M. John Harrison – Things That Never Happen

harrisonA stunning collection of short stories, gathered from 1975 – 1999. These are character driven stories, with elements of science fiction or fantasy positioned evocatively in the background. Harrison is a realist with elegant and precise prose. His main focus is on the minutiae of reality, the interplay of alienated characters, the ties that bind them, atmospheres, moods, the subtle play of light. His prose builds up an intimate portrait of reality, the physicality of the world.

There are a few tropes and themes that occur throughout these stories. The very sick woman is a character that reappears in story after story.  (The Fisher Queen as China Mielville calls her.) Dislocation in urban environments and a movement to healing in wilderness and isolated places, like moors and mountains. The idea of transformation. The desire to escape the quotidian. Reality’s strong gravitational pull on that desire. Fantasy as consolation. It is the pull and push of these forces that sets up the inner dynamics of many of these stories.

The stories appear chronologically and the earliest here, Settling The World, is from 1975 when Harrison was still editor of New Worlds magazine. It is the most distinctive fantastical science-fiction story here, and in this  way it is at odds with the rich realism apparent in the rest of this collection. It opens with a paragraph of light brevity which tells of the discovery of God, his return to earth and society’s transformation into a utopia as a result. The narrator falls in with Estrades, a rebel, an anarchist, who wants to destroy God. Although there is something of the Ballardian hero in Estrades, he is a typical Harrison protagonist; a character going against the grain, rebelling against the mundane, obsessed, looking for transformation, the ecstatic.

Running Down (1975)
Recounts the dysfunctional and destructive relationship between Egerton, the narrator, recovering from a mountaineering accident, and Lyall, an acquaintance from his Cambridge days. Lyall has a dark energy about him (“he carried his own entropy around with him,”) that seems to influence the disintegration of objects and relationships. This erosion is echoed in the background as the political system breaks down with the rise of the Patriotic Front, and Britain is engulfed in violence (“and by noon England, seventy or eighty years too late, was taking her first hesitant but heady steps into this century of violence.”) With the scenes set in the Central Fells, Lake District, there is a strong sense of place evoked, of wild nature, liminal spaces at the edges of civilisation, primal space.

The Incalling (1978)
Austin, the narrator is invited by Clerk to the Incalling, an occult ritual. Over the course of the next few weeks Austin observes the weird instigators of the ceremony, the peculiar Sprake family, and watches the dissolution of Clerk. The occult ritual is another of Harrison’s preoccupations, which will be seen again in The Great God Pan in this collection and in the novel The Course of the Heart. Harrison is generally not concerned with the purpose or aims of the ritual. Here, Austin is skeptical and questions its authenticity, seeing it as something of a sham, the Sprakes as charlatans. Harrison is interested in the ritual as an operation to incite profound change on his characters’ psyches. They desire change, transformation, escape or healing and the ritual mediates that desire.

The Ice Monkey (1980)
An achingly beautiful and enigmatic tale that could be a seminal text for Harrison, as it marks a shift into the mature style seen in the rest of the stories in this collection. It concentrates in a few brilliant pages Harrison’s concerns of desire, memory, obsession in the face of a bleak, run-down reality.

Jones, impractical to all else in the world except rock climbing in which he excels, has conceded all his connections to society. He asks Spider, the narrator, to help in practical concerns like liaising with his estranged wife over maintenance payments. Maureen lives in a dilapidated flat at the centre of an urban wasteland, “the ruins of East London, the rain”, from which she surveys the broken landscape, like an abandoned lady in a tower, “Maureen, in E3 where all horizons are remembered ones, dwelling on vanished freedoms.”

The writing is beautiful, Harrison captures the characters’ inner states of mind and subtle atmospheres of time and place in a single sentence: “Jones in a cafe, watching with his head tilted intelligently to one side as the sparse traffic groaned away south and a kind of mucoid grayness crept into the place through its steamed up windows.” The characters seem real, dialogue rings true, there is a strong sense of life as it is lived. There is an undercurrent of poignant despondency to the whole thing, of loss, death, defeat and forgetting.

The Ice Monkey title and three brief sentences concerning a necklace add a faint supernatural element that is at odds with the rest of the story. The fact that the story was written for Ramsey Campbell’s New Terrors horror anthology gives a context to this tale that invites a certain kind of reading to it, even though the text resists that reading. There is a kind of textual friction at play here, forcing a certain reading of the text and denying it at the same time. Which all adds to the enigmatic power and brilliance of this story.

Egnaro (1981)
Lucas, a second-hand fantasy book store owner, becomes obsessed with Egnaro, a fantastical land at the edges of the known world. The pragmatic narrator, his accountant, has no time for Lucas’ fantasies, viewing his fantasy books as feeding a longing for the past, the simplicity of childhood, when desires were more easily consummated. To him, fantasy is merely adolescent desire. Lucas’ obsession takes over and his livelihood and his health suffer.

