the m john harrison blog

Category: forthcoming work

a little bit of something new

Victoria opened the door to find the waitress’s father standing there. He was four inches shorter than her. He was whistling. His hair curled damply back over the collar of his Castrol jacket. He looked a lot livelier in the sunlight.

“I had a minute,” he said. “So I came.”

Victoria stared at him.

“It’s Chris,” he said. “Chris. Chris from last night.”

“Do you always answer your phone as if you’re someone else?”

“I’ll just step inside,” he said.

They stared at one another. It seemed like an impasse. In the end she let him in;  he held up a plastic sports bag and said, “I’ve got everything I’ll need in here.”

“If I could explain what’s wanted?” Victoria said.

“A cup of tea would be nice since you’re putting the kettle on. Then while you’re making it I’ll have a look round.” He smiled and went off up the stairs as if he owned them, calling back:

“I’ve got everything I need in here. Don’t you worry.”

Victoria boiled the kettle in a rage. She heard him on the first landing and then on the loose floorboards near the bathroom loo. His bag of tools rattled. He hissed and whistled to himself. He was pathetic. He tapped at this and that. A second floor sash ground itself open, then shuddered down again. It all made Victoria feel as if she didn’t belong. “How’s that tea coming on?” he called. When he came down to have it, he sat and ate a biscuit too. He seemed to bring a smell into the kitchen. She couldn’t quite smell it, but she knew it was there.

“I like to sit down to a biscuit,” he said.

She pushed the packet toward him. “Help yourself.”

He smiled to himself, as if he had expected this. “I was born Chris,” he said, “but that lot over at Kinver know me as Ossie.”

He had a jauntiness you couldn’t explain; at the same time he wanted your sympathy. After you had watched him for a minute or two, you saw that he held himself oddly and walked with the suspicion of a limp; he was always wiping his eyes. “Poor health,” he said, with a kind of satisfaction. “A lifetime of it.” He’d had bowel cancer, which they fixed; they thought his cough was asbestosis. In addition his left wrist didn’t articulate, which he’d let himself in for in 1999 when he fell off the town Christmas tree. “I was setting up the lights,” he said. “They didn’t take the decorations down in time that year. We’ve all suffered as a result.” He could just about use a screwdriver. “There’s a lot of perished rubber in those lighting circuits,” he said, after he had eaten half a packet of chocolate digestives “It only needs a touch to flake off.” It would mean a rewire. She had expected as much. “MInd you,” he concluded, “there’s plenty of good new neoprene in there too.”

“You aren’t going to fall off a ladder while you’re here, are you?” Victoria said.

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update: you should come with me now

YSCWMN is now in galleys, ready to be pimped up for concourse d’elegance day, which will be sometime at the beginning of October. It’s a strange bit of work, short fiction wrapped in shorter fictions, developing all the usual themes, for instance grimness, grimness and grimness. I wouldn’t call it a collection if I could think of a name for something with dimension-&-a-half between a collection and a novel. I mean: it’s a book. So we have some readings and bookshop events arranged–including a conversation at Housmans in London with Lara Pawson, shortlisted for this year’s Gordon Burn Prize for her extraordinary anti-memoir This Is The Place To Be–who in her other career interviewed weirder & more interesting people than me. Readings will include an evening at Warwick U, an institution which kindly adopted me a year or so ago, with perhaps a visit from a known Tsar of the Weird. Meanwhile I’m looking forward to the cover draft, and cover copy that will feature quotes from real writers Will Eaves, Olivia Laing and Rob Macfarlane, endorsements so persuasive that I would buy the book myself if I didn’t already know what was in it. Updates here, at Comma Press & on Twitter, @mjohnharrison, @commapress.

victoria’s house

“It’s very Brexit up here,” she wrote later to Short. “Eight pubs in a mile and deep surrounding woods. I already think of it as my Broceliande, although the High Street seems to have been deforested as early as 1307.” She was sleeping on the sofa again, she told him. “But now I have candles and everything.” Inside one of the boxes she had found a brand new edition of The Water Babies. She amused herself copying out passages for him. Little Tom was naughty. He ran across the fells, by Hartover and Lewthwaite Crag, to the river; he arrived at the water on his own legs but he was desperate to be a fish. “Forty pages in, he’s already an evolutionary joke, the Victorian fantasia of metamorphosis and transition camouflaged by a morality. You see,” she finished, “you should read my emails. I bet your life’s less exciting than little Tom’s.” She knew she would never press Send: but writing was enough to give the effect of being in a conversation. It calmed her down. “I might be keeping my mother’s furniture,” she admitted. “I sold all mine.” This made her think of the house again and she looked around and shivered with delight.

present is the new absent

Strange to be researching Barnes, from a distance, for a novel that seemed impossible to write while you were there. Still, those are the breaks. Or at any rate, the abandoned graveyards, pop cultural sites and tales of dismembered murderees. Also I feel a bit too like the central character of this. Author as absent detective. In fact it occurs to me thatDSCF7362the point of view carefully delineated in that story, which tries to present its back to (put itself at an equal distance from) every kind of human event, is precisely what made the new novel impossible to write. I went up an alley in the first half of the last decade and then spent far too much time trying to minutely describe the wall I found at the end of it. But what’s new.

I wrote this a couple of years ago in the usual vague hope of trying to work out who was writing what. Now that I’ve finished that part of the book, & am no longer the absent writer in a vanished life, it turns out that I have to become the absent writer in a life I’ve hardly even got used to yet. This is just like finding one day you have really bad eyes, which, if they resolve one thing, won’t resolve another. The main problem is still to keep yourself an equal distance from everything, but this time in some very slightly less flattened-off way. I’ll be glad when this one is over.

