Category Archives: review

The Murders of Molly Southbourne cover!

Yes, the cover of my new novella THE MURDERS OF MOLLY SOUTHBOURNE is here!

You can find out what it’s about, and a metric ton of blurbage on the publisher’s page at Tor.com

The Murders of Molly Southbourne reaches deep into the heart of existence and drags our fears into the sunlight. An excellent, terrifying read.” —Fran Wilde, award-winning author of Updraft, Cloudbound, and Horizon

Pre-order on Amazon: US , UK , Canada, France

mollycover

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Reviews and Stuff

Mike Tyson said everyone has a plan till they’re punched in the face. Or something similar. Been a while since I had anything to say, mostly because life punched me in the face. No tragedy or drama or anything, just regular life stuff that requires time and effort.

Now then.

Locus Online reviews AfroSFV2 in which my novella ‘The Last Pantheon’ co-written with Nick Wood, gets favourable mention.

“It’s overall an entertaining read with occasional political overtones, not a screed, but at its heart a tragedy of two persons who once called each other brothers.”

Read the full review here.

Afrosf2

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My novel MAKING WOLF (which you’ve bought, right?) continues to get favourable reviews.

Here’s one from Val’s Random Comments.

“Thompson has his reasons to tell the story the way he does. He wants the book to be more than a simple fast-paced thriller and succeeds gloriously. It’s a book that hides a lot of food for thought under the surface. I’ve been spoiled with a great many good books this year. Making Wolf is another book I can wholeheartedly recommend.”

Full review here.

wolf

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On the short fiction front, African Monsters ToC and Cover art is ready.

My story “120 Days of Sunlight” is in it.

african

 

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You can read my horror short story “The Monkey House” on Omenana for free. Lots of other fiction there too.

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That’s it for now. Tip your nurses and janitors!

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Review: A Killing in the Sun by Dilman Dila

Short version: 4/5 stars. I recommend that you read it.

 A Killing in the Sun is a speculative fiction collection by Dilman Dila, published by Black Letter Media. The titular story was shortlisted for the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

This anthology includes ten short stories and I read them in sequence. I found the copyrights page confusing because it refers to a story that is not actually in the collection (Fragments of Canvas). As in most collections the quality is uneven. To my mind the first six stories were enjoyable, but I struggled through the last four.

sun_001

The best story appears to be A Killing in the Sun. It is the most consistent and the most polished. It opens on the day of an execution by firing squad. The condemned man, Mande, appears to have been convicted for something he did not do, but finds his salvation to be almost as bitter as his previous fate. It also touches on one of the themes that run through the whole collection: being taken by authorities and somehow harmed. The other theme that runs through is that of the protagonist somehow changing state. The Leafy Man is an imaginative science fiction tale about artificially mutated mosquitoes nicknamed Miss Doe and is Promethean, with unintended consequences of innovation. The Healer is a fantasy story with magic and themes of loss. Itanda Bridge is a science fiction piece about extraterrestrials and while Diba does not show as much control of the material as he did in other stories it is creepy and enjoyable.

With The Doctor’s Truck flaws begin to show. This story is reminiscent of Christine by King in some parts. The explanation is satisfactory enough, however I found the motivation of the doctor difficult to accept in some parts. The ending appears too pat, slightly rushed and perhaps is a revenge fantasy. Lights over Water has an interesting premise, but as in most of the rest of the stories appears to need more work. A Wife and a Slave for example, builds up well, but the ending is again too neat. Things go too well for the protagonist and there is easy wish fulfilment.

The Yellow People had genuinely macabre moments and is a first class sci-fi horror story. It uses the image of the moving of a stone slab away from a cave, which has Biblical resonance for resurrection. The removal of thumbs makes one think of dehumanization since opposable thumbs are essentially what makes us human. The problem here is that the protagonists appear to be moving like chess pieces. It’s a story of alien contact and a serial killer. This story has great potential, but all the explanation seems rushed towards the end, which is disappointing.

Reading this anthology was frustrating, and not because Dila can’t write elegant prose. He can. Generally, I found the book poorly edited. The mistakes were annoying tense problems, syntax problems, unintentional repetitions etc. All avoidable if more care was taken. Apart from the copy editing issues, many of the later stories could benefit from continuity and story editing. Dila has good material and can clearly write brilliant speculative fiction. I just do not understand what the editors at Black Letter Media were thinking.

That said, I did enjoy reading the book. As speculative fiction and as a snapshot of life in sub-Saharan Africa it succeeds. I expect great things from Mr Dila.

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Chekhov: From a Lay Perspective

Anton Chekhov wrote a story called ‘Gooseberries’ in 1898.

