Monday, August 26, 2019

Craig Harrison (3): Days of Starlight (1988)

Craig Harrison: Days of Starlight (1988)

Antarctica. A small scientific base. A huge, unexpected discovery made in the ice: something which will alter not just our sense of the history of our planet, but the future of all mankind. Sound familiar?

Of course it does. John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) is, I suppose, the locus classicus for this particular plotline.

John Carpenter, dir.: The Thing (1982)

The special effects may look pretty hokey nowadays, but I can tell you that at the time they were quite horrifically compelling. Simply coming up with the idea of that severed head with legs scuttling around the base seemed like the kind of out-of-the-box thinking we simply hadn't encountered in horror films up to that point.

Of course there had to be a sequel - or rather a sequel / prequel - The Thing (2011), but it's interesting that they waited thirty years to make it.

Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., dir.: The Thing (2011)

And when it did come, it was immediately clear that many things had changed. The director is the star of the 1982 film. It's true that Kurt Russell got to run through his usual (slightly ironic) repertoire of heroics, but the film itself did not pander to the accepted conventions of how such things were supposed to run.

By 2011, the system had closed over and healed itself. There was a pretty girl starring - Mary Elizabeth Winstead - who got top billing, and whose oeuvre it tends to be linked to, rather than to that of its rather obscure journeyman director.

All in all, it's hard to see it as much more than a reversion to type. The first film version of the story, The Thing from Another World (1951), though set in the Arctic rather than the Antarctic, sets up its story by the playbook of the standard 1950s alien paranoia film.

Christian Nyby, dir.: The Thing from Another World (1951)

Of course it's no accident that essentially the same film should have to be remade every thirty years or so. The owners of the rights to a story know that the copyright on their property will expire unless it's renewed from time to time - hence the repeated Hollywood versions of franchises such as King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, The Mummy, The Wolfman, etc. etc.

John W. Campbell: Who Goes There (1938)

All three films are based - somewhat loosely, it must be admitted - on John W. Campbell's novella 'Who Goes There?', first published (under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart) in the August 1938 Astounding Science Fiction, of which he was then editor.

John W. Campbell: The Thing from Another World (1951)

An earlier, longer text of the story, entitled Frozen Hell, found among Campbell's papers at Harvard, has recently (2019) been republished on kindle. It was, however, the original version which was voted in 1973 one of the most influential SF stories ever written - just as Campbell himself is (for better or worse) still considered one of the most influential editors of the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction.

H. P. Lovecraft: At the Mountains of Madness (1931)

Of course, the actual premise of the story - the isolated base in the polar regions (North or South), the frozen aliens in the snow who revive unexpectedly, the desperate struggle for life against them - are all very reminiscent of H. P. Lovecraft's classic novella At the Mountains of Madness, written in 1931, then submitted to his usual outlet, Weird Tales, later that year. Farnsworth Wright, the editor, rejected it for reasons of length, and so, instead, it was eventually serialized in the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Astounding Stories.

Admittedly the story was actually accepted by Campbell's predecessor in the editorial chair, F. Orlin Tremaine. Campbell did not take over till the end of the following year, 1937, but clearly he must have read it, and presumably it influenced his own story.

Not that there's any great scandal in that. Lovecraft himself makes no secret of his indebtedness to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the closest thing to a novel Edgar Allan Poe ever wrote, and, quite honestly, one of the weirdest and most extreme pieces of fiction ever composed.

Lovecraft ends his own story, in fact, with a direct invocation of Arthur Gordon Pym, quoting the strange cry 'Tekeli-li, Tekeli-li': 'a cry associated with mysterious white-coloured birds and uttered by the natives of the Antarctic land of Tsalal whenever they encounter white objects.'

Jules Verne: Le Sphinx des glaces (1897)

The enigmatic ending of Poe's story, with the hero and his companion drifting towards an immense chasm in the (warm) Southern ocean, just as an immense spectral white figure appears before them, is directly addressed in Jules Verne's sequel Le Sphinx des glaces [The Sphinx of the Ice] (1897), translated into English with the rather more prosaic title An Antarctic Mystery.

Dominic Sena, dir.: Whiteout (2009)

Once you start looking, It's actually quite difficult to avoid these rather dreamy associations between ice, enigmatic femininity, and dangerous secrets hidden in the preserving cold.

Take, for instance, the 2009 film Whiteout, where Kate Beckinsale - as a rather improbable US Marshall - acts as the involuntary Lorelei drawing large numbers of men to death in their search for the treasure concealed in an old frozen Russian transport plane (it turns out to be diamonds, rather than the fissionable nuclear material she fears it to be for most of the film).

Curiously enough, the French title for this US / Canada / France co-production, Enfer Blanc, translates as 'White Hell' - not too far from Frozen Hell, the original title for Campbell's novel. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as the French say - or, in Winnie-the-Pooh's paraphrase: "The more it snows, the more it goes on snowing."

[SPOILER ALERT: reading this part of the post before you've finished Harrison's novel will definitely wreck your appreciation of its dénouement!]

So what contribution does the ostensible subject of this post, Craig Harrison, have to make to this set of various flavours of frozen hell?

