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“There is more, but the handwriting is difficult to interpret.” @mjohnharrison @commapress

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Settling the World: Selected Stories by M. John Harrison

M. John Harrison should need no introduction here, as he’s an author I’ve regularly lauded on the Ramblings. I first read his work back in my early twenties, when I was looking for something else which would feed my addiction for anything like Mervyn Peake. A random review sent me in the direction of the Viriconium books (which I don’t think are anything like Peake, to be honest – nothing is like Peake…), and I was an instant Harrison obsessive, gathering everything I could by him – which was not so easy at the time. As you’ll be able to see from a picture further down this post, I have any number of old crumbly editions of his work, picked up with great excitement in second hand shops in those pre-Internet days, plus quite a few sci fi anthologies featuring his stories. I’ve been reading him ever since, and took great joy in reconnecting with his work on the blog back at the start of 2016. A number of his works have appeared here since, most recently his latest novel “The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again”, which I covered for Shiny New Books.

I was naturally very excited, therefore, when I heard that Comma Press were issuing a selection of his short stories (particularly as I rate his work in this form very highly indeed). They’ve previously released a marvellous collection called “You Should Come With Me Now” back in 2017, gathering recent stories; however, the new book is a ‘selected’ volume entitled “Settling the World”. Crucially, this is a career-spanning anthology, and I was delighted when the publishers kindly provided a copy for review!

Harrison’s work first began appearing in print in the 1960s, initially in magazines and anthologies; the first published collection was “The Machine in Shaft Ten” in 1975 (which I reviewed here). Harrison is a prolific writer of short works, and actually keeping track can be complicated as there are so many, and published in many different places. I have a sort of checklist but it’s by no means complete. Add in that the stories have often changed over the years depending on where they appear, and you can see that reading M. John Harrison is always an interesting experience!

Anyway! Enough waffle and on to the book. “Settling the World” contains seventeen stories; the earliest is “The Causeway” from 1971, and the most recent are from our current very troubled year of 2020. The book helpfully gives at the start the original publication date and location, and it fascinates me to see how during a career of over 50 years of writing, Harrison has produced work of such quality which never fails to intrigue and unnerve.

Every day, as we ingest our untailored paste of environmental microplastics, hormones and other transformative pollutants, we move a little further in, losing a little more of what it used to mean to be human and gaining a little more of what it means now.

I was, of course, particularly pleased to see some stories from “Machine…” resurface, as I rate that collection very highly. However, the collection “The Ice Monkey” from 1983 is well represented too, and these stories are particularly stunning. The title story is especially memorable, mixing elements of the unexplained and climbing, two strands of interest in Harrison’s work which often converge. To be honest, he rarely writes what would be called a conventional narrative (which is one of the things I love about his work); and even when something starts out like that (“The Course of the Heart”, perhaps) it doesn’t stay like that. I was also really pleased about the inclusion of the excellent and rather spooky “Doe Lea” which I read and reviewed in chapbook form last year; it’s a wonderfully disconcerting piece of work and deserves a wider audience.

The stories here, like all Harrison’s work, defy classification; there are sci fi influenced stories like the title one, where God has been rediscovered and towed back to Earth, but is not what you might originally think; or “The Crisis” from 2017, which features a kind of jelly-like alien entity focusing its visits to our world on the financial centres. Then there are tales like “The Incalling” from 1978 with strange occult undertones and unexplained rituals; or “The East” from 1996, a story centred on a refugee – but from *what* ‘East’? Then, of course, there is “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium”, a story which has appeared in numerous MJH anthologies or collections, and even been subject to a change in title and focus which might be considered startling…

The rest of my MJH collection (apart from a Viriconium anthology currently loaned to Eldest Child…)

Well, you get the picture. The joy of reading M. John Harrison is that nothing is ever what it seems, and even those stories which could notionally be called sci fi are never that straightforward. Interestingly, reading this wonderful mixture of old and new I sensed resonances between a number of the stories and other works by MJH. “The Incalling”, for example, hints at events in “The Course of the Heart” and seemed to me to have echoes in “The Sunken Land…

