the m john harrison blog

Category: fantasy

I couldn’t wait to get away

Debilitatingly superficial content massively over-invested with meaning by the acting & direction; grinding earnestness about issues that make you shrug, or which can exist solely in the manufactured situations of the text; the utter, controlling pseudo-martyrdom of the central character. Constant reference to story and story-telling which makes you think one minute it’s a parody of @GuyInYourMFA and the next that it is actually being piped into your head direct from a combined group therapy session & writing workshop. I’ve never watched anything working so hard to position the narcissistic viewer along with the narcissistic writer at the heart of the text; or been so relieved to see anything end.

the comfort of being eaten

Lovecraft’s set-ups are much more horrifying than the spaces he generates from them. The repetitive elements of the mythos act as a sort of refamiliarisation of that which has been deeply defamiliarised by the set-up. By the end of “Dreams in the Witch House”, for instance, a substitution has taken place. The human condition of being alive in a highly debatable space–a space the mathematical underpinnings of which seem to suggest something so undependable about our structures of perception that all we can do is struggle to reaffirm them–has been replaced by the condition of being alive in a threatening but clearly structured universe. The “imagined” replaces the real as a real. The new space isn’t entirely heimlich. It still trails some of the mystery implied by the set-up. But it has become describable, despite Lovecraft’s typical insistence that it isn’t. This is less an intensification of than a relief from the terror of the Witch House. In the same way, the moment the eponymous Colour Out of Space begins to act in a structured fashion, to feed itself and make its escape from our side of things, it ceases to undercut anthropocentric definitions and becomes a reassertion of them; the universe, though weird, is seen to operate on–or at least to be describable by–understandings we already possess. The discomfort of the unknowable is replaced by the comfort of being eaten by a creature with perfectly recognisable motives. Substitution of a false real is the disappointment of most generic fantasy: once the author has ushered us through an exhilaratingly scary liminal space, in which anything might be possible, new norms arrive and everything becomes ordinary again. The suggestion that things are not what they seem is always more exciting than the alternative provided. We wish we were back in the condition of not knowing. I do, anyway.

–reblogged from September 11, 2007


It’s a little place in the south of England, with timber frame construction and thatch, so compact and self-satisfied it has a sense of being bigger inside than outside. This doesn’t last, of course; but it is a great special effect on a Saturday morning, and can be had in similar villages all the way down the river to the sea. A cat is sitting on a window sill staring across at the roof across the road. There among the chimneys and satellite dishes two large black birds are perched, staring back over their shoulders with their heads and bodies at identical angles. These, the cat says, are the Crow twins, Ugly and Serendipida. Ugly is the sensitive one. His sister would never have a feather on his head harmed. As she says, “You got to look after yourself in this life.” She remembers being less aggressive before they arrived here: unnerved by the very decency of the houses and little shops, frankly disoriented by a borough where no one carries a Colt, they are thinking of moving back to Detroit.


I’m rather enjoying AS Byatt’s The Children’s Story, although sometimes it’s a bit like reading about sexual trading in the power structure of a chimpanzee colony. Makes you realise how lucky you’ve been to live most of your life in atomised modernity. If the price is loneliness, that can be examined–explored, even celebrated–as it’s paid; & freedom from the relentless struggles of classic Victorian patriarchy/matriarchy is absolutely worth it. Large middleclass family dynamics aside, The Children’s Story is another interesting picture of the relations between fiction (as formalised wish-fulfilment) and “worldbuilding” in the actual world. A snapshot of the heyday of that sort of writing. Not perhaps as forceful or compact as Taylor’s Angel, but analytical & exhaustive.

