Truly, for authors who are considering their first foray into the realm of self-publishing, Matthew M. Bartlett’s Gateways to Abomination should be used as one of the prime texts in terms of both professional refinement and freedom of creative expression. There have been books issued by third-party publishers that have had more instances of typographical errors in a matter of pages than Bartlett’s work does in the whole of its volume, to say nothing of their lack of imagination. This might sound like damning with faint praise, but let me assure you it is not. Bartlett’s collection resonates with the care and enthusiasm that went into its preparation. This author respects his audience. Like a master chef, he knows that the presentation is just as important as the taste of the dish.
But, to belabor a metaphor with an idiom, the proof is in the pudding, and Bartlett demonstrates abundantly throughout his book that he is a voice worth listening to. The connective tissue of the collection is Massachusetts-based radio station 89.7 WXXT, a channel run by a witch cult of decrepit ancients who broadcast all manner of upsetting, mesmerizing, and ominous songs and monologues that enrapture and entice the listeners who happen upon it by accident or design.
The book’s contents—all of the titles are in lowercase like the scribbled descriptions on the side of transmission tapes—range from short stories of traditional length to vignettes spanning a few paragraphs. Of the vignettes, there’s really only one, “accident”, that feels too fleeting to make any kind of lasting impression. If anything though, this is just a further testament to Bartlett’s skill. In a volume spanning 33 individual entries in all, some of them running the same length as “accident” or shorter, each one of the contents feels as if it’s adding a little bit more to the cult’s sinister history while simultaneously keeping most of its mysterious workings pleasantly in the dark. It’s a tough balancing act but Bartlett makes it look easy.
The first entry, “the woods in fall”, perfectly sets the stage for what is to follow and provides us with themes and images that will recur throughout: a subtle insinuation of the radio station’s power; the first appearances of many by tall, thin men staring from the woods and interfering cats; a fascination with bodily ejaculations. More than that though, it assures us of two things. One, that we are in the hands of a writer with a facility for the language and an eye for baroque detail.
Leaves fall like dry, dead angels, piling up against the leviathan broken bones of storm-savaged trees.
And two, that we are in the hands of a madman.
An ungodly gurgle bellowed up from his throat and he vomited a thick stream of wriggling worms.
It’s this dichotomy that keeps us glued to Bartlett’s stories, the poetical turns of phrase mashing up against the scatological horrors of bleeding Leeds, MA in a dizzying mix of the sublime, the silly, and the strange.
There are trappings of classic weird fiction within the collection—the evil sects vying for domination, the books intimating forbidden secrets—but Bartlett puts his own spin on them by concocting images indelibly his own and far more surreal than your everyday tentacle. There are porcupine-quilled clowns with plastic rumps, flying leeches, brain-melting beetles, ravaged angels riding a stampede of ravening goats through fields of madness. As the sole creative force in control (writer, editor, publisher), Bartlett is the one holding the keys to the screaming metal deathtrap that is Gateways to Abomination. The doors are locked, the engine is cackling, and the author is grinning at us from the driver’s seat with a mouth full of too many teeth. All we can do is wonder where the hell Bartlett will take us next and hope that we’ll be ready for it.
Bartlett is at his best when dealing with the longer narratives, the stories that are given the space to breathe and bloom like sickly-scented fungi. “when I was a boy—a broadcast” feels like a deeply personal confession gone horribly wrong, the tale of a growing lad obsessed with the corpulent body of a friend’s mother whose burgeoning sexual longings are hideously fulfilled. It is a tale drenched in the sweet and stink of New England and the dirty, musty banality of sex. “path” follows a fairly original conceit, namely how a deranged murderer deals with a devilish horror greater than himself. The story meshes an effectively disturbing psychological insight (the killer’s method of detaching himself from the world) with the disconcerting bits of quiet horror (the discovery of too many knives in the drawer, the silhouettes of the hypnotized drivers listening to WXXT) that Bartlett handles so well.
