Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Nameless Dark: Review

There is beauty and horror here, wisdom and madness, and I have drunk deeply of it all. Will you do the same? 

But man is an arrogant ape, and so here we are, disturbing the Old Ways, while bashing out the brains of every fellow human being that doesn't look exactly like us, or bow to the same flag, sing to the same savior. Ridiculous, arrogant ape, swinging a club like a demigod. 

 I'm a terribly slow reader. It can take me upwards to a month (maybe a little longer) to finish anything that's over two-hundred pages. In the case of T.E. Grau's debut collection, The Nameless Dark--published by Lethe Press--it took me much longer. Not because I found it difficult to read, or that it was boring (totally the opposite). No, it was because every page, every word, had to be slowly absorbed; it demanded to be savored. The Nameless Dark is a strong debut, featuring varied and complex stories that span time and geography, combining old and new elements, making the collection fresh and exciting.

Grau's writing is gritty and raw, highly reminiscent of the work of Laird Barron. Some of his stories slowly gnaw away at your being, and some of them assault you with cosmic punch after cosmic punch; there is no defense against such powerful and primal writing, and you are left on the brink of mental lassitude and physical exhaustion. You are taken on harrowing journeys through hollowed-out urban settings, desolate desert landscapes, and far away lands that will devour you whole if you do not offer them the right amount of respect. Grau's characters are innocent, flawed, macho, hardened, vulnerable, and downright terrible.

In a few of Grau's stories, there is a focus on the concept of masculinity; or, perhaps, more specific, American masculinity, mixed with arrogance and patriarchy. In Beer & Worms, misogyny and patriarchy are taken to the extreme when Russ, the main character, admits to his friend that he killed his wife. Why? Because he couldn't stand the thought of having to ask his wife if it was okay for him to go fishing. It casts a cruel light on this poisonous mindset that is nothing short of detrimental to society as a whole. Russ is a prime example of a male dominated society; that a man should be able to do whatever he wants, and women are not his equal. Men like Russ have zero respect for women. Asking your partner if it's okay to do something doesn't make you less of anything; it's called being respectful and considerate.

In Return of the Prodigy, one of the more Mythos-oriented (Lovecraft) stories, Gary exemplifies American masculinity and harbors racist views towards anyone who is non-white. He actually reminded me of an old co-worker who basically said he saw no reason to leave the United States because it's the greatest country on Earth. Gary is just like him. He caves in, though, and agrees to take his wife, Gladys, on the honeymoon they never went on. While not like Russ in Beer & Worms, Gary takes Gladys for granted, and is often annoyed by her, despite the fact that she loves him dearly. Gary's racism prevents him from appreciating all aspects of life and culture, and is damaging to not only him, but his wife, and also the world as a whole. In Expat, more masculinity is at play, along with more American arrogance. It explores, I believe, American-centered ideas of backpacking across Europe and 'roughing it' in parts of the world that we would consider to be less modern, a means of escape. It's egotistical and disrespectful, as it tends to cast European countries in a negative light, especially Eastern European countries. And when you don't have enough respect for those places, there are consequences to be paid.

Innocence is another theme explored in Grau's collection, and how parents try to protect their children from the horrors of this world, and, in some cases, other worlds. In Free Fireworks, Jacob is a young boy living in a version of the United States where a great war happened, resulting in the worship of the Elder Gods, and the remaining followers of the monotheistic religions have become, for all intents and purposes, terrorists. It's actually a nice "the shoe is on the other foot" scenario, where one can point a finger and say, "It sucks to have religious views forced down your throat, and be made to feel less than human, doesn't it?" Jacob's father, William, wants to protect Jacob from the horrors of war as long as he can; to prolong the inevitable. It drives home the point that children are affected the most, whether it's being born in the midst of it all, or actually seeing it happen. Either way, it's traumatizing. In Twinkle, Twinkle, Phillip buys his daughter, Emily, a telescope for her birthday, so that she may look to the heavens to find her mother who had recently passed away. Emily believes she found her mother, showing Phillip, who actually thinks she discovered a new star, or something else. What it really is, though, is something so terrifying, that when Phillip finds out, he doesn't even tell Emily; he wants her to enjoy what little time is left on their planet. It's a touching and heartbreaking story; innocence in the face of inevitable annihilation. In Grau's world, it doesn't matter who you are or what you do, the universe simply doesn't care.

In Tubby's Big Swim, Alden is a young boy who knows how to navigate the not-so-nice areas of where he lives. His situation is one where he must fend for himself, as he is generally neglected by his mother because she is too buy looking for the next man to take care of. She absolutely loves Alden, though, but her priorities are messed up, and Alden often embarks on his own adventures--to escape the troubles in his life--and, even in his naive youth, manages to survive; he has to depend himself, and only himself. Other characters in Grau's stories are searching, in some form or another, for identity, or a place that they can firmly root themselves in and call home; they want a purpose. Transmission tells the story of Max, and man who never finds himself staying in one place for too long, traveling further and further west, in hopes to leave behind a checkered past. However, he finds his calling in the Nevada desert, in the form of a mysterious transmission that Max cannot stop listening to. Grau does an excellent job at making the desert frontier seem unexplored and alien; you see things... unnatural things that shouldn't exist, but you aren't sure if what you saw was real, or if it was all in your head. Max finds his destiny in a small, lonely shack, where he continues the transmission of his predecessor.

