the m john harrison blog

Category: things to avoid in popular fiction

a little of what you fancy

A couple of paragraphs from the construction site, just because I like you–

Victoria emailed Short.

“It’s very English Heritage up here. I expect I’ve told you that before.” As soon as you entered the woods, a dozen footpaths, signposted at the will of competing conservation bodies, went off busily in all directions, running precipitately into one another, stumbling over brand new stiles, toppling into an overgrown quarry and out the other side. “They’re offering access. They’re offering so much access you don’t know where to go for the best.”

In fact, she often ended up beside the pool where she had watched Pearl bathe, and stood there wondering how she could make herself go in. She took off her sandals. She took off some of her clothes then, believing she had heard someone call their dog in the next field along, quickly put them back on again. She was puzzled by herself. On the surface, something seemed to splash and turn lazily; below it, the yellow flowers still lay preserved. They maintained their leaves, and a brittle look, and except for their curious habitat they were quite ordinary. On the way back she heard church bells. The day already had a waxy look, as if some very modern coating had been applied to it at half past seven that morning.

At home she sorted her mother’s things: small framed prints slotted as tightly as old vinyl into cardboard boxes, top edges furred with dust; an ashtray with horses on it; seashells in a jar. This to go, that to stay. Nothing she could place securely in her childhood, or in some later house.

Among the prints she discovered a Felix Kelly capriccio, about eighteen inches on a side. It was already framed. Victorian chimneys confronted self-satisfied Jacobean architecture across a placid lake; trees leaned out from wanly-lit surrounding heights. In the background, Wales had somehow been brought too close to Shropshire. She wiped the glass, knocked a nail into new plaster; stood back to look and saw, predictably, her own reflection. “Why does that always happen?” she wrote to Short. And: “I don’t expect you to have time to answer, between the demands of the gig economy and the heady bustle of metropolitan life. Well, here it’s been raining since 1301.”

Storms had in fact swept up from Powys for a week: after each one, rain slopped off the front gutters of the closing shops, while refreshed jackdaws conducted their meetings in the invisible boardroom between the roofs. It was still summer but it didn’t quite feel like it.

“I don’t know what to think about Pearl,” she admitted suddenly, as if Short was in the room and was someone she could talk to.


the real dream

I dreamed of being in love with an airline pilot. I was younger than I am now. She was tall and full of life. Her father, a short man who had flown jet fighters in the Falklands, came out against the affair. He hated me because I was only a passenger and I had been late on to the plane. My papers weren’t fully in order, which caused one hold up; after which there was something to do with pills, which caused another. I had hurt my left hand climbing. Trying to be cheerful with everyone, I said: “These gritstone abrasions are always slow to heal.” But really, the thumb and part of the hand were missing and the exposed flesh had gone an odd colour. Inside the various cracks and fissures of the wound, so that they looked as if they were interleaved with strips of raw bacon, were strange creamy looking blobs of something. I didn’t want to acknowledge this but in the end I had to look. They were small, slim, white crocuses, growing in tight clusters in my hand. When I woke up it was snowing again.

evening routines of the world’s most unproductive people

• Not collecting anything or putting it in order.
• Standing on the stairs thinking what to do next.
• Thinking what you would do if another set of conditions applied.
• Going dressed for Cannery Row.
• “When I feel I’ve had it up to here with the entire shitshow, I sit in a chair.”
• You don’t know what you know.
• Having the wrong set of emotions for what you dreamed.
• Not knowing how it happened.
• Remembering that, before you came here, people seemed to move about a bit more.

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.


photo: C Phillips

This character wants connection with others, he’s just inept at choosing them. He’s led by his own passivity. He ends up on the edges of other people’s lives and relationships, drawn there by the obsessive-compulsive cycles of his own personality. His favourite pretence is that before the story began, before he met you, he had a life. He had momentum, which he lost through no fault of his own. We see right through that. It’s comically self-deceptive. He leans towards the normal, he’s optimistic he can achieve it: what he doesn’t seem to understand is that any context will satisfy him, however grotesque. If he’s lucky he can settle in a temporary unstable orbit around people who don’t need him for anything. He’s of no utility. He’s damaged goods. He’s the drowned man, the text’s corpse looking for somewhere to wash up.

(First published last June as “Any Port In a Storm”.)


