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
Volume II reopens some old wounds and a cold case: the disappearance of our narrator’s cousin, Rangel Bantam, in the early eighties. This is the second part. Part 1
Volume III has yet to be broadcast.
Rumors of a fourth volume are unfounded.
The story will continue in roughly weekly installments until the final case is closed or the transmissions cease.
Part Seven: Radiology
You’re listening to WXXT, the only station of its kind. I’m signing off now, but Rexroth Slaughton is up next with the Floyd Void.
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “I Was Acquitted of Killing My First Wife in 1936,” Dead Air
When I came around, a woman’s voice was in my ear. At first I took it to be Rangel—the real Rangel, the woman with the dark-haired child who sometimes visits my thoughts. She was whispering me to sleep, murmuring soothingly, the kind of voice that strokes your hair and rocks you gently. “It’ll be okay, baby,” she said. “I’m here now.”
But it wasn’t Rangel, and her comforting nonsense wasn’t meant for me. There was a sensual buzz behind her voice, a carnal distortion. I opened my eyes and saw the radio propped up on the pillow beside me. It was a cheap one, the same model I had found in the Hotel Northampton—it looked like the same radio, but that was impossible; that one had been drowned; I’d destroyed it irreparably, utterly. In a panic, I attempted to extricate myself from the bedclothes into which I’d been bound tightly enough to restrict blood-flow—though I couldn’t remember undressing and tucking myself in, there was no escaping the facts of the situation in which I found myself. I don’t know why I was so scared; it was just a radio, after all. I just remember thinking that there was something evil about that station, something abhorrent.
I needn’t have worried; before I could get a hand free, I noticed the dial, not at eighty eight point something but higher, safely in the hundreds. “You’re listening to WPLY, the Witness,” the voice said. “And this has been the Affirmation Hour. I’m Constance, and I bear witness to you.” Wind chimes jingled softly in the background.
“You’re a witness to something,” Constance said. Her voice was eminently soothing, but something about her words, the specific phrase she’d used, set me on edge. “We’ve all been witnesses at some point in our lives. Sometimes, we are blessed to witness beauty: sunrises, a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, the secret heart of another. But other times, we witness things we wish we hadn’t, things that leave us broken, things we try and fail to understand. We don’t ask to witness these things. Oftentimes, they’re forced upon us.
“But Constance has a secret. And soon, you will have the secret too. And the secret is this: that you are not broken, that you have not failed, that the things that you have witnessed don’t define you. That you have power over what you’ve witnessed. Report them, and be free. The lines are open.
“You’re listening to WPLY, the Witness. I’m Constance, and I will take the burden of your secrets from you. We have Sithyl with us on line one. Sithyl, what have you witnessed?”
Whatever Sithyl had witnessed, her answer was buried under a fanfarade of feedback as her voice was doubled, tripled, the sound both decaying and becoming amplified with each reduplication. As the copies overlapped one another, growing ever louder, I got the dreadful sense that something was approaching—a copy of a copy of a copy, degraded to the point of unrecognizability. It was all over in an awful three seconds, but even as the last inhuman squeal died away, I was left with a lingering sensation of a presence having infiltrated the air around me, vibrating its molecules imperceptibly.
“You’ll have to turn your radio down, honey,” Constance said, unfazed. “You’re a nurse at Cooley Dickinson, isn’t that right, Sithyl?”
I knew all about Cooley Dickinson. It was the big hospital serving the area, established in 1885 by an eccentric farmer who had somehow transformed a struggling farmstead into a small fortune. Originally envisioned as a place for the “sick poor” to seek treatment, Cooley Dickinson had grown from a single building into a massive hospital complex serving Northampton, Hatfield, and Whately. It had history.
“That’s right,” Sithyl replied. She had turned her radio down. Her voice was unplaceably familiar.
“And what secrets have you found there, Sithyl? Constance is here to listen.”
