Letters of Decline: Four Tales of Job Interview Horror. As the title suggests, it contains four weird horror narratives, all of which relate to the nerve-wracking experience of a job interview. Orford Parish Books has not yet failed to pick a bizarre topic for its publications.
We open with an introduction entitled “How to Hunt for a Job, and What to Do Once You’ve Killed It”. In the voice of an Orford Parish necromancy professor, Tom Breen gives us helpful tips for interviews, including:
Once the interview is concluded, be sure to send each member of the hiring panel a thank-you [sic] note, which should include a still-raw pig’s heart with black-painted nails driven through it, and an attached card reading, ‘This is you.’
These types of intros have showed up in three of the five Orford Parish Books publications so far, and they never fail to delight/unnerve. I’ve found myself looking forward to them – they (quite literally) make me laugh out loud, while still being tonally in-keeping with the darksome contents the reader is about to experience.
We start with Joseph Pastula’s “An Office Manager at Orford Mills” and it is perfect. The titular office manager is assigned a job interview position, and some increasingly unusual characters start showing up to apply. I don’t wish to spoil the novelty of the story, but it’s absolutely wonderful. Pastula writes carefully and precisely, artfully and gradually changing the protagonist’s tone from a bored and mildly annoyed to frightened and possibly deluded. Each visitor – my favorite is a shaky, wobbling man who turns out to be…well, no spoilers – is different and disturbing in their own way. The writing is more or less unremarkable, which serves to highlight the bizarre nature of the plot in sharper (and more unsettling). This story shows how the author has gotten better and better since his first prose appearance in Old Gory: Two Tales of Flag Horror, and I am genuinely looking forward to seeing what he does next.
Then we have “The Storefront Theater” by our old friend Matthew M. Bartlett. This is easily the darkest story in the book. Another faceless misanthrope dwelling in a dismal suburb of devil-haunted Leeds receives a frightful midnight caller just when he needs it the most. Of all the excellent stories in this book, this one got under my skin the most. The opening scene is genuinely bone-chilling, and the narrator’s visit to the theater of the title goes into some really surreal and horrifying territory. The one word I would use to describe this, though, is subtle. This is something Bartlett is a master at: despite the fact that most of his stories contain almost upsettingly extreme grotesquerie, it always hints at something less definable and more pervasive. Case in point: the last line of this story, which is a thousand times creepier than a billion maggot-infested corpses.
Sean M. Thompson (who readers of this site will know from his recently concluded serial The Demon, his short story “LillyBridge“, and our review of his debut collection Too Late) is new to the Orford Parish ship, and yet he earns his keep with the same bloody relish as the others have. “Cat’s Claw, LLC” tells of a young woman’s late night interview at an eerie old mansion in the woods. The plot is fairly direct and entertaining, rooted firmly in classic horror genre tropes (the story can even be read as an in-joke, for those who were friends with Tom Breen on Facebook a few months ago). In the end, though, it’s the little touches that really bring it home: the darting deer-like shape in the forest, the animal hunts depicted in paintings on the walls of the mansions, the dark purple-walled office and a pen made of bone. The last line, like in Bartlett’s story, gave me shivers up and down my spine.
Jonathan Raab, too, is a newcomer. We’ve only reviewed him once before, although his incredible pulp horror witch war novella The Lesser Swamp Gods of Little Dixie made our Best of 2016 list. (I also loved his story “The Secret Goatman Spookshow”, which you can read online here.) His story – the longest in the book – is called “A Capable Man”, and it rounds out the grim excursion which this book encapsulates quite nicely. Following a rather incompetent unemployed man (I wouldn’t call him a scumbag, but he’s not far) interview at a new corporation in Orford Parish, this story overwhelms with its bleak mood and its heavy depiction of the slacker’s life. Raab’s prose firmly places you in the headspace of the main character, and the interview scene is off-kilter in a way only a skilled writer can accomplish. While it has Raab’s signature high strange undertones, and there are some very creepy moments, I would overall class this more with modern weird fiction then horror. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; on the contrary, I thought it worked in the story’s favor. It was a perfect way to close the book.
Orford Parish Books is just really incredible. Everything they’ve put out has been great, but this seems like the most complete of their entries. The only drawback is the absence of a full-length Tom Breen story; his particular narrative voice is one that I missed while reading this chapbook, only enhanced by the taste we got in the introduction. Nonetheless, it’s a fantastic read, and I eagerly look forward to their next release – whatever in Heaven or Earth that’ll be.
You can buy Letters of Decline: Four Tales of Job Interview Horror here.
a Look at Nadia Bulkin’s “Wish You Were Here”
by S.P. Miskowski
Who doesn’t dislike tourists? With their loud clothes and their demands for special treatment, even tourists hate other tourists. But no-one regards them with more apprehension than the individual whose job it is to ferry them around and show them a good time. It’s exhausting work, for the umpteenth time recounting a location’s history and significance to people who are tuned out to all but their own personal adventure.
On any tour in almost any city you’ll find individuals who want something extra, a secret spot or a deal known only to the locals. The belief that a deeper level of experience can be purchased for the right price isn’t strictly a characteristic of people raised in the United States, but we seem to be the most gauche and relentless about it. Give us the good stuff and give it to us right now.
