the m john harrison blog

Category: the horror

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.

map boy writes on his handkerchief–

The pollluted sublime. Pockets of the sublime. The sublime as haunting. The sublime as antechamber. The powerless or disconnected sublime. The sublime immanent in its opposite (gnostic sublime). Beatification & the anti-sublime: Visions of Johanna. The absent or absurd sublime. The ironic counter-sublime. The failed sublime. The lost or misplaced sublime. Jouissance & the carnal sublime. The sublime of the commodified, or spectacular sublime. Intellectual branding & the cosmological sublime. The sublime will eat itself. Lists of unsublime objects presented as being in some overall way sublime (the rhetorical sublime). The toon sublime. Light slowly peels the surface of things. The Indian Ocean.

dscf0772

Originally posted November 2011

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

IMG_0849This faintly disturbing object appeared on the garden table today. The possible alternatives being unthinkable, threatening and/or grotesque, we’re assuming it was dropped as part of the usual manna of sticks, cigarette butts, string and bits & pieces harder to identify, by a jackdaw. Or perhaps it’s the London Book Fair’s equivalent of the Black Spot, served for my failure to attend for the 40th year running. Other theories welcome, obviously.

Photo: Cath Phillips

exhaustive

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.

muppetised

Horror, some people believe, is a sensation that arrives with the discovery that “we’re the monsters”. That was an interesting position for a while. But lots of other things are horrific & have nothing to do with this kind of narcissism; and subsequent across-the-board application has turned the idea into a cliche of unearned self-forgiveness, muppetising by cross-fertilisation both monster and human being. Embracing your monsterhood is the Thatcherite/neoLiberal excuse for impulse action, especially when it leads to being a shit. It’s from that generation. It began to gain traction just when you’d expect, in the early 1980s, and peaked with the horrified recognition that New Labour was a nest of cannibals. Your own narcissism can be kept within reasonable bounds: true horror is the discovery that Tony Blair’s can’t.

the burden of possibility

Two important-looking clergymen prowl uneasily in the bitter platform cold. They are travelling down from Leeds to London. When the train arrives they sit on opposite sides of a reserved table in the quiet carriage. “Young mothers with chipped nail varnish,” the first begins, “fill themselves with cigarette smoke for a brief blank moment of satisfaction.” To this challenge, the other responds: “When you take your clothes to the laundrette you are reaffirming or celebrating your identity. Its components dance, spin, enumerate themselves in front of your eyes.” At this, they nod and smile; a slight milkiness, an opaqueness, passes across their eyes. Later that same night they’re collecting armfuls of dead roses from the expensive homes along the river in Chiswick. “Your mind unravels like a pullover as your driver explains to you the positions of the stars.” “Certain kinds of wear and tear reveal themselves. Every personality is prone. On the other hand its renewable energies become clear.” These two men have a uniform whiteness of hair the secret of which has been lost to the laity. Neither of them drink coffee. “It occurs to me I will probably never need to write, ‘He fell into the abyss of the nunnery.'” “And yet you never know.”

curiouser & curiouser

Poor souls blundered helplessly around in the remains of their lives in the atrium of Manchester John Rylands Library yesterday evening. It was a curious tale, indeed it was two of them. The Rylands would be a fantastic place to read anything, let alone a ghost story. Spotted in the audience: John Coulthart & the fabled Michael Butterworth. Nick Royle took this picture in the modern annexe afterwards–B5KeYHLIUAAfHqu-1Left to right: Alison Moore, Tom Fletcher, Beth Ward & AN Other. Curious Tales: Poor Souls’ Light.

M. John Harrison, ‘The 4th Domain’. A potent distillation of Harrison’s bleakly compelling corpus. There are sardonic references to Borges, seedy séances in a house by a graveyard, intimations of ancient lost civilizations, shattered lives, blood, and forbidden lore. Like the Thames at East Sheen, it has a surface scum that glisters deceptively, but dark currents lie beneath. Harrison achieves in this short story what, for most, would take an entire novel.

—Timothy Jarvis at The Weird Fiction Review.