Matthew M. Bartlett: The Stay-Awake Men – A Review

I feel like that skeptical American journalist, Jack Walser, backstage at the Alhambra Music Hall in Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus as I begin contemplating just what is going on. Reading the works of Matthew M. Bartlett is like entering a bloody chamber full of Dr. Hoffman’s desiring machines wondering if I’ll survive the night. I haven’t fallen into such a grotesquerie of myth, legend, and horror in years. It’s as if Lucien, Petronius, and Rabelais had wandered into 21st Century and unloaded all their Menippean charms and sigils of laughter and horror into the cracked brain of a New England cat lover.  As I read Gateways to Abomination and Creepy Waves all I could hear blaring out of my radio was the macabre ramblings of the Leech on steroids. It’s as if Matthew had unleashed a curse upon my poor music box as it screeched, hollered, fornicated, spouted strange fragments of some disjointed and incongruous tales of the back woods of those northern climes where Matthew’s agglomeration of misfits live in a world all their own. And, if that wasn’t enough I had to download his latest effort The Stay-Awake Men & Other Unstable Entities into my poor innocent (or, not so innocent?) brain. Dang! Why’d I do that for? Well let me tell you…

Let’s begin our journey with the Carnomancer, or the meat manager’s prerogative…

Right off the bat I meet some lumpy old fart of a front store manager named LaFogg dreamin’ about young flesh and his dead wife, KaraLee. An ugly s.o.b. in “his fifties, a mere half-inch taller than very short, with a protruding belly and a bald spot that stayed resolutely pink no matter the season: not exactly the kind of man the cashier would ever look at with anything other than indifference…”.1 A typical over-the-hill loser if you ask me, but who’s asking? As this guy is day-dreaming about a young lass who wouldn’t ever give him the time of day, much less a smile, we’re thrown into a maelstrom of darkness when the meat manager goes berserk in the back of the store. What LaFogg finds when he arrives at the scene of commotion is one crazed creature (the meat manager):

With both hands he was lustily prying the cellophane from a huge hunk of bottom-round roast. Scattered across the tan and white tiled floor were torn shards of Styrofoam, sheets of pink-stained padding, and bunched remnants of cellophane, bubbled pink with blood. (SAOUE)

Needless to say the cops soon hall him out, but not before he let’s LaFogg and anyone who will listen, know, that he is looking for something: “It’s in here somewhere,” he said. “It has to be in here somewhere.” (SAOUE) We’re never told just what it is he’s missing, but we do know that it’s something that’s not going to portend anything good.

I’ll admit every story in this book is like that, you are suddenly thrown a curve, not knowing just what’s going to happen next, but you know if you stay around long enough it’s not going to turn out for the best. It never does.

SPETTRINI – This is my favorite tale, and from what I understand it was made into a chapbook before it showed up here in this line up of horror. The things Matthew does to language is a downright pleasure. His ability to bring a character to life, along with the atmospheric strangeness of the landscapes is just plain eerie. In this tale we discover an old Mesmerist and Magician losing his grip on the trade, a man who as a child saw a poster of the great Spettrini:

Greyson had become interested in magic not because of having seen a performance nor perused a book, but because of a poster. In a glass display adjacent to the door of the Civic Hall, dramatically lit from below, the illustration depicted a long-limbed Spettrini on a field of purple, a gothic iron fence with intertwined skulls and snakes in the foreground and tilting and split gravestones behind him. He was dressed like a vampire, in a tuxedo with a black and red cape, his fingers bent, frozen in mid-gesticulation, his nails black and long. Between his hands a bat hovered upside down in streams of psychic energy, drawn by the artist as one might sketch a range of hillocks. One thin eyebrow was arched and his hair, black as an oil slick on a moonless night, was combed back and plastered flat to his cranium. His mustache was waxed and stuck out from the sides of his face like pipe cleaners. The very words on the poster seized Greyson’s imagination. Enchantments. Levitation. Necromancy. Resurrection. Its purpose was to advertise Spettrini’s upcoming performance…

The young boy becomes a young man and enters into an apprenticeship of sorts with this famed magician, and the tale spins out the dark contours of his mentorship, and leads him to seek out the darkest secrets of his mentors world…

FOLLOWING YOU HOME – In this tale we meet a young man named Merrill, a loner and beleaguered conversationalist, invited to the yearly Halloween Office Party at a private home where he gets into a confrontation with a more intellectual co-worker and decides to escape the party as quickly as possible. On his way home he confronts something that should not be…

NO ABIDING PLACE ON EARTH – In this tale a Father and Daughter are confronted by entities unknown described as “some kind of strange owl, plucked bare. Pallid, knobby breast; flimsy, webbed wings dangling from twig-like arms, it flew only with a great deal of exertion. …  Their heads resembled those of elderly men, wispy white hair, wizened, slack mouths curtained with pink, blistered dewlaps. One turned its hooded, sagging eye in his direction. Then the others did the same. They coughed and wheezed and began flapping their sad wings as if to launch. It sounded like the smacking of slackened cheeks when someone rapidly shakes his head back and forth.”

KUKLALAR – A tale of corporate malfeasance, when middle-management is replaced by wooden puppets of a very special type; and what tasks they assign, and the strange twists and turns of their short happy lives turned nightmare …

“The figure was made entirely of painted and lacquered wood, down to the brown business suit, white Arrow shirt, and red necktie. Its hair was painted brown with thin grooves carved in to simulate texture, parted on the right. Its chin was on its chest. It landed on its feet, knees bending slightly, and the spotlight swooped down to frame the scene. The Kuklala crouched like a ballerina, knees apart, head down, one wooden hand splayed on the carpet.”

THE STAY-AWAKE MEN – In this tale an old DJ is offered a position of a lifetime if he will only follow instructions, come to an interview in a shady part of town, watch a movie, and discover just what it means to give the performance of his disk jockey life…

THE BEGINNING OF THE WORLD – A sad tale of endings and beginnings, of fathers and daughters, of mutation, change, and apocalypses…

What one senses throughout these tales is not the macabre and grotesque details, nor the linguistic prowess of Matthew’s subtle and picaresque metaphors, hyperboles; and contradictions, incongruities, and deformations; rather it’s this all-pervading melancholy and sadness just under the surface of all that gritty glitz. Each of the main characters in these tales suffers a dark apprehension of reality in ways that not only break them but awaken in them a sense of that fatal accord that warps and corrupts us all. Underlying this collection is a sense of the utter futility of things; and, yet, it’s more than that: there is a sense that even in a dilapidated and ruinous universe of decay and entropy a person can discover in the underworld’s of a dark grotesquerie an enchantment and alluring magic; a secret power within things that both fascinates and repulses: an amazing portal into the unknown that surrounds us and permeates every cell in our body. To be lured in by these tales is to fall victim not to the malevolent heart of horror, but to experience the ecstatic madness we all crave but are want to acknowledge.


Visit Matthew M. Bartlett at his site: http://www.matthewmbartlett.com/
And, by all means, pick up his works: here!
Especially his latest work: The Stay-Awake Men & Other Unstable Entities


  1. Bartlett, Matthew M.. The Stay-Awake Men & Other Unstable Entities. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (June 16, 2018) SAOUE

 

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