We don’t know how many people Dimas, the protagonist of Nadia Bulkin’s story “Wish You Were Here”, has taken on guided tours in Bali; enough to make him expert at spotting personality types and anticipating what they want. He’s quick to perceive the nature of two couples, Melissa and Josh, Rose and Ben, as he shows them the sights. They turn out to be a particularly unruly group and over the course of a few events Dimas loses them to accident, sexual misadventure, and the allure of drugs.
The one person who sticks with him has a dark purpose. Rose has come to what she thinks is a highly spiritual place in order to make contact with her son, who died in a car crash. Dimas tries to discourage her obsession. Over the course of the tour he tells a series of tales in response to the demand for ghost stories. Nothing will satisfy Rose. Her unconsciously xenophobic view of Bali centers on exoticism and ritual. She wants Dimas to perform a ceremony he learned from a family member as a child, so that she can speak to her son.
Hundreds of stories and films misinform Rose’s expectations. She seems convinced that touring a country where her skin color sets her apart as a traveler, a place where she doesn’t know the language and doesn’t care about local culture or history, she will be more in touch with the occult. She wants what she wants when she wants it.
Dimas, it turns out, is also a traveler. The life he left behind haunts him, particularly the memory of Ani, a friend killed in a fire set during the kind of social and political conflict Rose can’t even imagine. Dimas has settled in Bali to try and forget the past but he finds himself in another place of uncertainty and unrest. Everywhere he goes he thinks of Ani and the horrific way in which she died.
Once Dimas agrees to help Rose, he seals her fate and his own. I won’t spoil the disturbing nature of that fate. I’ll only note that Dimas was correct when he warned that reaching out to spirits is a very inexact process; it opens a door you can’t close again at will.
In this rich, marvelous story Nadia Bulkin accomplishes an astonishing number of things simultaneously. We have the natural beauty as well as the tawdry entertainments of a popular tourist destination. We learn about recent history through the experiences and assiduous social observations of Dimas. Above all we recognize the degree to which we are all haunted by those we’ve lost but also by the dense, violent history of each place we encounter and each person we meet. Such things are not meant to be handled, like a toy, and then put back where we found them. Death, horror, the world beyond our reason or reckoning, is not manageable; it is as powerful, as real, and as terrifying as human life itself.
S.P. Miskowski is the author of the Skillute Cycle from Omnium Press, Stag in Flight from Dim Shores, the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated Muscadines from Dunhams Manor Press, and the forthcoming novel I Wish I Was Like You. She has received two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships and a Swarthout Award. Visit her here.
Nadia Bulkin is an Indonesian author of socio-political horror and weird fiction. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award and her story “Wish You Were Here” (discussed in this post, and available to read online here) was reprinted in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year Vol. 9. Her first collection, She Said Destroy, is coming from Word Horde this summer.
by Jason Bradley Thompson
Note: I should say in advance that the media reviewed is as of yet incomplete.
As a high school freshman myself, I find horror stories about high school fascinating. It’s not like you need that much embellishment. High schoolers already have to deal with mental/emotional shifts, a sense of discomfort in their own body, vicious social structures practically designed to screw people over, the conflict between a longing for childhood irresponsibility and a hunger for being recognized as mature, a gnawing sense of existential dread, the growing desynchronization of the mind-body/childhood-adulthood dichtomies…
Ahem. Well, this is not a confessional booth. Suffice to say, high school is generally unpleasant for most people, and usually stressful, so its not that hard to imagine horror in that setting.
The Stiff follows Alistair Toth (prepare yourself for the references!), a student** at Larkspur High who is obsessed with horror film, fiction, and the like. He’s also, as the title suggests, a bit of a stiff: he claims to be asexual, doesn’t drink or smoke, and seems utterly disgusted by the idea of sex. The closest thing to a friend” he has is Jamie Etchison, who (unlike Alistair) is not only open to things like sex but is actively exploring her newfound sexuality.
Things get complicated when new student Alice Hoffman arrives at school. She actually begins to stir up some feelings in Alistair, leading to several fantasies of his which we see depicted (him and her being the last two survivors of a zombie apocalypse, etc.). But this isn’t a normal crush. Something much more subversive and disturbing is at work.
Things really go into a tailspin when Alistair is temporarily hypnotized at a party. Social problems created by this incident aside, he becomes fascinated by hypnotism, and, one day when he’s home with a fever, suffering from frenzied nightmares, he chooses to hypnotize himself.
To say anything more would be a spoiler.
The story is slow. Thompson allows it to move at its own pace, jumping back and forth in time, showing the same events from different perspectives. This really helps build character and setting. By chapter four of the work (as of right now, there are five chapters, an unfinished sixth chapter, and a prologue) I felt firmly rooted in the lives of the major characters. They’re all likable people, particularly Alistair (when he’s not being pretentious!) and Jamie. Their conversations aren’t forced, the dialogue (despite a few misspellings) feels real. They act like normal people (well, most of the time. Alistair has a few things going on, so it’s not out of place.) and I feel like I know them.
Alistair’s struggle with his crush for Alice Hoffman can be interpreted as…well, what it is: a crush. It can be strange (and certainly frightening) to develop a crush on someone for the first time, especially when one is so conditioned against the concept of romance as Alistair is. Of course, in Alistair’s case, things are a little more unusual, but on the whole Thompson very effectively replicates the tumultuous emotions that go along with having a crush.
