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Novel-writing and thought-forms

January 7, 2015 2 comments

Happy Christmas, New Year, etc. etc. Yes, I know I haven’t posted for a couple of months and it’s well past that time now but I’ve been distracted by writing criminology teaching materials (and entertaining friends and celebrating the holidays myself and so on – real life sometimes takes me away from blogging).

In between times I’ve also been playing with a story that involves thought-forms. Wikipedia tells me these have been part of Tibetan Buddhist belief for a very long time, where they’re called ‘tulpa’, but came to the attention of Western mystics, occultists and so on in the 1920s. There is however an interesting book (well, I thought it was interesting) from the Theosophical Society: Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, Thought-forms, published in 1901 by The Theosophical Publishing House Ltd. in London. If you’re sufficiently motivated to read it, it’s available via the Gutenberg Project or indeed as a free PDF from the Theosophical Society itself, which appears to continue to be quite active.

I won’t bore you with a detailed explanation of what thought-forms ‘are’, because any number of sources will give to imaginative and conflicting descriptions and explanations. I should also point out that I read an awful lot of stuff without actually believing it, and have a healthy scepticism about mystical topics. That said, thought-forms struck me as a useful plot device and I may or may not find a reasonable way to finish off the story. However, along the way, I was somewhat amused by the following description in Besant and Leadbeater, in the section of the book on ‘Three Class of Thought-forms’, of how novelists create and are affected by thought forms:

‘The novelist in the same way [i.e. the same way as painters or other artists] builds images of his character in mental matter, and by the exercise of his will moves these puppets from one position or grouping to another, so that the plot of his story is literally acted out before him. With our curiously inverted conceptions of reality it is hard for us to understand that these mental images actually exist, and are so entirely objective that they may readily be seen by the clairvoyant, and can even be rearranged by some one other than their creator. Some novelists have been dimly aware of such a process, and have testified that their characters when once created developed a will of their own, and insisted on carrying the plot of the story along lines quite different from those originally intended by the author. This has actually happened, sometimes because the thought-forms were ensouled by playful nature-spirits, or more often because some ‘dead’ novelist, watching on the astral plane the development of the plan of his fellow-author, thought that he could improve upon it, and chose this method of putting forward his suggestions.
Well, yes, I think most people who write stories do find their characters can be almost like ‘imaginary friends’ who have some sort of independent life, at least in the writer’s head. But should I be amused at the recursive nature of my story, thought-forms discussing thought-forms, or be more concerned that I could be subconsiously channelling some dead novelist?

X-Factor – a short story

September 21, 2014 Leave a comment

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):

 

Link to 'X-factor' story

Link to ‘X-factor’ story

 

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:

 

Back-of-envelope notes

Back-of-envelope notes

So now it’s back to writing about studies of policing…

 

 

 

 

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…

Random memory no. 137

June 6, 2013 Leave a comment

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.

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).

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