The search for identity can also be found in Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox, a story that was first published in The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron. Nelson, a nomadic-type person, immerses himself in a world of drug exploration and follows the guidance of a man named Doyle, who has numerous followers and ends up becoming fully indoctrinated into a cult that worships something far more ancient than any god or goddess created by man. Grau, with great deft, captures the sort of primal atmosphere that Barron is known for, and a universe with a voracious appetite that actively seeks you out, rather than waiting for someone to seek it out. The Screamer is a corporate horror story that made me think of Christopher Slatsky's story, Corporautolysis, along with Ligottian corporate stories. Here, Grau creates a hollowed-out urban world where people go about their lives in a rather drone-like manner. In the case of Boyd, he works, goes home, maybe sleeps, wash, rinse, repeat. It's like a life of decay, and the look of the city is a reflection of that decay. It's not until Boyd hears the scream that he sort of snaps out of the doldrums, awakening him, but it doesn't matter, because in Grau's world, it all leads to extirpation.

Clean is another story that features children surviving on their own, and explores the all too real world of child predators and the horrifying things they do; yet, Grau turns the tables and creates one of the most anxiety-filled tales I have ever read. What makes it so effective is Grau's use of subtlety, ratcheting up the dread and leaving much to the imagination of the reader. White Feather is another war tale that focuses on the choices we make, based on fear and paranoia, and how those choices not only stay with us for the remainder of our lives, but how we are ostracized by the people who once called us friend or family. Mr. Lupus explores the loss of magic and imagination as the world increasingly becomes more modernized, and how greed can lead to horrifying consequences. Yet, there is something there about feeling a spark when you discover that magic is not lost, how it changes you, but then you want it all for yourself and you take it out of its element, isolating it and changing the course of things. It's a twisted fairy tale that makes for great reading around Christmas time, and it's one of the more original werewolf tales I have read. The Mission is an Old West tale that focuses on our sins, and how we must pay for those sins. It's also a meditation on racism, colonialism, and how, in the end, for all the hate and killing we commit against one another, the only thing that's waiting for us, is extinction.

With The Nameless Dark, T.E. Grau has assembled a collection of memorable stories that evoke a multitude of emotions and touch on myriad themes and issues that are more relevant today than ever. Whether it's a Mythos-inspired tale, or a Laird Barron tribute, Grau writes in a style and voice that are all his own. He has firmly planted himself in the Weird Renaissance we are currently experiencing, and should be on the radar of every reader, critic, writer, and publisher. Grau is drawing power from primordial wells, and everyone will feel it.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Autumn in the Abyss: Review/Analysis (Spoilers)

The impossible scenario witnessed by eyes wide with panic and ears praying for silence suggested truths the mad display confirmed. Everything he thought he knew was false or at least altered.

My first experience with the writing of John Claude Smith was his chapbook, Vox Terrae, published by Dunhams Manor Press. It contained classic elements of Weird fiction but written with a fresh voice that took readers on a nightmarish journey through horrifying realms that no human being had any business knowing. In his collection, Autumn in the Abyss, I think Smith took the formula of Vox Terrae, mixed it with some black and abyssal ingredients from the tenebrous depths of places that even angels won't set foot in, and created a new mutant strain of Horror that deftly balances characterization, plot, pacing, and narrative, culminating in an experience that will fill you with disgust, sadness, and even a hint of both optimism and hope.

Published by Omnium Gatherum, Autumn in the Abyss is a collection of five grotesque and disturbing stories that explore a variety themes, such as obsession, desire, humanity, redemption, hope, identity, insignificance, and the power of words, all while traversing through places that make us uncomfortable; places that we tend to stay away from and turn a blind eye to. Smith's writing in this collection possesses a grimy and corrosive quality; it slowly eats away at you, digested by the dregs of life. The atmosphere Smith creates is like a haze of thick smog that chokes and disorients you; it weighs you down and slows your pace, so that you have no choice but to take in Smith's unsettling and horrifying imagery. You have no choice but to witness the worst that life has to offer; a side of humanity that is so revolting, it makes your stomach turn and inevitably numbs you. 

Some of the protagonists in Smith's stories are at the bottom of the barrel of humanity. They are people who are detached from the rest of the world; they are plagued by obsessions and desires and will stop at nothing to pursue and achieve them; they prey on others who they deem as being less than human, but fail to see their own inhumanity. Some of them are so far gone, there is no hope for them; they are beyond reach. Others, though, are still inside the circle of redemption and will take the necessary steps to make things right for not just themselves, but for those they hurt as well.

In the story, La mia immortalità, Samuel Nisi is an artist who has been successful in photography, oil paintings, and now in sculpting, a profession he took up several years ago. Despite his success, however, he is searching for everlasting fame. He wants to create something that will be remembered and revered long after he is gone. He wants immortality, no matter the cost.

His aspirations had grown cunning. He would attain his goals at any cost, which had cost him friends, colleagues, personal relationships- not that they mattered to him. Anything that got in the way of his life's purpose, as whittled to spear sharp intensity as the years tolled, was easily discarded.

