Welcome to the re-launch of Deep Cuts! In this column, we take a close look at free-to-read stories by some of the best authors working in horror, the Weird, and other dark realms of speculative fiction. We then talk directly with those authors, picking their brains about the process and the particulars of that story. Our aim is to foster a deeper appreciation for these stories and the work that went into them. If you’d like to catch up, take a look at our previous entries here on Hellnotes.
Today’s Deep Cuts is “Night Dog” (via The Conqueror Weird) by Matthew Bartlett. Bartlett is one of dark fiction’s strangest voices writing today, particularly known for his nightmare patchwork mythos of Leeds, Massachusetts. His stories of Leeds’ various denizens and dark forces, including the radio station WXXT, are striking for their dreamlike horror that bleeds over into the real world.
In “Night Dog,” our protagonist Wendell’s night job at Annelid Industries International (Leeds campus) is both the biggest and littlest of his problems. From the start, Bartlett’s poetic language ladles out a thick soup of unease and disorientation that escalates quickly, becoming surreal, unreal, and eventually truly horrific. Although Bartlett walks us through his process in the accompanying interview, his gift for reconfiguring his inspirations—instinctively melding and stripping and mixing them into new diabolical configurations—is on full display and can be appreciated at once. Let yourself be carried along these currents as you read, soaking up his voice and feeling the story as much as (or even more than) you try to understand it. This is one where the sum is more than the parts, but Bartlett is kind enough to lay those parts bare for us below, too.
If you haven’t read “Night Dog” yet, now’s your chance because, as always, **SPOILERS FOLLOW**
Hellnotes: Normally I begin these interviews by saying something along the lines of “Let’s start at the beginning,” but that seems like it might not work here. For several years—across several collections and dozens of short stories—you’ve been building up the mythology of Leeds, MA and its denizens. So, let’s take a narrower scope—what was the origin behind your idea to explore how those dark doings overlap with the corporate world? Corporate horror isn’t an area I’m familiar with, outside of Thomas Ligotti’s foray into the genre, so were there any particular touchstones you had?
MATTHEW M. BARTLETT: In Gateways to Abomination, my first book, there is a story called “The Gathering in the Deep Wood.” in which the nameless narrator is handed a flier advertising a party in the woods. The flier starts off with the words “WXXT (my fictional radio station)–In association with Annelid Industries International…” This is a story I wrote in September of 2010. I don’t remember why I made up a kind of ‘parent company’, but that is, I think, the first and last mention of A.I.I. in that book. A lot of stories in that first book, it turns out, have throwaway lines and casually mentioned ideas that I keep coming back to and expanding upon.
When I was contacted by Muzzleland Press in 2015 and invited to contribute a story to their High Strange Horror anthology, I went right to my book of Demons and Demonology (as one does) and found an entry about a headless demon named Murder, who sees through his chest and who speaks with the voices of his victims. This demon attaches his victim’s heads to his neck until the head is consumed by an inner fire, then he acquires a new one. As if that isn’t enough, he also harms infants.
So, my first thought was, make this demon the head of a corporation. Then I thought back to Annelid Industries International.
I think at that point the only corporate horror I’d read was by Ligotti, so he was a touchstone, for sure. I’d also just finished reading a book by Javier Marias, not corporate, nor horror, but which affected the style of the writing in this story, which is a little more ornate than the straightforward style of Gateways.
One day at a place I worked back in the mid-90s I saw a pair of boots sticking out from a cubicle doorway. They were very still. I was spooked. From my vantage point I saw several co-workers walk by, glance down at the boots, and keep walking. I went in, and it was a friend of mine, face down on the carpet. I checked to make sure she was breathing—she was—and I immediately called 911. I was later chastised for it. What you’re supposed to do is not first call medical professionals, but instead call Human Resources so they can send over some co-worker who’d been through a four-hour training. My thinking at the time was if someone looks like they might be dying, you call a damned ambulance first, THEN Chuck-from-Accounting-who-may-still-remember-CPR.
HN: When the combination of horror and daily life intersect, it seems that many authors hew more closely to the “banality of evil” approach. While “Night Dog” starts with a sense of unease created in the first instance by rich imagery and a sense of uncertainty—the various sounds and sights, the shifting face of Byron Holeman and the vanishing article regarding Wendell’s own disappearance—the reader is soon exposed to more visceral nightmare images. While there is a steady build up, we end with the graphic public execution of Byron Holeman, the rebirth of Wren Black, and even giant entities breaking lose from the mountains as Wendell flees. In short, the banality of everyday evil becomes the vivid enormousness of true evil. What was the process like in deciding on this build up and crescendo? Did you consider other ways of approaching the material and theme?
MMB: This story kind of swept me along—it was written chronologically, and I’d not mapped anything out beforehand. I made it up as I went along, essentially. It came out practically stream-of-consciousness. I only stopped once, to send what I’d done so far to the editor, to make sure this was the kind of story he was looking for.
Maybe I was instinctively writing about how even the smallest amount of power, the most pathetic little taste of it, can cause a terrible corruption in a weak-minded or insecure worker. That’s something I think about a lot. I like the pulpy nature of the end of the story, anyway. The banality of evil is fine for real life. For fiction, I like to go for the Grand Guignol feel, for the garish, which takes me a little further away from Ligotti and closer to something a little more Technicolor.
