Bartlett and You: An Unsafety Guide
An Introduction by Scott Nicolay
You may already know what I am going to say here, or at least you may think you do: Matthew Bartlett is one of those authors whose emergence redefines the genre. Barker, Ligotti, Barron, Llewellyn... Bartlett. And there I said it. Not that it will come as any surprise to you if you have read Gateways to Abomination and/or Creeping Waves...his importance is really a given at this point.
That’s really only a starting point though, isn’t it? It may well be the reason why you are here in the first place. You may have heard the rumors. You may think you know it already. You may even think you know what you are in for with this latest collection of his work.
But things are never what they seem chez Bartlett, are they? If you have played previously in his twisted playground (a setting he actually used in one of the most memorable stories from Gateways) you might anticipate a progression from creepy to disturbing to holy-shit-what-the-fuck, followed by a long hot shower and gargling with salt water to get the taste of pus and leeches out of your mouth (it won’t work, trust me). Critic s.j. bagley has described this payload delivery system of The Weird and its lingering effects as unsettlement...a deceptively understated term, especially in Bartlett’s case. He works like a decrepit Charon ferrying readers from the shores of the self to the unself, boatloads at a time, and for mere pennies. Each of his stories is a kind of haunted house that shunts you through multiple unexpected turns and shocks, rapidly deranging your narrative expectations until...it doesn’t really matter because the you who entered is no longer the reader who emerges.
Just so does my friend Matthew defy expectations afresh with each new tale. The reader cannot possibly know what you did going in because you never came out. Not that such knowledge would be much help anyway. Bartlett’s narratives follow no formula, not even their own. Every story is a unique labyrinth with its own rules, or rather, his labyrinth has no rules. Its corridors and catacombs are constantly shifting, ceaselessly changing, always Bartlett, never the same. There are many points of entry. No way out.
Here the reader, searching for some fixed reference, a place to attach one end of a long skein of colored yarn, may proclaim triumphantly: “But Bartlett’s stories all do have a common thread: WXXT, the sinister and mysterious radio station operated by an ancient and even more mysterious witch cult in Leeds, Massachusetts!”
So the reader may think...but that reader is neither you nor me. And the reader who is fortunate enough to have acquired a copy of this small volume is about to discover that our protean author has, like the slime mold, shifted into a new form and slithered on to new ground during the dark intervals of our eye blinks. You can’t step into the same Bartlett twice.
Oh, he is not without form, but no one has seen his true form. Though not all Weird writers are evolving, Bartlett, like rust, plasmodia, or The Weird itself, never rests. A certain type of reader might attempt to create a visual representation of the current amorphous state of The Weird, assigning a set of variable characteristics to each author and mapping our work along multiple axes in three or more dimensions. Such a display would likely reveal an overlapping array of lumpy blobs, many clustered closely together in unwholesome familiarity, others positioned at some greater remove from the crowd. Bartlettia would be one of the latter.
A similar approach to each individual author’s corpus might produce similar results, showing nuclear cores surrounded by more elastic pseudopodia extending in new directions. Variation within many populations would inevitably stand revealed as greater than that between the populations themselves. And within that dark star map, a graphic representation of the seven tale subset that comprises The Stay-Awake Men and Other Stories would indeed portray a single cluster and that cluster would still lie within the overall Bartlettosphere. These tale all give me that Bartlett Fink Feeling, true--but they belong to a new and distinct extrusion of that system. Of course it is no secret that Bartlett is going places. He always has been. Just not the places the reader expects.
So it is with The Stay-Awake Men and Other Stories (six other stories, to be exact): WXXT remains silent here. Leeds receives mention more than once--as does its major employer, Annelid Industries International--but though these are all distinctly Bartlett stories, none of them are “Leeds stories.” The titular tale is actually set at a radio station--but not WXXT. The différance is quite delicious, really. Amidst the familiar flavors in this batch of stew are tantalizing hints of Barker, Ligotti, Aickman, Samuels, and Klein, stronger than they have been before, but not strong enough to do more than add spice to the stock of an author who himself seems to grow in power with every paragraph. “Spettrini” (which previously appeared as a limited edition chapbook from Dunhams Manor Press) in particular invoked not only “The Glamour,” a long-standing personal favorite among Ligotti’s tales, but also Barker’s Imajica. Perhaps that was just me, but there is no way for me to tell now.
The Stay-Awake Men shows Bartlett not simply shifting his territory, but broadening it overall, becoming a little more literary perhaps, maybe a bit more strange or uncanny, as some prefer to style it in the Other England, the “Old” one. Part of that must come from the extent that the author has distopiated these tales, distancing them from one of the most distinctive locales in contemporary fiction. While the reader was distracted, Bartlett expanded, growing not only greater, but nearer. As his tales become less local, they become more universal. Was their a vacant house down the street from you? It may have a new occupant. Don’t worry if you can’t visit: it may come to you.
Oh look, here in your hands: it has already arrived. Oh well, time for me to leave. It was nice knowing you.
Bartlett’s house has many doors. Many gateways in. No way out. Don’t worry though. I think you will like it there.