the m john harrison blog

Tag: ghosts

speaking of ghosts…

…this notebook entry from 1993, first blogged in 2009, is seeing new traffic:

Ghosts, or fragments of ghosts, phantoms of partial vanished events, appear to have piled up in an old house until its new occupant, A, becomes sensitive to them. She is upset by a particular manifestation. She begins to track it down in local history records, piece it together. With each discovery, more of the apparitions in the house are brought in under the umbrella: everything begins to make sense.

Along with this comes an increased pressure on A to bring peace to the house: she feels that only she can understand what has happened–of course, it mirrors events in her own life–and that only such an understanding can “earth out” the psychic overload in the house. But one piece of the story–its conclusion–is missing: no local record can tell her what happened. She doesn’t know where to dig to find the corpse, the star-crossed lovers, the stolen birthright, or the evil object. A can’t right the wrong.

Balked, she becomes ill. In parallel, the hauntings become more horrific.

Worried all along by A’s skewed relationship to her house and its past, her friend B repeats the local history research, but across the whole life of the house. B discovers that the attempt to find a single historical explanation for the haunting has caused A to conflate events from two thousand years or more of occupation of the ground. The fountain of blood in the cellar comes from a different incident to the repetitive shriek in the attic. She has mistaken medieval manifestations for seventeenth century ones, children for adults, sex for murder, & strung them all together to make a story she cannot quite complete.

Once B has relocated each incident to its proper temporal place, he understands that the hauntings are not motivated. They are fragmentary, palimpsestic, meaningless. They are a record of habitation, not an explanation of the personal lives of particular inhabitants or a message to the future about some injustice so monstrous no one can have peace until it is righted. It is not the responsibility of the living to redress–or even facilitate the redressing–of wrongs in the past. The past is only the past: we do not owe it any guilt, we cannot even recognise anymore what constitutes it. The past is just some decaying, meaningless echoes. When we “learn” from it, all we are doing is rewriting it according to what we need at the time.

As soon as A understands this, she gets well. The hauntings stop. She has laid the past to rest not by understanding it but by consigning it to the past where it belongs.

a story of ghosts

The structure of the story, as it is engaged by the reader, should have a similar effect to that of discovering a puzzling selection of items in a container of unlabelled material from someone else’s life. The end of the story, instead of providing closure, tries to recreate the moment in which some fragments of evidence–which might not actually be evidence–flicker together to suggest the possibility of a pattern that might never have been there anyway. Glimpses of emotional meaning that shift with the light, framed by uncertain nostalgias. The sense of briefly understanding or failing to understand emotional states that you might, anyway, have invented. The aim of the writer is not to become an exhibitor of found objects, but instead to not quite succeed in curating that which might or might not have been there in the first place. There is, obviously, a politics to that. & it always produces, by definition, a story of ghosts, if not an actual ghost story.


Churchyards both Catholic and Anglican, dark old plantings featuring yew and cedar, ancient metal gates in stone walls, and the remains of a fortified manor house. None of its sharply Aickmanesque qualities came over in the pictures, which I suppose is in itself an indicator of the Aickmanesque. “St Mary’s Church in the United Benefice of Condover”. Some other noise in the sound of the jackdaws among the yews, the shouts of the boys in the College. The fortified manor rises–a kind of flecked or mouldy orange colour–behind St Mary’s like a pocket Gormenghast, a vast cedar tree apparently growing out of the base of its south east tower. Overgrown headstones–draped in ivy–less headstones than stones like heads emerging from the moon daisies and leggy celandines of the Anglican cemetery. Inside the church, that smell which seems to be compounded of sweat, floor polish and damp sacking. A soft stone tomb like melted candlewax, 1382, supporting the oldest medieval brass in the county.

october is the weirdest month

17th October I’m at Goldsmiths with Tim Etchells & many another, for the Fiction As Method conference. If time allows I might read a new short fiction presently entitled “Yummie”, written for 2016 publication in an original anthology I’m not sure I’m supposed to talk about yet (story of my life this year). Tim will probably have something more sensible to contribute, which we can then discuss. A week later, on the 25th, I’m back at the uncanny Manchester Rylands Library for Twisted Tales of the Weird–readings & discussions with Timothy Jarvis & the eerie Helen Marshall. What is the weird (& how much longer can it support itself as a category)? You can be sure none of us know the answer to that. Time will be more constrained at the Rylands, so you’ll have to be content with a few hundred words from the novel in progress.

