Ludic Writing is an offshoot of the Session Report series, which explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month.
This multi-part series fulfills the promise made in January (Session Report: English Eerie) by continuing to explore the prospect of “Games as Writing Prompt.” The main focus will be an extended work of fiction, “Bartlett’s Memory,” inspired by a play through Yves Tourigny’s Arkham Noir: Collector Case #1 – The Real Leeds, which was itself inspired by the collected fiction of “new weird” author Matthew M. Bartlett. This is what you can expect from each part:
Part 1: An analysis of Arkham Noir as a card game, with a focus on how it succeeds in the twin genres of mystery and horror, and the first chapter of “Bartlett’s Memory”: “The Call.”
Part 2: A look into the inspiration for The Real Leeds with a brief review of two of Matthew M. Bartlett’s short fiction collections, Gateways to Abomination and Creeping Waves, and the next chapter(s) of “Bartlett’s Memory”: “Bill St. Clair,” “Susan Dimmsler,” and “In Memory of Susie Dimmsler.”
Part 3: The St. Clair and Dimmsler cases deepen with the following chapters from “Bartlett’s Memory”: “The Hotel Northampton,” “Suite 315,” “Through the Brake Lights,” and “Agent Schwaller.”
Part 4 and beyond will continue the story in weekly installments until the final case is closed or the transmissions cease.
Part Two: The Horror
Some horror is about the build-up, the slow burn of lactic acid as you crouch beneath the narrative’s dark waters, terrified to surface and be seen. It flaunts its mastery over plot structure, the swell and rupture of tension. There is horror that carries our fundamental nature to its horrific extreme, zooming in, in, until every follicle and wart and blister is exposed. There is the horror of nice people in unpleasant situations. There is schlock horror, which is not horror at all but rather the arsenal of horror trained on a different target. There is horror that is so damned fraught with symbolism it’s guaranteed to make an English undergraduate cream.
Matthew M. Bartlett’s horror is not the horror described above. It is raw and oozing. It is authentic in its own way, but it is seldom relatable. It is often brief and frequently jarring; many of these stories reach their conclusions after two, three pages, just long enough to slip a fingernail under your skin; Bartlett refers to some of them as prose poems. The few fleshed-out characters are, with few exceptions, intensely abhorrent. There is symbolism, in the sense that Bartlett’s imagery is a departure from the mundane, but it is not the easy symbolism of the lit crit survey course. Bartlett’s horror regularly dispenses with dramatic build-up in favor of crystalline moments of pure, unknowable nightmare. I say “crystalline” not in the sense of sparkling gemstones; these are the foul-smelling crystals that form at the edges of a suppurating pustule. Bartlett’s horror is also, at times, funny. And it is altogether wonderful.
Both collections—Gateways to Abomination and Creeping Waves—consist of linked short stories. They are, in fact, linked inter-textually as well as intra-, such that Creeping Waves, the latter book, could be considered a sequel to Gateways. (There is even a story commenced in Gateways that gets its delightfully cyclical conclusion in Waves.) Although the short stories in either collection could be read independently, they exist within a shared universe—within the confines of a single town, in fact. Comparisons to H.P. Lovecraft are inevitable, not only because Bartlett’s Leeds, Massachusetts—a real village in Northampton—is within driving distance of Lovecraft’s fictional Arkham. Nor are the comparisons inevitable only because Bartlett’s fiction would be filed alongside Lovecraft’s at your local library, assuming your library has a “weird horror” section (a genre that Lovecraft pioneered).
No, comparisons are inevitable because in these collections, and in related volumes Dead Air, The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, and Anne Gare’s Rare Book & Ephemera Catalogue, Bartlett is deliberately and assiduously building a Mythos. Bartlett’s Mythos is not, thank God, Lovecraft’s Mythos; you will find no references to Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth or Nyarlathotep within these pages. Instead, you will meet—and come to fear—Benjamin Scratch Stockton (of the Swift River Stocktons); Jebediah Blackstye (of the Enfield Blackstyes); Guy Stanton (of the Shutesbury Stantons); Bible-thumping preacher Ezekiel Shineface; rare book collector Anne Gare; and other queer folks with names like Rexroth Slaughton, Abrecan Geist, Nathan Whiteshirt, William Dither, and Dr. Gladmost Alespiller (whom you might find operating under one of his aliases).
