Invited to review it for the estimable ‘Tears in the Fence’ magazine, I have recently finished reading M. John Harrison’s collection of stories and short pieces titled: ‘You Should Come With Me Now’. Though aware of MJH and having read some of his stories but none of his books over the years, I had mixed feelings about what I’d read. However, you can read about those as and when the review gets published – hopefully later this year.
But it did get me thinking about some aspects of writing and why, in my own, I make certain choices and not others.
M. John Harrison has embraced the word ‘hauntology’ to describe some aspects of his work. I first came across this term in the early 2000s in association with arty music ventures by the bands Broadcast and The Focus Group. It seemed to relate to their interest in 1970s visions of the future in TV drama series such as ‘The Survivors’ and the later ‘Quatermass’ productions, with musical reference to the BBC Radiophonic workshop and it productions. The word now has a fairly sophisticated definition in Wikipedia: ‘The term refers to the situation of temporal, historical, and ontological disjunction in which the apparent presence of being is replaced by a deferred non-origin, represented by "the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive.".’ How you get from the first reference to the latter, I leave with you – but Harrison I think is talking about the latter. Many of his stories play on a sense of liminal presence that is never quite clearly defined.
The ones I felt were most successful were not easy or comfortable reading. Nor I suppose are conventional horror stories, but they tend to be a form of entertainment on the whole - the cerebral equivalent of a roller coaster ride, you might say. The stories that affected me in Harrison’s book lacked that sense of visceral satisfaction (if that’s what you get). Instead, I felt, they delved into all the layers of human corruption – in the broadest possible sense of the word. Physical and mental illness, obsessive thoughts and behaviour, alienation, disjunction, etc. They left me with a queasy feeling, which – on the positive side – disrupted my complacency, but at the same time made me uncomfortable with the very state of being human.
Clearly something of an acquired taste! Another writer whose work frequently delves into this mire is Alan Moore, but I have the advantage of knowing Alan well enough to know that his moral compass can be trusted. His horrors have a purpose and are often balanced by the beatific. Harrison I can’t be so sure about – especially where his stories lose me, as a good few did.
Okay, so the question is – this is interesting material, why don’t I explore it more myself in my stories? I don’t completely shy away from it, as there are certainly a few of the stories in ‘Wilful Misunderstandings’ which touch on this territory. But my tendency is to add other elements, humour being a primary one. (I should add that there is humour in Harrison’s book but it is very dark and dry.) So my story ‘Marinating Jeff’ could conceivably be a Harrison scenario, but my choice of storytelling mode was curiously lighthearted. Why? I’m not sure – maybe it was the only way I could handle the material.
But the majority of the stories take in a more positive approach to human nature. It’s not that I feel some kind of fuzzy, new-agey view of my fellow human beings – far from it. I think we have let ourselves become well and truly fucked by corporate capitalism and by far the majority of us have our heads buried in the sand about it. What we think of as ‘civilisation’ has proved entirely dysfunctional. Nevertheless, on an individual level and often at a local community level, I find I can’t help liking and loving my fellow human beings.
There is a saying: ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ and I don’t doubt there is truth in it. But without good intentions, I think we’d have arrived in hell already. So let’s not under-value them. I can’t put a figure on it, but I suspect that most of us try to live good lives. Our understanding of the situation may be too poor to be in any way effective, but we try to do right by our fellow human beings and the planet on which we depend. There’s a lot of self-delusion in this of course and I include myself amongst the deluded. With a more enlightened system of education, and relieved from ever-insidious corporate propaganda designed to keep us consuming, we could conceivably do better. So I don’t want to lose myself in cynicism and negativity. I want to celebrate people, as well as explore their failings.
Looking into the dark side has its values – our perspective is skewed if we ignore it or try to hide away from it. I’ll confront it in my writing when it seems appropriate (certainly the novel I’m working on has some very dark aspects). But I’ll leave it as much as I can to those who probably do it better than me.
Tough job. Someone’s got to do it. Thank-you Alan, thank-you MJ, and also William Burroughs, Albert Camus, Jean Genet, Jim Thompson, Samuel Beckett – to name but a few predecessors - for going there, finding something worth saying and bringing it to the attention of at least some of the reading world. I’ll continue to follow my own intuitions, in somewhat more well-lit land.