Praise for Twisted Tales Events
'In the past few years Twisted Tales has become a major force in the promotion and appreciation of horror fiction. As well as putting on author readings and signings at bookshops it has expanded into organising larger events, bringing authors and critics together for discussions of the field. I've been involved in quite a few of both and have found them hugely enjoyable and stimulating - I believe the audiences did as well. May Twisted Tales continue to grow and prosper! If you love the field, support them! I do.' - Ramsey Campbell
‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill
Wednesday 11 November 2015
M. John Harrison interviewed by Tim Franklin
romance, most recently the
TF: Your stories often have characters confronting a kind of weird ecstasy - the Pleroma in Course of the Heart, or Anna Kearney's experiences in Empty Space. The audience for Twisted Tales might be familiar with the dark side of ecstasy - the confrontation with cosmic horror that comes in a Lovecraft story - but for your characters and the reader the encounter is far less conclusive, far more confusing, if potentially just as devastating. Could you talk a little about ecstasy and your stories?
MJH: That's true. And the characters in the more mainstream stories, like Climbers, suffer (I think that's the right word) a kind of secular ecstasy, which you might describe as the ecstasy of simply being alive. It's that aspect of the encounter with the sublime--which you would see as often in Kerouac as in Machen or Hildegard of Bingen--that interests me. The idea that if something ordinary sits at the heart of the mystical experience, then, equally, something profound lies at the heart of the ordinary. You can make that statement in either direction, of course, and frame the subsequent argument to your taste. Some mornings I'm a shade more interested in finding the profane at the heart of the sacred than I am the sacred at the heart of the profane. A certain restlessness around that is where I'd locate the 'horror' in my fiction, that's where it has something in common with the horror tradition. But Lovecraft's anxiety of the unknowable, his sense that it must always be undermining of the human, is of less interest to me. It seems frame-dependent. I'm very much in favour of inexplicability as an essential component of human experience. Aickman quotes Sacheverell Sitwell's for his epigraph to Cold Hand in Mine: 'In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation'.
TF: Your characters often seem caught by that irreducibility. The Climbers are conscious of their trajectory towards an entangled ecstasy / annihilation, which they see in terms of routes mastered and cartilage ruined, but they wouldn't think of quitting. At the opposite end, those characters who try to deny the sublime, like Lucas and Pam in Course of the Heart or Michael Kearney in Light, become stunted, half-lived people. Is there a middle way?
MJH: Not if you want to map the tension between the two, no. But I think most of us eventually find a way of living with it. Of course, that's a defeat as far someone like Choe Ashton (Signs of Life) is concerned. I'm not sure I'd describe Lucas Medlar as the stunted one in Course of the Heart--he's still struggling at the end, in fact like all good fictional ephebes he disappears *into* his struggle. I still have real hopes that he's out there, trying to get it. The stunted one in that novel is the narrator. He's kept his life on an even keel, denied his actual aliveness much more successfully than Lucas, and he'll never find the Coeur or understand that there was something to find. I'm interested in how these dichotomies translate to the newer stuff--the KT novels, for instance, where the struggle to experience profane ecstasy is sidelined, even satirised, in the self-parodic fates of characters like Paulie deRaad and Ed Chianese. Anna Kearney decides to live 'for herself' but despite her narcissism doesn't know how. And in characters like RI Gaines and his daughter Alyssia, the issues have begun to shift elsewhere. This is visible in the eponymous characters of the short story "Cave & Julia". I don't know what it means yet, but I dare say the fiction will tell me in the end.
TF: It's definitely moving. At the end of Light - and I mean into the very last words, which I won't spoil for readers of the interview who might not have read the book - there was an immense sense of forgiveness and possibility as the characters realise their transcendental possibilities in a cosmic event. It was exhilarating and, ironically for something with so much narrative possibility, it feels like a conclusion. Then in the next Kefahuchi Tract novels the sublime and the drive to find it moves sideways, still present but not at the narrative knot in the way it is in Light or the earlier Signs of Life or Course of the Heart. Did that culmination and change have anything to do with your return to capital letters Sci-Fi in Light?
