“Greener Pastures” (Review)

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Greener Pastures
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.

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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.

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Walpurgisnacht 2016: Month of Bartlett Conclusion

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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)

THE COLLECTIONS

GATEWAYS TO ABOMINATION

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?

CREEPING WAVES

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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.

Buy Creeping Waves here on Amazon and here direct from Muzzleland Press, the publisher.

DEAD AIR

Dead Air

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 COMPANIONS

THE WITCH-CULT IN WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS

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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

Anne Gare

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.)

Spettrini

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.


AND NOW…

…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 LemanSean BranneySean M. ThompsonJose CruzJonathan RaabSam 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.

Matthew M. Bartlett Portrait

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.

“LillyBridge” by Sean M. Thompson

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“LillyBridge”
by Sean M. Thompson
(warning – adult content)

I’m not sure what compels me to visit “Shimmyin’ Shirley’s”. Not normally one of those guys who likes to go to strip clubs. Hell, I’m not even from Western Massachusetts. Just down this way for a business conference. Why my company insisted on holding it at a Marriott in the middle of fucking nowhere is beyond me.

I’m driving down a barely lit road, flanked on either side by dense forest, when I see the pink, neon sign. There’s an incredibly lewd caricature of a woman shaking her prodigious, neon boobs in the glaring light. Even as I’m pulling the car into the lot I’m wondering, what am I doing?

An impressively greasy biker bouncer (who smells like stale cigarettes and meth) informs me that I’m “in for a treat, pal, we got our finest herky-jerky women things on the pole tonight.” He slaps my shoulder with a meaty palm, and I’m not successful quelling my cry of alarm. I don’t like the way his pupils dilate when I flinch.

“Woah! Jumpy fella, ain’t ya? Well, the girly-whirlies will fix ya right up, yesiree.”

Nameless biker freak #3 walks me into the club, and I’m assaulted by a powerful, malingering stench: something like low tide mixed with piles of burning tires. There’s another stink below I can’t place.

Strobe lights flash to and fro, as what I can only describe as a mix of dubstep and polka thunders out of speakers, tied at sporadic intervals with what appears to be a mixture of rope made from human hair intertwined with snakeskin, and used condoms.

I belly up to the bar, and an enormous albino woman asks me “What’s your poison?”

There’s a blacklight running the length of the dusty bottles behind the bartender, and I swear one of them has a leech floating in it.

When I squint, I see all manner of foul stains along her taut, cotton tank top, and more lit on her alabaster skin, on top of crude cartoonish tattoos of goats, witches, and, strangely enough, one of The Pope.

“Uh, just a beer, imported if you have it,” I say, trying to be nonchalant, and failing.

The bartender makes a face like I just told her I stabbed her uncle, and hands me a chipped glass, with a faded, photo realistic picture of a cat’s face on it, filled with foamy suds.

“Only thing imported here is Svetnanya,” she says, then belches.

“That sounds like a made up Russian name,” I half-heartedly mutter, but the bartender’s already turned her massive back to me, and has snatched a bottle of whiskey off the bar, which she proceeds to glug with the finesse of an established alcoholic as she stomps away.

I take my beer (god I hope it’s a beer) to a small table by the stage. The club only has three other patrons, which stands to reason as it’s a Sunday night.

There’s an anorexic looking guy in plaid pajama pants, and one of those winter hats with the ear flaps, putting a dollar into the swamp green g-string of a wrinkly older woman, who legitimately looks like she’s seventy if she’s a day. This geriatric’s pendulous breasts are sweeping against ear-flaps slack-jawed face, and I retch a little. Yet, I don’t leave, and frankly, my lack of action alarms me.

Why am I still in here? I wonder. This establishment is the very definition of disgusting.

And yet, I’m strangely drawn to the grotesqueries of the scene.

A blonde guy, with a tan and surfer shorts is getting a lap dance from a bald woman wearing a zebra print vest, who, on closer examination, is missing her two front teeth, and appears to be cross-eyed. She twirls nipple tassels made from worms hot glued on. I down my oh-please-be-beer in a frantic gulp, and the stirrings in my loins alarm me to no end.

There’s an incredibly strong woman, with a bright red mullet, chewing on snuff, feeling up a stripper in a, well, in some kind of pale leather bikini. Shades of Ed Gein float into my noggin’, which I will away.

“Boy howdy, take my money Misty Muck!” strong mullet yells, then whoops and hollers.

Misty gyrates, shoving her crotch into the strong woman’s face. When the dancer’s countenance is visible, I recoil, knocking over my empty glass.

Misty has no eyes. Shoved into the empty sockets are twigs, and rocks.

Someone grabs my shoulder, and I scream.

“Wait until you see LillyBridge,” biker-bouncer whispers in my ear, and his hot breath so close sends slivers of ice down my spine. The strobes have me seizurous, and the smell has me whoozy.

All the lights shut off at once, and “Shirley’s” is dark as the heart of a death row sociopath. I feel things slither over my bluchers; big, undulating creatures in the dark. Hear my fellow patrons whispering in excitement, moaning in pleasure, and underneath this noise, a thrum, as of a high powered generator.

All at once, a spotlight hits the main stage, and a funeral dirge, with a little bass to it thumps out of the speakers.

“Coming to the stage we have the Empress of Ice Cream, she who was old when the world was young. The gal so nice she got to live twice. Revel in her form, for it is the shape of your damnation. Your screams are useless in this place, so it’s utter folly to attempt to cry for help, or to try to escape. Your filthy hands aren’t worthy of her dirty pillows, nor the juice in her caboose. Sanity is but a memory before the majesty of her terrible machinations. Welcome, LiiiiiiiiillllllllllyBriiiiiiiiiiiiiiidge.”

