Blog

Review of Spontaneous Human Combustion by Richard Thomas


Spontaneous Human Combustion is Richard Thomas’s fourth short story collection, featuring 14 tales ranging from cosmic horror, to science fiction, fantasy, and into realms beyond any simple definition. Richard Thomas has a unique style of writing, a trademark syntax that I can spot a mile away, though at the same time he is also chameleon-esque, changing the style and flavour of his prose in order to suit the aesthetics of his story, or to further highlight a theme he is exploring. This is perhaps why he is such an adept of the short story form in particular (though I do adore his novel Disintegration in particular). 

Stephen King describes short stories as “a kiss in the dark” and Richard Thomas exemplifies this transitory (and sometimes transcendental) experience, in which the very brevity of the form becomes the source of its power. We can only connect with the divine momentarily. Yet, to do so can be life-changing. In this way, Richard Thomas’ short stories more closely resemble poems. They do not always operate on the plane of conscious understanding. They are not meant to be comprehended through rational intellect, but to touch something lying beneath that. I found some of the stories in this collection to be moving without really understanding them in full. This collection also took me twice as long as it should have done to read because I was drawn inexorably to re-read virtually every story in the collection (and was rewarded every time with new insight)! 

I am fairly sure that this collection will be divisive in multiple ways. Some people will hate the poetic styling. Some will love it. And beyond this, there is unlikely to be any consensus on what the best story in this collection is. The range on offer here prohibits an easy narrowing down. As I mentioned earlier, Richard Thomas touches on virtually every speculative genre known to humankind, and combines them in often unexpected ways. Secondary world fantasies give way to dystopian science fiction. Lovecraftian horror is mixed with hope-punk. One senses a mind behind all these stories striving relentlessly for originality, to forge something new and not rely on tropes or easy wins. In the extensive and enlightening Endnotes at the back of this collection, Richard Thomas often mentions “challenging himself”, and one can feel that these stories are an almost Barker-esque attempt to discover something beyond the mundane, to “[explore] the further reaches of human experience” (Hellraiser). There is an experimental nature to this which is by definition inexact, but can produce startling alchemy. 

As I have said before, the experience will be highly personal, and no doubt there will be little agreement on which are the most potent stories in this collection, but I will highlight my own personal top four to give you a flavour of the book:

“Ring of Fire”

I would be criminally remiss not to mention this story, as it is the longest in the collection, practically a novella. It was first published in Seven Deadliest Sins, an anthology of seven novelette / novella-length works that centred on the eponymous Seven Deadly Sins, so I had read the story once before (my review of this collection can be found here:https://storgy.com/2019/05/29/book-review-the-seven-deadliest-edited-by-patrick-beltran-and-d-alexander-ward/). “Ring of Fire” is a little bit like a Lynchian Möbius strip, a circle that doesn’t quite complete, a mystery that forever unfolds but never quite solves; at the same time, it’s a tremendous character-arc. It is a slow burner, in which the seemingly explainable and mundane scenes we’re privy too are steadily re-contextualised until we realise that nothing has been “normal” or “explainable” from the start. It is also carries an indescribable sadness to it, as each repetition, each “circuit” of the Möbius, seems to lead us not towards salvation but deeper into the elliptical loops of the psyche. It’s worth mentioning this is not the only story in the collection that involves repeated scenarios or looping narrative. There are several “Groundhog Days” contained in Spontaneous Human Combustion. Some are literal, some spiritual, and others more subtle, but the idea of being stuck in a loop that either cannot be broken, or can only be broken by our most extraordinary efforts—with great sacrifice—is arguably the defining image of the entire collection, and a metaphor for the human condition. 

