Matthew M. Bartlett is a resident of Massachusetts. Let’s get that out the way first, because it’s extremely important to what follows. Creeping Waves is structured around a series of fictional radio broadcasts from Station WXXT, “the Malady in the Valley,” an imaginary local station in the real-life town of Leeds, Mass., transmitting the weird and wacky witterings of an extinct yet apparently undead witch cult to the unwitting citizens of Leeds. And if that audacious concept hasn’t sold you already, the sheer quality and variety of the stories (grimoire readings? automatic writing transcripts?) gathered here should.
Some of the pullulating bevy of tales in Creeping Waves are brief enough to be sheer flash fiction, some are vignettes, some are twisted prose poems, some are entries from deranged book catalogues, some are weather reports of Biblical dimensions, most show facets of Leeds you’d rather not see. Not all eavesdrop directly on Station WXXT: there is both Ligottieseque corporate horror, and enough Cotton Matheresque New England tradition to qualify Bartlett for the folk horror revival, if the tales weren’t so brutally visceral. The prose is often closer to experimental than to some Stephen King ramble through Hicksville. Unlike much weird fiction these days, it’s also just good raw unclean fun. Bartlett’s rhythm rarely misses a beat, and if you want to take a break and come back later, there’s always plenty more, thanks to his ever-fertile (or some might say suppurating) imagination. At world-building he succeeds superbly.
When Bartlett does stretch out to greater length in his longer short tales, he still delivers very real and seriously dark horror. Many of the stories, not to mention the WXXT DJ’s goat’s-tongue-in-cheek patter, are sardonic and even hilarious, but others manage to be truly unsettling. One of these, “Rangel,” has already made it into Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume 3, with good reason. Podcasts or actual broadcasts of Bartlett’s fiction would probably knock Night Vale off its cult audio perch, but would definitely frighten and disturb far more listeners.
Yes, you can sum up Bartlett’s Leeds in a short elevator pitch, but it’s an elevator ride to Hell, going down. All the Dark Romantic stirrings under the surface of New England that inspired Hawthorne, Poe, Irving and Lovecraft come bubbling back up here, rank and steaming. It’s as if a coven dumped industrial quantities of the witch’s brew of hallucinogenic herbs it used for dark communion into the waters of Lake Woebegon or Walt Kelly’s Okefenokee Swamp. Bartlett told me that his invention hasn’t yet made much of an impact on Leeds, although he has been interviewed on New England radio, but I think the Leeds Civic Association should be taking notice. Despite, or because of, the cracked lens he views it through, Bartlett’s Leeds bids fair to become as celebrated and iconic as Lovecraft’s Arkham or Winesburg, Ohio (or should that be Weirdsburg?). Whether it’s the New Jerusalem of modern horror or a (un)pleasant detour is a question that you’ll be too busy enjoying yourself to ponder. It’s ambitious, riotous, ferocious, and very possibly injurious. Recommended.