Because it is deliberate, whereas Lovecraft’s Mythos began accidentally; because Bartlett seems to have cultivated it from the moment of conception (many of these stories first appeared on Bartlett’s Livejournal page in the middle 2000s), and because he limits his cosmology, for the most part, to a single rural village—despite how iconic Arkham has now become, not many of Lovecraft’s stories actually took place there—Bartlett’s Mythos is considerably more concentrated than Lovecraft’s was, hence more powerful, in the same way pure hydrochloric acid is more powerful than a 1% solution.
In the end, comparisons to Lovecraft, though obvious, are fruitless. Stylistically, Bartlett’s prose is considerably more conservative; formally, more experimental. A more apt comparison, particularly in Gateways to Abomination, Bartlett’s self-published breakout hit, would be to Brian Evenson—particularly, again, his early work, circa Altmann’s Tongue or Contagion. Someone else might say Ligotti, but Evenson is an old favorite of mine, so the comparison, from me, is high praise. Congruencies exist in both writers’ blunt, spare prose; their unapologetically brutal and obscure imagery; in moments of black humor, body horror. A man commits an ultraviolent murder in a fugue state, only to drive into the deep woods to join “an endless procession of haunted men, each standing over a blanket-bound bundle.” Winged leeches take human lives in the most metaphysically thorough sense. A bipedal goat in trousers, vest and topcoat totters alongside the highway. And through it all, a radio station broadcasts polka and showtunes and classical music in reverse and the voices of missing children and advertisements for Free Money Friday and Two-fer Tuesday and No-Repeat Thursday. Now for the weather.
WXXT, the murmur in the heart of Leeds, the plump, tart tongue in the asshole of the Pioneer Valley, lends unity to the endlessly reduplicated horrors of Leeds. Repetition breeds significance for the radio dials and antennae that jut out from unexpected crevices, the DJ sign-offs that intrude upon narrations of death and disappearance. Ghosts of the airwaves and subliminal broadcasts aren’t anything new, but Bartlett isn’t playing that old tune. WXXT’s broadcasts corrupt gleefully; they pervade and, in the manner of radio waves, they penetrate….
(Sidebar: the human body is completely transparent to electromagnetic energy in the radio frequency—the waves pass through us unaltered—which makes us the ghosts of the radio world.)
Because I prefer horror when it whispers rather than screams, I prefer Gateways even while recognizing that Waves is the more mature, developed work. Gateways is eminently spare and suggestive; Waves is more full-bodied. Its characters have internal lives; the single-page vignettes are interspersed among several longer narratives, including one that resurfaces at unexpected moments throughout the collection. (Both books have a few tales that are split into a “Part 1” and a “Part 2,” more like variations on a theme than episodic narratives; the story to which I refer lacks any such label and occurs in about seven installments.) And these longer stories are effective, particularly “Night Dog” and “Rangel”; they have that build-up, that swell and rupture, that I mentioned previously. But Creeping Waves’ maturity cannot, for me, take the place of Gateways’ rawness.
Either collection should appease the discerning reader. Disturbing illuminations, apocryphal chapters. Slightly foxed; minor split in the binding. Not for purchase. Inquire within.
Bill St. Clair
To hear him tell it, Leeds was a hive of abominations, goatish demons in the shadows, and strange chants echoing in the parts of the woods from which daylight had long been banished. Creatures that swarmed the roof-beams and lurked in the basements, lorded over by an abomination, a long-dead magus who had returned through an unspeakable ritual. A man who had been reborn from the carcass of a goat.
