Those are still cool, right?
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing horror author Matthew M. Bartlett, whose books such as Gateways to Abomination, The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, and the 2016 release Creeping Waves center on a terrifying Massachusetts town. Good works to check out now that we’re officially in autumn and thoughts turn toward Halloween . . .
First, a bit of background info, taken from Bartlett’s bio on Amazon:
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 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. 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.
Deck: How long have you been writing horror, and what kind of training or study did you have? Do you have experience in other types of writing?
Bartlett: I’ve been writing horror since late 2004, with a few minor attempts here and there before that. I was an English major in college in the late eighties and early nineties, but during that time I wrote mostly poetry. When I look at that stuff now, I see that a few poems had a strong horror component.
Deck: You mention in your bio several authors who have influenced you, among them H.P. Lovecraft. Given the central importance of Western Massachusetts in your work, I can’t help but think of what some call “Lovecraft Country”: the author’s fictional towns that were mostly located in Eastern Mass.: Arkham, Innsmouth, etc. What is it about Massachusetts that so richly inspires horror fiction? Do you hope to create a “Bartlett Country” legacy in the western part of the state?
Bartlett: The city where I live is basically a small downtown of very old buildings, surrounded by farmland and woods. Just walking down the street looking at the old houses and the edges of the forests can inspire ideas for writing. I don’t know that I have a particular need to create a legacy based on the locale; it’s more that when I picture the settings for stories, I picture them in places I see and have been. I’m pretty provincial that way; I just don’t have it in me to write stories that take place in, say, Brazil or Vietnam or Michigan or somewhere.
Deck: Of course, your story setting of Leeds, Massachusetts, is an actual town (or rather, a village that’s part of the city of Northampton, Mass.). Have any of the real-life residents of Leeds taken exception to you implying that they belong to a diabolical witch cult? Are there any challenges involved in setting horror stories in a real (smallish) town? As opposed to, say, using New York as a fictional setting.
Bartlett: My mother-in-law lives in Leeds proper, and she frets about the idea that people might be annoyed with me, or with her, because of my using Leeds as the name of the city. I have to explain to her that I and my books are nowhere near that well-known.
Deck: Besides the setting of New England itself, what other aspects of your life tend to feed into your dark fiction?
Bartlett: I think that I have a wide morbid streak, and I tend to worry. Worrying is essentially a creative exercise: you sit there and think of all the terrible things that might befall you. Writing deals with that worry so that it doesn’t become all-consuming and have deleterious effects on my day-to-day existence. It’s better than any drug. And, like many horror writers and readers, I love the autumn in New England, graveyards, horror movies, dark music, all that stuff. It’s a true inspiration.
Deck: You recently released Creeping Waves, a follow-up to your 2014 horror work Gateways to Abomination. What was your inspiration for returning to Leeds, rather than heading for a new corner of Bartlett Country?
Bartlett: I had ideas to further and expand upon the small mythos I’d started up in Gateways, and a few stories that trailed off in Gateways I wanted to continue in the next book. There will be more, most definitely.
Deck: What kind of advantages are offered by telling the story of Creeping Waves through smaller, mostly self-contained narratives rather than one main plot arc? Do you think that horror works best through shorter tales, or is that the approach that simply seemed to suit this particular material and setting?
Bartlett: I wanted to keep it entertaining, and to use different storytelling methods to further the overarching story. Though there are some stories that are of traditional length, I’m conscious of not wanting to bore myself, and not wanting to bore readers. I try to find the fine line between art and entertainment, I think.
Deck: The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, your 2015 release, tells some of the back-stories of characters encountered in Gateways to Abomination. Do you recommend readers use this book as a kind of breather between your two main volumes? How did you get connected with your illustrator, Alex Fienemann?
Bartlett: People can use the book as they like. It connects up with stories in Gateways and Creeping Waves in what I hope are interesting ways, and I think it bears the occasional reread. I put out a call on Facebook for an artist, and a friend of mine put me in touch with a mutual friend. Her art was more whimsical and fantastical, so this allowed her to stretch, and I think she’s a natural for horror art, though she hasn’t returned to it, to my knowledge.
