Published by Muzzleland Press on April 8, 2016
Genres: Horror, Weird Tales
Buy on Amazon
Where is the real Leeds? How does one get there? Is it floating on the air-words and music you can almost reach out and grab like wriggling worms of sound and ether? Is it in the carnival that seethes under the corrupted church, drawing the lost along shadowy corridors and through the strangely angled Funhouse doors to the place where the city fathers perform secret rites with the goat-headed masters of the dark? Do you seek the Real Leeds? Venture out to a secluded spot, turn on your radio, and spin that dial down to the murky low numbers, somewhere just around 87.9... That music, that voice calling on the edge of static and distortion-it might lead you to that blasted and damned path toward the Real and Truest heart of Leeds, Massachusetts. This is WXXT. It's the witching hour, when shadows take wing and nightmares stalk. Turn your radio up. Point your antennas to the infinite sky. And stay tuned for Weather on the Sixes. WXXT. The bubbling blisters on the tongue of the Pioneer Valley.
***The content of this review/article does not reflect the official opinion of Horror After Dark or its Team Members. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this review/article [therein] lies entirely with the author(s) who submitted the work. ~ HAD
Guest Reviewer S.E. Casey grew up on the coast of New England near a lighthouse. As a child, he always dreamed of smashing the lighthouse and building something truly grotesque with the rubble. This has become the writing method for his weird horror stories. A listing of his broken down and rebuilt tales along with other author morbidities can be found at secaseyauthor.wordpress.com.
A great dedication to setting, mood, and voice, atmosphere jumps off the page in Matthew Bartlett’s Creeping Waves. Taking place in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, it’s a credit to Bartlett’s imagination that he can mine such apocalyptic horror out of a region known for its pastoral tranquility and bucolic towns.
While the book may appear a gathered collection of short stories, flash fiction, vignettes, snippets of discarded newspaper articles, and transcripts of Satanic radio broadcasts, there is a devoted world-building here. Bartlett mindfully constructs a grotesque, maggot teeming memory-town to which he transposes over our modern-day banality. It is the rotting past versus the prophylactic present: a battle silently waged in many rustic New England towns that have a foot in two eras.
Bartlett’s wicked imagination and calamitous prose make for a deliciously deep dive into this Stygian playground. Over and above the individual narratives, I found myself craving more background and history of this degenerate world, its denizens, and its shy, morbid capital of Leeds. While maybe best described as a fragmented novel, there is a consistent premise embedded in its chaos. Bartlett doesn’t set a straight-line towards a climactic destination, rather he sends the reader in orbit around a thematic epicenter allowing a view of its many facets.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of a vision of America hanging an omnipresent sense of the despairing corruption of the American Dream in many of his stories. In Fitzgerald’s world, there is a ballistic theory of everything: business, government, culture, and family following the bell curve of an idealistic rise leading to a disillusioned, cynical fall. What goes up must come down.
Matthew Bartlett inverts Fitzgerald’s curve as he presents his own ballistic theory of stagnation.
Creeping Waves is an ode to rot. Most every small New England town has its aristocracies, whether they be the founders, benefactors, or heroes. However, the gifted and ambitious progeny of these leading families are most often lured away to the big city or exotic locales, their dreams too large for a small town. Only the less enterprising and less altruistic children stay. These dull men and women cling to the past dependent on past deeds and inheritance. They are hostile to strangers. They fight change entrenching themselves and their institutions with a septic bitterness. Even in death, they are loathe to give up what has been bestowed unto them.
Creeping Waves is a cautionary tale of a town in full spoil. It is systems failing miserably from neglect and indifference. Bartlett’s protagonists: the Dithers, the Sloughtons, the Shinefaces, and the Goldens scrabble and cling to their stagnant kingdoms. So too, the anarchic business enterprises of Radio WXXT and Annelid Industries International radiate a mad nihilism as a consequence of being unchecked and uncurbed. Reality erodes in the town of Leeds, even time becoming a casualty. The sole winners are the leeches and maggots. In Leeds, only the conqueror worms thrive.
And this is why Creeping Waves matters. We know what happens when an unexplained puddle in the basement goes ignored and untreated. The musty smell may be masked, but in time, a virulent mold blooms. We know what happens when institutions go unregulated. Markets fail, pollution nauseates, and unwitting citizens get sick. Psychologists know what happens when a phobia or other post-traumatic stress isn’t treated. Only when our deepest anxieties are confronted can health be restored. If we ignore our disorders, the only possible outcome is a festering that leads to paralyzing neuroses and violent psychoses.
This is the ballistic theory of stagnation. This is the real Leeds.
Creeping Waves gets my enthusiastic recommendation. For those who crave atmosphere (especially the dark and sinister), this is essential reading, one of the most fascinating, fully fleshed out literary worlds I have visited in a long while. It is not for the faint of heart; however, it should be read in the same spirit as Carl Jung’s Red Book—an unexpurgated, uncensored exploration of the unconscious. This is an artist dedicated to a vision, not a promulgation of any ideology. Creeping Waves is a work done in the phantasmagoric borderlands of the rational and the psyche’s symbolic weirdness. It is an important book to be interpreted, more questions than answers inside. In Leeds, all goats are grey.
So please consider a visit to Leeds. Come in the fall when the Berkshire foliage is in peak. Just drive, it doesn’t matter the roads or direction. Turn on the radio, sling the dial all the way to the left, and sing along to the apocalyptic polka (you and your family will somehow know all the words). When you see the trees stripped of their leaves the fat trunks reaching up into a blood sunset, you are close. Step on the gas and take your hands off the wheel. Almost there! And when the car veers into the woods on its own accord, and the trees whizzing past become so straight to be tent poles, and the radio gets dangerously loud, and the black canvases billow in the gale to blot out the moon: rejoice! Welcome to the real Leeds.
About Matthew M. Bartlett
Matthew M. Bartlett was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1970. At an early age he was given as a gift the novelization of The Omen; not long after that, he inherited a worn copy of Christine by Stephen King. He fell deeply in love with horror: with the Universal monsters, with Hammer films, with the rented videos from the horror section of that almost-gone artifact known as the Video Rental Store. He began writing poetry while in the English program at Central Connecticut State University. An abiding interest in horror fiction led him to start a Livejournal page whose posts were his first forays into fiction: bite-sized tales accompanied by doctored daguerreotypes and his own photographs taken in Leeds and Northampton, Massachusetts. These posts centered around a long-dead coven using radio waves to broadcast disturbing and dangerous transmissions from the dark woods of Western Massachusetts. His inspirations are varied and the foremost are certainly not atypical for the genre: H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti, Robert Aickman, T.E.D. Klein. Other authors he admires include Donald E. Westlake, Richard Yates, J.D. Salinger, and Hunter S. Thompson. He also draws inspiration from the radio monologues and shows of Joe Frank; the poetry of Philip Larkin, of Mark Strand, of Stephen Crane; the movies of Wes Anderson, of Ben Wheatley, of the Coen Brothers. He continues to write dark and strange fiction at his home in Western Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife Katie and an unknown number of cats.
Some people hug a teddy when the world gets to be too much. Me? I settle in with a scary book.