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 III shepherds a continuance of established patterns, the disappearance of another child, and the return of the prodigal son. This is the first part.
Readers found perpetuating rumors of a fourth volume are subject to investigation by the FCC.
The story will continue in roughly weekly installments until the final case is closed or the transmissions cease.
Part Nine: Missing
You’re listening to WXXT. You are not sure how long you have been listening. Your stomach drowns out the sounds of your radio. A wind howls. The batteries die. Infants mewl at your feet.
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “When I Was a Boy—A Broadcast,” Gateways to Abomination
The next day, I woke after noon. I felt drained, puckered, like a used-up IV bag. My dull eyes took in the room, wincing from the abrasive light winning its siege against the thin curtains. The soiled gloves and shower caps were where I had left them in the wastebasket beside the bed. A few maggots had spawned to feed on the last crumbling remnants of that other world. The “message” light on the telephone was unilluminated. The carpet in front of the letter slot was barren.
I rose, feeling the weight of a century’s monotonous existence in my leaden limbs, and checked outside the door, just in case the FCC had deposited a dossier too big to fit through the letter slot. No dice. The manila envelope I’d shoved through was missing, already retrieved by my handler at the FCC or, more likely, by a member of the motel’s cleaning staff.
Now that I considered it, though, I realized I hadn’t seen any cleaning staff, hadn’t seen anybody keeping up the premises, hadn’t seen anybody else at the motel at all, unless you count the old man with the oddly lopsided skull who had accepted my payment—“Cash only, if you please.” There were cars, some languishing under decades of rust, others resting on cinder blocks. The radios in all of them had been removed, exposed wires like raw nerves or withered capillaries. I had reason to believe I wasn’t the only guest—I’d seen shadows moving in the other rooms, curtains twitched aside; I’d heard noises through the thin walls, thumps and moans and screams, retching, the wet impact of flesh against flesh. But I hadn’t seen a soul enter or leave, not even in the small hours. Faded “Do Not Disturb” placards hung from every door like rosaries.
I went to visit the old man—his head was ridged and bulbous, like a flesh-covered pumpkin—on the off chance that a message had been left for me with the office. He rankled at the suggestion, as though the question itself were an affront to his dignity. I had to excuse myself twenty minutes into his halitosis-perfumed screed; better to return to my room and wait.
Numberless days proceeded in this manner. I kept odd hours, passing without notice between sleep and wakefulness. I slept for two hours here, a day there, unmoored from the circadian rhythms that had dominated my remembered life up to that point. The light that bled through the curtains seemed to pulse each time my eyelids fell, passing through a medley of hues and intensities: blood red, fiery yellow, dishwater gray. It might have been a week I spent like this, or it might have been a single day, the flashes of moonlight, dawn and sunset dreamed or hallucinated.
When I was awake, I tuned in to WXXT. I won’t describe the things I heard there. I’ve made a career of not describing them, of telling horrible stories that are somehow less horrible than the truth, just horrible enough to instill in my readers a healthy fear, to make them think twice about touching the dial when driving through Western Massachusetts, to inoculate them against the depravities I suffered.
I forgot to feel hunger, which was just as well; there were no comestibles in the room, unless you count the maggots, which had grown numerous enough to overflow the waste basket and infest the fibers of the carpet. They writhed between my toes each time I embarked on my daily (hourly? monthly?) pilgrimage from the bed to the door to check for packages that never arrived. They had rapidly wormed through the mud and the plastic and latex and were now busily cannibalizing each other, but this violent change in appetite did nothing to curb their population explosion. I hadn’t witnessed a single fly; it was as though the larvae spawned from the empty air or sprouted from germs planted in the soil of that other place.
I left the room for the first time in what felt like millennia, tomb-dust sloughing off the door as it creaked open, and visited the front desk. Pumpkin Face was absent; without his anchoring presence, the whole place looked like an empty movie set. Only his scent lingered—oysters and tobacco, just a whiff of shoe polish. The guest dining area was locked up tight, the familiar spread of ossified eggs and blue-furred oranges tantalizing behind the door’s glass aperture.
A selection of menus was arrayed haphazardly on a wire rack beside the counter. Whatever organizational principle might once have guided their arrangement had long since given way to the entropy of casual displacement and what looked like total neglect on the part of the old man. Many spaces on the rack were vacant; what menus remained were creased, spotted with mold and anonymous stains.
One picture caught my eye: plump sausage links and fluffy eggs in extreme close-up, beads of oil clinging to the meat like sweat or dew. Below it, a slice of chocolate cream pie buried under an avalanche of whipped cream. All of my forgotten hunger came flooding back in an instant, and I nearly collapsed from longing. The saliva ran freely from my hanging jaw.
The Bluebonnet Diner. King Street. I staggered out the door, hooked like a fish on the line by the phantom scent of sugar, eggs and cream.
A Chance Encounter at the Bluebonnet Diner
I made myself a drink, one part bourbon, one part blood.
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “Pictures of Children,” Of Doomful Portent
I let my fork clatter to the floor, my unnatural hunger temporarily sated. Before me lay the skeletons of a legion of pies, luckless sacrifices to the void that gnawed within my belly. Flotsam of lattice crust, filo, and crumb pastry littered the battleground amid rapidly congealing pools of various creams, jellies, and mousses: coconut, chocolate, cherry, strawberry, blueberry, rhubarb, key lime, lemon, peach, pumpkin, pecan, apple, banana, Boston cream. My hand, sticky with the blood of sacrifice, hung limply at my side. My neurons pulsed sluggishly, entombed in aspic. A tall glass of ice water stood untouched amidst the wreckage.
