‘Cisisbeo’ by M. John Harrison

Speaking of strange stories… M. John Harrison is a writer I’ve just recently caught onto, and while he’s most famous (in some circles, infamous) for his restless, kaleidoscopic approaches to fantasy (in his Viriconiumstories) and science fiction (his more recent Light trilogy) honed over the last 50-something years, I’ve fallen in love with his novels and stories in which the uncanny and numinous encroach on a “realist” milieu. The Course of the Heart is one of my favorite novels and his most recent work, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, is in a similar vein.
 
Harrison is extremely cagey about his process and the intentions of his writing, but if he could be said to have a thesis, it’s best articulated in a blog post from 2007, in which he expresses a distrust in traditional notions of writing and the demands of fiction (not to mention the ideological underpinnings of those things). “My feeling,” he writes, “is that the reader performs most of the act of writing. A book spends a very short time being written into existence; it spends the rest of its life being read into existence.” A writer who expressly attempts to guide or intermediate the relationship between reader and text, therefore, stifles something about it. 
 
You might interpret this as an inquiry into how an author can write while knowing that he is dead, in the Barthesian sense, even as he writes. He intimates it as a kind of game: The writer “… present(s) a spread of more or less “possible” interpretations tied to the themes & meanings of the story.” The rest of the work of comprehension and interpretation is necessarily done by the reader.
 
It is, as you might imagine, a controversial way of writing. The work is purposefully enigmatic, carried by Harrison’s clear, psychologically incisive prose style and, in the case of his more overt genre work, a conceptual imagination that is practically assaultive in its depth and breadth.
 
‘Cicisbeo’ carries all the hallmarks of Harrison’s realist-adjacent fiction, which is to say that it exhibits his writerly preoccupations – romantic dysfunction, failures of will and communication, uncanny unreality borne from repression and emotional agitation. The story follows the narrator character as he navigates a tense relationship between his best friend Lizzie and her husband Tim. Lizzie is newly pregnant and Tim has retreated to live in their attic, decoupling from his family even as his daughter is born. 
 
As Sunyi Dean points out on the Elder Sign podcast, Cicisbeo is an Italian term with no simple English equivalent, referring essentially to a man kept by a woman, the gender-swap equivalent of a mistress. The protagonist of the story has an unfulfilled desire for Lizzie that is unmistakably tinged with resentment. Lizzie, for her part, implores him ceaselessly to parlay with Tim on her behalf, and the awkwardness between the protagonist and Tim seems haunted by shared recognition of the former’s desire.
 
Harrison’s characters hear in fragments peppered into summary – orphan lines of dialogue, free of context and ominous in their uncertain meaning, are often overheard in his stories. Characters tend to talk past one another even in direct interface, often seeming to speak in asides to themselves, referencing comprehensions or opinions that they don’t fully share with each other or the reader. But the broad strokes of motivation seep through even so – the narrator becomes, over the course of the story, a bruise-pressing voyeur, Lizzie is self-pitying and manipulative, and Tim is avoidant and dissociative. An unhealthy dynamic is evident. 
 
The story culminates in a brief, spectacular scene of surrealism, a weird and mysterious vista whose implications for the continuing lives of the characters – and even the past events of the story – are left open to interpretation. Something has happened, party to its own physics and its own logic, that may or may not be metaphor. A lot of weird fiction writers claim lineage from Kafka, but few can be judged as bold as the surrealist master. Harrison is one of them. 

First published in Talk of the Town (Independent On Sunday), September 2003. Collected in You Should Come With Me Now, Comma Press 2017, and Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, Comma Press 2020. Text is reprinted on the Weird Fiction Review website here

‘Egnaro’ by M. John Harrison

This story centres around a shabby Manchester bookshop and two characters who become obsessed with a place that may or may not exist. Once you’ve read about Egnaro it’s easy to believe you might come across a clue to its existence in a crossword in an old magazine at the dentist’s, or half-catch a mention of it in an otherwise dull interview on daytime TV. “It is in the conversations not your own (so I learnt from Lucas) that you first hear of Egnaro. Egnaro reveals itself in minutiae, in that great and very real part of our lives when we are doing nothing important.” If you read the story you’ll always be looking for it too.

First published in Winter’s Tales #27, 1981. Collected in The Ice Monkey, Gollancz, 1983, and Things That Never Happened, Gollancz 2003

‘I Did It’ by M John Harrison

I was sitting in a bedsit in east London in 2001 when I was introduced to the work of M. John Harrison. The bedsit belonged to Julian Richards, who also took me to my first Forced Entertainment show. So, yes, reader: of course I married him.

Now, I could have chosen a dozen M. John Harrison stories for this anthology, but that would make me look like a stalker and might embarrass him. I have picked ‘I Did It’ because the last sentence of the opening paragraph is one of my favourite sentences in print. I’d like to own it and frame it beneath glass so no else can ever touch it. It is: “Axe in the face.” Even taken out of context like this, it thrills me. “Axe in the face.” Like crunching on cubes of ice when you are close to the equator. “Axe in the face.” Harrison’s ear for dialogue is so bang on it’s uncanny. His observations of white, middle-class Londoners – both men and women – are so sharp, they hurt. I’m still laughing as I read, yet again, the conversation between Alex and Nicola.

from Things that Never Happen, Night Shade Books, 2003. Originally published in A Book of Two Halves, editor Nicholas Royle, Gollancz, 1996

‘The Horse of Iron and How We Can Know It and Be Changed by It’ by M John Harrison

‘The Horse of Iron and How We Can Know It’ opens with what appears to be one of M John Harrison’s favourite images, that of 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 disturbing recurring image in Viriconiumand a vital element of Light. The story of a man – the Ephebe – mapping out his life according to the Tarot, and of journeys taken on the horse of iron (i.e. the train) between places like Harrow and Kilburn High Road, or London St Pancras and Sheffield Central, its intoxicating blend of heady esoterica and the banality of British train travel continues to intrigue me; it’s a story I return to again and again, trying to fully decode it.

Published in Tarot Tales, ed.Rachel Pollack & Caitlin Matthews, Legend, 1989; collected in Things That Never Happen, Gollancz, 2004

‘Cicisbeo’ by M. John Harrison

I moved to London almost a year ago, not far from where this story is set as it happens, and for a few months I was flattened every day by this city’s sheer preposterousness, so I in a way I was primed for this very sad and very strange fabulation.

M. John Harrison is a proper treasure and the collection this is taken from is a proper gift. As with so much of what I admire the most, I have little of any use I want to say about it. This reviewof the collection by Patrick Langley does right by it, I think.

From You Should Come With Me Now: Stories of Ghosts, Comma Press, 2017

‘The Crisis’ by M John Harrison

“You sit over a one-bar fire in a rented room.” Humblebrag time! I’ve met that M. John Harrison. I heard him quietly read this story during a wondrous evening of art, organized by somebody artistic in East London. It struck me as uncanny at the time, with its straightforward, serious-minded depiction of the homeless being deployed in a countermeasure against the incursion of alien invaders in the City of London. But like those invaders, Harrison’s story itself exists on more than one plane; and once you’ve glimpsed that, life is never the same again. I feel that this is a story that really has altered me. I was so proud, ludicrously proud, to have even a shred of involvement in seeing it published in the TLS last November.

from You Should Come with Me Now, Comma Press, 2017. Available to read here