She must be twelve feet tall, wearing a bra and panties made of human faces, tanned and stretched. I trace the rigid muscle of her calves up to her thighs, gravity backflips, and suddenly she’s either on the ceiling, or I am. She grinds against a pole made of human spines, melted together. The strobes mask her expression, momentarily shadow her teeth, which are large, and sharp, in the pulse of the new light. She blows a kiss at me, and her foetid breath makes my body grow weak. I can easily smell her from ten feet away. I slump from my chair, and either fall to the floor, or jump onto the ceiling. LillyBridge tosses her face-bra at me, and I kick like a thrashing lunatic.

LillyBridge, oh LillyBridge, we dug a very deep, deep ditch,” the DJ sings, and the rest of the club takes up the tune.

In unison they all sing “You crawled back out, we’re all finished, oh Lilly, Lilly, LillyBridge.”

And I’m laughing now, can’t stop laughing, and LillyBridge dances her way off the stage, in my direction. The flock of perverts around me sing the round louder, and louder still, until their voices boom over the thumping death-bass.

We’re all finished, oh, LILLY, LILLY, LILLYBRIDGE!

The giantess picks me up, and her body is festooned in dirt. She lifts me close to her face, and I see her hair is filled with wriggling maggots. She licks my cheek, and her tongue is long and black: a giraffe’s tongue, rotted beyond death.

LillyBridge whispers in my ear in an ancient rasp –

“They tried to bury me, but you can’t keep a good woman down. They always need someone to dance to the tunes they play, the songs they sing, on WXXT. Leeds appreciates a good woman, a strong woman. I’m one of the oldest, of dirt and rot, and the things that live deep under the world are my children. Everyone wants a good screw, and little man, after you meet me – ”

Her tongue jams into my ear, deep, deep, my eyes roll back, my vision greys.

“You’re screwed,” she purrs, and bursts into a cackle which sets me twitching.

I kick, try to loosen her vice grip, but she’s too strong, and I can feel consciousness slipping away, though I’m pitching a tent in my business slacks. And still the chorus screams the words to the song, as Lillybridge rubs me along her grave-mud-caked body, and her tongue finally slithers out of my ear, to snake its way down my pants, and the other dancers gyrate demonaically, and far off behind the stage flames crackle, and long for flesh.

“We can wait forever for you, lover,” Lillybridge whispers, as I feel blood bubble out of my eyes, ears, and nose, and my spine spasms as her foul appendage laps me to climax. I scream until my voice is nothing but a tinny rasp, as she thunders with laughter, the rest of the club dancing around us in a circle, hands entwined.

“Oblivion is only a lap dance away, and even when you leave, you’re never really gone. We take a piece of you, as payment, an offering to our humble little establishment.”

The strobes flash faster, and the dancers peel off their skin; toss it onto their clientele, and my brain feels as if it’s boiling, ready to leak out my ears. I shake, and shudder, and Lillybridge smiles real wide, exposing bits of human skin lodged in her enormous, crimson-stained, sharp teeth, exposing gums rotted and purple.

“Now, let’s have some real fun,” she says, and moans loudly, as funeral bells chime the end through the speakers.

And…heaven help me…it’s excruciating bliss.


Raised by feral cats in the wilderness of central Massachusetts, Sean M. Thompson writes fiction to frighten and enrage the normals. When he isn’t bathing in the blood of the innocent, he co-hosts the podcast Miskatonic Musings, and updates his blog, found here.

“A Voice in the Static” by Clint Hale

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“A Voice in the Static”
by Clint Hale

These last few nights, while drifting off to sleep in my warm bed, I’ve woken suddenly to find myself, once again, in Leeds, MA. There is a strange sort of darkness to that place, and the air itself seems alive with pulsing static. If I listen closely, perhaps leaning into the cab of a long-abandoned truck within the black forest, and press my ear to the cold plastic of a speaker, I can hear something within that static. It fades and buzzes and I worry what it might wake within the lightless wood. Eventually I hear a man, speaking ominously of salvation through plague, a drone of sonorous percussion layered beneath his lulling voice. In time – minutes, moments, eternities – I realize the static is no longer coming from the speaker. Instead, it is coming from the direction of a soft, glowing light swelling to life among the trees. The voice in the static is speaking my name, and enveloped in an unknowable accumulation of imperceptible radio waves, I begin to walk.

***

Matthew Bartlett is a man with a message. He knows well that words themselves are inert, dead things; incapable of movement and life until a skilled hand comes along and fashions them into something worthy of being read. In that respect, he has already proven himself to be a more than capable wordsmith. He has a keen eye for knowing just how much to divulge in his fiction, and a staggering ability to paint the grotesque in a hypnotically beautiful light. His message is unique and affecting, one that expertly couples the visceral with the psychological. And at the very heart of this message – this communicable view of a world always in the process of decay – are his characters: people shaped by the shadows that encroach on their tiny lives; people who breathe the dank, sodden odor of unreality; people emotionally encumbered by a definite lack of something. These multifaceted individuals are what allow the strange events in his stories to feel possible, despite their inherent impossibility; indeed, the whole of Gateways to Abomination is an example of that very process of sublimation in action. Whether through raw sensuality or a subtlety attuned to their individual temperament, Bartlett’s characters act as a conduit for his carefully constructed message to be transmitted.

I will admit that the Man from Leeds was not on my radar until well after the release of Gateways. I was not there at the beginning, witnessing his momentous rise out of the overwhelming muck of self-published authors. But word travels fast around the campfire of the Weird, and soon his name was on the lips of many a respected author. So here we are, paying tribute to a writer staggeringly talented yet unassuming. A man who can craft nightmares you’ll want to relive, and take you to a town you’ll never want to leave. His prose is lyrical and effortless, and despite his often grisly subject matter it is always written with passion and a finely-tuned attention to detail. His plots, though surreal and bewildering, are never out of place in his careful hands. Though the future is often bleak for those in his tales, the same cannot be said for the author himself. As far as I’m concerned this is only the beginning for him, and I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.

But you already knew all that. You’ve read his work, experienced his purposefully fragmented insight. You’ve traversed his mental landscape, seen the grey men in grey coats with grey faces. You’ve heard the transmissions, the whispers that sound like rain. You’re a receiver now, the end result of a signal sounding through a forest made dark by more than just the absence of light. The only thing left to do now is follow the voice in the static.