Deck: And you have a story in the horror anthology Lost Signals, which just came out this summer. Its theme of transmissions and signals seems to be a perfect match for the evil radio station (WXXT) conceit that informs your Leeds stories — did you have any influence over the anthology’s theme? Or was the collection inspired by the recent popularity of audio horror like Welcome to Night Vale?
Bartlett: Ultimately I’m not sure what inspired the collection, but I don’t think it was me. When the submissions call was announced, I was up to my elbows in writing Creeping Waves, and hadn’t any time to spare. Later, after the deadline had passed, one of the editors, Max Booth III, sent me a message. He’d heard from a lot of people that they hoped I’d have something in the anthology, given the theme. At that time, my plate was clear, so I wrote a story, and then immediately thought it wasn’t good enough. So I wrote a second story, and Max read both and liked them enough to ask to buy both of them. I was very happy with this development, as I really wanted to be part of the book.
Deck: What keeps you up at night? Do you think that confronting the weird and monstrous in fiction helps us confront the mundane terrors of the real world?
Bartlett: My fears are awfully drab: I fear being unemployed, illness, loss, and death and nonexistence. I think fiction helps externalize those fears, or use them as metaphors. It’s therapeutic. Or it can be. I think both real-life fears and horror are ways to face having the metaphorical rug pulled out from under us.
Deck: Do you face any challenges or misconceptions from the general reading audience when writing in the horror genre? Do you try to target readers who already “get” the genre?
Bartlett: I don’t really try to target anything. I follow the muse. Anyone going in looking for werewolves or zombies or serial killers will hopefully read the previews available on Amazon and proceed with caution. I think people tend largely to think of horror in terms of movies, and consider horror books to consist of shock value and vampires. I don’t know, though, really, what people think. Those were guesses. I just kind of get on with it and hope that the books will find their people.
Deck: What’s next for you?
Bartlett: I have a story in a wrestling-themed chapbook with three stories in it [3 Moves of Doom, newly available as an e-book – J.]. It’s one of my favorites of my own stories, actually. It’s called DARK MATCH, and it introduces the seaside Massachusetts town of Hulse. I’m thinking more and more about Hulse, and what might be going on there. It’s exciting to get out of Western Massachusetts for a while and look at the ocean.
Also, I’ll have a new short collection called The Stay-Awake Men and Other Stories coming in early 2017 from Dunham’s Manor Press, a limited edition hardcover to be illustrated by the terribly talented Dave Felton. The stories are a departure from the Leeds mythos. I’m interested to see what people think of them.
Deck: We all know the big names in horror and dark fantasy — do you have any recommendations of books by current writers in the genre who may not (yet) be well known?
Deck: What do you love to do in your spare time that has nothing to do with dark fiction?
Bartlett: I spend my spare time lounging with my wife and the cats, and seeing friends, sharing meals, talking. Nothing terribly exciting. But it makes me very happy.
Lately I’ve been carrying around a copy of my new, self-published book, The Pseudo-Chronicles of Mark Huntley, everywhere with me. Showing it off at every opportunity: children’s birthday parties, backyard firepit gatherings, dentist appointments, wakes, etc. (Only that last item is a joke.)
One friend I handed the book to carefully examined the front and back covers, flipped through it, and exclaimed: “It looks just like a real book!”
Then she peered at the book again and the realization hit her: “It is a real book.”
It can be kind of startling to recognize this, after a lifetime of only reading books provided to you by major publishers in New York. (Not so long ago, I had to make the same mental adjustment.) These days, anyone has the power to produce a “real book.” There is no magical rite performed over books by a sorcerous associate editor in a lonely, eldritch cavern beneath Random House Tower to make them real.
What do you need, then, if not an arcane validation from the isle of Mannahatta? Well, you still need to put in the work.