Thomas Keneally: A Victim of the Aurora (1977)

Familiar, undoubtedly, with the John Carpenter film and its various antecedents - though possibly also influenced by some more literary excursions onto the ice, such as Thomas Keneally's 1977 heroic-age-of-antarctic-exploration detective novel A Victim of the Aurora - he takes a rather unexpected tangent.

When a team of research geologists at a remote American base in Antarctica discovers a two-metre-long silicon crystal, it becomes their most prized specimen. No one, however, anticipates the disruptive effect of the crystal - on the base's technical staff, nor on the silicon-chip technology sperating the base.
An attempt to investigate the powers of the crystal results in a startling discovery that appears to be of unparalleled significance.
But as the long winter darkness descends over the vast expanse of the earth's most alien continent, the research scientists at the base realise they must draw on all their resources to fight for their very survival.

DAYS OF STARLIGHT, set in the not-too-distant future, is a chillingly credible and timely tale, combining elements of the politico-psychological thriller and of speculative fiction.

There's no doubt that Harrison keeps up the claustrophobia and intensity associated with such narratives every bit as well as any of his predecessors. He keeps the sinister political overtones, too. The 'Delta Force' commandos sent by Washington to wipe out everyone with knowledge of this particular strange discovery in the ice are close cousins to the ruthless 'Blue Berets' in Broken October: sinister armed thugs whose idea of a good time is raping and murdering everyone they encounter.

Almost up to the last page, the story sounds like something which would make a heck of a good made-for-TV movie: clautrophobic (= fewer sets to build and maintain); cold (= bleached-out colours and backgrounds, easy to film); and with a very small cast (= great savings on extras, with more to spend on star power).

But then a basic weirdness, which has been growing throughout, only half-perceptibly, begins to manifest itself. What is the mysterious satellite to which the equally mysterious silicon crystal appears to be linked? It's a kind of transmitter, of course. In function, it's very like the moon monolith in Clarke & Kubrick's 2001, designed to send a message to some aliens a long way off just as soon as the inhabitants of this particular rock have reached a sufficient stage of development to warrant it.

I say 'warrant' rather than 'deserve' it because the whole book is about just what we deserve. And by 'we' I mean any and all beneficiaries of European hegemony. 'What if the aliens came and they were black?' is Harrison's basic question.

Roy Thomas: Avengers #102 (1972)

The crystal has been keeping an exact holographic of - everything, you see. The aliens will only need to look through it to see just what we've been up to, and it won't be a pretty sight. The book ends with Ben the protagonist's realisation that we have approximately 30 years to clean up our act - that's how long it will take them to get here, travelling at near light speed. 'What to do till the sentinels come,' to quote the title of a classic Marvel comic.

Is there a certain element of bathos in all this, after so much build-up, so much tension, so much spy-thriller intrigues? There certainly shouldn't be: it's a most ingenious solution to the narrative problem of how to find a new twist on the old Antarctic base story, but somehow there is. Turning it into yet another iteration of the conundrum black-white race relations seems just a little forced after Harrison's far more straightforward engagement with it in Broken October, and even the more effective, albeit fantastical and dreamlike extension of that in The Quiet Earth.

Fred Hoyle: The Black Cloud (1957)

But perhaps, in the end, that's the point. Days of Starlight may not work perfectly as a thriller (à la Whiteout or The Thing). Nor does it really succeed in emulating some of its more strictly Science Fictional influences: Fellow-Yorkshireman Fred Hoyle's classic The Black Cloud (1957), for instance, for the alien intelligence; or Stanisław Lem's His Master's Voice (1968) for the baffling artefact from another world (in Lem's case, a line of code in a book of random numbers which turns out to have been generated by the transmissions from a certain part of space).

Stanisław Lem: His Master's Voice (1968)

I suppose, in the end, that's what makes it - for me - an exemplary piece of New Zealand Speculative Fiction. Insofar as this can be seen as a genre at all, it tends to involve a certain rejection of cosmic solutions and speculations in favour of more nitty-gritty, number-eight wire, alternatives.

Sentient oceans and hyper-intelligent clouds are all very well, Harrison appears to be saying, but we've made a terrible mess of the place and the people who are actually here, all around us. Let's make a full acknowledgement of what it is we've done, as a first step in the process of repairing it. It falls almost naturally into the wording of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step programme.
  • Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves [Step 4]
  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all [Step 8]
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible [Step 9]
As such, I think Days of Starlight must be seen as a worthy culmination to the SF trilogy Harrison began with Broken October (1976) and continued in The Quiet Earth (1981).

Robert A. Heinlein: Starship Troopers (1959)

It falls in line more with the preoccupations of writer / critics such as Samuel R. Delany - who famously argued that the protagonist of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers must be black - and Ursula K. Le Guin, the hero of whose Earthsea books, Ged, was always intended to be dark-skinned, though he's seldom been portrayed in that way in cover illustrations - than with more familiar SF tropes and themes.