Clint Hale is a writer of short fiction and the editor of the Dark of Things.

“America Bizarrica” by Tom Breen

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“America Bizarrica”
by Tom Breen

Robinson Hale’s big break came courtesy of a book he bought from a bum in a shabby overcoat selling battered hardcovers from a blanket in Tompkins Square Park.

Hale liked the dust jacket – a stylized illustration of a man in what looked like a Pilgrim costume holding his hand up and averting his face from the viewer. Curious Lore and Customs of the Connecticut River Valley by Abel Pitkin looked almost contemporary, but it was published in 1929.

The book proved to be a treasure for Hale, who had been trying to place stories with America Bizarrica, the popular weird travel website within the vast “lifestyle platform” empire of Tub, once a scabrous fanzine and now a company that took in millions of dollars and put out high-quality Internet content for affluent people under 34.

America Bizarrica published long-form essays, photo slideshows, and crisply-edited video, and the only remit was to be strange and different, not just in tone, but in content from all the other “off the beaten path” and “weird America” sites with their gormless reports of giant balls of twine or the plaque marking the spot where George Washington once ate an entire onion. Best of all, America Bizarrica paid, and paid well.

The odd old collection of tall tales, folklore, and vituperative asides about local customs turned out to be Hale’s way over the wall of indifference that had greeted all of his previous queries to the website.

Like many similar collections published at the time, Pitkin’s looked backward, as electricity, indoor plumbing, and the automobile remade America, sweeping away folkways that in some places had endured since before the Revolution. But whereas many of his contemporaries looked back with nostalgia or tried, however vainly, to argue for the preservation of old customs, Pitkin seemed relieved that “the barbarous ways and verminous superstitions” of the country from Brattleboro south to Old Lyme were passing away.

He regarded with particular loathing two obscure towns in the valley, Orford Parish in Connecticut and Leeds in Massachusetts. While the book treated most of the region’s residents with condescending comedy as bumpkins, scolds, or credulous oafs, Pitkin’s tone sharpened when describing the folkways of Leeds and Orford Parish, and his descriptions took on the character of sermons preached by that  famous Connecticut River Valley divine, Jonathan Edwards.

Hale, though, was thrilled to read of Secret New Year in Orford Parish and the grotesque procession through Leeds on All Hallows’ Eve; of King-Kill House and Sorrow Falls and the Devil’s Wallet; of rituals to make rivals impotent and stories of witches who persisted long after the Salem days.

It was particularly exciting when Hale discovered there was relatively little written about the towns online. The weird travel sites seemed to be unaware they even existed, and in the major newspaper archives he could find only a scattering of short stories about crimes or disputed local elections.

With visions of a four-figure check dancing in his daydreams, he made his first trip north from Williamsburg one summer, to cover Orford Parish’s annual Fourth of July parade or, as the town called the event, “the Procession of Antique Horribles”. When the Bizarrica editor saw Hale’s video of grotesque costumes, fire eaters, drunks in Boy Scout uniforms sleeping on the sidewalk, and the leering, goatish effigy of Thomas Jefferson (“God of Democracy”) paraded through the town at the climax of the berserk celebration, he not only accepted the piece on the spot, but promised to pay for anything “half as weird”.

Following that success, Hale sold three more pieces to the website, all based on things Abel Pitkin had written back in 1929: “goblin money” on the streets of Leeds; Orford Parish elections in which only children could vote; and a phenomenon, in the Connecticut town, in which mayors seemed to disappear with alarming regularity.

In addition to paying his rent, the articles were starting to make a name for Robinson Hale, as they were picked up, rewritten, and spread to other websites, and the Internet began to awaken to the wondrous strangeness of Leeds and Orford Parish. Hale was amused to see his articles had even been noticed in the towns themselves: shortly after his fourth article was posted on America Bizarrica, he read online a letter to the editor of the Orford Parish Vituperator, the town’s shrill, eccentric daily newspaper, in which Hale’s piece was denounced by a reader.

“These fine fellows in Brooklyn City can chortle all they want at the good people of Orford Parish and Leeds, but they should be watchful, lest they find the joke is on them,” the letter concluded.

“Always nice to encounter a fan,” he wrote when tweeting out the link to his growing number of followers.

Two days later, Hale was on the road north from New Haven, crafting in his mind the book pitch about the towns he was sure a publisher would pounce on.

His new story would be the first to directly tie the two towns together, inspired by a passage in Pitkin’s book about something called “wolf stones”:

The early settlers of New England, much afraid for the disposition of their dead, would, in some remote places, resort at times to laying huge stone slabs lengthwise over freshly dug graves. The utility of this practice was in protecting the mortal remains of the deceased from wolves, which in those days prowled the region in great packs, and would, in times of scarce victuals, resort to digging in churchyards for flesh, however corrupt. This was at a time when almost no one was buried in a coffin, and when the proverbial ‘six feet deep’ was scarcely to be found in that rocky and unforgiving soil.

Wolves were extinct from southern New England by 1745, and the frugal Yankee, ever desirous of saving money and labor, was happy to lift the wolf stones from the grave and put them in the countless miles of stonewall that still girdle this part of the world. And so wolf stones followed wolves, and were gone from New England by the time of the Revolution. Today there are only a handful of these stowaways from history that remain in churchyards; a wolf stone in Old Mystic, Conn., and one at York Village in Maine. And there are two in the valley, in those unhappy towns, Leeds and Orford Parish.

The reason the stones have remained at Old Mystic and York Village appears to have been forgetfulness initially and historic preservation latterly, but the reason they are planted still in Leeds and Orford Parish differs, as those towns must. Such things cannot exist in places like Leeds and Orford Parish, pestilential villages fatted on unwholesome deeds, without black rumors attaching themselves, and indeed, it is attested very early in both places that the objective in placing the heavy slabs on the graves was not to keep wolves out, but to keep whatever was buried beneath from rising again.

