the m john harrison blog

Month: July, 2012


I found her in one of the bigger blanket boxes. When I opened the lid a strange smell–compounded of blood & beeswax, pot pourri, vomit & whisky–filled the room. To fit herself in, Isobel had curled up, scrawny and foetal, with her head pillowed on one hand, in the pained attitude of a thirteenth century peat-burial. Beneath her was a litter of brochures, Polaroid snapshots & sodden tissues. The Polaroids were all of Isobel. She was clutching an empty Jameson’s bottle. She had torn the waxy machine-varnished covers off the brochures and then thrown up on them. She had discarded two cans of Gillette shaving foam, an old fashioned safety razor of mine & some spare blades. She had slit her wrists. But first she had tried to shave the nascent feathers from her scalp, upper arms and breasts, hacking at the keratin until her skin was a mess of bruises and abrasions, indescribable soft ruby scabs, ragged and broken feather sheaths like cracked and bloody fingernails. In a confused attempt to placate me, she had tried to get out of the dream the way you get out of a coat. When she moved, the down of twenty different birds puffed up out of the blanket box into the air around us like grey smoke. It fell back into her wounds & clung there turning red. For a second I was breathing it. It was as if a quilt had burst in my face & I was breathing feathers. They had a strange odour, musty yet exotic, dry but full of musk. I heard wings. They were soft & distant. They were close and panicky. They seemed to circle the room, then fade. [From Signs of Life, Gollancz, 1997.]



Though on a good night you could still hear the breathy whisper of ten thousand voices wash across the roofs of Montrouge like a kind of invisible firework, the arena by then was really little more than a great big outdoor circus, & all the old burnings and quarterings had given place to history pageants, drumming, amateur choirs, acrobatics, trapeze acts &c. The New Men liked exotic animals. They did not seem to execute their political opponents–or each other–in public, though some of the aerial acts looked like murder. Every night there was a big, stupid lizard or a megatherium brought in to blink harmlessly & even a bit sadly up at the crowd until they had convinced themselves of its rapacity. & there were more fireworks than ever: to a blast of maroons full of magnesium & a broad falling curtain of cerium rain, the clowns would erupt bounding & cartwheeling into the circular sandy space–jumping up, falling down, building unsteady pyramids, standing nine or ten on each other’s shoulders, active & erratic as grasshoppers in the sun, while the massed bands played the popular music of a decade or two ago. They fought, with rubber knives and whitewash. They wore huge shoes. Everyone loved them. [From “The Dancer from the Dance”, 1983.]

objects as yet unseen

Implacable calm of the water. No horizon line. Heat blurs the edges of the air before eight in the morning. Distant objects–hikers on the cliffs, seabirds on the harbour mole–seem too large. Everything like a film, wrapped in cameraman sublime, documentary sublime. Light, silhouettes, warmth like a perfect saturated colour, all at once. South coast as Salton Sea. Wandering dazzled between the net shops and the fish stalls, I read “locally sourced” as “locally soured”; later, have a dream in which I am a painting by Anne Redpath. My whole life has become lodged in a few daisies, some grapes in a bowl. As the dream progresses I’m in more and more paintings. Whole rooms of myself, whole shows, stretch back for years, done out in the chalky greys of degreased paint. All my objects look calm but raw. Everything seems deliberately unfinished, wilfully unseen (or as-yet-unseen). A kind of indoor weathering has taken place on every surface. Every morning the shore is full of toddlers who don’t want to go somewhere. They’re sitting down, they’re kicking their legs, they’re repeating the same couple of words fifteen times in a row. You have to admire their commitment. But eventually even these athletes of the self will find themselves reconciled to the understanding that nothing you want–or don’t want–fits your fantasy of it, leaving you free not to want anything any more.

the kind of map you would use

B & I are drinking wine in the afternoon when part of the sky goes dark. It’s a summer squall. Eddies of wind bully the street trees around. A single feather floats into view, makes its way across the garden & out over the wall, its weird calm transit defining a layer of privileged air at about twice the height of a person. “We don’t give in to age now the way we used to,” says B. “Age has to find its resolution in new ways.” It’s her favourite topic at the moment. “I don’t know anyone, for instance–not anyone who really accepts and understands what age means to them–who hasn’t experienced the urge to act out the coming journey.” The windows blur with rain behind her, rattle a little in their frames. It makes her excited for a moment. “Some kind of walkabout! You feel relief as soon as you get the idea. Here’s a way of recognising & accepting–& at the same time a way of being thrown by–that urge to leave everything behind.” I consider these rationalisations with as much dignity as I can, then pour her another half glass of wine & wonder what will happen to the feather. “Seriously,” she says. “What kind of a map would you use?” Then she laughs & says: “You don’t have to answer that.”

publication day

So there you go. It’s publication day. I’m going to stay quietly at home with my own thoughts, taking the dust jacket off one of my remaining hardback copies then putting it back on again, then squaring the volume away neatly on a shelf. Later I might get a Sainsbury’s sandwich & a drink of water. Publication is a weird thing. The madness, terror & hysterical self-harming is over, sure, but by now you’re even more anxious for the confirmation you’ll never get. Publication is always intimately associated with the failure to know whether you made anything or not. The first & the last thing you ask of everybody: Is there a book here at all ? They’ll look at you oddly sometimes when you’ve asked that, because they’ve got it in their hand. Perhaps edge away from you a bit. Anyway, as I say, I thought I’d have a quiet day, so here’s Gus the Fox with some tales of urban nature.