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “Driving to Leeds,” Creeping Waves
Sitting in the driver’s seat of my car, engine idle, I pored over the files the FCC had faxed me. My right hand toyed fitfully with the radio dial, seeking out that fabled frequency, but all I got was easy listening, classic rock, and some kind of church choir, the organ coming in so deep and full that it rattled the frame of my Subaru.
They wanted me to look into two missing persons: Bill St. Clair, a local child; and Susan Dimmsler, founder and tour guide for something called the “Leeds Ghost Walk.” A ghost tour—must be awfully popular this time of year, so near to Halloween. Both files were replete with hastily Xeroxed pages, by the look of them, odd smudges and dark handprints obscuring certain details. Neither file bore any particular mention of radio, broadcasts, or WXXT, but my contact within the FCC had assured me it would all lead back there eventually. “WXXT is the pregnant, diseased tick on the tongue of Leeds,” he had announced enigmatically over another burst of static.
Unable to find anything on the FM band, and feeling the restlessness that so often precedes despair, I followed the only lead I had: the policeman who had signed off on Bill St. Clair’s missing person’s report, a cop named Tom Groomer. (The reporting detective’s name on Susan Dimmsler’s file was hopelessly smudged.) I punched “Leeds Mass Police” into my GPS and let the inhuman voice direct me to a small building near the town center.
I entered the station to find it mostly deserted. The cop in the reception area looked bored—a detail I found reassuring. There couldn’t be much, after all, to the rumored ubiquity of criminal and immoral acts in Leeds if the police were this starved for work. I told him my business, and he directed me down a long, narrow hallway to a small, dimly lit room. One wall was dominated by a blackened mirror; a pair of handcuffs was bolted to the steel table. The bored cop left, shutting the door behind him. An interrogation room, I realized, just a moment before I heard the bolt slide into place.
A half hour, then an hour passed. I began to feel that there had been some terrible mistake. They had forgotten about me. I was all alone; I passed the time by perusing the photocopied reports, tried to sing one of the showtunes I had half-listened to earlier. When a felon’s not engaged in his employment / Or maturing his felonious little plans / Our urges we with difficulty smother / Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts. No, that couldn’t be right, could it?
As I contemplated the half-heard libretto, the foundation of my concern shifted. Was I being held for questioning? On what grounds? Had I, by my mere presence at the police station, somehow implicated myself in the ongoing investigation?
The deadbolt slid back and Tom Groomer oozed into the room. He was perspiring heavily and smelled of cheap booze; almost more liquid than man, he was. He closed the distance quickly, fluidly; his locomotive apparatus was gelatinous, seemingly unhindered by muscle, bone, and sinew. In an instant, he was hovering above the steel table. He slammed a palm down wetly, causing me to jump.
“Where d’you get that?” he demanded, indicating the shadowed, grainy photocopy of a police report I held in my hands. It included a photograph of Bill St. Clair, rendered by the copier as a pattern of black and white, deep pools of black and shoals of white, the negative spaces dissolved into a carotid spray of halftone dots, looking for all the world like an ultrasound of the boy as he leapt to catch a fly ball, wearing the uniform of the local youth baseball team (Go Leeches!).
Detective Groomer lifted his hand from the table. The noise was like peeling back a wet tent flap. “That’s an ongoing investigation,” he said, jabbing the file with a sodden finger. God, he even sounded wet, his voice like bubbles rising from a fetid swamp. “We don’t advertise disappearances ’round here. Right now, the only people who know about Bill are his mother and the detectives assigned to the case. So I ask you again: Where. D’you. Get. That?”
I stammered out an explanation. Detective Groomer narrowed his eyes, red-shot and moist like soft-boiled eggs, then he heaved a sigh that both smelled and sounded like someone wringing out a gin-soaked sponge. “I’ll tell you the same thing I told the last one: It’s all in the report. Now get out of here before I book you.” He leaned across the table, and I shrank back reflexively. The air coming off of him was like summer at the lake, all algae bloom and warm mud. He paused, spared me one last suspicious glare, and rapped wetly on the door. Two seconds later, the bolt was drawn back, and I hurried from the room, leaving Detective Groomer to collapse into his seat, a puddle slowly forming beneath him.