Pitkin’s book gave the location of both stones, a Google search told Hale the two cemeteries were still extant, and with a terse but encouraging email from his editor, he was on his way from Brooklyn one bright morning in February.

The trip did not begin well. His experience in the Orford Parish cemetery – a tiny burying ground established in 1702 that was located on a twisty, forlorn road in the hilly southern end of town – was mildly unpleasant, and as he drove north on I-91 to Leeds, he consoled himself with the thought that at least it would make a decent anecdote for his story.

When he had arrived at the Connecticut burying ground, he had been nonplussed to find the wolf stone – easy to spot, exactly where Pitkin said it was – surrounded by a group of teenage girls, dressed in their age group’s uniform of skinny jeans and hooded sweatshirts. Not wishing to engage them in conversation, he pretended to study some of the other old stones in the cemetery, nearly all of which were eaten by lichen and cracked by centuries of New England winters, although on one he could make out the epitaph “And now Lord God almighty, true and just are all thy ways, but who can stand before thy cold?”

Out of the corner of his eye, he was startled to see the girls wriggling their jeans to their knees, and taking turns sitting on the wolf stone. He recalled Pitkin had said the stone was seen locally as a cure for infertility – actually, Pitkin had written it was seen as a cure for fertility, but surely that had to have been a typo. As Hale debated whether to try and get interviews about an apparently living folk custom versus the potential for being seen as a creep, a chunk of rock landed near him, and he heard sharp, mocking laughter from the gaggle of teenagers.

A Roman candle of panic went off inside Hale as he recalled Orford Parish had a reputation quite apart from the quirky, macabre superstitions recorded by Pitkin, one rooted in the mundane terrors of heroin and unemployment and violence. But the girls, having achieved whatever end they had in mind with the wolf stone, apparently threw the rock as a parting shot, for they soon left Hale alone in the cemetery to take his photos and hurry back to his car.

It was nearly 3 p.m. when he coasted into the center of Leeds, his phone’s GPS signaling that he had arrived at his destination, although the gnarled, tiny churchyard spotted in Google Streetview was nowhere to be seen. Instead, what confronted him at the address was a small, shabby brick building with a convenience store occupying the ground floor, a hand-written sign proclaiming “We Got ATM $ Cash” in the window.

Parking on the street, he looked in vain for anything that looked like it might be a churchyard, or park, or green space. Probably the convenience store clerk would know where to look, he thought, as he pushed the door open.

Inside, he found a tiny store whose wares appeared to have been organized by a tornado. Items seemed to have not so much been placed on shelves as flung there, and if there were some taxonomy to how they were arranged, he could scarcely imagine it.

There was no one behind the counter but standing in front of the beer cooler was a man plunked somewhere along the timeline of a hard middle age, regarding Hale with a dazed expression. The man clutched a plastic bag in one hand as the other attempted to hitch up his baggy, stained trousers, the cuffs of which engulfed the shoes he was wearing. An untucked dress shirt, garlanded with food stains, and a battered grey hooded sweatshirt completed his look, along with a stink that Hale registered as the likely bouquet of homelessness.

“Hi,” Hale mustered, in the politeness with which he had been raised. “Do you work here?”

“Roger’s taking a dump,” the man said in a glottal voice.

“I’m sorry?” Hale asked.

“Roger. The owner,” the man said, very slowly, as if each word were costing him money. “He’s taking a dump. He told me to watch the store while he’s out taking a dump. Hadda go across the street, ’cause he don’t have a can here.”

“Ah, okay,” Hale said. “Well, maybe you can help me out. I know this is going to sound weird, but I’m looking for a peculiar kind of old-fashioned gravestone. People, I guess, used to call it a ‘wolf stone’.”

He was about to elaborate further, but the man’s eyes flickered at the last two words.

“Oh, sure,” he said. “Only, we call it something different. We call it, ah, that is…” and here he trailed off, as if thinking too hard about something.

“So…you know where it is?” Hale asked, the impatience in his voice almost imperceptible.

“Oh, sure,” the man said. “It’s in the basement.”

Hale paused, and his hopes plunged.

“Oh,” he said. “So, they removed the stone and … put it in storage?”

“Oh, no,” the man said, smiling to reveal a set of small, yellow teeth. “No, nobody’s ever removed that stone. No, you see, you see, ah, they used to, this whole block used to be a churchyard, you see. And then when they built up this block, they moved all the graves down the street, only they didn’t move that stone. They just built the building over it.”

This was better than Hale could have dreamed. You couldn’t get more America Bizarrica than that. His hopes were tempered only by his suspicion that the man before him was drunk, brain-damaged, or both.

“Is it something people can go see? Or should I wait for…Roger to come back?” he asked.

“Oh no. Go on down. The basement’s right there,” the man said, motioning over his shoulder to a narrow door on which a New England Patriots calendar from 2007 had been tacked and never removed.

Nodding, Hale tried to hold his breath as he squeezed past the man, only to exhale when his interlocutor held up the plastic bag he had been clutching. The smell from the bag was even worse than the stink coming off its owner, and Hale could see the insides of the bag were streaked with brown gore.

“Hey,” the man said. “You wanna buy some spare ribs? Best in town. Cut these just this morning. Make my own sauce. Ten bucks.”

“Uh, thanks, but maybe when I come back up,” Hale said, hurrying past.

He heard the man chuckle as he descended the stairs, flicking on a light switch as he went. When he reached the bottom, the basement was much larger than he had imagined, stretching not only under the convenience store but perhaps the whole block. Some areas of it were ringed with iron picket fences about three feet high, while stone slabs leaned against the whitewashed walls as far as the light would let him see.

About 20 feet from the staircase was a grave like the one he had seen in Orford Parish: a headstone resting on a dirt floor, with a white stone laid lengthwise over it. Removed from the burying ground setting, it looked like an art installation, and Hale forgot the unpleasantness of his encounter upstairs as he paused before it, trying to read the inscription on the wolf stone.