Ursula K. Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

But, once you start looking for it, the subject of racial prejudice intrudes everywhere: in Isaac Asimov's "robot" saga; in many other manifestations of the Android theme (such as Stanisław Lem's Solaris (1961), filmed so memorably by Andrei Tarkovsky (1972); or - for that matter - Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the inspiration for the 1982 film Blade Runner).

Blade Runner (1982)

So what's the problem, then (if there is a problem)? I suppose, for me, it lies in the implications of Harrison's contention, throughout the novel, that black and white people's brains do indeed work differently, and are based on a different design. This manifests, for instance, in the greater amount of REM sleep required by the black, mostly service people on the base.

It turns out in context that this is a sign of superiority, not inferiority - and the racist assumptions to the contrary of the base's chief doctor, Kellner, are thoroughly satirised in context.

It's just that - even in the context of a quite far-fetched piece of speculative fiction, entertaining such ideas of a fundamental difference seems a dangerous one (Ben, the protagonist, turns out to be tuned in to the alien satellite's transmissions, communicated through dreams, thanks to the fact that his great-grandfather was in fact black - he therefore escapes the tone-deafness of the other honkies in the story).

It's not that Harrison is unaware of this peril. There's a passage early on where Ben and his love interest, Linda, talk about Dr. Kellner's research as follows:
'Well, if people like Kellner can prove that blacks have got inferior brains, then it means that they needn't worry too much about what the West has done in the last couple of hundred years. And goes on doing ...
'And this cerebrum makes us superior?'
'He reckons it's the centre of our rationality.'
'And the cerebellum's the opposite?'
'Yes: and much older. More primitive, he'd say. Controls all the magical, dreamtime, intuitive, visionary perceptions.'
'And the marvellous sense of rhythm.' [35]
Har-de-ha-ha. The trouble is, this isn't all that far from the actual underlying thesis of the novel. It's a little like the anthropologists who've postulated at various times independent lines of descent for Australian Aborigines and other native races from those which produced the Caucasian master race.

Carleton S. Coon (1904-1981)

The most notorious of these is undoubtedly the unfortunately named Carleton Coon, whose notorious book The Origin of Races (1962) argued:
that the human species divided into five races before it had evolved into Homo sapiens. Further, he suggested that the races evolved into Homo sapiens at different times.
Coon claimed that he had been prompted purely by a desire to follow the evidence where it led, but many of his contemporaries saw this idea as providing fuel for white segregationists and racists generally. Was Coon himself a racist? He, and most of his colleagues, have continued to deny the suggestion indignantly.

I did once see a documentary on the subject, though, where one of those colleagues summed up his feelings more or less as follows: he said that Coon had travelled to every corner of the globe, had met people of all races, worked and interacted with them, and lived among them. Many of them had become his close friends. And yet, he concluded, "I don't think for a moment that it ever occurred to Carleton S. Coon to regard any of them as his equals."

Craig Harrison - in his fiction and in his life - is a positive zealot for racial justice. This book of his is no exception. His fictional Dr. Kellner and the real-life Professor Coon would be seen by him as close intellectual cousins. But his book does have a tendency to encourage 'separate but equal' thinking about the various races of mankind.

It would be a real shame to dismiss his book unread on the strength of that, but I think that it does offer some explanation as to why so eminently filmable a story has remained untouched by directors ever since.

Pieter Bruegel: Hunters in the Snow (1656)
- a thematic reference in Tarkovsky's Solaris

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Craig Harrison (2): The Quiet Earth (1981)

Craig Harrison: The Quiet Earth. 1981. Text Classics (2013)

There's a strange plot-twist in chapter 12 of Craig Harrison's empty world classic The Quiet Earth. His hero, John Hobson, is driving down the North Island, looking for any other survivors of whatever it is that's happened to us all: 'The Event,' as he calls it. Then, all of a sudden:
Christ! There was something ahead, on the road, running into the car lights! I jerked the wheel hard across, braked, swerved, nearly lost control. There was a wild screeching. The car tipped right, skidding, and I flinched, expecting it to roll. It didn't. The wheels lifted, then fell back. The car stopped, sideways across the camber, headlights whitening trees. What in the name of God had I just seen? [88]
And what had he just seen? We have to wait almost a whole page to find out:
I had glimpsed, briefly, a bone-white beast the size of a big dog or a calf, hairless, wet and pallid like an abortion. Its head was deformed, a mutant of dog and goat, yet fat and imbecile, wide mouth snarling to the roots of its teeth, and glistening with spit; the car lights had glared back from red points of eyes rimmed pink. I had never seen such a monstrosity, not even among Perrin's worst experimental animals, and they were all mercifully dead. The double shock here was that this nightmare was alive, the only other living thing - ... [89]
This sighting upsets the apparent naturalism of the book. As Hobson muses, driving on towards Rotorua ('The stench was the same as ever, like shit in hell'):
I know what I saw back there. If it was real then there were now things living on earth which should be dead, which defied every law of nature I ever knew. And there must be a reason for that. Something I could not live with, in any sense. It demanded my death. [90]
In the end, the only language he can find for it 'sounded biblical:'
abomination, it surfaced like some diseased vision from Revelations. The way the creature moved! The slow lope totally alien to the run of a dog or calf, a kind of upright slithering ... [89]

Geoff Murphy, dir.: The Quiet Earth (1985)

Those of you more familiar with Geoff Murphy's classic feature film version of The Quiet Earth (with a screenplay by Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence, and Sam Pillsbury) probably find this episode not at all what you would expect from the story as you know it.