MJH: Not directly, I think. But those books were liberating in all sorts of ways. Curiously--given that we're talking about space opera, with its stress on movement, colour and imagery--the major liberation was in terms of character. Much of that was to do with elbow room. You have a lot of it in a space opera, and if I had more, I felt as if I could allow the characters more, too. Anna, Liv Hula, Helen Alpert, all got free and did interesting things. Some of the minor characters, like Anna's daughter (who was intended originally to be just a voice on the other end of the phone--a kind of invisible chorus commenting on Anna's ditziness), got free and did interesting things. Even the Assistant, that robot adolescent wet dream of sci-fi gaming, got free and did some interesting things. I took a lot of the impulses that lay behind the material and started to try and understand them through short stories like 'Animals', 'Cave & Julia', and 'Getting Out of Here'. The new short story volume, if it ever gets published, will show this as a process. (Although other processes were involved there too: my blog, for instance, has been a massively valuable halfway house between fiction and nonfiction, which run in and out of one another throughout the collection.)
TF: Reading several of your stories, a reader is likely to find repeated scenes and archetypes and imagery which return in different arrangements, with different significances, as though your writing is a long and dreamy thought process picking at problems - not necessarily to solve, but to find some of the edges. Are there any problems that you've so exercised they no longer feed into that process? And what are the main feedstuffs at the moment?
MJH: I don't think they're problems, so much as images that my head won't let go of until I've attached them to a concept (philosophical, scientific, political) and a character-- then via the character to some aspect of being alive. They occur and recur, combine and recombine, switch one another on and off like genes, reverse their meanings, invert each other's meanings. It's less a thought process (though plenty of thinking goes on) than a process of imagination. The biggest kick I ever get is to find myself pursuing some group of images without knowing why, so I look at the story I've produced and haven't the slightest fucking idea who wrote it. It's like being reborn again and again. Since 2008 I seem to have been obsessed with water; archaic hominin introgressions in the 'modern' human genome; a kind of bloodless mystic butchery; tainted business cults; shadowy UKIP rites that make Freemasonry seem sane.
TF: I'm not sure if I'm reassured or nervous that your stories are as mysterious to you as to the rest of us. It makes your meticulous prose (I think it was China Mieville who called it 'writing with a scalpel') and disarming ability to convey life and the world a little easier to reconcile with a human author if the writing process didn't all go through the forebrain; conversely it suggests the intrusion of dangerous metaphysics (non-euclidean geometries, chthonian intellects, etc.) in the gap. Assuming that you don't wake from a fugue once every few years to find a manuscript on your computer desktop, how do you train your imaginings into satisfying stories?
MJH: If everything 'went through the forebrain' we wouldn't have imaginative writing of any kind; but, yes, once the mass of material has suggested the direction it wants to take, and perhaps even fallen into pre-written units, it needs to be encouraged into shape. That can take a lot of work, or it can happen across a couple of hours. I look for connections between levels, opportunities for parallel and contrast. Echoing. Shaping rather than plot, but plenty of narrative push-through. Syntactical connections between scenes, just as you'd have between the elements of a sentence, are very important, because they manage the emotional, the political, the human logic. Then a few simple formal rules about when you make a reveal, how you prepare for it--because most of the short fiction is revelatory and epiphanic (though often enough the reveal is that nothing is revealed, and the epiphany is fairly oblique). I'm interested in scale and narrative grain. I use the iterative a lot to manage time, and to control the reader's distance from the events as they 'happen'. One of my favourite structural units is the two-line drop: you can cram a lot into that. If I use a traditional form or trope, that's usually to break it in some way, or refuse the closure it suggests. I often use structures out of nonfiction. I often use a 'character study' as the basis of the structure. All that is controlled through the surface. I often use a surface from one genre to control content from another.
TF: I'd like to pick up on the idea of refusing closure. Your stories are not conciliatory, sometimes even antagonistic - I'm thinking of some of the Viriconium stories. What does that offer you?