HN: Beyond the outright horror, one of the aspects that grows over the course of the story is the inescapability of A.I.I., which is not just a company but a manifestation of ancient and dark powers. Wendell, our narrator, both starts and ends with his “numberless midnights” of work, but is also physically chased by the dark forces. However, even the one scene that seems to take place away from A.I.I. Leeds campus occurs at the “Asia-India-Ichiban Buffet”—another A.I.I. How inescapable is A.I.I. and the powers it represents? Do you see a place in the story where Wendell could have pulled out, or was he already doomed years ago when he first sent A.I.I. his resume on 24-lb paper?
MMB: Like any corporation, A.I.I. likes to have its grubby hands in a lot of different pies. Just as one of WXXT’s goals is syndication, A.I.I. wants to be global, or maybe beyond global. Universal. And it wants to squeeze as much from its workers as it can. A.I.I.B. provides Wendell the illusion that there’s something else besides the workplace, and it feeds him. I imagine the buffet is pretty well-stocked.
And Wendell? He was doomed from the start due to his propensity for capitulation; his desire, ultimately, to fit in; his aversion to confrontation; and his lazy kind of ambition. Whatever part of him is rebellious, he can’t back it up with any sustained action.
It’s funny, within a week or so of completing the story, I happened upon a story by Mark Samuels in which a new worker at a company finds that he never actually leaves, nor can leave, the premises. Thankfully, the story is in all other ways dissimilar, but it was a bit of a shock to come across the story so soon after finishing “Night Dog.” It shouldn’t have been. It’s a pretty common thing to consider how much of one’s life a job can take up.
HN: This idea of inescapability brings us back around to the “night dogs”—a seemingly feral, but strangely pitiable band of animals that roams the A.I.I. Leeds parking lot. In our first introduction, they seem sinister and almost a source of danger, but midway through the story we see them again—one with its claw caught in Wendell’s pocket—and they seem more annoying than malevolent. In the end, the pack of night dogs seem to be trying to help Wendell by leading him away from A.I.I., although Wendell’s flight is stopped by Wren Black and his magical doorway. What were your intentions with the night dogs? Given the title is a singular “Night Dog,” can we infer that Wendell himself is—or, perhaps, that by the end he has become—one of their pack?
MMB: It occurred to me about halfway through the writing that the Night Dogs were irritating and bothering Wendell not out of any malice nor because they are feral, but because they wanted to save him. I think I even posted on Facebook some vaguebooking post like, “Wait…the Night Dogs are there to HELP him…” It was that revelation that gave the story its title, and the idea that, yes, Wendell is a kind of Night Dog himself, and that’s why the critters wanted to save him. Maybe they saw in him a potential for the kind of freedom that they enjoyed. Maybe that’s what happens to people who manage to escape A.I.I.—they transform into Night Dogs. The story had the working title “The Murder,” which wouldn’t have fit, anyway, so “Night Dog” was perfect.
HN: This story appeared in your recent collection Creeping Waves, but was first published in the anthology High Strange Horror (ed. Jonathan Raab; Muzzleland Press, 2015). Even standing alone, however, the setting of Leeds, MA places it within your ever-growing mythos. The “AII-XXT” listserv in Wren Black’s email also nods to common ties with the infamous WXXT radio station. Do you have a predetermined approach to building up this shared world of Leeds? At what point did this story become a “Leeds story,” and once it did, did that change any part of your writing it?
MMB: It was a Leeds story right out of the gate, and, along with “Rangel,” one of my first two stories of any considerable length. I think the longest story in Gateways was not much over 2,000 words, and both “Rangel” and “Night Dog,” written around the same time, were around the 7,000 word mark. In any event, with this story, “Rangel,” and a few subsequent stories, I was pushing myself, trying to expand and at the same time give more shape and structure to my mythos. I liked referencing WXXT here and there, to make sure to tie it back, to ensure readers of Gateways knew that this was firmly a Leeds/WXXT story.
When I start a story, I don’t have a predetermined approach. Unless I’m deliberately setting out to write a Leeds/WXXT story, I don’t know when I start whether I’ll tie it to that world or not and, if I do, to what extent. It may happen, for lack of a better word, organically.
HN: Finally, for readers who are new to your work, which other story or stories of yours should they look for if they want to read something similar? What about if they want something completely different?
MMB: Both Gateways and Creeping Waves, and to a lesser extent The Witch Cult in Western Massachusetts, are similar, at least in that they are strongly WXXT and A.I.I.-related. For something different, I’ll soon have a book out through Dunhams Manor Press entitled The Stay-Awake Men and Other Stories that, while it touches on Leeds and has a corporate horror story, contains stories very dissimilar to my usual. I’m in the process of doing some late edits now, and I’m enjoying taking another look at the stories. I think they’ll show some other sides of me as a writer.
Matthew M. Bartlett is the author of Gateways to Abomination, The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, and Creeping Waves. His short stories have appeared in a variety of anthologies, including Resonator: New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond, High Strange Horror, Lost Signals, Nightscript 2, and Year’s Best Weird Fiction Vol. 3. He lives and writes in a small brick house on a quiet, leafy street somewhere in Northampton, Massachusetts with his wife Katie Saulnier and their cats Phoebe, Peachpie, and Larry.