The Transcendent Mr. Harrison


Nothing hides an author better than a genre label.  M. John Harrison is one of the very best living British writers, and a recent recipient of the Goldsmiths’ Prize (for “fiction that breaks the mould”) to prove it. He’s been producing unique, mould-breaking fiction for years, usually marketed as SF or fantasy, though his reputation has spread largely by word of mouth, tending to brand him as a “writer’s writer”, which is hardly fair; his books are dense but engaging, entertaining even when you’re left thinking, “What the hell was that?” and immediately start flicking back to key passages, trying to answer your own question. They’re like puzzles that have to be lived in for a while, labyrinths that need to be explored — slowly, perhaps even over years.

His origins go back a long way. In the ‘60s and ‘70s there was a thing called New Wave SF. The British version was a little different from its US cousin, in the same way that British punk was different: overtly political, casually cynical, keen to experiment with both form and content. I grew up on this stuff, though I was a little late to the party and read it mostly in the Best SF from New Worlds collections, where I found several of Harrison’s very early tales and… didn’t like them.

Sorry, but I didn’t. He was relatively young when he first appeared in print, so much of his growth as a writer has been public; and I, as a reader, was younger still, so can’t vouch for the validity of my opinions. But back then, those early pieces struck me as imitative — of Ballard, or the more literary bits of Moorcock. When I read The Pastel City, in fact, I assumed Harrison was trying to “do a Moorcock”, ie. write a fantasy novel in order to finance more literary ventures elsewhere. I don’t remember much about the book, though I liked the strange, decadent poetry scattered through it (“Rust in our eyes, we who had once soft faces…”), and the beautiful landscape descriptions. Landscape would become a Harrison speciality, and remains so to this day.

His essays, on the other hand, were fierce, astute and persuasive. Usually he’d take some revered figure from SFF (Tolkien, Heinlein), point out everything that was fake, spurious and second-hand about their work, then contrast it with something by a lesser-known author whom he, Harrison, admired (Mervyn Peake, Harvey Jacobs). These essays were little master-classes in writing. He’d highlight a work’s authentic moments, its carefully-caught dialogue and precise choice of words, and a host of other techniques none too common in the SF of the day. What he disliked, and disliked vehemently, was literature that pandered to its readers’ prejudices, and made them feel comfortable (I think one of the essays was actually called, “A Literature of Comfort”). Harrison certainly knew what he didn’t like, but his own creative path still seemed uncertain.

He cites the story “Running Down” as the point where he found his own voice. But to me, there were two other stories that completely knocked my head off, and presaged things to come.

One was the Jerry Cornelius story, “The Ash Circus”. Harrison’s use of Cornelius was subtly different from Moorcock’s, and his fragmented narrative skips easily through elements of thriller, SF and more contemplative story-telling. There is landscape, yes, and the lists of Fortean events which would become a recurring element in his fiction. Above all, though, there is a sense that the characters know what they’re doing, and why, even if the reader doesn’t. It’s this hint of the mysterious — of seeing only half a picture — that has persisted, and haunts so many of the recent tales in You Should Come With Me Now.

The other piece I liked was “The Causeway”, an SF story which doesn’t read like SF (we’re talking early ‘70s here, so what is and isn’t SF may have changed a fair bit since). The style is intensely realistic. The beach setting was perhaps inspired by Ballard, but it’s not a Ballardian beach — it’s windswept, dotted with marram grass, and decidedly English, meaning cold and inhospitable. As an adolescent I was inevitably drawn to the plight of the narrator, who seems to misread everyone (again: so much remains unseen, unknowable). He pursues a girl, only to have her fall for the local thug, who beats him up. But there’s no self-pity here, only a sense of people stumbling about, trying to find their way in a world they fail to understand. For some, there are ancient rituals which appear to offer purpose, but are inherently destructive. I’ve stolen from this story many times, one way and another, and I certainly don’t intend to point out where.