Like the book's John Hobson, the film's Zac Hobson (played by Bruno Lawrence) wakes up alone in a motel room outside Thames. If you watch it on a DVD with the 'commentary' feature on, you'll hear how proud the film-makers are of that first nearly half an hour of screen time without a single line of dialogue.

It's a tour-de-force. And the powerful logic of the film's story persuades us that's how it must always have been: that that's the way these plots are supposed to go: Zac's lunatic delusions in Auckland, cured by a life-giving swim at Piha. His drive south, meeting first one, then another survivor. His eventual self-sacrifice to stop the 'effect' continuing to the destruction of all life on earth. That final re-awakening on an alien beach, with its wonderful last shot of a strange new planet rising into the spectacular new sky ...

So what about this strange beast - this apocalyptic revenant from a nightmare - this living disproof that John Hobson can be driving down the same island he knew before?

On the one hand, there's the mysterious nature of Rotorua itself - that place where hidden forces come close to the surface, seemingly always ready to break through - manifesting in strange events and disconcerting discoveries even for the most casual tourist (as I outlined in another blogpost earlier this year: The Mysteries of Rotorua).

On the other hand, there's the clear juxtaposition of this terrifying sight with Hobson's long flashback, in the next chapter, chapter 13, to the life and death of his severely autistic and disabled son Peter. The sole communication he achieves with the boy is (he believes) a request to be allowed to die:
If he wanted to kill himself, what could we do? I knew what the official answer would be; he would have to be placed under close watch in a mental hospital. If necessary, under restraint. [101]
Now, as Hobson stands in his motel room, with the muzzle of a shotgun in his mouth, trying (and failing) to make himself pull the trigger, he remembers the final scene of Peter's life:
I am sitting on the edge of the bath. Peter's eyes are devious, they glance in all directions and then again with a wrench of his head they fix on my face. I know what will happen. Holding the sides of the bath, he sinks back, slowly. His face goes from the air by inches, mouth closed, the edge of the water sliding up his face in a silver glint of surface tension, the trapped bubbles of air bright like chromium beads, his eyes open beneath the water. His hair floats and drifts, rising from his forehead, combed in slow motion by the lift of the silver line. Now I have to decide. Ten seconds. Wet skin glitters. The eyes widen. I stand, trembling, the reflections slipping over the brilliance. Goodbye Peter. He will only see my lips move. Then the lights.
I go down the hallway and into the kitchen. I go back into the hall. My child is dying. I go into the front room. Joanne is out. He knows that. I go into the kitchen. How long? I shall tell the inquest I went for a towel to the airing cupboard. Some things fell out when I opened the door. Then the phone rang. Wrong number. Then it was too late. I go into the front room. Dear God. I wrap my arms around myself. I am shivering. The sky dark blue. There is no noise. [104]

Craig Harrison: The Quiet Earth (1981)

It's not that the actual idea of a kind of cyclic purgatory, going over again and again the worst features of your life, is such an original one: it's not even that unusual a fictional solution to the idea of fleshing out fantastical landscapes. It's more the fact that Craig Harrison takes it so far, writes with such severe, disciplined precision, that makes this - to my mind, at any rate - one of the very best New Zealand novels, realist, speculative, or otherwise.
The stunned clarity of the landscape seemed almost insulting; but even this was only like an extension of the indifference it had always radiated. I had felt it often when driving through remote hills in the past, on deserted roads. The clear light which scrubbed the hills into such precise definition, which polished seas and rinsed distance from time as well as space, had not changed. The nothingness stretching over huge sections of land infinitely had extended itself everywhere [23-24]
I guess we're more used to this kind of Terra Nullius evocation in descriptions of Australia: the endless sky, the boundless landscape running by. Expatriate Brit Harrison feels it here, too, though. It's as if New Zealand has always been a kind of purgatory for him: an afterlife, devoid of civilised life, not to mention the patina lent to Old World - in Harrison's case, Yorkshire - landscapes by age and long occupation.
The landscape held no possibilities other than those of that moment. You felt you had seen it all forever. It had no psychic resonance, no memories, no past; nothing human had ever happened here. That was not unusual for parts of New Zealand [my emphasis].

What is the reality behind the mystery that leaves John Hobson alone in New Zealand: apparently the only creature still alive?
Craig Harrison's book gives an unforgettable picture of a world where nothing is as it seems, a world haunted by loneliness and fear.
Of course the fallacy in all this will have struck you already. The South Island myth aside, New Zealand is not, nor ever has been - for the past thousand years, at least - an empty world, where 'nothing human had ever happened'.

