Text by Bob Dickinson
This feature is accompanied with images by Francesco Cuttitta, who is currently undertaking a photography placement exploring contemporary art and performance in Manchester.
A winter’s night, shortly before Christmas, inside John Rylands Library on Deansgate, Manchester: the perfect neo-gothic setting for storytelling of the supernatural variety. And in this case, the sizeable audience attending the event was drawn – at least partly – to one writer in particular, on a rare visit to Manchester: the science fiction and fantasy writer, M. John Harrison.
During the 1970s Mike Harrison (as his friends call him) lived in the Peak District and worked in Manchester, in one of Savoy’s infamous bookshops – scenarios he described in his 1989 novel, Climbers, which deals in much more detail with a sport Harrison used to excel in: rock-climbing. His body – small, thin and wiry – is perfectly suited for scrambling up the side of a cliff-face.
But Climbers the novel, which is realist in style, differs from the works that made Harrison’s name. Having edited New Worlds magazine during the late 1960s and early 70s, he emerged as one of Britain’s best SF and fantasy writers, with the Viriconium sequence of novels. Harrison has a particular liking for the kind of weird fiction inspired by the Welsh writer Arthur Machen, who in the 1890s explored the link between landscape, myth, and the occult in stories like The Hill of Dreams and The Great God Pan. These atmospheric tales led Harrison towards his impressive and haunting novels The Course of the Heart and Anima, in which the fantastic and the erotic merge together in settings that also include Pizza Expresses and Hillman Avengers, Manchester, Morecambe and Camden Town. But he is equally at home in the “hard” SF worlds explored in his Kefahuchi Tract sequence of novels, Light, Nova Swing and Empty Space.
The John Rylands reading celebrated the launch of a new publication, Poor Souls’ Light: Seven Curious Tales, a collection of ghost stories for Christmas, by writers who alongside Harrison include Jenn Ashworth, Tom Fletcher, Richard Hirst, Johnny Mains, Alison Moore, and Emma Jane Unsworth.
Harrison entered the main Reading Room dressed in denim and with his long grey hair tied into ponytail, and introduced his contribution to the collection, entitled Animals, which he intended to read. Or, at least, most of it, titillating his audience by breaking off around two thirds of the way through, and encouraging people to buy the book on the way out, if they were eager to know the ending (which is exactly what I and many others did). What we heard at the time was wonderfully creepy – the account of a nervous woman taking a holiday in a decidedly dodgy cottage, where she “hears” the voices of some very unpleasant previous residents.
After a brief break, fellow-contributor Alison Moore approached the rostrum to read her story from the collection, The Spite House, which featured another, quite different holiday cottage, a lump hammer, some badly-built partition walls and the song “My Way”. The atmosphere was getting decidedly chilly. Time to head for the pub.
Published by the writers and artists collective Curious Tales, Poor Souls’ Light is a tribute to Robert Aikman, another great British writer of what he called “strange stories”, and also a conservationist, who died in 1981. The volume is also atmospherically illustrated by Beth Ward.
Bob Dickinson is a writer and broadcaster based in Manchester.
Images, top to bottom: M John Harrison and Alison Moore