After that came the stories in The Ice Monkey, particularly “The New Rays”, another piece in which an unexplained, fantastic element intrudes into a dark, shabby realism. It has the feel of something set in the ‘50s or ‘30s rather than the present day. Harrison’s characters may lead drab half-lives, but there is a sense of something numinous, magical — wonderful or terrifying — just out of reach, and if they could only get to it, their lives might be changed. Yet the risks involved are huge. The Course of the Heart describes the after-effects of a magic ritual gone wrong; it’s also a lament for lost youth, lost dreams, and the kind of lives we all imagined we were going to live, but somehow didn’t. His work is haunted by such notions, yet defies mere allegory; it’s more subtle than that, and places demands on the reader: how do we interpret this? How does this relate to our own experience, our own, half-seen lives? Thus, I suspect, his books are different for everyone who reads them. They are personal and universal, both at once. Even the stunning space opera which began with Light is about people living in the shadow of phenomena they can’t comprehend, while the naturalistic Climbers follows a group of sportsmen seeking an experience out of the ordinary, somehow beyond their normal, mundane lives. The transcendent might be near, but it remains, tantalizingly, just out of reach — glimpsed, hinted at — gone, almost the moment it’s perceived.

Recently Read

Crime authors are ten a penny these days, but mention must be made of Frank Bill’s debut collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana (FSG Originals), where pulp shock-horror confronts a Midwest long since cut out of the American dream. Bill’s characters are worn down by their own lives, desensitized and numb to the needs of others. They kill because it solves their problems, whether the inopportune arrival of a lawman, the burden of an inconvenient lover, or a relative who refuses to die and pass on their inheritance. There’s grim stuff here – I’d never realised how many ways there are to describe somebody being murdered – but also restraint and compassion; in the title story, which centres around dog fighting, we’re spared the grisly details of this so-called “sport” in favour of the grief felt by a man whose dogs have been used for bait. It’s a book in which sensational foreground material is off-set by little touches of humanity and wider political awareness, never hammered home but always lurking in the background: when Able Kirby pimps out his granddaughter to buy drugs, it’s not meth or crack he’s after, but cancer medication for his dying wife.

There are good people in Indiana – my in-laws, for a start – but from now on, when we visit, I’ll keep the car doors firmly locked until we get there.

Those who read Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s monthly The Unwritten (Vertigo comics) will get a great deal of pleasure from the free-standing graphic novel, Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice. Those who don’t read it should. On one level, it inspects the way that stories shape our world; on another, it looks at the fate of poor, confused Tom Taylor, a Christopher Robin figure whose whole life has been dominated by his father’s best-selling children’s books. Is he really the boy magician, Tommy Taylor? This graphic novel answers a few questions and poses more, while juxtaposing a (rather good) Harry Potter pastiche with the sinister manipulations of its fictional author.

For a time it seemed that Carey might linger indefinitely in Neil Gaiman’s lengthy shadow (his excellent Lucifer series was built on Gaiman’s Sandman universe), but with The Unwritten and the earlier, ill-fated Crossing Midnight, not to mention the Felix Castor novels, he has marked out his own territory. Few people in comics or out can provide such sheer entertainment and good story telling.

I’ve finally got round to JG Ballard’s last novel, Kingdom Come. It’s not his best, though still head and shoulders above the competition; and it strikes me as interesting that, for a man whose early novels read like a succession of still lifes, his later thrillers have a real page-turning quality as he exposes the inherent psychopathy of the modern world. He’s a little off the mark in terms of topicality here (unlike his previous book, Millennium People, which so perfectly fingered the malaise of a disappointed middle class), and much of the scenario, with its George Cross-wearing bully boys, recalls Britain in the late ‘70s when the National Front was at its most visible. A move to the right by successive UK governments has taken the demonization of out-groups (immigrants, benefit claimants) from the fringe to mainstream politics, a far more disturbing situation. This, though, is a minor quibble. With his apocalyptic imagery here deployed on the home front, and his trade-mark stylised dialogue, reading this novel is like a reunion with a long-lost friend, reminding me how perceptive and unique Ballard’s work always was. He influenced many, but no-one ever matched him. He is much missed.