It’s been a long time. I’ve had a period of several months of dealing with death and illness – not my death (as far as I know) and other people being ill – along with a busy schedule of writing educational materials and suchlike.
Along the way I’ve rekindled some of my long-time interests in narrative and narrative theory, and I just thought I’d share this with you. The ‘Proppian Fairytale Generator’, which used to be on the Brown University website, is still alive and well at the Wayback Machine and it still works. For those of you who don’t know it, Vladimir Propp was an early-1900s exponent of narrative analysis, identifying 7 main character types and 31 specific types of narrative elements in his analysis of fairytales. The characters incuded the hero, the villain, the prize (e.g. the princess the hero intended to marry – sexist but remember we’re dealing with fairytales here that have often been around in one form or another for centuries), and the ‘dispacher’ who sends the hero off on their quest. The narrative elements include someone leaving home (‘absentation’) or being told not to do a certain thing or visit a certain place (‘interdiction’), and the plot is developed by the person doing the interdicted thing (‘violation of interdiction’), or by a ‘villain’ setting out to find and capture something or someone for their own purposes (‘reconnaissance’) and gaining what they want (‘delivery’ – which may be carried out as the result of ‘trickery’). As a result of the delivery or trickery, the hero may need to violate an interdiction to stop the villain, and so on.
I digress. I was playing with the fairytale generator, which automatically creates a story based on a ticklist of characters and narrative elements, and got the following. I just thought it was interesting and had some nice touches I might re-use at some point when I get back into writing fiction properly again – ‘properly’ meaning being when I have the time to do more than add a sentence a day to one of my ongoing story projects.
Here’s the story:
I forget sometimes what people tell me to do or not do. What they tell me slips away into the backwaters of my memory where it drowns in all other memories forgotten.
I gave him my satchel and shoes as he asked me, then I shed my clothes as he advised me to do. “Wear this,” he said, and he shed his own skin. It fell off in a pile on the soil floor looking like a tablecloth used in my home. When I clothed myself in his skin I no longer smelled like my home or the valley. Instead I became like the men on the mountain. I smelled distinctly foreign. I thanked the man and watched as he dressed himself in my own clothes. He said he would wear them until new skin grew on his back.
The silver fish leapt from the water from his gurgling mouth came a bubble that solidified and dropped into my lap. Just as quickly as he had emerged, the fish plopped back into the water, leaving me to puzzle over this mysterious orb.
Burned marks of fire and hot metal left my body colored red with pain.
People began to move away from the other person, who now shook his head and his hands. He kneeled to the floor and placed his head there in mercy.
The soil on my skin turned into sprinkles of gold dust. The people proclaimed me some kind of god.
I’m supposed to be writing about sociological studies of the police. In fact I am writing about this. However in odd moments of downtime I’ve been playing with a story I wrote a couple of months ago. It’s not exactly horror, not exactly science fiction, and neither is it really fantasy or urban or any other easy-to-pigeonhole genre. If anything it’s a gentle meditation on a very limited aspect of unknowns, conspiracy theories, life, the universe and everything, and I don’t really see a commercial market for it. But I’m still vain enough to think you might enjoy reading it.
Rather that just include it in the post (it’s about 4,600 words) I’ve messed around with it, included a couple of images, experimented with prettying it up and saved it as a PDF. Partly, I confess, as an experiment in making PDFs available this way. There’s a download link at the end of this post.
The ‘X-factor’ tag comes from the Global Risks Report 2013 from the World Economic Forum (the ‘world leaders’ meeting that happens in Davos each year). The report outlines what it sees as the major global risks – chronic fiscal imbalances, systemic financial failure, increasing global income disparities, water supply, food shortages, greenhouse gases and other ‘usual suspects’. However it also discusses what it calls ‘X-factors’ – ’emerging concerns of possible future importance and with unknown consequences’, ‘serious issues, grounded in the latest scientific ﬁndings, but somewhat remote from what are generally seen as more immediate concerns such as failed states, extreme weather events, famine, macroeconomic instability or armed conflict’.
Here’s the opening of the story:
In crime novels, there’s often a point where the detective turns up at a murder scene and one of the uniforms says ‘A dog-walker found the body.’
That’s because it happens. Twenty-three per cent of dead bodies left in public spaces are found by dog-walkers. Not that I found that out until later.
My watch said 01:41. I’d left Miss Grosgrain at quarter to one, gone home, had a glass of wine, gone out with Daisy. I work unsocial hours. I often walk Daisy late at night.
The street lights around here have been switched to part-night operation as an economy measure. There are signs saying so on every lamp post. They turn off just before one. We’re used to walking in the dark.