“Well…” Sithyl trailed off. I could hear music in the background, badly distorted but still recognizable as Easy Listening, intruding upon Constance’s wind chimes, forging harsh anti-harmonies. A man’s voice, muffled, broke in occasionally. It recalled memories of waiting on hold. “Due to an unexpected call volume, all of our associates are currently assisting other callers,” I could picture the man saying.
“There’s a girl here,” Sithyl concluded eventually. “She’s lost. She says her family has abandoned her.”
“I understand,” Constance replied soothingly. “You’re that lost girl, aren’t you, Sithyl? Aren’t we all a little lost?”
“No,” Sithyl snapped. I still couldn’t figure out where I’d heard her voice before. It reminded me of garlic and wood-smoke. “She’s in the Oncology Ward. She says she’s waiting for somebody to come and find her. She says he’ll know who he is. She says she’s been waiting a long time.”
The mattress beneath me dropped away. I felt as though I were floating, weightless. It’s a sensation I’ve had before, usually on the cusp of sleep.
“Well, I hope that person, whoever he is, is listening right now,” Constance said.
“He is,” Sithyl replied. Her voice was pine splinters and thrush.
“Is there anything else you—is there anything else the girl wants to say to this man, Sithyl?”
There was another extended pause. I could hear that distorted hold music, that muted baritone assuring me my call would be answered in the order it was received. “I never said he was a man,” Sithyl said. “I never said he was any such thing.” There was genuine anger in her voice. Then it changed, taking on a singsong cadence: “A dark-eyed child put to the knife, a skull buried in the weeds. There are five and twenty ways, by my count, to get to the Real Leeds.” She hung up.
“Thank you, Sithyl from Cooley Dickinson, for sharing the burden of your secret with us. You’re listening to WPLY, the Witness. I’m Constance, and—”
I switched off the radio.
MUSIC FOR THE SICK, bellowed the voice, resonant, compressed, with a slight echo. GATHER TO YOUR RADIOS! COME TO MY VOICE, ILL AND UNKEMPT, RIDDLED WITH CANCERS, CRAWLING WITH PESTILENCE! TOUCH THE SPEAKERS WITH YOUR HANDS! AH! THERE! YES!
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “The Last Hike,” Gateways to Abomination
I didn’t need my GPS to locate Cooley Dickinson. Drive long enough down Locust Street―yes, that’s a real address―and you can’t miss it. Finding the Oncology department was a different matter. These modern public hospitals have become so sprawling and byzantine that they require an alphabet soup of parking lots, six specialized entrances to the main structure, and an on-campus power plant. Lot A was full, so I parked in Lot H and hiked around to the main entrance.
There was a gift shop on my left, stocked with stuffed animals, cards, and flowers. Before me stretched an apparently interminable massing of the “sick poor” of Western Massachusetts. It was a largely bloodless malaise; urgent cases, those suffering from punctures or fractures or (partly or wholly) detached limbs, fingers and earlobes, would have ingressed through the emergency entrance to the north. The Urgent Care facilities were nearby (as I well knew, having been something of a permanent fixture there in my frail and forgotten youth), but the more infectious and volatile population—the sneezers, snifflers, hackers, coughers, wheezers, weepers, expectorators; the scratchers and pickers-at-scabs; those with mucus or pus visibly trickling, gushing, or gouting from the nose, mouth, eyes, sores, or genitals—seemed to have been triaged elsewhere. The patients who remained, by process of elimination, were those members of the general population who had learned to live with, and as, their illness: the chronic sufferers, the terminally unwell, the parasitized and metastasized. Sunken eyes, sallow faces, and vacant stares were strongly in evidence. A surprising number of them had earbuds in.
Directly to my right, in the shadow of the throng, was a small booth beneath a sign reading “Visitor Information.” It was manned by an uncannily small woman of indeterminate age and ethnicity wearing owlish glasses and a surgical mask decorated with some flowery pattern that I initially took to be spatters of blood.
“Patient check-in is the next desk over,” the woman said, peering up at me through coke-bottle lenses.
