the m john harrison blog

salt in birmingham

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Thursday 30 October 2014, 6.30pm, Bookbox, Lower Book Browse, Library of Birmingham: free but ticketed, tickets available from The Box on 0121 245 4455 or on the door.

Readings from Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2014, which is dedicated to Birmingham writer Joel Lane who died last November. Readings by Louise Palfreyman, Mick Scully, M John Harrison and all-round literary powerhouse Nicholas Royle. Joel, the sweetest man who ever lived, nevertheless wrote some of the most wrenched stories you’ll ever read. Get hold of The Earth Wire, it’s a manual for the strange.

If you live in the Midlands, come & join us.

another little taste

Annie Swann had other clients. He never saw anything of them–although he once found a yellow plastic bag of CDs that she said someone must have left under a chair–except at the regular mass seance, which took place in the evening on the second Tuesday of every month. For this event, most of the furniture would be relegated to the kitchen. The curtains were drawn and the sofa dragged in front of the empty fireplace.

“Mass” was perhaps too ambitious a word for what happened. It was formal in an amateur way, as if the participants weren’t really used to being with other people. The downstairs room would fill up from about seven o’ clock with a dozen men wearing business suits or Australian oiled cotton jackets. Collar-length white hair, mustard-yellow corduroy trousers and navy blue Guernsey pullover indicated a retiree. Each of them seemed to have a single prominent defect–a thickened jaw, one eye too large for the other–and while they presented as well-off, they lacked the healthy patina and slightly overfed look you would expect of West London. There were rarely any women. Packed into the tiny front room, forced to regroup every time the door opened to admit a late arrival, they shouted cheerfully enough at each another but lacked confidence. He recognised one or two of them, but he couldn’t think from where.

After perhaps half an hour, during which Annie asked her favourite of the week to hand round glasses of medium dry sherry and Waitrose nibbles, she would take her place on the sofa, smile vaguely around for a minute or two, then slip stage by difficult stage into the mediumistic coma. The men gazed uncomfortably past her at the wall above the fireplace. None of them spoke or moved, although sometimes a quick sideways glance might be exchanged. It was less pleasant, more of an effort, for her to produce anything in these circumstances. She was tired afterwards. There was a prolonged period of disconnection, a shallow delirium in which her legs twitched and shook.

The men, released slowly, as if from a similar psychic bondage, coughed and shifted their feet. They regarded one another as blankly as animals of different species finding themselves in the same field; then, after staring at Annie for a while–in the hope, perhaps, of something more–left the house one by one, letting in the cold evening air. Shaw, who often stayed behind to make her a cup of tea and help drag the sofa back into its usual position, watched them drift away across the graveyard. When they had quite gone, Annie would smile tiredly, pat his forearm, touch his shoulder. If there was a kind of tired flirtatiousness to these gestures, she was, he thought, only trying unconsciously to make a bond with him. It wasn’t something she could see she was doing.

One evening before the mass seance he saw that the map from her brother’s office, or one exactly like it, had appeared on the front room wall.

From “The 4th Domain”, out as Kindle Single in the next couple of weeks.

the fourth domain

Here’s the opening of the new story, “4th Domain”, out as a Kindle Single in the next couple of weeks–

During his thirties, Shaw’s life went through a flat spot. It wasn’t drink or drugs, it was too soon to be a mid-life crisis, it wasn’t any of the predictable things: just a lack of dimension, one of those lapses which, once you come out the other side of it, proves hard to rationalise. Five years of his life were expended on nothing very much. In an attempt to redirect himself, like a delivery that has arrived too late, he moved to a suburb by the Thames and the first night, walking through the graveyard on his way from one pub to the next, discovered a man on his knees in the ground ivy at the base of a wall. Shaw stopped and watched him.

“Are you ok,” he said.

I’ll have a cover image soon.

fauxthentication

However complete a fauxthentication is, it can’t actually be a world–-therefore the criticism, “This novel is still not fully & properly fauxthenticated” is always possible. The constant bolstering of the “world” constantly reveals it not to be one, ie reveals it never to be complete the way the world is. This seems to say more about the limits of writing & the act of suspension of disbelief (an immersion which can clearly be brought about in other ways) than it does about the actual need for a world to seem to be present in front of the reader. Also, it strikes me as a bit mad to be a fiction writer if you have to struggle so desperately to pretend you’re not. There’s some kind of guilt trip behind that. Fauxthentication seems like an attempt to deny your position as someone who makes things up.

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getting out of it

I started hillwalking in the early 1970s because as soon as I got near a hill I could relax. In fact I couldn’t relax any other way. I’m not overstating this. It was a feeling that might be lost later in the walking day for any number of reasons, but for me the venue itself–the upland outdoors–acted like a tranquiliser & an antidepressant. Later in the day–whatever had happened in the interrim: you might get soaked, you might get lost, you might get blisters, you might experience a little low-wattage sublime–tiredness took over & provided another kind of chemical cosh. This never worked for me in towns & cities, or in lowlands. The built environment offered an anxious trudge, a failed yet persistent attempt at leaving yourself–or more likely the venue–behind. Exurban lowlands I just found uninteresting–I’m not saying that’s true now, & I’d rather walk on agricultural land, which I hate with a passion because it’s so clearly owned, than not walk at all. It’s the sense of ownership/not ownership, in the end, that makes the difference to me. I know rationally that I’m not “free” on access land: but at least, for the moment, no one can stop me being there.

make u think

Jackdaws bickering in the air in the tall back corner of the house made me think briefly of Ravensdale, a crag with which I was so obsessed in 1977/8 that I gave it a bit-part in A Storm of Wings, that well-known novel of documentary realism. Watching the “Entertaining Angels Unawares” video on YouTube made me feel old, but also made me think briefly of this, from 1991. Meanwhile, I just stumbled across this, from Neel Mukherjee; & “Cave & Julia” has earned some more money on Kindle, making it one of the more economically productive short stories I’ve published (maybe a lesson there). And, describing the people he claims to speak for as convenor of some mythical Tory “trades union”, David Cameron has accidentally used the word “resent” instead of “represent”.

Generally, it’s been a weirdly mixed day. & only half over.

Intrusions on YouTube

The whole of Intrusions, the one-day tribute to Robert Aickman, is now uploaded to YouTube in five segments. John Ballat reads the deeply weird “The Inner Room”, Ray Russel talks about publishing Aickman, and there’s a discussion about the aims & methods of what Aickman called “the strange story”. In Segment 5 I read “Entertaining Angels Unawares”, a strange story which will appear in my new collection, and which begins, “I got two or three weeks’ work with a firm that specialised in high and difficult access jobs in and around Halifax. They needed a labourer, someone to fetch and carry, clean the site up behind them. The job was on the tower of a church about thirty miles northeast of the town. I wasn’t sure what I thought about that. I wondered what I’d say to the vicar if he ever appeared, but he never did.” You might well think, it suddenly occurs to me, that the narrator is wrong about that.

The subsequent question & answer period illustrates one of the things I was trying to suggest in Climbers, which is that fiction’s closest relative is the pub anecdote.

give us a tune, uncle!

Uncle Zip returns. He’s on the horizon. He’s in the room. He’s wearing his cheap sunglasses. “He’ll give us a tune on the old squeeze box!” He’ll give us a tune from his old song book, & send us home again. (All the tired clones gather round & a single Christmas orange falls from the naked sky.) The gifts of the Uncle.

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