The horror itself is still in the shadows, and even after reading all of it I still don’t know what’s going on. That’s a wonderful feeling, though, isn’t it? The ambiguity of what’s really going on (and there is a lot of it!) is the very best kind of torture. Thompson is building an atmosphere, layer by layer, and the mystery of what the threat actually is is what makes it so haunting.
For this reason I hesitate to call The Stiff: Part One complete horror. The slow burn and the sheer unnaturalness of what is going on puts it more in line with modern weird fiction, or with Robert Aickman’s idea of the “strange story”, than with what I’ve come to know as horror. (Although, really, who needs demarcation lines for genre?)
The allusions, though, are unmistakable. There’s a student called Shirley Jackson, a dog named Sredni Vashtar. Even Larkspur, the genus that gives Alistair’s high school its name, is entirely toxic. This is the decidedly “meta” (and certainly tragic) twist to the story: Alistair is trapped in a scary story and doesn’t realize it, just like the hapless protagonists that he’s so fond of reading about.
Now onto the art. Ah, the art. Jason Bradley Thompson had already proved his artistic merit to me when I started reading The Stiff: Part One with his absolutely incredible adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (which you can, and most certainly should, buy here). This project doesn’t offer up monsters or splendor, except in Alistair’s dream/fantasy sequences and the title pages of each chapter (which are drawn with obvious relish).
Chapter five title page
The art makes use of bold outlines and sharp crosshatching, leading to a claustrophobic sense of darkness. The characters, on the other hand, stand out bright white against the page, sometimes ugly, other times beautiful. When the horror comes a-creeping it is visibly shown in the panels: gnarled, decaying blotches of darkness ooze into the panels and indeed into the characters themselves. It made me feel physically uncomfortable at times, which is saying something.
There’s also so much attention to detail that it borders on obsessive. If you look at the panel of Alistair hypnotizing himself, you can read the title of more or less every book on his shelf. There’s a magazine called Film Threat on his dresser, and a mug of some liquid on the floor. It must take quite some time to cram so much into a single panel, but it certainly pays off.
Thompson once worked at VIZ Media, co-wrote a (quite entertaining, even for someone not particularly interested in the subject) column called House of 1000 Manga, and designed an acclaimed game called Mangaka, so its no surprise that his art can show the manga influence at times. His characters’ expressions, in particular, can be reminiscent of traditional Japanese comics. This is not a bad thing; on the contrary, I found it to be a bit of a breath of fresh air, given the style that most major American comics are drawn in.
The art does start out a bit rough, but greatly improves over time. Thompson himself noted this in his comments to the second page of the prologue: “the art in the early pages […] is old and sometimes a little embarrassing. […] Part of me wants to redraw these early pages, but recently I’ve come to the conclusion that artists going back and redrawing/rewriting their old stuff is a waste of time creatively”. It’s a matter of this (in chapter one):
Versus this (in chapter six):
It’s worth sticking with.
It would probably be pertinent to mention at this point that, unfortunately, The Stiff (in its webcomic incarnation) has been canceled. Writes Thompson:
I set myself up with an artstyle [sic] too detailed and a plot too long to finish in the format I chose. […] thinking of the tremendous time investment it would take to draw those 750+ remaining pages, I think of the dozens of other, newer projects I’d rather do with that time. And when I think of leaving the sad, dangling possibility that *someday* I’ll finish drawing it, I think of other unfinished-but-never-officially-canceled comics that have bugged me and my friends over the years […]Inasmuch as possible, I’d rather not be part of such company, and have The Stiff[***] be a dead webcomic rather than an eternally-waiting-to-be-finished comic.
This was sad news to me when I initially read it, but not all hope is lost. “I’m going to finish The Stiff[****] as a prose novel,” he says in the same post. “Prose has vastly different requirements than comics and the resulting work will surely be different than a graphic novel would have been, but at least in prose I can honestly say that it *will* get done.”
It will be interesting to see The Stiff in a prose format, and how the comic will play off the writing. I am, however, wholly invested in it. God knows when it’ll be done, but I can wait.
Even in its current, half finished state, I can confidently say that The Stiff is one of the best weird fiction stories I’ve ever read, period. Yes, I’m going there. In my opinion, Thompson is in the league with the best of Lovecraft, Robert Aickman, Laird Barron, Matthew M. Bartlett, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Wehunt, Nathan Ballingrud, et al. Even if the story were to remain unfinished, it would still remain one of the best things I’ve ever read.
It just checks off everything that makes a really effective weird tale: compelling characters, disturbing horror/menace, the unknown, modern sensibility, and all the others. Part of me is worried that I might be overselling it, so keep your expectations low…but I’m not overselling it. At least, not in my opinion, which I recognize isn’t everyone’s.
I’ve gushed quite enough, and, it being a Sunday, I have school tomorrow. I’ll walk down the hall, go to my classes, doodle pentagrams in the margins of my notebook and scribble them out, and try not to let the day-to-day fear of death get to me. After reading The Stiff, though, that’s just a little harder…and I couldn’t be more glad for it.
You can (and most certainly should!) read The Stiff (so far) starting here. You can also just browse Mr. Thompson’s website, which is brimming with wonderful art and comics. The Comics Archive is a good place to start.
*For those who don’t know, a webcomic is defined as “a series of comic strips published online”, though it generally means any form of graphic media (not just comic strips) that one can read online.
