the m john harrison blog

Month: May, 2014

just in time

I like the idea of putting periods of your life in storage for such a long time you forget them. It’s a productive repression. When you experience the return of the repressed, you experience it as the act of writing and the content of the fiction. Memories come back not as memories but in inexplicable actions or feelings, mysterious nostalgias, psychosomatic jolts and shocks of disguised language. I resent the “healing” to be gained from retrospective understanding and acknowledgement. I wouldn’t want a healthy relationship with the past.

(Tarted up from a BTL exchange with Nick Royle, here.)



Things I have bought over the years to convince myself I was happy: a brass lizard; a wire lizard; two small boxes, one in some featherweight lacquered wood, the other ceramic and half glazed with a stylised picture of the local architecture; a bowl in striking fire and earth colours now faded; various earrings; two belts and some peculiarly sordid- and pre-used-looking suede shoes; Italian things; Canary Island things; Spanish things. All these things bought out of a mistaken elation or assumption, all this unwarranted semiosis, all these unmemorable memories and tokens from moments unviable from the very start. You can’t quite call them kitsch, but they don’t have a quality of personal nostalgia either. It was weird being a romantic and living in a constant aura or vibe, a “dream” I suppose, or at any rate a sense of something happening when nothing, in retrospect, was. Luckily, age lifts you out of that, enabling a proud shiny new impulse control in boutique, fleamarket and gallery shop; freeing you up to buy the rubbish you actually like. (Something resembling a small wormy stone brain picked up on a beach does not belong to this class of objects.)

a doomy hollow rushing sound

A fat pigeon that seems to live on the fence nearest its main resource–next door’s vast complex bird feeder–raises one wing high into the straight-down rain to flush out parasites, prospecting the result briefly but decisively with its beak, leaning to the other side & repeating the procedure. It settles, ruffles up, settles again, stares towards the bird table with one speculative eye. Perhaps a little something? Perhaps it’s too soon. You always think of birds as living–quite furtively–in foliage and thus somehow finding shelter. But here’s one carrying out what might be termed a life in the complete open, all-weather and for anyone to see. There’s something honest, something impressively direct about that. It wouldn’t do in my case. I could never relax. Meanwhile the rain is so heavy that where it falls on the lawn it makes a doomy hollow rushing sound, as if falling on an invisible iron roof. Thunder rolls too, if more distantly. Should this turn out to be UKIP’s Finest Hour–remembered by the winners’ historians as the day they laid the ground for 2015’s “Hall of Mirrors” putsch–they can add to their lists of those things that belong solely to us, the English, this most traditional of features–the 21st Century English Monsoon.


As the weeks pass next door’s clock strikes louder & louder. Other people’s cancer & knee operations sharpen themselves into a clear narrative. Meanwhile the dogs poke their dignified noses through the hedge & you meet a very old woman cheerfully jogging up hill. “Just getting my legs going!” It’s even more interesting than the animal noises at night. No release–no relief–is necessary: but in that case–those cases–there would always be the woods. You tell yourself, “The valley is not uncanny.” & it’s true, isn’t it? Off to the nearest town then & buy things. In the street you almost tread on something. That bruise on your arm is new.


For fun I put some random blog entries through I Write Like, which told me I write like: Jack London, JRR Tolkien, Chuck Palahniuk (twice), Arthur Clarke (for the “Earth Advengers” post), Cory Doctorow, Gertrude Stein, Dan Brown (for the first paragraph of a review of a Peter Ackroyd novel), Ray Bradbury, David Foster Wallace (twice, once for “Keep Smiling With Great Minutes”), and HG Wells. After that, deciding that my samples must have been generally too short to give a consistent result, I tried the whole of “Imaginary Reviews” and got Isaac Asimov; a 4000 word English ghost story, set mainly at the seaside and featuring an ageing middle class woman called Elizabeth, and got Isaac Asimov again; and then “Cave & Julia” & got HG Wells again. For the whole of Empty Space I got Arthur Clarke; but for its final chapter, which ends with that memorable sentence of crawling Cosmic horror, “First she would separate Dominic the pharma from his friends, take him upstairs, and fuck him carefully to a tearful overnight understanding of the life they all led now,” I got HP Lovecraft.