He traced his fingers in the shallow grooves, and mouthed the words he thought he felt there. “Taller Jeems will not be the man who will not,” he whispered, trying to make the words form a semblance of reasonable order, when the headstone toppled backward, shattering on the ground.

Startled, Hale scanned the basement and then moved quickly for the stairs, worrying that no one would believe he hadn’t pushed the stone over, trying to decide on a way to explain to – who? – that he wasn’t some vandal from New York, just a writer trying to tell a quirky story.

He was so distracted by his anxiety that he tripped over the tree root, thick as an elephant’s tusk, which lay at the threshold of the doorway. He tried to catch himself but fell, not on the greasy tile of the convenience store, but onto wet grass and spongy moss.

Leeds – the sad, low-slung brick buildings, the dusty cars at untended parking meters, the cheap diners and the crumbling old houses – was gone, and around him there was a forest, wild and tangled and shuddering with life.

Stumbling to his feet, he shook his head as if to reorder the sight before him to something comprehensible, but tripped again when glistening, ropey tendrils snaked from beneath a row of ferns to grasp at his ankles and wrists, probing his face, moving with vegetable indifference into his mouth, nose, ears, and eyes, pulling him down into the soft dampness.

He could see the trees above him fall, the brush cut away, the first crude houses spring up, and then sturdier dwellings, and then men in Colonial dress with solemn faces laying a huge stone over him, and then the roads grew broad and well-traveled, and the town disgorged its sons to die in war, and the rain fell on the corn, and the buildings were larger and the carriages disappeared as hard streets coursed through the town, and the river turned the wheels of a mill until the mill was no more and at last a vast antenna tower sprouted from where he lay and waved over the town as night came.

The last thing, before he was joined forever to the black soil of Leeds, was the sound of a radio crackling into life, its staticky tendrils testing the air, beckoning to the unwary.


Tom Breen is a former newspaper and wire service journalist who lives and works in Eastern Connecticut. His short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Broken Worlds and Creepy Campfire Quarterly Vol. 2, and his chapbook, Orford Parish Murder Houses: a Visitor’s Guide (to be reviewed by the Conqueror Weird soon), was published in February, 2016. The best places to find him are Colonial graveyards in New England, or on Twitter as @TJBreen.

“In Leeds” by John Linwood Grant

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“In Leeds”
by John Linwood Grant
with apologies to Matthew M. Bartlett

I won’t touch you, Matthew. Maybe it’s the sweat on your palms, the way your hands are shaking. Maybe I just don’t get the whole contact thing, the need to reach out. I didn’t have to reach out to bring you over, did I?

You can call me John. It’s easy on the tongue, if you have one. Some folk round here don’t, and they get along just fine.

Here? This is Leeds, Matthew.

Not your Leeds, of course. I’ve been there, and it’s a dark and dandy place, but it sings a different tune. Over there you’re too close to those silver-stringed gee-tars, those holy-rollers and a chance of redemption.

There’s no redemption here. No chance that if you turn that radio on, you’ll hear a preacher, or some sweet country gal with her panties dry and her momma’s cross hanging round her neck. The sounds on our airwaves are old, older than you’ve ever dreamed.

You hear that? That’s a legionary, pissing on a cross seventeen centuries ago, the night before the locals hooked out his guts and made him eat them. He was happy that night, because he was going home. He was leaving. Ten years of crotch-rot and sodden tunics, women – and men – whose diseases hadn’t even been thought of where he came from.

Not much has changed. We’ll drive a little, and I’ll show you.

These are the graveyards, edging the city, yellowed grass around soot-stained teeth. You can still read what it says on some of the stones. Twelve children, this one had, all dead before a year. Each tiny mouth chewed a part of her away, and she joined them before she was thirty. The cholera came that year, and played on her street, played hopscotch through the stinking refuse – this house, then that one.

See, she’s smiling at you. Or maybe not. That lower jaw’s probably somewhere round here, if we look hard…

No? Let’s go further in, then. Mills and homes, homes and mills. Each fed the other. Nothing Satanic about these mills, only the clatter of engines as they did the work of a fine new God. Limbs trapped in grinding gears, lungs clogged with fibre, backs breaking…

That man by the towering chimney? He’s no-one. Don’t nod, don’t look. He’ll unbutton his waistcoat and show you the cancers and ulcers that wealth bought him but wealth couldn’t cure. Wet things that cling to him still, whispering of new acquisitions and mergers, new sacrifices for the mills to the glory of…Leeds, I suppose.

There’s still money here, but it gathers in the fine quarters, chokes itself on cocaine and fancy gin.  Brass plaques on the gates, and women in tight leather trousers, vomiting their children into schools to make room for another handful of tablets and a top up.

The radio? You really have a thing about it, don’t you? Let’s see… here’s a channel you’ll like. A local channel for local people. Stanley Earnshaw and his Dancehall Tunes. There’s nothing like a nice bit of piano music on a damp night.

Maybe it doesn’t sound right yet, but you’re new here. Stanley lost his fingers in the ice and cold of the Baltic convoys. Each blackened digit came away with his Royal Navy woollen mittens, and now he plays much better, hammering the keyboard and weeping because his wedding ring is somewhere north of Riga and the sea doesn’t care.

Where does it come from? Out in the woods, maybe. No, I’m kidding. They say there are transmitters, but that’s not true. We don’t need them. Our Leeds carries sound like diseased blood speeds the virus. I could turn the radio off, and you’d still hear Stanley, crouched over his piano and smiling for the microphone.

We’re not going to the woods to look, no. You’ll have to trust me. Alder and birch crowd the streams, trees with hate in their thin bodies and a passion for drowning. I have to look after you, Matthew. If I don’t, you might not want to come again.

Instead, we’re going deeper into the city, past the cardboard, mould-infested estates where the white boys cry in their beds, ready for another day of spit and prejudice. Boys who drown cats because their fathers are too strong, or too absent, for the real violence to begin.

