Apparently, M. John Harrison is a British writer who can’t catch a popularity break here in the States. It’s a shame. Once I finished reading, Things That Never Happen, a mammoth collection of his short stories, I was even more surprised that I only first heard of him about six months ago. (He’s been writing for decades!) I don’t know about his novels, but his short stories zoom towards the outrageously and outright fantastical, only to veer away at the last minute. i am reminded of Emily Dickinson’s admonition: “tell all the truth, but tell it slant”. Some of the stories in this collection are absolutely breathtaking–so much so, that I remember them well, even after the two months since I read them.
The ones which stuck to my brain, flies to paper:
1) “Settling the World” – the stories are arranged chronologically by year of publication and this is first in the book. God (or a god) has returned (or colonized) the Earth. Of necessity, this makes obsolete certain professions, such as assassin and there are those who do not go quietly into that good night. A weirdly satisfying story. Harrison’s first published?
2) “Running Down” – one man personifies entropy. The horrors that result. Also, a la “No Exit”, the unbearable presence of others.
3) “The Incalling” – a literary agent and a dying writer. the tawdriness of the occult. a theme emerges, a thread dragged through these stories: the watcher on the sideline, circling, inactive and–when active–ineffective, amoral.
4) “The New Rays” – a weird medical procedure. expressing, in some way, the weirdness of science and medicine. reminded me a bit of the x-ray machine in Mann’s Magic Mountain. also, the way that illness destroys relationships. and the amorality of science.
5) “Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring” – the sideshow science fiction element is genetic engineering and body modification. the thing that a man loves about a woman is the very thing that ends up destroying her.
6) “Gifco” – the loss of a child and its aftermath. weird local crime.
7) “Seven Guesses of the Heart” – textual obsession, occult ephemera. the slow circling together of a man and a woman.
8) “Science & the Arts” – short and sweet.
The stories are edged dark and grim, rewarding with their careful and throughtful construction. Some good stuff and I highly recommend it.