Nisi cares not for his current girlfriend Claire. She wants to talk to him but he cannot be bothered. He cannot stand the fact that he is associated with the human race; he sees himself above everyone else. Claire tells him she's pregnant and all he can say to her is to get an abortion; he wants nothing to do with Claire or the baby. So much, in fact, that he's willing to murder Claire and his unborn child. All that matters to Nisi is his quest for immortality; he cares only for himself and what he wants. The story, Broken Teacup, also explores this theme of detachment and viewing other people as being less than human. The story explores the depraved lives of Mr. Rickart, Lemmy, and Elvis. Mr. Rickart and Lemmy prowl the bowels of small towns in Texas, looking for the "lowest of the low" hookers and propositioning them to perform "the most disgusting encounters imaginable". They record their encounters and responses form the hookers and use the footage and sound bits for their sleazy noise band, Texas Chainsaw Erection. 

Lemmy and Mr. Rickart's deplorable acts were turning heads but not bringing in the money. Their particular venture, however, draws a unique fan base and brings them cringe-worthy, nauseating requests, which eventually leads them into the realm of murder. Being offered a lot of money, coupled with this sick idea of taking your act to a whole new level of depravity and inhumanity, is something that cannot be passed up by them. 

The killing was odd in the beginning. No problem for Lemmy, but I only did a couple girls before I realized that wasn't my thing. That said, most of these girls, hell, they haven't been living for a while, so it's not like they was missing anything important. It was not like their missing would be noticed.

Once they decide that these women have nothing to live for; that they have no family that miss them and are looking for them; that they are somehow less than human... it is they who crossed over into the realm of inhumanity. It's almost as if there is this sort of predatory hierarchy. This is how genocide begins: the moment you begin to view the other as being beneath you; as being sub-human and not worthy of life. Broken Teacup is not an easy read, but Smith is exploring a side of our existence that is all too real and horrifying. Becoming Human is also in the same vein. In this story, we have two men who are on opposite sides of the human spectrum, but both have lost touch with humanity and the world around them. 

Before his years of spiraling into physical and emotional decline chasing Corbin Andrew Krell--also known as Krell the Destroyer, Krell the Creator--Detective Roberto Vera was an idealist. He was strong in both motivation and spirit. 

He'd believed in justice, in right and wrong. Black and white. Rather patented and predictable  and sounding like the spiel from some cigar chewing TV detective, yet he believed it to his core. He knew and understood there would be many sullied signposts along the way, showing him scenes and situations that measured darkness in blood and power, in minds gone to rot and obsessions mired in immortality. His resolve was stalwart.

Many of us are like Vera, or have been Vera, or even want to be Vera. Yet, we all have that one encounter; that one experience that tips the scales and changes us for the worse. For Vera, his tipping point was his experience with Krell. Krell is the Joker to Vera's Batman. Krell is viewed by Vera as being an evil monster who represents the worst of our kind. What started as killing his victims soon turned to rape, torture, and mutilation. Krell saw himself as changing, and he was changing his victims, too, reducing them in nature, humanity, and identity, while he saw himself as ascending. Through his crimes, he's transforming. He wants to "not be". In his self-perceived transformation, Krell is moving beyond evil. In a face-to-face with Vera, Krell says this:

I strive for something else, beyond evil's claustrophobic clutches. I strive to transcend evil by becoming pure nothing. I strive as my followers strived. I am, yet I strive to not be. 

Krell and his ultimate goal are beyond Vera's comprehension. Yet, Krell is Vera's whole life. Vera is consumed by his obsession to try and understand Krell, along with putting him away for life. Vera's partner, Derek Sommers, ended up taking his own life because of the horrible things committed by Krell. Derek witnesses true evil and cannot bear to live. Vera loses his marriage, his ideals, humanity... everything. Smith does a rather skillful job of reflecting the horrors we experience in real life and on an almost daily basis. Many of us cannot help but wonder why some people do the things they do. Why would someone leave a helpless baby out in the cold to die? Why would one group of people commit genocide against another group? We try to comprehend why we commit such horrifying acts against one another. We ourselves are consumed by these thoughts, and sometimes are reduced to Vera's state: we are left numb. 

There is an interesting twist to Becoming Human, though; a twist that adds tremendous depth, power, and emotion. In the present parts of the story, Krell is in prison, and Vera is tracking down a Krell copycat killer. Once Vera is face-to-face with the copycat, he discovers that it's Krell. How can that be?? Vera's next discovery is that the copycat Krell is, in fact, an alien from the darkest depths of the cosmos. Vera asks it, "What are you?" The alien responds with:

I am nothing, in search of something. In search of... being. I... I and my others, fragments splintered off the deep shroud... out there. We fled to the farthest reaches of... infinity. We are connected by thoughts. We hear each other's thoughts. Our aim is to fit in. To... assimilate into the society of those whose planet we choose to... be on. To be. We find a random figure of the primary race of the planet we've chosen and follow it, learning the ways of the beings we wish to... live with. It takes time to get all the nuances... precise. From nothing to something takes time.