Victoria rules here, grief-swollen source of monumental buildings, expensive boutiques like fancy escorts next to huge, stately matrons. The small businesses, the second-hand book shops and the grubby sex-stores have been bulldozed to worship the mall, and the man you saw by the blackened chimney is here as well, a double-breasted, fashionable suit holding his sickness in, hiding the leeches which cling to his greed.

And here we are, nearer the river. They called us the Ladenses, the people of the fast flowing river, but we built too hard and too high for the river to win. Watch yourself, now, we’ve reached the infirmary, see?

A thousand crooked eyes of glass, scanning the streets for the smallest wound or bruise, hungry beyond measure. A mall and a mill, a maelstrom of victims, so brave, so brave. The arterial roads bleed ambulance-diesel, bringing home the sheaves. Don’t even dare a paper-cut while it’s watching. There are miles of low corridors, hissing steam pipes, alcoves piled with the broken footballers left from United’s surge to glory, old men whose hips rejected them and the children of tough love on every estate. You don’t want to go there.

But you do want to be here, in the shadow of the infirmary. Why? Because it’s all about you, Matthew, and Leeds, Massachusetts, and the sucking fear of that figure by the river. You know it, because you write its kind. Lank grey hair, plastered to an ulcerous scalp, while the Stocktons and Whiteshirts and Gares titter in the woods.

You made a slight mistake, Matthew, and maybe that’s why you came so easily when I called. Maybe that’s why I’m John, paving the way for your glory. And making sure that you carry on.

Get out of the vehicle and I’ll show you. She’s here, in this neat little medical museum, and she’s been waiting for you. She’s not yours, you see. She’s the Leeds witch, Mary Bateman, hanged for her gifts and her sins, and she knows her colonial brothers and sisters very well.  This is her skeleton, see, stripped of vanity, and around those bony feet the ant-men wait, guarding her until her skin returns.

They sold it, her skin, like swatches of cloth from the mills, like carpet samples from the malls. They stripped it from her in 1809, without a by-your-leave, but Mary knew that her time would come. She knew that you would come.

The ant-men are close, with their blades of broken glass, discarded scalpels from the infirmary. Their small eyes gleam red, like all good monsters, but they are kind, in their own way. They will only write on your skin this time, and mark it for future use.

What will they write?

Why, WXXT, of course.


John Linwood Grant is the editor of greydogtales, a blog about lurchers, longdogs, psychic phenomena, and writing. His debut novel, A Study in Grey, is available here.

“Dispatches from the Gutter of Heaven: an Appreciation” by Jose Cruz

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“Dispatches from the Gutter of Heaven”
an Appreciation
by Jose Cruz

Root around in the subterranean fiction of Matthew M. Bartlett long enough and you’ll be sure to find paradise. A strange form of paradise, perhaps, but the genuine product nonetheless; where else might one feel such complete shirking of inhibitions, such total submission to forces greater than ourselves? Weaker men have called this madness, but how can one transcend to total bliss without first divesting themselves of such anchoring preoccupations as reason and normalcy? If heaven truly is a place on Earth, then it is undoubtedly a Weird one.

And that place can only be bleeding Leeds, Massachusetts.

Reading certain passages from Gateways to Abomination, it’s tempting to categorize Bartlett in the school of shock mongers and mistresses who peddled their gruesome wares during the Horror Boom of the ’70s and ’80s; a man in the deep woods who suddenly and inexplicably vomits black worms and a crusted hermit delighting in the exquisite pain of his cancerous navel have the ring of cheap, tawdry theatrics, the kind showcased by many a paperback original to entice bored shoppers from the checkout line and enter a world where the prose was just as dry and creaky as the skeletal children who begged for purchase from their holographic covers. And while it’s true that Bartlett does maintain a literary heritage to these retro penny dreadfuls, the magic of his work lies in his ability to invigorate the most outlandish image and mundane setting with the lyricism of a poet drunk on the scatty wine of his most personal nightmares.

This power is made possible through Bartlett’s honesty as a writer. There is no posturing, no superficial desire to provoke a reaction from the audience. The piles of shit wearing party hats; the double-fanged fathers returning to reclaim evil sons; the leeches who soar through the air on banshee shrieks of static; all of these are in some way integral to Bartlett’s identity. They are his creative tumors, cleaved from his brain and latched to the bloodspattered page, instantly infectious to all readers who dare stalk the twisted byways of his feverish imagination.

Because Bartlett is an honest writer, he writes honestly about the area he calls home, namely the environs of western Massachusetts. It is a place of history and legacy, of families known and unknown, of uncompromising filth, of vibrant beauty found in the darkest of corners. Bartlett romanticizes this environment, but that is not to say that he beautifies it. His fascination does not end with the picturesque tourist shops and majesty of the wood. He romanticizes the dirt and squalor too, the physical and mental fissures of this Bad Place, the dilapidation. He is perhaps at his most personal in “when i was a boy – a broadcast”, a story that could surely pass as biography even with all its demonic fantasies intact. His depiction of an adolescent’s sexual longing for the sleazy mother of some neighborhood playmates gets to the very heart of an aspect of humanity that many writers tend to shy away from, namely our inherent desire to roll around in scum when the occasion calls for it. This is meant in the most literal sense possible. Bartlett’s fiction likes to poke at the scabs and pick the nose of good taste and then look at the discoveries it has uncovered in the process. The narrator of “when i was a boy” wants nothing more than to burrow deep into the rotund ass of his friends’ mother and revel in its musty odor. Though the reader may never have possessed this specific thought, it still speaks truthfully to the fact that in the end we are, all of us, a pack of primitive animals who, were it not for the constructs of society, would have no trouble shitting where we ate or doing anything else there for that matter.