On Botts Way there’s a grassed area, the kind of open space that developers put on their estates to add ‘amenity’ to the houses. Parents never let their kids play there.
In the middle of the grassed area there’s a body, face up in the dim starlight. A young guy, late teens or early twenties. Jeans, T-shirt. Much blood. Stabbed, I guess. Eyes open, brown. There’s a thin fuzz of hair on his chin. Close-cropped hair with a widow’s peak. Full lips, nose just a little too wide for the face. A small mole on the right hand side of his face, near his nostril.
I have my mobile phone. I take pics, just in case of… something. I don’t know what, exactly. I lean over the guy, make sure he’s not still breathing. I call the police. And wait.
If you want to read the whole thing, the image below is a link to the PDF of the X-factor story (should open in a new window):
And just for fun (sort of) here’s a snap of some notes I made literally on the back of an envelope while writing the thing:
So now it’s back to writing about studies of policing…
This is the culmination of, believe it or not, over two years of work. OK, so some of that was procrastination and diversion and moving house and urgent (as in fee-paying) projects. And some of it was learning how to format and edit PDFs, epub files, audio files, movies and so on, and working out the best programmes to use for different purposes. Some of it was just investigating the general market for self-published work. But it’s done, and I’ve proved to myself I can do it so I’ll do it again, soon.
Writing on Walls, and Other Horrors is a 24,000-word collection of eight horror and dark fantasy stories ranging from 1,000 to 6,000 words apiece. The stories draw on WI James’ statement to the effect that if if you think something is true, it is true in its consequences. One characteristic of being human is the ability to use one’s imagination. Imagination constructs reality, and it can bring into being the hopes, fears, magics and horrors it creates.
The stories offer a spread across psychological horror, vampires, the occult and the plain weird. Some had, actually, been accepted by small magazines that went under before they reached the publication date for the pieces – though one had been rejected by several mags that specialise in weirdness for being too weird. The contents are:
Writing on Walls: is it possible for someone to write their own future? Can their scribbling change what happens to them, and to others? What happens when they’re washed up, suffering from too much past history and a psychiatric condition?
Defining the Situation: if you define a situation as real, it is real in its consequences. The philosopher WI Thomas said that, a hundred years ago. It’s still true. So if you think a typewriter is inhabited by a manipulative evil spirit, then it is. And you have to live with the consequences.
MacGuffin: technically speaking, a MacGuffin is the name for a film device that starts the action but isn’t important in itself. For example, a box buried in the woods by a man who died. It doesn’t matter what’s in the box, it’s just a thing that some people will fight and kill to get their hands on. But can a person be a MacGuffin, too?
UXB: some people have heads like unexploded bombs. The question is, what can trigger them? Trying to cross the road, maybe? Trying to cross the road to go to the doctor to get their head defused?
The Writing of Evil: forensic psychiatrists have tried to profile and categorise murderers. But writers can be worse that murderers, because they invent distorted narratives that confuse our grip on reality and can lead to massive social injury. This article presents a heirarchy and classification of authorial depravity and deviance.
Mabon Whores: a ‘craft fair’ is normally about scented soaps and home-made jam. But the word ‘craft’ can have darker meanings, with darker consequences.
John Undescribe (1952-2012) – The Best Writer You Never Read: an obituary for a writer, following his unexplained death. His influence on other writers was legendary – but what of his own work?
Spiritalk 23: The User Experience: do you want to talk to the dead? Really? Are you ready to handle the consequences?
Yes, if you buy it, it will cost you a little over $3 (or sterling equivalent when it turns up on Amazon.co.uk) and you can get all of HP Lovecraft’s fiction on Kindle for 77 cents. But that’s largely a function of Amazon’s minimum pricing for 70% royalties, the fact that out-of-copyright works don’t qualify for the higher royalty rate, and the fact that as far as I know I’m alive and need the money while Lovecraft isn’t and doesn’t. Though he did, as you may know, die in penury; and even at the higher price, I’m not anticipating my collection will do a whole lot for my pension fund. That will be, I hope, I function of my next few publications.
About me: in the interludes between writing social science educational materials and management training materials, I’ve published occasional pieces of fiction. You’ll find them in places such as Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Ignavia, Ballista and online in Dark Fire.
Oh yeah. There’s also a promo video I made with a few friends. You can see it on Youtube. It’s a much shortened version of the ‘Writing on Walls’ story. I had an email yesterday from someone who thought it was interview footage relating to a real event, which I suppose is praise of a kind…
Those involved (or alternatively, the guilty parties other than me) were Ric Sharples (that’s him on the left, he can act as well as do equality and diversity training), Richard Gray and Chris Cafferkey, who took a break from photography to shoot some video footage.
