Gateways to the Weird: An Interview with Matthew M. Bartlett

Cover of The Stay-Awake Men and Other Unstable Entities by Dave Felton

Matthew M. Bartlett is the author of The Stay-Awake Men & Other Unstable EntitiesGateways to Abomination, and other books of supernatural horror. His short stories have appeared in a variety of anthologies, including Lost Signals, A Breath from the Sky, Year’s Best Weird Fiction Vol. 3, and the forthcoming Darker Companions, a tribute to Ramsey Campbell. He lives in a small brick house on a quiet, leafy street with his wife Katie Saulnier and their cats Phoebe, Peachpie, and Larry. This week we’re reprinting “Spettrini” from his latest collection, The Stay-Awake Men & Other Unstable Entities. We recently spoke with Bartlett to find out a little more about a strange place called Leeds, some of the ideas that make his fiction tick, and a few other things.

Weird Fiction Review: For anyone who might not be aware, all or most of your fiction revolves around the town of Leeds, Mass., to which there is much more than meets the eye. What is the appeal for you of using Leeds as a central setting for your fiction?  Do stories that don’t mention a specific location also take place there?

Matthew M. Bartlett: I started out writing about Leeds, and it’s sort of stuck. Leeds started out as a thinly veiled version of Northampton, where I live, but as I went on, I added elements from other New England locales where I’ve lived and worked and visited. Williamsburg and Montague and Shelburne Falls and Fitchburg. Simsbury, Connecticut. East Hartford, where I grew up. Every story I write expands the borders of Leeds a little.

Stories that don’t mention a specific location are not Leeds, or not necessarily Leeds.

I’ve also started writing stories set in a place called Hulse, which is my version of Hull, Massachusetts, and Nantasket Beach. It’s a lovely, quiet beach south of Boston, and its boardwalk is a little run down, with shuttered shops and disused arcades. Don’t get me wrong, it also has ice cream places and clam shacks and great restaurants, but my version is a little more decayed. I still haven’t settled on what exactly is happening in Hulse, which is part of the fun of exploring it in new stories.

WFR: Decay of landscape and human-made artifice, whether urban, suburban, or rural, seems a particularly enduring theme that runs through weird fiction.  Can you share with us what you find compelling about such imagery, as both reader and writer?

MB: I guess it’s probably a cliché by now, isn’t it, but it’s hard to get away from when you’re working in horror and the weird. It’s about aging, ultimately, moving toward death. Obsolescence and entropy and the inherent instability of all objects and all systems. Impending annihilation. It’s also maybe about laziness and neglect and destructiveness on the part of humanity, born of hopelessness or baseness. Plus, on the face of it, a certain kind of decay can be beautiful. It lends a necessary atmosphere.

WFR: I can’t help but notice that, accompanying death and decay in some of your stories, there is also a tendency toward depictions of pageantry, illusion, costuming, and similar representations of the carnivalesque.  For example, “Spettrini” and “Rangel,” the latter of which was included in Year’s Best Weird Fiction Vol. 3, contain these kinds of ritualized spectacle. Do you feel there is any sort of thematic relationship between revelry and decay in your fiction, or in a more general sense?

MB: I think the two often coexist in my stories, but they’re not necessarily intertwined. Leeds is not a decaying city, or, if it is, it’s only at the beginning of the process of putrefaction. The pageantry there speaks more to the fact that the “evil” or whatever you’d want to call it, is essentially institutionalized and celebrated, and that fact is very thinly veiled. In Hulse, it’s a similar story, but that city is, let’s say, in the middle of the process of putrefaction. There, the celebrants, whether they be raucous party-goers in the houses that line the cliff-face, or audiences at the ritualistic wrestling matches in the crumbling storefront venue, are in a sense worshiping decay and dissolution and erosion.

WFR: In addition to WXXT, the possessed radio station in the Leeds of your stories, your work was also included in one of last year’s strongest anthologies, Lost Signals, which features tales revolving around the idea of the uncanny media transmission.  In your opinion, are there any ways in which the use of this plot device is fundamentally different in today’s media landscape versus how it’s used in one of the classics that relies on it, such as H.F. Arnold’s “The Night Wire” ?  What makes this such an effective device in horror fiction?

