{Book Review} Mathew Bartlett’s If it Bleeds: A Worthy Book For a Worth Cause

As the weird slowly edges into popular culture, I have to believe that our strange corner of horror is growing. Nightscape Press is a newish publisher that has been turning heads with their star-studded Ashes and Entropy as well as their new line of charity chapbooks. While the former is indeed a worthy accomplishment, it’s the latter that keeps me glued to their social media. How many times in the history of horror lit could something like this exist? A series of author-signed, chapbook length books, complete with horrific art, that go to a worthy cause of the authors choosing—and then: have the nerve to sell out. Some years ago, I’d probably shrug and say something glib about the angle—this is horror, after all, and not just any horror, this is weird, indie horror with literary aspirations. But money talks, and for once it’s saying something good. Nightscape’s charitable chapbook line has a market, and as they release more and more interesting, beautifully made books, it only stands to grow.

The line blipped on my radar with Jon Padgett’s extraordinary The Broker of Nightmares. This time around we have another personal favorite of mine, Matthew M. Bartlett, giving us If It Bleeds. If you know Bartlett’s work, you know what to expect, and its title does most of the prepwork, alluding to his own fictional Leeds—where WXXT (“the malady in the valley”) brings ear worms that burrow too hard and too deep. As with a lot of Bartlett’s work, this is a short collection of flash fiction, where stories are, at most, several pages long. This form is one of my favorite aspects of Bartlett’s style, and one of his most unique traits. There’s no one else in the horror pantheon crafting these transgressively weird vignettes at this level of talent. If It Bleeds is more of Bartlett, doing what he does best.

The first thing that I noticed with this new chapbook is the high quality of the physical product. It’s a small book, but it feels good in your hands. The cover art by Yves Tourigny (a massive visual talent perfectly at home with strange, macabre imagery) is gorgeous and striking. It depicts an ice cream truck (a motif in the book) with a crushed body behind it and a child running toward it, either oblivious or ambivalent to the pool of blood. But beyond the content, what keeps dragging my eyes to the cover is its color. The scene takes place in broad daylight, but Tourigny’s coloring makes everything unmistakably dark. It looks just slightly off, like a colorized photo. There’s a darkness to even the rich, blue sky. The cover of If It Bleeds is one of the strongest I’ve seen in recent memory but that’s not to say that the insides, illustrated by Luke Spooner are any slouch. I often struggle with how to bring identifiable visual imagery into horror literature—how to translate stories, which live in our heads, to something more tangible. Spooner has a gritty, experimental style that sketches out Bartlett’s horror with an abstract intensity. The illustration accompanying “Mighty Dark to Travel” is a testament not only to the capturing of a plot point, but to all the feelings it inspires.

The stories themselves are great snippets of surreal derangement and shows Bartlett swinging for the fences. Opener “Turkey in the Straw” gives us our first glimpse of the ominous ice cream truck as well as our first taste of the lyrics from a twisted rock ‘n roll song that won’t stop rearing its ugly head. It should be noted, If It Bleeds, just as it could be called a short collection, could also be called a mosaic novella (or novelette, depending on where we are with word count). Bartlett, in his Leeds playground, is a world builder, and through these stories there are themes and repetitions that suggest to the reader that these are not just compiled stories, they are snapshots of  an insane world—and as the reader, we have the unenviable work of putting all those snapshots together, jigsaw-like, nervously shaking our legs as we hear the ice cream truck.

As with all the charitable chapbooks, this one goes to a good cause. Anyone who follows Bartlett on Facebook knows the man has a deep affinity for felines. The proceeds from this release goes to the Dakin Humane Society, where Bartlett acquired his latest cat/social media star Peachpie. If It Bleeds is an example of all the good we can do, as we try to sublimate the bad.

Follow Nightscape Press for more charitable chapbooks. And to support Dakin Humane Society, go here.

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