It’s available online here. I read it in a collection called ‘About Love and other stories’ translated by Rosamund Bartlett.

Having no training in literary critique, the story appears to be about the relationship between happiness and sadness. Chekhov’s thesis appears to be that happiness exists at the cost of someone else’s unhappiness.  The elements of the story are artfully arranged to support this.

Two friends, Ivan and Burkin, take a walk in the woods, but the weather turns inclement and they seek refuge from rain in their friend Alyokhin’s house. Ivan tells a story and both he and Burkin stay the night since the rain does not let up.

From the opening there are rain clouds. Both Ivan and Burkin are in a good mood while they ramble, but then it starts to rain. Their mood sours, but Alyokhin is upbeat. A significant scene is when they are invited to the bath area while  he washes before going into the house. Alyokhin enjoys the swim and keeps repeating that he hasn’t had a wash in ages. On the first read I could not understand why Chekhov spent so much time on this swim, and I almost cheered when Burkin said: ‘Come on, that’s enough!’ but it demonstrates that Alyokhin’s pleasure is at the expense of his friends.

Ivan tells the story of his brother Nikolay, who always dreamed of a house in the country, thinking this would be the source of his happiness. In fact the title comes from Nikolay’s insistence on having gooseberry bushes in his country home. His dream comes true at the expense of his rich wife, who has to die before the Nikolay can buy his house. When Ivan visits he is served some sour berries from Nikolay’s bushes. Nikolay is content, though, and Ivan reflects that this is at the expense of the peasants who work for him and who suffer when he expounds opinions like “Education is vital, but it is premature for the populace”.

“apparently a happy man only feels so because the unhappy bear their burden in silence, but for which happiness would be impossible. It is a general hypnosis. Every happy man should have some one with a little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws, and some misfortune will befall him — illness, poverty, loss, and then no one will see or hear him, just as he now neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer, and the happy go on living, just a little fluttered with the petty cares of every day, like an aspen-tree in the wind — and everything is all right.”

It’s an interesting story that bears rereading. Chekhov uses many techniques to keep the reader interested, because ultimately not a lot happens and it’s kind of bleak, but deliberately so. Chekhov even acknowledges this when he writes: “Neither Burkin nor Alyokhin found Ivan Ivanych’s story satisfying.”

It’s as if Chekhov warns us that there is something here, but it won’t be obvious or satisfying if you don’t look deeper. Or there’s some kind of meta-narrative where he’s saying he won’t make the reader happy because to do that would be at the expense of some sadness. Proving his thesis.

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Mental Illness Primer for Speculative Fiction Creators: Contents page

I wrote the primer from slides that I prepared for a talk. I know this is doing it backwards but someone requested a Table of Contents so:

Part 1: Why Should I Care?

Part 2: What is Mental Illness

Part 3: How to Assess Mental Illness

Part 4: Mini Case-Study: Buffy

Part 5: Electroconvulsive Therapy

Part 6: Suicide and the Sandman

Part 7: Hush and the Freakshow

 

 

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Mental Illness Primer for Speculative Fiction Writers 7: ‘Hush’ and the Freakshow

Key Learning Points So Far:

The portrayal of mental illness by writers/creators affects stigma. Stigma leads to negative treatment once individual is identified (‘marked’) as mentally unwell.

Mental illness is difficult to define but is socio-culturally determined. Cultural context is important when depicting a character as mentally ill. There should be no drug/alcohol intoxication or organic illness. Behaviour/experience also needs to be sustained in order to attribute it to mental illness.

The assessment of mental illness should draw information from as many sources as possible (self, others, mental health workers), and should consider a change from the baseline.

Examination of Buffy s6ep17 shows superficial attendance to reality of mental illness. 

Electro-convulsive Therapy (ECT) has a troubled history, but is both safe and effective.

Be sensitive. Suicide should not be a punchline or plot device. Remember that what you write affects real people with real lives. The suicide of Morpheus in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was nuanced.

 Trigger Warning: Up to 1 in 4 people can be affected by mental illness so if any of the topics discussed here affect you contact your health professional (General Practitioner in the UK).

Scope: This is for creators of speculative fiction. The idea is to improve depiction of the mentally ill in narratives like film, books, music videos etc. It is just a primer, therefore it will not go into too much detail.

Spoiler Alert: Here there be spoilers. Deal with it. I will try not to reference anything currently showing in cinemas, but I make no promises.

 Part 7: ‘Hush’ and the Freakshow

 For the final part of this primer we’ll talk about Buffy again. ‘Hush’ is the episode 10 of season 4.

hush1

Before we get to this a few points about the freakshow tradition by way of Bedlam.

