The Ice Monkey – M. John Harrison

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 The Things That Never Happen collection. It concentrates to 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 a 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.

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