Much of the crescent was untenanted. In company with the surrounding streets it had been built as a genteel transit camp and matured as a ghetto. Now it was a long declining dream. I stood at the door of Mrs Sprake’s house, staring at the cracked flags, the forgotten net curtains bunched and sagging like dirty ectoplasm, the tilted first-floor balconies with their strange repetitive wrought-iron figures, and wondering if it might not be better to leave now before anyone had time to answer the bell. All the other doors were boarded up. Old paint hung like shredded wallpaper from the inner curve of an arched window. Across the road one whole building was missing from the terrace – fireplaces and outlines of extinct rooms clung to the walls of the flanking houses.

And one element I picked up on whilst reading this stories was the sheer skill of Harrison’s writing. His prose is excellent, often stopping you short at some marvellous juxtapositions; but I particularly noticed his sense of place and the landscapes he uses in his stories. His characters often occupy marginal spaces, parts of cities or places which are often in a state of complete entropy. Harrison lived in London during the 1960s and 1970s, a time when areas of it were still being rebuilt (and the pre-gentifrication areas are conjured brilliantly). In fact, as someone who can remember the 1970s well and the 1960s a bit, I recognised these outlands; the edges of towns and cities where the old tenements were being demolished and replaced by tower blocks; and those almost primitive, decaying areas are vivid settings for his stories.

In truth, this exemplary collection could more accurately be titled “Unsettling the World”; Harrison’s stories disturb our everyday placidity, and his characters, existing in liminal areas which seem to straddle our world and another stranger one, often experience unexplained events which are the stuff of nightmares. “Settling the World” is a marvellous collection in every sense of the word; it’s an excellent introduction to the range of M. John Harrison’s writing over the length of his career; and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

(Review copy kind provided by Comma Press, for which many thanks! You can get a copy of the book direct from the publisher here)

On My Book Table… 10 – a variety of external influences!

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(NB – none of these books is actually *on* the table in the pictures below, but never mind….)

I am nothing if not susceptible to suggestion when it comes to books, and I’ve long lamented the bad (good!) influence of Book Twitter. Specific books themselves, too, have often been responsible for other books arriving at the Ramblings; and there does seem to have been a fair amount of that happening lately… I *have* been sharing pictures on Twitter, but I thought it might be nice to update on the blog some of the more recent arrivals – plus some bookish subscriptions I might just have happened to take out…

The “Philosophy of Walking” effect…

One recent subscription which I took out was to the Verso Book Club, and I shared some thoughts about it here. I offered a little giveaway of a spare book and that will go out to Clare Topping, so I hope she enjoys it! However, one book I ordered from their amazing 50% off sale was “The Philosophy of Walking” by Frederic Gros. It called to me strongly recently and I couldn’t resist (and a review will follow eventually…). However, it’s that most dangerous of things, a book which creates all manner of ideas and lists of other books you want to read; it even has suggested further reading in the back! Now the effect of the body of the book was bad enough – I ended up hauling this little lot off various parts of the TBR…

Interestingly, the Wordsworth ties in nicely with the Romantics three part documentary which is on TV currently (I had been dying for lack of decent documentaries…) However, I also have added substantially to the wishlist, and wasn’t able to resist sending for this lovely thing:

In another piece of bookish synchronicity, the photograph on the cover of this edition is by the early pioneer of the art, Nadar, who featured in Julian Barnes’ “Levels of Life“…

Nerval is an author I’ve been aware of for decades; in fact, the little edition of “The Chimeras” you can see in one of the images above was one I acquired in the 1980s. However, I hadn’t looked at it for absolutely ages, and as I was particularly moved by his story in “Philosophy…” I decided I needed to read more. Truly, this book is a *really* bad influence!!