MB: My use of the strange or occult transmission has largely been limited to so-called terrestrial radio, as it’s a seeming anachronism, an unlikely survivor in the age of the Internet. It’s a still living corpse, a thing from the past that by rights should be dead. Satellite Radio sits aside it, but hasn’t supplanted it. I think the idea is irresistible and evocative because it allows for pirate radio, transmissions that are unfettered, free of manipulation by powerful entities of religion or government. The forbidden always has allure, and I think in particular the transmission of sound alone triggers the imagination in wondrous ways. You see this in horror movies like The Blair Witch Project, where a lot of the fear comes from sound. You never see the witch, but you might just leave the theater thinking that you had. It’s maybe part of my provincialism, but I also like the idea that radio has a limited reach. That horrible thing you’re hearing…it’s near.

WFR: You’ve recently had work appear in Letters of Decline: Four Tales of Job Interview Horror.  Your story, “Night Dog”, also struck me as a great example of the corporate horror subgenre.  It seems to me that one of the most potent points at which the horror of the corporate and the cosmic overlap is the significant difference in power between protagonist and corporation or protagonist and fictitious antagonizing cosmic force.  Would you agree with that characterization as it relates to the themes in your own fiction?  Could an effective weird tale be written from the perspective of the side with greater power?

MB: I would agree with that characterization, yes. The protagonist, particularly the non-management “worker bee,” is subject to the will of the corporation, and to its whims. In a lot of cases, the worker bee may encounter a sociopath of a manager, or an inept manager, or a company whose actual goal differs significantly and in sinister or corrupt ways from its stated goal. Corporate horror fiction can either magnify these (and other) scenarios or else put them in front of a funhouse mirror.

I do think an effective weird tale can be written from the standpoint of the entity with more power. Let’s say the goal of the company is a worthy one, and the worker bee begins to undermine it, either subtly or overtly. Separate from that, in any company there are difficult employees, people who don’t want to do their jobs. They can react in unpredictable ways when confronted.

WFR: There’s an apparent fondness for debauchery and excess that comes through in your work, though it’s treated with a sense of dry humor and absurdity.  Do you find it a challenge to maintain a balance and keep such matters operating in service of the story?  How do you view the role of humor in the context of a weird tale?

MB: Excess and debauchery are just fun to write. While I like some “quiet horror,” I prefer to write alarming, loud, gauche scenes of technicolor horror, which are in and of themselves absurd.

As to striking the correct balance, I wish I had an answer for this question that was more analytical, but the fact is I write largely on instinct. The humor finds its way in on the first draft, which in many cases is done almost like automatic writing. No filter, no second-guessing, just writing. If the balance works out, and it works to serve the story, it’s little more than luck. Or, more accurately, it means that my initial instincts were worth trusting. If it doesn’t work, it’s easily excised.

I sometimes like a little humor with my horror, not necessarily to provide a respite for the reader, and not necessarily to add levity, but to deepen the horror or to cause the reader to laugh when he or she would rather not. Quentin Tarantino does this with violence and humor, I think.

A lot of humor comes, of course, from surprise, like a sentence not ending quite like you thought it would. So both the reaction of laughter and the reaction of horror, or even just being thrown off-balance, are results of being forced to suddenly confront the unexpected.

WFR: Can you share with us an example of a story you enjoy that you would consider effective “quiet horror”?  What makes it stand out to you, given your own creative preferences are somewhat in contrast?

MB: Look at the title story of Michael Wehunt’s Greener Pastures. Two men, truckers, sit in a lonesome diner in the middle of nowhere, talking to one another about something that lives in the dark spaces in the world. One by one, the scant lights that illuminate the parking lot go out. There’s a little more to it than that, but it’s one of the most effective horror stories I’ve read on the “quiet” end of the horror spectrum. I like its simplicity, the slow creep of dread and disquiet. I could as readily cite stories by, say, Michael Griffin, Daniel Mills, Kristi DeMeester, countless others. I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t like quiet horror. Some of my newer stories might qualify for that designation themselves.