“The Caged Bird Sings In a Darkness Of Its Own Creation” 

This is another story that I’d read once before; it was first published in Storgy’s Shallow Creek anthology, one of the weirdest and most underrated collections of fiction ever put to print. You can also read my review of that collection here: http://themindflayer.com/review-shallow-creek-storgy/. Richard Thomas’s story is the last story in the collection, and for good reason. It is a total mind-f*ck of chthonic proportions. It centres on Krinkles The Klown, who is a kind of Pennywise for Shallow Creek. But rather than going for shock-horror and killer clown antics, Richard Thomas instead tries to peel back the laters of Krinkles and show us why he is so strange (interestingly, there is another story in Spontaneous Human Combustion about a clown taking off their makeup—I sense a theme emerging!). I do not normally enjoy narratives that leave so much in the reader’s hands, but what I loved about “The Caged Bird Sings In a Darkness Of Its Own Creation” is that Richard Thomas give us a series of choices, and we realise that this is exactly what Krinkles has faced: a series of choices, bargains, and decisions that have led him to the edge of the abyss. The story can be seen as bleak, in some ways, but is this how Krinkles sees it? Richard Thomas shows us that perception is everything in this tale. What we choose to see in the mirror is the reality we inhabit. The story has two strange parallels: Twin Peaks, especially Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return (in which the macrocosm of the Lynch-universe is seemingly unveiled)and secondly, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. In terms of the second comparison, not so much the retro late-seventies vibe, more the contact with something entirely other, and the sense of obsession, panic, and euphoria such contact can bring. 

“Nodus Tollens” 

This story was a huge surprise. It is almost an outlier of the collection, in that it is written in a more prosaic and down-to-earth style. Richard Thomas himself described it as his most “King-like” story, and I would have to agree. As much as I love Richard Thomas’ impressionistic bent, it was refreshing, indeed electrifying, to see him tackle a story in a more grounded way, and as a consequence the story stands out. The title, Nodus Tollens, is a phrase invented by John Koenig on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows which means “the realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore”. Thus, what starts as a simple hand of poker quickly becomes a cosmic game in which sin must be unburdened. 

“Undone”

This story was the biggest surprise in the collection. When I first started reading it, I was uncertain whether I would enjoy it. Essentially, and I don’t think this is not giving away too much, the entire 1,500 word story is written in one sentence. Usually, I would regard this as pretentious; howeverRichard Thomas pulls it off, for several reasons, perhaps the most important of which is that the frenetic, relentless nature of the single run-on sentence is used to encapsulate the relentless nature of a terrifying, heart-pounding chase. This clever mimesis justifies the technique and elevates the intensity of the narrative. The plot of the story is simple, or seems to be. Two people are running from something unspeakable. What emerges at the end of the tale, however, is a moment of transcendence, of contact with something ineffable and divine. It is weird, grotesque, beautiful, harrowing, and spiritually uplifting. There are shades of China Miéville here. Never in a million years could I have guessed this would be my favourite story in the collection, but it is. 

Spontaneous Human Combustion is not easy reading (to be fair, in general I do not find collections easy to read due to the stop-start nature of digesting a series of stories); however, it is a rewarding and powerful experience on so many levels. Richard Thomas pushes the envelope of what is possible in fiction, and strives to show us something truly sublime. Perhaps the collection is best summarised in Richard Thomas’s own words from his story “Undone”: “everything I could never be, nothing we have been before”. 

You can pre-order the collection here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Blog

The Cathedral of the Deep Part 2: How to Write Gothic

HOW TO WRITE GOTHIC

So, in the previous class we looked at the four key elements of mood, architecture, religion and lyricism. Now, we’re going to put these ideas into practice for writing a short piece of prose. Get ready to do some work!

THE SEED

Exercise 2.1.

Pick a favourite quote from Gothic literature (or any literature so long as the quote itself has Gothic resonance according to the four aspects) or even a film. If you can’t find one or think of one off the top of your head, then you can use this one:

Despair has its own calms”

Dracula

Based on this quote, write a short paragraph, expanding on the quote, giving it a modern twist. It doesn’t have to be a whole story, just the beginnings of one. It can be any type of writing response, from philosophical ramblings, a series of images, or a character portrait. Let yourself go.

