Elsewhere I wrote a review of the Glamour by Christopher Priest, which I described as having a science fiction/fantasy element that didn't necessarily exist, depending on how you read the novel. Anima, which is an omnibus of two novels Harrison has written about one of the big themes, Love, also has fantasy elements that almost don't need to be part of the story but add something extra to the richness of both stories when they do appear.
In Course of the Heart, the fantasy element is deep at the centre of the story. Three people have been bound together by their experiences with a wannabe Aleister Crowley, a strangely charismatic but repulsive man, who has a bizarre hold over the narrator of the tale. The narrator is tied to two friends who are lovers but who have seen something, experienced something that has tainted them both, that haunts their lives. The story is about what love is, the strange forms it takes, and the pain and the joy, the give and the take, the use and abuse it engenders.
In Signs of Life, which is even blacker in some ways, Mick Rose battles through his relationships with his best friend, the sociopathic Choe, and his lover, Isobel, whose dreams and desires take over her life. It's hard to put the plot into words. As another reviewer has mentioned, it is a satire on the eighties, planted squarely in the world occupied by Only Fools and Horses, of Jamie Delano's Hellblazer and Edge of Darkness. Gangsters, transgenics, and wheeler dealers all play a part in the tale. Even Rude Dog and the Dweebs.
Again, love is something fleeting, wonderful and terrible. The end of Signs of Life is where the fantasy element comes in and in a way, it's a shame, because the tale works well as mainstream fiction. But the mythological resonances do have a lot to say about what has come before and the parallels between the fates of Choe and Isobel.
I think this volume is wonderful. It's not necessarily what you'd call an uplifting read, but I think the writing is fantastic.
This is a fine collection of two of M John Harrison's best novels. Neither is what you'd call "life affirming", but if you don't expect fluffy escapism from fantasy, these novels are wonderful. It makes sense to group these two together, as there's a definite overlap in themes and mis en scene. Both present flickerings around the edges of reality that can't, quite, be dismissed. The difference between Harrison's work and most urban fantasy is the sheer weight and stress of his portrayal of reality and the crushing impact it has on anything numinous in the text. Both novels are grounded in the monetarist capitalism that occupy protestors find so offensive at the height of its powers. Put up against that, the fantasy elements of the books don't stand a chance. Of the two, Course Of The Heart is stranger and spikier, and Signs Of Life more straightforward. Between them, they represent Harrison's closest approach to out and out horror stories.
If you've never read any M.John Harrison before, this would be a great place to start. The Course of the Heart is in my opinion his greatest novel. The story revolves around three friends who, as students, become entangled with a strange magician/con-man/nut-case called Lucas Medlar. Through him they experience something so terrifying that they spend the rest of their lives coming to terms with it. Signs of Life is also brilliant. It shares some qualities with The Course of the Heart, but it has a harder, more angry, more satirical heart.Despite this, it's characters are all real and human, sympathetic and completely compelling. Again it involves the relationship between three main characters. Again, two males and one female. As the female characters obssession with flying begins to take a dark turn, the relationship between the three falls apart. It's a vicious satire and critique of post-Thatcherite Britain, but it's a page-turning thriller and it's a heart-breaking depiction of a failing relationship. But above all this, apart from the complex, multi-faceted, multi-layed nature of any Harrison book, what you get is the best, most seductive prose of any writer I can think of. He just writes the best sentences.
The writing was faultless for the main part, vivid and affecting as all literary books should be. The plot of the second story bemused me by its absence, along with a number of completely unlovable characters, but this is still worth reading whatever flaws it might have.