Not wishing to offend the homunculus behind the desk, I resisted the urge to crouch, as I would when talking to a child. “No, I’m not a patient.” The bantam receptionist looked me up and down suspiciously. “I’ve just…not been sleeping well,” I said, by way of explaining my generally cadaverous appearance. “I’m here as a visitor.”
I didn’t get the sense that the woman was buying my story, but she was apparently unable to summon the energy to push the issue further. She pulled a rectangle of stiff paper from a pile of such, inserted it into a clipboard, clicked a pen, and asked, “Are you currently experiencing, or have you experienced at any time during the past three days, a temperature in excess of one hundred four degrees or below eighty-eight degrees?”
“I haven’t taken my temperature lately,” I replied. Then, in response to the woman’s no-nonsense look, I added, “It’s been normal. Ninety-eight, I think.”
She ticked off a box on the sheet. “Have you recently visited Uganda, Egypt, West Africa, Brazil, Bali, Bhutan, Myanmar, Guyana, Suriname, Suffolk County, or Micronesia?”
“Have you recently been, or are you currently being, bitten by a mosquito, tick, flea, or leech?”
“No.” Although, now that I thought about it, hadn’t there been a little pinprick as I exited my car this afternoon?
“Have you experienced excessive bleeding from the mouth or anus in the last twenty-four hours?”
“Does flossing count?” The woman shot me a withering look. “Okay, no. Nothing excessive.” The woman’s doll-like hand hovered over the clipboard. “I mean nothing. No bleeding.” Tick.
“Have you attended a large sporting event, concert, carnival, key party, or tent revival?”
“Have you, at any time during the past two weeks, experienced any unprovoked and unrelenting urges to inflict harm upon yourself or others?” I shook my head. “I need a verbal confirmation, sir.”
“No. Jesus.” Tick.
“Any unplanned hikes in the woods?”
“Look,” I said, craning over the counter to try to get a peek at the clipboard, “how many of these questions are there? I’m just a visitor.” I noticed that she was perched precariously on top of three cushions, like the princess and the pea.
“We take the health of our patients very seriously, Mr….”
I didn’t want to give out my real name, so I made one up on the spot. “Guy Stanton.” The air conditioning finally penetrated my clothing, and I released a little shiver.
“Mr. Stanton. This is a clean hospital. Many of our patients have compromised immune systems. Even a common cold could introduce UNWANTED COMPLICATIONS.” These final words were shouted, her squeaky voice echoing even in the packed hospital.
“I understand,” I replied sheepishly. I felt the eyes of Massachusetts’ sick poor burning into me.
“Any unplanned visits to the woods, Mr. Stanton?”
“And whom will you be visiting today?”
I hadn’t been prepared for this line of questioning. “My cousin—my cousin’s daughter. My niece. She’s in Oncology.” I prayed the little virago wouldn’t ask for a name.
“I’m very sorry to hear that, Mr. Stanton.” She handed me the completed form. “Take this. It will serve as your visitor’s pass.” I accepted the form. There, at the bottom of a column of neat checkboxes, above the words “24-hour Visitor’s Pass,” was the pseudonym I’d provided: “GUY STANTON.” I shivered again.
I searched around me for a map. “Where is the, uh…”
“If your niece is receiving treatment today, you’ll find her in Radiation Oncology,” the woman explained briskly. “Take the Stork Elevators down to the basement. Do you need me to call her radiologist?”
“No, I’ve…uh…I know…her…,” I mumbled, backing away from the booth.
I had nearly been engulfed by the hollow-eyed throng when my brain registered her piping voice calling my name—that is, the name I had provided. “Mr. Stanton! Mr. Stanton!” She sounded angry. I felt a sharp tug on my pant leg.
I turned guiltily, expecting the woman to call security or snatch the visitor’s pass from my hand. Instead, she held a small bundle toward me. It consisted of a thin surgical mask, a pair of latex gloves, and several items that looked like shower caps. I’d seen other people wear them over their shoes, a way of catching dirt. “You’ll need to wear these,” the woman said. “I hope your niece improves.”
