Sean M. Thompson
Planet X Publications
[Please note that the author sent a review copy of this title in exchange for a fair and honest review]
In a bid to expand my range of Weird Horror authors and publishers, I recently asked Horror Twitter if they could recommend anyone in the genre, and to my delight was bombarded with a large number of names in a very short period of time. Those names have been noted down and researched, and one of the first I focused on was a name I recognised – author Sean M. Thompson, who has contributed stories to several anthologies published by Muzzleland Press and Orford Parish books. I’ve enjoyed those contributions and their distinct brand of weirdness that meshed so well with the themes of the anthologies, and was intrigued to see what else he had written. I was therefore delighted that Mr Thompson dropped me a line over social media and offered to send me a copy of his latest novella – the curiously named Farmington Correctional. I gratefully accepted the copy, attracted not only by the back-cover blurb but also the cover art by George Cotronis and the cover design by Michael Adams. Working together, the two illustrators have crafted a rather unsettling image of a bloody-handed woman cast into shadows, a line of trees emerging sinisterly from either side of her, and the novella title set in stark, prison-style font at the top of the cover. It’s a great piece that effectively sets the weird, religious-focused theme of the novella.
The story of Farmington Correctional is tightly-plotted, focused on the plights of two people intimately connected with that titular prison institution. The first is Sarah, a young therapist who attends the prison to run an anger management programme in a near-quixotic attempt to help the damaged men incarcerated in Farmington. The second is Chuck, one of those inmates; sentenced to a three-year sentence for beating a man near to death for trying to steal his car. The beating – which he can’t explain, or understand why it happened when he’s usually so calm and mild – has taken him away from his young son during his formative teenage years.
See, Chuck can’t explain exactly why be became so deranged and used his fists that way. It’s something to do with the voice in his head claiming to be God, though it doesn’t seem to be the God of the copy of the Bible he’s brought in the Prison Commissary. The voice seems to come from the Whispering Pines forest next to Farmington Correctional, its trees and soil soaked in the blood of men, women and children lured into its depths over the centuries. As the days pass, and Sarah attends Farmington Correctional and runs her group, God’s voice becomes more and more insistent in Chuck’s head, accompanied by strange hallucinations. God’s demands become impossible to ignore, and Chuck begins to see that most of the prisoners and wardens are possessed by evil – evil that needs to be purged.
Farmington Correctional fascinates me, because Mr Thompson has created a unique slice of short Horror fiction that works on multiple levels. On the most superficial level, we have a novella that follows a standard supernatural trope – the haunted forest and surrounding area that leeches the good from people and turns them into devils, and imbues another (i.e. Chuck) with sufficient power to unleash chaos on those his fractured mind deems to be in need of killing. And on that level, Farmington Correctional certainly delivers in spades – we get a great deal of violence towards the end of the narrative, along with some very weird and twisted events that I think will succeed in creeping out even seasoned veteran readers of the Horror genre.
Yet Farmington Correctional also works on a much deeper level, delivering – as the best Horror fiction does – a great deal of incisive social commentary. As Mr Thompson makes clear, the real evil in the novella is not the Whispering Pines themselves, but Farmington Correctional as an institution – and the prison system as a whole. Chuck’s descent into religious fanaticism only becomes truly rooted in his mind when he’s thrown into an isolation cell, for example, and becomes disturbingly plausible when one does even the most fleeting of research on how prisons can fundamentally change a person’s personality and outlook. No supernatural elements are required for that – just an indifferent, uncaring and underfunded system that is designed to punish rather than rehabilitate. Thompson gives some great insights into the role of prison social workers, and the damaged inmates they work with, as well as the depressing effects of the drugs they’re often prescribed. Then there’s the realities of prison life itself – fights, drugs, reading, but above all hour upon countless hour of mind-numbing mundanity and repetition, where sleeping is the most time-consuming activity.
There are a few minor issues with Farmington Correctional – a few typos that made reading a little difficult at time, and setting the story during the mid-90’s – while an interesting idea – never really seems to pay off or go anywhere. Yet those are incredibly minor gripes when put against the novella as a whole. Whether it really is supernatural forces at work in the prison is up for the reader to decide – I certainly found the ending to be somewhat ambiguous and with some interesting subtext about psychological trauma and disassociation. For me the main attraction was the intense and often poetic language Thompson uses to describe the prison facility and its inmates, and the atmosphere of sinister, barely-repressed violence and institutional indifference that is etched into the very structure of the prison. Farmington Correctional is an intense and multi-layered piece of Horror fiction that is most rewarding after multiple readings, and is a must-read for any fan of Weird Horror – or someone wishing for an insight into the brutality of the prison industry.