I hope you buy the collection. I hope you like it, and/or that it both engages and scares you. In a pleasant way, of course. And I hope you’ll buy the follow-up collection when it appears.
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…
Went to States of Independence today. This was an event with independent small presses, workshops, readings and the like. I wasn’t involved in any of the readings but thought I’d scope it out. There were three sessions I wanted to go to but as usual (for me anyway) they were all running at the same time. Oh well… I have the programme, I have the links to the other things I wanted to investigate and I can follow them up later.
I went to the Shortfuse readings, which this time were short stories and flash fiction (and a haiku) by people who’ve been in a recent creative writing workshop series. They were all good. I personally liked some more than others (unsurprising) but the surprising thing to me was that the pieces dealing with topics like old age and housework were the most interesting. Huh? Quality of writing or because I feel I’m getting old? Both, maybe.
Went round the fairly extensive display of stalls. Only bought one book – well, I have about a yard of books at home waiting to be read. The one that caught my attention and where I bought a history of the Vikings was run by the Masked Booksellers. They’re charmingly eccentric but with a serious point at the same time.
The Masked Booksellers perpetuate the work of Josiah Saithwaite, a small-time Manchester businessman of the late 1800s, also a non-conformist preacher and socialist who believed that everyone was entitled to education as a right. Among other activities he sold second-hand books cheaply to the working classes, on the basis that books were a means of self-improvement. His strategy was that “Working people need to take pride in the purchase of their personal libraries by their own efforts” while the profits from sales went to charitable causes.
The masks came about because Saithwaite’s belief was that doing good should not be a matter of personal aggrandisement, and hence should be done anonymously. Apparently – and I didn’t know this until today – there are still groups of Masked Booksellers up and down the country, and indeed in several other countries as well. The money they made at States of Independence was going to a charity dealing with the needs of refugees. So given my own principles how could I not buy something from them?
Good day all round, except I managed to miss someone I was going to meet there because I didn’t check my email first and figure out where I was supposed to meet them. But I did meet one of the Speculators there. I should go more often to the meetings, but they run at the same time as other stuff I’m involved in so I rarely get the chance. Looks like my relationship with the group will continue to be largely by email rather than in person. Such is life.
I’ve been away for a few days, visiting friends. This is something I don’t do often enough, really. Even though I took work and my laptop and internet dongle, I never got round to doing much more than checking email and reading a bit of a novel because other stuff was going on, so while I’m notionally behind on where I wanted to be with my writing, I feel recharged and I’ll catch up.
The ‘other stuff’ that was going on largely involved erecting a summer house in my friends’ garden. It went up without much trouble and with people more expert than me doing most of the detailed work.
I helped out, though I’m far better at making joints between ideas than I am at getting bits of wood to butt up together neatly. If the summer house had been made out of concepts laid over a philosophical framework I would have done a really neat job. But that thought stayed with me, and of course making anything – from a garden summer house to a story and indeed almost anything else – will have many similarities.
On this view, writing a story involves:
- taking delivery of a bunch of pre-made bits and pieces. With a summer house, these are largely factory-made sections and should be all you need (though we added some refinements). With a story, these will be things you’ve gathered from the grab-bag of your own imagination and research. They will include plot elements, character qualities, odd facts (real or invented), situations and locations (real or imaginary), and so on.
- checking the plans and diagrams to see what you’re supposed to be doing. You do have plans and diagrams for your story, don’t you? Actually I often don’t; or at least, my plans may not bear too much of a relationship to the pieces I have to play with, or describe them with the same level of incoherence that I used to find in the manuals for electronic appliances in the 1970s.
- making sure you have all the right tools. Drills, bits and screwdrivers for stories. The right character ‘voices’ for dialogue when building a summer house. Or is it the other way round? A lot of the summer house building was carried out with character voices anyway. I often do drill down, conceptually anyway, into locations and plot details to focus on small details. A good supply of coffee and tobacco in either case (I know, they’re bad habits… treat these as optional).
- actually erecting the structure. Colourful vocabulary, occasional use of swearwords essential for both stories and summer houses. Holding odd bits of wood at awkward angles while your fingers freeze is not mandatory for stories, unless that’s your particular thing.
- making ‘improvements’ as you go along and then finding these cause more problems you need to solve. Done that. Fortunately in the case of the summer house, there were some extra blocks of wood to ensure the thing was packed correctly, and we could use those. That may not be the case with a story.
- sitting back, enjoying the result and deciding on decoration and finishing. Stories may not need a coat of paint on them but there are always bits you want to tinker with at a later date. This process can go on until someone wants to publish, and then you have to let go. That won’t be the case with a summer house, which will always be a work in progress.
See? Similar processes. Next time: how writing a story is similar to drug dealing (or something).