It was a terrible clump of hair and mucus, more than I could have thought would fit in me. Its aroma was sepsis and grog, laced through with metallic blood and toxic smoke. I pulled and retched, pulled and retched, until it was all out, and then I vomited a stream of brown water. My father’s hand found the mass, plunged into it. It emerged with a long, ancient key between index finger and forefinger. A three-looped bow, a shaft, an intricate bit like some elaborate sigil.
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “The Purging of my Uncle’s House (The Time of the Black Tents),” Creeping Waves
I’ve never been comfortable with illness. It’s a common aversion, I suppose, but mine is more pronounced than most. The sound of coughing sets my skin to crawling; merely bearing witness to a rash or cold sore sends me sprinting to the sink to scrub myself raw in scalding water.
I tried to suppress my revulsion as I plunged into the compacted mob of chronic illness that stood between me and the elevators. I felt its breath on my neck, damp and rancid. I avoided the collapsed membranes of its many imploring eyes. I heard the fluid in its lungs, the catch in its multitudinous throats. I felt the fungal spores, the vectors of disease radiating from warts and blisters. One man had a lump on his chin the size of a steamed dumpling. He pinched and rolled it between thumb and index finger, preparing to burst its virulent filth upon me. I reeled away from this assault, nearly colliding with a fat-bosomed woman whose exposed skin was a war zone of peeling scabs and some kind of tangerine-colored rash. She smelled like a bakery dumpster. Another woman was breeding botfly larvae in the skin of her face, little pill-sized grubs that spilled from the freckles on her cheeks. I crushed the toe of a toothless man with a skull-like orifice where his nose should be. I did not apologize, even as he hobbled after me, gaping in outrage. Minimal contact, minimal interaction. I was focused on survival.
When I emerged into the relatively clean air on the mob’s far side, the air conditioner was cold against my clammy skin, and I had to swallow back a hot ball of bile. It wouldn’t do to show weakness, not here. I’d had an experience, years before, when I had passed out in a hospital waiting room, a simple stress reaction compounded by tiredness and low blood sugar. Because a nurse working at the hospital had borne witness to the event, and because, according to the eyewitness, my brief loss of consciousness had been accompanied by convulsions, this had resulted in an expensive and involuntary emergency room stay during which I was hooked up to an EKG, undergoing a battery of neurological poking and prodding.
I focused on my breathing, willing the contents of my stomach to stay where they were. The Stork Elevators, named in honor of the Childbirth Center on the floor above me, were to my right. I depressed the call button, illuminating the inverted triangle above the elevator bay.
Television and movies have trained me to associate radiation therapy with pristine environments bathed in copious amounts of natural sunlight, stage-dressing for hope and triumph under a Vaseline lens. Cooley Dickinson’s Radiation Oncology department, as far as I could tell, wasn’t like that. For one thing, it was situated in the basement—not much opportunity for natural light down there. In fact, as I discovered when the elevator doors opened, there wasn’t much light at all. There was something wrong with the fluorescents: some flickered, while others were extinguished completely, staining the floor beneath them a dingy grey-green. It must be the bulbs, I thought; places like this have redundancies in place to prevent power fluctuations from ever occurring.
It seemed odd, though, in a busy hospital like this, that so many bulb replacements had been overlooked.
Although, come to think of it, this floor wasn’t busy at all. I heard activity behind closed doors—something that sounded like a Xerox machine spitting endless copies; another sound that was like hammering nails into a wet plank; shrieks of female laughter, the tinkling of ice in a glass; a barking dog, abruptly terminated in a sort of whimpering shout; hissing steam. But in the hallway, there were no doctors, no nurses, no patients, no helpful signage; nothing but anonymous doors painted a sickly green.
The corridor terminated in a bend. Ambient light trickled around the corner, teasing sunken windows, or at least working lighting, just out of sight. I headed that way in the hopes of clearer prospects. But the amber glow slowly dissipated as I approached the bend, and by the time I turned the corner, I was faced with a repetition of the same scene: another long, featureless hallway lined with closed doors, more dead and flickering lights, the same sharp leftward bend, the same muted glow.