When it comes to Craig Harrison, though, you're preaching to the choir. Pākehā / Māori race relations have been his bread and butter as a writer ever since he first arrived here, back in the dim and distant 1960s. Having given John Hobson a gigantic case of white man's guilt, he goes on to explain a few of the reasons why, beginning with a childhood meeting with a young Māori boy from 'an old house in the next street':
I said something like 'Come in,' but he looked away, shook his head, and mumbled, 'Nah, better go, eh,' and walked off.
I was surprised, not merely at the warnings my aunt and uncle gave me about the undesirability of associating with Polynesian children, since I already had a vague idea that they disliked Maoris, and remarks about contagious scabies and head lice were familiar in the form of general warnings against people one should not mix with; no, what amazed me was the extent of my own naïveté, revealed by the fact that the Maori boy knew more about my surrogate parents than I did [84]
When John Hobson does finally meet another human being in his strange Odyssey down the North Island it is, predictably, a Māori, ex-soldier Apirana Maketu. And they meet on the Volcanic Plateau, almost exactly in the centre of the island (rather than in Hamilton, as they do in the movie).
'Why us, then?' he asked; 'we must be special, eh?'
'We must have something in common,' I said, absurdly. He stood back and looked at me, in mock confusion. His face was lightened by very white teeth and the going of the frown, but he was quite dark-skinned and his eyes were very black and quick, scanning me up and down.
'You don't look like Ngati Porou to me,' he said. [123]

A couple of years ago I wrote a short story, 'Catfish', the protagonist of which is a retired Academic trying to compose a critical essay on Craig Harrison's The Quiet Earth (whilst simultaneously struggling against his own suicidal tendencies). You can, if you're curious, find the whole story in my recent collection Ghost Stories. Here's a quote from the essay-within-the-story:
Far more effectively than in the more programmatic Broken October, Hobson’s suspicions, fears, and final downright homicidal ferocity against Apirana Maketu – note the closeness of that surname to mākutu [curse] – map pākehā paranoia with deadly accuracy. [86]
As the blurb above puts it: "The conclusion to this disturbing and brilliantly written novel has a deadly impact." Or, as my protagonist goes on to say in his essay:
The Quiet Earth is, basically, a novel about suicide. Its surface preoccupations with colonial guilt and racism, however strongly expressed, mask an obsession with the details of what might happen after death, especially if that death came out of despair.
Immediately after his terrifying encounter with the strange abortion / shadow-creature, Hobson “put the muzzle of the shotgun in my mouth and reached down to the trigger.” On this occasion, though, “I could do nothing.”
It isn’t till long afterwards, in narrative time, after he and his companion Apirana have run down the one surviving woman in Wellington in their car – by accident, but really as a result of the macho rivalry between them – and the two of them have fought to a finish (Hobson wins: sort of), that he finally has the strength to go back to his point of origin and complete the deed.
His realization, at that point, that he hated his own autistic son and indeed caused his death by drowning, linked to the fact that he and his wife spent their honeymoon in Rotorua, gives some substance to his sense that he is indeed creating the circumstances around him: that they constitute a kind of psychological parody of the conditions of his own life.
Of course, as luck would have it, when he does finally muster the guts to kill himself, he wakes up again, in the same hotel room, with – presumably – the same journey of self-discovery to endure.
No wonder the film chose a more cosmic ending, with its hero knocked through a hole between worlds into a beautiful alien beachscape, with a ringed, Saturn-like planet climbing up from a strangely tranquil sea.
The fact that this is clearly the same West Coast beach which he swam at earlier in the movie, might offer a hint towards the inescapable self-referential mise-en-abîme which lies at the heart of the book. [88-89]

Do I still agree with my character? Did I ever agree with my character, in fact? The great thing about fiction is that you can have it both ways at once. It's certainly a plausible reading of The Quiet Earth, and it does tie in nicely with my own story's preoccupations.

Earlier on the essay says:
The strength of the idea behind Harrison’s novel is, however, not so much in this use of Nietzsche’s “eternal return” as a plot-structuring device, as the facility with which it enables him to discuss the racial, post-colonial themes so close to his heart.
That sounds a bit more like it, to me. There are plenty of 'empty world' stories out there - Earth Abides, I am Legend, The Stand. It's safe to say that none of these are one-idea books. All of them take the opportunity to explore in depth just what it is that bugs their respective authors most about the world we humans have built for ourselves.

That, for me, is a bit closer to the magnitude of Harrison's achievement in this, his second-to-be-published - and almost certainly his greatest - novel. Broken October has many strengths (though not probably not as many as the stage play, Tomorrow Will Be a Lovely Day, that preceded it). Ground Level, which came next, perhaps found more appropriate expression in slapstick form as the pioneering TV sit-com Joe and Koro.

In The Quiet Earth Harrison really found his stride, however. It's a claustrophobic, singularly dark vision he gives us - the film had to lighten it quite a few shades to make it acceptable to a larger audience - but that's what makes it such an impressive novel. It's something one can go back, finding new facets - both disturbing and enlightening - at each repetition of poor John Hobson's self-created, self-cursed trajectory.

