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Malady in the Valley: Part 2

An Interview with Matthew Bartlett

[This is a continuation of an earlier article discussing the work of Matthew Bartlett. Originally I submitted these questions as an aid to writing the piece but he returned such well written, interesting responses. I decided to include them in this article overall.]

Chad Hindman: Do you read Stephen King? Do you consider him an influence? I ask because your writing has a straightforward lack of pretension or flourish that I associate with King. Even at your most gothic or baroque, it’s very grounded prose—he also has a heavy presence of radio stations in his stories as well as owning a real-life station himself.

Matthew Bartlett: When I was 13 years old, my grandmother gave me a copy of Christine, which she had just finished reading. That was my first encounter with King, and it was a world-shaking thing for me, a big leap from the Hardy Boys and Get Smart books I’d been reading. The next book I read by him was Night Shift, and that cemented it: I wanted to be a writer. But whenever I tried to write a short story, which I did sporadically throughout my teens and twenties, I found I couldn’t do it. I had no ideas and nothing to say, and I couldn’t escape cliched themes and trite images. So for a long time, I gave up on the idea. When the ability finally came, I was in my early thirties, and the influence was certainly there. I do still read him. Some of his more recent books do it for me, and some don’t connect. For what it’s worth, I think his strongest recent work is Revival. I’m definitely still under his influence.

cover of the Signet paperback for Stephen King's novel Stephen King

CH: Does the origin of WXXT have any relation to numbers stations or the Conet Project recordings?

Bartlett: When I wrote the first WXXT stories between 2004 and 2010, I’d never heard of numbers stations nor the Conet Project. When I did hear of them, I wished they didn’t exist and that I’d come up with the idea for them.

cover for the conet project numbers stations recordings showing an antenna array against a cloudy sky

CH: I feel like asking about Lovecraft is even more obvious than King, but I feel like I have to, given the cross-book world-building you’ve created. Lovecraft has a difficult history that makes the appreciation of his work difficult, is there anything you can share about your thoughts on his work?

Bartlett: I encountered Lovecraft relatively late in life. I knew that King counted him as a strong influence, but when I looked at the book covers, I mistook them for science fiction, a genre in which at the time I had no interest. In my early thirties, I picked up a copy of Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, for obvious reasons, and I found out what I’d been missing. The “Rats in the Walls” alone was worth the price of the book—a masterwork of gothic horror. The connection to New England, of which I hadn’t previously been aware, was very attractive to me as well. I was so naive when I read him, I thought he was criticizing racism, satirizing it. Obviously, that’s not the case. On the whole thorny issue of his racism, I fall on the side of acknowledging it as the engine for some of his work, not denying it nor downplaying it. His having been an otherwise bright and intellectually curious and ahead-of-his-time person, it’s a mistake to just write off the racism as his being a product of his times. Even given the time period, he was especially racist. I think ultimately he was deeply flawed but human and complex, and his intelligence was, sadly, not enough to overcome his appalling prejudices. I’m kind of a Pollyanna, so I choose to think that had he lived, he might have grown out of it. I mean, it’s probably not true, but it’s nice to think about.

CH: Radio has a central place in movies in general and horror in particular (American Graffiti, The Fog, The Warriors, etc.)—what attracted you to the radio as your central metaphor, plot device, structuring device, etc.?

Bartlett: It occurs to me that King had a story about a radio station that played “new” songs by the ghosts of deceased artists. While I didn’t care for the story–it seemed like masturbatory boomer wish-fulfillment fantasy–that may have planted a seed. The fact is, though, around the time I set out to write about WXXT, I was listening to a lot of Joe Frank radio shows. Joe was a radio personality who did a lot of groundbreaking radio plays and, more important to me, monologues. He had a dark and acerbic but hopeful aesthetic, and a compelling delivery and voice. He flirted very tangentially with horror and a little more so with the surreal, and I saw my radio-horror stories as melding Joe’s influence with that of Lovecraft and King. My earliest pieces were very short and elliptical, like songs and radio promos and announcer blather. The more I wrote, the more it seemed fertile ground—there’s a lot to work with when you consider the evocative power of sound, the strange intimacy of it, and the idea that these sounds are basically floating around us in the air.

poster for the John Carpentar movie the fog, showing an actress jamie lee curtis holding back a door opening with a skeletal arm sticking through

CH: The physical structure of your books—the layering of short, aphoristic prose—was the decision to structure your writing in this manner a conscious one or just a natural way of writing? Related question—have you attempted or considered longer prose? Many of your longer stories are broken into multiple parts. Clearly, this aids in the radio broadcast, serial nature of your overall structure, but did they begin as condense pieces or do you typically imagine them in this more diffuse pattern?

