Ludic Writing is a series of narratives generated through play, exploring the prospect of “Games as Writing Prompt.”
Bartlett’s Memory is an extended work of fiction in three volumes, inspired by a play through Yves Tourigny’s Arkham Noir: Collector Case #1 – The Real Leeds and by the collected fiction of “new weird” author Matthew M. Bartlett. In addition to the story, Part 1 of this series includes an analysis of the Arkham Noir card game, while Part 2 features a review of the two short fiction collections—Gateways to Abomination and Creeping Waves—that inspired many of the details in Tourigny’s card game and, by extension, this work of ludic writing.
Volume I of Bartlett’s Memory traces the investigation of two missing persons, Bill St. Clair and Susan Dimmsler, in the haunted village of Leeds, Massachusetts. It consists of five parts: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Readers found perpetuating rumors of a fourth volume are subject to investigation by the FCC.
The story will continue in roughly weekly installments until the final case is closed or the transmissions cease.
Part Eleven: Buried Secrets
Meat and Potatoes
“Tell you what I think,” Sammy said, leaning in close. His breath was peppermint burned with booze. “I think they’re up there in those woods, with them, and one day they’re gonna…”
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “Rangel,” Creeping Waves
I took my chance when I saw it: the kitchen door swung open, shoulder-checked by a teenaged dishwasher dragging a bloated black garbage bag filled with half-eaten flapjacks. I pretended to hold the door open for him, smoothly interjecting myself between it and the grease-spattered youth, then slipped inside as he staggered off toward the dumpster with his vaguely sweet-smelling burden.
Once inside, I released a shaky breath and dipped my left hand into my pants pocket, where I’d deposited the thing I’d found inside the husk of Timothy McLellan’s house. I ran my finger over it, savoring its smoothness, its sudden edges. I inhaled deeply, drinking in the ardent soup of risen dough and rendered fats. The kitchen staff of the Bluebonnet Diner paid me no mind.
I spotted him quickly: stocky, stalwart, bent gracefully over the griddle like a maestro at the keys. He wore a short-cropped beard and no hair net. All told, he was a hirsute man, hairier than you’d expect to see in a kitchen, and coupled with his large, solid frame, it lent him an ursine quality, like a cartoon bear flipping sausage patties. Every few seconds, he’d fiddle with the knob of the radio that was perched above the range’s hood, dialing in the signal to perfect clarity—though he must have had excellent ears to hear the difference over the unbroken pop and sizzle emanating from the flat-top. His eyes darted quickly over the room, meeting mine for a moment. His bristly chin dipped quickly in acknowledgment, then he returned his attention to the spitting discs of sausage-meat before him.
I leaned back against a rack of air-drying saucepans and waited. The activity of the kitchen flowed around me, cooks and dishwashers and waitstaff unconsciously diverting their vectors by infinitesimal degrees to circumvent the spot where I was loitering. It was as though I emitted a cone of non-presence, a moving blind spot. The only person who had gone so far as to acknowledge my existence was now wholly absorbed in his hash browns and hobo scrambles. I waited.
The lunch rush ebbed, and the bearish man let out a little grunt, barely audible in the clamor of the kitchen. Wordlessly, another cook stepped in to fill his place. Only then did the man make eye contact with me again, just a momentary recognition before hanging his apron on a little hook by the door and washing his hands slowly, luxuriously, like he was in a goddamned soap commercial. Then, he stepped out through the back door into the early November chill. I followed, slipping out as silently as I’d entered.
He pulled a pack of smokes out of his pocket, shook one out, touched it to the flame of an old silver lighter with a raven’s head etched into it. He took a drag, held it for a second, released it through his nostrils.
“Sammy White,” I said, though I no longer needed to verify that he was the man I was looking for.
He nodded curtly, sucked in another lungful of carcinogenic ash and vapor. “How’d you know to look for me here?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I’ve been to the McLellans’ house. Seen what happened there.”
The cook nodded. He didn’t look me in the eye. “What else do you know?”