Bruno Lawrence (1941-1995)

Monday, August 19, 2019

Craig Harrison (1): Broken October (1976)

Craig Harrison: Broken October (1976)

From the places with their docile English names, Huntly, Hamilton, Cambridge, he drove on, to Tirau, Putaruru, up into the central hills, the remoteness, where there were few names or places, and thought of a story he had once read called The Heart of Darkness: about how in some central African jungle the Europeans had come to exploit and destroy and had been in their turn destroyed. He still did not really believe in any abstract forces which lay in all this, waiting like that; but the land did have some power to make human beings seem futile, he saw this in the way the road was just a small mark on the face of the hills and the thick forest, a futile and weak gesture, and in a sense it was almost amusing to think of the precariousness of human control over everything: civilisation just a gesture on the edge: and in the center, still, the same heart of darkness.
- Craig Harrison: Broken October: 135.

When I first went to university, in 1980, I was intending to study history.

None of the papers available in first year really enthused me, though, so instead I drew up an eclectic assortment of courses designed to cover as many other options as possible. You were supposed to do 8 papers in your first year, and 7 in each of the successive years.

So far as I can recall, my 8 included two papers in Ancient History (Roman and Egyptian), two papers in Italian (an introduction to the language and the culture), two papers in English (Chaucer & Shakespeare and Twentieth Century Literature), a paper in Latin, and another paper in Anthropology.

English was not at the top of my list, but - somehow - it was what I ended up specialising in (my other majoring subject was Italian). Part of that was due to the fact that I really enjoyed the lectures and tutorials on modern literature.

I was a ridiculous little know-it-all, who'd already read most of the authors prescribed for us (Ulysses rather than Dubliners, all of Hardy's novels rather than just a few selections from his poetry, etc. etc.) I therefore expected my views to prevail in argument. They did not. Again and again I was forced to admit that even though I had wolfed down so many books, my interpretative skills were lamentably undeveloped.

Mervyn Thompson: All My Lives (1975)

The lectures that stick in my mind most of all were a couple of guest appearances by Mervyn Thompson, who talked to us about Craig Harrison's then-recent play Tomorrow Will Be a Lovely Day (1975). I had no idea who Mervyn was, and had the snobbish disdain for New Zealand writers common to those who'd spent too much time trying vainly to keep up with what was 'in' in Europe and America.

The theme of Mervyn's first lecture was the necessity for New Zealand writers to express their own realities, by using local themes and details of local life - and to stop relying on views from elsewhere. I found this an interesting view, but felt compelled to approach him afterwards to acquaint him with the somewhat contrasting attitudes of Jorge Luis Borges in his classic essay 'The Argentine Writer and Tradition' (1951).

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1984)

Borges advises his countrymen to eschew any self-conscious use of 'local colour'. Instead, he pontificates:
We should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.
My efforts to explain all this to Mervyn were not very successful, partially because another enthusiast from the audience also wanted to discuss the lecture with him at the same time. I suppose what remains with me from this rather farcical scene is the courtesy and kindness he showed in trying to speak to each of us without privileging one over the other.

The other exciting aspect of his lecture - there was a follow-up one the next week - was the inside information he included in his discussion of the play. 'In our production we did so-and-so,' he would say. 'Philip Sherry played the news reader at this point in the play ...'

This was heady stuff! The thought of actually meeting and hobnobbing with writers, being involved with them in their artistic endeavours was something quite alien to someone who'd grown up on books of anecdotes about Eliot, Joyce, Pound, Woolf and all the other modernist giants.

Mervyn Thompson: Coaltown Blues (1984)

Mervyn had his own strange destiny to work out still at that point. In 1984, the year of Coaltown Blues, he was abducted, stripped and tied to a tree with a 'Rapist' sign hung round his neck by a group of feminist protestors who were taking revenge for a student he had allegedly abused. Mervyn admitted the relationship, but claimed it had been concensual.

The bizarre details of his public shaming were borrowed from his friend Renee's play Setting the Table (1982), which he had originally assisted in workshopping. Talk about life imitating art! This was life doing so in the most deliberate fashion possible.

Some people would have submitted to the pressure to stay silent at this point. He was, after all, a lecturer at Auckland University, no friend as an institution - then or now - to loud controversies. Mervyn, however, chose to speak out, writing a long article about the event in the Listener.

What shocked me most about it, though, at the time - how naive of me! - was the fact that the Maidment Theatre almost immediately closed down his play. What happened to innocent until proven guilty, I wondered? No, the moment the flag went up, he became a non-person straight away.

Craig Harrison: Tomorrow Will Be a Lovely Day (1975)

But I've strayed a long way from Craig Harrison and his play. Harrison was then an English lecturer at Massey University, and was rising rapidly in the New Zealand literary scene. I met him years later, in 1991, when I was employed as a tutor down in Palmerston North.

I'd heard he was a bit stand-offish from some of the other teachers around the Department. I'd noticed myself that he never attended Departmental meetings - though given that most of these ended with strident confrontations between the touchier members of the staff, who seemed to make a point of running out of the room in extreme high dudgeon, a different candidate each week - I could see his point about that.

The bold approach usually works best on these occasions, I find. I came up to him in the staffroom while he was making a cup of tea, and said that I'd just finished reading his book Grievous Bodily, and how much I'd enjoyed it.