“Susie Dim,” they called her, and “The Pipsqueak,” but the voices hushed after she disappeared while leading a midnight crowd into the Bridge Street cemetery, not officially a part of the ghost tour, having offered to show them something “truly terrifying.”
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “The Leeds Ghost Walk,” Creeping Waves
The St. Clair case had already run into a dead end, and I didn’t like that. I shifted my attention to the tour guide, Susan Dimmsler.
She was a minor local celebrity—some kind of morning news personality—so her disappearance had been reported on in the Leeds Weekly. The article was included in her file, but there had been some sort of goof-up and only the first part (concluding with the words “continued on page 8”) had been copied. I headed over to the Leeds Public Archives to retrieve the full issue.
As it turns out, the error was not on the part of the copyist. “Continued on page 8” simply didn’t exist; there was a page 8, but it was devoted entirely to some sort of gossip column, “The Leeds Word Around Town.” I flipped forward and backward through the microfiche in mounting exasperation, searching for the misplaced conclusion, but it seemed to have been omitted from the issue entirely. I did, however, find references to several other disappearances, follow-ups on stories reported in past weeks’ issues, lines like “The Rusk family continues to grieve for their son, James Jr., missing these nine months” and “A candlelight vigil will be held this evening at the Leeds Town Common to mark the tenth anniversary of the vanishing of Mary Spahl, devoted mother and housewife.” Cycling back to investigate these stories turned up yet more, and so forth, creating an uninterrupted line of disappearances stretching back decades. In fact, many of the stops on Susan Dimmsler’s “Ghost Walk” seemed to be sites where people had mysteriously vanished, or where people who had seen their own loved ones vanish had thrown themselves from balconies or otherwise brought their lives to a violent and abrupt end.
I returned to the original article. If I let myself be drawn down that rabbit hole, if I followed that interminable thread of disappearances through the labyrinth that is Leeds’ local history, there would be no help for me. I might arrive at the heart of the matter, sure; the heart of Leeds, the heart of the labyrinth. And then what? There were some mysteries I wasn’t ready to confront.
Better to stick to the facts of the case. And the facts were that Susan Dimmsler was last witnessed hosting her Ghost Walk. The tour, the article assured, would still go on, even absent its founder, commencing nightly at 7pm at Leeds Town Common; all duties had been transferred to the junior tour guide, Merrie Thornbuckle. I checked my watch: 6:23.
In Memory of Susie Dimmsler
When I arrived at the Town Common—a small rectangle of brown grass, sporadically spray-painted a day-glo green and infested by the worming roots of willows, elms and poplars, the latter decorated by paper bag lanterns to mark the season—a crowd was already beginning to gather. Several tall, quiet men wore animal masks, crows and snarling dogs and Billy goats. Their painted-on eyes seemed to follow me as I strolled across the green toward a middle-aged woman fiddling with a dented silver boombox.
“The tour will commence in eight minutes,” she told me, nervously glancing over my shoulder at the masked crowd. “You’re not with them, are you?”
I shook my head.
“Weird crowd,” she said. “They haven’t said anything. They just…stare.”
“I won’t take up much of your time,” I reassured her. “I’m looking into the disappearance of your…boss?” I showed her the official documentation the FCC had faxed me, supposedly authorizing me to carry out the investigation on their behalf.
“Oh, you mean Susie,” the tour guide replied, flustered. “I’m afraid I won’t be much help to you. I’m still new. Didn’t think I’d be taking over the tour quite so soon.” She gave the boombox a slap, and a green light flickered briefly to life in its display. “There’s supposed to be a cassette tape,” she explained. “Mood music to accompany the tour. I just put in fresh batteries this morning.”
“Anything you can tell me would be helpful.” I glanced at her shiny plastic name badge, cut into the shape of a cartoon ghost. “Merrie. You’re the one they talked about in the papers.”