This is what makes Becoming Human easily the most powerful, gut-punching story in the collection. Here is an alien being that is nothing, but wants to become something. Of all the people it chooses to help with its assimilation, it chooses Krell, a monster who is something, but wants to become nothing. The irony is so palpable. The innocence of the alien makes the story even more effective. It knows nothing about right or wrong, or what is good and what is evil. It simply wanted to fit in with humanity, but it ended up choosing the worst example of humanity and continued Krell's awful crimes. It is through this experience, though, that Vera rediscovers his own humanity, as he explains to the alien the kind of human Krell is, and goes on to explain the other side of humanity, the side that works together for the betterment of mankind; the side that is capable of displaying compassion and empathy; the side that is capable of love and kindness. 

After much discussion between the two, the alien wants Vera to take it to Krell. It wants to give Krell what he most desires: to become nothing. I think Vera is somewhat baffled as to why the alien wants to do this for Krell, but I believe the alien is displaying a small amount of compassion for Krell, despite his monstrous nature, and, perhaps, as a way of saying, "After all I've done through copying Krell, let me make it right by doing this." It also clicks in Vera's mind that Krell will cease to exist; the alien would be doing the entire human race a favor by "taking out the garbage". It's the scene between Krell, Vera, and the alien that makes the title of the story so appropriate. After all of his philosophical talk of transcending evil and becoming nothing, when Krell discovers what is happening, he experiences a common human emotion: fear. He breaks down and becomes the very  human he doesn't want to be. He's granted his wish but is scared to death, reduced to a child being left alone in the dark and calling for help. As for Vera, he realizes there is still hope for himself; he can turn his life around for the better, and he starts by reconnecting with his wife. 

Smith's stories also explore themes of balance and insignificance. Four out of the five stories have one thing in common: Mr. Liu, an enigmatic figure who traverses a realm between humanity and something other. This also creates something of a shared universe, adding an element of connectivity. The characters in the tales exist together but in different places, yet they all have doomed and unpleasant encounters with Mr. Liu. He acts as a messenger for what he calls "caretakers of the universe", and all we know is that they, according to Mr. Liu, maintain balance. 

In the case of Lemmy, Mr. Rickart, and Elvis, they are commissioned to do a rape, torture, mutilation and murder piece; however, it's a means to set them up and make them pay for swinging the pendulum too far in one direction. They have a woman they call "Broken Teacup" and are ready to perform their end of the deal, when Mr. Liu appears and Broken Teacup makes short work of Lemmy and Elvis. Believing that some people are salvageable, Mr. Liu offers Mr. Rickart and opportunity "attain a kind of dignity amidst the chaos, within what is left of your existence". Broken Teacup wants to be shown love. It's an opportunity that cannot be fulfilled though. You see, how can a person like Mr. Rickart possibly know what love is? He's so far gone from humanity, considering the horrible things he has done with his now dead cohorts, he's never felt, let alone shown, love. Not wanting to end up like Lemmy and Elvis, he better learn fast. 

Samuel Nisi also encounters Mr. Liu. Not knowing who Liu is, he accepts a commission from him to sculpt a piece that he is given free reign over; however, it's all a ruse, as Nisi must not be allowed to end the life of Julie and the baby inside her, for the baby is to have, according to Mr. Liu, an incredible future, and Nisi is just to awful to exist, so he inevitably experiences the horrors of the caretakers. In the case of Derek Jenner in the story, Where the Light Won't Find You, his curiosity causes him to encounter Mr. Liu purely by accident. Liu set the stage for another person to be disposed of; someone who outlived their usefulness, and Jenner was there to see the whole thing, much to the dismay of Mr. Liu, who sees no choice but to dispose of Jenner as well. After much discussion with Jenner and the higher beings, Mr. Liu agrees to let Jenner go, but makes him swear that he is never to speak of this event. It's an ending that is similar to how Becoming Human ends. Jenner isn't quite in the same boat as Vera, but he's not perfect. After what he witnesses, though, he decides to try and live a better life, starting with his girlfriend Daisy. He promises himself that he's going to love her right. These two endings help highlight that it's possible for us to turn things around in our lives. Sometimes, we are not beyond hope and redemption; we have a chance to makes things better for ourselves and the ones we love. We no longer take certain things for granted. They're not happy endings, but, rather, nice reminders of the kind of people we can be, and of what we have and should appreciate and be thankful for.  

The first story, Autumn in the Abyss, is the longest out of the five and also explores themes of identity, balance, obsession, and how words have the power to change the world around us, for better or for worse. Mr. Liu appears only briefly, but the caretakers are in full effect. The story revolves around a man who is obsessed with finding a poet named Henry Coronado and a poem he read, called Autumn in the Abyss He suffers from a rather severe case of agoraphobia, coupled with a weight problem. His days are spent eating Ramen noodles and looking under every rock and in every nook and cranny searching for Coronado. The man eventually learns the truth about Coronado, himself, and his place in the hierarchy of the universe. 

Smith's collection is packed with grotesque imagery and disturbing situations that, on the surface, makes you want to turn your head, but the stories do well in addressing how people let themselves be consumed by their obsessions and desires, and the terrible consequences that often follow. These stories emphasize that to be human is to be flawed. We are not perfect. We are capable of doing good things, and we are also capable of doing bad things. We can be selfish one day, and altruistic the next. Sometimes, however, we find ourselves crossing over that line of no return, and the farther we walk, the more difficult it is to come back. We can be afforded opportunities to make things right, though; we can turn around and walk in the other direction and back over the line. Then, there are some who walk so far they can never return. Smith's stories have a duel effect of painting a gruesome picture of how awful our kind can be. And they also make you thankful for what you have; appreciate the things we take for granted.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Incoming Tide: Review

Fishing isn't only about catching fish. One of the things it's about is how a fish fights -- and just as importantly, how you fight a fish.

