I first came across the fiction of M John Harrison in the late 80s and early 90s, in the anthologies edited by Stephen Jones – the annual Best New Horror and his original Dark Terrors series. His writing, on the surface so straightforward and conventional, merely hints at things just out of sight, the weirdness is not in any way overt. And yet his skill is such that, as a reader, you can’t fail to pick up on the disturbing element of the narrative. He manages to conjure a dreamlike quality to his stories. You almost feel like you’re not fully aware of all the facts, like you’ve missed some part of the narrative. Although the sense of paranoia this evokes is not at all accidental…
Shaw lives in south west London. He’s recovering after suffering some kind of breakdown. He’s clearly distanced from everything, and has little contact with his surroundings other than his occasional visits to his aging mum, who has dementia and is being looked after in a care-home. One day he meets Victoria, the daughter of a doctor, who claims she saw her first corpse at the age of 13. He is offered a job by one of his neighbours, and spends his days on a barge doing menial jobs. Meanwhile Victoria journeys up to Shropshire to restore the property that her late mother left. There she encounters a strange set of characters and events, most of which cross over with Shaw’s experiences. It feels like there is a conspiracy taking place, one to which Shaw and Victoria (and us, as the reader) are on the outside.
The book is littered with references to water and fish, and is underscored with a hint of the numinous, although there is a strong suggestion that the events are rather outside the realms of human understanding. There are a couple of scenes that left me feeling unsettled and disturbed, and yet I couldn’t quite explain why. This is largely to do with Harrison’s skill as a writer, and it’s no surprise to see that The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again won the Goldsmiths Prize 2020. Each of his sentences offer something startling, or beautiful, or unsettling, sometimes at the same time.
I loved this book, but its unconventional narrative and lack of explanatory hand-holding, might not be for everyone. I couldn’t pretend to understand all of the motifs and metaphors, and there are no doubt some dots I probably failed to connect, but nevertheless this is an assured novel, brilliantly realised, and a major entry into the catalogue of the very best of weird fiction. Highly recommended.