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: The St. Clair and Dimmsler cases speed toward their inevitable end with the following chapters from “Bartlett’s Memory”: “Mrs. Haggerty (Part 1),” “Mrs. Haggerty (Part 2),” “The Invitation,” and “An Incident in the Parking Lot.”
Part 5 and beyond will continue the story in weekly installments until the final case is closed or the transmissions cease.
Part Three: Eine kleine Nachtmusik
The Hotel Northampton
An integral element of Wiggins’ concept was to achieve museum status for the hotel’s furnishings, and to this end he acquired antiques both for the hotel and for his own collection. Many of these antiques still grace our hallways, restaurants, and lobby.
—”History,” Hotel Northampton official website
Believe it or not, I’ve never stayed in the historic Hotel Northampton in historic downtown, mere blocks away from the Historic Northampton Museum, a minuscule sixteen miles from the Historic Deerfield and Yankee Candle Flagship Store. Before that broadcast, I’d never even peeked inside. So I can’t say if what I saw was typical. I hope it wasn’t. I’m not going back to find out.
The ground floor was deserted. The check-in counter had a haunted look, like it had borne witness to some trauma. The instant I rang the service bell, my mouth flooded with the taste of Tootsie rolls, Charleston Chews, Rocket bars. There was a little bowl of candies on the counter, King-sized, not your trick-or-treater crap. Its proximity, in conjunction with the time of year and the sound of the bell, must have triggered some Pavlovian response. I grabbed a handful, shoved them into my coat pocket. To distract myself from reaching in for more, I flipped through a little book set strategically beside the bowl. In gold emboss on the brown leather binding was the title: “OUR STORY.”
I learned of the hotel’s vast antiquarian collection; of the attached “Wiggins Old Tavern,” faithfully transplanted from its original location in Hopkinton; of the many luminaries who had strolled its well-appointed halls; of the Ballrooms, Grand and Junior, the perfect backdrop for a magical wedding reception; and of the exciting shopping and dining opportunities mere minutes from the front door. Some place, I thought. I felt the candies in my pocket, the weight of them.
Eventually, a strange creature hobbled over and took up station behind the desk. There was something unnatural about the proportion of her features; she had the face of a sixteen-year-old but the withered, papery hands of an octogenarian. Her nails were untrimmed, unpainted, and uncleaned; they had the thickness and earwax-yellow coloration of toenails, and they curled over themselves in truncated spirals. She dragged her left foot when she walked. Her dress was cut unreasonably low, revealing a pimpled expanse of cleavage. She smelled of garlic and woodsmoke. I didn’t know where to put my eyes.
“I was here this morning,” I lied, staring fixedly at the tarnished brass bell, “and I left something very important in my room. Suite 315. I was wondering if I could….” I took a moment to swallow; I was salivating uncontrollably, and my speech had become drunken, garbled. The candies seemed to generate their own warmth, subtle but insistent. “I was wondering if I could quickly slip in and…grab it.”
The receptionist typed something into an antique-looking computer, somehow striking the right keys in spite of her draconic fingernails. “I’m afraid that room is currently occupied,” she replied, her tone automatic.
“I’ll only be a second,” I pleaded. The heat radiating from the candy bars had grown intense.
The receptionist squinted at the screen, clearly uncomfortable with this line of inquiry. “And you are…?”
I’m not sure why, but I answered, without hesitation, “William St. Clair.”
The transformation was immediate. The receptionist straightened, back cracking like a willow rod, and hooked a key from a rack behind her. “Oh, yes, Mr. St. Clair,” she said, a little breathlessly. “Mr. Stanton left instructions that you were to be let up immediately. She leaned forward, sliding the key across the desk, and the deep V of her dress sagged, revealing a chewed-up nipple situated off-center amidst an inverted mound of pimpled flesh. The fumes of her hot breath enveloped me. I snatched the key, taking care not to touch her gnarled hands, and hurried toward the elevator.
I ate half the candy on the way up, greedy mouthfuls like a drowning man swallows water wishing it were air.
The hallway, like the lobby, was dark and abandoned. Historic photographs and artwork lined the walls, but the lighting was wrong, so that each picture was obscured by either gloom or glare. The paintings were odd, too, not the kind of fare one would expect in a hotel: men and women clad in moonlight, as they used to say, dancing in witch-circles, consorting with toadlike familiars, and making stews of human hearts and genitalia. There were pictures of historic massacres and floods and fires interspersed with biblical scenes: Jesus bringing comfort to the lepers, Jesus suffering upon the cross, Moses grasping a rod that had just transformed into a hissing serpent. The patterns on the floor and ceiling were dizzying reflections of one another, an orgy of rhombuses simultaneously penetrating and being penetrated by their nearest neighbors.
Suite 315 was at the end of the hall. There was a sound like running water coming from the other end of the door. I thought about knocking, but in the end I decided I had better not. I wondered whether I should have brought a gun. I turned the key and entered.
