You wake up to yellow & orange flashing & loud silent thuds & explosions, like a monstrous old camera shutter going off outside the window, the other side of the blackout blind, only somehow it’s inside your head (although it stops as soon as you close your eyes) & at first you think it’s maybe the circulation of the blood, but it’s far too arhythmic for that both in pulse & intensity of light, and though your legs are soaked in sweat your heart isn’t “pounding”, & you finally realise that what you’re seeing is the nightmare you were just having, translated into a blurred, simplistic, modulated flicker, & that the non-rhythm is the rhythm of narrative with the narrative taken out, & that if you fell back to sleep this minute, exhausted by all this meaningless noiseless cacaphony in the half-waking world in the dark, the nightmare would just pick up again where it left off. & despite the sheer silent assault of it as experienced in this novel way, would prove to be not even very nightmarish.
Tag Archives: horror
For today’s Guardian books podcast I read a little bit of The Course of the Heart, mined out of this section from Chapter One–
For twenty years he had lived in the same single room above the Atlantis Bookshop. He was reluctant to take me there, I could see, though it was only next door and I had been there before. At first he tried to pretend it would be difficult to get in.
“The shop’s closed,” he said. “We’d have to use the other door.”
Then he admitted:
“I can’t go back there for an hour or two. I did something last night that means it may not be safe.”
“You know the sort of thing I mean,” he said.
I couldn’t get him to explain further. The cuts on his wrists made me remember how panicky Pam and Lucas had been when I last spoke to them. All at once I was determined to see inside the room.
“We could always talk in the Museum,” I suggested.
Researching in the manuscript collection one afternoon a year before, he had turned a page of Jean de Wavrin’s Chroniques d’Angleterre–that oblique history no complete version of which is known–and come upon a miniature depicting in strange, unreal greens and blues the coronation procession of Richard Coeur de Lion.
Part of it had moved; which part, he would never say.
“Why, if it’s a coronation,” he had written almost plaintively to me at the time, “are these four men carrying a coffin ? And who is walking there under the awning–with the bishops yet not a bishop ?”
After that he had avoided the building as much as possible, though he could always see its tall iron railings at the end of the street. He had begun, he told me, to doubt the authenticity of some of the items in the medieval collection. In fact he was frightened of them.
“It would be quieter there,” I insisted.
He sat hunched over the Church Times, staring into the street with his hands clamped violently together in front of him. I could see him thinking.
“That fucking pile of shit!” he said eventually.
He got to his feet.
“Come on then. It’s probably cleared out by now anyway.”
Rain dripped from the blue-and-gold front of the Atlantis. There was a faded notice, CLOSED FOR COMPLETE REFURBISHMENT. The window display had been taken down, but for the look of things they had left a few books on a shelf. I could make out, through the plate glass, W B Yeats’ The Trembling of the Veil–with its lyrical plea for intuited ritual “Hodos Chameliontos” –leaning up against Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. When I drew Yaxley’s attention to this accidental nexus, he only stared at me contemptuously.
Inside, the shop smelled of cut timber, new plaster, paint, but this gave way on the stairs to an odour of cooking. Yaxley fumbled with his key. His bedsitter, which was quite large and on the top floor, had uncurtained sash windows on opposing walls. Nevertheless it didn’t seem well lit. From one window you could see the sodden facades of Museum Street, bright green deposits on the ledges, stucco scrolls and garlands grey with pigeon dung; out of the other, part of the blackened clock tower of St George’s Bloomsbury, a reproduction of the tomb of Mausoleus lowering up against the racing clouds.
“I once heard that clock strike twenty one,” said Yaxley.
“I can believe that,” I said, though I didn’t. “Do you think I could have some tea ?”
He was silent for a minute. Then he laughed.
“I’m not going to help them,” he said. “You know that. I wouldn’t be allowed to. What you do in the Pleroma is irretrievable.”
He fished two cups out of a plastic washing-up bowl and put tea bags in them.
“Don’t tell me you’re frightened too!” he said. “I expected more from you.”