A future psychoanalyst, Diana Sontag-Cohn, recklessly intertwines her own imagination with that of an unnamed patient known only by the letter X. X has failed to construct himself & invites the psychiatrist to extend her own self-constructive efforts on his behalf. The two of them are immediately looped into the construction of a third thing–their relationship–then a fourth & fifth–each one’s perception of this relationship under the shifting terms of the old pre-analysis selves–and so on. Out of the patient’s perception of emptiness & the psychiatrist’s gesture of filling, they build not one but several “worlds”. In the end, has the psychiatrist helped X to identify, find, or make himself ? No: but between them they have made an incalculable number of new psychological spaces, their exploration of which has made an incalculable number more. This labyrinthine dissipative system fails both of them & everything they have consigned to it re-emerges sooner or later in acts of insane violence.

When I received this book from the TLS for review, it was under such heavy embargo that minor reviewers like myself weren’t even allowed to know who had written it. The name would be backfilled into our copy on delivery. I would be required to show evidence that I had destroyed the ARC by an accepted secure method. At first I thought I must be reading a lost Richard Powers, written in the mid-80s & for some reason remaining unpublished. But at 120 pages the volume seemed too slim; & the text didn’t, in the end, seem recursive enough. Then I began to count the author’s many uses of the acronym DSC, the initials of worldbuilding psychiatrist Diana Sontag-Cohn, whose name comprises the first three words of the novel. With the exception of X, all the central characters share these initials; and in one entire–thankfully short–chapter, every character’s name is made from an anagram of Sontag-Cohn’s. This led to the inevitable recognition that I was holding in my hands an early product of the legendary Dynamical Systems Collective–perhaps their first and only foray into the literary arts! You can imagine my excitement. A tragedy that, in the end, it was withdrawn a week before publication–although the occasional ARC, untitled, unattributed & unread, can still be found in the Oxfams of Clapham, Highgate & Cambridge.

(This imaginary review is revised from a 2011 post & its BTL extension.)


the usual clownish re-enactment

Three nights of rain and the woods are sodden again, standing water where the seeps debouch on to the old railway line. Dogs mud to the armpits, tracks under an inch of limestone slime. Jogging uphill becomes this duckfoot struggle, then cautious slithering and windmill arms on the other side, the green lane a foetid downhill slot where it isn’t polished stone like ice. I thought we were past all that. I thought the year had got going. I feel betrayed. I feel heavy. I thought the problem from now on would be drought, and metatarsalgia from the hardpack. That’s what I was looking forward to. That was to be the nature of my complaint. I expected at least to dance along between the trees. Saturday in the Burbage valley we met a runner with two very small terriers like chopped and dropped poodles with pushed-in hairy faces. They were truncated. They looked like handbag dogs–in some lights they looked like mops–but by god they could keep up with him as he ran between the boulders. They were up for it in every way, boiling into and out of the loud tea-coloured streams, giving the impression that they were an entire pack of dogs. Size was not an issue with them. That’s what I’d like. Be thirty years younger, maybe six inches taller, power round the Burbage skyline every other day with a pack of nameless, grinning little dogs and a wide grin on my face too. Instead, I struggle in the muddy woods like a clownish re-enactment of The Road Not Taken.

“there’s something wrong with almost everything”

Intrusions: 10th — 29th June 2014 will celebrate the life of Robert Aickman.

The exhibition features work by contemporary printmakers–Paula Rego, Anna Maria Pacheco, Dolores deSade, Johanna Love, Marcelle Hanselaar, Oona Grimes, Tassie Russell–who, like Aickman, interpenetrate the uncanny and the mundane, less opposing them than encouraging them to interrogate one another.

The exhibition is accompanied by talks, performances and events, and there is a ‘100th birthday’ celebration on the afternoon of 28th June, as part of which I’ll be reading a short story, “Entertaining Angels Unawares”.

“Although there’s no charge for anything,” says Chris Maloney of Printroom, “we’re booking the places for 28th June to manage numbers, seats and catering. The programme is 2-6pm talks and readings, 6-8pm (or later) food drink and conversation. In the spirit of a private party, it’s ‘Bring a Bottle’.”

gold/no gold

You go from being very sure about the thing you’re writing to being very unsure about it & thence to being unsure about everything. Some days later you’re so sure again that even you can see you’re in the manic phase. The internal wind is blowing from the Exhibitionist Quarter. You want opinions from everyone. You want them to see. You want them to witness. You’re convinced–as so often–that this is probably the best thing you’ve ever written. This is the exact point at which you know you should keep it to yourself, because where there is mania can depression be far behind? & anyway your judgement, never dependable, is at least now dependably shot: you can go to the bank on that. Whatever decisions you make are going to be wrong decisions but mania sticks you with making them anyway. All is florid, writhing with invention. At the same time confusion reigns. It is like some false dawn phase of the traditional alchemical process. In a week or a month, all will become clear & (probably) disappointing.