**I hesitate to write freshman/sophomore/junior/senior because I’m sure I’d get it wrong, given that the story kind of hops around in time and space. Just…read the comic.
Orford Parish Books is what I guess you’d call a “boutique press” that publishes books generally centered around author Tom Breen’s fictional locale of Orford Parish. I decided to review all four of their released books (so far) in one go, so without any further ado…
Orford Parish Murder Houses: a Visitor’s Guide
by Tom Breen
This book hit me like a rock.
I was expecting it to be a collection of linked short fiction – that’s generally what these types of things are, right? – or, less likely, a mosaic novel in the style of Bartlett’s Gateways to Abomination.
What I got was one of the biggest shocks I’ve ever received – an amazing, fully fleshed out, well-written, frightening, hilarious faux-tour guide.
Let me step back a bit.
There is a town in Connecticut called Orford Parish. Like any other small town, it has a local newspaper, quaint people, mediocre restaurants.
It also has an ancient tree that will answer any question it is given, groups of children repeating the word “Despair” over and over while playing in the snow, and more murders per capita than any other place in the United States.
Of course, as First Selectman Norman Dimble reminds us, there’s “‘More than murder – but plenty of murder'”!
This book purports to be a collection of short descriptions each centered around the history and folklore of a specific “murder house” in Orford Parish. Each description includes the name and address of the house, a story recalling the history of it, and a quick write-up on the best restaurants in the area. No, I’m serious. It’s all quite funny, but when you peel back the skin of it you begin to see something more unnerving.
For example, what’s so funny about the cannibalistic rage that enveloped the NuLove Hippie Commune? Who’s laughing at the Lathrop House, home to one of the most disturbing and mysterious murders ever set to paper? And there’s certainly nothing funny about the priest who stared into the void that is God…
It’s hard to talk about my favorites in this book without giving anything away. The NuLove one was probably my favorite, followed closely by the aforementioned Borden-inspired Lathrop House entry (which genuinely had me looking over my shoulder for the rest of the night). The book knocks your expectations out of the park with the very first fragment, which totally subverts your idea of “murder” and presents quite a puzzling conundrum until the truth (?) of the matter is revealed…
Breen’s writing is precise; it ranges from elaborate to sharp depending on the intended voice. The wistful narrator of “Armorica”, the only traditionally structured narrative in the book, does genuinely seem to be reminiscing her childhood, while Norman Dimble’s infectious enthusiasm for his blood-soaked city leaps off of the page. On the whole humor and wit shines in every narrative; you will find yourself laughing a lot during the reading of this book, which contrasts with the horror and, in doing so, makes that horror more effective.
I honestly don’t know how much more I can say about this book without spoiling its effect. Suffice to say that this made my “Best of 2016” list for a good reason: namely, that it is inventive, funny, dark, and all-in-all surprising in the best possible way.
If you don’t read this – and I really, REALLY mean this – you are doing yourself a disservice. Buy Orford Parish Murder Houses: a Visitor’s Guide here.
Little Oren and the Noises (Picture Books for Weird Kids, Vol. 1)
by Joseph Pastula
Again, hit me like a rock.
When I heard the second release from Orford Parish books would be a picture book, I was surprised but not necessarily deterred – okay, it was a little bizarre, but they’d pulled that off with Orford Parish Murder Houses, right? I checked out the author’s webcomic Silkworms, which made me feel unusual for a while after – a good sign. Still, I was more than a little doubtful when I opened up the package…
Let me describe Little Oren and the Noises in the simplest way I can. If Thomas Ligotti wrote a picture book, this would be it.
The story follows an Orford Parish man who doesn’t like noise, and who goes to very extreme lengths to avoid it. To say anything else would be to ruin the nasty surprise this book has waiting for you. Joseph Pastula’s pictures are uncomfortable in the best way, and I felt more than a little disturbed when I saw the, um…noises.
The story is simple and uncomplicated, but coupled with the pictures the whole thing becomes an eerie experience that left me claustrophobic and upset.
I can’t say too much about this book, as its mostly pictures and the story is very easily spoiled. But I can say that anyone, even adults, will enjoy this – if they enjoy such bizarre, uncategorizable works of weird fiction. And really, who doesn’t?
You can buy Little Oren and the Noises here.
Old Gory: Two Tales of Flag Horror
by Joseph Pastula and Tom Breen
(Note: I can’t find a high-rez image of the cover, so this promotional image will have to do.)
This is the first in a series of so-called “split chapbooks” which are essentially tiny, themed anthologies with just two or three stories. In keeping with its recurring theme of “doing something really, really strange”, Orford Parish Books’ first themed chapbook is Old Gory: Two Tales of Flag Horror, which is – you guessed it – Orford Parish horror stories relating to the flag of the United States.
The “hit me like a rock” phrase is getting overused, but again, it’s the only adequate way to describe my feelings on discovering the theme of this slim volume. Orford Parish Books’ previous publications both effectively explored the fringes of weird horror, but I didn’t know how one could possibly make the American flag scary. However, I was catching on, and I figured things were going to be interesting (if not anything else). My expectations were, again, exceeded.
Joseph Pastula’s cover is quite eye-catching – there are skulls in the white lines, the red is reminiscent of blood, and the stars are all inverted pentagrams. These themes are expanded upon in the erudite faux-introduction “The Flag, and How it Got that Way” by an Orford Parish professor of demonology. This was a welcome surprise. It’s a funny little thing, and adds to the delightful oddness of the book.