I shook my head. I wasn’t sure whether I was afraid or not. I’m not sure today. The tea, when it came, had a distinctly greasy aftertaste, as if somehow he had fried it. I made myself drink it while Yaxley watched me cynically.
“You ought to sit down,” he said. “You’re worn out.”
When I refused, he shrugged and went on as if we were still at the Tivoli:
“Nobody tricked them, or tried to pretend it would be easy. If you get anything out of an experiment like that, it’s by keeping your head and taking your chance. If you try to move cautiously, you may never be allowed to move at all.”
He looked thoughtful.
“I’ve seen what happens to people who lose their nerve.”
“I’m sure,” I said.
“They were hardly recognisable, some of them.”
I put the teacup down.
“I don’t want to know,” I said.
“I bet you don’t.”
He smiled to himself.
“Oh, they were still alive,” he said softly, “if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“You talked us into this,” I reminded him.
“You talked yourselves into it.”
Most of the light from Museum Street was absorbed as soon as it entered the room, by the dull green wallpaper and sticky-looking yellow veneer of the furniture. The rest leaked eventually into the litter on the floor, pages of crumpled and partly burned typescript, hair clippings, broken chalks which had been used the night before to draw something on the flaking lino: among this stuff, it died. Though I knew Yaxley was playing some sort of game with me, I couldn’t see what it was. I couldn’t make the effort, so in the end he had to make it for me. He waited until I got ready to leave.
“You’ll get sick of all this mess one day,” I said from the door of the bedsit.
He grinned and nodded and advised me:
“Have you ever seen Joan of Arc get down to pray in the ticket office at St Pancras ? And then a small boy comes in leading something that looks like a goat, and it gets on her there and then and fucks her in a ray of sunlight ?
“Come back when you know what you want. Get rid of Lucas Medlar, he’s an amateur. Bring the girl if you must.”
–It isn’t the best reading I ever did. But the interview that follows has its points.
Royal Opera House, 1987: Beauty and the Beast has the rhetoric of a Persil ad. All the energy and creative potential of the beast is washed out of him, to the delight of a thoroughly bourgeois audience. He not only comes out white, he comes out wet. He doesn’t dance any more, but primps and smiles about him, and supports the ballerina as she primps and smiles too. Nobody dances any more. The celebration of his taming is brief, vestigial, a tremor: then the ballet ends. He has allowed his raison d’etre to be amputated. He’s had an ontological lobotomy. This may be an artifact of the translation into dance. In the fairy tale the beast loses only his bestiality. Since, in the ballet, his bestiality is represented by dance, and by his best and most vigorous dancing, he loses everything. The other trouble with this medium is that so much of it goes on behind the head of the person sitting in front of you.
I dream a lot about watching strange organisms. They’re not large. Infestations. Algal mats. Microscopic activity in crustal basalt, detected only via byproduct, “perhaps the largest ecosystem on earth”. Not precisely animals. And most often, it has to be said, the kind of things that grow in layers in a drain. They’re soft and mushroom-coloured. I also dream of that wiry, fibrous stuff you get in a bad avocado. In this case it’s a dark red and it runs through everything.
The nightmare of the self: whatever you discover, it will never actually allow you to say anything about the foundation of things. Each discovery will only open up another scale, which, probed, will almost immediately begin to imply a further scale, a finer-grained space. The very small always has something smaller inside it. Whatever you find isn’t the end, it’s only ever the beginning of something else. Worse, the characteristic of these successive foundational states is that they’re composed increasingly of emptiness, of the gaps between things. Everything diffuses out into nothing. And the tools you develop operate only at the scale for which you develop them–though they have just enough sensitivity to alert you, as you push towards each outside edge, to the possiblility of the need for another, yet more subtle, toolset.