The Harvill Leopard books

There’s been a really interesting convo going on over on Book Twitter, and I wish I could remember who started it (although I know that Caustic Cover Critic was in there at the beginning)! However, the subject was the Harvill Leopard range of books, a numbered series issued between 1998 and 2005. Now, I own a few of these (and they’re lovely) – mine are mainly Russians, but they also issued a lot of Perec. Somehow, the subject of a complete list of the releases came up which caused a lot of interest, with bookish people pitching in. The very industrious Tim of Half Pint Press revealed that he had a spreadsheet he was attempting to compile (as there seemed to be no complete list). This led to loads of research, lots of chat and in the end Tim setting up the wonderful resource which is 300oddleopards! As well as a complete list (as far as can be gleaned at present) there are also pictures of back and front of as many of the books as he’s been able to gather, with lots of us joining in and sending images of our books!

I had great fun pulling out some titles I hadn’t seen for a while (a few of them are above) and was happy to help with pulling together the site. It’s a wonderful initiative – do check it out if you have any interest in these books and authors, though I can’t promise it won’t be back for your bank balance and shelf space….

Bookish Subscriptions

I can’t remember the last time I actually joined up to any kind of bookish subscription; back in the day, I was in a good number of book clubs, but these fell along the wayside before the turn of the millennium and I haven’t signed up for one since. However, there have been any number of recent temptations, and of course the above-mentioned Verso Book Club!

And during lockdown, I did become very aware of the struggles facing smaller publishers and bookshops. I tried to shift my buying habits to support them (some Little Toller purchases resulted) and another couple of interesting presses caught my eye. One of these was Sublunary Editions, who I first stumbled across on Twitter (as I mentioned in my post on publisher Joshua Rothes’ intriguing book, “The Art of the Great Dictators“). They offer a subscription service, they have some wonderful sounding works coming up and so I succumbed – and this was my first delivery!

What’s so interesting about Sublunary is that their works come in a fascinating array of formats; there are more conventional books (although these are often not…), but the package also includes texts on separate sheets as well as art cards. It’s all rather wonderful and I’ll post more as I read my way through them. I’m looking forward to what comes next! 😀

My second subscription was recommended by a lovely Tweeter when I was offering the Verso giveaway; and it’s an initiative to publish more Catalan literature in translation by Fum d’Estampa Press. My reading of Catalan writing is probably non-existence so this was a good way to widen my horizons as well as obtaining some very pretty books – here are the first two:

Fum d’Estampa are on Patreon and they have a number of different levels of subscription (as is often the case of Patreon – I seem to spend a fair bit of time on there lately, as I also support the wonderful Backlisted Podcast, which I can highly recommend). Anyway, the books themselves are quite lovely and I’m looking forward to exploring further.

As for current reading and what’s actually *on* the Book Table? Well, I’m presently reading and loving the new collection of M. John Harrison stories, “Settling the World”, from the wonderful Comma Press (as you can see from the sidebar) and it’s excellent. Coming up soon – well, October of course will be time for the #1956Club, so I think I’d better start exploring some titles from that year! 😀

Dispatches from the cold north east @commapress #thebookofnewcastle

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The Book of Newcastle: A City in Short Fiction
Edited by Angela Readman and Zoe Turner

Comma Press is a publisher based in Manchester which specialises in short story collections, either in anthology form or single author books. A founding member of the Northern Fiction Alliance, their catalogue of publications so far is impressive; and I was blown away by the fabulous collection they issued of M. John Harrison’s stories, “You Should Come With Me Now”, which I reviewed back in December 2017 and which ended up being one of my books of that year.

One of the most intriguing strands of their catalogue is the “Reading the City” collections, focusing on a specific city from anywhere around the world – from Tehran to Birmingham, from Cairo to Leeds, the range is wide and fascinating. So when I saw that Comma was issuing a collection of tales themed around Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I was very keen indeed to read it. Why? you might be asking? What’s your interest in/connection with Newcastle? And that’s a good question!

