By S. L. Edwards
Matthew M. Bartlett has quickly become an author who needs no introduction. He is often mentioned in the same breath as Laird Barron, both known for a kinetic prose style that invokes a physical sensation when read. Bartlett has concentrated his fiction on the town of Leeds, on the sorcerer Ben Stockton and the leering, satanic city with camps of wild children who live in the woods. Creeping Waves and Gateways to Abomination demonstrate the power of radio, the hypnotic waves that wrap their tendrils around the minds of listeners and ensnare them into a greater and more horrifying world. These collections are vignettes, snapshots of bursting horror that paint a disorienting picture that is all the more pleasurable because it leaves the reader without any proper footing to withstand a verbal assault.
However, the format of these two collections warrants one justified “it’s just not for me” criticism. Readers unaccustomed to experimental formats and who do not know what they are in for may have a difficult time with Leeds, a town that exists behind a shifting curtain of dripping carnage and brief flashes of fiction. These readers, however, need not be afraid of the “The Stay-Awake Men.” At least, not of the format.
In this most recent collection, Bartlett demonstrates that he is the master of far more than one trick. Like his magician Spettrini, he can conjure and invoke an imagery that rivals the greatest practitioners. There are flashes of Barron in the thwacks and thuds of butcher knives, there is the creeping Ligotti in decaying towns and ruthless corporations, but above all these influences there is Bartlett. And as Scott Nicolay indicates in his introduction, Bartlett is growing. These are longer tales, stories with a deceivingly linear beginning that leave protagonists in the same sort of dark, world-bending conclusions as those of any good Lovecraft tale.
Bartlett opens his collection with “Carnomancer,” a story that suggests that he is very aware of his talent for gore (no one does gore like Bartlett). The story begins the thread of workplace secrets that emerge again in “Kuklalar,” this reviewer’s favorite story in the collection. These two tales, and to a lesser extent the titular story “The Stay Awake Men” seem to be responses to the Ligottian corporate horror, and responses which demonstrate that Bartlett is more than capable of standing out in the field.
“No Abiding Place” may be the most familiar to those readers of Bartlett’s Leeds mythos. The story makes for great Halloween reading, and the haunting illustration from Dave Felton leaves an impact that not even the best night’s sleep can completely diminish. “Spettrini” deals with a stage magician and his relationship with his art and mentor and like “Kuklalar” it culminates in devastating imagery.
“No Abiding Place on Earth” and “The Beginning of the World,” are both spins on apocalypse stories and both focus on the relationships between fathers and daughters. It is easy to get lost in the horror aspects of these stories, in the ecstasy and terror that monsters can induce. But it’s the heartbreak that lingers, the seeping and tragic wound that bleeds from the page and into the wrinkles of the brain. These stories, more than any other in the story, demonstrate Bartlett’s capacity for developing characters. Characters who you will come to care about and know only a few brief pages, and characters whose unfair fates hurt all the more.
The Stay- Awake Men is a different sort of Bartlett collection, but it is a Bartlett collection none the less. It is brief, only about ninety pages of stories, and unfortunately, it will not last the quick reader. I recommend then taking your time, savoring every page and whetting your appetite with a slow, methodical reading. Dip your hands into the blood and the monsters, the wreckage, and the carnage.
What will you see there?
Buy The Stay-Awake Men and Other Unstable Entities HERE
Buy Turn to Ash HERE
Connect with S.L. Edwards HERE