It seems only natural that a radio should relay these messages to us. The radio is, after all, a room full of secret voices, one whose door can be opened by the gentlest turning of a dial. We walk through this room at every moment of the day, but it takes the antenna for us to pick up the wavelength, to hear the muttered prophecies and stranger-than-fiction truths that reside within it. The voices are like those nasty thoughts we try to keep pent up within our own locked rooms – how good it would be to feel the squash of carrion underneath my foot, to smell the gamey trickle of menstruation – and it is through these tapped broadcasts that our secret desires and true selves are revealed. It takes a mighty conduit to beam this dirty monologue to our ears, and Bartlett is our modern Opener of the Way.

Having been thus opened, we plunge our hands into the filth of our exposed souls and become blessed, rising on singed angel wings and leaving behind the withered facades of our civility to the worms. And as we rise, a voice echoes down from the dark clouds, a melody stuttering through static.

Heaven, it sings to us. I’m in heaven…


Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of the Haunted Omnibus [note from Brian: truly the blog that the Conqueror Weird aspires to.]. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.

Number of the bEast 2016 – an Appreciation of Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

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Today was supposed to be Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. Appreciation Day.

Today was supposed to be Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. Appreciation Day, but for some reason things have gotten a little strange. I hadn’t heard about this before. Was this a new thing? What exactly…you know…was it? Then again, Joseph S. Pulver is not only one of the most amazing writers ever to grace literature but a living treasure, so I decided to do a fun little write-up like several other sites in the Blogosphere have been doing.

I went back to some of his stories – a few derived from that seminal classic of weird fiction, Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow; others completely original masterworks – so I could write this post. But while I was reading them something rather unusual happened. There was a pressure behind my eyes. Dizzying afterimages – yellow, with borders of purple – danced before my eyes. I took a break from reading an removed my glasses. I felt warm.

I walked into the den. My dog was chasing her tail, something she hadn’t done since she was little. After several failed attempts she stopped and her spine elongated, bones cracking, and she bit off her tail, playing with the ragged stub as if it were a toy. Her eyes were yellow.

Now I sit downstairs. I tried to leave the house. I tried. I tried. I looked outside. I cried. I cried.

It’s yellow. It’s all yellow.

I hold my damp face in my hands and scrawl words I don’t understand on it with an old rusty nail I found somewhere.

I see the King stand before me. He removes his mask. Under he is a kind-eyed man with a smirk on his face, a handlebar mustache, and a t-shirt reading “xPulver”.

“Hey,” he says. “Get up. You’ve got front row seats to the show of your lifetime.”

I rise.

KrallCon 2016 – a Memoir

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We wind our way up to the Grand Summit Hotel of Summit, NJ. It’s a little after twelve o’clock, and it’s drizzly out. The hotel sign depicts a smiling fox in old fashioned clothing.

I’m nervous. We step out of the car, gather our things, and start to walk towards the door of the hotel. My dad tells me I’ll be fine. We step inside. The hotel is actually really nice, with old-fashioned values and a good cozy feel. There’s a birthday party or bah mitzvah or something going on, since I figure all the cheery little kids and well-dressed men can’t be here for KrallCon. I walk up to the front desk in my Elder Sign shirt. A receptionist asks if she can help us.

“We’re here for an event called KrallCon,” my father intones. She looks at the list, then calls over her colleague. My dad repeats the name. They say that the event isn’t here. “Maybe it’s under the Dunhams Manor Writers’ Retreat…?” I say. “Ohhh,” says the receptionist. “The Writers’ Retreat.” She gives us directions.

We walk down the hall. I’m quite frightened at this point. We approach a group of three men chatting with each other. There’s a man in a Dunhams Manor t-shirt, a man wearing all black, and a man in a faded red t-shirt whose face I cannot see. As I approach they stop and look at me. The man in black asks if I’m Brian. I say, nervously, “Yes.”

The man greets me warmly, suddenly smiling. “Hi!” he says. “I’m Dave Felton.” Dave Felton? The gent who’d convinced me to come to this convention in the first place? The artist who does amazing scratchboard illustrations? I shake his hand. The man in the Dunhams t-shirt turns out to be Joe Zanetti, the man who inspired me to start this blog. I get a good look at the man in the faded red t-shirt. He’s Jordan Krall – head of Dunhams and organizer of this convention. He greets me and lets me into the conference room.

The room is long. It is comprised of a row of small circular tables, ending on one end with a projector and on the other – the end I am standing at – a table stacked with weirdly illustrated gift bags. There’s a youngish man with a Baphomet t-shirt standing nearby. Dave introduces me to  him – this is Travis Neisler, the man who will be publishing one of my stories in the inaugural issue of his periodical Ravenwood Quarterly. Another man introduces himself as Christopher Ropes, the macabre poet whose work I am sharing a table of contents with. He then proceeds to bustle about to set things up.

“You ready for your reading?” says Dave. I don’t really know what I said in response, but it must have been along the lines of “I don’t know…”. “You’ll do fine,” someone – either Travis or Dave – says, and my father starts to speak on my behalf, because I’m just too nervous. I sit down.

As I do another man approaches. I immediately recognize him.

“Brian?” says Matthew M. Bartlett.

The group is complete. There I am with Dave Felton, one of my favorite artists; Travis Neisler, who is publishing my work; Joe Zanetti, whose blog inspired mine; and Matthew M. Bartlett, my favorite writer, living or dead.

Cordialities are exchanged and conversation starts to begin. I sit down and pour myself a glass of water. As I raise it to drink I see that my hands are shaking and that I can’t hold it steadily. Matt comes over from his seat and sits down next to me. I’m still freaked out. He hands me some stuff – including a fantastic print of Aeron Alfrey’s cover art for Rangel – and I hand him one of my younger brother’s drawings, a drawing of one of Matt’s most sinister characters.

Gift bags are handed out. Mine includes Fatally-Colored Glass by Joe Pulver, The Anti-Everything by John Claude Smith, Organ Void by Jon Padgett, and Spettrini by Matt. “This is the first time I’m seeing this,” he says, smiling. He gets his bag – which has a crudely drawn phallus on the bottom – and pulls out his copy. Chris Ropes runs by and hands him the King Amulet in preparation for the invocation of Medusa. Dave suggests a picture. We agree and lean in.