I tried some of the doors: locked. Faced with a scarcity of options, I followed the second hallway to its conclusion, rounded the second bend, and discovered a third hallway, answering to the same description as the first two.
After a third terminal left produced a third repetition of the schema, I began to suspect that I was traversing a loop. Four lefts should return me to the elevator. Never mind that no other hallway had been visible from the elevators—maybe I had merely overlooked it, my eyes still adjusting to the gloom. I traversed the fourth hallway, confident that the fourth left corner would deposit me right back where I had started.
It did not. Rather, I found myself at the start of a fifth hallway, or perhaps a corrupted version of the original hallway. The Stork Elevators were nowhere to be seen, and the light had retreated beyond the far bend.
Not a loop, then. Or maybe a different type of loop: a tape loop, an endless cycle of sound captured and patterned by an electromagnetic impulse. I thought of a decaying orbit; I thought of a fly tumbling down the hair-lined barrel of a pitcher plant. I thought of a femme fatale disappearing down a fog-choked alley, of the bioluminescent lure of an anglerfish. I thought of the days before digital file transfer, when copying something—or even just playing it back—accompanied an inevitable degradation of quality. Generation loss, they called it. I felt tired and cranky, and this mood colored my thoughts as I shuffled, in my paper-covered shoes and stifling face mask, through corridor after identical corridor. Was there a slight grade to the tiled floor? Was I actually descending, by imperceptible degrees, into the waiting jaws of the Earth?
I stopped counting hallways and started counting loops, full trips around the spiral. On the third loop, I confirmed that the hallways weren’t just generally similar; they were identical in every particular. The third bulb always blinked out the same tattoo, triplets of short and long blinks interspersed together. The fifth door on the left always bore that long, deep scratch in its paint at belly height. Every twenty-fifth door on the right had the knob installed the wrong way around. Always twelve paces from the terminal bend, a black tile crouched among the grey. The only thing that changed was the sound: the hammering and laughter of the original hallway gradually collapsed into echo and reverb and a creep of white noise, which itself grew louder and more pervasive with each loop. I guessed that it originated from the dripping, quivering pipes that ran overhead, scalding to the touch.
By the twelfth loop, generation loss had set in to a noticeable degree: a progressive decay of visual fidelity by which shapes lost their precision, corners drooped and melted. The floor tiles were no longer recognizable as such; they now resembled something closer to impacted molars. The tapestry of flickering light and shadow seemed to emanate not from the cracked and dented ceiling panels but from something else, something far more distant, great worm-like shapes passing in front of a scabrous moon. My foot descended into a puddle and came up alive with tadpoles. And the air had turned sweltering, stinging my eyes, forcing me to squint and blink through acid tears.
As visual clarity continued to decay in loops twelve through fifteen, the omnipresent white noise began to resolve into an as-yet-unidentifiable sound, always ahead and to the left, ahead and to the left, goading me forward. On loop sixteen, I finally placed it: it was elevator music, the kind that doesn’t really exist anymore but once infested public places like a fungus.
At around the same moment my brain made the connection, I rounded a corner and found myself faced, not with a sixty-sixth–generation hallway, but with a monolithic pair of steely elevator doors. I recoiled instinctively from my reflection, its cruel clarity. The steel surface seemed smooth, spanning the width and height of the hallway with no apparent break or seam, but it must have been subtly warped, bumps and creases and ripples too gradual for the human eye to comprehend, because it stretched and bent my features like a funhouse mirror. My double was a snaggle-toothed, hunch-backed monster, feet compacted into cloven hooves, pupils stretched and split like broken egg yolks, talonous hands stained red. We shrank away from one another, I in fear, my double in mortification.
Light streamed from a split in the monster’s skull. The crack widened as the elevator doors parted, their interior light blinding me after the dimness and uncertainty of the endless corridor. I collapsed to my knees, feeling my skin wither and turn to ash and blow away on solar winds.