the m john harrison blog

Tag: writing

You’re writing a sentence and recognise that whatever lies behind it has tipped up everything ten degrees to the horizontal, with washed-out colours and strange old fashioned pictorial values of looking into a mirror, in which you see your own back only to realise it belongs to someone else. For any writer it is the best way to start the day. It will happen even in, say, a book review. This is a way of speaking, obviously: this substrate, this landscape or substance is both there and not there. You understand that in conversion to text, something will be lost. It will undergo some rationalisation. But try not to renege on it, because in the end it’s all you’ve got.

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orpheus in the underland

There are so many good books around at the moment. Will Eaves’ Murmur, obviously, which won the Wellcome prize a few days ago, a triumph not just for the author but for Charles Boyle’s CBEditions, one of the smallest publishers in Britain. The Dollmaker by Nina Allen, reviewed here. Sandra Newman’s glitteringly imaginative time story, The Heavens. Coming soon: Homing, by Jon Day, a calm, artful meditation on home and returning, navigation and orientation, which, in addition, will leave you knowing everything you always wanted to know about the Columbidae; Will Wiles’s rebarbative Plume (also, in a sense, bird-oriented); Helen Mort’s Black Car Burning, also, in a sense, about home, as the place you structure out of the things you do; and Salt Slow by Julia Armfield, her debut collection.

Then there’s the Underland, which opened its maw this week.

Every time he writes, Robert Macfarlane performs several extraordinarily deft acts of focus, by which he interleaves layer upon layer of landscape and mindscape. At the same time he never fails to give you the sense that the book you are reading has self-assembled from its own imaginary, which is in turn composted and churned from the substance of the world and his relations with it. Even if he only thought about things, and wrote them down, Macfarlane would be a significant, persuasive writer—he has perfect control of the skill, or art, or quality of mind Brian Dillon described in Essaysim. But Macfarlane has been there too, and looked, and this is what he saw; and this is what he did; and this is what emerged from the experience. This is what it means to be a contemporary landscape writer. Macfarlane made the book, you understand, with its cunning millefeuille of themes and imagery, deep human history, cycles of politics, poetry and myth: but you also understand that it developed under its own impetus, out of the deep relations of the things of the world. Or, in the case of Underland, the things under the world: from its deep time geological underpinnings, up through layer after labyrinthine layer of cultural and economic connection, to the shallow scabrous subsurface litter of the things we know and are trying to forget—the things our species is trying to hide and hide from—the things we’re burying as we bury ourselves alive.

“While writing Underland,” he said in the Guardian recently, “I have come to think of claustrophobia as one of the distinctive experiences of the Anthropocene: a sense of time and space running out; of being in the grip of Earth forces triggered by human actions but exceeding human control…” Underland takes us inside that experience, and is a genuinely frightening catabasis as a result. But Macfarlane keeps singing to the end and gets us back into the light.

in real life

Along with the imminent publication of Rob Macfarlane’s masterpiece Underland, this retweet by Andrew Male reminded me of something. I’ve always been fascinated by the praxis and professionalism of cavers. Especially cave divers. A friend of mine gave up climbing to do that activity for a while. He supplied me with some fine anecdotal material. In the late 1970s I had written part of a sci-fi/horror novel in which a team of contemporary cavers and climbers, prospecting the Irish karst for new routes in their separate disciplines, rediscovered the remains of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. Their subsequent exploration of the associated geology would have had all the predictable results and in addition allowed me to make a critique both of the Hodgson novel and Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls”. It was also my idea to catch the reader up with contemporary caving and climbing techniques and attitudes. (The “exploratory value” would be seen being absorbed into the new values of risk sport, for instance, a transition later touched on in Nova Swing and Empty Space.) I dropped the idea because it seemed too ordinary, too direct and too glib. All that’s left, apart from perhaps ten thousand words of yellowing draft, is the short story “The Ice Monkey”, which I cut out of it. “The Ice Monkey” started me off in a completely different direction and led to Climbers. I stopped trying to literalistically incorporate my real-life interests and experiences into fantasy fiction (see Tomb the Dwarf’s solo of the first pitch of Medusa, Ravensdale, or Alstath Fulthor’s trail-run up from Hadfield via Yellow Slacks up on to Bleaklow, across the Woodhead and then down by Tintwhistle Low Moor in A Storm of Wings) and instead began to let the two kinds of content and technique blur together, in search of what the result could tell me. You can see that immediately you look at the stuff. You can also see that I became happier and more comfortable with the way I was doing things. You can call these very self-aware metafictional explorations of the exploratory value and its inevitable structures “the Weird” if you like. I call it being the kind of writer I started to be in 1979.

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.

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.

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.

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.

imaginary review (14)

This novel’s central character exists only to witness something he doesn’t understand. The reader doesn’t understand it either; not because it can’t be understood, or because there is nothing to be understood, but because understanding comes at the price of reassembling the components of the book from a position that is only hinted-at. One way or another, everything’s a clue to a point of view. But, much as a gene’s most important function may be to switch on a cascade of other genes, that in itself may be a clue only to another clue.

death of a witness

Olivia Laing on John Berger:

Capitalism, he wrote in Ways of Seeing, “survives by forcing the majority to define their own interests as narrowly as possible”. It was narrowness he set himself against, the toxic impulse to wall in or wall off. Be kin to the strange, be open to difference, cross-pollinate freely. He put his faith in the people, the whole host of us.

The book of his I pick up more & more often as I get older is his collaboration with Jean Mohr, A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. I have a beaten-up old paperback–from the early 70s, I think–which doesn’t get any easier to read without it falling to bits; but it’s now available from Canongate with an introduction by Gavin Francis, who describes it in his first sentence as “a masterpiece of witness”. That was what Berger felt like back then, and what he made me want to become: a witness.

some falls

Summer, 2012: Charlie and his cousin Matthew set out one evening in Charlie’s Lexus to join Charlie’s wife, Chloe, at their summer home in the Catskills. It’s a complex relationship. Charlie, you sense, usually gets what he wants. Matthew is more the junior partner, always offering, always giving, always biddable. In fact, before we know it, he has already agreed to get out of the car, catch a train back to New York and pick up a bracelet Charlie left behind. By page four you think it’s odd that Charlie’s so insistent, in his understated, manipulative way; by page five you’re wondering which of them might be the fall guy of the title… Read on

My review of James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy, up at the Guardian today.