I present Nathan Ballingrud's full introduction to my book Creeping Waves. Needless to say, I am in his debt. Enjoy!
Station Identification: WXXT
by Nathan Ballingrud
Nobody saw this guy coming. The small and indie press horror scene is a pretty self-aware bunch. Everybody might not know everybody, but everybody certainly knows of almost everyone, including a lot of the up-and-comers. With the proliferation of online magazines, subscription chapbook series, genre-focused podcasts, and the clutching grasp of social media, there aren’t many surprises to be had. But in the summer of 2014, without fanfare and to small notice, a self-published book called Gateways to Abomination, by Matthew M. Bartlett – a name most of us had never heard before – crept into the world. And it was getting ready to make a big noise.
Slowly, it started to get passed around. There was no ad campaign. No book trailers, no social media blitzes. What Gateways to Abomination had was something much more valuable: it had word of mouth. People started talking about this book. It kept cropping up in conversations, links started peppering social media feeds. After a while it seemed to have become part of the atmosphere. If you were part of the horror and weird fiction community, you couldn’t turn around without seeing the folk art aesthetic of its blood-red cover posted somewhere, that title seemingly stripped raw from the scuffed box of a cult horror VHS tape.
In any small and passionate literary community, the desire to discover and foster success, while inarguably noble, sometimes leads to books being exalted beyond their actual merit. Because of this, when I sat down to read it, I did so with no great expectation. I expected a pleasant diversion, at best.
I might as well have wandered onto a freeway while staring at my shoelaces. I was that unprepared.
What I encountered was a writer in full flourish, in complete command of his art. I encountered a savage dream which moved with the lethal confidence of a great white shark. Bartlett was no dilettante; here was someone channeling a vision. The book seemed to vibrate.
In Gateways to Abomination, Bartlett introduced us to Leeds, Massachusetts, a town under the thrall of a witch cult broadcasting from a radio station – WXXT -- found on the far left regions of the dial. Those call letters, I am confident, will echo through the years in discussions of great early Twenty-First Century horror fiction, sending a glad shiver through the blood of anyone who’s read it.
And so now we come to Creeping Waves: the full aesthetic flowering of that vision. Promises made are delivered upon, secrets hinted at are – if not revealed – then given deeper layers of mystery. Like its predecessor, Creeping Waves is a series of stories and vignettes, clippings and broadcasts, so that the experience is one of steady accumulation. Characters disappear for a while only to crop up again unexpectedly; threads are presented, hidden, and revealed again in new contexts. The larger story does not play out before you so much as it reveals itself around you: incrementally, suffocatingly.
Leeds is a modern town – indeed, there are several overt examples of corporate horror, of a kind that would do Thomas Ligotti proud – but the looming presence of the Dark Wood, and all the witch-haunted New England folklore which accompanies it, is ever-present. That the voice of this presence is articulated through the radio is one of Bartlett’s canniest innovations. The radio is a modern instrument, yet just quaint enough that it seems a bit archaic to the modern reader – a relic from a simpler time. It is a kind of halfway point between the present day and the dark days of old, when the wind was smeared with the greasy ashes of accused witches. This is no accident. Bartlett draws a hard, bloody line from the past to the present, the echoes of ancient cruelties spilling blood into our own bright afternoons. The character of Leeds shapes the characters of the people who live there. (Sometimes literally, and always with violence.) In this way, Creeping Waves functions as a work of psychogeography, in the tradition of Alan Moore’s From Hell and Voice of the Fire. It is the story of a place before it is the story of people.
But let’s not be coy. You’ve come here for a horror story. And what you get is one of the purest and most audacious expressions of horror in the modern day. There are more tantalizing ideas per page than you’ll find in most full-length novels. Here you will encounter faded cult leaders returned to prominence and infused with bloody purpose; old grimoires, diaries, and cookbooks of unsavory provenance catalogued and priced for the corrupted bibliophile; passage to the Night of Black Tents and to the blood-drenched carnival at the rancid heart of the dream. There are missing children and missing souls. Every past sin and every forgotten defeat returns to you here, dressed in the terrible glamor of an animated, ravenous death.
There are times you will want Bartlett to stop. You will think, “You’ve gone too far. You shouldn’t say this. You shouldn’t write this.” And that’s when Creeping Waves is succeeding at its deepest levels. I believe horror operates at its best when it functions as a transgressive literature. It achieves its full majesty when it places itself in opposition to the reader. Creeping Waves is transgressive because it is fearless, crossing boundaries with a hungry intent and with full aesthetic integrity, pushing the horror so far that it ceases to be a source of fear or revulsion and instead passes over into the sublime. This is Hell’s beautiful, bleeding face.
A part of me is a little jealous of Bartlett, and of what he achieves in this extended category of nightmares. But it’s pointless to be jealous of him, in the same way it’s pointless to be jealous of David Lynch, or Lars von Trier. He is an artist in service to a vision; there is no replicating it. Nor should there be a desire to. You just thank whatever accident of fate allowed you to witness it.
You’re listening to WXXT, the worm in the heart, the maggot in the skull.