It’s time again for Thrift Store Finds, which is kind of like a scene from a 90s movie where all the kids in the classroom are goofing off or sleeping while the one “good” student pays attention. Except the kids are an army of sentences and the student is just me in sweatpants reading paperbacks with only one eye open.
The only way to discuss J. N. Williamson’s The Tulpa is to break it down into parts.
There’s the plot (fine), the characters (fine?), the subtext (*emoji grimace*), and the execution (uh oh). While most Thrift Store Finds specimens can be talked about in a way that bounces around between the different elements that makes it a book, the bits that make up The Tulpa are so vastly different in quality that the old tried and true methods just aren’t going to work on this one.
So strap on your thinking caps because, well, you’ll see.
The Tulpa is a story about the supernatural events that occur after Steve Neal’s father-in-law, Charlie, suffers a stroke at Charlie’s wife’s funeral.
Of course, it’s not just any stroke. This is a psychic stroke. As grandpa Charlie falls to the ground next to his wife’s grave, he calls out a prediction of sorts. “Roserio, the rocks, the rocks . . . Boulders . . . falling! Oh, God, the people, the humanity!”
The doctors say it’s presenile psychosis, but Steve’s supernatural suspicions are confirmed when he learns that an earthquake in Roserio, Italy killed two hundred people, just like old Charlie predicted. Most people would chalk that up to coincidence. Maybe the old fella had recently read about fault lines in Italy? But not Steve Neal. He’s instantly convinced that his father-in-law is psychic, and in no time at all his wife and children are completely on board with his interpretation without any lasting conflict or interpersonal consequences.
Talk about dramatic tension.
Things keep going from there, with Charlie making predictions and Steve trying to convince people that these visions are real before people get hurt. I say “things” and not “plot” because plot would suggest some forward motion, and there really isn’t any for more than half of the book. Oh sure, stuff happens, but it rarely advances the story more than an inch or two. An erotic (?) scene with a sexy young wiccan leads to Steve getting . . . a book. Charlie’s second prediction—that a huge section of bleachers at a stadium will collapse—yields about a page of action and no major emotional changes for our characters.
Instead Williamson consistently steers away from anything that would cause his characters to grow, preferring long laborious ponderences on the nature of ESP, telekinesis, and the occult. More on that later.
The story picks up again when Charlie decides to try to force himself to see the future but instead accidently creates a tulpa, which is basically a being formed out of his psychic energy who is compelled to do his master’s bidding. Of course, when your master is having a hard time grasping reality, horror can ensue. And when Williamson takes the time to actually write scenes where things happen, it does.
The “exciting” climax comes when the dreaded tulpa makes its way back to the Neal household to exact revenge for its damned existence. But since the creature is inextricably linked to its aged creator, it’s up to senile grandpa Charlie to find a way to save the day.
As far as plots go, it’s fine. Not exactly thrilling, but there’s something there to work with. It’s once you dive deeper, that it all starts to fall apart.
We won’t dwell here too long, but it’s worth pointing out that while Williamson does take the time to flesh out some characters, he does it in a way that doesn’t make much sense. Instead of spending time giving us a cast of well-rounded main characters and less detailed supporting ones, Williamson picks and chooses who we get to know like he did it blindfolded.
We know lots about our man man Steve (sports writer, believes in the supernatural, loves living in a small down), but we barely know anything about his wife Ellen (has olive skin, loves her father, isn’t interested in having sex recently). This wouldn’t be a big deal if Ellen was a minor character, she’s a major player in at least half of the book. Not giving her any real interests our opinions is a huge disservice to not only the character but also to the story. If Williamson had even just made her a confirmed skeptic, every single scene between her and Steve could have come to life as the two debated just what was going on with dear old dad.
And while we’re on the topic of grandpa, he may have been done dirtiest of all.
Somewhere along the line Williamson decided his unwitting antagonist needed to be the kindest, gentlest man in the world. It’s not a bad idea. Make the character very good to start out so that no one will suspect that he could be the root of the problem. And yet the choice falls flat for two reasons.
- Charlie’s niceness is one note. His only goal is to be good and kind and supportive. Heck, he even wears the same warm, smiling facial expression every time we see him.
- Every main character already knows and believes in his psychic abilities.
If you want to take all of the drama out of a scene, just have one character reveal something interesting and have the other say, “I know.” This whole book is basically that same exchange over and over.
I can see the weariness in your eyes, so let’s keep moving.
When I say “subtext” here I don’t mean “the greater themes the writer was pointing to with his story.” I’m talking about when an author unintentionally signals some of their own hang ups within their story.
I’ve heard that Williamson was a lovely man. Positive, passionate about stoyrtelling, and willing to help less experienced writers get their stuff out into the world, so I’m not trying to put him on blast, but the guy really had some unexplored, shall we say, feelings about gender—especially women.
When Ellen leans against Steve, she does so by placing her “soft woman’s cheek” against him. Someone’s female relative is referred to as a “fat, girl cousin.” Even moving seems to be gendered (“Woman like, Ellen hurried toward him”).
But men don’t fare much better. Whether it’s describing a small man as “No larger than an exquisitely petite wife,” or placing the adverb “manfully” before almost every one of Steve’s actions, nary a chapter went by without using gender as a shortcut for description. And that’s just lazy.
THE WRITING STYLE
All that aside, the main problem that kept me from truly enjoying The Tulpa is that it’s just plain boring. As hell.
Sure, the premise seems promising enough, but crack this puppy open to almost any page and you’re going to be greeted with lines like this:
“Steve knew that the peculiar term derived either from the Voodoo mama jombo tree, used as a whipping post for keeping a trouble-making woman in line, or from the African western Sudan, where Mama Dyumbo was the ancestral spirit of the tribe.”
Then there’s the neverending stream of adverbs muddying up even the best of exchanges. Try this one on for size.
“‘Thank you,’ he said pointlessly. His voice sounded tinny in his ears.”
We don’t have time for a writing lesson here, but just remove “he said pointlessly,” and reread it. Better already, eh?
I could go on about the excessive telling and minimal showing, the missed opportunities for the characters to discover something instead of already knowing it, the chances to inject a little conflict in the relationships, but you get my point.
Williamson was a prolific writer, and if that says nothing else it reveals he had a passion for it. Tons of people love to write, but it takes a brave soul to sit down and actually do the damn thing. Whether his books are for me or not, he poured a considerable amount of his life into them, which, in a way, makes them his tulpa: making their way through the world, causing a little chaos, and for that Williamson should be celebrated.
Looking for more psychic energy in your life? You might find some in Salem’s Children, if you can figure out what the heck is going on.