We kick this book off with Joseph Pastula’s story “Orison for the Departed”, which is not set inside Orford Parish but just outside of it. Its a sort of ghost story, more or less, about a house covered in flag paraphernalia, and the man who finds out why. For some reason this story reminds me of the Winchester Mystery House, but this is probably just a cosmetic connection. Pastula’s prose is slightly more baroque than Breen’s, but it suits the story quite well and provides nice contrast to the second offering. His development of atmosphere is quite skillful, and I look forward to seeing more full prose offerings from the author.
The second story is Tom Breen’s “Our Heart’s Blood Dyed in Every Fold”. It follows an Orford Parish “flag club” (as it were) composed of fathers whose children have gone missing, and who blame a group of astral warriors for taking them. Drawing on a curious old witchcraft custom of Europe, the story evokes both laughter at the absurdity of the situation and pity for the poor, deluded (or are they?) men whose children have been taken. Breen cultivates a very strong voice for the narrative, whose sarcastic comments and snarky asides provide most of the humor in the tale.. No-one’s laughing at the end, though, in a sad and disturbing conclusion with an ambiguous final line that still has me puzzling.
One would think that Pastula’s baroque ghost story would clash with Breen’s dark comedy, but they don’t. The one actually compliments the other (and vice versa), highlighting the good qualities in the story it sits alongside.
The book ends with an appendix that echoes the introduction and gives a more thorough account of Orford Parish flag history. It’s a fascinating bonus, one of the little touches that (like the introduction) really make this book shine.
On the whole, I was thoroughly surprised and impressed by this addition to the Orford Parish Books canon, and was eagerly looking forward to the next book.
You can buy Old Gory: Two Tales of Flag Horror here.
Three Moves of Doom: Weird Horror from Inside the Squared Circle
by Matthew M. Bartlett, Joseph Pastula, and Tom Breen
Split chapbook, round two!
When I heard that the next book’d be themed after wrestling, I was no longer surprised. That is, it’s not that I was expecting the book to be about wrestling, but I was expecting the book to have a somewhat unusual theme, and that’s what I got.
I also no longer had any doubt in my mind that the book’d be quality. Orford Parish Books had won me over; I was excited for the release and couldn’t wait to see what the team would do.
Speaking of the team, a new member was brought on: the reputable Matthew M. Bartlett, who we might’ve talked about before. This ratcheted up the excitement from ten to fifteen, and when the package finally arrived I tore it open like a ghoul going at a throat.
We jump right into the (mat) action with Bartlett’s “The Dark Match”. It tells of an unnamed man desperately fleeing his hometown of Leeds (and we all know what goes on there!) for the relative safety of a seaside town named Hulse (Bartlett names it in an interview, but not in the story). There he meets a bizarre old man who proceeds to tell him a remarkably grisly story of Hulse’s underground late-night wrestling shows. After the story is finished, our narrator realizes Hulse may not be as safe as he thought. The tale has an intense conclusion that leaves the reader disturbed.
Bartlett’s in fine form here, with his signature brand of surreal horror on full display and an eerie, rapturous prose that draws the reader across the page. It’s also nice to see a change of scenery from Leeds (as much as I love it!) with the decrepit seaside town that this story takes place in. I hope we see a lot more of Hulse in the future! This is a very strong start.
Then we have Joseph Pastula’s truly gruesome “A Severance of Roots”, a shudder-worthy title I didn’t realize the meaning of until writing this post. Our narrator finds an obscure mention of a particularly brutal wrestler called “the Great Hakai” and goes to great lengths to find out more about them. To say anything more would be to spoil the story and its effect. While there is no supernatural element, or even a direct threat to the narrators, the story is possibly the most unsettling in the book. The last paragraph, which isn’t even really a twist, left a cold feeling in my stomach. It mimics the horror of looking back at some terrible past event, the sharp shock of an unexpected monstrosity. I often get this sensation when reading Ambrose Bierce, who could write a horror story like no-one else. In a surprise knockout this entry wins my favorite of the book, despite the incredibly high caliber set by the other two entries.
Finally, we have “The Vision of James Lee Dawson, King of the Death Matches” by Tom Breen. This forms a nice middle ground between the quiet horror of “A Severance of Roots” and the balls-to-the-walls surrealism of “The Dark Match”. It follows a grizzled wrestling veteran to one of his last matches. His eerily quiet opponent, however, isn’t interested in the script. This is probably the biggest treat for those who actually watch and enjoy wrestling. It provides the thrill of the match with the horror promised by the book, and Breen’s characteristically sharp sentences are perfect in their succinctness (another Bierce-like trait). This also has a surreal scene, one of the most utterly strange images in the book (and “The Dark Match” is in this book, so that’s saying something) and a powerful defining image for this slim volume. The ending itself is quite poignant. It rounds things out wonderfully.
There’s another darkly comic faux introduction (attempting to answer the question “Is wrestling real?”), some funny fake bios, and incredibly creepy/hilarious interstitial material taking the form of 1950s-style ads. The services and products advertised are truly bizarre, and (like the bonus content found in Old Gory) add something special to the book.