“Enough,” I said. “I’m finally starting to put the pieces together. I talked to Golden.”
White spat, the projectile streaked black and scarlet. “That asshole’s still walking?” he asked.
“Seems that way,” I replied. “He got into my head. Showed me things. Showed me the truth.”
“Always a terrible thing to see,” the fry cook said sympathetically. “I heard that Old Ben tossed him, though.”
I shrugged. “Maybe he’s trying to get back at him. Or maybe he’s trying to get back in.”
White squinted at the bulging dumpsters; though he didn’t so much as glance my way, I could tell he was sizing me up. “Say I do take you there. What are you going to do?”
I plucked the cigarette from his fingers, stuck it between my lips, and inhaled. I’d never smoked before in living memory, but it came back to me like an old song. The paper was still damp with his saliva. “I’m going after him,” I declared.
I poked my tongue between my teeth, used it to flip the cigarette in the air then catch it, inverted, with the burning tip facing my uvula. I retracted the tongue and swallowed.
Sammy White stared at me. A smile split his bristling face. “You’re crazy.”
“Maybe I am. But I made a promise to a woman. Are you going to help me?”
He wiped his hands on the front of his jeans, leaving sooty smears among the preexisting ketchup and mustard stains. “Just let me finish my shift.”
The Second Signal
Benjamin Scratch Stockton was born at the Dawn of the New Time, conceived at the intersection of Blood and Stone.
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “Benjamin Scratch Stockton,” The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts
We took Sammy White’s battered, dust-grey pickup. I’m not sure what happened to my vehicle; I’d lost track of it somewhere along the way, if it had ever been more than an implanted suggestion. Sammy drove one-handed, gangster-style, meaty paw gripping the wheel at the eleven o’clock position, elbow locked, arm parallel to the floor. His other hand was glued to the radio dial. He drove with his head tilted like a bird’s, one ear angled directly toward the ceiling-mounted speaker. It was my job to watch the road, watch out for cops, especially; the pickup’s velocity well exceeded posted proscriptions.
“You have to use the Doppler effect,” he explained. “It’s the only way to pick up the second signal.”
We sped alongside the waters of the Mill River, down dirt roads that don’t appear on any map, chasing the signal deep into the woods of Leeds.
“The FCC thought they’d isolated WXXT’s signal to somewhere in the woods of Leeds,” I recalled. “But they could never track down the transmitter. They actually sent in a search party, like you do for missing children. Combed every inch of the woods. Turned over rocks, picked through ravines. They brought in special dogs trained to sniff out radio equipment. But they found nothing, so they concluded that the signal was being spoofed somehow.”
“WXXT broadcasts two signals,” the cook explained. “The first one, it moves around a bit, but it’s usually around 88.1 on the FM band. That signal is weird but generally harmless. That’s your Shattered Tablets Hour, your Barn Fuckers, your Sounds of Innocent Sleep. Unless you tune in under very specific, highly impressionable conditions—MDMA, mushrooms, peyote, sleep deprivation, hypnotic trance, sugar high, oxytocin spikes—the worst you’ll experience is a complex of symptoms they call the ‘Leeds creep’: headache, disorientation, cottonmouth, leech foot, greater-than-usual levels of moral turpitude. Side effects go away in a day or two.
“The second signal…that’s the one to watch out for. It’s weaker, transmits alongside and underneath the main signal. Only certain radios at certain times seem to be able to pick it up. Some say you have to have one of Ben Stockton’s canine teeth embedded in the wiring. Other’s say it’s got to be his kidney stones. Either way, you can’t tune in to this second signal—we’ll call it ‘WXXT Prime’—normally; it’s below the frequency range a normal radio will pick up. Infraradio. The only way to do it is like this, approaching it head-on. The waveform compresses like an accordion, and voilà…”
As he spoke, the car’s speakers squealed like a stuck pig. Another transmission from the Infraradio. I checked my phone, noted our location and the time since the last transmission, scratched it all down into the little Moleskine I’d been using for my investigation notes. This was my other job, after watching the road: monitoring the signals. “They’re getting closer together,” I told him.
