You Should Come with Me Now: Stories of Ghosts

John Harrison

Comma, 272 pags

Review: Katy Lennon

This collection is clearly the work of a veteran of the short story; yet Harrison’s 15 year break from the format obviously did not dull his aptitude or enthusiasm for it. Published by Comma Press, known genre fans committed to showcasing excellent contemporary short fiction, it reads like a bizarre holiday to our own reality, warped in its truthfulness and deceitful in its absurdism.

The stories are at the same time slaves to the horrors of “super-reality” and impish masters of it; existing within the mold of contemporary British culture while paying no mind to its rules and limitations. At the same time, we inhabit a cynical, vacant reality, and a fantastical alternate universe, where characters are unbound by the rules of traditional fiction and stumble towards the realm of fable or fairy tale. Surreal non-fiction, hypnagogic psychogeography and absurdist ghost stories all clamor for attention while Harrison sweeps through them with effortless ease.

“Animals” lets its creepiness slowly unfurl, as the protagonists’ idyllic rented cottage shows itself to be already occupied. The passive aggressions and then later, murderous intent of the cottage’s previous tenants builds up to a tense and violent finale. But throughout the story the reader is shown on all sides the primacy and simplicity of the lives of animals; by the end humans are the ones who seem brutal and unknowable, ‘just like animals’, as Susan wails during the climax of the cottage’s violence.

Harrison’s prose is crafted with acute awareness, each sentence stretching and twisting the reader’s expectations, forcing them into uncomfortable positions of hilarity, disgust, and self-reflection. Some of the stories take place in the world of Autotelia, (literally ‘existing for its own sake’) and some in the “real” world, though at times it is difficult to tell the two apart. Harrison sits us down with the particularities (and peculiarities) of British identity. Deftly mixing colonialism, relationship strains and societal pressures into strange short stories of seemingly ordinary people faced with the eldritch terrors of the mundane; who either try desperately not to get swallowed, or throw themselves wildly into its gaping maw.

“The Walls” laughs madly in the face of logic, detailing the tedious and slow escape of a man, D, from imprisonment. He has already made great progress with his two dessert spoons and broken nail scissors, digging for ‘decades’, before he discovers countless corpses of men just like him, trying to escape. Yet, as with most of Harrison’s characters, he remains indifferent to this discovery, even mentioning that they ‘died doing what they loved’.

Years go by, he breaks through wall after wall, discovering corpse after corpse. Then, he decides to check on his progress, moving back through the tunnels of dead men, through his cell, out of the unlocked door, through the prison complex, then out the front door and round the building to examine the concrete wall he hopes to break through. The story evokes a kind of unhinged nihilism, paired with an almost childlike belief in systems put in place; whether those systems make sense to the reader is of little consequence.

The stories do not usually fit narrative convention, and any reader looking for a complete and satisfying plot might be left wanting. Some stories are abstractly scattered throughout, disappearing and reappearing in 50-100 word morsels, others feel like the first taste of a sprawling epic fantasy novel. Admittedly, some of the shortest pieces seemed part of an elaborate in joke, one that Harrison seems to be enjoying with himself, and maybe some of his more devoted readers. The overriding feeling throughout is of being washed around in a warm and sweet-scented ocean; you will have no idea where you’re going or where you’ve been, but you’ll enjoy being a part of it.

Harrison’s collection is at the same time refreshingly new and achingly nostalgic; making scathing societal commentaries while pointing and laughing like some manic, ancient god. Read for surreal apathy from a master of science-fiction, horror, fantasy, and every incarnation in between, not for completely set out plot points and satisfying endings. These short stories don’t care whether you understand them or not.