Wrestling fan or not (and I’m not!), this book is for everyone. Really. I genuinely think anyone can enjoy this book. There’s compelling characters (“The Vision of James Lee Dawson, King of the Deathmatch”), chilling scenarios (“A Severance of Roots”), complete insanity (“The Dark Match”), and some comedy thrown in to lighten the mood (introduction/interstitial material/author bios). It’s an excellent volume that belongs on every shelf.
You can buy Three Moves of Doom: Weird Horror from Inside the Squared Circle here.
And that’s everything OPB has released so far.
Their line-up is exciting. They’ve a folk horror anthology edited by S.J. Bagley coming out (submissions are still open, if you’re interested!) and their next split chapbook, Letters of Decline: Four Tales of Job Interview Horror (with Pastula and Bartlett returning, with the excellent Jonathan Raab and our very own Sean M. Thompson joining the crew), looks very promising.
Orford Parish Books is the breath of fresh air that the weird horror community needs. It’s funny, it’s weird, it’s scary, it’s quality, and it finds horror in the most unusual of places. I highly recommend you visit their website and their Facebook page.
Or, perhaps, you’d like to visit Orford Parish itself. Sure, it has a Facebook page too, but you want the town itself. I know a fellow who can draw you a map, if you’re willing to pay. He’s at the gas station, drawing circles in his blood, muttering about the ghost worms that eat his wife at night. Or something like that, no-one can understand his language anyway. But when you get the map, you just drive, and you’ll find your way there. You’ll never want to leave.
by Sean M. Thompson
Sean M. Thompson‘s debut Too Late opens with a story about a murderess on death row who carves her victims’ heads into “art” before selling them online.
That’s a pretty good tone-setter for this book.
Let’s backtrack a bit – full disclosure must come first. Sean M. Thompson stories have appeared on this site before (the dark and gross “LillyBridge“; an original serialized novella called The Demon; and, on my Matthew M. Bartlett fan site, the manic nightmare of “Martin Pussfoot Strikes Again“), I am a devoted listener to the podcast he co-hosts, and I did blurb this book.
– there is a reason why I did all of those things.
Sean M. Thompson is friggin’ awesome.
So is the cover to this collection of shorts, as one can see. It’s by a fella named Mark Richards. There’s another bit of promo art that I don’t think has been used, by the talented Yves Tourigny. Let’s have a look at that below, shall we?
And those images capture the spirit of Too Late so very well – one bursting with energy and insanity, the other a quiet terror. There’s a good mix of both throughout the book.
The first story, the one I mentioned before – “Fickle Mortality” being its title – is an ideal example.
On the one hand, you’ve a (hopefully) insane woman raving about murder as a tool to travel backwards through the gateway of death into a new life.
On the other hand, you’ve got a tired old criminal sitting on death row, reflecting on their crimes, pondering what will happen next.
Such balancing acts are what Thompson excels at in these stories – an ability to make the supernatural frenzied and bloody while simultaneously slow and creeping.
This is continued into the next story, one called “Stranded in the Storm”. Brrrrr. I could imagine reading this by the fire on Christmas Eve, the spirits of Charles Dickens and M.R. James reclining in armchairs, delighted at the chance for one last ghost story for Christmas.
Except this isn’t a ghost story. Not, at least, in the literal sense.
Instead it’s about a couple driving in the snow when the car breaks down. This is a classic urban legend motif, of course, and but one of the reasons why Too Late‘ll make a great Halloween read (with its EC Comics-style nastiness and its inventive usage of classic monsters). I won’t delve into the details, but let’s just say there’s something very nasty in the snow – something both tragic and horrifying, with its eyes set on the young lovers.
My personal favorite, though, is story number three, a tale called “Jumpin’ Jack”. This introduces the forest of Whispering Pines, which is a connective element between some of Thompson’s stories. Its a very short vignette that only hints at the supernatural, but Jesus, it’s disturbing. The less one knows about this story walking in, the better, but it sent a noticeable shudder through my frame.
Then we have “Dust”, a ghostly Western following two murderous outlaws that come across a ghost town. The slow buildup in this one is delicious, and the characters are probably the most fleshed-out in the book. Again, any hint of what is to come is a bit of a spoiler, but it’s quite possibly the bloodiest tale in the book – at least, one with the most onscreen violence.
Concluding the book – wait, are we really done already? – concluding the chapbook is “The End of Humanity”, a short piece which is thematically connected to the aforementioned serialized novella The Demon. It’s a piece which damns you as you read the first word, epitomizes the title of the collection, claims to sentence the reader to eternal agony via a culturally transmitted disease – demonic possession. Thankfully, this story is a work of fiction. If it wasn’t, then I’d be dooming you just by writing this review – even as your eyes scan the screen, you’d be infected.
But it’s not true.
Look, the point is, Too Late is a knock-it-out-of-the-park debut and the perfect book for Halloween. Clocking in at an appropriate 66 pages, it’s very, very short, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in content. That content consists of good, realistic people (straight out of our own lives) thrown into nasty, bloody situations (straight out of the pulp magazines). It’s dark, it’s gruesome, and above all, it’s promising.
I’m a Sean M. Thompson fan.
And I’m proud of it.
by Michael Wehunt
Trees feature a great deal in Michael Wehunt‘s debut collection Greener Pastures. This is, of course, not new – the dark forest is burnt permanently into the human mind – but there’s a certain way they’re handled in the book that makes this horror trope even eerier. They are treated less as ominous background and more as sentient beings in and of themselves, centuries written in the twisted canals of their bark, gazing upon humanity with an eye that varies from cold to sadistic. They are not mood nor setting – they are characters.
