Matthew M. Bartlett burst upon the scene with the publication of his story collection/fractured novel/found transcript collage Gateways to Abomination late last year. (We reviewed the title earlier this week here.) Bartlett has gone on to garner much attention and acclaim for his delirious fictions. He has also published a chapbook through Dim Shores, Rangel—sold out of both its editions (!)—and the illustrated historical textbook The Witch-Cult of Western Massachusetts. The author also has a hardcover collection, The Stay-Awake Men and Others, and an appearance in Xnoybis #1 forthcoming from Dunhams Manor Press. Bartlett sat down with the Haunted Omnibus recently to discuss scary pictures, self-publishing, and humor in Weird Fiction.
• So, for starters: how are you doing today?
I’m glad to be home.
• Looking back, what are some of the creative works and experiences that you think helped shape you into the writer you are today?
It started with the Count from SESAME STREET. When he would appear on screen, I would back out of the room slowly, keeping a watchful eye on him, according to my parents. Next was the Universal monsters. Not the movies themselves, mind you, but the pictures. In an East Hartford store called Paperback Booksmith, I saw a book, a big, glossy, black & white book about them, and begged my parents for it. I tore that book to shreds. To this day, though, my favorite movie featuring the monsters is ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. I found THE WOLF MAN to be a yawn, but by the time I saw it, I was thirteen or so, and had already started digging into Stephen King and the OMEN novelizations. As far as experiences, I was largely spared childhood trauma (except nearly drowning while tubing at the Devil’s Hopyard in Connecticut)…The only thing I can think of is sitting there in St. Isaac Jogues Catholic Church…staring at the murals on the wall. They spooked me. Religious art gives me the creeps.
• The collection Dead Air—available through Blurb.com—marked your first foray into self-publishing. Disregarding that erroneous listing price on the website, what was that experience like? How did the collection come together?
I think I Googled “self-publishing” and Blurb came up. It allowed me to put together the stories and pictures from my LiveJournal page in a nice-looking book with glossy pages. At that time I thought the pictures were absolutely essential. The software was hell to work with—the fonts and font sizes would change in spots for no apparent reason, and you had to change them back, and that would skew the formatting. It took a long time to navigate and problem-solve. Very few people own that book outside my circle of friends, and I keep threatening to remove it from circulation. Maybe I’ll do that after I’m done with the interview. It’s prohibitively expensive and not well-edited. I toyed with trying to convert it to an ebook at one point, and I found the process even tougher to navigate.
• The LiveJournal page you started in 2005 played host to your first works of fiction, some of which you subsumed into Gateways to Abomination. Do you feel that the blog allowed you to hone your craft and stretch your imagination? What did you learn while maintaining it?
I’d begun finding odd pictures from the Internet and crafting one-paragraph stories to accompany them. They weren’t horror related; they were more comic absurdism. Then a friend of mine started a page separate from his personal page, and he used it to tell the story of an oddball town and its citizens—it was, ultimately, a satire of small town officials and small town life. I loved the idea of using a blog as a vehicle for fiction, and I thought short blasts of surreal horror juxtaposed with creepy old daguerreotypes and tintypes would be a natural fit for that format. I was very much fueled by reaction, and the more people liked it, the more I wrote. That blog, viewed from its outset to its end, is the story of how I learned to write fiction.
• There are moments in Gateways, such as in scenes from “great uncle eltweed”, “path”, and “the sons of ben number 2”, where the characters seem to be momentarily caught in this twilight land between waking and dreaming. I can say from experience that there’s something inherently creepy about being the only person awake in the middle of the night and having only the TV or radio to keep you company. Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? What do you think contributes to that frisson of unease?
I listen to a radio monologist named Joe Frank. His radio show veers from melancholy meditations on death and nonexistence to terrible tales of relationships gone wrong to surreal plays and absurdist rants. Listening to that voice, underscored by a low drone, in a dark car on wooded streets—some of my stories were my attempt to recreate that feeling.
• Are you an avid radio-listener in general? What are some of your favorite tracks, audio dramas, podcasts?
I grew up with Rock 102, the rock block weekend, all that stuff. But my favorites were the Dr. Demento Show and the Comedy Hour on 106 WHCN. Again, a lone voice, accompanied only by applause, trying to make sense of the world.
• We get a hint of a storyline in Gateways concerning a battle between the Leeds witch-cult and the agents of the FCC. This narrative thread seems especially ripe for the plucking; do you have any intention of returning to and expanding upon this idea?