You need a great story, of course, and the persistence to make it even better. You need feedback from peers and beta readers. You need advance readers to line up reviews. You need professional cover design and formatting (I had excellent help from Damonza for Mark Huntley). You need somebody to print and ship the book (I used CreateSpace). You need a marketing plan, and an e-mail list.
But the point is, you can make it happen. You don’t need to wait for approval from some impossible-to-reach publishing maven you’ve never met, if you know in your heart that what you’ve written is worth reading.
I find that to be a truly wonderful realization — that there is nothing really stopping any of us but ourselves. That, if you can’t get past the gatekeepers, you can turn around and take another path altogether.
We’ve seen the growth of independent works in other media: indie music, indie movies, indie video games, even TV shows that have found a home in some other place than the major networks. And the results have been enriching for everyone. Now it’s time for indie books to have their rise. They’ve been real books all along.
My supernatural thriller The Pseudo-Chronicles of Mark Huntley just came out in print, and it’s already got stellar reviews on Amazon. Check it out!
Summer is a natural setting for, say, a romance novel: summer flings, unexpected love blooming in a little beach town, etc. It can be harder to track down sci-fi, fantasy, and horror books set during the summertime. Fortunately, I’m here to help. Here are five speculative fiction books that you can read during these waning days of summer. Or, save them until it’s cold again and you desperately need a shot of fictional sunshine.
1. Little, Big, by John Crowley
This one bears explanation, especially since it’s at the beginning of the list. “But Jeff,” you say, “doesn’t this novel span not just all four seasons, but multiple generations?” Yes. It does. But read Little, Big and just try to tell me it doesn’t make you think of long, hazy, dreaming days in the summer countryside, throughout pretty much the whole book. The book is about a sensation most of all: a mood-place where reality and magic meet, where fairies don’t seem like such a crazy idea after all.
2. A Shadow in Summer, by Daniel Abraham
This is the first book in Abraham’s medieval Asia-inspired fantasy series The Long Price Quartet, with subsequent books also named for the seasons (though, note that winter comes before autumn!). (Also note that Abraham is one half of “James S.A. Corey,” author of the sci-fi series The Expanse, which I’ve praised earlier). Ideas can be made into real creatures in the summer cities of the south. Jo Walton recommended A Shadow in Summer and its follow-ups highly.
3. Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury drew on his own childhood to create this paean to summer, much of which started off as individually published short stories before being drawn together into this book. The book has only light speculative touches, mostly to add dimensions that represent the touch of magic that summer has when you’re a kid. Interestingly, Bradbury published a sequel, Farewell Summer, almost fifty years later — that takes place during “Indian Summer,” in October. So, you know, one last hurrah for summer.
4. Summerland, by Michael Chabon
A rare YA offering from Chabon, Summerland is the story of fairies and other magical creatures who are obsessed with baseball. A kid who sucks at the sport must journey on a blimp into a land of adventure and American mythology, etc. The author reins in his ordinarily baroque language somewhat for the kids, but still manages to slip in the occasional vocabulary-enhancing description. I have a signed copy of this book and you cannot have it. And here’s a bonus (non-speculative) summer novel by Chabon: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the story of one young man’s sexual awakening in about the least mysterious city there is. Featuring motorcycles!
5. Summer of Night, by Dan Simmons
So, think Dandelion Wine — a magical boyhood summer in Illinois — except with the awakening of an ancient evil added in. And really, shouldn’t that be added to every story? Simmons is probably best known for off-the-wall genre-melding (genre-busting?) books like Hyperion, but Summer of Night will scratch your classical horror itch, per the consensus. That’s what summer’s really for.
The Summer Job by Adam Cesare, a horror tale that sounds pretty fucked up (hat tip to this Lit Reactor article by Cameron Pierce, which also reminded me of the existence of Summer of Night); and pretty much anything by Guy Gavriel Kay, whose dreamily described settings will put you in a summer frame of mind, particularly in books like A Song for Arbonne
Tell me what I’m missing from this list! It’s all dudes with no female writers, for one thing. I know I must be missing a bunch of great speculative fiction set in the summertime.