Michael Bukowski‘s excellent cover, then, sets the tone for the book impeccably. The eye is first drawn to the figures – the diseased golden dog holding a grotesque wooden object, the faceless creatures lurking in the background, the multitude of insects and fungi that are growing on the dirt floor – but truly it is the dark, looming trees that build atmosphere, casting a sickly green-blue light over the whole scenery.
The concisely-designed volume is introduced expertly by Simon Strantzas, a horror veteran cementing Wehunt as one of the masters of our time.
But on to the real treasures – the stories. The book opens with “Beside Me Singing in the Wilderness”, a dark and weird story of a “bloodfall” on a cursed mountain and two young girls who come across it. This writer cannot reveal much more about this story then that, but the reader is assured that it is a fantastically strange and gruesome story with hints of vampirism and unnerving subtext.
The book really gets going at “Onanon”, however, which riffs on the idea of “infected text” (as Wehunt calls it in his story notes) to frightening effects. Adam is a man drifting hopelessly through a bleak life, his mother a broken woman, his life dreary and untethered. But when he moves to a mountain cabin at the behest of a mysterious woman, his world begins to unravel. Revelation is piled upon revelation, but it never feels out-of-control – on the contrary, Wehunt uses subtlety to tell a story mixed with moments of quiet beauty and intense fear. The story also shows the influence of Lovecraft, though the “infected text” appearing herein is far scarier than anything Lovecraft could’ve thought up.
The collection’s titular story is one of the most atmospheric stories I have ever read. As Wehunt mentions in his notes, he wanted to write something that was a cross between the fantasy of The Twilight Zone and the realism of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Not only does “Greener Pastures” pay tribute to both, but it exceeds these influences. This is such a fantastic story that it would be criminal to even hint at – you should walk into this tale unexpecting and nervous, letting it envelop you in its atmospheric, moody darkness. I will, however, quote one line that has stuck with me since I have read it, has rattled me day and night, since it is something I have experienced many times – “He poured the creamer in and stirred his coffee. The clink of the spoon unnerved him. It was too much like an alarm bell.” Quite possibly the most atmospheric tale in the book. It would almost certainly take scariest if not for – well, we’ll get to it when we get to it.
Michael Bukowski’s depiction of “Those Between the Spaces“.
We delve into weirder territory with “A Discreet Music”, a haunting tribute to Robert Aickman (and originally published in the Shirley Jackson Award-winning Aickman’s Heirs, edited by the aforementioned Simon Strantzas). The passing of an elderly man’s wife brings many changes, some supernatural and others emotional. This is a…difficult story – not in the sense that it is poorly written or convoluted; but in that it deals with uncomfortable topics, personal issues, and rough emotions. This one lingered with me. I honestly can’t talk too much about this one either – it is more of an experience than a traditional story, and the reader should not have any foreknowledge of it.
“The Devil Under the Maison Blue” takes the good old-fashioned horror from “Greener Pastures” and the difficult subjects of “A Discreet Music”, combining them into a Jazz Era retelling of the Faustian legend. This story has won many accolades for Wehunt, and while it isn’t my favorite in the collection (though it is utterly awesome), I can see why so many people love it. The fact that its a Faustian story ought to tell you a good deal about the tale, so I won’t talk about it any further, save for the fact that it is a dark story well worth reading. Now onto the goods…
“October Film Haunt: Under the House“. What the hell can I say about this story? Michael said to me in a message he was “putting aside the emotional depth for a bit and just trying to be really scary”. And God, this story is scary. Intensely scary. A found footage yarn, “October Film Haunt: Under the House” reads like The Blair Witch Project (one of my favorite films) on steroids. Following a group of bloggers investigating the house where a surreal horror film was shot, this story spirals into heart-stopping terror almost immediately. While the format in which the found footage is presented can be somewhat difficult to grasp at first, the story is otherwise flawless. Definitely the scariest in the collection, and quite possibly my favorite of the contents.
We take a deeeeeeeep breather with “Deducted from Your Share in Paradise”, about a small hick trailer community that is thrown into disarray when mysterious women quite literally fall down from the sky. These mute visitors quickly integrate themselves into the community, each finding a male partner and engaging in sexual relationships with them. The situation, however, is a little more complicated for the protagonist of the story, who abstains from intercourse with his angelic guest and begins to form emotional attachments with her. Just like “A Discreet Music”, its a quieter story that certainly deserves the label weird as opposed to horror. The ending destroyed me.
“The Inconsolable” is a dark, dark story, following a depressed man’s attempted suicide after a difficult breakup. The story genuinely captures the rough patch following the end of a relationship, and how that can lead to bad places. Of course, it’d be hard to imagine a worse place than where our protagonist ends up, even after the failed suicide attempt, but nonetheless its realism can be far more disturbing than the unusual apparitions that begin to plague the narrator.
Starting out through the lens of a traditional demonic possession story but ending up in a more Lovecraftian place, “Dancers” is another collection standout. Trees also appear in this story, taking a more prominent place in the story. The trees – the story’s titular “dancers” – mirror a woman’s relationship with her husband, which is upended by a disturbing change in behavior resulting in an exorcism. The very physical entity that had taken control of the husband, however, is not gone forever. A beautiful and unsettling tale.