There was a guy called Tom Rakewell who ended up in the notorious Bethlem Hospital a.k.a Bedlam. Except that’s not true. Rakewell never existed, but he was a satirical invention of William Hogarth who painted a series of depictions titled ‘A Rake’s Progress’ in 1735. Plate number 8 is Tom Rakewell ends up in the Bethlehem Hospital Madhouse

rake

I’m not going to go into the details of very clear poor care. One particular touch is the inmate carving the name of Betty Careless, a famous sex worker, on a step, perhaps an allusion to neuro-syphillis (General Paralysis of the Insane).  What I would really like to draw your attention to is the two high class ladies incongruously placed. Note how the light falls on them in the painting. Hogarth wanted us to see them in particular. They were there to entertain themselves watching the suffering of the mentally ill. This was very common. The well-to-do would go to asylums and people with mental illness would be put on display.

The treatment of mental illness moved in seizures and spurts towards morality, but the use of psychiatric disorder as amusement continued and survives to this very day, though transmogrified into tropes such as the ‘psycho-killer’.  Historical freak shows such as those promoted by P.T Barnum in the 1800s used mostly physical deformity as a form of entertainment, but shows also included oddly-behaved people who may have been mentally ill. They key feature is the use of physical or mental abnormality as exhibition.

Which brings us back to ‘Hush’.

The monsters of the week are the Gentlemen.

The rhyme about them goes Can’t even shout, can’t even cry, The Gentlemen are coming by. They arrive in a town, steal all the voices, then come at night to carve out hearts from seven people.

The horror of this episode is about failed anaesthesia. If you consider the semiotics, the Gentlemen are doctors (they wear suits, they use scalpels, they have doctors bags, they keep their extracted hearts in specimen jars, they congratulate themselves after successful heart extraction, and come across as genteel). The victims are unable to cry out, which would be the normal way to express pain or to indicate to the doctor or dentist that your flesh is not numb. It’s a great episode and one of my personal favourites. So what’s the problem?

These guys:

guys1 guys2

The assistants, familiars, servants, minions or whatever. They aren’t even named in the nursery rhyme or the episode. They do not matter. They are unnamed, and hence unimportant. While the Gentlemen are doctors the symbolism of these minions screams psycho-killer or mental patient.

They wear strait jackets, their faces are bandaged from psychosurgery, they act brainless, their crouched, almost simian movements and the weird jerky hand movements evokes the extreme side-effects of antipsychotics or some of the problems of Huntington’s Chorea. Interesting side note: the shirts used by the Gentlemen are not contemporary. They would have been used when asylums were around. These minions are made to seem more pathetic by the comparison with the Gentlemen who have graceful movements and who glide about a foot above the ground.

This is the essence of freak show: they are there to entertain by virtue of being mentally ill. The message to your subconscious is the mentally ill do not matter.

Conclusion

What I hope to do (or to have done) is inject some curiosity about the facts of mental illness. Most media representations are largely inaccurate. As writers, artists, film makers or creators of any kind do not shy away from the uncomfortable truth, but find it. You may discover that real mental illness is not sensational, but you must make an effort because with time what you write has the potential to change the experience of real people.

At least, that’s my hope.

(P.S. I know I’m going to regret this, but if you’re creating something and you need an opinion on the way you have portrayed mental illness feel free to contact me. I don’t charge a fee and it all leads to a reduction in stigma.)

 

 

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Mental Illness Primer for Speculative Fiction Writers 6: Suicide and the Sandman

Key Learning Points So Far:

The portrayal of mental illness by writers/creators affects stigma. Stigma leads to negative treatment once individual is identified (‘marked’) as mentally unwell.

Mental illness is difficult to define but is socio-culturally determined. Cultural context is important when depicting a character as mentally ill. There should be no drug/alcohol intoxication or organic illness. Behaviour/experience also needs to be sustained in order to attribute it to mental illness.

The assessment of mental illness should draw information from as many sources as possible (self, others, mental health workers), and should consider a change from the baseline.

Examination of Buffy s6ep17 shows superficial attendance to reality of mental illness. 

Electro-convulsive Therapy (ECT) has a troubled history, but is both safe and effective.

Trigger Warning: Up to 1 in 4 people can be affected by mental illness so if any of the topics discussed here affect you contact your health professional (General Practitioner in the UK).

Scope: This is for creators of speculative fiction. The idea is to improve depiction of the mentally ill in narratives like film, books, music videos etc. It is just a primer, therefore it will not go into too much detail.

