Creeping Waves is New England.
Matthew M Bartlett’s sets Creeping Waves (Muzzleland Press) in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. I grew up in the same state, albeit over on the southeastern shore (Moby Dick and Jaws territory), so it is a credit to Bartlett’s imagination that he can mine such apocalyptic darkness out of a region known for its pastoral tranquility and bucolic towns.
Atmosphere jumps off the page in Creeping Waves. There is a great dedication to the setting, mood, and voice. While the book may appear a gathered collection of short stories, flash fiction, vignettes, discarded newspaper articles, and transcripts of Satanic radio broadcasts, there is a devoted world building here. Bartlett mindfully constructs a grotesque, maggot teeming memory-town from all angles which he transposes over the banal modern-day. It is the rotting past versus the prophylactic present: a battle silently waged in many rustic New England towns with a foot in two eras.
Bartlett’s wicked imagination and calamitous prose make for a deliciously deep dive into this Stygian playground. Over and above the individual story narratives, I found myself craving more description, background, and history of this degenerate world, its denizens, and its shy morbid capital of Leeds.
There is a dynamic spirit achieved through this overarching metaphor. The juxtaposition of time and place hints at the solemn pull of the past has on the present. Like many towns, mine is littered with old houses affixed with historical plaques reading 1891, 1815, 1737, and before. There is an empty and forgotten grange hall. Mysterious old men and women fuss about in my town’s Historical Society, only their ubiquitous flyers proof of their existence. There are bygone graveyards where the stones have worn to smooth surfaces, rock walls in the middle of the woods, and blackened ash circles of (what I hope are) old fire pits.
Creeping Waves is ripe with New England’s eerie history of sinister Puritanical ministers and Salem witches. It is sepia stained pictures of weathered slumping churches. It is water damaged daguerreotypes of grave looking men and women in black formal attire as captured by some arcane camera obscura.
Creeping Waves is New England.
While maybe best described as a fragmented novel, there is a consistent central premise to its chaos. Bartlett does not set a straight-line narrative towards a climactic destination, rather he sends the reader in orbit around a thematic epicenter allowing a look at its many facets.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of a vision of the America in which he lived into many of his stories. Fitzgerald hung an omnipresent sense of the corruption of the American Dream over his settings, characters, and plots. In Fitzgerald’s world, the idealistic capitalist dream that inspired America and fueled its ascension was doomed to an inevitable disillusion. Fitzgerald presents a ballistic theory of everything: business, government, culture, and even our lives following this unfortunate bell curve. What comes up must come down.
Matthew Bartlett inverts Fitzgerald’s curve as he presents his own ballistic theory of stagnation.
Creeping Waves is an ode to the consequence of rot. Every small New England town has its aristocracies, whether they be its founders, benefactors, or heroes. However, the gifted and ambitious progeny of these leading families are most often lured away to the big city or exotic locales, their dreams too large for a small town. It is only the less enterprising and less altruistic ones who stay. These dull men and women cling to the past dependant on the family’s past deeds and inheritance. They are hostile to strangers. They fight change entrenching themselves and their institutions with a septic bitterness. Even in death, they are loathe to give up what not they had worked for but what had been bestowed unto them.
Creeping Waves is the cautionary story of a town in full spoil. It is systems failing miserably from neglect and indifference. Bartlett’s protagonists: the Dithers, the Sloughtons, the Shinefaces, and the Goldens scrabble and cling to their stagnant kingdoms. So too, the anarchic business enterprises of Radio WXXT and Annelid Industries International radiate a mad nihilism as a consequence of being unchecked and uncurbed. Reality erodes in the town of Leeds, even time becoming a casualty. The only winners are the leeches and maggots. In Leeds, only the conqueror worms thrive.
And this is why we should care. We know what happens when an unexplained puddle in the basement goes ignored and untreated. The musty smell may be masked, but in time a virulent mold will bloom and be released through the air ducts. We know what happens when institutions go unregulated. Markets fail, pollution sickens, and ordinary citizens lose. Psychologists know what happens when a phobia or other post-traumatic stressor isn’t treated. It will grow and manifest into all manner of pathological and self-destructive behavior. Only when our deepest anxieties are named and confronted can our health be restored. However, if we ignore our disorders, they will fester leading to paralyzing neuroses and violent psychoses.
This is the ballistic theory of stagnation. This is the real Leeds.
Creeping Waves gets an enthusiastic recommendation from me. For those who crave atmosphere (especially the dark and sinister), this is essential reading, one of the most fascinating, fully fleshed out literary worlds I have had the pleasure to visit in a long while. It is not for the faint of heart, however, it should be read in the same spirit as Carl Jung’s Red Book—an unexpurgated, uncensored exploration of the unconscious. This is an artist dedicated to a vision, not a promulgation of an ideology. Creeping Waves is a work done in the phantasmagoric borderlands of the rational and the psyche’s symbolic weirdness. It is an important book to be individually interpreted, more questions than answers inside. In Leeds, all cats are grey.
So as an unsolicited service to Massachusetts tourism, please consider a visit to Leeds. Come in the fall when the Berkshire’s foliage is in peak if you like. Just drive, it doesn’t matter the roads or the direction. Turn on the radio, sling the dial all the way to the left, and sing along to the apocalyptic polka (you and your family will know all the words). When you see the trees stripped of their leaves, the fat branchless trunks stretching into a blood sunset, you are close. Hit the gas and take your hands off the wheel. Almost there! And when the car veers into the woods as if on its own accord, and the trees whizzing past become so straight to be tent poles, and the radio gets dangerously loud, and the black canvases billow in the gale to blot out the moon: close your eyes and rejoice. Welcome to the real Leeds.
Link: Creeping Waves – Amazon Kindle
Link: Muzzleland Press, Storenvy – Paperback
Also, Check out the precursor to Creeping Waves: Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett for more Leeds.
And finally, Matthew M. Bartlett website: http://www.matthewmbartlett.com/
– S.E. Casey
[Note: this is the second of my ‘Existential Book Reviews’, which are unsolicited reviews of my own choosing, the ideas and opinions all my own. My first review in this series of Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism can be read here.]