The setting of Deansgate is vividly realised in its dishevelled state of urban neglect. A transient urban space where office workers and students pass through the rundown streets on their way to their destinations. The bitter winter winds blowing through the drab streets are contrasted with the warm sun-soaked landscapes of Egnaro. Deansgate is a society without a culture or a soul. Why wouldn’t you chose the fantasy when reality is this bleak? So fantasy is a consolation to the quotidian mundanity of life. But it is more than merely escapism. Egnaro is many things, a fantastic realm at the edges of reality, the conspiracy to keep its location hidden, a longing for childhood simplicity, a desire for what is lost. Desire itself. Also and maybe the most obvious, it is orange spelt backwards. Even in the title, Harrison undercuts the romantic longing with the banal.

The New Rays (1982)
The first appearance in this collection of  Harrison’s recurring character type – the very ill woman. (see also Ann The Great God Pan, Isobel Avens, Mona Science and the Arts. From his novels, Audsley King Viriconium, Pam Stuyvesant Course of the Heart, Anna Kearney Light.)

The Quarry (1983)
The narrator is recovering in Yorkshire moors from an emotional breakdown in the city. Convalescing in nature, he is pulled back to the quarry of the title. There he dreams of the Green Woman, a twist on the pagan green man of folk tales. He keeps running into a an odd couple, which he watches with fascination – a blind woman and a paraplegic man, they are co-dependent on one another, and seem to transform ino one beast. With the quarry and its environs, Harrison’s great nature writing evokes a strong sense of place.

Small Heirlooms (1987)
Kit, returns to her writer brother’s house to take charge of his literary estate after his death. She reads his diaries which recount his pre-war travels in Austria. Sex and tarot with a gypsy girl. She wonders what death befell the the girl after the rise of Nazi Germany? She wonders about their child. She dreams. She awakes to the smell of attar of roses perfume, haunted by her brother’s concerns, the ghosts of the past.

The Great God Pan (1988)
This story charts the last despondent meetings, the end of the relationship between the narrator, Lucas and Ann, who are bound together by the magical ritual they participated in as students at Cambridge twenty years before . The ritual itself, its purpose and what was involved, is never disclosed, indeed the narrator has lost all memory of it. But there are hints in the text that it enabled the participants to access the enigmatic Pleroma, of which nothing else is told. The participants now pay a high price for this access. They are all damaged in some mental or physical way, none more than Ann, who suffers from epilepsy, migraine headaches, is paranoid and anxious. Lucas suffers from hallucinations and illness. The cost of accessing the Pleroma has, as Lucas puts it, “ruined something in ourselves.”

The Gift (1988)
Nine alternating chapters depict Sophia and Peter Ebert’s separate lives in the same city. Both are solitary, lonely figures. Sophia lost in alcoholism and casual sex. Ebert’s life is suddenly given meaning when he receives a tattered book by a stranger on the underground, the book becomes his obsession. The narrative charts their journey to each other.

The Horse of Iron and How We Can Know It and Be Changed by It Forever (1989)
Structured into ten chapters named after cards of the Tarot. Like a piece of performance art, a young man bestows meaning to objects and events from train journeys chosen using the Tarot deck. Meaning is seen to be ultimately mutable, randomly assigned.

“Two men were molding in brass something which looked at first sight like the stripped carcass of a turkey that exact, sharp-edged cage of bone which reveals itself so thoroughly through all the strips and flaps of flesh after Christmas dinner. It turned out, though, to be something less interesting, a classical figurine, a Poseidon or Prometheus which systematically lost its magic as the layers of casting material were knocked off carefully with the back of an axe. This was so essentially disappointing – a striptease by which, by removing veils of strangeness and alien signification, the sculptor revealed a value ordinarily and easily understood.”

There is something essential to Harrison’s writing in the opening paragraph quoted above and shows his attitude to writing within genre and writing in general. He is not interested in the ordinary and the easily understood, the comforting tropes and cliches of genre. His is the pursuit of the reality of things, the struggle with language to depict something not overused, hackneyed, but true, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that language itself may not be up to the task. The next paragraph, in which the narrator replaces the disappointment of the foundry he saw on TV with one of the imagination, offers a solution to the consequent question, then why write at all?

“Another foundry, somewhere in the night, somewhere in history, in which something like a horse’s skull (not a horse’s head: a skull, which looks nothing like a horse at all, but like an enormous curved shears, or a bone beak whose two halves meet only at the tip, a wicked, intelligent–looking purposeless thing which cannot speak) came out of the mold, and all the founders were immediately executed to keep the secret. They had known all along this would happen to them. These men wear the great craftsmen and engineers of their day. They could have looked for more from life. Yet they crammed down their fear and got on with the work, and afterwards made no attempt to escape.”