I do. The FCC certainly wouldn’t stop at trying to shut this thing down. And other people might go after it with their own interests in mind.
• There’s a defined element of humor in your work that is uncommon in the genre. Do you have any thoughts as to why this is scarce in the field? Should Weird Fiction be portrayed seriously if we are to take it seriously, or is there room on the shelf for uncomfortable laughter as well?
I think humor is essential to horror and Weird Fiction, and there’s a lot of it wound through the genre, usually subtly. I use humor maybe a little less subtly, but I like the idea of a reader being horrified, maybe a little disgusted, and then surprised into laughter. It’s discordant, and it lends to an aura of discomfort…at least that’s what I’m aiming for.
• The manifestations of the Weird in Gateways are decidedly different from the usual fare as well, especially in regards to the pronounced presence of human offal. (One of the more queerly odious visions not mentioned in our review is the super-teeted dog swimming in its own milk.) In placing these images in your stories, were you working from a sense of the things that personally disgusted you and extrapolating them to their bizarre limits?
I think that’s exactly right. I saw that dog on a side street in Manchester, Connecticut. I was a teenager. It haunted me for years. And I’m always interested in the heights humanity can reach, juxtaposed with our grotesque and vulnerable interiors.
• A fair amount of your work has been image-based in one form or another… the antique daguerreotypes and photos you took featured on the LiveJournal page, the illustrations by Alex Fieneman for The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts. Does that come from a lifelong admiration for unsettling pictures? Do you think you’d ever tackle a more visual medium like the comic book in the future?
For me, the graphic novels adapted from, say, Lovecraft and Ligotti, ultimately take something away from the fiction. I think it’s just too much—I like the authors to stir my imagination, to paint pictures in my head. While I appreciate the artwork in the graphic versions, they don’t match what’s in my imagination. I like to look at them separately from the written adaptation that accompanies them. On the other hand, look at Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Look at Alfred Hitchcock’s Haunted Houseful. The images there are just enough to haunt you, just enough to provoke unease. That’s the level of art and illustration that work for me. A great cover and a maybe a few upsetting pictures.
• When you engage with a work of fiction within or without the genre, what are the elements that unnerve you, that move you and keep you coming back for more?
I like ambiguity, to a degree. I like language that puts a vivid image in my head. I like elements of recognizable truth, something that draws me in and makes me think, “I’ve felt that. I’ve thought that way.” And, perversely, I like an almost caustic negativity.
• You have the means of completing one of your ultimate dream projects. What is it and why is it?
I’d love to be able to write a screen adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” –it’s one of my favorite stories, and I know exactly how it should look. If you haven’t heard David McCallum’s reading of it—it’s on YouTube—you owe yourself a listen.
I’ve even come up with a nice, non-racist name for the cat.
• What are some of your hobbies?
I’m an inveterate errand-runner. I don’t think that’s a hobby exactly, but that’s what I do when I’m not writing or reading or watching movies.
• What’s one of your favorite memories of Halloween in New England?
The story I always tell is the Cub Scout meeting that fell on the evening of Halloween. We were all encouraged to wear costumes. I was the only one who did. They took a group picture that night, and there’s eleven or twelve kids in Cub Scout uniforms…and one Dracula.
• Since this is a site dedicated to short fiction, can you give us any recommendations of individual stories or collections that you think deserve a wider audience?
I’ll stick to those not so well known (yet). Seek out Mer Whinery—there are two collections of his available through Amazon. I think his is a name you’ll be seeing more of. Also, my friend Tom Breen, who’s been reading my stuff since 2005, is just starting to have stories appear in anthologies. He’s so good that I dream of his releasing a collection. He’s been showing me his work for years and it makes me crazy—I want everyone to be able to read it. For now, in the anthology Broken Worlds, you can read his story “Five Laments for the Horizon Summer Resort, to be Destroyed and Never Built Again.”
• After a long day of answering interview questions, you settle in with a dinner and a movie that comfort you. What are they?
My comfort dinner is a Korean Jjamppong, a spicy seafood soup, with a kimchi pancake on the side. That or chicken curry with peppers and onions. The movie is SESSION 9. Or HALLOWEEN III, depending on my mood.
• Thank you for stopping in for this interview, Matthew.
Thank you for your thoughtful questions.
Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of The Haunted Omnibus. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.