There’s a new page up, here. Add queries if you like, to the ghost queries that crowd around & fail to find satisfaction etc etc.

a few ideas

Something by Nicola Hicks. Something by Francis Bacon or Gerhard Richter. A bust of Michel Houllebecq. Busts of Michel Tournier & Ernst Junger, presented in alternate years. This. A bust of Joanne Greenberg. A Bredogue. A bust of Judy Garland. The bronzed baby shoes of Mabel Lucy Atwell. The bronzed baby shoes of the Brothers Quay. The bronzed baby shoes of Hildegard of Bingen. The gilded baby shoes of the One Percent. A rediscovered mural of Bruno Schulz. A perfectly realistic silk poppy. The Tenth Century ceramic icon of St Arethas. A representation on “reclaimed wood” of The Church Not Made With Hands. A large mounted specimen of Fordite. The gilded notebooks of Jan Svankmajer. Every year, in place of an award, a different 1970s performance artist makes eye contact with the winning author while driving a six inch nail through her own hand. Or: a different object is given every year. Or: some years no object is given at all, or the object is given late, or given to the wrong author. Something by Eleanor Crook. The reclaimed notebooks of Mabel Lucy Atwell. The reclaimed notebooks of Dino Buzzati. A signed photograph of Judy Garland. A certificate, signed after a public disagreement, by three of the four award judges. A bust of ST Joshi. No award.

neither here nor there

That night he dreamed he was back in the cloister. This dream was to recur for the rest of his life, presenting as many outcomes as iterations; from it, he would always wake to an emotion he couldn’t account: not quite anxiety, not quite despair. He dreamed the white blur of Julia Vicente’s face watching from the shadows, immobile and fascinated until the procession of search-and-rescue teams found her and bore her triumphantly home on a stretcher in the bald light and shimmering air of the plateau. The fountain seemed to roar silently. The cloister cobbles softened and parted in the heat, encouraging Cave to slip easily between them into the vast system of varnished-looking natural tubes and slots which, he now saw, underlay everything. It was cold down there; damp, but not fully dark. He could not describe himself as lost, because he had never known where he was. He heard water gushing over faults and lips in tunnels a hundred miles away. Full of terror, he began counting his arms and legs; before he could finish, woke alone. A feeling of bleakness and approaching disaster came out of the dream with him. His room was full of cold grey light. 5am, and traffic was already grinding along Caledonian Road into Kings Cross. He made some coffee, took it back to bed, opened his laptop. Although he knew it would mean nothing, he emailed her:

“What can any of us do but move on? How?” And then: “Did I ever have the slightest idea of your motives?”, to which she could only reply puzzledly:

“Of course you did. Of course you did.”

Cave & Julia still pursue their strange driven relationship on Kindle, here; or as an Audible audiobook, here. Meanwhile, here, a man called Shaw blunders about in what might well be the inside of his own skull, failing to understand what he needs.

pulsating neural tissue etc

Corelli DeLaMary Linn Gourd, a Texan fantasy writer, finds she has run out of vanished, exotic and geographically distant cultures to loot for the milieux–or “worlds” –of her immensely successful novels. She’s bored by the costume museums, post-Steeleye Span folk rock bands and archeological websites devoted to back-engineered weapons through the ages that have previously provided inspiration, colour and filler. She’s bored by the grim daily round of combining non-scientific anthropology and relatable Campbellian selfie-stick heroism with freedom motifs to provide uplifting developmental arcs for her characters. She decides instead to actually make something up. The central race–the “Sentienta” as she will call them–of her next novel are to have transparent foreheads, behind which can be seen their pulsating neural tissue & the wispy filaments which connect to eyes like greenish half-billiard balls. It’s very exciting. The human imagination is a truly astonishing thing.

–December 13th, 2010

I think I might just repeat this once a year now–

Don’t fauxthenticate. Don’t make a text that begs, “Believe in this, please believe in this.” Rationale is the sound of the stuffing falling out, the sound of the failure of imaginative intensity. This doesn’t build a world: it acts by being present. Whatever is in it is not rationally excused or cognitively substantiated: it is present to the viewer, it is itself.


However complete a fauxthentication is, it can’t actually be a world–-therefore the criticism, “This novel is still not fully & properly fauxthenticated” is always possible. The constant bolstering of the “world” constantly reveals it not to be one, ie reveals it never to be complete the way the world is. This seems to say more about the limits of writing & the act of suspension of disbelief (an immersion which can clearly be brought about in other ways) than it does about the actual need for a world to seem to be present in front of the reader. Also, it strikes me as a bit mad to be a fiction writer if you have to struggle so desperately to pretend you’re not. There’s some kind of guilt trip behind that. Fauxthentication seems like an attempt to deny your position as someone who makes things up.