Both events are free but ticketed: order now to be certain of satisfaction.

in the park

Obelisk on a base of eroded local stone. Several little gravestones commemorating Chumble, Coco, Bessie, Mollie, Porridge, pet names that could be equally for animals or people. “This must be where they buried the servants,” C says. Much of the stone in the park is laminated. Judging by the quarry in the bay at the north end of the lake, and the exposed rock in the cuttings, this is intrinsic & not much to do with subsequent erosion. It comes out of the ground wafery and brittle. From a distance, the pillars of the Ionic temple seem like ideal volumes; closer to they’re rippled, loose, falling apart into the same world as you. Leaden, coffin-shaped garden planters with a knot design, a rose design, their edges are battered, cut, used-looking. An empty plinth between yews. Walled garden: lines of ruined Victorian glasshouses; rusty iron curves; grubbed-up tree roots, charred looking and still clasping chunks of the glasshouse foundations two or three bricks on a side. Clee Hill slumps on the hot skyline, against architectural June cloud, while an unaccompanied Italian greyhound wanders disconsolately between the tables on the terrace and someone says, “I don’t like the smell of sweet peas, they’ve got an edge to them. Something musty underneath.”


characters (5)

This character never has much more than an unconscious relationship with events. His awareness always skims them, or goes round them, or manages to find a way of dismissing them as shallow and insubstantial even as they’re happening. If the things that happen to him are taken in at all–actually engaged with or reacted to–it must be the unconscious which does that work, because his consciousness always seems to be off somewhere else. It’s never really connected up. Things’ effects on him have thus to be welcomed later, in symbols. Sometimes the return of the repressed will be all he has to work with to understand what has actually taken place.

well used to falling down

Soon after we moved into the Dulwich house, we were called over to number 31 at one in the morning to help pick Lord Arquiss up.

His wife ran about in the empty street for a while, trying to attract our attention. A light, dry snow was dusting the road, wreathing and twisting along like dust round each quick little step. “Look at this,” said Elaine, who knew a performance when she saw one. “Not dancing but waving.” She waved back until the ballerina gave up and rang our bell.

“I wouldn’t ask,” the ballerina told us, “but he’s had a little bit much to drink, so we can’t really call the ambulance.”

Their front room was full of furniture too big for it, dimly lit by standard lamps with tasseled satin shades. Lord Arquiss lay waiting for us on the carpet at the base of a display cabinet, arranged on the glass shelves of which were hundreds of very small items in a kind of bright blue glass. He was looking up mischievously from the side of his eye. One of his slippers had fallen off. His legs, thick but somehow graceful, poked out of the bottom of the shortie dressing gown, their color somewhere between white and cream. His skin was very smooth. He had a faint, distinct smell — not unpleasant — which reminded me of babies. We got him up off the floor and back into his chair with difficulty. He was still a heavy man, even in a dressing gown and with naked, biscuit-colored balls.

He looked unrepentant; the ballerina looked relieved. “You must have a drink,” they urged; filled two glasses with Famous Grouse; and spent an hour telling us anecdotes of people called Tippy or Ticky — people who were Malcolm Sargent’s mistress in some old days even the participants barely now recall — people who had been well used to falling down and being picked up again.

from “Black Houses”, in Things That Never Happen, 2002.

argument from experience

Recent turns in my life, not directly related, make this, from 2009, seem worth repeating–

I went to one of the infamous Dylan concerts–Leicester de Montfort Hall, I think–as a raw, betrayed, left wing folkie, ready to heckle as soon as that sell-out reneged on his roots, denied his past & picked up an electric guitar. My girlfriend of the time, too. Two funny, smooth, unmarked, optimistic little faces turned up at the stage ready to defend our values, ready to defend our hero against his own bad decisions. By the end of the accoustic half of the show, I couldn’t bear my own anxiety & had dissociated as a defence.

Then a minute into the first electric song, I was electrified too, & so was she. Everyone around us got up & boo’d; but we got up and cheered & danced & kissed each other’s amazed faces. It was Love Minus Zero No Limit & it went through me like a crack in a mirror, & if I played it now–what? 40-odd years later?–& they have been odd years–I would just cry & cry & cry.

So, actually: fuck “Play some old!” Play some old is just very bad advice, which comes from chipmunks & children already afraid of time. Go on! Go where your work takes you, & don’t be forced into yesterday’s postures–already looking strained & meaningless–by an audience scared to move along with you.

Original post, June 6 2009, here.

“Mornings go slowly, then the afternoon seems to rush away. I was besotted with this house. It was a love affair. Now I’m anxious and afraid again. I see every imperfection, every chip and dent. This morning I found dirt on the kitchen table. It wasn’t there the night before. It was the kind of dirt you find in a flower pot, dark, fibrous. My desk is out of true with the wall and two or three inches away from where I arranged it. That happened overnight. After we had been here three months I looked up in the bedroom and saw that the loft entrance was disarranged, just slightly open. The only conclusion I can come to is that someone else is living here with us.”


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