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: The St. Clair and Dimmsler cases reach an abrupt conclusion with the following chapter from “Bartlett’s Memory”: “Closed Cases.” A brief off-air period is scheduled to follow.
Part 6 and beyond will continue the story in weekly installments until the final case is closed or the transmissions cease.
Part Four: Dead Ends
Mrs. Haggerty (Part 1)
The frontispiece was a photograph of a group of men congregated on stone steps familiar to him as those of Northampton’s City Hall…. The men were gravely countenanced and pit-eyed, affecting postures of arrogant defiance. All wore smirks suggesting shared secrets…. Tiered surnames in script at their feet identified the men above: Whiteshirt, Slaughton, Gare, Dither, Morphew, Lusk, Stockton, Ronstadt, Geist.
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “The Investigator,” Gateways to Abomination
The Secret Lords of Leeds. The words buzzed and crawled in my mind. It was as though I had heard them before…but where?
Agent Schwaller’s advice, I concluded, was shit. She had told me what to look for but not where to look for it. Typical bureaucrat.
I returned my attention to the task of reordering the jumbled paperwork into separate case files. In an ideal universe, this would be a simple operation: comb each document for keywords, e.g. “St. Clair” or “Dimmsler”; sort into two piles; then dispose of the ambiguous cases. In reality, the ambiguous cases vastly outnumbered the clear ones. Many documents were rambling transcripts that made no explicit mention of either victim; others framed unlabeled photographs of anonymous street corners and stands of trees, or of blurred figures facing away from the camera; and still others seemed to have arrived among the police reports and broadcast summaries by sheer accident: menu pages from the local greasy spoon, gas station receipts, crossword puzzles half-completed by an incompetent hand. Since the last time I had handled the files, a sticky residue had inexplicably seeped into the paper, resulting in several pages becoming glued together. A few failed experiments proved that separating these conjoined documents without erasing their contents was a lost cause, but I did my best to minimize the damage.
Peeling apart an old theater handbill fused to what appeared to be a fifth grade class’s physical examination results—heights, weights, resting and active heart rates, and waist circumference listed alongside names and thumbnail photographs—I found a third page trapped between. It was the last page of a news article; it was, in fact, the missing page from the Leeds Weekly report on Susan Dimmsler’s disappearance. I tossed the other papers onto the seat beside me.
The article described an eyewitness to Dimmsler’s disappearance, a schoolteacher named Abigail Haggerty. Mrs. Haggerty had chaperoned her class on the Leeds Ghost Walk the previous week, and since then she had returned, night after night, to take the tour on her own. Something about it drew her, she reported, although friends and relatives would not describe her as a connoisseur of the dark and morbid. She claimed to have witnessed firsthand the “horrible end” that had befallen Ms. Dimmsler. The Leeds Weekly article withheld the details of what it called “Mrs. Haggerty’s exhaustively explicit account,” citing that it was “of a graphic nature that might prove upsetting to some readers, and, in any case, unthinkable for a sane person to corroborate or even entertain.” A handwritten street address accompanied the article.
I checked my watch. It was too late to bother Mrs. Haggerty at home; it’s been my impression that schoolteachers keep early hours. I had to find a place to crash, someplace close to the heart of Leeds. I couldn’t go home, not anymore, not until it was all over. I had a terrible premonition that if I left this place, I’d never find my way back. I didn’t want to go back to the Hotel Northampton, and besides, it was probably outside of my budget. The FCC wasn’t paying for my room and board. At the moment, I couldn’t recall exactly what the FCC was paying me, or how. I couldn’t remember the last time I slept.
What I needed was someplace cheap and low-hassle. And then, like a message from God, I saw it, bathed in the red glow of a neon blob that might have been a pointing arrow or some kind of rearing slug: the Leeds Stop-N-Sleep Motor Hotel. As I watched, the blue-green “Vacancies” sign lit up like a Christmas star. Hallelujah.
Mrs. Haggerty (Part 2)
After five hours’ blessed sleep; after a shower that, modulating unpredictably through blasts of icy and scalding water at various pressures, at least averaged a tolerable mean temperature; after sampling the six-ay-em “complimentary continental breakfast” of stale bagels, fuzzy tangerines, calcified eggs, and life-giving coffee, I felt convincingly human when I pulled up to the tree-lined gate of Leeds Elementary.
The red brick building was constructed along the lines of a neoplastic churchhouse. A lattice of white rectangles dominated the facade, topped by a deconstructed steeple of free-floating equilateral triangles. A large silver bell, like a church bell, floated in their midst, reflecting the morning sunlight. Panels of pastel blue broke up the cozy repetition of red and brown brick. A sign out front pictured a grinning Jack o’Lantern inviting pupils and family to the Leeds October Carnival. Its bottom half was obscured by a white banner emblazoned with the words “REMEMBERING THE MISSING.” There were no security guards stationed outside; it was a nice school.
