the m john harrison blog

Tag: ghosts

back to the old haunts

Hauntings are structural. The text is haunted by its own components & haunts them in return, offering an almost constant bait & switch. Eventually every haunting is haunted by another haunting. Every element flips from being a subject to being an object, inviting the reader to view from a sequence of continually refreshed relationships between context and contexted. The background of one scene is the foreground of the next. It is impossible to say, in the illuminated flipbook of the narrative, which is the “character” –the haunted vicar; the moonlit figure crawling across the lawn towards the manse; or the manse itself; or the lawn; or the Church of England; or the cedar trees off at the edge of the picture; or the engraver of the image, who never appears, in fact is never even mentioned anywhere in the fiction and is only present by having once been real and having once engraved a very similar item in what might be called “real” life.

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one or two news items

The new novel is finished subject to tinkering (also to waking up at three in the morning, looking at part of it & thinking: what on earth did you think you were trying to do there?). I can’t say what kind of novel it is because I don’t feel I know yet. Maybe I’ll never know, but I can say that it’s set now, it’s odd, and it’s not a space opera, so that gives you some idea of what it isn’t. After that, things take on, as they should do, a slight, puzzling shimmeriness.

No title as yet. Publication details as and when I have them. And maybe the odd little excerpt to tease & confuse.

I started a version of this novel in 2008, looking to pick up where I had left off in the mid-to-late 90s with Signs of Life and Travel Arrangements. I wanted to take advantage of the things I’d learnt from the kind of short stories I began writing around then. That process was interrupted and modified by Empty Space; then the post-2012 version itself was interrupted by a house move and a heart attack, with an accompanying sense that I’d better get fit, go climbing again and generally take charge of myself from then on if I wanted to keep pushing and not give in and become old; and also by the recognition that this novel didn’t represent a direction I was going to be encouraged to take (& that therefore it was exactly the right thing to do). So I’m glad to have got to this point and be able to move along one way or the other.

In the last five or six years I’ve received such support, from so many new, exciting and unexpected directions, that I’ve had more sense of the fun of being a writer–not to mention the worth of it–than at any time since the early 1970s.

Next year I’ll transfer my attention to the other new novel I’ve been working on the sly: but also enjoy the luxury of finishing two short stories that have been slowly ungluing themselves from the edges of what I laughingly call my “mind”; and two really exciting collaborative projects nothing to do with on-the-page fiction. I also hope to do more readings, because I enjoy that kind of ephemerality of presentation, that way of entertaining people. Readings are a good way of finding out who you are and what you write, and extending that; and they offer audiences a new way in, too. I’ll be back to reviewing in the new year, for the Guardian & the TLS, and I’m hoping to collect a “personal anthology” of favourite short stories for Jonathan Gibbs’s excellent series here.

Sadly, The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life and Things That Never Happen remain out of print. Perhaps something can be done about that in 2019; I intend to be rather more energetic, and rather more vocal about the problem in certain quarters. Whether anything can be done or not, there’ll be a “selected” short stories to include material from The Machine in Shaft Ten onwards, introduced, I hope, by someone young, lively and cleverer than me, and aimed at an audience I didn’t until recently know that I had.

My slogan for 2019 will be: We go through the doors that open.

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.

climbing is weird

I told R we were doing so well I was thinking of trying to find a way back into writing about it. I forgot that with climbing you don’t need to do that. You only have to wait. We went to Froggatt. Sunday morning, around ten. A fine drizzle in drifting patches, with proper rain forecast, had kept the car parks empty. We found the crag empty too. Soon, people would start driving over from Stanage, which was piss wet through. For now everything was eerily silent and belonged to us. Not an experience you expect in the Peak District in June. The rock was bone dry, with lots of friction; we’d gone to do really easy routes but after an early success, got tempted by Sunset Crack. R floated up; while my memories of the 1985/95 decade, when routes like that were still a soft touch, earned me the quiet, careful slap I deserved: I stayed aboard but only just. I felt every year of my age. Gritstone is always in charge, even in the lower grades. Gritstone decides what you’ll feel, what kind of fun you’ll have, what kind of lesson comes along with it. That’s why some like it & some don’t. When we got down we found, on the warm shelf of rock under the start, this tiny dead thing.

Apart from being dead it was still in perfect condition. It was laid out with two foxglove bells, something yellow & a couple of bits of greenery (which R moved to take the picture). Had it been there all along? Or had it been put there while we climbed? Neither, or even both, was his opinion. Some kind of different physics was in operation. I’m not quarrelling with that because he’s the physicist. On the way back we went to Brookside Buttress–which, unfrequented and unpolished, with turf still growing on the easy way down, sitting in a mossy gully next to its own little water feature, is the perfect Gothic crag–and did a route neither of us had ever been on. What more can you ask?

photo: Richard AL Jones

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.

the sort of book that might appear in a short story in a collection just like this

Ghosts being such rich contributors to the tradition, the very first item on Philip Hensher’s shopping list of best British short stories is “A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs Veal” by Daniel Defoe. Defoe’s opening clause, “This thing is so rare in all its circumstances”, which Penguin have printed on the back board of the first volume, might be a statement of intent on behalf of the form itself. The most abject of short stories must make this claim, if no other, somewhere in its content, or structure; many, of course, fail to deliver on it… More

My review of The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, in the TLS today.

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.

research

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.