WFR: Before your collections with Dunhams Manor and Muzzleland Press, you self-published Gateways to Abomination to favorable reviews in various places that readers of weird fiction might have come across, such as Arkham Digest.  Is there any advice you’d pass on to people trying to determine whether or not to self-publish?

MB: Someone just starting out? Don’t do it. Do anything but. Submit to anthologies and magazines first, and aim high. If you get rejected, keep trying. Try to improve. Do the basics of what those articles about writing tell you to do, like reading widely and writing daily. Learn patience. You’ll need it.

If you must self-publish, make sure it’s something unique. There’s a lot for readers to choose from right now, so standing out is vital.

Also, show your writing to people who will give you an honest opinion. A writing group, maybe. Someone who isn’t afraid to hurt your feelings.

Next, the obvious advice. Don’t skimp on cover art and design. A bad cover suggests a writer unconcerned with quality. People will reject it out of hand. And if you can’t get an editor, at least get proofreaders. Plural. Experienced if possible, not just your friend down the street. Even with three, I still found a few typos and incorrect words after publication. (With Print-On-Demand, you can fix those).

Behave yourself on social media. Writers and editors and publishers talk with one another about bad behavior, and they post about it online. Learn from them. Most of it is just common sense and basic decency. Some of it, you have to learn. But it’s not advanced calculus, you can learn it pretty quickly.

Be prepared to promote yourself. Do it judiciously on your own page, and only with permission in groups and on other people’s pages. If there’s a thread where someone asks for recommendations, holy hell, don’t recommend your own book, not even if you try to make a winking joke of it. Promote others, too. We’re in this together. If you love a book, let people know.

If you’ve got all these covered, try not to get too defensive when people blithely insult self-publishing. That’s a hard one for me, I admit.

WFR: You recently collaborated with illustrator and game designer Yves Tourigny.  Can you tell us a bit about it and how the project came about?  Were there any challenges you’ve faced that differ from working solo?

MB: In mid-December, Yves sent me a Facebook message. It read, I think we should collaborate this year on a Leeds advent calendar for next December — micro-fiction + illustrations, one a day for the entire month. A physical product. He followed up with an email with more details — a limited-edition advent calendar with perforated pages you tear open to unseal each story/illustration — and suggestions for story arcs. He’d produce the chapbooks himself, with a more standard paperback/ebook to follow a little later, available on Amazon and other online outlets.

My method for writing the twenty-five pieces actually hearkens back to the writing of Gateways to Abomination, except this time around I imposed on myself a more rigid schedule. I wrote whatever I felt like writing, unfettered. I sent the stories as I wrote them, with Yves sending back illustrations based on what I’d written. Writing this way, as opposed to writing a more firmly structured story to try to sell to this or that anthology, feels less like work and more like fun. The stories are not as thematically cohesive as Gateways, but there are a lot of ideas that link them up in interesting ways. I’m fiercely proud of the work. I think it’s some of the best stuff I’ve done. I’ve also had a great time essentially forcing Yves to draw horrifying and disgusting things. That’s a tertiary pleasure.

WFR: Last of all, what were some of your gateways to the weird that most shaped your reading and writing life?

MBWhen I was young, my parents report that when the Count appeared on Sesame Street, I would slowly back away out of the room, keeping my eye on him the whole time. Not long after that, I was in a local store called Paperback Booksmith and I looked at a big, glossy book about the Universal Monsters, and I was fascinated. My parents got me the book and I wouldn’t leave it alone until the pages started falling out. When I was twelve, my grandfather, knowing I liked horror, bought me the novelization of The Omen. So there’s your foundation. The biggie, though, was reading King’s Christine, which my grandmother gave me when I was thirteen. In college I detoured through the Beat poets, Hunter Thompson, Salinger, Philip Larkin, Mark Strand, and many others. After, around the time I started writing Gateways, I was reading and rereading Lovecraft, Aickman, and Ligotti, and listening to strange radio broadcasts by Joe Frank. I’m also influenced by music: Nick Cave, The Damned, Warren Zevon, again, countless others. So all that is in the mix. After a while, I couldn’t help but start writing.

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