I recently reviewed Gateways to Abomination, the debut "fiction collection" from author Matthew M. Bartlett. It is a book I quite highly recommend, and I now follow up with an interview with the author.
AD: First I'd like to thank you for taking the time for this interview.
It’s my pleasure.
Gateways to Abomination is a culmination of a few years worth of stories. How did the project come about? How long has this collection been in the making?
A friend of mine had begun a humorous fictional Livejournal page about deranged politicians and odd local characters in a fictional town, and, inspired by that, but also being a fan of horror, I decided to start my own page, but with a real setting and a macabre bent. I thought the blog format would be a good venue for the ongoing story of a malevolent cabal – an occult group of revenants with a devilish leader – targeting the wounded souls of an art community through radio broadcasts.. I posted the first installment in March of 2005. I scoured the Internet and local antique stores for old, unsettling daguerreotypes and tintypes, and I took pictures of desolate locations around town, and I posted them, constructing little stories or vignettes around the pictures. I thought the stories unpublishable at the time, as I felt that they were inextricably tied to the pictures. As I went on, the stories got longer and more involved, the pictures fewer and farther between. Suddenly it occurred to me that I’d amassed enough to put together a collection. I started ordering and compiling and rewriting in early 2014.
What attracts you to weird fiction? What authors and works have impacted you over the years?
I’ve always been a fairly cheerful person but a person with an undercurrent of terror of mortality, a morbid bent. I don’t believe in any measure of consciousness after death, and nonexistence is a thought that utterly terrifies me. I’m not comforted either by the fact that I did not exist for an eternity before my birth: somehow that’s even worse to try to comprehend. I’m kind of a day-to-day optimist and a big-picture pessimist. As I've aged, I've become more and more dismayed by the thought that we are all walking horrorshows. We’re skeletons, filled with and encased in fat and gore, the whole mess barely held in by a few layers of dermis. We're so easily cut and sprung and burst - we're always a millisecond from encountering or becoming an unthinkable horror. And that doesn’t even cover the cancer and ills that can grow invisibly within us.
So I think weird fiction was a natural fit for me. My parents tell me that when I was four or five years old, and Sesame Street was on TV, whenever The Count appeared, I would stare at him and slowly, carefully back out of the room, my eyes never leaving him. At a Halloween cub scout meeting I was the only kid in costume – picture 12 cub scouts in uniform and one Dracula, complete with a cape and a widow’s peak drawn in with eyebrow pencil. I was obsessed with the Universal Studios monsters as a child, and was introduced to Stephen King’s work at the age of 13 or so.
It took me a long time to give Lovecraft a try; I’d somehow gathered that he was more a Science Fiction writer than anything, and that genre held no interest for me at the time. But when I’d learned a little more, in the process discovering that he made use of familiar New England settings, I picked up a book at random and was immediately captivated. Strangely, maybe, I found Thomas Ligotti separately, browsing in a Connecticut Borders store. They had a copy of “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World,” the one with a scarecrow on the cover. I opened the book to “The Last Feast of Harlequin” and I felt a rush of endorphins as I read the opening paragraphs. From there it was a quick jump to Robert Aickman. I fell in love with Aickman – his facility with the language is something I strive for every day…not to mention his uncanny ability to provoke unease. Ramsey Campbell, T.E.D. Klein, Robert Bloch, all great. I’ve also developed an obsession with Shirley Jackson.
I’ve only recently begun to dig into the works of the people currently working in Weird Fiction, and it’s like I’ve walked into a room of treasures: John Langan, Simon Strantzas, Laird Barron…I enjoy their work so much and I feel like I am learning a lot from them.
The stories in Gateways to Abomination are all connected, with one of the common threads being radio station WXXT 81.5 FM. Why precipitated the idea of the ominous radio station?
Radio can be such an intimate experience. When I started writing Weird Fiction, I was listening to shows by a radio monologist named Joe Frank. His work was by turns dark, surreal, deeply personal, blackly humorous, searching. His voice, heavily compressed, was usually recorded over a drone or repetitive electronic music. What if, I thought, the thing behind that voice was some sort of unhinged entity? What if this disconnected voice introduced the listener to terrifying sounds, weird mutterings, bizarre tales, tortured screams set to music? I could imagine driving, at night, under a spell, unable to spin the dial away. Radio, or experimental and local radio is, of course, quite possibly in its death throes. The metaphor of ghosts worked quite well in that context.
The stories you write take place in and around the area in which you reside. Do you find that the area lends itself well to weird fiction, or did you just take the place you knew and warp it to get the results you wanted?
Northampton, Massachusetts is seen largely as a college town, a touristy town, an art town. But under all the trappings, under the boutique signs and awnings, the main drag looks exactly as it did in the 1800s. History is still very much present, very visible if you have the eyes to see it. And the history of the town - of Western and Central Massachusetts as a whole - is very, very rich. Jonathan Edwards delivered his fiery speeches in Northampton. In the 1850s a dam burst and the Mill River flooded, devastating many area towns. Not far away, in the fifties, four towns were disincorporated and drowned to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir. In the '80s, Reagan was essentially responsible for shutting down mental asylums, including the Northampton State Hospital, whose inhabitants were essentially released into the streets. Western and Central Massachusetts have always attracted spiritual seekers and strange cults - the Brotherhood of the Spirit, later known as the Renaissance Community, about which there is a fascinating documentary out there...the Church of End Times in Uxbridge, more recently. It’s a beautiful area, and Northampton is a lovely town, to be sure, especially in Autumn...but it has dark undercurrents. I don't think I'd live here if it didn't.
I was born and raised in East Hartford, Connecticut; actually, and there are references to East Hartford locations and people throughout the book, though maybe only my family would pick up on them. In any event, in the midst of my putting stories together for the book, I received an email from a relative working on a family history. As it happens, ancestors of mine were among the first settlers in Northampton in the early 1600s. A more fanciful person might conclude that was what drew me here, that ancestral pull, rather than the fact that I just liked the place.
As I said in my review, I feel that Gateways to Abomination works more like an experimental novel or meta-narrative, instead of a collection of short fiction. The short stories and vignettes are all so intertwined that it reads to me like many parts of a singular, nightmarish whole, even if the book doesn't give readers the entire picture. Do you plan to revisit these areas in further fiction?
I do, very much so. I still have pieces from the last nine years that I left out of Gateways to Abomination and I’ve also written conclusions to some of the stories in the book that seem to end abruptly or to hint at a continuation. I’m writing new fiction as well. Some of my finished stories and my in-progress stories are of that world, while a few really couldn’t fit into the larger narrative. But I have an idea for a new framing narrative that could easily lead to a second volume, or to an expansion of the first. I’m excited about the work I’m doing now.
AD: Once again I would like to thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.
It was a lot of fun. Thank you.