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 Five: Closed Cases
Please stand by.
The phone was already ringing when I turned my key in the door at the good ol’ Leeds Stop-N-Sleep. I ignored it, draping my coat over the bed and pouring myself a glass of cloudy water from the bathroom tap. I swallowed a Tylenol, washed it down with a second glass. I get migraines sometimes, auras and all that. The water tasted like plastic grocery bags soaked in dishwater. I drank it anyway.
The phone was persistent. I knew exactly what would happen if I picked up: I would get drawn back into things. I thought about severing the connection, but the motel had set up some sort of anti-theft contraption around the phone line. I sighed, feeling all resistance leave my body with the exhale.
The moment I lifted the receiver, I felt a change in the atmosphere of the room, that weightless crackle that is the first sign of an impending lightning strike. I heard the breathing even before I put the phone to my ear, heard it as clearly as if the man were crouched over me. It was bathed in static, rich and velvety waves of white noise.
“You’ve, ah, found something out, haven’t you, Mr. _____?” the voice asked. It was the man from the FCC; I couldn’t recall his name.
“I think I have,” I admitted. I hadn’t really thought about it until that moment.
The susurrus on the other end of the line was expectant, ravenous. An image rose unbidden before me: a voracious mouth ringed by rows of milk teeth, rank and file held in reserve like a shark’s mouth, a red, smacking O that consumed words rather than producing them. Fool that I am, I fed it.
“I think I’ve got somewhere,” I went on. “It’s…I’m not sure I would know what to say, on the book. I couldn’t write an official report, not yet. But I’ve got a feeling.”
“Tell us what you know,” said the mouth.
“Well…let’s start with Bill St. Clair. Local kid goes missing, but the police don’t want anybody to know about it. That’s odd, isn’t it? There should be posters; there should be marches through the woods, arms linked. There should be closure for his goddamn family.”
I felt myself getting carried away. The mouth seemed to be loving it, lapping it up; every once in a while, I’d hear a contented little moan coming from the other end of the line. Otherwise, velvety silence.
I abandoned that line. “Then I heard that voice on the radio. It was…I know how this sounds, but I could swear it was Bill. So I go there. The Hotel Northampton. And there’s radio equipment in the room, there’s water in the tub, but nobody in there. It’s like they set it up for me to find. Why? There’s something familiar about all of this….”
“Ahhhh,” the mouth moaned.
“Then I go outside and see…that man eating…devouring….” I thought back. The body had been child-sized. Had there been a baseball cap crushed beneath the faceless skull? Had I caught a glimpse of a child’s baseball jersey pinned beneath the old man’s predatory weight? “Go Leeches”? “It could have been him,” I continued. “Jesus, it could have been him.
“I met Agent Schwaller, and she turned me on to the Secret Lords of Leeds. I wasn’t sure what it meant—I’m still not sure—but I have the feeling that I should know. I saw it again at the elementary school. Some kind of flyer. ‘The Leeds Secret Carnival.’ They’re luring kids. Or recruiting; I’m not sure which.” That seemed important; file that away for later.
The more I talked, the less it made sense. The connections I had made before, those gossamer threads of understanding, collapsed under the weight of further scrutiny. I hurried on with my report, trying to get it all out before it dissolved like cotton candy in the rain.
“And then there’s Susan Dimmsler. By all accounts she was well-liked. Not the type to have a lot of enemies, I mean. But maybe she said the wrong thing to the wrong people.” I sounded like the potboiler I’ve always feared I’d write. “The ‘Leeds Ghost Walk.’ Not your typical Halloween spook tour, was it? Less murder and suicide, more vanishings. And Leeds has had a history of vanishings.” I thought of Rangel, and the migraine threatened to return. I tamped the memory down.
“I stopped by the town common, where the tours commence, and I met Merrie Thornbuckle, the new tour guide. Nice kid; I hope nothing she makes it through this thing unmolested.”
The chuckle coming from the telephone handset threw me. I didn’t think I’d said anything funny.
“She had a radio…no, that’s not right. It was a cassette tape, but it was playing the radio…that’s when I heard her screaming. Dimmsler.” I considered. “No, it was Bill that time. But I heard her at the hotel, I swear it. That cry of agony…Susan’s alive somewhere, and she’s not having a good time.”
“I should think not,” the voice said.
“And then there was Mrs. Haggerty’s suicide, and the paramedics mentioned…‘the old men like their secrets.’ They were…somebody saw something, or said something….” I trailed off. It had all been so clear a moment before. “‘The old men like their secrets,’” I repeated. That seemed important, somehow, worth remembering. Everything around it was just a drapery of skin.
The static popped and swelled like a sandpapery tongue caressing blistered red lips.
“You’ve done well, Mr. _____,” the voice said. “You’ve done, ah, very well.”
“Nothing makes sense,” I apologized. “Give me a night. I’ll make a report in the…I’ve got to sleep….”
“There’s no rest for the, ah, wicked, Mr. _____. No, I would say you’ve done very, ah, fine indeed.” Like the warm crackle of an old LP, the layers of static lent volume to the man’s words. I wondered, for a moment, what would be left of the voice if you stripped the static away, if there would be anything left at all. Nothing, I decided, but the puckered red mouth floating at the edge of my vision.
“The Dimmsler and St. Clair cases are now closed,” the voice announced.
“I don’t understand….”
The mouth bit down, drawing blood. “The Dimmsler and St. Clair cases are closed. Your report has been most, ah, illuminating. Get that sleep now, if you can. You’ll find further instructions in the morning.” Click. The static, in its sudden absence, produced a wave of anti-sound that rang in my ears like a silver school bell. I put the phone down, lay on the bed, powerless to undress, to move my coat from where it lumped beneath my spine. I felt drained.
When I closed my eyes, I saw it floating in the air above me: that candy-red O ringed by tiny teeth. It wasn’t a shark’s mouth, I realized. It was the mouth of a leech.
You’ve been listening to WXXT, the signal from the floorboards, the baby in the bathwater, the pulse on the cadaver. Before the first light of dawn, our very own Rexroth Slaughton will rock you from your sleep with the Hairpocalypse Hour. But first, we’ll observe a brief period of radio silence. Get that sleep. You’ve earned it.