the m john harrison blog

Category: forthcoming work

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”.

another little taste

Later, pissing off the end of one of the abandoned barges upstream, invisible among the tall weeds and strengthless-looking bushes that grew on every square foot of its decaying deck, he thought he heard something behind him. There were two or three confused movements further along the hull, followed by a fluttering or rustling just outside his sightlines; then a quiet splash as if something had slipped furtively into the river. He waited for ripples but they didn’t show. He leaned out to look up and down the reach. Nothing: the surface of the river was compact and burnished all the way to Kew Bridge, where the piers split it into whorls and eddies which streamed off towards Barnes.

He zipped up and pushed his way back anxiously towards the land through the vegetation. In there, among recent shoots and withered induviae, everything felt dry and at the same time rotted to a wafer. Small cream moths floated up from among the faded lager cans and shredded plastic bags. A fibrous mulch was replacing the old deck; but you could still feel the decaying timbers flex beneath. Anything, he thought, could be living in all that warm, dense, airless, puzzling growth.

That lunchtime, for a change, he walked downstream to Strand-on-the-Green and ate a hamburger sitting outside a pub called The City Barge while middle-aged women in yoga pants by Liquido and Spiritual Gangster exercised their miniature dogs between him and the river. He felt as if he was sick of all that side of things. The tide had turned. The water was beginning to slacken and churn. The previous week’s bad weather had folded itself away into heat and humidity, but remained immanent somehow in the dull brassy glare that lay across the city. Everything was dusty again, but the sky could always open. The worst of July, the foretaste of August. Midstream, Oliver’s Island looked like a Victorian dreadnought abandoned in the quivering light, its slabby iron plates somehow turned to stone.

I would never have to fake my own death, he found himself thinking. I’ve all but vanished already. Part of him welcomed that. Another part, larger but so thinly distributed across his personality that it seemed invisible, panicked soundlessly on a twenty four hour schedule.

-1From my contribution to An Unreliable Guide to London, Influx Press: “Mystical sunsets behind the troubled roofs of East Sheen, the overgrown gravestones of Barnes Common, the grim Edwardian silhouette of the Elm Guest House. A smell drifts down the river which can’t for a second be mistaken for that of the brewery. The tide is low, the water fast and turbulent between the piers of Barnes Bridge. Eddies thicken with the matted stuff left at high tide–bottle caps, tampon applicators, condoms in a matrix of sodden interwoven twigs rarely more than five or six inches long–it’s a substance in itself. The sexual health of a nation can always be judged by the state of its rivers.”

Available in July, with further serious misdirections by:

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.