What was it Mark Twain said? The best way to an author's heart is to tell them you've just read their book. If you really want to seal the deal, tell them you've (bought and) read all of them!

We had a great old natter after that: about Grievous Bodily (almost cripplingly funny, I found it at the time), The Quiet Earth, and various other matters. He told me that he was determined never to publish another novel.

"Whyever not?" I asked.

"Because of the editors. I spent so much time arguing with them over this book that it took all the enjoyment out of it. They insisted I write the word 'biro pen' with a capital letter because it was originally named after its creator, László Bíró. I told them that everyone writes it with a small letter now. They wouldn't give in ..."

And, you know, it's true. He didn't put out another novel after that for another 25 years, not until that amusing YA romp The Dumpster Saga in 2007.

Craig Harrison: The Dumpster Saga (2007)

Robert Zemeckis, dir.: Back to the Future (1985)

Back to the Future. That's one way of putting it. Another phrase, devised by Frederick Pohl as the title of his autobiography, is - The Way The Future Was:

Frederick Pohl: The Way the Future Was (1978)

One of the problems with dystopian visions set in the near future is that they date so quickly. Harrison's play Tomorrow Will Be a Lovely Day was staged for the first time in 1975. It was quickly followed by his 'novelisation' of the script, Broken October, in 1976. That is, if that was the order they were written in - maybe the novel actually preceded the play?

The rapid decay from a smug, paternalist democracy to a police state rather akin to General Pinochet's Chile takes place - in Harrison's grim vision - over a few months of fictional time in the - then distant - year of 1985.

Anthony Burgess: 1985 (1978)

Not that there's anything neutral in that choice of dates. Just like Anthony Burgess a couple of years later, Harrison meant to link his bow-by-blow account of what just might happen in Aotearoa New Zealand if we allowed our already lamentable racial abuse and human rights record to decay any further to George Orwell's already classic masterpiece 1984:

George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

Nineteen Eighty-Four may, then and now, be considered a classic - but is it really particularly prescient? is that the true source of its appeal?

Clearly, when we finally reached that canonical year (some 35 years ago now), things were not precisely as described in Orwell's novel - though his Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania giant states did bear a strong resemblance to the triple power blocks of the USA, Russia, and emergent China.

Burgess's update is shabbier, more satirical, less starkly totalitarian. To be honest, it's a bit difficult to read now - time has not been kind to most of his late novels, only A Clockwork Orange and (perhaps) The Doctor is Sick retaining a bit of their counter-culture punch.

How, then, are we to read Harrison's own localised vision of the year after 1984? Most of what he foresaw didn't happen, of course. The election of a Labour Government in 1984 meant the end of ANZUS as a result of our new nuclear-free policy. The brutal economic warfare of the late 1980s chose a more bureaucratic and less direct way of grinding the people's face in the dust.

If one were to see it as one of (at least) three 1970s fictional visions of New Zealand in the near future: Broken October alongside C. K. Stead's Smith's Dream (1971) and M. K. Joseph's The Time of Achamoth (1976), it's definitely the gloomiest of the three.

Roger Donaldson, dir.: Sleeping Dogs (1977)

Smith's Dream, compellingly filmed as Sleeping Dogs (1977), has at least the advantage of an initial pastoral vision to put alongside the brutal repression of the new regime. There's a certain artistic advantage in having a single protagonist, too.

M. K. Joseph's innate conservatism made it hard for him to hit out unequivocally at the forces of 'order' in his own complex blended vision of a past constantly interfusing into (and interfering with) the present.

Alongside these two others, Harrison's novel reads rather like a work of popular history: What went wrong with the revolution? Come to think of it, it does have certain analogies with more recent events such as the Arab Spring. His two contrasting Maōri protagonists, Rangi Tamatea and Rewi Waitoa, never really come to life, any more than their respective pakeha girlfriends Helen the nurse and Anne the rich party girl.

His play, Tomorrow Will Be a Lovely Day, has, on the other hand, the advantage of conciseness - as well as a clever use of music and lighting to shift from place to place in the dreamtime of his imagination.

Scott Hamilton: Reading the Maps (August 2004- )

Scott Hamilton, in a 2007 blogpiece on the differences between the Stead's and Harrison's novels, characterises them as follows:
Smith's Dream is bleak, as dystopias tend to be, but it is also abstract, ahistorical, and somewhat mysterious - more like Kafka's The Castle than Nineteen Eighty-Four. The dictator’s politics are hardly fleshed out; nor are those of the resistance that Stead's anti-hero unhappily joins. Stead is interested in telling a parable about the imperfection of humanity and the near-inevitability of the abuse of political power, not in comprehending the specifics of Kiwi society.

