“The item arrived without any protective packaging—I found the bottle on its side on my front step, with no mailing label nor postage that I could see.”
Continuing to make inroads with the new cosmic horror/noir/Lovecraftian anthology, “Ashes and Entropy,” edited by Robert S. Wilson and published by Nightscape Press (2018), I came across the curious story Dr. 999 by Matthew M. Bartlett. Bartlett is an author I’ve heard about, but have never read. He’s published professionally as well as on his own, and is perhaps most well known for his bewitching tales of covens and radio waves set in Leeds, Massachusetts. Now, he may write horror, but he’s far from a horrific person. That might sound like a dumb thing to say, but I think those on the outside of the horror community often assume all these authors and readers must be terrible, disturbed people. So, I love it when horror writers are discovered to be not only real people with real lives, but kind, charitable, and decent folk (hint: most of them are). On that note, I’m pleased to share that Mr. Bartlett has just written a new chapbook called If It Bleeds!, and has dedicated one-third of the proceeds to benefit his local humane society. Buy the book; help save a cat or a dog.
Dr. 999 is unlike any horror short story I’ve ever read, necessitating a departure from my usual style where I tell you about plot first and then get into structure and writing. Today, I am compelled to proceed backwards. This story’s structure is totally unique and it really couldn’t have been told in any other way. I suppose you could say it takes an epistolary form, but even that doesn’t describe it. This is a story told entirely as an online product description and the reviews of that product. The reviews progress in order from the insane one-star review (we’ve all read insane one star reviews before, but perhaps not quite like this) to the glowing, life altering four-star review. We don’t get a five-star review, and I have to wonder what that might have been like. However, I suspect the person who’d be inclined to write the five-star review is living happily in another dimension just now.
The product in question is “Malumense Dr. 999’s NL-id Blends Micellar Moisturizing Milk.” And then he throws a “(DISCONTINUED)” in there. I loved that. So, what is it, exactly? This terrible product of eldritch horror is hair conditioner. Actually, if you ask my daughter at bath time, she could confirm that all hair products are eldritch horrors. Right from the beginning we can guess this will be odd, “Bad hair can inhibit or even obstruct your spiritual growth.” Now, I went online and looked at several hair conditioning products and not one of them including anything about spiritual growth.
The one-star review comes next and begins innocuously enough, complaining that when the product arrived, it wasn’t even in a box or packaging of any kind. We move quickly into how the product actually hurts when applied, how the reviewer’s hair hurt the next day, and how in turn, that led to poor client relationships and decreased sales. In a fit of frustration, she pours the bottle down the drain which only makes things worse. Black bubbling water burps up from the sink and toilet and eventually the whole neighborhood’s sewer system is affected in a noisome scene ripped from a real life experience of the author’s.
As we move through the different reviews, it’s almost as if the product itself is changing, morphing based on the previous bad review, rather than just the reviewer’s subjective experience changing. Whereas the one-star reviewer complained about the lack of packaging, the four-star reviewer raves about receiving the conditioner “well-packaged in bubble wrap and unbroken cardboard, and undamaged.” The user might not have grown spiritually, but the product sure has. I found this idea particularly creepy. The three-star review, broken into two columns of enumerated pros and cons was actually my favorite. Tossed in the middle of the cons, as if it ain’t no thing, was this gem, “3. The trampling of the flower garden outside the bathroom window.” There were a few others like this, too. The four-star review goes on for a long time, going into great detail about the freedom and the emotion the conditioner product delivers to them. There’s a lot of attempts to inject the weird and a sense of dread here, but none were as effective as the one listed above about the flower garden. I actually felt the four-star review, the final section, went on a little long, but that’s just my taste. The ending is enjoyably Lovecraftian, with enough fingers twining back through the various established threads to be satisfying. The shades of Crawford Tillinghast in From Beyond and Robert Olmstead from The Shadow Over Innsmouth dance just out of sight.
I think this would be a very difficult story to write well, but Bartlett did it. Mastering many different voices in the various reviews well enough to make them believable is a tall order, but he was up to it. We’ve all read bad Amazon reviews. We know what they sound like. The bad grammar, the misspelled words, the invented words, the non-sequiturs, the irrelevancies, and the detours. But try to write that way on purpose, convincingly, and I think you’ll understand a little bit more about the feat that he accomplishes here. A different feat, I think, than writing separate characters or even POVs.
All of that is to say that it’s incredibly annoying that Bartlett wrote this in less than two hours. The backstory involves an actual bottle of hair conditioner the author was using. He said, “I was reading the hyperbolic copy on a conditioner bottle. I thought, who writes this garbage?” Garbage, indeed. On the backs of bottles and on the pages of Amazon. I couldn’t help but think of bottles of “Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Hemp Peppermint Pure Castile Soap,” a real product (and a delightfully scented one, truth be told) packaged in a bottle covered in the strangest copy. Seeing is believing.
Our current culture is obsessed with the instant gratification found in the facebook like, the re-tweet, the instagram heart, and the like. We have to grade everything. We can’t ask a question of a customer service agent without being requested to hang on the line for a brief survey. We get called by the manager of the car dealership if we rate them less than perfect tens down the line. Dr. 999 is tapping into the horror of that judgmental climate as well as the culture of needing to be heard regardless of the worth of your speech. Somewhere, someone is watching. Someone is grading your paper. Someone is marking a one for you on a survey. And none of it ultimately matters. For when you are DISCONTINUED, there will be another to take your place. “At night, [Dr. 999] basks in unthinkable, terrible pleasures, and during the day he toils in his laboratory with a silent coterie of masked assistants, devising a new formula which will, he claims, put Malumense Dr. 999’s NL-id Blends Micellar Moisturizing Milk to shame.” Products are changing all the time, and the real-life horror is to be found in how they are changing us.
This review was composed while listening to the piano works of Leo Janácek.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
Thoughts on the first day of work after using my new conditioner: “I felt overheated and feverish. Shadows loomed high and wavering on the walls and at times the very desk at which I was sitting seemed miles away. When I reached out to grasp the edge of the desk, my arms elongated until they were thin white threads sailing off into a blurry distance.”