The advent of kindle and e-book readers has seen an explosion in how and what people can read. As much as this has provided a wealth of reading riches to treasure be they old, new or republished works, it has also opened the floodgates to self publishing. I can readily understand that urge to see your work out there and being read but just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should do something. And this is especially true in the world of self publishing where the words “quality” and “control” appear to be the exception rather than the rule.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve just sat there feeling my brain start to shrivel up as it tries to comprehend the leaden, lifeless and soul sucking stories before my eyes. It’s my own fault really. Amazon regularly “recommends” horror books that have scores of 5 star ratings consisting of barely a sentence and like a complete tool I ignore my gut reaction of “Whom? What the f…? Really?” and buy it only to end up with my account a few quid lighter and a desiccated brain. That same reaction however can’t be leveled at Matthew M. Bartlett’s “Gateways to Abomination”. Reading this was a very different experience to my normal experience of self published books. “Gateways” is one those moments where you hit pay dirt and discover something really rather special and unique that makes you want to read more of the person’s work. This is really rather good!
As far as I am aware, this is Bartlett’s first book and to be honest it really is a damn fine piece of horror writing. Billed as “the collected short fiction” of Matthew M. Bartlett, this description is a bit of a misnomer as the book is more like a fragmented series of loosely fitting chapters that chronicles all manner of dark, sinister and horrific shit going off in and around the small New England town of Leeds for generations. “Gateways to Abomination” is made up of really short vignettes and stories which read like little fragmented nightmares and glimpses of things best left unseen and unheard of. Interspersed amongst the stories and histories are random snippets of the deranged broadcast signals of radio station WXXT, “The Black Heart of the Pioneer Valley” or, my favorite, “if it bleeds, it’s Leeds”, and horrifying crimes and bizarre incidents chronicled through Uncle Red’s “To-day’s news” press clippings.
The overall effect is really quite disturbing and effective. This is a book where I perpetually felt on edge and unnerved about what the next snippet or story would bring. Bartlett has created a series of loose fitting stories that are really good at worming their way into your psyche and putting you on the back foot. Each story and snippet has this uniquely disturbing and grotesque vibe about it whether it be a man driven to act on his impulses in the brutal “Path” or losing yourself to the wilderness in “The Last Hike” to the appearance of the ominous and sinister Ben Stockton in “The Arrival: Part 1”. As it moves towards the end I felt increasingly uneasy with a growing sense of dread that behind these tales of madness, disorientation and witchcraft there was something much older, darker and far more insidious being hinted at.
As much as the fragmentary approach of the stories contributes to the mood of being unsettled and disorientated, a key part of the book is Bartlett’s choice of language and the imagery and feelings that it evokes. There is a real sense of fetid rot and decay bubbling beneath the surface and of it slowly and insidiously infecting your very being. The style and prevalent mood of earthiness, entropy and old world horrors in Gateways to Abomination reminds me somewhat of Laird Barron’s stories set in the Pacific Northwest. That feeling that there is a carnivorous cosmos that it just waiting to devour, digest and spit you back out as something changed. There was a point when reading this when I just had to put the Kindle down and walk away for a few hours. Not because I was tired but because I felt physically ill and nauseous from the imagery evoked by Bartlett’s choice of language. And I do mean ill. I had to wait for that acrid taste of bile infiltrating my throat and sinuses to clear before I could contemplate reading further. It was whilst reading “the Theories of Uncle Jeb” that I had this reaction and it was a singularly unnerving and disorientating experience. This just really got to me:
“ I AM Cancer, he’d intone, and he’d grasp the folds of his stomach, gaping wide his navel, which was never properly tied off (according to Father), stretching it wide, a hole you could pop a child’s head into (if you were of a mind), and the smell was low tide and sprawling arrays of fungus sprouting in the folds of a field of mildewed clothing, of dank basements and bile-strangled wells, carrion and the faeces of the squatting dead”.
I’ve rarely put down a horror book because I’ve felt ill and I have read some fairly explicit work in my time but this ability to elicit such strong emotional reaction from me is a sign of a quality writer. The book is crammed full of this type of startling imagery that lets you smell and taste the rot that has saturated the landscape for years. It is somewhat akin to reading a far more hallucinatory and nightmarish version of Derry’s history in “IT”, all hints and whispers of madness, sacrifice and horrors lurking in the background. The book isn’t without flaws. Some of the stories were just a little too short for my liking and I readily wanted a bit more. However, those are minor concerns in what is a very creepy and unsettling read. Suffice to say that Gateways to Abomination is a really highly recommended slice of horror and is well worthy of losing yourself in. Matthew M. Bartlett is definitely a writer to watch.