“Sure am,” Merrie agreed. “My fifteen minutes of fame. That, and the time I saved Lucy Paltry’s dog from a snow plow. Well, let’s see….” She gazed into the distance, as though her past were inscribed on the writhing trees and artificially resuscitated turf, but then her attention was attracted to the silent, masked men, and a nervousness overtook her. “It’s not my usual crowd,” she explained apologetically. “Normally it’s kids with their parents, maybe a couple of teenagers…although Susie attracted different crowds, older. She had some regulars, white-haired old men who didn’t give two beans about the tour, if you know what I mean. I thought it was creepy as hell, but Susie said as long as they paid for their tickets, they could parade around in the altogether for all she cared.”
Merrie shifted to a conspiratorial tone. “You know, I can’t imagine what some of these parents are thinking. This tour…it’s a job, and Lord knows I need one, but I can’t say I approve of it.”
“Why not?” I inquired.
“It’s a little too…real, y’know? I mean, it’s not all headless tavernkeepers and dogs floating past a window at night. The stops on the tour, they’ve got real history behind them. Murders, suicides, disappearances. Some of them fairly recent. We go to that spot in the woods where that little girl went missing in the eighties. Gives me the shivers every time.”
A missing girl…she couldn’t mean Rangel, could she? It would have been 1982. My cousin was six years old when she vanished.
“And Susie took it further,” the tour guide continued. I tried to refocus on her words. “Stops that weren’t on the official route. Blood still wet on the ground, that sort of thing. People who’d just experienced a…a loss, y’know, they’d look out their windows and see Susie staring in, a whole group of gawking tourists behind her, trodding all over the daisies. I heard that the night she disappeared—”
The boombox chose that moment to spring to life, spilling its strong green glow across the grass. It was toggled to FM radio; the dial was cranked all the way to the left, the thin red line barely visible around 87 or 88. A man’s voice came through, clear and booming. Merrie was looking at the man in the goat mask, staring with a mixed look of dread and recognition, and in my mind, somehow, it was that man who was speaking.
“—can be sure she won’t bother trying that again.
“You’re listening to WXXT, the questionable pimple on the lip of the Pioneer Valley. We’re coming to you live from Suite 315 in the historic Hotel Northampton. Tickets are still available for the Leeds Secret Carnival; Ask and you will be Shown the Way. And we’ve reached that part of the hour when we like to offer a little prize to our sharp-eared listeners. A lifetime supply of Splitshanks’ Numbing Powder to the fifth unbaptized soul who calls in with the answer to this question: What’s…That…Sound…?”
I braced myself for…I don’t know what, exactly. A loud or sudden noise, a violin string wailing under duress, the moose-like bellow of an oncoming truck horn. Instead, there was silence. The slight crackle of an impeded signal. Breathing, low and regular. I leaned in toward the speaker. That crackle wasn’t radio static; it was biological, a living sound, the murmur of worms gnawing through necrotic flesh. The breathing grew sharp, anticipatory. The closer I brought my head to the speaker, the more the sound seemed to recede, like a figure disappearing into the shadow of a deep wood. There was something, ever so faint, that might have been a saw chewing through rotten lumber. The bleating of a goat. I could no longer separate the noises of the broadcast from the sounds of my environment, the still, shadow-pooled park. I thought I heard a child’s muffled crying. It sounded like it had been going on for a long time.
The tour guide’s hand appeared in my vision like a sudden, predatory bird. She depressed a button marked “cassette,” and simultaneously, the “FM” button snapped erect with a sound like a gunshot. “Sorry about that,” Merrie said. “This darned thing seems to have a mind of its own.”
Hokey organ music and canned wails issued from the boombox speakers. Merrie checked her watch. “Crap, it’s almost seven,” she said. “There’s a timeline I’m supposed to follow….”
She didn’t have to finish. The radio’s spell interrupted, I thanked the tour guide hurriedly, gave her my number in case she remembered anything else, and wished her luck with the tour. Sparing one last look at the assembled, costumed figures—the tall, goat-headed one seemed to flash me a wreck-mouthed smile—I set off for the Hotel Northampton.