I've known of Cameron Pierce for some time. I've seen his name mentioned on many Facebook updates and passed around in various literary circles. When I read that he was an avid fisherman whose stories heavily revolved around fishing, I said to myself that I would purchase one of his books and give it a read. I noted before in my review of Steve Rasnic Tem's story, The Fishing Hut, that I have loved fishing ever since I was a kid. And while I don't get to do it as often as I used to, I still enjoy the occasional fishing day, whether it's with my family or by myself. Now having a son, I look forward to taking him fishing when he is old enough. 

Published by Broken River Books, The Incoming Tide is a pocket-sized book that is less than a hundred pages, consisting of flash fiction and poetry. While fishing is at the heart of Pierce's writing, it's used as a means to explore themes of life, death, parenthood, man and nature, maturation, memories, the simple things in life, and even the strange and alien. The stories and poems are also broken up with passages titled Beer Commerical, serving as a sort of brief intermission for the reader, where the joys and sorrows of life are reflected through having a beer. 

Reading the passages within The Incoming Tide, you can feel the warmth and passion that Pierce writes with. The writing blanketed me with a sense of tranquility, and, at other times, nostalgia and even mystery. Pierce also does well in exploring the unknown, and emphasizes that we do not just find horror and the grotesque in it, but we can also find beauty and wonder. In the story, Ragged-Tooths, a few fisherman hike out to the sea to catch some sharks. Pierce sets the mood by having the story take place at night, wording it in such a way that conveys mystery and darkness:

What I am saying is there were four of us in the nighttime, miles from anyone else, except for the hermit who lives in a cave at the river mouth. His cave was dark this night.

Just four men and the night, fishing for one of the most feared predators in the sea. Yet, when the narrator finally catches one and releases it back into the dark waters, it's described as "the most beautiful sight I'd ever seen." We may fear the dark and wonder what lurks just beneath the surface, but that doesn't always equate to horror; sometimes the most beautiful things can emerge and stay with us forever. In Winter Rainbow, beauty in the form of rainbow trout are pursued on a chill December morning. The narrator and his wife, K, catch rainbow trout and bring them home to make trout sandwiches:

There's nothing better than waking before first light in December, then returning home in the afternoon for hot coffee and a fresh trout sandwich. That's why in the darkest part of the year, you'll find me pursuing rainbows.

Even the the coldest, darkest parts of the year hide beauty in its depths. It's also about the simple joys that can be found in sitting down with a loved one over a cup of coffee and a trout sandwich. These are things that should be cherished the most, yet we sometimes take them for granted; we get caught up in the stresses and chaos of life, causing us to miss out on what's right in front of us; causing us to overlook the little things. In Even if the Earth Floods, you get the sense that Pierce is conveying to us to enjoy the good things we have:

                    Someday the dead sailors may rise up.
                    Someday we may even drown.
                    For now, let me hold you.
                    Even if the dead sailors flood the earth,
                    let me hold you

                    Let's dig one more clam before dark.
                    Let's drink one more beer before dawn.
                    We can always climb onto the roof
                    if the earth floods.

You get the feeling that we need to enjoy the here and now. You never know what's going to happen tomorrow. Go ahead and have one more beer with that special someone. Go ahead and meet your friend for a late night cup of coffee. Enjoy the times with your friends and family. Life can be crushing, but we mustn't allow ourselves to be weighed down all the time. You can really glean that from the story, Fishing Derbies, where the narrator says, "Fishing isn't only about catching fish. One of the things it's about is a how a fish fights -- and just as importantly, how you fight a fish." I take this as a meditation on how we go through life; it will sometimes put up a great fight, and how you fight back will dictate the outcome. 

Elements of spirituality can be detected in some of the writing. My favorite poem in the book, The Promise of Water, puts an emphasis on man and nature; being alone outside, just you,  your thoughts, a cup of coffee, and your fishing rod:

                    Some mornings I wake before the sun rises
                    to fish the Willamette.
                    I fish on cold winter mornings, alone.
                    Coffee thaws the frost on my lips
                    as I walk the desolate downtown streets.
                    I cross the river to the Eastside
                    to fish under Burnside Bridge
                    where sturgeon lurk in the deep water.
                    I bask in the frozen glow of Old Town's neon sign
                    as I make my first cast,
                    heaving squid-on-hook into the dark.
                    And yet I don't wake early just to fight with dinosaurs.
                    I wake because the promise of water
                    isn't a thing a man can hold for long,
                    like a love song from another world.