a kind of glue

I watched The Man From London. I enjoyed the drawn-out opening scene at the dock; the dance to the accordion with the chair & the billiard ball; & the man in the hat eating bony soup in the bar. I liked everything about it except the parts directly imported from Georges Simenon. Simenon always set my teeth on edge. As a teenager I wanted to get him in a corner & scream in his face, “I don’t fucking care what happens to these people!” I felt much the same about Alfred Hitchcock & Patricia Highsmith. Suspense defers narrative for the sake of it. To write suspense of that traditional, formalised kind is to play anxiety games with the reader based on values, identification & expectation. Suspense bored me because all I wanted to know was what happened, not what gluey, simplified, slow-motion psychological game it resolved; or what typical moral identifications & affiliations of my parents’ generation it was masturbating. I couldn’t make the necessary value judgements about the relationship between interior & exterior behaviour. I didn’t care enough about the ideological underpinning to feel pleasurable tension. Only a vast excruciating impatience.

empty space, the contents

1: Organs 2: Hard Goods 3: Swimming with Eels 4: Givenchy 5: Archive Style 6: Skull Radio 7: England Calling 8: Rocket Jockeys 9: Emotional Signals Are Encoded in Tears 10: Down to the River 11: Empty Space 12: I am not Renoko! 13: Eaten by Dogs 14: Enantiodromic Zones 15: Random Acts of Downward Causation 16: Carshalton Shangri-La 17: Correlation States 18: It Takes Place in a Vacuum 19: Anyone Can Make a Mistake 20: Modern Luminescence 21: Everyone’s a VIP to Someone 22: The See-Not Gate 23: Heart Sounds & Bruits 24: Spike Train 25: Lowboy Orbits 26: Lizard People from Deep Time 27: The Medium Is Not the Message 28: Lay Down Yr Weary Tune

use your new genre

Lowrider sword & sorcery. Before the battle of Helm’s Deep, Galadriel, who’s eaten nothing for a week but the wadding from benzedrine inhalers, does Cootchie Cootie in the back of his 1951 Fleetline bomb. It’s a favour for a friend. Wittgenstein, Merlin & CS Lewis look on in passive-aggressive disavowal. After that, for the founding volume anyway, it’s Zap Comic dynamics on a lean-burn version of The Revenger’s Tragedy–the usual tale of poor choices, low ground clearance & self medication. Emotional palette from A Glastonbury Romance, prose from Destination: Moon! & worldbuilding from one of those ads where if you buy the right mobile phone it causes inconvenient buildings to fold themselves away in front of the user so she can get to some other stuff she wants to consume without ever walking round a corner or even, apparently, consulting the phone itself? (The world will be called Eldrano, & not as I first proposed Eldranol, which turns out to be already TM’d for a bovine mastitis application.)

enter this landscape this way

Slow runs in Spanish heat. Campolivar: a patch of waste ground which used to be farmland before the urbanisations & gated communities arrived. Scrub, bleached wiry grass, little hills. Paths cut into the dusty soil, littered with stones and broken rock. It looks as if motorcycles have been over it. Valencia: take the drained riverbed through the city in the middle of the day, your body parting the heat trapped by the embankments, trying to stay under the shade trees. The air gelid with light, the paths tramped down hard. Evening in the Serra near Barraix: cooler but still warm. The car park is deserted and though the hill roads teem with cyclists, no one seems to run or walk up here at this time of day. A steep short slope to start with, on ground broken by decades of walkers. Up to S’s usual picnic spot, then down a shattered hill to a strange, shuttered barn or cottage. Then shallow dips and rises to the lookout point, which S calls “the Pier”. We move easily in the warmth, a little out of breath to begin with, then steady. I always wanted to enter this landscape this way. Thick smells of some herb or shrub neither of us knows the name of. Then late sunlight falling between trees into the tall dessicated grasses–the illusion of an even more beautiful world.

teardrop falls & video

In her room, by contrast with the mayhem over at the port, some fleeting piece of physics had washed and softened the light. He placed the suitcase carefully on the bed: its clasps being snapped, complex fields sprang to life, radar green on a velvety black backdrop, unwinding in endless strings around a strange attractor. Additionally, the case contained generous lengths of scabby rubberised flex and a pair of bakelite headphones clearly included for show.

“Look inside,” Gaines said. “See this ?”

“Are you really here this time ?”

“First look in the suitcase,” Gaines said, “then we can discuss that.”

She looked.

Immediately she felt herself transported a thousand light years from Saudade City, out somewhere in Radio Bay, inside an EMC outpost so secret even R.I. Gaines had difficulty finding it. Her viewpoint toppled about at high speed. It was jerky and full of interference; once stabilised, it had a curiously assembled feel, as if it had been built up from three-dimensional layers. What the assistant saw was this: a trembling grey space with echoes and a sense of walls far back, and somehow suspended inside it a single perfect teardrop of light so bright she had to look away. It was the tiniest instant. Even her tailoring couldn’t slow it down. A tear, immobile but constantly falling, so bright you couldn’t really see it. Then darkness came down, the viewpoint gave the impression of tilting violently, and the image of the tear repeated again. By the third or fourth repetition, “tear” had somehow translated in her mind to “rip”: at that everything stopped.

From EMPTY SPACE, out in eight days’ time. I talk about the novel to Simon Ings on an Arcfinity video here; & about the short story “In Autotelia” here.