Similarly great are the pair of two-parters, “the ballad of ben stockton” and “the arrival”. The former describes the narrator’s should-be routine visit to the dentist that takes a turn into obfuscation and disturbing hints at unseen gears turning that would make Thomas Ligotti proud. The latter tells its story in reverse, going from a rebirth in the woods to the precipitating events of a goat-man’s reign of terror and mission to devour information through radio antennae. Bartlett performs this narrative experimentation on a few occasions, forcing the reader to set the misarranged puzzle pieces aright only for them to find out that the finished picture still has deep pockets of impenetrable darkness. Bartlett also takes joy in revealing towards the end of some entries that they’ve actually been broadcasts straight from WXXT all along, insinuating that the station has already torn through the fourth wall and that its messages have nestled in our gray matter like contented maggots. It all makes for a delightfully teasing and immersive game.
Best of all the stories are “the sons of ben” and “the gathering in the deep woods”. The first concerns a teenager discovering his true unholy parentage and contains one of the most exquisite invocations of a nightmare that I’ve ever read. It fills up your heart with the shadow of familiarity and disquiet.
In a blink, I was driving on a deserted highway amidst tall black buildings with windows glowing red and shadows dancing somewhere within. Alongside the elevated highway raged and roiled a black river, bisected by ornate, spired bridges that passed somewhere below the road on which I drove. Looming above the arches and the terraces, a large skyscraper seemed to rise before me, tattooed with an enormous, neon red inverted cross. Below the cross sprawled unreadable letters that looked vaguely Arabic.
The city was vast, lit red, save for blue lights that blinked in patternless intervals atop the taller spires and rooftops. Stone-winged cathedrals, with many stained-glass eyes, crouched like tarantulas amidst the skyscrapers. Cruel looking helicopters, noses angled low, roamed between the buildings like wasps. When I glimpsed the vapor-lit streets, I saw loose gangs of figures in strange configurations, several lone people scuttling like crabs into and out of crooked alleys. I saw shadows of things maddeningly large and unthinkably shaped where the corners of light met the shadows…
I remember being afraid to look at the passenger seat. Someone was sitting there, and it seemed vital that I not look, lest… lest what?
And that hasn’t even covered the demonic construction crew working over the pit of dead babies. It’s this section that makes Gateways feel vast, bigger than even the sprawling New England terrain that serves as its focal point, this nightmare like a projection of a future hell where the hallmarks of our modern civilization are viewed through a kaleidoscope of diabolical shades. Look closely, Bartlett says. This is the Abomi-Nation.
“the gathering in the deep woods” is the account of a man invited to the titular event by a stranger who carries his own brain into a diner. Bartlett slowly builds the details to unnerving effect, culminating in the man’s journey through the layers of a party from the Underworld that includes blasphemous car top murals, children puking up slithering tumors, and a pile of shit wearing a party hat.
It’s this latter element of gross, impish, and seemingly out-of-place humor that surprises one more than the presence of any insanity-inducing horror. It’s another one of Bartlett’s balancing acts, and for the most part he pulls it off, with only a few entries, like “the first to die”, straining on the stitches of terror and humor that bind them. Readers who are adverse to characters contemplating the portent of their vicious, black stool are advised to practice caution, with “the theories of uncle jeb” being perhaps the nastiest of the lot in its depiction of the skull-faced, gnarl-toed title character opening up his cancerous, smelly navel and inviting his kind relations to beat his diseased penis in with a mallet. It’s a lesson in how much your nose can wrinkle in the span of a story.
It seems appropriate that Bartlett’s collection should end with “the reddening dusk”, a beastly man’s wailing diatribe to the dead wife he murdered that finishes with him burrowing into the stomachs of his enemies and screaming in delirium. It’s a tonal high note for the work to go out on, leaving the reader disoriented and slightly traumatized from all the absurd grotesquries that have unspooled from the crackling recordings of Bartlett’s imagination.
The author has promised a companion volume for future release to be titled Creeping Waves, a book collecting further chronicles of Western Massachusetts’ haunted airwaves. If you were provoked or enthralled or upset by the contents of Gateways to Abomination, as I was, I can only imagine the “sequel” will have more of the same in store. Which is to say that come the time of its release, my ham radio will be tuned accordingly and I’ll be ready to listen to the voices of the damned once more. But, then again, chances are I’ve been hearing them the whole time.
We now pause for station identification.
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.