My interpretation is that there is a hint of spiritual oneness here, being outside, alone, on a cold winter morning. The day promising to bring water. Just being there, at the water, is enough to uplift your spirits and make you feel truly at peace. It's a true appreciation for nature and the privilege to experience it in that manner. It may, perhaps, be akin to a religious experience, but not quite. Although I think spirituality is more appropriate here. The water being older and more primal than the dinosaurs you are fishing for. This theme of fishing alone, and that spiritual feeling, can be found in other stories and poems in the book as well. Alone Among the Driftwood projects that same theme, along with the give and take nature of the seas, as the narrator watches a dog jump in the water and under the channel, only to never surface. A similar incident happens in Fishing on the Jetty After Midnight, where the narrator witnesses a man scuttling "like a crab across the rocks and splashed with the roiling dusk." Rather ambiguous, as you know nothing about the man except that he went into the water. It's enough to make you wonder why he did it, and exuding an element of strangeness to it all. The things you see (or think you see) while fishing at night. 

Stories and poems explored are but a fraction of what can be found in The Incoming Tide. The poem, Mother Steel involves a pregnant woman having a mother-to-mother moment with a pregnant fish on a wooden dock, telling the silver hen that her children will be all right. It's a short, yet powerful piece on the universality of motherhood, and the caring, nurturing nature of one mother to another. Blood for Blood is another short poem that revolves around fishing to feed your family; you're trading your blood for the blood of another. Pierce even charts a course for our absurd little rituals that are unique to each of us, in the story, Cooking Shellfish in My Underpants. Or how we all have that one special fishing spot that you can't divulge to just anyone, as told in XXX Creek. Through fishing, beer, rituals, haunted lawnmowers, Pierce has written an evocative, reflecting and though-provoking book that can be appreciated by anyone who has ever stopped to take the time to enjoy the little things. Anyone who has taken the time to savor that beer with your friends; anyone who has taken the time to stop and tell that special someone that you love them. It's for anyone who has endured the hardships of life and came out stronger. This is a book that appreciates life for it's beauty, mystery, strangeness, and all the stuff that happens to us in between. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Books of Bartlett

Don't startle or scare. Disturb. Upset. Remove the floor and dissolve the walls. 
- Abrecan Geist, Sinister Mechanisms p. 45

When I'm working my seasonal job, there are some days where I do not finish until one o'clock in the morning, sometimes two. My commute home is just over an hour, and to help with it I usually listen to talk radio. I primarily listen to NPR, but I'll sometimes scan the radio waves for something different, anything from religious talk, to something revolving around the paranormal. Driving on the highway at such a late hour, pitch black all around, scanning the radio, your imagination tends to run wild. I often think I'll discover some sort of pirate radio station that broadcasts strange discussions on strange topics; the kind of topics that make the hairs on your body stand up, or send chills up your spine. I wait for a voice to say, "Have you seen the Yellow Sign?" or, "The whole family is buried out in those woods." Fortunately, that never happens, but there is something about radio broadcasts that can create atmospheres of mystery, serenity, and even dread. Matthew M. Bartlett, a black star who has ascended to a far corner of the Weird cosmic frontier, takes that dread and multiplies it by a thousand, using the twisted radio broadcasts of WXXT, your discount butcher of all living things. 

Gateways to Abomination is a collection of stories of varying length. Some are more along the lines of flash fiction, while others are standard short story length, but they are all connected, creating a living, breathing, organic world of tremendously disturbing proportions. Bartlett's prose is finely-tuned and precise; his stories are carefully crafted, bordering on vile and sinister poetry. Reading Gateways is like being cut by the dull blade of a surgical knife found in the basement of an abandoned home, belonging to a serial killer surgeon. It's also akin to being bitten by a rabid hunter you encountered in the deep woods. The wound festers and spreads, causing delirium; you can't distinguish between what's real and what's not. These stories creep, squirm, and crawl their way into you, transforming and binding you to WXXT. This is the kind of fiction that takes form in the leaky, dank basement of your grandparents' house, where you once found old slide films of naked men and women in your grandfather's trunk. It's the kind of fiction that takes form in a fort built in the woods behind a junior high school by some thirteen-year-old kids, where you'll find damp Hustler magazines and a soaked half-pack of Marlboro Reds or Camels. 

If you ever find yourself driving through the small town of Leeds, Massachusetts, it would behoove you to keep your radio off. If not, you risk tuning in to WXXT, and it's all downhill from there. Leeds is besieged by this mysterious and disturbing radio station. All manner of weirdness can be heard, from twisted sermons, weeping children, uncontrollable moaning, to deranged polka music. Listening to WXXT is akin to reading the Necronomicon, or the second act of the King in Yellow: you'll never be the same. What's interesting about WXXT, though, is that it's not easily found; you almost have to be precise in your tuning. There are some who know how to find it, and others happen upon it accidentally. It's like it exists in it's own fold of space; it's outside of all that is logical and rational, at least, from our own feeble perspective. Those who are unfortunate enough to listen to it, however, see things in a whole new, disturbing and horrifying way. On top of all that, every day life in Leeds is a warped carnival of horrors, featuring winged leeches, worms in suits, twisted sexuality, walking corpses, bipedal goatmen, and backwoods rituals that make the Manson family look like the Tanner family from Full House. Leeds is very much a place that is haunted by a corrupt and tragic past that goes back centuries, and people harbor family secrets that refuse to stay hidden.