(Actually, what’s been fascinating me about this from the beginning is that nobody in the book is connecting with anybody else in any sense & while showing that is important, having the text admit it would be outright death to the whole thing. That insulates you from the sentimentality of some otherwise quite good contemporary US writers, but makes things tense & bleak & you’re not to admit that either.)

Photo: Cath Phillips, 2013

some news

My new collection will be published later this year by Comma Press. It’s taken a while to get this sorted, and I want to thank everyone involved–also apologise to everyone else for the wait. Details as they arrive, here and from the Comma team. The book features eighteen short stories–five of which are original, unpublished & unavailable anywhere else and a further half dozen that will be new to most readers–and some flash fiction, much of which will be recognisable to habitues of the Ambiente Hotel. Contents include: a distributed sword & sorcery trilogy; two or three full-size sci-fi novels, one of which is two sentences and forty eight words long (fifty if you count the title); several visits to Autotelia, some that identify as such and some that don’t; and two final dispatches from Viriconium, neither of which would get house-room in an anthology of epic fantasy.

More details here.

not made in 2011

Note made in 2011:

“I began to feel as if I had learned a lesson in a language I didn’t–-but might soon–-understand. It had something to do with how you are in the world, how you control, or don’t, its access to you. In the light of that, conflicts between characters would be viewed less directly, less in black and white, and seen as less important because they are less conflicts than failed attempts at co-operation. The horror would be located in the ideological fabric of the constructed “world”, while the characters did their best to be human without understanding how they were failing. That was the big idea I was going to take away from 2009, anyway: but because Empty Space wasn’t the best vehicle for an understanding like that, it only shows through in patches and little bits of testbedding. And because I haven’t been working hard enough on short stories, nothing has come of it. I have to file the lesson under ‘ephemeral’. I feel as if I wasted a chance. It’s frustrating to know that something important won’t now find the kind of articulation that led to Climbers or Things That Never Happen.”

Well, wrong. I went back to testing, wrote more short stories, and now this book, though it’s not half the book I imagined in 2009, looks as if it will do the job.

weight of words

Soon afterwards he found himself wearing his own clothes, carrying a two-day-old copy of the Guardian and some hospital toothpaste in a plastic bag, waiting for a cab to come down through the traffic and turn on to the hospital apron. When he got home he was exhausted just from leaning forward and telling the cabby how to get where they were going. He lay down on the sofa and pulled a blanket up over him and went to sleep. When he woke up it was on the edge of being dark. The street outside was quiet. The light in Short’s room had a kind of sixty-year-old smokinesss, as if he was looking at things through nicotine-stained glass. The door of the room was open, and the man he had met in the hospital corridor now stood at the window, holding the net curtain back with one long hand so he could stare down into the street. He was whispering, “Yummie? Yummie?” to himself.

I’m moving forward into something here, Short thought: but I don’t know what it is.

From “Yummie”, my contribution to the forthcoming The Weight of Words, Subterranean Press, ed Dave McKean & William Schafer. Preorder here.

a word here & there

I wondered what all this was going to mean for the book. I spent yesterday reading back everything including the notes and decided there was no need to worry. Given that it’s about someone so alienated, inturned and obsessed by his own descent that he simply fails to see, let alone understand, the things that are going on around him, I decided I didn’t have to change more than a word here and there. “That was the Brexit summer” will do just as well as “That was the Ukip summer”, if not better.

the mort lake

A few days later, Short met Allen at the bottom end of Barnes. It was a Saturday morning, with the sky wide open above the Chiswick shore, more like early spring than summer. Tim presented as vaguely as ever, the sleeves of his yellowish cotton-corduroy jacket rolled to the elbow. The black eye had healed, but now he had done something that left him with a mild rash on the same side. He was staring into the display window of an estate agent, one of the crocodile of a dozen or so that slithers its way up High Street from the river. He had encumbered himself with a couple of damp-looking carrier bags, which he held up for Shaw to see. They were heavy enough to have left red marks across the palms of his hands.

“Always get to the fishmonger early,” he advised.

Then, as though he might buy something if only the property market would act a little more sensibly: “Look at these fucking joke prices.”

Short joined him at the window and they talked for a bit. Then Allen said he had to be in Hammersmith and they walked up as far as Barnes Pond together. Sunlight glittered on the traffic sawing its way round from Church Road into Station Road. Mallards could be heard squabbling on the little island in the middle of the pond, while over in the Essex House car park the Farmers’ Market busied itself inevitably towards lunch–anxious bankers from France and Scandinavia vying for the last of the handmade pasta, free range meats from Somerset doing as well as ever. The Green was full of strolling luvvies, their children and identical chocolate labradors turned out for a walk in the Cotswolds; toddlers crowded out the margins of the pond, shyly offering ends of artisan sourdough to the geese and seagulls in the shallows. “Darling,” someone called, “please don’t let them bully you like that!” Allen eyed this bustle with barely suppressed irritation, a silent tension which expressed itself in sudden small movements of his shoulders or the corners of his mouth.

“The Mort Lake!” he said. “If they knew anything about the history– If they knew the thing John Dee knew about this pool– They’d keep their bloody children at home.”

london, an unreliable guide to

You can back the kickstarter for this now, to get great fiction from all these writers: Yvvette Edwards, Will Wiles, Irenosen Okojie, Nikesh Shukla, Courttia Newland, Gary Budden, Koye Oyedeji, Leone Ross, Paul Ewen, Gareth E Rees, George F, Stephanie Victoire, Chloe Aridjis, Sunny Singh, Juliet Jacques, Noo Saro-Wiwa, Salena Godden, Tim Wells, Aki Schilz, Stephen Thompson, Eley Williams, Kit Caless & Tim Burrows. My contribution: “Babies from Sand”.