You suspect the whole cheap farrago of this grand house being bought “for the public” by some industrialist in the early 1900s. Even then it was a white elephant no one really wanted, except to turn a profit from. There’s a smell of furniture polish & old food. The floorboards are nice; also the way the light falls in: but every object here thanks you for not interacting with it. THANK YOU FOR NOT SITTING, labels on the chairs announce, & the tables & display cases thank you for not touching. If they could, the paintings, china & very short beds would say, THANK YOU FOR NOT LOOKING; & the guards with their hand-held radios would thank you for not coming. “I’ve got people on this floor,” one of the radios says. You know instantly what that means. “Can you hear me, over ?” It is 2012 & they are actually saying “over”. Outside a hot breeze moves the baskets of trailing flowers on the lamp posts in front of Fail Solicitors. It’s one of those mornings when the overcast distributes the light across the sky. The sun will never break through but you’ll feel it there all day, wrapped around you, until your eyes tire. A faded looking man in a red T shirt crosses the road near the bowel cancer charity. His smile is sarcastic & apologetic at the same time. “We both know what’s happened to me,” it says. “It’s happening to you, too. Over.”
Empty Space is published on July 19th 2012 by Gollancz. Here’s another chapter, less to whet the appetite than taunt it–
Last practitioner of a vanishing technique, with specialisms in diplomacy, military archeology and project development, R.I. Gaines–known to younger colleagues as Rig–had made his name as a partly affiliated information professional during one of EMC’s many small wars. He believed that while the organisation was fuelled by science, its motor ran in the regime of the imagination. ”Wrapped up in that metaphor,” he often told his team–a consciously mongrelised group of policy interns, ex-entradistas and science academics comfortable along a broad spectrum of disciplines– “you’ll always find politics. Action is political, whether it intends to be or not.”
Some projects require only an electronic presence. Others plead for some more passionate input. Today Gaines was in-country on Panamax IV, where the local rep Alyssia Fignall had uncovered dozens of what at first sight seemed like abandoned cities. Microchemical analysis of selected hotspots, however, had convinced her they were less conurbations than what she loosely termed “spiritual engines”: factories of sacrifice which, a hundred thousand years before the arrival of the boys from Earth, had hummed and roared day and night for a millenium or more, to bring about change–or, more likely, hold it off.
“Close to the Tract,” she said, “you find sites like these on every tenth planet. You can map the trauma front direct on to the astrophysics.”
There is no direct means of perceiving the real. Science can’t help. The whole of knowledge is like a deep layer of insulation between the individual & the real. No purposeful definition seems possible, only a forced engagement appalling & ecstatic by turns, a tense Lovecraftian psychodrama in which things are simply not what they seem & not very far down beneath it all everything is more chaotic, more undermining of the human construction of the world, than it’s possible to imagine. This kind of fiction is always an attempt to ambush the real, surprise it in the act of being what it actually is, while the real returns the favour & manifests as an intrusion. A thing on a stick. A network of veins seen in a wrong light. A condition of the vacuum. But the more clearly horrific the episode, the more it interposes itself between us & the very thing we’re trying not to hide.
Empty Space: I did my corrections in pencil on hard copy.
Today will probably be the last time in history that an author puts a manuscript in a plastic bag & lugs it across London in the piss wet rain to a publisher’s. At least I didn’t write it in longhand. Actual paper: actual sopping wet rain: a proud if defunct moment, rehearsing all that’s memorable about the hack life. If you see me on the tube, give me a smile. I’ll be the one with the confused semiotics. White beard & adolescent coat. There’ll be an air of the Seventies about me, as if the ghost of stagflation has picked an inopportune moment to call. Surprise, surprise. You won’t want me at your party, I can assure you of that. I’m a living message from one dystopia to another. I mean, honestly, haven’t you just looked up at the Shard & thought “comic book Babel” ? You look at that structure & you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It might as well have Ayn Rand Babel Doom written all over it. It might as well have every chapter of The Wind From Nowhere inscribed on every pane of glass. BASE jumping isn’t just the most interesting use it could be put to. It’s the only use.
(That should have been “from one dystopia to the next”. Much better.)
I heard an equivalence in tone between the words “the Leveson Inquiry” & Mark Danielewski’s phrase “the Navidson Record”. Instantly, Leveson fell whole into Danielewski’s arid self-flattering maze of layered & ultimately unproductive discourses; while in return the presiding void of House of Leaves gained for a second an authentic horror it hadn’t earned. Then the pair of them rustled, shifted & vanished into one another, cannibalising mutually as they went. Discourse space was empty again & I felt free.