You Should Come With Me Now: Stories Of Ghosts by M. John Harrison (book review).

December 29, 2017 | By | Reply More

What exactly is a short story? It probably depends on the purpose of a piece of fiction. The concept that it was something that could be read at one sitting is belied by those people who will sit up all night to read all of a three hundred page novel. Competitions often put a limit of three to four thousand words. More than that, it becomes a chore for the judges. Some magazines and anthologies publish longer pieces under the umbrella of the short story but awards tend to have a cut-off point when the fiction becomes a novella or novelette. Maybe then length is not the measure of a short story, though very short pieces have other names: mini-saga (50 words), drabble (100 words) and flash fiction.

Most readers would accept that a short story should actually tell a story otherwise it is an anecdote, mise-en-scene, novel extract or vignette. It doesn’t necessarily have a beginning, a middle and an end but should show some progression. M. John Harrison, though, is a writer who, knowing the rules goes out of his way to break them and in this volume starts the process on the title page.

The book is sub-titled ‘Stories Of Ghosts’. Do not, however, expect a collection of stories involving supernatural, ghostly happenings. Here the interpretation of the ghost as a residual image is much more appropriate. Many of the pieces include scenes that resonate in the mind and ideas that haunt once the book is closed. Some of the pieces are ghosts of themselves in that while some ghosts can be regarded outlines, so some of these are sketches waiting for the image to be filled in.

Harrison has always been a writer who pushes boundaries, prowling the cutting edges of Science Fiction and nothing in this collection slips into the safety net of mundanity. There are experiments with ideas, language, style and format designed to unsettle any complacency in the reader.

There are some stories that follow a traditional format but always throw up the unexpected. ‘In Autotelia’ seems to be the tale of a doctor travelling on a train to examine prospective immigrants before they are permitted to cross the border in to Britain. Not a post-Brexit situation but a dimensional border between two worlds. While this has the slant of SF, ‘Cicisbeo’ has surreal elements. The narrator tries to be sympathetic to an old friend when her husband ignores the new baby and begins a strange, impossible conversion of the loft. Many of the focal characters in these stories are strange, not fitting into the mould expected of ordinary people. The balance of the stories depends on how these characters are viewed, whether it is their perception of the world is skewed or whether they see the realities most of us are unaware of.

Other pieces in this volume are written at the length of Flash Fiction, stories that only fill a couple of pages such as ‘Walls’ which describes a man digging his way through the walls of his prison. It can be regarded as a surreal episode or a carefully constructed allegory with the walls representing the barriers that society puts around us and a striving for freedom.

The very short items, generally less than a page, have previously appeared on Harrison’s blog. Many of these could be regarded as slipstream, thought flowing from one to another without a particular pattern and not aiming for a specific outcome. In many ways, these provide fascinating insights into how a mind works. ‘Lost And Found’ is an observation piece detailing what can be seen through the window of a last property office, while ‘Cries’ describes noises in the night.

Harrison’s sense of the ridiculous comes to the fore in pieces such as ‘Imaginary Reviews’. His is not laugh-out-loud humour but more the sarcastic dry wit that pokes at the wasps’ nest of pomposity and self-delusion.

Reading Harrison’s work is not easy and he is a writer in a league of his own. This volume is something that can be dipped into and will be appreciated by those who want ideas to make them think. Not everyone, though, will understand all of what he is trying to do but maybe that is the point of a book like this.

Pauline Morgan

December 2017

(pub: Comma Press, Manchester UK. 257 page paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-91097-434-6)

check out website: http://commapress.co.uk/

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Category: Books, Horror

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