Spoiler Alert: Here there be spoilers. Deal with it. I will try not to reference anything currently showing in cinemas, but I make no promises.

Part 6: Suicide and the Sandman

sandman 1

Neil Gaiman and an army of artists wrote ‘Sandman’ for 75 issues between 1989 and 1996. It is one of the high points of the sequential arts medium and has won a string of awards. If you have not read it stop now, because I will talk about the end. Seriously, do not proceed beyond this point.

The series ends in what is essentially the suicide of the eponymous Sandman (aka Morpheus aka Dream, of the Endless). There are many wonderful things about the series but the suicide of Morpheus was elegantly nuanced.

Family History

sandman2

 

Morpheus is one of the endless (pictured above): Dream, Destruction, Desire, Delirium (formerly Delight), Despair, Death and Destiny. They are godlike beings who represent some fundamental aspect of sentient life as their names suggest. We are never told who their parents are, but there is a birth order.

If you remember the previous parts we mentioned that in assessment of mental illness one has to check the family history. Is there evidence of mental illness in the Endless? Well, yes. We’ll leave out the absent parents (which we know can screw up any child) and go straight to the siblings.

  1. Destruction walked away from both his duties and the family.
  2. Despair constantly self-harms by cutting herself.
  3. Delirium is psychotic, and her change from Delight shows a definite onset of psychosis.
  4. Desire is not necessarily mentally ill, but S/he is homicidal and vindictive. The vindictiveness is a trait shared by Morpheus.

This shows a definite problem in the family.

What about Morpheus himself?

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The Sandman is rigid and inflexible. He is narcissistic and vindictive, prone to excessive vengeance.

He is prone to depression as is demonstrated many times throughout the series. He bears the guilt of killing his own son (long story) and imprisoning a woman who spurned him for over a thousand years in Hell.

Morpheus dies in the end. In my opinion he committed suicide.

“The only reason you’ve got yourself into this mess is because this is where you wanted to be”

-Death

The circumstances that lead to Sandman’s death were engineered in part by Desire, but we are clearly informed that Morpheus could have avoided it, but chose not to.

In my opinion his suicide was made realistic by the absent parents, the family history and his personal experience of depression combined with an inflexible personality.

Some points about suicide

Suicide is extremely tragic and has been depicted in dramatic form and fiction since man could form sentences. It appears to have been with us throughout recorded history. I’ve heard it said that one suicide can affect up to sixty people.

Because suicide is rather dramatic and eye-catching we often lose sight of one thing: it is uncommon. In most countries it is in the order of 11-16 per 100,000 per year. It is never casually done.

There are three components to suicide: 1. The person is dead. 2. The person died by their own hand. 3. They intended to die by their own hand.

These three components (but 3 in particular) make suicide difficult to prove, and for historical reasons it is defined differently in different countries (For example, England and Wales have a different way of determining suicide when compared with Scotland). This makes research difficult and comparison of statistics tricky.

Most but not all victims suffer from a mental illness at the time of suicide. Mood disorders increase risk. 60-70% have depression, people with schizophrenia are at risk, especially around the time of diagnosis and during recovery; substance abuse is a risk factor; anxiety and panic disorders can be risk factors. Note that people who have experienced non-lethal self-harm or suicide attempts are at increased risk of completed suicide (and can we just put that whole ‘cry for help’ malarkey to rest please?).  Even though two thirds of those who kill themselves have never tried to harm themselves about one tenth of those who harm themselves may go on to kill themselves. A chronic medical condition can be a risk factor, especially if associated with chronic pain.

Twin studies demonstrate that there is a genetic component to suicide, but it isn’t Mendelian.  The captain of the HMS Beagle (yes, the one with Darwin) was a man called Robert FitzRoy. He was noted to be odd and almost certainly suffered from Bipolar disorder. FitzRoy killed himself by slitting his own throat in 1865. FitzRoy’s uncle had killed himself by similar means about a decade earlier. According to Bryson, 2003, “FitzRoy came from a family well known for a depressive instinct.”

To Nuance Suicide in Fiction Consider:

  • Past history of suicide attempts
  • A history of impulsive behaviour
  • A family history of depression or suicide attempts
  • Living alone
  • Being widowed/divorced
  • Sometimes seen in white elderly males more commonly
  • There should be access to the means
  • There may be a childhood adverse experience
  • There may be previous suicidal ideation
  • There may have been planning
  • Substance misuse is very common
  • Recent loss is common
  • A personal history of depression/panic disorder

Remember: Be sensitive. Suicide should not be a punchline or plot device. Remember that what you write affects real people with real lives.

Next: Mini Case Study: ‘Hush’

 

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