The WXXT Program Guide is a monthly chapbook subscription service that chronicles the strange goings on in and around small-town Leeds, Massachusetts, as transmitted via radio broadcast by a long-dead coven of witches. The tales contained within often take the form of short stories or vignettes, but they are just as likely to appear as “a diner menu or fake reviews for supernatural hair conditioners or…sellers’ descriptions of books that don’t actually exist.” Regardless of form, Matthew M. Bartlett expertly weaves the eclectic threads of Leeds’s tapestry together for readers, conjuring an ever-more robust, horrific, and surreal world to for readers to lose one’s self in.
In addition to The WXXT Program Guide, Bartlett is the author of several collections and chapbooks including The Stay-Awake Men and Other Unstable Entities, The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, Creeping Waves, Dead Air, and the acclaimed Gateways to Abomination. His work has also been published in numerous anthologies, including Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 3.
The following interview was conducted via email during the final weeks of 2020.
Maxwell Malone: When I was first invited to interview you, I was happy to discover that you originally began writing horror fiction by publishing short pieces online—something we both have in common! For you, the site of choice was the blogging platform LiveJournal. How do you think the initial choice to write online helped to shape the ways you approach writing today?
Matthew M. Bartlett: I knew at the time I was writing for the smallest audience possible—just a few friends. One friend in particular, the writer Tom Breen, though I don’t think he was writing fiction at the time, was a horror reader, so I aimed the stories directly at him. I wanted to creep him out and make him laugh. His positive reaction spurred me on.
In a way, I still write for Tom. I still write hoping to get a reaction from him. Plus, I wrote in very small bursts online, hence the elliptical nature of a lot of my first book, the vignettes that connected up—a technique I still like to use. Eventually I began posting the stories to LiveJournal groups, which expanded my audience beyond just those few friends, and the reactions were very positive. I remember showing my wife: “Look what LiveJournal User X said about this one!” I absolutely thrive on feedback.
MM: Since those LiveJournal days, you’ve self-published a number of chapbooks, as well as your acclaimed debut collection Gateways to Abomination. What about self-publishing drew you in? What have been some of your most notable experiences while self-publishing?
MMB: When I was posting my LiveJournal stories to groups, commenters advised me to stop posting them online and try to write new work for publication because no publisher would touch the stories that had already technically been “published” online. There was so much material there that I couldn’t just abandon it. It was at the 2013 Necronomicon that Tom Breen was telling me about how Terry Lamsley had started out self-publishing, and I realized I should go for it. The stories had all been written by then.
So, by 2014, I had the book ready to go, copy-edited, with cover art by my wife and design by Standard Design. I released it in July. Not long after, Justin Steele reviewed it for his Arkham Digest website, putting aside his long-standing policy of avoiding self-published work after the critic s.j. bagley contacted him on my behalf. I was stunned when writers I liked ordered the book, but things really escalated when Nathan Ballingrud posted about Gateways. My sales jumped up that day and stayed strong for over a year.
He offered to write an introduction for my next Leeds book, Creeping Waves, and that, too, felt like a dream come true. Muzzleland Press published Creeping Waves, and I’ve switched back and forth from self-publishing and working with small presses since.
MM: Publishing online and publishing in print can sometimes feel like completely different worlds. What would you say was the biggest difference between the first time you published online versus the first time you published in print?
MMB: The first time I published online, I had zero expectations. I didn’t think they would be read by more than literally a handful of people. I guess I felt sort of the same way when I first published in print, except that time I had a little hope that the book might find its way. I thought it had potential to do well, but I held that in check with very low expectations.
MM: Shifting gears a little bit, I want to talk about how you construct your stories. From “doctored daguerreotypes” and photographs to newsreels and advertisements, your stories and their related ephemera tend to take many different forms. What has drawn you most to producing narratives using mixed media and writing styles? What do you think this combination of writing and art adds to the experience of your work for your readers?
MMB: The thing with photographs started on my separate personal LiveJournal page. I’d find odd or funny pictures and write a paragraph about them, whatever story I concocted as a backstory for the picture. I liked using pictures of Nick Nolte. I’d put words in his mouth. When I moved over to the fiction LiveJournal account, instead of using online pictures, I’d scan old tintypes and daguerreotypes from antique stores and use those.