In his stories, Bartlett cleverly takes the fears and fantasies of both children and adults, and amplifies them by distorting and reshaping them into bizarre, grotesque, and unspeakable things. In the ballad of ben stockton verse 2, visits to the dentist and oral surgeon are made even more terrifying than we already make them out to be, which helps to amp up the dread and anxiety that permeates Bartlett's stories. A boyhood fantasy about a friend's mother is contorted and reformed into something terribly disturbing and gross, yet it vociferates volumes about very real issues and problems about our society. Leeds is also rife with religious fundamentalism and hardcore patriarchy. In the theories of uncle jeb, themes of a male-dominated society are explored, as is the overall theme that we are a cancerous lot, eating away at everything, including ourselves. This entire world will collapse because of us. 

If you read carefully, you'll also pick up on the fact that Leeds has been poisoned and corrupt for centuries. The world has been messed up for a long time. With this knowledge, you'll sense the normalcy in all of it, especially in the gathering in the deep wood, where a man walks into a diner carrying his brain, and everyone just goes about their business like it's not happening; however, the man sits next to the person who is narrating the story, and it's only then that the narrator wants him to go away. On a larger scale, this can be seen as a case of people not wanting to deal with societal and worldly problems until they come to their homes and knock down their front doors. Leeds is a fractured, unhinged, chthonian reflection of our own world, which is pretty bad, considering how messed up our world is. We live in a time where we turn our heads to the problems that plague us; we don't want our cozy lives disrupted, because then we would have to deal with all of it. We never do anything until it appears in our backyards. It's a sad and painful truth that Bartlett effortlessly engages. 

Bartlett also places great emphasis on those who are truly affected by the poison and corruption: children. Nearly every story in Bartlett's book features children who suffer in a plethora of ways. Children are left in a warehouse while their parents are off performing some sort of ritualistic orgy. Some children are kidnapped; others grow up not knowing who their real fathers are. In when i was a boy - a broadcast, a young boy is seduced by a much older woman, resulting in both disturbing and pleasurable experiences, but the boy is changed for the worse, and he ends up burning down the house with the woman in it. This theme of innocence lost pervades the entire book. Children are stripped of their childhoods; they are no longer free from corruption as they experience the horrors of the world, and they will be haunted by those horrifying experiences for the rest of their lives. Some may be able to live semi-normal lives, while others may continue the disturbing and grotesque trends that poison Leeds. 

Another theme explored is commercialization, or, corporatization. Leeds is an example of a small town that loses certain facilities, replaced by parking lots, Wal-Marts, and other corporate mega structures, designed for mass appeal and consumption. Mental institutions are torn down, the patients have nowhere to go, rendering them unable to seek the proper care they need; they are left to wander on their own. These are real people with real problems, yet they are treated as sub-human; a parking structure is more important. Greed and callousness cast a dark, poisonous cloud over Leeds. 

Another strength of Bartlett's book stems from the self-publishing aspect. The simplistic style of Gateways to Abomination makes it somewhat believable. Crazy, right? Yet, many passages read like clippings found in the archives of a library, such as those of uncle red reads to-day's news. If I didn't know any better, I'd travel to Leeds and conduct my own investigations to see if there is any truth to the depravity that afflicts the town. Some of the shorter pieces excel at illuminating just how fast and easily rumors can spread in small towns, and how a normal event can turn into something much more exaggerated. A person who tends to not socialize and live as a recluse can instantly turn into a pedophile through local gossip. All of these elements combined serve to enhance the overall effect the book has on its readers. While reading Gateways, I kept thinking about John Carpenter's film, In the Mouth of Madness, and how Bartlett could easily be Sutter Kane, causing one to wonder: is this real? What the hell is going on? Bartlett has crafted a masterpiece of cult literature that should be on the shelves of anyone who loves Weird Horror. 

Anne Gare's Rare Book and Ephemera Catalogue

A chapbook put together by Bartlett, Anne Gare's Rare Book and Ephemera Catalogue is a real treasure to have. It's fictional non-fiction, containing a list of books found in the rare book room of Anne Gare's bookshop, which is referenced more than once in Gateways to Abomination. Some of the books listed are tied to characters who we read about in Gateways, such as the Libellus Vox Larva, The Stockton Pamphlets, and the Dither Family Cookbook. Other books are tied to characters we have yet to be acquainted with, like Grancois Trumbull Sr. There is even a book by Stephen King listed in the catalogue. Each book comes with a brief description of what it is, including it's history and significance. The book is more of a companion piece to Gateways, further enriching the Leeds Mythos that Bartlett has created. On its own, with its simplistic style, one could easily be duped into thinking the contents are real. It looks like the kind of book you find in the attic of your dead aunt's house, which you inherited and had to move three states away to claim. It does well in creating an atmosphere of mystery and curiosity, and I could easily see myself packing my bags and setting out to track down the contents. 

The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts

Containing fictional biographies of various people  who inhabit(ed) Leeds and the outskirts of it, The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, in the same vein as the Anne Gare book, serves as a companion piece, adding to the dark, twisted Mythos that Bartlett has created. Here, we get some backstories to some of the colorful, wicked, and unbalanced people we only vaguely experienced in Gateways to Abomination. We learn more about Father Ezekial Shineface, a rogue priest whose sermons go against all that is holy, his vile incantations broadcast by Alan Rickey of WDDI, who had no idea Shineface was going to slither out such terrible words. We get a look into Abrecan Geist, a man who decided to wage a campaign of war against god, due to the loss of his parents. 

