I haven’t posted stuff for a couple of months because I’ve been writing a course on nutrition, which proved interesting at a number of levels. You may have seen some of the recent media coverage of the processed food industry and the way we’re encouraged to buy fat, sugar, salt and donkey meat – but I’ll leave all that for another blog post.
Then I started the latest project, which revisits an area I’ve worked on periodically since the 1980s – mental illness. This is an introductory course for non-medical people like care workers and hostel staff, so it covers a broad spectrum of conditions.
I got to the bit about schizophrenia, and since I also have an interest in writing various genres of fiction there was a sudden cross-pollination of ideas. I’m sure I’m far from the only person to make this link, but I thought it was worth a ‘note to self’ if nothing else.
There’s a summary of the symptoms of schizophrenia that appears on a general introductory information resource on the web, at www.helpguide.org if you’re interested. Schipohrenia has both positive and negative symptoms. A ‘positive’ symptom is where there is an abnormal mental function; a negative symptom is the lack of a mental function you’d normally expect. The positive symptoms are hallucinations and delusions. The hallucinations are often auditory (hearing voices – there’s a simulation of this on Youtube it you’re interested). The delusions, sets of beliefs about the self, others and the word, take a wid range of forms but commonly fall into one of four patterns:
- Delusions of persecution – Belief that others, often with vague identities are out to get the person. These persecutory delusions often involve bizarre ideas and plots (e.g. ‘The CIA is trying to poison me with toxins impregnated into my clothes’).
- Delusions of reference – Something the person sees in their environment is believed to have a special and personal meaning. For example, a person with schizophrenia might believe a piece of street graffiti or workmen’s marks made by a utility company is sending a message meant specifically for them.
- Delusions of grandeur – Belief that one is a famous or important figure, such as Jesus Christ or Napoleon. Alternately, delusions of grandeur may involve the belief that one has unusual powers that no one else has (e.g. the ability to fly).
- Delusions of control – Belief that one’s thoughts or actions are being controlled by others. Common delusions of control include thought broadcasting (‘My private thoughts are being bugged or monitored’), thought insertion (‘Someone is putting thoughts in my head’), and thought withdrawal (‘Aliens are robbing me of my thoughts and preventing me remembering things’).
Just in case you’re wondering, the idea of impregnating clothes with toxins isn’t fictional – it was developed in South Africa in the 1970s as a means of killing opponents of apartheid, and the daughter of one activist, Donald Woods, was injured by an acid-laced T-shirt. Nor is the idea of graffiti or other signs of the street being used to communicate with individuals unusual. Intelligence services used such techniques from at least World War II onwards while traveller folklore records gypsies, American hobos and others developing discreet graffiti to provide information on places and people that ‘outsiders’ wouldn’t understand. As to unusual powers and thought-manipulation – there’s always the American MK Ultra intelligence programme, which did some pretty strange things and is often used to lend credence to almost any weirdness you can imagine.
At this point some mental cogwheels began to move, because my sense of a lot of SF, fantasy and horror stories is that they too revolve around one of these four ideas.
As it happens I’m also reading The Air Loom Gang at the moment, which deals with James Tilley Matthews. He was a ‘lunatic’ held in the Bethlem Hospital in London in the late 1700s and ealy 1800s, though by today’s standards he would probably be diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.
His highly elaborate delusions concerned the clandestine siting of Air Looms around London – devices that could control people by directing currents of gases at them that could change their thought patterns and influence their health. Matthews thought they were controlled by criminal gangs in the employ of French revolutionaries and, as is often the case in such delusions, there were small elements of truth embedded in the delusion. For one thing he had spent time in France acting in an unofficial capacity (or perhaps we should say seeking to act as an unofficial negotiator) in talks to make peace between England and revolutionary France; he had been imprisoned by the revolutionaries as a potential spy while in France; and his experiences took place at the time mesmerism, pneumatic chemistry, and experiments on the effects electricity were all in vogue.
