Reading Matthew M. Bartlett’s new Where Night Cowers


“Monica is there before me again, and her face is so real and there and yet so unreal…”

—Matthew M. Bartlett, Where Night Cowers

We seem to thrive on the grotesquerie of the peculiar, odd, absurd, bizarre, macabre, depraved, degenerate, and perversity of existence. The slow and methodical decay and decadence of the natural order of things, people, and places. There is a sense of fascination and horror in the grotesque and associated with this is a strange laughter that fades into black humour or the wittily bizarre and fragmentary, as in the bitter irony and cynical despair we feel before the shock of the ugly and repugnant. Poe and Lovecraft were both masters of this twisted perversity, enabling readers of their works to dip into the dark regions of body horror and mental anguish in the face of monstrous worlds of slime and disgust. The repulsive images of decaying bodies and dug up skeletal bones, along with the strange and disquieting alienage of outer and unknown infestations from the cosmic hinterlands of nightmare haunt such tales. As one critic suggests,

“The grotesque opens up a field of uncertainty and ambiguity, this means that the discombobulating juxtapositions and bizarre combinations found in grotesque figures in literature and the other arts open up an indeterminate space of conflicting possibilities, images and figures. A grotesque body that is incomplete or deformed forces us to question what it means to be human: these queries sometimes arise out of the literal combination of human and animal traits or, at other times, through the conceptual questions about what it means to deviate from the norm. The questions prompted by these ambiguities lead to a sense of instability and uncertainty. But this is not just uncertainty for the sake of uncertainty. For by acknowledging the lack of certainty at the heart of grotesque texts, we remain open, multiple, and, as such, we can embrace uncertainty over certainty: this, then, resists totalization, in all its many forms, and offers many routes into multiple readings.” (Justin Edwards, Grotesque)

I’m reading Matthew M. Bartlett’s new book Where Night Cowers and already in the first tale Monica in the Hall of Moths we are thrown into that realm of uncertainty and distortion, a realm at once surreal and darker still, nefarious and malformed by the comedy of loss within loss where despair seeks its only comfort: madness and the fantastic ironies of shock.
From the beginning we’re thrown into an ambiguous relation to the tale and its unreliable narrator, given a fragmentary poem-ballad by an anonymous author

Mónika, daughter of
Father Frost and Mother Furnace
Pure of heart, penitent and proud
wouldst thou enter yon Hall of Tane
Drest in a mantle of moths
Leaving behind thy quire,
Even as thy flowers dost chase thee?
—English Folk ballad, circa 1504, untitled, author unknown

We’ve all read Grimm’s tales of Father Frost and Mother Hilde and other tales of dark persuasion that can lead us down into cannibalism, incest, murder, mayhem, and so many other childhood nightmares of fright and splendor. The poem itself hints of death, moths, and chasing flowers: a surreal fantasia of loss and sorrow. It’s just the sort of ballad we all turn to when we think of our own losses, of loved one’s long buried and shorn of the flowers of life. The afterglow of such shocks can send one into a dark chamber of horrors from which even the most astute psychoanalyst might not help us return. Even if we returned what would be behind those hollow eyes, the tears all bled dried in the desert of loss?

Matthew’s tale takes us down the road of one young man whose love and life, his wife shocked out of existence by an unfortunate strangeness (lightning?). At the center of the tale is a childhood memory and a book The Hall of Moths by Burton Stallhearse. We never know if the book is actual or part of the narrator’s imaginal collapse into madness. What we do know is it produces a world of progress not unlike an infernal Pilgrim’s Progress that takes the narrator toward a dark epiphany of love’s crossing between memory and loss that leaves both narrator and reader acutely aware that nothing can be redeemed except love itself.

“The Hall had opened. I knew it, the way you know someone has arrived before the knock on the door— a stirring of the hairs on your arms, something different about the quality of the daylight. I drove there in a sun shower, each car on the thoroughfare crouching in its own nimbus of glittering light. I arrived to find the hall festooned in ribbons and fluttering banners. Unseen bells chimed and great black birds adorned the architrave and the ramparts. The rain had stopped, and morning wore the mask of early evening, dark grey with red underpinnings up high, everything sepia down low. The Hall emanated a bright white glow, cutting at the yellow.

I entered the Hall of Moths.”

Somewhere in the depths of all of us is a secret desire to find our lost love, to enter the dark labyrinths of Hades like Orpheus in search of our Eurydice, to lead her back out into the light of life and existence … but we know it is a dream…

The narrator in Matthew’s tale is no Orpheus, and his dream become a full-blown nightmare of moths and flowers with piranha teeth and cannibal desires trailing his phantasmagorial revelations into that zone from which all that is lost remains lost, lost, lost.

Matthew’s ability to bring such things alive and explicate the deepest losses of our lives in such a delicate manner using such a grotesquerie of the imaginal is astounding. I can’t wait to read further… I’ll read one tale a day. Stay tuned.

Matthew M. Bartlett. Where Night Cowers. JournalStone Publishing.
A link to the author’s book on Journal Stone:

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