the m john harrison blog

Tag: new 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.

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voodoo larry’s lead sled

Ben Myers’ grainy, uncompromising, wildly exciting The Gallows Pole, from tiny Northern publisher BlueMoose, wins the Walter Scott Award, 2018. A fortnight or so later, Crudo, Olivia Laing’s “experimental novel about Kathy Acker” becomes a bestseller a week after publication. These are only the most snapshot examples, the most visible evidence. Things are broadening out. A little catch-up is going to have to be played. No one’s claiming the 1980s are finally on their way out; but we have as much right to dream about that as we do about reaching the semifinals of Global Sportsball. So, for all you aspirational writers out there: a big round of the chorus from Eddy & the Hot Rods’ greatest hit again, I think. And, kids, always remember: you are not writing a book. You are in the basement with Tom. You are building your version of Voodoo Larry’s Lead Sled. You need to be able to explain without embarrassment, “I Frenched the headlights.” Understand Voodoo Larry Grobe, you understand The Work, this is a metaphor ok it is what we do.

Incidentally, apropos of nothing, here’s that history of recent changes in the bread market again.

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.

victoria’s house

“It’s very Brexit up here,” she wrote later to Short. “Eight pubs in a mile and deep surrounding woods. I already think of it as my Broceliande, although the High Street seems to have been deforested as early as 1307.” She was sleeping on the sofa again, she told him. “But now I have candles and everything.” Inside one of the boxes she had found a brand new edition of The Water Babies. She amused herself copying out passages for him. Little Tom was naughty. He ran across the fells, by Hartover and Lewthwaite Crag, to the river; he arrived at the water on his own legs but he was desperate to be a fish. “Forty pages in, he’s already an evolutionary joke, the Victorian fantasia of metamorphosis and transition camouflaged by a morality. You see,” she finished, “you should read my emails. I bet your life’s less exciting than little Tom’s.” She knew she would never press Send: but writing was enough to give the effect of being in a conversation. It calmed her down. “I might be keeping my mother’s furniture,” she admitted. “I sold all mine.” This made her think of the house again and she looked around and shivered with delight.

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.

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from empty space to stanage edge

I’ve got two slots at Edge Lit in July, it seems. For the GoH “speech” I’ll read a new story & maybe answer questions about the forthcoming short story collection & the novel in progress. For the other one, an item on writing landscape, I’ll probably do something like this–

Landscape in fiction is never just background, or you’re wasting your opportunities. Let the landscape do as much of the work of informing the reader of your intentions as possible. Entangle your ideas & meanings with the setting. Fold them into one another.

Empty Space: the Funene Golden Hour, a landscape derived from photography of the Namib coast. Ad-image pseudo-sublime. What is the difference between awe & oh wow? The reification of an aesthetic judgement, a play on the use of the term “landscape porn”. Woven into the trilogy’s general position on neoLiberal postindustrial spectacle–the transformation of real sites into sites of public art, ie leisure heritage.

Climbers: “The moment you step into a landscape it becomes another one.” But also, the gritsone edges as a kinaesthetic abacus on which you “tell” your life. To what degree–& in how many lives–has Stanage served that purpose–emotional touchstone or pivot, hermitage, site of psycho-addiction sought out at points in your life, abandoned at others–but also the sense that the gritstone landscape can in some unforgiving way abandon you & you may never be allowed to go back…

Come prepared to ask: What’s the difference, then, between a real landscape & a fictional one? & its various obvious corollaries.

victoria’s gift

They met at a pub on King Street Hammersmith then ate tandoori trout at one of the new upmarket Indians just along from the Premier Hotel. Victoria seemed nervous.

“How do you like my hair?” she said.

Thinned out in some way, centre-parted, chopped off with a kind of calculated incompetence a little above the jawline, it clung lankly to the sides of her face and head, curling out tiredly at the ends. “Neo-bluestocking,” she said. “Very effective from certain angles, though I can see you don’t think so.” Over the evening she drank a bottle of house red– “Nothing to see here. No change here” –and talked about her car. Alex said he would stick to beer. When he said he wasn’t much of a driver, she looked down at the charred tails and dyed red flesh of the remains of their meal, the filmy bones like the fossil imprint of a leaf, and said, “Who is? It’s not really about driving. I go to the coast a lot now.” She laughed and made confused steering wheel motions. “Up and down. Hastings and Rodean. Very slowly. Dungeness, of course.” Then: “I think I’ve grown out of London.” And finally: “I love the little spines of these fishes, don’t you?”

“All I see,” said Alex, “is my dinner.”

He then admitted: “I was in a bit of a state when we last met.”

“You aren’t all that much improved.” She laughed at his expression. “Come on! I should talk! I don’t believe I’ve been entirely sane since I was thirteen–”

Alex filled her glass again. “Is that when you saw the corpse?” he said, hopefully.

“–although I did have a moment of clarity in a sauna in about 2005.” She stared around the restaurant as if expecting to see someone she knew. “Eventually you take what you can get where that’s concerned. You have to feel you’re steadying down.”

“There’s some value to that,” Alex agreed, though he had no idea what she was talking about.

“Actually, I’m not even sure it should be called clarity,” she said.

She was too drunk to drive. They left the car where she had parked it in Hammersmith and walked back to 17 Wharf Terrace along the river. There, she poked around his room as if she was out for a bargain in used furntiure. “The bed’s a bit small,” she said, looking at him brightly. Picking through his books, she found a John Fowles; made a face. “You can’t like any of his stuff. Not really.” Then: “And is this the famous shared wall!” She tapped with one knuckle, as if sounding the ancient plaster for its weaknesses. She put her ear to it. “He seems quite quiet now, your unknown nemesis.” Alex found something else they could drink–the end of a litre of Absolut so old the shoulders of the bottle were sticky with all the condensed grit airs of London–and, sitting on the edge of the bed, unwrapped the housewarming present. “Look at that!” she said, as if their roles were reversed and he had given it to her. It was made of silver, with an articulated body five or six inches long and hinged sidefins. “It’s Peruvian,” she said. “It’s a fish. It’s quite old.”

Alex weighed the fish in his hand, moved one of the fins cautiously. Its scales were tarnished and cold. “Hi fish,” he said.

“See,” Victoria said. “You like it. You like it already.”

alchemical

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.

niche operations

A paragraph of the new novel:

The only time Helen had spoken to him was when she caught him looking at the shrinkwrapped books in the chiller cabinet: “We’re a wholesaler, really. We sell on in bulk.” The self-deception of this was his introduction to the business; or to that side of it. From then on he would make two or three trips a week to similarly shabby premises–crystal shops, candle parlours, short-let niche operations selling a mix of cultural memorabilia and pop merchandise from two or three generations ago–which had flourished along the abandoned high streets of the post-2007 austerity. They were run by a network of shabby voters dressed in cheap business clothes, hoping to take advantage of tumbling high street rents–though their real obsession was with commerce as a kind of politics, a fundamental theology. They had bought the rhetoric without having the talent or the backing. The internet was killing them. The speed of things was killing them. They were like old-fashioned commercial travellers haunting decayed hotel corridors, fading away in bars and single rooms, exchanging order books on windy corners as if it were still 1957–denizens of futures that never coalesced, whole worlds that never got past the natal crisis. Men and women washed up on rail platforms and pedestrianised streets, weak-eyed with the brief energy of the defeated, exchanging obsolete tradecraft like Thatcherite spies.