Bartlett: The reason the early stories were so short is that I started out writing poetry, and when I started writing fiction, I literally couldn’t write longer stories. I’d write a paragraph or two and be done with it. Once Gateways to Abomination, which collected these fragments and somewhat longer stories, started to sell, I wanted to get stories published in anthologies, so I tried longer works and found I could actually do it. Whether I can write a novel, I don’t know. I do have one due to be published probably next year, but while it’s more of a cohesive piece than my mosaic novels, it’s still separated into pieces that could almost be broken out into individual stories. I have the ambition to write a traditional novel, but I’m not quite there yet.

CH: You’re a New Englander, your books are set in New England. New England and horror have been intertwined since the start of American literature. Do you feel the weight of that history when writing—chicken or the egg question—in your mind is New England associated with horror because of the writers that happened to live there, or do those writers emerge because New England is naturally sympathetic to the horror spirit?

Bartlett: I never really thought about it. I was born in New England, my Halloweens took place in New England. When I saw how many horror stories were related to the region, I thought, well, naturally! I’m really terribly provincial, and horror and New England were so intertwined for me that when I was younger I would think, say, CALIFORNIA?! HOW COULD HORROR TAKE PLACE IN CALIFORNIA? I’ve grown out of that, but I’m still drawn to fall in New England, Halloween in New England, witchcraft in New England. There’s a rich, strange, evocative history here. I revel in it.

CH: Can you talk some about your working relationship with Yves Tourigny—how you met, what do you value in his illustrations of your stories. What do they add in your mind?

Bartlett: I don’t remember exactly how we met. I think Yves either sent me an illustration he’d done or posted one on social media. I was pleasantly surprised and of course very taken with his unique style right away. He adds visual oomph to the stories, his own special dark vision that complements mine quite well. As a game designer, he also comes up with some terrific ideas. I love working with him. It was a pleasure to meet him at Necronomicon, and I absolutely look forward to working with him more in the future. To have artists interested in interpreting your work is a great gift. Yves, Aeron Alfrey, Dave Felton, Nick Gucker, and Michael Bukowski are just a few of the incredibly skilled artists I’ve been lucky to be associated with.

cover for matthew bartlett's book if it bleeds - showing an ice cream van driven by a bizzare man that has just run over kid in the road

CH: Dead Air is an interesting collection. A couple of things that caught my eye were the presence of poems, which don’t appear in Gateways to Abomination. Also, the presence of yourself as a character—or narrator or frame device—this disappeared as your Leeds mythology developed. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Bartlett: The stories from Gateways started as Livejournal entries. I linked from my personal page to the fictional page by posting an entry about my having heard something strange on the radio while driving one night. So in the very first fictional piece, I made myself a character, a kind of transcriptionist for WXXT. Right now I feel that it’s a little too “cute” to continue it, but who knows? I may show up in a story in the future. The poems were from a chapbook I put together when I was in college.

CH: Leeches—what attracts you or repulses you about them? What led you to make them such a central presence in the Leeds stories?

Bartlett: They are vampires, but more grotesque. The very idea of them gives me the creeps. I liked the idea of them both drinking blood and acting as receivers of radio signals.

CH: Any thoughts or observations on your journey to self-publishing, something that seemed to work well for you? Honestly, given the nature of your stories the self-produced nature of your books it is almost perfect. Was that intentional?

Bartlett: As I mentioned earlier, the stories were initially posted as blog entries on Livejournal. People began encouraging me to stop publishing them online, as potential book publishers would consider them already “published.” So I thought I had no choice but to publish the book myself. I had no idea at the time that self-publishing was looked down upon. I was thinking of my brother, who had bands that put out their own records, designed their own covers. I’m happy to be published by small presses. I’d be happy to be published by big presses. But self-publishing is always an option for me, especially for idiosyncratic pieces. I keep meaning to write an essay about self-publishing. I can’t stand writing nonfiction, but I may just go ahead do it, and post it on my Patreon at some point.

Quick Bonus Questions

CH: Any plans to produce WXXT 87.1 bumper stickers?

Bartlett: I’ve had two stickers made. One is at a friend’s house and reads “I died whilst listening to WXXT.” The other is designed sort of like an ’80s radio station bumper sticker, and it’s somewhere in my apartment, a bit wrinkled and beat up. Like me. I think I may design and make available a new sticker soon.

CH: Your cat Phoebe—I ask this as a guilty Friends super-fan—named after the show character?

Bartlett: Phoebe was named after Holden Caulfield’s sister in Catcher in the Rye.

CH: Top five all-time favorite writers?

Bartlett: I’m going to go with people I haven’t met or who are deceased.

  • HP Lovecraft
  • JD Salinger
  • Hunter S. Thompson
  • Donald E. Westlake
  • Thomas Ligotti

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Written by Chad Hindman

Writer and attorney from Nashville, TN. Besides writing about his forever love, horror, he has had his fiction published in Eclectica magazine and is working on more everyday.

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