Matthews’ delusions of the Air Loom are consistent with what we have come to describe as ‘influencing machines’ – devices that the delusional person believes has an effect on their own mind and possibly on others, such as the hospital staff. But in his discussion of Matthews’ delusions, the author (Mike Jay) comments that the delusions may have some broader social underpinning:
‘Delusional subjects often unsettle those who encounter them not just by the form of their condition but its content: they can reflect back a disturbing, often nightmarish certainty about free-floating anxieties in the broader culture’ (p181)
Which is what much science fiction, fantasy and horror is also intended to do. The genres often explore elaborate nightmare situations that could come about from seeds in current society.
So next time you read a story in which: (a) someone is being persecuted or chased by unknown, shadowy figures who are trying to capture or kill them (b) someone has a sudden revelation by means of seeing something that’s in a public place or being broadcast, but is meant for them alone (c) an ‘ordinary’ person suddenly discovers they have a much grander and more important role in the world (or the universe) or (d) someone discovers they’re missing parts of their memory, have false memories implanted, or are being remotely controlled – remember that you’re reading something that draws on our understandings of mental illness and probably also draws on wider cultural anxieties, principally about the way power and authority are exercised.
At the same time, remember that despite the off-the-wall accounts you can find in some conspiracy theories, technologies have been developed often by intelligence services for use against ‘enemies of the state’, in the knowledge that anyone who says they’ve experienced them is likely to be discounted as mad. That’s not to say any given individual with delusions will have been targeted, of course. Just that the nature of the ‘influencing machines’ and covert weapons that are out there have probably outstripped even the imaginations of many SF and horror writers – and indeed many people with mental illness. Though if you do happen to think you’re Jesus or Napoleon, please seek help…
I was watching TV last night, a crime thriller, and there was some dialogue that reminded me of something that happened probably 25 years ago.
The plot involved someone visiting a prison and coming out saying ‘I’ve met my first murderer’. But 25 years ago I was occasionally involved in taking groups of students on prison visits. I can’t remember which prison we’d been to, but it held some lifers and we had a group discussion with some of them.
When we left after the session one of the students said exactly that to me: ‘So now I’ve met my first murderer.’
And my response was ‘How would you know that?’.
Because logically speaking, all she could say was that she’d met her first convicted and incarcerated murderer.
At some point I may use that as a detail in a story, when I get enough of my ‘day job’ writing done that I can get back into writing fiction.
Relaunched. New cover art. Updated link to the video of the first story. Lower price (99 cents or 77 pence, I believe, but don’t hold me to it – the UK price will fluctuate with exchange rates). Now you can ignore it all over again. Or maybe just for the first time?
Eight short tales of horror and dark fantasy based on the understanding that one characteristic of being human is the ability to use one’s imagination, that imagination constructs reality, and that we construct our own worst fears and horrors.
It’s on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. And if you want to view the video, which is an abridged version of the first story, shot in an amazingly low-tech way using the embers of a fire and an oil lamp for lighting, I just uploaded it to Vimeo.
A taster? This is from a bit you won’t see on the ‘Look Inside’ function, the story MacGuffin. And yes, the narrator is the MacGuffin of the story. I take it you know the meaning of the term – Hitchcock popularised it in film to refer to a ‘plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) is willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to pursue, protect or control, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so important. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is an object, place or person’ (I’m quoting this from Wikipedia).
The story opens this way:
It’s more difficult than you’d think to dig up a buried box in the woods at night. I have explicit instructions, a spade and a torch. But I have company; there are more people out here at two in the morning than there are in the town centre. Couples use a small clearing for alfresco exchanges of DNA. Illegal immigrants are camped a hundred metres away. Some kind of deal is going down near to where I left my car.