Exercise 2.2

From the paragraph you’ve written in the previous exercise, you have a basic story premise. By this, I mean you have a seed of something, whether it be an idea, philosophy, or feeling, that can be expanded into narrative form. You will now transform this seed into a five act narrative. The five act structure for storytelling harks back to the Greco-Roman plays of antiquity by such ancient masters as Sophocles and Plautus, but if you want a more recent example, think of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol.1, which is divided into five chapters! As the saying goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Old forms endure for millennia for a reason. 

The five acts are as follows:

Act I: Inciting Incident

The event that becomes a catalyst for everything that follows, the thing which sets the story in motion.

Act II: Development/Turn the screw

We go deeper into the story here and learn more about why the event happened, possibly learn some new insights about the event and the people involved in it that may cast them in new light or confirm what we initially thought. The tension is amped. I use the phrase “Turn the Screw” in reference to Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw, a masterpiece of taut psychological and supernatural horror that continues, each chapter, to “turn the screw”, making things worse, with more at stake, and more horror. 

Act III: Peripitea

This is the moment where our protagonist starts to turn the tables and gain the upper hand in some way, whether that be by realising what they need to do, acquiring an object or ally, or just trying harder. This is a moment where the “good guys” strike back.

Act IV: Anagnorisis

A revelation, some new information comes to light that changes everything. This would be the “I am your father” moment in Empire Strikes Back, or the “I am your mother” moment in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex.

Act V: Catharsis

The story reaches its climax and denouement. Something is lost, so that something can be gained. We experience the negative emotions, the suffering, of the protagonist as our own and then are freed from this negative emotion in a moment of sublimity. If this all sounds a bit technical, just think of an ending to a film, book, story, that really moved you at a deep level. This is the catharsis.

Optional Extra: Resolution

Though this is not technically required, most stories have a resolution following the catharsis, a kind of epilogue. This is not a specific act, as it is normally very brief and is disconnected from the central narrative in some way (it takes place years afterwards, or is written from a different perspective). This is the rounding up of things, tying off of loose ends.

EXAMPLE

Let me give you a couple of examples, so you can get the hang on it.

Let’s look at a Gothic/Horror film most of us will have seen (though it’s totally okay if you haven’t): Blade Runner. This has five clear acts.

Act 1, we are introduced to the concept of replicants in that iconic opening scene with Detective Holden interviewing Leon Kowalski. We are also introduced to Deckard (Harrison Ford), eating at a Japanese noodle bar, though not for long, because he is arrested. The first thing we see is a replicant struggling to improvise and imagine, the subtle difference between human and robot, which is tremendously foreshadowing and significant of what will follow. Leon Kowalski’s attack / breakdown is the “inciting incident” that causes Deckard to be summoned to the office to track down the other rogue replicants, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer).

Act 2, Deckard learns about his opponent from his former boss Bryant: Roy and his gang are Nexus-6 replicants, believed to be advanced enough that they may have developed emotions, which might make them harder to detect via VK testing. The scientists designed the Nexus-6s to have only a four-year lifespan. Bryant sends Deckard to Tyrell Corp.’s headquarters to rest the VK machine on a Nexus-6 model. It is here he meets Rachel (Sean Young), a Nexus-6 model so advanced she has memories, and doesn’t know she is a replicant. Meanwhile, Roy, Leon, Pris and other characters forward their schemes, recruiting the “toy maker” Sebastian responsible for much of their code, and gaining equipment needed to enact their plan.

Act 3, is the peripetea, the “turning point”. This is when good gets the upper hand. This is when Deckard uses a number stamp on a snake scale to locate one of Roy Batty’s crew, Zhora, and hunts her down. Deckard tracks down Sebastian and goes to his apartment. As Deckard searches the mess, he is surprised by a disguised Pris, who assaults him using acrobatics. As she performs a series of back flips to finish Deckard off, he shoots her through the abdomen. She spasms violently for a few moments before Deckard shoots her twice more and finally kills her. Many of Roy’s crew have been picked off now.