Oh, and in case I didn’t mention, I’m fourteen.

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As you can see in this photo I am completely frickin’ terrified. In the back Joe Zanetti and Chris and Steph Ropes chat around.

The invocation of Medusa begins. Ropes lights black and red candles around the idol while small amulets sculpted by Felton are passed around. I don’t get one. Matt asks if I need one. I say no. “Are you sure?” he says. “All the cool kids are wearing them.”

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I eventually get my amulet. Krall chants, followed by Ropes, followed by us – the Congregation. After the invocation is done, Krall reads his introduction and then asks who would like to read first. He calls on his nemesis Phillip LoPresti who brazenly refuses. Matt steps out for a minute. Chris volunteers, and to great applause he reads his story from Ravenwood, “Cruel World”. As someone who had read the story prior to the convention, I can tell you that it is a nasty little gem. Matt returns a few minutes later and is handed a copy of “Cruel World”. Chris and Steph sit at our table.

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Krall proceeds to read from his book Nightbreed Sucks and Other Love Poems to Phillip LoPresti that Fuck. It is hilarious. He will continue to read excerpts from Nightbreed Sucks throughout the con. It is truly one of the funniest things I have ever heard read. I laughed, but I’m still nervous.

Eventually – after, I believe, another hilarious tale by Justin Grimble – I am called up to read. Matt, Dave, Joe, and Travis have all read the story previously, and though the entire room seems supportive, they are the people who motivate me to get out of my seat and go to the podium. Krall gives some short words of encouragement. While he does this I’m just standing there thinking holycrapholycrapi’mactuallydoingthisjeeeeeeesusthisisfrightening

But when Krall finishes, and I’m standing up there by myself, at the podium, I think:

To Hell with it.

So I read an abridged version of “My Mother’s Skin”, a story that’ll be published in Travis’ zine. I think I’m horrible. I think I mumble. I think that I’m taking too long. I think that people are pissed off that some kid gets to take the podium instead of real writers. I make quick cuts from the story as I read, not reading sections I deem unnecessary, fixing typos and the like.

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I finish. There is applause. I walk back to my seat. I feel dizzy. Krall says…something. Appreciative. I take a loooooooooooooooooong drink of water. Travis has already posted a photo on Facebook.

But I’m not shaking anymore.

Thing is, after you do something like that, it really can’t get much worse.

There are more readings. Donald Armfield reads unpublished poetry. Michael Faun reads from the English Dictionary. Matt reads two short stories – one of which is unpublished and is complete gold.

We break for lunch a little after two. I do not partake of the pizza that is offered. Many people come up and shake my hand. I am very happy.

And everyone talks. That’s a fond experience. Chris compliments me on my reading, saying that my nervous voice added to the “chilling” effect. Dave and I talk about my younger brother’s artwork. Matt and I talk about everything from Tom Breen to creepy photographs. It’s a community. Everyone enjoys it.

Around three comes my favorite part of the convention – the Guest of Honor Ceremony. In case you haven’t guessed, Matt is the Guest of Honor. There are four people giving tribute to him.

The first is Dim Shores publisher Sam Cowan. He could not be there, so Jordan reads it for him. Sam’s speech is by far the funniest. A Lovecraft parody (of sorts), it wonders what the true origin of Matthew M. Bartlett really is.

The second is Jordan. After reading Sam’s tribute, he gives a short speech about the creepiness and originality of Matt’s work, and how everyone should be reading his stuff.

The third is me. I am not scared at all this time. I deliver my speech and I mean every word. As I leave Matt beckons me over and thanks me. My favorite moment of the convention.

Before the fourth tribute, Matt is presented with a Felton award – a decidedly creepy little idol of green stone.

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The fourth is Jonathan Raab, who could not come, but who made a video. I had seen this video beforehand. I have no words to describe it – watch it for yourself. You may also see the rest of the ceremony here.

Another break. More talk. I am given a creepy goat skull statue by Dave and am given a copy of Gorgonaeon by Jordan Krall. Matt leaves, as the traffic is starting to build. Warm goodbyes.

The ceremonies begin anew. Music is performed. There are more readings – and it is there that I see that Jordan Krall and Phillip LoPresti, despite their enormously entertaining rivalry, really do influence each other.

Shortly after, we leave. Dave and Travis walk me out to the parking lot. I am given info on the video readings I am missing, and am told that Jon Padgett’s story is not to miss. There are hail Ravenwoods and sincere goodbyes.

I sit back in the car. I am exhausted. I am tired and overwhelmed.

But I’m not scared.

I’m happy.

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From left to right – Brian O’Connell (yours truly), Matthew M. Bartlett, Travis Neisler, Joe Zanetti, and Dave Felton. April 2nd, 2016; Grand Summit Hotel, Summit, NJ.

Welcome to 2016’s Month of Bartlett

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In the Winter of 1620 when half the Plymouth colonists died

WXXT WAS THERE.

When this is posted it will be April.

When in 1906 the first radio broadcast of voice and music was heard in Brant Rock, Massachusetts

WXXT WAS THERE.

April is the month of rain, the month of the chill cleansing waters.

When in 1920 the very first radio station presented the results of the Harding-Cox election

WXXT WAS THERE.

But here, on the Conqueror Weird, it is the Month of Bartlett.

When your father fell to his knees before stately and tall Satan in the Holyoke Woods

WXXT WAS THERE.

Every year, every April, we shall celebrate the works of ghoul and scrivener Matthew M. Bartlett.

When your father vowed allegiance to the Worm, forsaking all other Gods and Humans

WXXT WAS THERE.

This is our first annual, featuring reviews, guest posts, and original fiction, culminating in a very special announcement on Walpurgisnacht, last day of rainy April.

When he arrived home and howled in the basement, pleading with the walls for forgiveness

WXXT WAS THERE.

We’re bringing you the Word from the Conqueror Weird. Welcome to the Dawn of the New Time.

WXXT. The Worm. The Woods. The Will. The Way. We will always be there.