Gifco (1992)
Gifco is another high point in this anthology. The narrator and his wife are, in their own separate ways, dealing with the death of their daughter. Neither openly grieving, they seem to be repressing their grief, moving away from their old family house, starting life anew in Peckham. A derelict house across the street from their new home, with the word Gifco scrawled on a boarded up window, begins to play a dark role in their lives.

The internal space of the Gifco house seems to operate outside of reality. He can hear the lunch-time traffic outside, but inside this dark interior feels more like the narrator’s inner space, his psyche where dark happenings occur. The place where his mental disorder is made real. A space cut off from reality, a space out of time and place (almost Lovecraftian.)

The narrator is cold and unemotional and the reader is kept a distance from events by his impassive recital. He puts a strong emphasis on his dreams; within which meanings and language isn’t fixed. His dreams seem to reveal his repressed feelings. The reader can never be quite sure of what the narrator is disclosing is in fact reality as the narrative itself starts to take place within “that zone of slippage between waking and dreaming.” It’s as though his repressed grief has erupted into the narrative itself, disrupting the quotidian with the weird and the uncanny.

He has a terse relationship with his wife; there is no mutual consolation between them. The narrative is littered with her brusque, indifferent exchanges and we intuit her deep dissatisfaction. Her inscrutability is not diminished in the memories of his holiday in Tenerife, where he would meet his wife. Their first meetings show that there never was an emotional intimacy between them; and their physical intimacy was determined by her omnivorous, insatiate desire.

It is also in the Tenerife memories that the psychological source of the Gifco house is disclosed. The darkly enigmatic character of Allo Johnnie looms over these passages. The Gifco graffiti resounds with the narrator so much, it as though the narrator’s subconscious has made a strange kind of connection with the meeting of his wife and the death of the daughter, with the character of Allo Johnnie as some preternatural dark midwife to this association.

Despite the  unsympathetic characters, it is the emotional punch of this story that remains with the reader. There is a deep sense of loss here. Memory, identity and a sense of indeterminacy. Nothing is fixed. Everyone lost within their inner selves, slave to their own obsessions and false desires..

It is interesting to read M. John Harrison’s blog entry on Gifco as a postscript of sorts:

Those who have failed to regulate the self. Those whose behaviours enact a medicating fiction. Those who flew to the Canary Islands on a cheap ticket in December 1991 & left the remains of their personality in the apartment hotel. Those who ran from everything in a zig-zag pattern, so fast they never found the transitional object. The unsoothed. The dysmorphic. The unconditional. Those who were naive enough to take what they needed & thus never got what they wanted & whose dreams are now severe. Those who were amazed by their own hand. The confused. The pliable. Those who look at the sea & immediately suffer a grief unconstrained but inarticulable. Gifco is coming. Gifco you are always with us. Gifco we are here!

Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring (1994)

A seminal M. John Harrison short story in which all the author’s obsessions appear, notably the profound yearning for the impossible that leads into obsession and neurosis. The narrative, concerning the intense love affair between Isobel and Mick Rose, is a tangled chronology; scenes alternate between their relationship’s  lust-filled early days  to the twisted, detached end days.

Despite being in love, Isobel yearns for transformation, and beyond that, transfiguration. Love is not enough. David Alexander (in the patriarchal sciencist/doctor role seen in The New Rays), a mediator for the promises of total enablement late-capitalist society confers on the individual, facilitates Isobel’s transformation.

She returns home after her treatment as foretold by the poetically laconic title of the story, with its metaphors of re-birth. But Isobel has transformed into something eerie and unsettling, something post-human. There is spring-like new growth but nothing natural about her new state.

Empty (1995)
Set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire moors, the ghosts of the dead, the moors murders, missing children haunt this story of ageing, death and of how the past indelibly marks itself on a landscape.

Seven Guesses of the Heart (1996)
Falkender, an old magician and his wife are grieving over the loss of their daughter through some magical mishap. Set in the land of Autotelia, the quiet realism of this story focuses on the characters, their grieving and their loss with subtle shifts of mood, atmosphere and feeling. Another sad and beautiful tale.

The East (1996)
The narrator befriends and later follows a strange old refugee as he visits sites around London. The old man says he comes from the land of Autotellia, (see Seven Guesses of the Heart). Harrison describes the outsider immigrant experience and milieu reminiscent of Iain Sinclair / Rachel Lichenstein’s Rodinsky’s Room.

Science & The Arts (1999)
The early days of relationship between writer and artist. Quantum mechanics and the body. The injured woman, healed. The wound becomes naturalised. The bleeding, part of life. This brief final story is a kind of summation, an insight into Harrison’s concerns and a fitting end to a brilliant collection.


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