I was in the process of explaining the purpose of my visit to a receptionist with a face like a lump of candle-wax when a small child erupted from one of the classrooms. She wore her hair in messy pigtails, one of which was coming undone; her face was the color of curdled milk. She flew down the hall in my direction, skidding on the floor—she wore no shoes, only grubby, rainbow-striped socks, one of which had slipped down her ankle and was flopping around like a dead limb—and shot out the front door. “No running in the HALLS,” the waxy-faced receptionist bellowed, her tone suggesting it was not the first time she had made such a proclamation.
Before the classroom door had the opportunity to shut, another shoeless child burst out of it, a freckle-faced boy with glasses strapped to his skull. He lost his footing immediately and smashed into the wall opposite. A milk tooth skittered to a halt near my feet while the boy crumpled into a bawling heap, blood streaming freely from his mouth and nose. Before the receptionist could complete her theatrical sigh, five more children emerged from the open door, a tangle of arm and legs making frantically for the exit. This time, the receptionist moved to block the exit, but the children scratched, bit, and tore at her, driven to abject terror by the thing now emerging from the classroom.
It moved with halting, trembling steps. Its wide eyes were all pupil, with only a sliver of sclera. Blood soaked its overalls, thick blood, thick like molasses, thicker than you’d think possible. It held its arms in front of it, cupping something in its tiny hands the way another child might cup a snail or frog.
“What the—” the receptionist began. She released her hold on the door, and the five children tumbled out onto the pavement. “Chloe, what do you have there?” she asked, striding purposefully toward the trembling, blood-soaked child, the child who had stopped moving and now stood uncertainly a few feet in front of the open doorway. I now recognized Mrs. Haggerty’s name Sharpie’d onto the construction paper apple taped above the door, now understood what it was the children were fleeing. I followed the waxy-faced receptionist, although I already knew what Chloe had there. It wasn’t a snail or frog. It was, as I could clearly see, a chunk of human brain.
By that point, other doors were swinging open, teachers and students were getting a good look through the open doorway at the mess that was left of Mrs. Abigail Haggerty, police were being called, and the receptionist was shooting me suspicious glances. The silver bell floating in the deconstructed steeple began to clang. Feeling the conspicuousness of my presence, I slipped out as quietly as I could.
I put my brain on his plate. I put the plate on the floor. The old men rose from their stools and descended upon it, their faces those of gaunt, befanged jackals.
“Are you looking,” I asked the man, “for a good time?”
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “The Gathering in the Deep Wood (Conclusion),” Creeping Waves
I found myself wandering the school grounds, lost in thought. The investigation had reached another dead end, literally. My presence, which had seemed so conspicuous ten minutes earlier, was soon ignored and just as soon forgotten amidst the uncoordinated swarm of activity surrounding the happy little building. An emergency school closure had been issued; administrators were calling parents, working methodically through an alphabetized list, but the dam of information had already burst, unleashing a flood of carseat-equipped minivans and sensible sedans upon the school. Vehicles soon filled, then overflowed, the parking lot. Some cars jumped the curb, their rubber treads chewing the decorative flowerbed. Fistfights broke out over double- and triple-parked spaces. Children in various stages of post-traumatic shock were arranged by grade, teacher, and name, forming a restless and damp matrix on the front lawn. They were mostly ignored as the battle over parking escalated.
An ambulance, siren blaring, reversed into the blue-paneled entrance. The paramedics, dressed more like astronauts than first responders, disappeared inside Mrs. Haggerty’s classroom. The thing they wheeled out on a stretcher a few minutes later was clearly beyond resuscitation.
It was a curious thing, that ambulance: where you would normally see AMR or the initials of a hospital, it bore the letters AII. Under that, in smaller print, were the words Annelid Industries International. The Rod of Asclepius, international symbol of healing, was where you’d normally expect to find it, but it was a new iteration on the icon, one I’d never seen before. I didn’t like it; the thing encircling the rod looked more like a winged leech than a serpent.
The noise and clamor faded into the background. In my invisibility, I felt oddly serene. I realized that I was most likely in shock. I could see the silver bell ringing, but no sound reached my ears; as a matter of fact, each swing seemed to send out a wave of anti-sound, like a sheet of lead vibrating at a frequency too deep for the human sensorium to process. I dissolved into my surroundings.
I was inside a bathroom stall, crouched over a toilet too small to support my frame. My throat was parched. I realized I had been weeping, though I couldn’t say why. Candy wrappers littered the damp tile around my feet. I stooped to gather them up, and that’s when I found the bucket, wedged between the toilet and the wall so that it would be invisible from outside the stall. It was a yellow plastic pail, the kind an unimaginative child might pack with dirt or lake-water. It was scored with deep scratches; some kind of green-white fungus bloomed along one side. Within the bucket were several crumpled copies of the same flyer. Something caught my eye, a cartoon drawing of a goat in human clothes. I pulled out the cleanest-looking of the bunch and smoothed it out upon my knee.
“Leeds SECRET Carnival!”
“Come meet the SECRET Lords of Leeds!
