the m john harrison blog

“Every newly empowered demographic selects its typical physiology and body-language, the phenotype which will do best under the new conditions. Everyone is sensitised, nervous, ready to take advantage or regret that their own faces don’t fit. For a few weeks, as he settled into his new surroundings, Shaw wandered an uncanny valley filled with bad suits, Edwardian-looking overcoats, sudden gurning smiles and a cheerful vigour which contested with rubbery, fishlike faces and curious hand-movements. It was like living among aliens.” —The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again.

With fellow Goldsmiths Prize shortlistee Monique Roffey, this time last year at the XR Writers Rebel event in Trafalgar Square–

the news

2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist. I’m delighted to find myself on it with The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again, in the company of such inventive & exciting novelists; & I’m going to need to thank a lot of people, starting with everyone who’s supported me here over the last decade or so. You know who you are. It’s been an eerie, transitional period for me as a writer. I don’t see an end to that now, because–whatever the New Statesman says in its oddly snobbish age- and genre-obsessed announcement–I feel more like a twenty five year old than I did when I was twenty five. The Sunken Land has its own page, here, and you can buy it from all your trusted outlets. Look out for further reviews–including Nina Allan in the LARB & one from the TLS. And news of a new book.

searching under the streetlamp

We can’t help wondering: is the amateur detective rehearsing her own life or actually using it as a model for the crime? Who is she keeping things from–us, or herself? What does she know that she isn’t telling? What doesn’t she know she knows? Is some loop of the epistemic bowel about to split and deluge not just the reader but the narrator? From the off there’s nothing solid here, except a piece of paper with some writing on it, found in the woods while the dog is walked. It could be evidence of something. In and of itself, it isn’t evidence of anything: it’s less than hearsay, it has no provable connection so far to anything in the world. Exactly as it is, with its constant slippage between imaginary events and misinterpretations of real ones–all the delusional threats (the bland police officer, the storekeeper with the shot-up face), the nightmares, the odd behaviour that isn’t–Ottessa Moshfegh’s blackly comic examination of the detective story would make a superb Netflix series. The detective is in her eighties. She never gets further than a quarter of a mile into the pinewoods before a shortness of breath sets in. She suspects an allergen. We suspect some kind of innate oppressiveness, external or internal–the blanket mood of a streaming thriller, French, in which the trees mean something but you’re not sure what because you don’t quite feel you can trust whoever translated the subtitles. I loved it. My review of Death In Her Hands at the TLS, on paper or online here (£).

rue belle image

I crossed the Loire at Pont Aristide Briand & walked downstream. The water was muddy & tidal-looking. I saw an old fashioned boat, painted white. I saw a magpie fly up into a tree. I looked into the sunlight where it dissolved the Rue Alain Barbe Torte & made the world seem both ended & endless. There were yellow leaves everywhere. I felt free. I felt like 1948 in my denim jacket, ready to write what I saw. I saw the neat cobbles & the little cars & the neat French all around. I crossed back by the new metal footbridge. By the river the sun was all over the wet morning air; but in the town the streets were dark and chilly. I walked down the Rue d’Alger to Notre Dame de Son Port, a church with an impressive dome. I observed that there is a lot of dog shit in Nantes, much of it of distinct colours, brick red, yellow ochre, autumn tints. A whole street smelled of petrol. Every street I looked down seemed more interesting than the one I was on. I looked up at the sign “Rue Belle Image” & thought of you. Eventually I entered a cul de sac, with fallen-down walls and buildings that leaned in towards one another, which narrowed to an alley. A cat came out on to the cobbles in the sun to say hello. 10:30 am next morning, it was fog. The aeroplane spent some time waddling to and fro across the airfield like a pregnant duck. We might have been in Britain already: the fields, the little copses brown with autumn and soaked with dew. Finally the duck lurches upwards and the fog proves to be a thin, Atlantic layer. It sprays off the wing like water from a car tyre. We’re in the light that awaits everyone, the real weather of the world.

People strive to preserve the truth of the observed experience, but that’s what locks the material away from you.

a little news

Upcoming this month: reviews in the TLS (Ottessa Moshfegh’s blackly comic meta-mystery Death in Her Hands) and the Guardian (Stuart Turton’s maritime gothic detective romp The Devil and the Dark Water); an appearance on Henry Rothwell’s fascinating Grave Goods, in which I claim I would be happy to walk sandstone heath for eternity, eating humous & pitta; in online conversation with Gary Budden under the auspices of the mighty Housmans bookshop; in online conversation with La Enriquez for FILBA 2020. I updated this. Sure, the 1970s were fun, but for those who prefer to know what I’m writing now, “Doe Lea” is still free to read at Granta.

& here’s a super-short story I wrote for twitter: “George has been known since 1949 for his fascinating stories of rats eating peoples’ faces, so it seems odd to talk about any other concern he might have.”


A novel I started some years ago seems to have returned from the files and is dragging itself one-leggedly about looking for the outside door. It may be relevant to our present situation. It may just be something I want to do. I’m also assembling a kind of fragmentary non-fiction autofiction, which has its roots not far from us as we speak. I finished my proper ghost story, it’s 4000 words. Quite funny and angry and it would never have got into the English Heritage anthology even if I’d finished it in time to submit. Recent copyright reversions mean that I should be able to do something about bringing Signs of Life and The Course of the Heart back into print. I’ll be active on that, and also looking to reprint those short stories from Things That Never Happen that didn’t make it into Comma’s Settling the World. My plan is to have all three volumes available as soon as I can.

we’re all back from the dead now
even those of us who were alive to start with
so there’s no point you standing there on the one leg
flapping your arms that way
the building, the bars, the unfortunate street
this whole picture’s uncompromisingly cursed
and whatever you do you will not become a “story”

–originally blogged 2016

Landscape in fiction is never just background, or you’re wasting your opportunities. Let the landscape do as much of the work as possible. Entangle everything with the setting. Fold setting & narratuve into one another. Empty Space: the Funene Golden Hour, a landscape derived from photography of the Namib coast. Ad-image pseudo-sublime. What is the difference between awe & oh wow? The reification of an aesthetic judgement, a play on the use of the term “landscape porn”. Woven into the trilogy’s general position on postindustrial spectacle–the transformation of real sites into sites of public art, ie leisure heritage. Climbers: “The moment you step into a landscape it becomes another one.” But also, the gritsone edges as a kinaesthetic abacus on which you “tell” your life. To what degree–& in how many lives–has Stanage served that purpose–emotional touchstone or pivot, hermitage, site of psycho-addiction sought out at points in your life, abandoned at others–but also the sense that the gritstone landscape can in some unforgiving way abandon you & you may never be allowed to go back.

Friday is not my house
I’m coming round yours midnight
& steal the cats I love so much.
You can have your same old problem
Get one-up on those detectives
In the workplace, it won’t
Keep me off the case
Or cure the actors of acting.

Originally published 2015