the m john harrison blog

Category: ghosts

every haunt

Every shop on a stock brick corner seen from a bus in south London. You think: I’ve been here, haven’t I? At some time in the past, you think, you’ve been there. Well maybe you have, maybe you haven’t, because all those stock brick corners look the same. Every train running across the grain of shallow wooded valleys, trailing its brand new landscape through the old cuttings. Grass like astroturf, stiff model trees in a fringe where the view opens on to a motorway but you never seem to see a house. The land drops away on the left. That narrow ride cuts off at an angle through the woods; at night the distances are always hung with lights. Every quarry, every cliff. Every forestry track in deep Snowdonia exhaling mist, every junction between the seafront and a steep little lapboard terrace in every seaside town: every green lane anywhere in the rain. Maybe you’ve been there, maybe you haven’t.

Maybe you were here. Maybe you weren’t.

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fleamarket ontologies

Found material is a private experience. If I use it I try not to draw narrative conclusions from it. It’s not there to provide “story”. The reader doesn’t need my idea of what happened; I don’t need the reader’s. It would be a crude intrusion into someone else’s fantasies. But there’s more. We both know how interpretations spin away from found material, but we also recognise that choosing one of them breaks “history” out of its quantum state and turns it into a lurching caricature, a bad guess, a sentimentalised drawing of an event in someone else’s life. Found material might be “evidence” –might even be a direct, indexical sign of a thing that happened–but the thing that happened, the life that contained it, can’t be reassembled, or back-engineered into existence. It’s only what it is now: if you try to glue the fragments together with the sentiments “evoked” in you, all you will have is a golem. All you’ve done is bully the mud into a shape that satisfies your needs. But avoid interpretation as determinedly as you can, and you have a metaphor for the way we encounter not just the past but the present. Lives as the most tentative assemblages; interactions in your own life as partially interpretable fragments, fading images, achieving the condition of conversations overheard on the tops of buses, postcards from the past even as they happen.

You Should Come With Me Now

Disconnected memories. Uncertainty of events and entities in their relations with reality. The author positioned like Maxwell’s demon, feeling able to claim that this is the inside & that is the outside (the conscious & unconscious, the forgotten & remembered, the admissible & the inadmissible). Calculatedly inefficient filters will be placed at points of transition represented as boundaries and edgelands. The hiatus or glitch, the dropped catch or stitch between the living & the written.

Originally blogged as “who’s dead & who’s alive”, 2016

who I’m calling on

Deep in enemy territory, where even the help’s clothes are more fashionable and expensive than your own, and an overcoat costs more than your car, someone says–

“He’s just back from the laundry.”

“Is that code for something?”

You follow the lights dancing on the surface of the coffee in your cup, and they mean as much to you as what you’re hearing. They’re blue, lilac, pink and green.

“Hey kid,” someone now declares, “everyone’s got their photograph of a pair of shoes. What you need is to move up past that.”

Turn your head: you won’t see who it was. It might anyway be you.

“Ten past three. No, ten past three. And can you leave the key at the church.”

Later, from the window of the train, everything–fields, hills, buildings, hedges, trees, warehouses and distribution centres–will look shadowy but at the same time palely-lit. It’s a strange light, that you might see in a picture but never in the world. The train races to meet the wind. Leaves are blown everywhere. Birds are blown across the sky. The wheels on the rails–or perhaps it is the motors themselves–sound like a sung mass performed by some famous university college choir. Modern music, but full of echoes of earlier settings, earlier ways of listening.

“As it shall be,” you hear, “in Earth as in Heaven.”

Container trucks: YANG MING, HAPLAG-LLOYD, DONG FANG. “For some reason I always think it’s the end of the week.”

Nice review here of You Should Come With Me Now.

pregnant again

Recently began to read Genet again. I couldn’t say why, except that after fifty years he claimed suddenly, from his jail cell Shangri La, that he had something to do with the new book; & more, that he’d already had something to do with the last three. I really don’t get that. But there it is– “Read me now! read me again!”, a voice from a distance, from the dead. Quite a luxurious experience, I have to say, although it makes me wonder how I could have been so sure I’d read him back then–how on earth I could have convinced myself I’d understood more than a fraction of him when I was 21 & at that time about twelve years old. I had no idea what he was offering. Whatever he’s trying to communicate now isn’t coming through yet; neither am I resolving the increased sense I have that there are other survivors from those days in it with him. In it with him yet having so little in common with him or each other that only grammar could ever hold them together in a sentence. These people. These other writers. Vision, content, timbre, whatever:  I am, at this point, the only clue to their commonality. I won’t get them, or my book, until I get why. Maybe it’s just a whim. Maybe I’m just visibly pregnant & want to eat strange meals.

lunch in margate

Two women were talking at the table next to Victoria’s. “To start with it seems quite new, and you think ‘how exciting!’ and everything,” one of them said. Her voice trailed away. “But then–” The other woman said something about raised paving and they talked over one another for a few sentences. “Anyway,” the first woman said, “I’ve rather given up on it now.” She thought for a moment then added: “I’ve done it in a sort of grey.” Outside the gallery, the art students trudged past, burdened by their need to be wearing the right thing at the right point in the cycle. Art has only two processes, Victoria thought: how to become perfect and how to smash the plate. How to just about cling on, she thought: that was for everything that couldn’t be art. That morning she had read a sign saying “Mannings Seafood” as “The Meaning of Seafood”.

page 117

I just played this divination meme: open the nearest book to you at p117, read the second sentence, & that will describe how 2017 happens to you. I opened Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. There aren’t any sentences on p117 in my copy: only the section title “1966”. 1966, my first short story was published. I wrote three or four more & towards the end of the year one of them was accepted by Ted Carnell at New Writings in SF. I lived in shared flats in Shepherds Bush & Holloway, & in a bedsitter in Tufnell Park. We played cards a lot. We scaled up a frame from a Marvel comic to the size of a door & put the words It’s All Stopped Happening–which I had stolen from a cartoon–in Private Eye?–into a superhero’s mouth, I forget who. There was a fire deep in the night in some lean-to shops opposite Holloway Road tube station, we went out to watch. You could feel the heat on your face from the other side of the road. Most mornings we spent in a cafe, playing Beck’s Bolero repeatedly on the jukebox. I did other things, but those are the memories that come to mind without thinking. What I remember most clearly is the constant grinding anxiety. I had no idea who I was or what I was doing there. I had no idea about anything & that was why I clung so hard to writing. It was going to be my only way out from too many situations. To be honest, I’ve grown used to not feeling that way & in 2017 I was hoping for a continuation of that.

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The Theory Cadre wishes a Happy 2017 to all our guests, even those who failed to stay in their rooms as requested during the “hollow” period.

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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.

“Night Moves was Penn’s point of turning, his last carefully structured work, a strong and bitter film, whose bitterness emerges from an anxiety and from a loneliness that exists as a given, rather than a loneliness fought against, a fight that marks most of Penn’s best work. Night Moves is a film of impotence and despair…”

–Robert Kolker, The Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman