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Chainsaw conversation

November 18, 2014 3 comments

I was talking to someone today (while I was out walking the dog) who’d been using a chainsaw. He’d started off a week or so ago just taking a couple of branches off a tree, and then more and more of the tree disappeared day by day.

‘The thing is,’ he said ‘using a chainsaw is addictive. Once you make a start on sawing something, you get enthusiastic and then just get carried away with it. Once you’ve finished, you’re looking for something else that needs a chainsaw taking to it. Then, after a while, you’re wondering where the hell you can bury the bodies.’

I’ll bear that in mind…

 

 

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Mental health, mental illness, science fiction and horror

March 13, 2014 Leave a comment

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…

The usefulness of useless degrees

May 14, 2013 Leave a comment

I’ve just been reading some news articles about ‘useless’ degrees. They include a two-year foundation degree in heavy metal (the music, that is) at New College Nottingham, a BA in Comedy Studies (though technically it appears to be listed as a BA in ‘Performance’), Enigmatology (i.e. puzzle setting and solving – however only one person ever graduated from the one course offered, by Indiana University in the 1970s), and assorted qualifications in areas such as puppetry, parapsychology and Viking re-enactment.

The thing I’ve been asking myself is this: in the 1980s, Thatcherite policies demanded that degrees should be ‘relevant’ to career choices and employers’ demands for skills. Various degree courses disappeared, for example language degrees in Farsi and some African languages – ironically enough leading to later problems within the intelligence community when groups speaking some of these languages came to be considered as security threats.

However, the current spread of ‘weird’ degrees isn’t all that strange. We live in a knowledge-based economy and in the UK at least, much of our economic output comprises cultural rather than physical goods. So having a supply of graduates with specific expertise in science fiction, horror, comedy, different genres of music and all the rest is very likely a good and useful thing for the economy as a whole, in addition to the ‘generic’ skills they offer in terms of academic research and practice, and the interests they offer for students. Of course these things don’t need to be learned through degree type studies, there are many other forms of learning. But there’s also no reason why they shouldn’t be degree studies if enough people want to learn in that format.

And if that isn’t a good enough argument, bear in mind that the University of Derby’s MA in Horror and Transgression, which covers diverse forms of film and literature alongside the works of writers such as Nietzsche, Bataille, Foucault, Kristeva, and Deleuze, and transgressive writers such as Burroughs, Ballard and Burgess, lists a number of possible post degree careers. Among these is public service administration. Which is as clear a sign as I can think of about what the experience of public service administration will actually be like in the future.

[Edited to add: of course there will always be a need for degrees in traditional subjects – medicine, engineering, maths, history, biology, languages, computing and the rest. But consider the needs of, say, a computer gaming company or a movie production company that needs to find a new and credible way to develop a fantasy, scifi or horror conceptual world. Consider the needs of, in fact, almost any company looking for its ‘next big thing’. The people with the design and production skills, etc., are clearly necessary to that process. Some of them may even need to make puppets, re-enact Viking dramas, tell good jokes or write and perform music to get to the point at which a product is made and marketed. But no product does well unless it links with human fantasies. Successful products also need their dreamers. Postmodernity (are we still in a ‘postmodern society’?) has sometimes been described as the society in which the old modernist order of narratives has been corrupted, and that’s a reasonable if overly general assessment. But that makes the ability to weave old narratives and create new ones all the more significant in contemporary society. Hence the need for studies that appear niche, marginal, or just plain odd.]

Writing on Walls again

May 10, 2013 Leave a comment

horror cover 3Relaunched. 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…

Writing on Walls – the stick!

September 20, 2012 Leave a comment
The stick from the 'Mabon Whores' story - photo credit Chris Cafferkey

The stick from the ‘Mabon Whores’ story – photo credit Chris Cafferkey

A few years ago I went to a local science fiction society meeting – probably Starbase Leicester – to attend a talk by an SF/fantasy novelist. I’m afraid my memory is poor about who the writer actually was, though someone may be able to remind me from the details I’m about to give. The key thing I took away from the talk was the idea that in order to get inside the head of his characters, he made puppets of them. Properly carved wooden puppets, about two feet tall, the kind on strings that you can use in a puppet theatre.

My memory says he’d learned the art of woodcarving from a family member (father? grandfather? uncle? I don’t know) and got into puppetry as a hobby from an early age. So when he started writing, it was a natural strategy for him to get a sense of his characters’ physique, looks and characters by carving and constructing them as puppets.

That is, I think, dedication – because I’d imagine it takes quite a time to get a puppet looking exactly the way you think it should.

The pics in this blog represent almost the reverse process, however. Because my Writing on Walls collection has a story in it titled ‘Mabon Whores’. Mabon is the pagan (some say primarily Wiccan, but there you go) name for the autumnal equinox and the story has references to various magical items made by dirt-poor people in a small rural community. One of those items is a magical stick.

In writing the story I  tried to imagine what such an item would look like. There are of course a range of possible variations – staffs, wands, etc. but I wanted it just to be a stick, the kind of thing you could pick up from a hedgerow or as fallen wood in a copse. And I didn’t want it to be well-constructed, made with craft and finesse. Not because the makers wouldn’t have had the resources to do that, because they’d be able to whittle and make home-made varnish and suchlike, but because they understood that the point and power of such an object lies in the intent with which it’s made. It’s the kind of WI Thomas logic at work here: if I pick up a random stick or twig and tell you it has powerful magic in it, and I’m convincing and you believe me, then for all practical purposes it does have powerful magic in it. If I tell you it can send out a force like a hurricane and wave it at you, you’d probably fall over (and think it was the stick that did it, not the power of suggestion).

The stick from the 'Mabon Whores' story, moodier image. Credit: Chris Cafferkey

The stick from the ‘Mabon Whores’ story, moodier image. Credit: Chris Cafferkey

So to cut to the chase, after I wrote the story I made the stick out of curiosity. And that’s what the pics are.

It came from the back garden, was painted with old spray paints from the shed, and decorated with random things lying about the house – some ribbon and beads, a plastic dragonfly (I said it was random, it’s that kind of household), an old keyring, the printing from the inside of a cigarette packet that looks almost-but-not-quite like buttons on a TV remote control.

If you read the story, the stick probably won’t knock you over. But the eviscerator might make you cross your legs…

Oh, and the pics were taken by Chris Cafferkey, who normally shoots far more elegant and beautiful things like flowers.

Writing on Walls in the UK

August 29, 2012 Leave a comment

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).

Writing on Walls

August 28, 2012 2 comments

Writing on Walls ebook cover

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.

Shot from promo video

Shot from promo video

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.

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