MJH: To begin with it was a bare-faced trolling of the f/sf reader, a way of seeming to offer what f/sf normally offers, then snatching it away by allowing the story to fall into a kind of absurdism. That was an act of metafiction, a criticism of the genre. From there, it became a way of exploring the refusal of closure as an act in itself--really, as a matter of technique; then of its potential as a political act. Now I'm interested in using it to look at individual emotional experience (which comes with an automatic political component anyway). When I began writing flash fiction and nonfiction on my blog in 2007, I realised that I could bring method and content together by making the fiction a kind of lost property department, or missing persons department, in stories of self-storage units or of people who make the decision to 'become lost in their own life'. Around then I finally felt that I had shed the original trolling dynamic of the technique, and discovered a less limited, perhaps more positive purpose for it. Probably the best way to define what I'm doing now is to quote the piece I put up on my blog today--
'The structure of the story, as it is engaged by the reader, should have a similar effect to that of discovering a selection of items in a container of unlabelled material from someone else’s life. The end of the story, instead of providing closure, tries to recreate the moment in which some fragments of evidence–which might not actually be evidence–flicker together to suggest the possibility of a pattern that might never have been there anyway. Glimpses of emotional meaning that shift with the light, framed by uncertain nostalgias. The sense of briefly understanding or failing to understand emotional states that you might, anyway, have invented. The aim of the writer is not to become an exhibitor of found objects, but instead to not quite succeed in curating that which might or might not have been there in the first place. There is, obviously, a politics to that, and it always produces, by definition, a story of ghosts, if not an actual ghost story.'
TF: 'Bare-faced trolling of the f/sf reader' would have been a fun cover blurb for the Masterworks Viriconium. You've been telling stories with ghosts, echoes, apparitions for decades; the Shrander, the manifestations of/from the Pleroma, the Shadow Boys, even the Reborn Men and New Men if I'm stretching the definition. Humanish presences that linger, or (at the more MR Jamesy end of things) inhuman shades that pursue (though not for Jamesian reasons). Then there's Empty Space: A Haunting. For want of a better way to put the question: what is it with you and spooks?
MJH: Ghosts, hauntings, accidental interleavings of time or continua, faux retro, the slipperiness of perception, things which might be there or might not--all part of the armoury of the uncanny. In the KT trilogy, everything, from Shadow Boy to advertisement to human being, is made of information, and information is always slipping away into new combinations and meanings. It's another way of asking the reader, 'Is there anything on this page but letters? Is there anyone to read it who isn't made of slippage?' Then hauntology, of course: 'that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive'. And there's pure nostalgia--the haunting by an old photograph, or by a photograph not yet taken, a condition not yet reached, letters not yet written on pages. An old building is already a kind of haunting, an outcrop of the past into the present. As you say, ghosts or something like them are central to my stuff. I can't say I believe in them per se, though. They're grist to the mill, they facilitate certain kinds of fictional structures, which are in turn the best way of handling ontological or epistemological issues, the big question to myself as well as the reader: knock knock, is anyone there?
TF: There's a comparison back to the numinous (and Lovecraftian) there - a panghostliness, a cosmic haunting. A world-as-specter. I'm writing this the day before you talk at the Twisted Tales of the Weird event in the Manchester Gothic Festival, and as a parting question, I wondered if you could talk a bit about the weird and maybe how it relates to the other characteristics of your work we've covered - absurd, inconclusive, sci-fantastical, ecstatic haunted, romantic, surreal, et al. Maybe your thoughts going into or coming away from the panel? Also, can we plug your next book? Does it have a street date yet? I'm really really glad to see that Course of the Heart, Signs of Life, and Things that Never Happen are set for reprints in September 2016.
MJH: Aickman's 'Bind Your Hair' shows the obliquity and reserve I'd associate with a sort of English Weird; symbolism that doesn't quite mesh with--or even entirely admit to--its own subject matter. For me the Weird was always a kind of perverted or broken Imagism. It was also, for instance, permission to write SF on a philosophical chassis that the Church of Sci-Fi would consider bad or heretical theology, ie the proposition that the universe is not innately knowable.
As I said above, I like it best when I'm producing work I don't yet fully comprehend: writing then becomes a way of working towards that comprehension. I was pretty much finished with the KT trilogy in those terms by 2008, although I'd only just started the third book. That phase was closing; at the same time, new material was turning up. My intention was to take a break from space opera and explore that, but circumstances didn't allow. So since I finished Empty Space I've been working my way back into that material, trying to recoup it and beat the exhaustion that came from not dealing with it while it was fresh.
New work: there's a collection of short stories which, though it goes back as far as 2001, is primarily made of this new stuff, including flash fiction from the blog. It's finished, it's with my agent, but I haven't a clue when--or even if--it will be published. And there's a new novel grinding its way into the same seam of ideas. Neither of them have titles yet. The novel is Weird, set in the present--uncompromising but, I hope, funny.