Thank fuck I’d done a recon when it was still light. Go to this point on the path, head for that forked tree, see that rock outcrop, dig one metre directly in front of the fault line on the rock. It’s probably an SSSI, digging prohibited on account of rare species. I’m in favour of environmental protection but right now there’s something more important at stake.
Clearing away leaf litter makes a hell of a noise, but no one seems to care. I shield my flashlight, and find a slightly sunken square of earth. At some point in the past it has been dug and loosely refilled.
Do I know for sure there’s a box under here? I swear at Giles for his cloak-and-dagger temperament, his love of practical jokes. I could get to the end of this and find some whimsical object with a sarcastic note.
I know you have severe reservations about my work. Perhaps you think I’ve had a breakdown and went insane. Perhaps you’ll find the world has had a breakdown and gone insane. It doesn’t matter. I’m just relying on you to have the same sense of honour you had when we were postgrads. You said on a particularly drunken evening that whatever our differences, I could always count on you as a friend.
You’re reading this because something has happened to me. My fail-safe was that this email would be sent automatically in such circumstances. I hope can still depend on your drunken promise, because the fact that you’re reading this means there is an important task I need you to undertake on my behalf.
You must recover some information and evidence, and make it public in a way that will attract the attention of the public – not the authorities, who will no doubt label me a deluded fool and deny everything, but capable, right-thinking people who are able to determine their own best interests and act on them.
The email was dated a year ago but arrived last week. Outlook has a function to delay sending selected messages, and my guess was that Giles just kept putting the date back until, one day, something had happened to stop him doing it. The countdown clicked to zero, the message was sent. With instructions: this path, that tree, this rock, one metre in front of, about half a metre down. There was more: reference to a housing estate he was ‘investigating’. The roads show on Google Maps but there are no street views. I’m guessing it’s a scummy little place, low priority on every local authority agenda.
I curse Giles for a drama queen, an overweight and pouty prima donna of melodrama. Had he come out here at this time of night to bury the thing? It would have appealed to his twisted sensibilities. But he was never one for physical effort, which makes the fact of his actually digging a hole – if it was him that dug it – significant.
Thank you for reading this. To ensure it remains secret, now please set fire to the device you have been reading it on…
Collection now also available from Amazon.co.uk. The current price is a very reasonable £1.96 (but will go up or down by a few pence from time to time as it’s tagged to the dollar exchange rate).
But it’s not just a diversion for bored architects who like horror films. It’s a thought experiment. For a house to be useful in a zombie apocalypse, it would not only need to be secure against attack: it would need to be structurally strong, easily repaired, capable of generating energy, food and water, and able to manage/recycle its waste. In short, it would have to be a highly effective eco-house.
Which means it would be useful in all kinds of situations that don’t involve a zombie apocalypse. And it would potentially have a huge benefit in terms of the resources we consume.
Imaginative or what?
You may have seen a previous post of mine about a phishing attempt that, unusually, took the form of a phone call. It gave me an idea for a story, and here it is, finished off at 1700 words or so. The phisher really did call himself Elvis Winston, though I imagine that was an assumed name for phishing purposes – a nom de scam, if you like…
Elvis Winston is a phisher of men. Or women. He doesn’t mind. What’s important is that someone answers the phone, and what’s even better is that they do what he says.
He stares at the computer screen, which shows the progress of calls made by a random dialler programme. This is the same technology used by cold-calling companies – though they probably have bells and whistles on the software that filter out numbers logged to the Telephone Preference Service and suchlike, and this one doesn’t because there’s no point. The system is automated. If someone picks up, he’s connected to them. And the background colour of the screen flickers rapidly, red-blue-red-blue, to tell him this is happening now.
‘Good morning,’ he says smoothly, ‘I’m calling from Windows Technical Department. We have a report here from your internet service provider that your computer has been causing repeated problems. Your software is infected with a dangerous virus and this could damage your hardware. Can you go online now please and follow my instructions: we can diagnose the problem and clean up your operating system.’