Master RONSTADT whispers Secrets Dark and Foreboding!
Mistress GARE issues Prognostications for the Lost and Forlorn!
Master GEIST utters Blasphemies to Shock and Titillate!
Master SLAUGHTON swallows One Thousand Stinging Hornets!
Grandmaster STOCKTON Communes with His Dark Herd!
Test your mettle against NATHAN WHITESHIRT, the Human Jellyfish!
Evade the clutches of the nefarious Master DITHER!
Taste the Culinary Marvels prepared by Masters LUSK and MORPHEW, Keepers of the Profane Bestiary!
Fabulous PRIZES await the stout-hearted and curious!
Admission is FREE! Ask and you will be Shown the Way!”
A wave of déjà vu knocked me out of myself. These names—all of them—were familiar to me, names I’d once known well and then forgotten. The Secret Lords of Leeds, I thought. At the bottom of the flyer was the cartoon that had drawn my eye, a crude illustration of a goat walking on its hind legs. It wore a ridiculous three-piece suit, complete with coattails and a top hat, and it kept its balance with the aid of an ornate walking stick. I was reminded of the tall, masked man in the park. They had the same smile.
An Incident in the Parking Lot
No traffic passed. Clouds stood still in the sky. If the earth was in fact still moving, there was no way to tell. In the distance on the tarmac shimmered puddles or the illusions of puddles.
Mickey couldn’t let the silence stand. “Can we…can we go, officer?”
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “The Massachusetts State Trooper,” Creeping Waves
The tumult had mostly died down by the time I exited the elementary school toilets and made my way back to the front gate. The paramedics had stashed the unsalvageable remains of Mrs. Haggerty away somewhere and gone to work on a new patient, a bloodless man with a semi-detached toupee radiating from his skull like a cerebral hemorrhage, the unfortunate victim of a double-parking-induced stabbing. A few other bodies were laid out on the lawn, awaiting their turn at the gurney; some were stretched and still, others curled and writhing; some festooned with bruises the color of wildflowers, others bearing exposed bone or the imprint of tire treads across their midsections. One shell-shocked child stood unattended in the middle of the lawn.
The paramedics gossiped while they worked. They’d removed their space suits, and I could see their features more clearly. One was tall and lanky, with sunken eyes and hollow cheekbones. The other was small and freckled, with fiery red hair. Actually, her freckles were so supernumerary that they had fused into a continuous red raccoon mask covering her nose and cheeks. The tall one with the pronounced knuckle-bones was taking the lead in the conversation, with the racoon-faced paramedic chiming in only occasionally with little grunts and isolated, vigorous head-nods.
“It’s all a big joke,” the lanky one was saying, his fingers buried up to their unsightly knuckles in the patient’s stab wound. “It’s pageantry. They make a big show of parental outrage, but nobody actually does anything.”
The other paramedic grunted her assent, resting her small elbows on the unresponsive patient’s chest.
“Do you know how many missing persons cases we see around here?” the lanky one went on. I wondered what was going on with his hands; his movements were suggestive not so much of probing as of tamping down. He wasn’t wearing gloves. “Especially missing children? And guess how many have been found. It’s because they’re all a part of it.” He extracted his hands, and the wound responded with a schoolyard kissing noise, a wet thhhhhhup!
His partner nodded vigorously. I slowed down, pretending to check my watch.
The bony paramedic ducked into the ambulance—the radio played big band tunes beneath what sounded like a police scanner—and reappeared with something white clasped in his long fingers. It resembled a knuckle bone, or maybe it was just the proximity of his elongated hands that invited the comparison. It emitted a faint whine of static. The paramedic plunged his fingers, still holding the object, into the wound, triggering convulsions in the patient and a fresh outpouring of blood. “Hold him still, will you?”
The raccoon-faced paramedic nodded, pinning the seizing patient’s shoulders to the gurney.
“Take that woman who disappeared. Susan something. You know she used to give that ghost tour?” He withdrew his fingers, but the knuckle bone was nowhere to be seen. A mosquito whine, barely audible, escaped the gash alongside generous gouts of blood. “Frankly, I’m not surprised by what happened to her. The old men do like their secrets.”
Now what could that mean? I recalled what Merrie, the assistant tour guide, had said about Susan: The stops on the tour, they’ve got real history behind them. Murders, suicides, and disappearances. Some of them fairly recent…and Susie took it further.
People who’d just experienced a…a loss, y’know, they’d look out their windows and see Susie staring in….
The small paramedic nodded vigorously while the taller one used his long fingers to thread a suture. They transferred the unconscious man to the ground and replaced him with the next patient in line, a bouffant-headed woman with a backwards leg. Somewhere in the shadowy depths of the ambulance, Cab Calloway was crooning about Poor Minnie, his “Hi-De-Hi-De-Ho’s” obscured by a second voice monotonously calling Bingo numbers. Suddenly exhausted, I staggered back to my car and collapsed into the seat.
The old men do like their secrets….