Thought Forms by Jeffrey Thomas
Since this is a site for thinking about books, let’s spend a moment thinking about a word. After all, Confucius, him say, “Many words make a book”. So today’s word is synergy. This is where two or more different things work together and produce an improved outcome. Like putting apple sauce on the meat for a cannibal’s greater enjoyment. The way you put the elements together is critical. If you combine people or things in a way that allows all their strengths to work together, the outcome is greater than the sum of the parts. If the weaknesses dominate, there will be no real improvement. The team will never achieve more than its individual parts can contribute. Just think of all the blood and gore in a genuine shotgun marriage when the groom hesitates on the “I do” bit.
As a novel, Thought Forms (Dark Regions Press, 2009) has a very unfortunate structure. It delivers some excellent writing, showing all the characteristics that make Jeffrey Thomas such a readable author. But it does so in a way that defeats the possibility of any satisfactory outcome. There’s no synergy.
What then are the problems? We start with every author’s nightmare. He or she has done all this research (or knows all this stuff). How much or how little to include in the novel? The unhelpful answer is only to include what you need to advance the narrative. Fiction is not writing a “how-to” guide or a loving historical or nonfiction description of these events, people or things. Fiction is all about the plot — cause and effect, stimulus and response, and so on. Exposition should never be for its own sake, but set-up what is to come. In Thought Forms, I learned quite a lot about guns and the raw materials used in some factory processes. Although it is relevant to understand how well key characters can handle weapons and we need to know something about the factories where they work, I think there is a little too much detail. Some of the conversations in the factories also go on a little too long. Maintaining the pace in horror fiction is critical to produce the dramatic tension and sense of imminent danger.
Then we come to the really big problem. Although the book is about two cousins who are both artistic, albeit interested in morbid imagery, we have two separate novellas somewhat arbitrarily interwoven. There’s no interaction between the two stories because the time scales are different. Ray lives alone in the isolated house where his parents were murdered when he was young. Taken on its own, this is about a traumatised man as he tries to make a life of normality for himself. Whether literally or metaphorically, he is haunted and insecure, finding it difficult to make friends or to take relationships to the next level. In every way, he is a disaster waiting to happen with this terrible mixture of fear and anger unreconciled in his mind. He might end in suicide if he feels he can no longer cope with life, or use his guns to become the next serial killer of the month. In such a mind, it is always difficult to know what is real and what is imagined as the days and weeks go by. Paul, on the other hand, is reasonably well-adjusted and we have a single day and night in the plastics factory where he bosses the small crew of maskers. You always feel he has a real talent and could make it as a commercial artist if only he could summon up enough enthusiasm.
Thematically, the two stories are linked by the titular idea of thought forms or tulpas. This is a very old idea arising in mysticism and more formalised religions like Tibetan Buddhism in which a being or object is created by the power of the mind or imagination. It is the forerunner of the machines developed by the Krell in Forbidden Planet and in the sfnal or magic mind-over-matter stories in which whatever is visualised will physically appear. The difference between the two novellas is that Ray is a classic unreliable narrator and we cannot trust anything he claims to see, whereas Paul is positively threatened by a tulpa.
This is a perfect case for an Ace Double approach to publishing. Individually, these are excellent stories. Whether the two novellas are set tête-bêche, is not important. With proper editorial control, the forced links between the stories could have been removed, and two very strong and genuinely terrifying stories would have stood proud and free for all to admire.
And, since we are on the subject of typesetting, this is a surprisingly bad example. There are paragraph throws in the wrong place and real proofreading errors. In some books about collecting — L W Currey’s encyclopaedic Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors: A Bibliography of First Printings of their Fiction and Selected Nonfiction (1979) is my favourite — the identity of the true first edition is often identified by a printing anomaly on page whatever. Well, this first trade paperback edition has anomalies falling out of every chapter. How can anyone miss such obvious mistakes as, “I don’t now if I’m ready for it.” on the memorably numbered page 123? While it does not spoil the enjoyment of reading the book, it did make me flinch in the wrong places — we are only supposed to flinch when the meaning and not the form of the words on the page grabs us.
So, my apologies to all involved in this venture, but this is not worth the money as it stands. We can see how good it could all have been. Let’s just call it a gallant failure and move on to the next book.