If It Bleeds by Matthew M. Bartlett
Publisher: Nightscape Press | Release Date: July 30, 2019 | Pages: 76
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If it Bleeds, a charity chapbook published by Nightscape Press to support the Dakin Humane Society, is a surprisingly dense and horrific mosaic novella. In fact, I’ve read entire full-length novels that fail to accomplish even half of what Matthew M. Bartlett did in only 76 pages. This sucker has got legs, man.
There’s a song working its way through Leeds, MA, and those who hear its tune are forever changed. Seems like a simple premise, doesn’t it? Bartlett doesn’t only take such a simple premise and transform it into a layered work of complexity, he turns it into an absolute brain fuck.
If It Bleeds uses the notion of this powerful song as a lead through a number of short stories and the occasional recurring character to document the mayhem that unfolds around those who hear “Please Don’t Close the Casket Lid (Down).” This is a song that echoes backwards through time, a notion that defines the at-first-glance loose narrative structure. Bartlett has a fun time playing around with the concepts of time, leaving it to readers to reconstruct the linear narrative after presenting brief chunks of the present-day story before connecting scenes and plot lines through flashbacks. It’s a twisty, complicated web of disparate yet ultimately connected sequences and vignettes that illustrate the changing nature of Leeds.
Making this intense story all the more impactful is Bartlett’s use of language. I absolutely loved his prose and overflowing descriptions that drew awful comparisons amidst nightmarish imagery. Take, for instance, this brief passage after a wheelchair-bound man explodes upon hearing a cover band’s rendition of the casket song: “In the hollow of the man’s cracked-open cadaver, like crabs in a closet, rested a cluster of bluish fetuses with bugged-out black eyes and withered umbilical cords wound throughout.” Good luck getting that imagery out of your head! As far as Leeds, one might wonder what kind of town this is for such foul cataclysms to fall upon it. Our opening image of Leeds is picturesque, as we’re shown a lovely park where children frolic…until the adults collapse or enter a state of catatonia, and the children are led into the woods. It’s a quaint suburb, by all outward appearances, and yet one of the town’s two strip clubs has been shut down for, if rumors are to be believed, “sex-rings, blood orgies, bestiality and animal sacrifice and necrophagic rites, freaky new STDS traded like baseball cards.” Clearly, Leeds has a lot of dark secrets tucked away in its nooks and crannies, and this is likely the kind of town you maybe want to avoid shortcuts through the woods or alleyways at night.
Leeds is also the kind of town you want to explore. I want to chart this town and map it out for myself. If It Bleeds is part of Bartlett’s burgeoning WXXT mythos, an occult radio transmission, parts of which are only hinted at here. But those hints are supremely delectable and make it absolutely mandatory that I uncover as much information as I can about this haunted radio station (um, the Segmented Man anybody?!). Maybe that’s why I felt so compelled to read If It Bleeds twice in one day. Going into this read, I hadn’t been aware this was a mosiac story and the rapid-fire shifting viewpoints, plethora of characters, shifting time, and all-around oddities left me disoriented. As soon as I hit that last page, though, I went straight back to the beginning in order to read it again, this time equipped with the information I gleamed the first time around. and I freaking savored every page of it. This is a novella that rewards multiple readings given that the first time through can be not just daunting but confusing, jarring, and trippy as all get out. A second time through reveals much of Bartlett’s method to the madness, the subtle ways he drops clues as he leads you through this cornrow maze of craziness, and a familiarity with the characters and their associations that was previously absent. It also gave me another excuse to absorb Luke Spooner’s lush full-color illustrations, which only serve to enhance this book’s wonderful weirdness.
Needless to say, there’s a lot going on here, so much so that it belies it’s slim page count. You’ll definitely get your money’s worth out of this one. Even better, if you purchase the title direct through Nightscape Press, a larger cut of your proceedings will go toward Bartlett’s animal shelter of choice, so you get to give to a good cause and explore the beautiful grotesqueries on display in If it Bleeds.