“Good,” he replied. “That means we’re on the right track..” He stuck his head out the window and howled like a bloodhound.
Eventually, we reached a point where the truck could take us no farther, where we’d be forced to track the signal on foot. We got out, circled around to the truck bed. Sammy White tossed aside the corner of a tarp, exposing an antique radio, the domed variety, solid wood, a real collector’s piece. A dark socket gaped where it was missing a knob. “Carry this,” he said. From beside the radio, he grabbed a rifle, a few spare boxes of shells, and a heavy-duty flashlight, the kind that looks more like a detached spotlight.
Again, my hand dipped into my left pocket. This time, it came out holding the object I’d recovered from the blasted remains of the McLellan house: a brass-coated radio knob inscribed with the stylized figure of a horned goat. I turned it over in my hand, watching it glint redly in the failing sunlight, before inserting it into the antique radio. The socket accepted the knob with a ready pop, and at a touch, the device sprang to life. With a grunt of effort, I lifted the radio from the truck bed, resting a fraction of its weight against my belly as I bent my spine backward. I was already beginning to sweat.
The fry cook clipped the flashlight and the water bottle onto his belt, slung the rifle’s barrel over his shoulder.
“Right,” he said. “Let’s hunt us a devil.”
I am a horror in red and black streaks.
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “The Sialogogue—A Transmission,” Of Doomful Portent
Good evening, listeners. Mine is a new voice to some of you—though not, I suspect, to all.
I grew up near Leeds at the dawn of a stillborn century. I was one of the founding members of the Hilltown Ten; I ran with Abrecan Geist, danced moon-clad beneath worm-eaten skies, set light to slaughtered horses as we galloped them through the bedrooms of God-fearing men, caused babies to utter blasphemies and draw blood from their nursemaids’ teats, tempted preachers’ daughters to defile themselves upon the ossified excreta of their great-grandfathers. We brought the flux to Cooley Dickinson, spreading chaos among new and expectant mothers. We curdled milk and spoiled harvests, caused trees and teeth to grow in wrong, muddled the dreams of architects of peace and empire.
In 1982, I led my cousin, thrice removed, into the woods of Leeds. I delivered her to Benjamin Stockton, the old devil of the Pioneer Valley, to whom I’d sworn fealty in my dimly remembered boyhood. She now serves as his handmaiden alongside her daughter, whose hair and eyes are as black as her father’s soul. She has been presumed dead for over twenty years.
You won’t find my name in the occult histories of the region. I’ve been stricken from the record, the fallout from a dispute with the old men of the woods, the Secret Lords of Leeds. My mind, too, was stricken, my memories obliterated, my powers locked away. I was banished to the wastes of Connecticut, cursed to live among mortal men.
But I have found a new patron, one who bleeds static, who speaks on waves of noise. I have been reminded of what I really am.
I sat atop the improbable pile of machinery that, by some inexplicable and occult process, inflicted WXXT upon the world. Beside me, the corpse of Sammy White lay gutted, skull caved in with his own flashlight. The rifle lay against his shattered pelvis, its barrel snapped like a matchstick, one round expended from the chamber. I rubbed my right cheek, where the gunpowder had singed some of the hair away; I wouldn’t be hearing out of that ear for a while. But I wasn’t here to listen. I was here, finally, to speak.
I am Capripox. I am he who leads the children of your village to their ruin. I am the collector of innocence, shepherd of the ninth herd. I am the keeper of the missing. I carry them to the city that hides between the pulses of this city, the deep Leeds, the Real Leeds.
I have returned to issue a challenge to the old men who cast me out. Either relinquish this territory peaceably, or face me in a spirit war. You know who you are. You know who I am.
I am Guy Stanton, and I have returned, people of Leeds. Cower and tremble. Flee, if you can. A tithing has begun.