This is of course a series of straight-up lies. The part about being from Windows Technical Department is somewhat true, because what Elvis wants the person on the other end of the phone to do does relate to their computer’s Windows operating system and it is technical. But he’s relying on that person making the imaginative leap, the assumption, that he’s working in a division of Microsoft and that isn’t true. He has no idea which ISP the person is using. He has no idea whether their software is infected. And the instructions he’s going to give them will enable him to ‘clean up’, in a sense. In the sense that he’ll be able to access their personal data, which gets used to run a bunch of scams and, if possible, clean out their bank and savings accounts.
Elvis encounters suspicion. He gets insults followed by the phone being slammed down. He gets threats of being reported to the police or the Telephone Preference Service. It’s all part of a day’s work.
Even so, it’s surprising how many people respond to an authoritative voice, and an urgent threat. It’s surprising, in fact, how many respond with concern and want to co-operate even if they don’t have a computer.
What galls him is that all the time he’s working, he’s not even on minimum wage. The work is strictly commission-only, based on the number of people he can persuade to download the information-gathering trojan they use. The office is set up in the back of some engineering fabrication company that’s skating on the brink of bankruptcy. His notional ‘employer’ is some kind of underworld figure, aided and abetted by a young geek whose first language is not English. It’s better than his previous job – selling pills and wraps of dope on a street corner. But he’s heard about a guy who has an internet shop for second-hand DVDs and old copies of pulp magazines. He needs someone to package the stuff and take it to the post office. Elvis wouldn’t be phoning people all the time, wouldn’t have the aggravation, and he could still sell the odd wrap to the clubbing crowd at weekends.
All this is going through his head as he does his pitch, on autopilot. He keeps going until he gets some kind of response from the person on the line. What he doesn’t expect is:
‘Thank God you’ve called. I don’t know how you got through, I thought they’d cut the phone lines. You’ve got to send us food, and water and medical supplies. And guns. We need to defend ourselves.’
What the fuck? Just stick to the script!
‘So if you can open up the control centre on your version of Windows…’
‘No, listen, I’m serious. You’ll have to avoid suspicion somehow, maybe just load the stuff onto a supermarket truck and offload it at their store.’
‘If you have the control centre open, just click on–’
‘Listen to me! You know the workfare scheme, where people on benefits get forced to work six months for free, just staying on the benefits, with a job interview at the end for a non-existent job because they’ll choose some other poor bastard to work for free? You know most of those jobs are shelf-stacking in supermarkets? They just extended the scheme.’
‘If you have the control–’
‘Just pay attention, dammit! They’ve set up choke points, and a curfew, and anyone who can’t prove they’re in a job is being arrested and taken away. No one knows where. Maybe it’s a concentration camp somewhere. And they’re using guns, shooting people who resist. We’ve got to stop them.’
Elvis has it figured now. He’s talking to a nutter. The people who cause problems, he divides mentally into twats, freaks and nutters. The twats are the ones who threaten to call the police, or whatever. The freaks are the ones who lecture him about how they hate Microsoft, don’t even use Windows, have a Mac or run on Ubuntu or Linux or some other off-brand operating system. And the nutters… It’s not so much a case of what they’re on as what the men in white coats should be injecting them with.
Also he knows about workfare, this thing the government announced a few months back that’s hit the press because people are indeed, as the nutter is saying, being expected to work for supermarkets, stacking shelves, just to qualify for continued welfare benefits. Since Elvis is working completely off the books – this whole ‘Windows Technical Department’ thing being a scam in every sense of the word – he’s on Jobseeker’s Allowance at the same time, and he knows eventually they’ll get round to making him do it as well. Which is why packing second-hand DVDs and pulp mags would be useful, because it’s a proper job.
The guy’s raving about different kinds of guns, how it would be best if he could get a mix of general-purpose handguns and sniper rifles, things that pack a punch because the troops have body armour, and they’ll need RPGs to take out the vehicles.