Even though many of the characters in this book can do things that defy human logic and our laws of physics, they are still people who have suffered in some form or another. Bartlett explores themes of loss, temptation, corruption, etc.. A person loses their parents and blames the world, wanting revenge. A woman walks various paths in search of herself, for her place in life, but ends up on a path to darkness. A priest becomes corrupt by the world around him. Some people are products of their environment. We read of suicides and unforgettable events of feasts gone terribly wrong. Bartlett achieves real balance with this work. I wouldn't be surprised if one found this book in the "Folklore" section of a bookstore, or even a "Local History" section for those living in Massachusetts. 


A chapbook published by high quality-producing Dim Shores, Rangel tells the story of Gaspar Bantam, a man originally from Leeds, Massachusetts, now living in Los Angeles. At forty years old, he is still haunted by the disappearance of his younger sister, Rangel, thirty years ago, just before Halloween. With Halloween just on the horizon, Gaspar feels compelled to journey back to Leeds and find out what exactly happened to Rangel. 

Rangel is some of Bartlett's best work. You can clearly see the evolution in his writing; he just gets better and better. This a haunting, disquieting, well-crafted tale; another macabre and bone-chilling chapter in the expanding Mythos revolving around Leeds, comparable to what S.P. Miskowski has done with her Skillute Cycle. In Rangel, the passage of time is explored through how much Leeds has changed since Gaspar was last there. Instead of Dynamite Records, an Oriental Rug shop has taken its place. Gone is Gwen and Deb's Yogurt. In its place, a bank, along with several different cell phone shops replacing other stores, as well. For Gaspar, this is disheartening, and resonates with those of us who have seen our favorite independent stores go the way of the Dodo. We could always count on those places for excellent customer service and friendly faces. The owners knew you by your first name, and went out of their way for you. Despite these changes, Leeds is still shrouded in darkness, and Gaspar soon discovers that. 

Bartlett also does a great job with exploring the theme of loss, and how it can split a family apart and whisk away your childhood. The disappearance of Rangel causes great stress for Gaspar and his parents, Red and Shirley. For five years, Red and Shirley desperately clung to hope. Every time the phone rang, every time a little girl resembling Rangel was spotted, Red and Shirley thought they got their child back. Eventually, they arranged a funeral with an empty casket, in an attempt to put it all behind them, but as the years progressed, the family grew further apart. Gaspar's parents became strangers to them; they even stopped going to work. Gaspar didn't just lose his sister and his parents, but he lost his childhood. The loss of his sister created a void that never went away. Another form of childhood loss we see is being told you need to grow up, as Gaspar experienced the older he got. The other kids at school would tell him that Halloween is for little kids, and he needs to put such childish things behind him unless he wants to be a laughing stock among the entire school. Yes, we must grow up, but that doesn't mean we still cannot enjoy the festivities and imagination that come with celebrations like Halloween. 

At the heart of all this, though, is Gaspar trying to solve the mystery surrounding Rangel's disappearance, as she was last seen walking into the woods all those years ago. The more Gaspar investigates, the more entrenched he becomes in the legend and lore of Leeds. He discovers that Rangel isn't the only child to have gone missing. He experiences the strange local radio broadcasts of WXXT; trees are growing everywhere, through sidewalks and homes; he sees the names of all the missing children scratched on the door of a bathroom stall. And, finally, at the end of all of it, a bizarre ritual that the entire town is engaged in, and Gaspar cannot help but take part in it, which eventually reveals the painful truth of what happened. You see, Gaspar needed to go back to Leeds, to confront the past. Being so close to Halloween, it seems only fitting that Gaspar travel to Leeds when the veil is thinnest, allowing him to view what really happened. Rangel saw two print runs, so if you missed out on purchasing it, fear not, because you will have another opportunity to read it. 

Dead Air: Radio from Beyond the Grave

This rare gem was published well before Gateways to Abomination, and I saved it for last because of it's rarity. To my knowledge, only a handful of people own this book. Some of the fiction within can be found in Gateways, but there is much that is not; original stories that actually delve into the history and inception of WXXT Radio, and the pasts of characters such as Ben Stockton. Within these sinister pages are dating ads for ghosts (hey, the dead need companionship, too!), gut-wrenching and vomit-inducing confessions, brief transmissions from the damned, and tainted promotions and shadowy mission statements from WXXT. 

What makes Dead Air so effective is, once again, the look of the book. It has the look of a book that should be out on a coffee table, waiting for someone to pick it up and glance through its menacing pages, initiating conversation with the owner. Enhancing this effect are pictures that accompany a majority of the stories. Pictures of old houses, forests, storefronts, and people who have passed on to the other side long ago. The book works on so many levels. It works as rumor/gossip; as twisted folklore; as non-fiction; as twisted history. Dead Air succeeds even more than Gateways as a book that--if someone didn't know any better--would wonder if there are hints of truth and actuality in its repulsive passages. If you are so inclined to seek out this dreadful tome, you should contact Mr. Bartlett and inquire about it. It's truly a remarkable work, and, like the rest of his books, adds to the growing wicked world that Bartlett has sculpted with his own frightening mind.