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.