The room was dark. I fished around for a light switch but did not find one where expected, just plain wall, rough and slightly tacky. The running water sound was coming from the bathroom, which was not in itself surprising. A faint green light bled from beneath the door frame. I crept toward the closed door and pressed my ear against it. Beneath the hiss of water, a whimpering was barely audible. And something else, something rhythmic and arrested, an old man’s dry but hearty chuckle.
I knocked. You always knock before surprising someone in the bathroom, kidnapping investigation or not. I pressed against the tacky wall, listening for a response. I thought I heard the shuffle of feet approaching the door, but it could also have been a hollow cough. My muscles seized in terror. Some time passed. Nothing happened. I released my pent-up breath and started trembling uncontrollably.
I turned the handle and pushed the door open, first one inch, then two, then the rest of the way in a single frantic shove. The room was dark, the fluorescent bulb above the sink shattered; the only source of light was the green glow spilling over the lip of the tub. A shower curtain, half torn from its rod, collapsed over the porcelain like a broken wing. The shower was running, and water was overflowing the tub, saturating the burgundy shag carpet—who puts carpet in a bathroom?—but the room was otherwise unoccupied. The only place somebody could be hiding, the only spot not visible from the doorway, was inside the overflowing tub.
I took two long strides into the room—squish, squish—and stared down into the green-lit porcelain. The drain was clogged with human hair, an entire head’s worth, waving like seaweed. Tangled in this mess, resting at the bottom, a plastic freezer bag was stuffed with…something. Something emitting that green glow, and something else that might have been a horseshoe crab. I plunged my hand into the water—it was cold, like the ocean—and pulled out the package. It was thoroughly sealed with duct tape; I tore at it with my teeth until I had produced an opening, then inserted my fingers into the orifice, stretched it wide. I used to do the same thing with those little plastic-wrapped toys that come in Happy Meals.
The horseshoe crab flopped out first; it turned out to be a child-sized catcher’s mitt, sopping wet despite the measures taken to protect it. The other object was a small transistor radio. It was on, the needle tuned so far left that it disappeared behind the radio’s cheap plastic housing, and bone dry. The whimpering I had heard was coming from this, from behind the little pin-hole speakers.
“WHAT’S…THAT…SOUND!?” a man’s voice suddenly blared. It was the same voice I had heard before. It might have come from the radio, although it seemed to fill the air around me, a kind of tangible pressure. The abrupt change in volume startled me into dropping the radio, which tumbled end-over-end into the hair-choked tub.
As water suffused the inner workings of the radio, a wail rose from the depths. At first, it was the cry of an infant suffering life’s first betrayal, but as the electronics gave way, it modulated into the ragged wail of an adult woman—I thought of Susan Dimmsler, although I’d never heard her voice—before climbing the register once more into inhuman range, a scream of tortured metal and howling jet fuel. Then, the belly of the sound dropped out, and the light with it, and I was truly alone.
Through the Brake Lights
The Plague of the Leech, an insistent and insinuating voice bleated from the tinny speaker, will start in the stomachs of your children. The schools will close. Schoolteachers will fall in the street and men will lean in to help and be taken. Hospitals will be overwhelmed and overrun; they will host the Leech and the Leech will simmer in its tubes and conduits and its tanks….
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “Path,” Gateways to Abomination
I have no recollection of having left the hotel room, of descending the elevator, of passing shakily in front of the creature behind the check-in counter, afraid to meet her leering gaze, or of exiting into the crisp night air, made suddenly aware of how profusely I had been sweating; yet somehow, I wound up back inside my car. The engine was running, but the parking brake was engaged. The architecture visible from my windshield was unfamiliar.
The case files were in my hands. I flipped through them mindlessly. The papers had gotten muddled up, somehow, the files for the St. Clair kid and for the Dimmsler woman all mixed together.
Or maybe, I thought, it’s that the cases themselves are connected. The unconscious mind will often make connections the rational mind cannot see, and coincidences cannot fail but be revealing. At least, that’s how it works in cheap detective novels. I’m a big believer in the power of cheap detective novels.
I caught my hand reaching for the radio. No; I didn’t think I could handle any more of that crazy station. WXXT. Even though I knew it was just a platform for the tasteless pranks of old perverts—possibly mentally ill; yes, very possibly—it did something to you, got into your head somehow. My hand shook like the hand of a junkie as I drew back from the radio dial.
The flickering of a streetlamp drew my attention to a scene unfolding in my rear-view mirror. A figure was hunched over the sidewalk; man or woman, it was impossible to say, as a great brown leather coat draped over the mass obscured the details of the person’s anatomy. The figure was bent forward at such an angle that I could only see the top of his or her head: long strings of greasy white hair sprouting erratically from a shining expanse of red scalp, like the first feathers on a baby bird. He—or she—was moving strangely, back arching in violent, shuddering spasms at unpredictable intervals. The figure would remain still for two seconds or twenty, and then suddenly the entire mass would leap and quake as though touched by a cattle prod. In the intervals between these moments of alarming locomotion, the hunched figure, bathed in the infernal glow of my tail lights, exhibited no qualities suggestive of animal intelligence. It was, in those intervals, rather like a corpse or a limp pile of rags.
