the m john harrison blog

Month: October, 2022

characterism

I’m trying to read an old detective story I gave up on a few years ago, & there are so many extended cross-connected families, so many characters not all that well distinguished from one another, just names, names & more names, that I can’t actually follow it. Apart from the narrator & his wife & the villain of the piece, I rarely know who’s in a scene & I care so little about most of them that I can’t be bothered to backtrack and find out. Some of this has nothing to do with the writing: it’s more that it’s a complicated plot about genes, family trees, heritability & second or third cousins, & I’ve never been interested in any of that. I’m too lazy to care who’s connected to whom. & if–as some sources used to suggest–the development of human intelligence is predicated on an evolutionary need to keep track of extended family relations, then I haven’t the intelligence either. I wonder if it’s one of the reasons I hate categories, databases, creative writing software and–especially–wiring looms? This book I’m reading is a bit weird on motive, too. Because he’s a biographer, with limited sources of information about the lived life of his cold-case subjects, the narrator is constantly speculating on why people did things he can’t even be sure they did, in a droning voice that gets into your head & goes on & on until you realise his own “character” (that is, the combination of “characteristics” the novelist needs him to possess so that the plot can function) forces him to make & depend on similar completely speculative assumptions even about living people he knows intimately. This leads him to simple, constantly self-qualifying conclusions about his wife, people in the street, everyone dead or alive. I’ve got further with the book than I did last time, but I struggle when the author congratulates himself, via his sock-puppet, on “building” a character from the past. He hasn’t. By now, I am in a fog about the entire concept of character. I’ve already forgotten which of the sisters Alice was, or who testified that they passed whom on Manderly’s central staircase at 3am that fatal night in 1940. I think I’m right that portly Anthony is the central suspect, although I can’t recall how he’s related to the beautiful but undependable Elizabeth.

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how things look

As far as it’s possible to tell, this is how things look at the moment:

Climbers, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, You Should Come With Me now, Settling the World, Light, Nova Swing & Empty Space, Viriconium and The Centauri Device are all in print & available, either on paper or as ebooks.

The nonfiction Wish I Was Here is in production from Serpents Tail for May 2023, & can be preordered, often at a discount, from your outlet of choice. There isn’t a cover yet, but you’ll know the instant there is. Wish I Was Here is carefully described as an anti-memoir.

While some outlets are still advertising a book called Fall Lines, no such book exists. Fall Lines, with its obvious reference to Climbers (1989) and climbing, was the working title of Wish I Was Here.

Out of print and regrettably still unavailable, are: The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life and the big retrospective short story collection Things That Never Happen. I have less regret, perhaps, that The Committed Men is out of print; but it is.

There isn’t much new short work at the moment, for obvious reasons. But if you’re interested in the contemporary horror story, I wrote the introduction to Joel Lane’s The Witnesses Are Gone, from Booker Award 2022 shortlisted Influx Press, one of the liveliest of lively independent presses; Joel was a writer I deeply admired, and I miss him. And you can catch up with the book reviews of 30 years, of which I’m shortly going to make a collection, at the Guardian & TLS websites.

There’ll be more short work once the groaning old machinery is restored to its My Own Stuff setting. What’s certain is there’ll eventually be a new book, a decon disaster novel temporarily entitled Anabasis, which will be published by Serpents Tail sometime in what we laughingly call “the future”. If there is one. (Pls, if a friend of yours is writing a book about an anabasis, don’t @ me.)

I cleaned the stairs again this morning. I clean them often, mainly as an excuse to be on them, to be in close contact with them. I love to be abroad on these stairs. I love their proportions, their cool still air. They have a calmness which easily transmits itself to me. I’d live on these stairs if I could. Lock all the doors to the rooms, except the bathroom and the kitchen. Sleep on the top landing, work on the next one down. There’d be plenty of space. And plenty of light coming in through the long windows. I could keep my stuff in a blanket box. I love blanket boxes. I wouldn’t own much–a couple of pairs of jeans, underwear. There would just be room for a mattress on one floor, a desk and chair on the other. The outdoor stuff I could hang in the hall, that wouldn’t change; shoes I’d line up in the hall, too. I’m not sure whether I’d allow myself to leave the house, but I suppose I would have to. It’s not a matter of dealing with claustrophobia–because how could you suffer claustrophobia in all that space and light?–so much as doing the shopping, or getting exercise. I suppose I could have stuff delivered. If I absolutely had to go out, I’d try to confine myself to the garden as much as possible; and on wet days stare out of the landing windows at the hollyhocks bending in the rain. Hollyhocks are ridiculously tall. Strictly speaking, the garden isn’t quite where the stairs end. They make another turn and continue down into the cellars.

previously posted as “take the stairway to the stairs”, 2013

Some ways of being dead are good, some are not so good, X claimed. But admitting you are dead is generally a good thing. When he first entered the sump he found a layer of dense blue “air” which lay at the midpoint between the ceiling and the floor. While this layer was generally twelve to eighteen inches thick, and in some places could be measured at twenty five inches, it once shrank to a millimetre or two, causing him to choke and panic. It looked & behaved more like a liquid than a gas. How was he to pass it? He began work immediately. For two nights in a row he didn’t sleep at all. For six nights in a row, he dreamed of the wrong thing. For a further fourteen nights in a row he dreamed that his lungs had turned inside out and expressed themselves through his mouth, after the use of a home-made SCUBA device–he had failed to pass the sump in all fourteen cases. For eight nights in a row he didn’t dream, although he woke with memories of something moving in darkness. On the next night he passed the sump, but not in a dream. No equipment was required. He was able to breathe normally.

flash

Some ways of being dead are good, some are not so good, X claimed. But admitting you are dead is generally a good thing. When he first entered the sump he found a layer of dense blue “air” which lay at the midpoint between the ceiling and the floor. While this layer was generally twelve to eighteen inches thick, and in some places could be measured at twenty five inches, it once shrank to a millimetre or two, causing him to choke and panic. It looked & behaved more like a liquid than a gas. How was he to pass it? He began work immediately. For two nights in a row he didn’t sleep at all. For six nights in a row, he dreamed of the wrong thing. For a further fourteen nights in a row he dreamed that his lungs had turned inside out and expressed themselves through his mouth, after the use of a home-made SCUBA device. He failed to pass the sump in all fourteen cases. For eight nights in a row he didn’t dream, although he woke with memories of something moving in darkness. On the next night he passed the sump, but not in a dream. No equipment was required. He was able to breathe normally.

run run runaway

There’s the Tom Waits song about the woman who leaves a small town because she can’t accept lifestyle policing & goes west, to LA or wherever, to find the freedom to be herself. It avoids the reality of these situations, which I suspect is that if you ever do get up the energy to leave & be yourself, people from the town will follow you about thereafter, trying to introduce themselves into your new situation & earnestly advising everyone how to react to the things you say or do. The truth about that particular pseudo-existentialist sentimental cliche is that when they put up the sign “If you live it up/You won’t live it down”, what that sign actually means is that they don’t want you in their town but they don’t want you out of it either. That’s a whole different ball game.

originally published as New Neo Noir