Act 4, anaganorisis, is the “revelation”. With Blade Runner, this could be a number of things. Roy killing Tyrell whilst muttering the word “father”, to me is a revelation, because it humanises Roy whilst also showing him at his most monstrous. It is proof, if ever it were needed, that the replicants can in fact feel, are human, and even identify the same emotional attachments. Another revelation is during Deckard’s final pursuit and battle with Roy. This is one of the most hotly debated aspects of Blade Runner, which is : Is Deckard a replicant? I believe that the evidence shows Deckard is, himself, a replicant created to hunt replicants. His patchy memory, impulsiveness and childish behaviour, and his callousness (shooting a fleeing and wounded Zhora in the back without hesitation), all serve to support this. But, if final proof were needed, it’s when Roy saves Deckard from falling – gripping his arm and hoisting him up over the ledge. Roy says: “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” To me, this indicates that Roy knows Deckard is a “slave”, a robotically programmed replicant like himself. The two are similar, and Roy pities Deckard, which is why he saves him.

Act 5, catharsis. This comes when Roy utters his final speech: “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe…” We realise the full extent of his humanity and experience the tragedy of mortality, the frailty of human life, and how fleeting experience truly is: “…lost… like tears in rain”. This is where we feel the pain, sorrow and suffering and then are released from it.

Resolution: Deckard and Rachel flee together.

BACK TO THE EXERCISE

Write a plan for your story. This can be as detailed as you like but should start as just five bullet points conforming to the above. Read and reread your structure, keep adding detail, until your are satisfied that this will be a story that hits home.

We now have the basic five act structure for your story, the “bones” of the piece. We will go on to look at these story bones in more detail, cloaking them in flesh.

HOW TO WRITE YOUR OPENING

Now, you will write an opening for the story you just planned out! We’re going to look at the first 1 – 3 paragraphs only, as these are so critical. We will look in detail at opening lines, how they work, what you need to be doing to make it gripping and in keeping with Gothic.

Writing a Gothic story opening is very different to writing the opening to another novel. If you look at Crime novels, for example, the work of someone like Lee Child or Jodi Piccoult, all their openings follow a very strict formula, almost like a screenplay.

They introduce a character, an action, a place, and a time. And, they have a hook, something we want to know. Or, at least, something intriguing or out-of-sync or unusual. In strict structures, the hook must tie in with the climax of the story.

Every time its the same formula. Gothic is a little more experimental precisely because of the lyrical element, the poetic nature of the genre. Gothic can be more suggestive or symbolic in the way it handles it opening. Let’s look at some examples.

This is the opening of Mark Shelley’s Frankenstein.

‘I am by birth a Genevese, and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic. My ancestors had been for many years counsellors and syndics, and my father had filled several public situations with honour and reputation. He was respected by all who knew him for his integrity and indefatigable attention to public business. He passed his younger days perpetually occupied by the affairs of his country; a variety of circumstances had prevented his marrying early, nor was it until the decline of life that he became a husband and the father of a family.’

If I’m honest, I don’t really like this opening. It’s fairly dull and obsequious, which I guess is due to the character’s voice – but it doesn’t help grabbing my attention. However, this opening is here to create verisimilitude. We are meant to believe this manuscript we hold in our hands really is the journal of a Genevese aristocrat, who has an astonishing encounter in icy wastes with Victor Frankenstein. This was not in the original draft of the novel, however. Originally, Mark Shelley opened the novel at Chapter 5:

‘It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.’

This is exemplary Gothic. It is poetic, visually intense, and dark as night. The language is elevated, which suits the voice of a mad genius, and the importance of the event – the creation of life. There is tremendous mood and atmosphere here, created with the wonderful details. This, to me, is where the story should have begun, and shows Shelley’s true talent.