I got out of my car and moved cautiously toward the figure. Its manner of movement suggested pain or distress—seizure, obstructed breathing—and the civilized part of my brain felt obligated to help. On the other hand, something about the scene—or maybe it was just the lingering effects of the radio broadcast, or coming down from a sugar high—triggered my flight instincts. “Are you okay?” I called.
“Oh, I’m better than okay,” came the reply. The voice, a man’s, was jarringly smooth and rich; he might easily have found employ as a radio DJ. I still couldn’t make out his face. “Wonderful night, isn’t it?” he continued. Another paroxysm overtook him. I took another step closer.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to get some help?” I asked.
A hearty laugh escaped from the hunched figure, though its shoulders didn’t move. “No, I’m just about done here,” the man said. His voice was oil, blood and honey.
When he raised his face to smile at me, that’s when I saw his mouth. He licked his lips, smeared the back of a sleeve across his face, but there was no diminishment of blood, so much blood, painting his face like an astonished clown, forming an O around his gristle-crowded grin. I followed a dribble of it down his chin as it fell onto his hands, or rather, claws, veins popping like a nest of worms—Jesus Christ, maybe he was seizing—those hands, those claws, those worms’-nests locked around a thing of meat and bone that was no longer recognizable as a human skull. The face had been torn away, but the bone structure was that of a child.
Incongruously, the man had no fingernails. His featureless digits, like fat, blood-soaked grubs, writhed bonelessly among the orbitals.
“How about a little night music?” the man asked between chews. Then, he started to sing, a rich baritone, the first movement of Mozart’s serenade. “BUH! Buh-BUH! Buh-BUH-buh-buh-buh-BUH!” Meat sprayed across the sidewalk with every plosive syllable.
I sprinted the ten feet to my car, slammed and locked the door, and pressed down hard on the accelerator. I resisted the instinct to look into my rear-view until I was safely out on the highway.
Working in concert with a secret division of the FCC, W-Randall and his minions attempt to ferret out our offices and studios and even attempt to invade our dwellings and domiciles. Most assuredly they are rats that must be humiliated, disemboweled, and berated, preferably in front of their children and grandchildren.
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “Intolerance, or FCC Commissioners I Have Known,” Dead Air
When I did look, I was surprised to see a woman with long, dark hair and large, even darker sunglasses sitting in the back seat. In my confusion, I slammed on the brake; luckily, I was alone on the highway.
“You’re a witness to something,” the woman observed. Her affect was perfectly flat.
I couldn’t see how anything I could contribute to the conversation at that point might be useful, so I kept my mouth shut. “You’ve witnessed, or believe you’ve witnessed, a human being consuming the flesh of another human being,” the woman continued. “The truth is far worse.” Her sunglasses were circles of perfect darkness, like pools of black mud, reflecting no light whatsoever. For the first time, she betrayed some emotion, slumping slightly in her seat and turning to stare out the side window. “God, I hate this town.”
“Who are you, and how did you get into my car?” They seemed reasonable enough questions, given the circumstances.
“You left the door unlocked,” the woman answered, perfectly confident in the logic of her response. “As for who I am, I might as well ask you the same question. You show up out of the blue and start asking questions. But are you sure you’re asking the right ones? And are you really prepared to be answered?”
As she spoke, all of my fear and confusion was transmuted to a rage her words hardly warranted. “You want to talk about showing up out of the blue? That’s pretty rich considering whose car you broke into. Look, lady, I’m just trying to do a job here.”
The woman leaned forward. The bottomless pits of her sunglasses seemed to draw me in. “That’s exactly why I’m here,” she said. “I need to know who you’re working for. Are you with that bastard Stockton, or do you represent one of the other covens?”
Her question threw me. “What? No. I’m…Jesus, I’m with the FCC. I’m just looking into some fucking radio station. Covens?”
Now it was the woman who seemed taken aback. “That…that’s not possible,” she muttered, uncertainty clouding her words.
“Sure it is,” I replied. I shoved the faxed files into her face. She took them in for a moment, then her face fell.
“Shit,” she said. “Goddammit. I told them I had it under control.” She snatched off her sunglasses. Beneath, her eyes were remarkably gentle and emotive; I believe the expression is “doe-eyed.” Her eyelashes were moist.
“Maybe you can clue me in,” I said.
“I’m working the same case,” the woman explained. “Agent Schwaller. I’ve been here for months, ingratiating myself with these devil-worshiping shitbags. For them to send some amateur fuckwad in—no offense—without informing me first…those assholes.” She chewed her lower lip.
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, they didn’t tell me about you, either.” I smiled. “Maybe now that we know about each other, we can pool our resources.”
Agent Schwaller shook her head violently. “No. No, I have put too much work into this case to cede control back to the agency. Goddammit!” She kicked the back of my seat.
“Hey there,” I began.
Agent Schwaller replaced her sunglasses, and all of the sudden, her face reverted to an impassive mask. “Sorry, buddy, but I’ve got too many plates spinning right now to risk you bumbling through them. If you really want to know what happened to the St. Clair kid, you need to look into the Secret Lords of Leeds.” And she left, slamming the door so hard it made my ears pop.