Newcastle is a city I’ve only visited once, longer ago than I care to acknowledge when my BFF H. was doing her art degree at the university. I visited during a freezing February and stayed for several days; and I can’t remember a lot about it apart from the fact that it snowed, I nearly got frostbite from wearing unsuitable footwear, we visited the Watch House (of Robert Westall fame), saw a performance by a performance artist, existed on a diet of stotties (yum!) and saw Cabaret Voltaire live in a very small club and they were magnificent! So yeah, it was a great visit, and although I’ve never been back I have happy memories of the city. Additionally, I recently discovered the Morden Tower poets who are a real joy; and of course Ellen Wilkinson, who has a strong connection with the area. Since I’m often drawn to the north, I’m obviously going to have to pay the city a visit again at some point, especially as it seems to have had quite a cultural rebirth of late!

Anyways – on to the fiction! “The Book of Newcastle” has its roots in a 2004 chapbook from Comma called “Newcastle Stories” and some of the pieces from the earlier publication have transferred to the new book. The latter collects together ten short stories by a range of writers, and it’s to my detriment that I’ve never read any of them before – because they’re obviously mighty talented! The stories cover all manner of topics – coping with a dreary day job by dropping into fantasy; negotiating a re-encounter with an ex-lover and his pregnant new partner; facing up to a future without a dying parent; the complexities of female friendship and how lives can diverge; and smoking (nor not being able to any more!) plus the decline of libraries. One particularly memorable work was “Thunder Thursday on Pemberton Grove” by J.A. Mensah, which explores the intersections in the lives of the people living uneasily side by side in that street when heavy rains cause floods and overflowing drains. “Magpies” by Alison Readman is a dark, allegorical look at losing touch with your teenagers when the dangerous outside world is tempting them. And “The Here and Now” by Margaret Wilkinson is a wonderful piece about the blurring of the lines between past and present; in a city like Newcastle, with a long and varied heritage, I guess there are always reminders of what’s gone before.

“The Book of Newcastle” is a stunning collection of writing, and there’s not a dud in here; each story is clever, memorable and moving; each spoke to me strongly. And of course running through all of them is the thread of the city itself; a former industrial centre, it’s had to reinvent itself over and over again, and that’s never without its problems. The Town Moor, the green heart of the city, is a vivid presence, as is the Tyne and its bridge. However, one theme which recurred and resonated was that of the Tyneside Flats, Victorian housing which is still in existence in the city and provides an almost communal living space. A fact which is relevant is that they consist of a row of dwellings with a joint loft space, and this really struck a chord with me; not only did my late mother-in-law live in a terrace with such a loft, but it’s also an important element in C.S. Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew”, and I was obsessed with the Narnia books as a child. “Loftboy”, a darkly humourous entry in the book, relies heavily on this element! The Tyneside Flats almost seem like an additional character in the stories, and I must admit that when I finished the book I felt as if I’d been *living* in Newcastle for the duration, alongside all of the very memorable protagonists.

Tyne Bridge by Bob Castle [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

I suppose it’s the measure of a really good book when you get to the end to find you wish there was more and you want to just go on reading and reading; and I felt like that when I finished “The Book of Newcastle”. These are wonderful stories which will stay with me; vivid settings full of real characters dealing with everyday life, the past, the future and hardest of all, the present. I could easily have written a post on each of the stories, which is testament to just how good they are; but instead I’ll just encourage you to seek out this (and any of the other City books) from Comma. On the evidence of “The Book of Newcastle”, they’ll all be very much worth reading! 😀

(The stories are all so good that I feel a roll-call of the authors is necessary! So take a bow – Jessica Andrews, Julia Darling, Crista Ermiya, Chrissie Glazebrook,. J.A. Mensah, Sean O’Brien, Angela Readman, Glynis Reed, Degna Stone and Margaret Wilkinson. )

Review book kindly provided by Comma Press, for which many thanks!! 😀

The slippery nature of reality @mjohnharrison @commapress

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You Should Come With Me Now by M. John Harrison

As the press blurb states, MJH is considered by many a figurehead of genre writing in the UK. His stories first began appearing in sci-fi collections in the 1960s, and he went on to produce some stunning novels featuring the fictional world of Viriconium, which are landmarks of speculative writing in my view. As well as many other sci-fi works (including the highly regarded “Kefahuchi Tract ” trilogy), he’s written mainstream novels and numerous quite brilliant short stories – the latter format being, of course, the one he began with. MJH aficionados tend to be a bit passionate and protective about his work; I think he’s one of the hidden jewels in the literary crown of this country, and so I was very, very excited by the prospect of a new collection of shorter works.