I very much like the idea of stories being told in nontraditional ways. I’m happiest when I’m messing around writing a diner menu or fake reviews for supernatural hair conditioners or an instruction manual or sellers’ descriptions of books that don’t actually exist. It’s fun, whereas sometimes writing more “traditional” stories feels like hard work. There’s certainly a time for both.
Anyway, I hope that nontraditional ways of storytelling does for the reader what it does for me—it amuses and entertains me, and leaves me more open creatively; it stokes my imagination and pokes at it from unusual angles. Plus, it challenges me and I hope keeps me from falling into a rut.
MM: One great, current example of your skill at crafting experiences out of different, interconnected pieces is your WXXT Program Guide, which brings together news segments from small-town Leeds and boasts the phenomenal delivery system of radio. How did Leeds come to be and why are radio broadcasts the preferred venue of the black magicians that reside there?
MMB: Leeds is mainly a stand-in for Northampton, Massachusetts, with a bunch of other places where I’ve lived or visited mixed in.
The idea of radio broadcasts came from listening to Joe Frank’s radio shows, and the idea of a compelling voice talking from a box in a listener’s car when he or she is driving at night. The idea of radio is interesting to me in general because it literally comes in through the air we breathe.
Even if you’re not listening, it’s all around you.
MM: You’ve also constructed the Program Guide as a bit of a collaborative project. How did you decide which artists to solicit for the new program guide and where did the idea of presenting it in a subscription-style format come from?
MMB: It’s been a very informal process, but mainly I’ve contacted people who’ve done fan art and are willing to accept as payment a free subscription, or relatively low remuneration, depending on the scope of their work.
The chapbook subscription idea was given to me by Jonathan Dennison of Cadabra Records, with whom I’ve worked on several very fulfilling projects. I am essentially using it to make a living writing for however many months I can get away with. It’s a scary gamble, abandoning stability temporarily to take a chance. But in the time of pandemic when the world is changing, as my doctor said, what better time?
And I’m proud of the work I’m doing for the book. Having a lot of time in which to write is intimidating, but so far it’s working out well. I feel as though I’m humming along very well creatively.
MM: Since we’re on the topic of collaborative projects, what was it like becoming a “Weird Lit Action Figure” with the help of Game Designer Yves Tourigny? How did the idea of Weird Lit Action Figures even come about?
MMB: Yves got himself a 3D printer and started doing author busts. He and I had worked together on a few projects, and had met at Necronomicon Providence, but I was still surprised and delighted to see that he’d done a bust of me. Then, he moved over into action figures.
I think the first one he did was of Laird Barron. At that point I just flat-out asked to have one made of me, which he’d been planning to do anyway. What can I say? It’s weird, surreal. It’s fun. It makes me want to feel worthy of having had an action figure made of me. Not in any Rambo or Star Wars action figure way, of course, just as a writer.
MM: For those of us who would like to support your efforts both in self-publishing and in your journey toward feeling action-figure-worthy, what are the subscription tiers available for new readers to explore?
MMB: $20 per month is for the chapbooks only. The second, more expensive tier has signed/inscribed chapbooks with my cats’ paw prints, as well as a laminated, personalized WXXT Employee Identification Card. Third tier subscribers also get a WXXT Program Guide T-shirt and eventually a hardcover book that compiles all the chapbooks.
There are also less pricy mini-subscriptions for each quarter of 2021—three chapbooks each. There’s also an option to purchase any individual chapbook with alternate cover art by me.
MM: Finally (and, perhaps, most importantly), will your cats—Larry and Peachpie—ever cross over from internet celebrity into the world of Leeds? If so, what roles in the strange goings-on might they play?
MMB: They may or may not show up in Leeds, but if they do, it will be in some kind of minor heroic role or cameo. They wouldn’t ever be hurt there, of course. Someone suggested I write adventure stories for them on my Patreon. I’m certainly considering doing that if time allows.
Maxwell Malone is a horror and weird fiction author from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan currently masquerading as a technical writer on California’s Central Coast. His work has appeared on the award-winning NoSleep Podcast, Chilling Tales for Dark Nights, and various YouTube narration channels. You can find him on Twitter @maxwell_irl.