In the far-distant future, when hyper-intelligent scorpions are looking back on the culture of the upright apes that once cluttered this planet, I think they will be frankly bemused that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature, that Ian McEwan won the Man Booker Prize, that Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer and yet all the time M John Harrison was staring them in the face.
Harrison came to fame with the Viriconium novels, which, amongst a great many other things, used fantasy and science fiction not to make recognisable new worlds, but to profoundly disorient them. The reader couldn’t flip to the inside cover and realise that the Shire and the Crack of Doom were in different postcodes. Everything was shifting and shifty. The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy was even more brave – Light, Nova Swing and Empty Space radically redefined the possibilities of genre, mixing noir, space opera, crime, horror and more. This new work, a collection of short stories, is exemplary. I earnestly hope that if readers pick it up, their literary horizons will be broadened and deepened.
You Should Come With Me Now is a masterclass in how short story collections can be organised. Some are barely a page and others are more traditional in length, if as oblique in meaning. Certain phrases recur: the 787 Dreamliner plane, a country, somewhere in the North Sea, called Autotelia (the word means “an activity undertaken only for its own sake”). There are vaguely mouldering seaside towns and a London that refuses to stay in shape. There are lonely men with strange obsessions, like shadows of the horrific Michael Kearney in Light. Some of the stories take the form of lists, or of non-fiction essays about imaginary characters. Harrison has a particular swerve where the reader initially is given co-ordinates to fix the story – Euston, or Norwich, or Bloomsbury Street – but then the veer begins. In “The Crisis”, the City of London and the centres of capitalism, specifically, are overtaken by the iGhetti, which is “an invasion or a natural catastrophe”, nobody can tell which. In many stories, the seemingly naturalistic is undercut by references to a militarised presence: troops on streets, missile launchers, gunboats.
These stories are subtitled “Stories Of Ghosts”, and they are eerie, unsettling and… I think the word would be “squintable”, like something seen in the corner of the eye. Like Ramsey Campbell, Harrison attempts and succeeds in taking the ghost story out of the Edwardian comfiness of Anglican vicars and Cambridge dons. There is real dread here; made more horrific by Harrison’s signature style. He excels at a kind of smudge, a semantic sfumato, where the reader genuinely struggles to make sense of the image. It is a place of perpetual ambiguity and contradiction.
In “Dog People”, the narrator describes how he “lost himself in the tissue of the residential streets which had worked its way into the fabric of Acton” (and isn’t that “tissue” lovely – handkerchief or flesh?) “then died; a place neither clean nor dirty, new nor old, inhabited by mid-day joggers and almost defunct pigeons, organisms like me”. There is a welcoming sneer to some of the pieces. In “Psychoarcheology” in particular, the narrator is a sort of freelance metal-detector of royal bones – “We found a minor Plantagenet earlier today, crouched in bad cement beneath a Midlands motorway pier”.
There is an obsession with spaces in this book. Although, given that he makes wry remarks about psychogeopgraphy and postmodernism, I doubt he would thank me for saying so, many seem inspired by Gaston Bachelard’s work, The Poetics Of Space. What else to make of stories in which a man tries to tunnel out of his attic, or a prisoner chipping a way out of prison finds room after room after room, and eventually is almost reconciled to his perpetual mining? Another “meme” through the stories is storage, with the litter of being human preserved and forgotten and, in a horrible way, haunting.
The stand-out story is “Jack Of Mercy’s”, an account of the life of a Modernist poet called Hardo Crome. The combination of comedy – his titles include “Marks And Gravures”, “Christobel At The Atlantic Steps” and “Events Recorded Last Wednesday In Iron Chine” – and genuine, goose-flesh-inducing nastiness is quite brilliant: simultaneously satire and monstrosity. It also has what might well be the key to Harrison’s work. Crome is obsessed with “the unthought known” – a kind of epiphany, an awareness, a hint – but also realises “the value of this unthinkable thing is in direct proportion to its horror”. The unthinkable thing is central to this book, whether it is trying to visualise arsenic in milk or figuring out what a “detergent” of a sea might be.
Harrison breaks the lazy way we use words. He somehow reads smoothly and thinks knottily. The title itself is full of his double-meanings – is it a plea to help or a veiled threat? That is precisely what his stories do.
You Should Come With Me Now by M John Harrison, Comma Press, £9.99