“You Should Come With Me Now”, published by Comma Press, contains a remarkable variety of works, ranging in length from half-page flash fiction fragments to longer stories, and all are frankly brilliant. In fact, the title and cover illustration are apt, as we are encouraged to take Harrison’s hand very trustingly and let him lead us into the labyrinth of his dazzling, unsettling and quite unique stories.

The shorter works are intriguing: tantalising fragments which tease you into wondering what would happen if they were developed into something longer, yet still satisfying in their own right. They’re often dry and laced with dark humour, reflecting the sheer fertility of MJH’s mind (and how can you not love an author who casually drops mention of Woolf. Mansfield and Richardson into a story?)

As for the longer pieces – well, where do I start? He’s a master of the twist and his stories constantly subvert your expectations. “In Autotelia” is a fine example; what begins as something which could be a relatively straightforward tale of a person on a train in an ordinary setting soon displays disturbing elements and ends by completely overturning any expectations you might have had. It’s the kind of storytelling MJH does so well and it’s amply on display here.

The realms created by MJH are often nebulous and undefined, and maybe that’s what I love about them. World-building can be too absolute, and since the real world is a fluid place, perhaps our fictional alternatives should be too. Certainly, the relationship between the places and people we’re reading about here and what we see outside our window is often unclear, which adds to the unsettling quality of the stories. Harrison’s work often negotiates the slippery intersection between reality and the fantastic in all its shapes and forms, an area notoriously difficult to navigate and which he handles with aplomb. Within all this, however, MJH is a wonderfully acute observer of human behaviour with all its foibles, quirks and eccentricities; whatever the setting, whether real world now or future world or world off to the side somewhere, humans are always humans…

M. John Harrison

The stories range far and wide over subjects as diverse as visiting aliens and the complexity of relationships in the modern age. MJH often looks at the darker side of things, but there is plenty of spiky wit too. Picking favourites would be unfair with such a rich and varied collection but I particularly noted: “Animals”, an unnerving take on the ghost story, featuring a woman encountering a tangible presence in a rented cottage; “The Good Detective”, perhaps the ultimate story of alienation from the modern world and your own psyche; “Psychoarcheology”, which takes the discovery of the remains of Richard III and riffs on it; “Imaginary Reviews” a series of capsule reviews of books which may or may not exist; and similarly “Babies from Sand”, a series of short numbered paragraphs peopled with shifting names, fluid characters and possibly spurious paintings. It’s not for nothing that the book is subtitled “Stories for Ghosts” as so many of the beings and their situations are undefined, fleeting and often not really there.

I was happily reading away and then suddenly, boom! About two-thirds of the way through the book we are clearly back in the vicinity of Viriconium with the story “Jack of Mercy’s”. Although this is not stated explicitly, any regular reader will recognise the names Crome, Ashlyme and Audsley King, which is enough of a giveaway. The tone of the writing in this story seemed to me to be particularly Viriconium-ish too; although that ever-shifting, ever-changing, ever-fluid place seems to have edged ever closer to our own world over the years, so much so that the lines are very blurred here. Needless to say, this was a particular treasure in the collection.

“You Should Come With Me Now” showcases Harrison at his best and each of these pieces, short or long, is an absolute gem, distinct and remarkable in its own right (which is something you can’t often say about a book of shorter works). The writing us just stunning; his powers have not ebbed over the years and if anything they’ve strengthened with maturity. I could go on and on about how brilliant these stories are; “You Should Come With Me Now” is a virtuoso performance by a master of his art, and a highlight of my reading year. What else do I need to say to convince you to make sure you read this book? 🙂

If I’ve managed to interest you at all in M. John Harrison, you can follow his blog here.

Review copy kindly provided by Comma Press, for which many, many thanks! 🙂

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