Rounding out the weirder entries in the book is “A Hundred Thousand Years”, which is haunting beyond compare. In his story notes, Wehunt ruminates on the idea that when a child dies, or disappears, all potential futures are annihilated along with the child’s life. Our protagonist is a Mexican immigrant, and Wehunt portrays him as such without bias but instead with objectivity, showing him as human being (some disgusting assholes would have it otherwise, but this isn’t a political blog). To say anything more would be to ruin the story’s haunting ending, but rest assured, it is a tragic and strange story that is worth your attention.
In a book packed full of bleeding mountains, emaciated Christs, tentacle monsters, geese, sexually voracious angels, doppelgängers, ghosts, and less definable things, its strange to close the story with an entirely non-supernatural story. Don’t underestimate it, though – “Bookends” has teeth, and it will bite. The loving couple (their names are a little inside joke, which most Stephen King fans’ll get) around which the story centers are fully-rendered as real people with real emotions, which makes the tragedies that follow all the more upsetting. The story, however, ends on a note of hope, despite it being arguably the darkest story in the book due to its brutally honest realism. And that’s a beautiful thing, no? As Wehunt says in his notes at the end of the book, horror can’t exist without hope.
In regards to Wehunt himself – well, to quote Abigail Williams from Arthur Miller’s seminal The Crucible, “I have something better than hope”. What a debut! These stories are as powerful as any master’s – and Michael Wehunt surely is a master. From the breakneck horror of “October Film Haunt: Under the House” to the weirdness of “A Discreet Music” to the crushing real life situations of “Bookends”, Greener Pastures truly has something for everyone – and I’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t like the book. It’s quite possibly the best collection of the year, which is really saying something considering the wealth of material produced already. This is the gateway to something truly beautiful and horrifying, and we should all wait with eager breath, watching the spaces between the trees.
You can buy Greener Pastures on Amazon here.
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.
More Dunhams Manor Press! After this, I’ll be reviewing two other Dunhams books – The Operating Theater by Christopher Ropes and Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales by Christopher Slatsky – before moving onto The Witch.
by Phillip Fracassi
The Gothic genre goes largely unappreciated these days. Before Lovecraft and Machen and Smith introduced their unique pseudo-occult blend of weirdness, it was Poe and Radcliffe and Hawthorne, who wrote sweeping romanticisms of passion, hatred, and fear. It can be hard to find an equilibrium between these genres, as the Weird is predicated on abandoning all former conventions, while the Gothic has a definite vibe to it, favoring more traditional terrors to the highly unusual forces that appear in its daughter genre. But somehow, Philip Fracassi has managed to do it. Mother takes the mystery and intrigue of classic Gothic tales and blends it with the outside forces of the modern Weird tale into a fascinating and terrifying story.
Howard (our narrator) and Julie meet in college, and it is love at first sight. After three years together, they marry – a little too hastily, perhaps. They move to West Virginia. Their house is on the border of a vast wilderness, something which provides inspiration to Julia’s artwork.
Things start to go bad, unfortunately, very quickly. Julia is uncomfortable around Howard’s friends and her art career is languishing miserably. The two grow cold to each other and frequently remain in silence for days. When they do talk, they usually argue and yell. The rift between them continues to grow.
But Julia starts to act peculiar, and it becomes evident that she has found comfort elsewhere. She murmurs and takes long walks in the woods. This reaches its climax when Howard walks into her attic studio and finds her standing naked amidst black candles and demonic symbols. She flees into the woods, ashamed, only to return the next morning.
Things look like they’re at their lowest. But then Julia has an idea. She wants to have a child.
This is Philip Fracassi‘s first excursion into the realm of horror/weird fiction, and, for what is essentially a debut novel, it is fantastic. Particularly in its developments of our two main characters. Julie is driven to do terrible things, but it never feels like she was wrong to probe into them. She is lonely and ruined and she reached out for help. Did she get help? That’s…debatable. The writing is crisp and clean, straightforward, only delving into florid prose when necessary. The dialogue occasionally becomes stilted, but this is a minor and forgivable nitpick in the midst of a truly terrifying novelette.
As I said earlier, the book blends traditional Gothicism with modern Weird, and does so remarkably. Howard is a traditional Lovecraftian narrator, giving off a strong “I am writing this under appreciable mental strain…” vibe, and the isolated location is a modern Gothic castle (with its sinister goings-on in the night), but the fruit of Julie’s efforts is most decidedly in the Weird genre.
And about that – the ending. The ending. It is terrifying. I do not exaggerate – the conclusion of Mother scared the hell out of me, and disturbed me for days after. Not just because of its inherent – creepiness – but because that it suggested terrifying things about what a person will do when they’re lonely and lost. Truly one of the most nerve-racking endings I have ever encountered.
Mother is old-school. And…new-school (if that’s an actual term). It is another success for Dunhams Manor Press. It is a promising debut for an upcoming horror writer. And most of all, it is a deliriously terrifying story.
It’s also buyable! But this edition is limited, less than half of the original one hundred copies remain. You can buy Mother direct from Dunhams Manor here.
Update: after the first edition was sold out, Dunhams Manor rereleased this excellent book on Amazon. The “More Praise” section at the start of the book even features a quote from this review! You can buy it here.