Back in January, when I shared a picture of a recent arrival in the form of a small “Science Fantasy” paperback, I mentioned that there was a reason for this purchase – and indeed there was! “Science Fantasy” was a paperback-format sci fi journal, edited at this point in the 1960s by Kyril Bonfiglioni (currently being rediscovered via his Charlie Mortdecai books). Issue 81 was the final issue, as the publication morphed into “Impulse”; and this last edition featured the first published story of M. John Harrison, in the form of a short story entitled “Marina” (and credited to “John Harrison”). The ISFDB threw up this title as one of his stories which has never been reprinted, and I was intrigued; I wanted to know what his first fictional outing was, and so I tracked down a fragile little copy to see what I made of it.
“Science Fantasy” describes itself as “a monthly collection of fantasy and science fiction for the Connoisseur” and it’s intriguing to see the two genres Sci Fi and Fantasy conflated into one title. I like it when both types of storytelling step outside their usual boundaries and experiment, and that’s something I usually expect from MJH. In fact, I’m not a fan of genres at all if I’m honest; many of the books I love best defy description and that’s the way it should be. Fiction should take you places you wouldn’t normally go, and as long as a book does that I don’t want to stick a label on it.
But I digress. On to “Marina”, a story of less than seven pages. It seems a relatively simple tale, of the titular girl and her dog. Marina remembers the sound of the sea, despite being nowhere near it; since it took her mother, she and her father have kept away from the water. But Marina feels distant longings she can’t explain; and wonders why her father is so adamant that she should keep away from the attic…
However, the story is anything but simple; for a start, Marina and Dog seem to manage to communicate quite well, which leaves the reader wondering whether the dog is from some superspecies, or if Marina is quite what she seems. It’s difficult to say too much more without giving the plot away, but let’s just say the intelligent reader will have probably guessed one element of the outcome.
But what shines through even at this early stage is the quality of Harrison’s writing; the ability to evoke something strange and wonderful yet make it seem quite ordinary and acceptable. What is perhaps a kind of slightly twisted fairy tale is lifted above the ordinary and, as usual with MJH’s work, ends up being quite haunting.
Despite its brevity, I’m sure that if I’d been around to read “Marina” when this little paperback was first issued, I would have known I was in the presence of a talent. Although MJH’s work is set alongside such heavyweights as Harry Harrison and E.C. Tubb, it holds its own; and “Marina” is such an effective little story, that it may well send me off on a quest to track down any other lost M. John Harrison works…. 🙂