Blake, Peckham and “the tree of angels”. The sheer willpower needed to envisage something. Even a memory has to be forced back into existence, and for all your effort what do you get? An artefact if you’re lucky, something not quite right in the corner of your eye. The exhausting effort to understand exactly what it is you’re trying to see. The exhausting effort to keep focus. The mad daily struggle against all the side issues that offer themselves. The struggle to keep the symbology intact/exact. I don’t care about anything else in writing now, as long as I get that part right. Everything else can follow along, rag tag and bobtail. Everything else is better that way any way.

who is anyone kidding here

Or knows which way up anything is. You need a lot of bolts & sometimes even that’s not enough. There’s no certainty this is the neck or that, even if it is, it’ll hold the head on. Just the usual sounds of the floor being up, probably in the wrong room, & a cheerful sense of applied despair. All morning connecting three feet of pipe to nothing. Fucked ducting. Defibrillators, dessicant dehumidifiers & now something like a lobster the size of a kiddy but without a shell, stuffed in there for reasons no right minded person could entertain. You’re late, you brought the wrong tools & you’re supposed to think of this as the chassis? Then shouts from near a stream (they sound like they come out of the Brueghel in the middle distance) & your mother’s voice from, really, a long time ago, asking what’s the story & advising you put that arm down. You’re in the wrong house again, Jack, & it’s rain later.


Losers. Saps. People who don’t want anything much. Frail people, fragile people. Motiveless people (unless they’re evil). Broken people. People who won’t heal. People who can’t heal. Passive people. Disordered people. People who can’t stop themselves being bullied. People whose bullies don’t come to harm in the final chapter. People whose weaknesses of character aren’t balanced by corresponding opposite characteristics, or who are not redeemed by acceptable chains of events. Unacceptable chains of events. People who are too much this or that. People who won’t reason. People who are too rational. People whose puzzlement never lifts. People whose actions “don’t teach us anything about ourselves”. People I can’t identify with. People who walk away from their own narrative. People who are swept away by events (unless they’re subsidiary characters). Events that are too like reality to be interesting. Events that are too like reality to be true. Events that don’t seem familiar enough, even though they are set in a galaxy far away or in the very far future or in a civilisation of alien beings who look like plastic ducks but are in reality vortices of pure vacuum energy with goals utterly dissimilar to your own. Behaviour you really can’t understand. Sequences that don’t complete. Ideas that don’t ring true. Lack of verisimilitude. Lack of telos (see “dissimilar to your own”). Lack of common sense. Lack of a sense that this story is our story. Genuinely unpredictable events. Genuinely meaningless events. Anything obviously unacceptable that’s also funny. The obviously unacceptable insufficiently critiqued by the text. Directionlessness. Langour. The quality of being a rabbit in a headlight. The quality of being in a Tom Waits song. People the trajectory of whose lives is that of a series of Levy Flights cut short by unpredictable death. People who find the time to be alienated. People who find the time to be miserable. People who find the time to find time. People for whose idle hands the Devil found work. People who clearly haven’t got lives to live & families to bring up. People who should know better. People whose motives aren’t clear. People who should know everything the reader knows or they are clearly too stupid to live. People who aren’t sensible enough to act rationally in a deteriorating situation as if somehow they can’t see themselves doing the wrong thing. People whose ugliness is not within reasonable bounds or which has no hidden glamour. People whose anxiety is not within reasonable bounds or which has no hidden glamour. Doubt which has no hidden glamour. Doubt which has no outcome. A pistol which appears in act one but remains unfired at the end of act three. Bad people who aren’t on your side. People who are good one minute bad the next. Anything that might offend the reader’s politics. Anything that might offend the diametrically opposed politics of another reader. Irredeemable behaviour. Irredeemable circumstances. Unfathomable circumstances. Unfixable disasters. The actual end of the world, with no survivors. People who aren’t feisty. People who don’t know how to swim against the tide. People who never learn to kick ass. People who stay poor without a sick note from the narrative. People who stay poor without a sick note from the reader. People whose diseases aren’t, after all, going to be cured. People who don’t make a heroic effort. People who stay unhappy. People who don’t act as if they’re the centre of the universe.

This ran originally as “The List”, in 2011; but I think the category title, “things to avoid in popular fiction”, is more appropriate. Play “Chimes of Freedom” while reading. Or just read Jean Genet instead. Here at the Ambiente Hotel our promise to you the customer is “Never Knowingly Relatable”.


For fun I put some random blog entries through I Write Like, which told me I write like: Jack London, JRR Tolkien, Chuck Palahniuk (twice), Arthur Clarke (for the “Earth Advengers” post), Cory Doctorow, Gertrude Stein, Dan Brown (for the first paragraph of a review of a Peter Ackroyd novel), Ray Bradbury, David Foster Wallace (twice, once for “Keep Smiling With Great Minutes”), and HG Wells. After that, deciding that my samples must have been generally too short to give a consistent result, I tried the whole of “Imaginary Reviews” and got Isaac Asimov; a 4000 word English ghost story, set mainly at the seaside and featuring an ageing middle class woman called Elizabeth, and got Isaac Asimov again; and then “Cave & Julia” & got HG Wells again. For the whole of Empty Space I got Arthur Clarke; but for its final chapter, which ends with that memorable sentence of crawling Cosmic horror, “First she would separate Dominic the pharma from his friends, take him upstairs, and fuck him carefully to a tearful overnight understanding of the life they all led now,” I got HP Lovecraft.