There’s no mute button on the headset, no way to stop the drivel other than just hang up. Elvis keeps saying ‘Do you have Windows on your screen?’ as thought it’s a mantra, or a programme loop that doesn’t have an exit point.
‘There’s nothing about this on the BBC,’ the guy is saying now. ‘You have to get the word out, let people know about it. Get a message to Al Jazeera.’
Elvis knows a couple of people called Al but doesn’t think either of them would he able to help. One’s an alcoholic and the other’s doing time for an arson he swears he didn’t commit, despite being a professional torcher for bankrupt businessmen.
There are noises coming from the other end of the line now, some kind of garbled argument going on away from the receiver. Then something that sounds like a car backfiring.
‘Hello? Hello? Are you still there? Do you have Windows open on your screen at the moment? Hello?’
The line stays open, but Elvis doesn’t hear anything he can make sense of. Some kind of bubbling, frothing sound. Some scrapes, like furniture being moved around on a wooden floor. Then nothing.
He hangs up.
The random dialler registers this, gives him fifteen seconds and connects him to another line.
‘Good morning,’ he says smoothly, ‘I’m calling from Windows Technical Department. We have a report here…’
He doesn’t get out of there until eight in the evening, walks home in the dark. It’s been raining and the road is slick with reflections off the streetlamps. There’s not as much traffic as usual. He’s almost home, at the junction of South and Admiral, when he has one of those ‘what the fuck?’ moments. Lorries parked across the street, making a roadblock, but no lights on them. There’s a white car, blue and orange flashes on it, parked up. And quite a few people there.
He hugs the sides of the buildings, moves closer. Sees a knot of people around a young guy on the ground, struggling. Someone in uniform on top of him, a knee jammed into the guy’s kidneys, and a flash of silver like he’s trying to cuff his hands.
There’s a crowd gathered around looking ugly.
Oh well. It’s the kind of area where the police come looking for people. The kid might have been picked up on an outstanding warrant, tried to rob someone, just got too verbal with the cops.
That doesn’t explain these other characters, in army uniforms.
The crowd’s common enough, too, in this area. No one round here has any sympathy for the cops.
Then the crowd surges forward and there are scuffles, a melee, the cop who’s got his knee in the guy’s kidney is sent sprawling on the street. The guy he was trying to cuff is suddenly up and running. And there’s a freeze-frame moment of disbelief as half a dozen shots crack out. They don’t sound like the movies or the video games: just ripping sounds like a firecracker being let off, which is a common enough occurrence on these streets.
There’s people running, and people not running who are on the ground. The kid who’d been arrested, he’s one of the ones not running.
The army guys are moving forward, disciplined, weapons ready. One of them reaches the kid and feels for a pulse.
Elvis tries to be invisible. Wishes he’d just walked away when he could.
‘You’ll do,’ the soldier says.
Thirty seconds later he’s on the ground, tasting blood where his lip kissed the tarmac. They’re rifling his pockets.
‘Find anything? Employment ID?’
He doesn’t see who’s asking the question. But they won’t find any ID, will they, because he doesn’t carry any.
‘Just put him down as “undocumented”.’
One of them throws Elvis’s wallet into the bushes on the other side of the road.
‘He’s fucking undocumented now, mate.’
Elvis swears at the nutter he’s spoken to, under his breath. As if the nutter had made it happen just by talking about it. As if it was all the nutter’s fault. And he swears at his job, which made him talk to the nutter in the first place.
But he knows nutters don’t create the world. Politicians do. And they’re worse, because they not only believe what they say, they make everyone else act out their vision of insanity.
Last night, after something like four months of a group of us juggling diaries, we finally did the video shoot for a project I’ve had in mind since late last year. There’s more to do: some still photography, design work, and fitting the whole thing together. It’s been a steep learning curve because I’ve had to work out how to do video editing and various ancillary things, but the end is now in sight. Another couple of weeks and I should be able to show and tell…