A woman slid into the booth opposite me. It took a minute for my eyes to focus on her and a minute longer for recognition to strike.
“Been enjoying yourself, I see,” remarked Agent Schwaller.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
Schwaller fixed me with an inscrutable look, emotions locked away behind her opaque sunglasses. “Meeting you. As discussed.”
Had I set up a meeting with the FCC agent? My thoughts flowed like toffee, thick and saccharine. All I could remember of our last meeting was her eyes, that expression of exhaustion, frustration, and defeat.
“Of course,” I said, projecting an air of confidence. She didn’t need to know about the widening holes in my memory.
We sat there in awkward silence for a moment, allowing the ambient sounds of the diner to filter in: the clatter of cutlery as the diners around us sawed through their steak and eggs, the tinkle of ice in glasses, subaudible conversation at the bar, and, from the kitchen, the eternal hiss of grease on the cooktop and the thrum of Chuck Berry on the radio.
“You mentioned the possibility of a partnership,” Schwaller said, breaking the silence. “An exchange of information. A mutually beneficial alliance.”
“Of course,” I repeated.
“You’ve met with Stockton,” she stated.
“And how can you be so sure of something like that?” I asked, as much from genuine curiosity as from bluff and bluster.
“I can smell him on you.” She spat, the foamy globule impacting the carcass of a cherry tartlet. “I could smell that old goat from a mile away.”
I gave her a sour look, then eyed the spit-soiled pastry. “How do you know I was done with that?”
“This is serious, _____,” Schwaller said. Those depthless black lenses, her surrogate eyes, remained fixed to my soul. “Or should I call you Stanton?” The corner of her mouth quirked up in a smile.
I had no idea what she was talking about.
“I did some digging on you,” Schwaller said. “This isn’t your first visit to Leeds, is it?”
“As a matter of fact, it isn’t,” I replied. I ducked under the table, retrieved my fork, and began to excavate an untainted portion of tartlet. “I spent some time here as a child. But I fail to see how that’s any of your business, Ms. Schwaller.”
“It’s my business, Mr. Stanton, because you weren’t honest with me last time we spoke. You know a lot more about what’s going on here than you’re letting on. And I want to know, too. I deserve to know, goddammit, after what that bastard put me through. I—”
I stood to leave. “I believe you’ve mistaken me for somebody else.”
“Oh, I’m not mistaken,” Agent Schwaller said, the infinite blackness of her eyes following me as I attempted to sidle out of the booth. She reached out a stick-thin arm, grabbed me by the wrist. Her voice lowered to a whisper. “I’ve been to Gare’s. I’ve read the history books. Rangel’s book. I’ve seen—”
I snatched my arm from her grip and slammed the fork down with enough force to rattle the dishes on the table and silence conversation in an eight-foot radius. “Look, lady, I don’t know what you think you’ve discovered, but you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m just a no-name writer from Connecticut. I don’t appreciate people like you digging up my past. Especially when it comes to…to her.” I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spoken Rangel’s name aloud; it felt sacrosanct.
Agent Schwaller had withdrawn her hand to avoid impalement by the jelly-coated fork, but she grasped my wrist again as I turned to leave. “Wait,” she said, a note of desperation in her voice. “Please wait.” She removed her sunglasses, and the impassive mask collapsed in an instant. “I need your help.”
I looked around. The nearby diners had resumed their conversations, apparently jaded to such outbursts. The woman’s doe eyes were wet and pleading. I slumped back into the booth.
Before I could say anything else, she launched into her appeal: “Look, forget about everything I just said. I was wrong. But I really do need your help here. There’s been another disappearance.”
I stared into the woman’s eyes, trying to determine the truth behind her words. What was her game? The earlier line of conversation had unsettled me, but I was even more disturbed by how readily she’d dropped it. Was that all this was, an attempt to fray my nerves, to wear me down? “Okay,” I allowed, “there’s been another disappearance. Why can’t you deal with it? I thought you were on this case, too.”
Schwaller shook her head. “I can’t. My cover’s been blown. Stockton’s set his hound on me. The man with the black gloves. I’m leaving town tonight. Not that it’ll help.” The fear in her eyes was genuine, at least. Wasn’t it?
“Sounds dangerous,” I said. “Why should I—”
“Because it’s another kid. Just like your ‘cousin.’” She slid a photograph across the table to me.
It was a little grainy and out of focus, as though blown up from a much smaller image, but I could see well enough what I was looking at: a young boy, late elementary age, riding his bicycle in a quiet suburban street. “Tim McLellan. He was friends with Bill St. Clair,” she said, her voice oddly hollow. “Same class in school. He lived two blocks down.”
“Why the past tense?” I asked. “You think he’s been killed?”
She shook her head. “He’s alive. But you can’t save him.”
My hand shook as I unstuck the photograph from a film of raspberry jelly. “Then why tell me about it? Why bring me on the case?”
Agent Schwaller put her sunglasses back on. “Because you can get close to him. Just…get him for me. Get that bastard Stockton. They’re just kids, Stanton.”
“That’s not my name,” I pointed out.
“Yeah,” she replied lifelessly. “Right.”