Let’s look at the opening of something more recent, like Haruki Murakami’s After Dark:

Eyes mark the shape of the city. Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair. In our broad sweep, the city looks like a single gigantic creature – or more like a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms. Countless arteries stretch to the ends of its elusive body, circulating a continuous supply of fresh blood cells, sending out new data and collecting the old, sending out new consumables and collecting the old, sending out new contradictions and collecting the old. To the rhythm of its pulsing, all parts of the body flicker and flare up and squirm. Midnight is approaching, and while the peak of activity has passed, the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished…’

So here, we don’t even have a character (unless it’s the ‘night bird’) or an action (unless it’s the ‘sweep’), but we do get a strong sense of place, time and, all-importantly, mood. We also have lots of questions. Why is it significant that ‘midnight is approaching’? Why is the city so vividly described? Could it be that the city itself is a character in this novel? The imagery is also quite disturbing and Lovecraftian: this colossal monstrous creature emerging. It’s very Gothic.

FIRST LINES

In Gothic style, the game is saying what you want to say symbolically, so, try to set up your story indirectly. In After Dark, it’s by creating this ominous foreboding of the city as a body. The fact the ‘basal metabolism’ is keeping the city alive is also foreshadowing of the character Eri who is locked in a coma, unable to wake up.

Let’s look at the opening of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James:

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered until somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.’

Long sentence, but it touches all the bases of openings: character, action, mood, place, time. It is very self aware: its a ghost story about people telling ghost stories around a campfire. The hook is the reference to the child at the end. We know this story is going to be very disturbing because of this. It’s also evasive. There aren’t particulars about what was gruesome about the story or what, exactly, the ‘visitation’ was.

Exercise 3.

Let’s write an opening using these above points as a reference. We’ll start with the first line. Your first line needs to hit hard and stand alone. Arguably, like the first shot of a movie, it should encapsulate the entirety of the meaning of your story. While this sounds impossible and ambitious, it is more a guideline, a good thing to aim for.

Have a go at writing your first line now! Read it back, does it touch on some of the above requirements of character, action, mood, place, time and one or two of the Gothic elements of mood, architecture, religion or lyricism? Can it be improved or shortened? Does it hook?

There is an old saying: “Sweat your fist line”. It’s one of the most important aspects of your story. Think of how much store you put in “first impressions” in life. This is your first impression!

First Paragraph

After your first line, you need to broaden out more. This is where your second hook should come, another reason to read on.

Exercise 4.

Write a paragraph following on from your first line. Explore what’s going on, deepen the symbolism, or perhaps pull back and offer clarity. Go on to give more information but do not overload your reader with data. Allow the story to emerge naturally. Your reader is always smarter than you think. You need to give them further reasons to read on too.

Henry James’ really long first line works as both a first line but also a first line and paragraph. The first segment: ‘The story had held us’ works like a stand-alone line. In fact, it would be more grammatically correct if there was a full-stop there.

So, a snappy first line that stands alone, and has some kind of greater resonance. Then, a first paragraph that draws us in to the narrative that will follow. Try giving it a go, then share it with friends/family/someone you trust, and see what they think. Do they want to read on?

From here, you can start building your story piece by piece, in accordance with the five act structure. I would go into detail of how to write your ending, but there is too much to say about writing a Gothic ending (or indeed any story ending) to include it here. If you liked this article, and feel you would like more – including about writing a good ending – please do leave me a comment, or message me on Twitter, and if enough people are interested I will write a Gothic article about endings.

Well, time for me to leave you on a favourite quote:

The curse of life is the curse of want. And so, you peer… into the fog, in hope of answers.”

Dark Souls II

X

Thank you so much for coming this far. I hope that this class has been of use to you. We’ve now reached the end of Part 2, and the class has a whole. I really enjoyed writing up these notes from my seminar, and I hope they are of use to you in some way. Thanks very much for taking the time to read it, it means a lot to me.

If you feel that you have benefited from today’s class, then please check out my KoFi page, where you can donate $3 to “buy me a coffee” to help me keep producing free resources like this. Do not feel pressure to do so, but small contributions can go a long way for creators like me.

Until next time, my friends!