the m john harrison blog

Month: July, 2020

Writing will wreck you if you let it. The maze is inhabited. Though you need to discover what’s down there, every serious kind of writing life is a way of controlling your contact with it. Never give yourself up to the maze, much less what lives there. The way to stay safe is to keep them both at a distance. Observe the precautions. Make sure you finish at the end of the day. Make sure the fixed lines are in good repair. Make sure you have a real life to go back to. Make sure you remain an explorer. Don’t sleep there.



The discovery of a defunct galactic culture the final activity of which seems to have been to construct a maze around a previous maze… The subsequent discovery of successions of maze-building cultures, whose energies have been directed into solving and then hiding or elaborately embedding the mazes of its precursors… Such embeddings aren’t neccessarily architecturally or even topologically congruent with the precursor maze–a maze can also penetrate or permeate the precursor. A maze like that is diffult to identify, let alone solve… Decoy mazes, often more complex than real ones, continue to be found. They contain no precursor maze, but have been built to soak up the efforts of later cultures, rendering them exhausted and passive, their energy directed away from the precursor’s artefact… The inability to solve a maze may actually be the inability to detect and solve a later maze… You may engage with a maze for a lifetime without recognising that your inability to solve it stems from the inability to solve a non-architectural maze which penetrates or permeates it… In the end, is it possible that all mazes might be hidden this way, by a single non-architectural interpenetrating over-maze applied from far in the future of all known mazes?

Originally blogged 2016

the risk of being caught up

“How to characterise this novel? It is not quite genre fiction, as far as I understand that term. It is not quite realism, either, even though there is a lot of reality in it — too much for me at points. It is a writing of the provincial everyday uncanny; a novel about the return of the repressed, about feeling lost and unable to find your bearings, about the sense that the world and other people in it are engaged in an incomprehensible and indecipherable task, which you can relate to only abstractly, a task about which at times you feel the risk of being caught up in like an eddy, and, at other times, you feel as though it is something that will always be inaccessible to you.” –Andrew Key, on his reaction to The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again.

a habitation & a place

I’m always obsessed by a landscape. Since last year it’s two. Any little sandstone ridge like an island in upland heath, on a broad diagonal from Wolverhampton to Ellesmere Port. But also, now, the enchanted hinterland between the A496 and the Rhinogs in Gwynned. Abandoned farms the size of villages. Lost manganese mines not much bigger than animal scrapes. Bijou but contorted; gnarly but lushened by, presumably, the warm western sea; windy but always some shelteronce you get out of the laminar flow. There’s a real sense, in both these landscapes, of haunting: yet rarely by anything specific. Yes, it’s the trace of use. But the moment you try to imagine by whom, or begin to believe you might “bring it to life”, it slips quietly back into the twilight downslope, the wind-contorted tree. Every site is very calm, despite the things it must have seen. Even to say that is to say too much. At every site there’s something immanent—but that’s to say too little. Where everything you can say is either an understatement or an overstatement, a literalisation or a fiction, it’s not your place to say anything; however you describe yourself. You shiver with delight, get your coat out of your bag, and head down to the lights of Harlech or Malpas.

photo: Cath Phillips

If your act of reading sweeps out everything you don’t want to acknowledge, of course the book seems disconnected and “about nothing”. Some kinds of books are secure enough to welcome that. They aren’t mirrors. That’s just the way it is.

gritstone (slight return)

The view from the crag was good. You could sometimes see the cement factory isolated in a sunshine ray. & hand sanitiser, applied in situ, turns out to be just the thing for grit rash. But how hard those easy climbs were! Stanage bites your leg even as it grants you a brief glimpse of the garden you aren’t allowed to enter, not today anyway. (Astonishing to discover recently, by the way, that rock is only a thing & isn’t in any way aware of you; such grim news.) A note about age & the general feeling of being on Peak District Oxford Street when you didn’t expect it: Richard looked around the crag & concluded with the precision of science, “I don’t think us being here has raised the average age much.” So it was an afternoon of spry 70-year-olds, barring one young man dressed immaculately as 1978, right down to a pair of faux EBs. Faux EB man, I salute your passion. Every part of my body hurts.


Genre is now a contested space. That can give it an interesting internal tension. You can write it from the inside outwards, away from the genre; or from an outside inwards, towards it. & you can vary the distance involved, you can vary the height of your orbit. Wobble or speed across the division zone. Burn up in someone else’s sky or hardly even touch their atmosphere. All these approaches–& departures—are possible, & they each have their advantages, although the advantage they share is the nuance, the shade of meaning; the fading ionisation, the just-this-side-of-inexplicable trail of evidence that something was here. Which fits so comfortably with our own faint fading & ghosted traces, I always think.

end of lockdown reading

Some people are going to want to be reminded of their confinement, some aren’t. I don’t seem to have minded, either way. Books I’ve had real pleasure from this year have been Underland by Robert Macfarlane; and the whole of Barbara Comyns, except for Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, which I’m saving for a rainy day. I’m reading Charles Simic’s notebooks, The Minotaur Loves His Labyrinth, which are full of observations in tones both wry and surreal. He tells a story in a couple of hundred words about a woman who collected black buttons she found in the street. Some years she only got one. Sometimes she got one with a thread left in. Anecdote is the kind of story I prefer now: actually, since Climbers. “Be brief,” is Simic’s advice to poets, “and tell us everything.” I’ve been lucky with lockdown, because I could go out for exercise and walk in the local woods and still stay within the guidelines, when there were any. All that’s over for the moment, and we live on our wits in this confusion where we could do what we want, but we know we’d better not in case thousands more people die. In her essay collection, Funny Weather, Olivia Laing writes, about a collection of Egyptian coffins and other receptacles of the dead, “These objects attest to a leaky universe …energy rushing from form to form, a vast migration through space and time…” She always writes with a combination of care and brilliance about loneliness and how writers and artists relate to their work; but from this glimpse you guess that she could write about other things too. Dipping into Eliot’s translation of St-John Perse’s Anabasis for the first time in fifty years, I read “Eternity yawning on the sands,” as “Eternity yawing on the sands”. I’m obsessed recently, not just by the seaside but by the act of turning away from the sea. The journey up through the hinterland. (Obviously I’ll always love the Minotaur as well. Anything that lives confined in a serious maze and waits for you to come to it.)