Broken October, on the other hand, comes with an extended pre-history and a densely sociological present; it is a biggish novel stuffed with faux-newspaper reports and sardonic analyses of the policies of a US-backed military dictator and his trade unionist and Maori nationalist opponents. Stead's book could have been set anywhere, and written anytime in the twentieth century; Harrison's book could only have been written in New Zealand in the 1970s, a time when a strike wave, paranoia about communism, rising racial tension, and a nosediving economy were playing havoc with cosy myths about 'God's own country'.
Back to the future - again. I guess the reason that Stead's novel impacted so much more on popular consciousness is mainly because of those scenes in the film where faceless cops with batons beat the shit out of unarmed demonstrators. "When the Red Squad charged the anti-tour protestors in 1981, people said: 'It's just like Sleeping Dogs,'" said Sam Neill in his account of the film in his 1995 documentary Cinema of Unease.

Scott certainly has a point is in stressing Harrison's prescience in linking this political turmoil directly with race:
Warren Montag has argued that, in treating Heart of Darkness as an allegory for the human condition - that is, an abstract, ahistorical novel - literary canon-builders effectively diverted attention from Conrad’s expose of the horrors of colonialism in nineteenth century Africa. I think that some of the same tendency is at work when literary critics and historians choose Smith’s Dream over Broken October. Harrison is asking us to examine truths about Kiwi society which are concrete and uncomfortable. Stead lets us cop out by sermonising about a universal will to dictatorship. ('Nothing to do with the Maoris, mate, see.')
'No politics in sport,' said the establishment spokespeople all through the closest thing New Zealand came to a civil war in 50 years - since the 1951 watersiders strike, in fact - the Springbok tour protests of 1981.

But, once again, it was all about race. Harrison, an outsider to the country, saw that obvious point at once, and has used it as the central vehicle for virtually all of his writing from this distant frontier. Stead's novel is, finally, a far more human piece of work than Harrison's, but its attempts to assert an apolitical common ground between the warring parties - seen most clearly, perhaps, in the famous closing vignette of the sunbathing girl - soon ceased to satisfy even himself. He rewrote that ending for the second edition, and it was rewritten again for Roger Donaldson's film.

Books that lose all interest once their topicality is past can never have been particularly good books in the first place. In fact, it's one of the few criteria we can apply to that perennial question: What actually makes a book good? What makes it worth reading?

Smith's Dream and Broken October are both still worth reading, imho. The first may be a better novel in terms of construction and plot, but the second certainly offers a richer and more nuanced vision of what was then the future - now, I suppose, an alternate timeline. Both, I think it's fair to say, played some small share in preventing the futures they foresaw from happening quite as described.

As I watch the land protests at Ihumātao, so reminiscent of Bastion Point in 1977 - the year after Harrison's novel appeared - the kind of dispute we were told need never happen again in the era of the Waitangi Tribunal, set up specifically to prevent such abuses from remaining unaddressed, I find myself wondering just how far we actually have got.

Walter Benjamin's Angel of History keeps on being swept backwards into the future, lamenting - but powerless to alter - the catastrophes happening in front of its face.

Walter Benjamin: The Angel of History (1920)

Craig Harrison

Craig Harrison

Select Bibliography:


  1. How to be a Pom. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1975.

  2. Broken October: New Zealand 1985. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1976.

  3. The Quiet Earth. Auckland: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981.

  4. The Quiet Earth. 1981. Introduction by Bernard Beckett. Text Classics. Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2013.

  5. Ground Level. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1981.

  6. Days of Starlight. Auckland: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988.

  7. Grievous Bodily. Auckland: Penguin, 1991.

  8. The Essence of Art: Victorian Advice on the Practice of Painting. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 1999.

  9. The Dumpster Saga. Auckland: Scholastic New Zealand Limited, 2007.

  10. Plays:

  11. Ground Level. Wellington: Radio NZ, 1974.

  12. The Whites of their Eyes. Wellington: Radio NZ, 1974.

  13. Tomorrow Will Be a Lovely Day. Reed Drama Series. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1975.

  14. Joe and Koro. Wellington: NZBC, 1976-77.

  15. The Quiet Earth. 1986.

  16. White Lies. Auckland: New House, 1994.

  17. Screen Adaptations:

  18. The Quiet Earth, dir. Geoff Murphy, writ. Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence, Sam Pillsbury (based on the novel by Craig Harrison) – with Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge, Pete Smith – (NZ, 1985).

  19. Homepages & Online Information:

  20. NZ Book council profile

  21. NZ on screen profile

  22. Wikipedia entry

Thursday, August 01, 2019

My new book Ghost Stories is available today:

Cover image: Graham Fletcher (by courtesy of the artist) /
Cover design: Daniela Gast (2019)

The official publication date for my new collection of short fiction, Ghost Stories, was yesterday, 31st July 2019.

It's been a great pleasure to work on it with the team at Lasavia Publishing on Waiheke Island: editor Rowan Sylva, designer Daniela Gast, publisher Mike Johnson, as well as the other members of the collective. I also owe a big thank you to Graham Fletcher for the use of his cover image, and (as always) to my lovely wife Bronwyn for invaluable advice at every stage of the process. Thanks, too, to Tracey Slaughter for the use of that blurb quote.

So how do you obtain a copy of the book? That is, after all, the $64,000 question. If you wish to order one online, it's available from any of the following websites:
RRP: $US 15.00 (+ postage)
RRP: £UK 12.28 (+ postage)

Book Depository
RRP: $NZ 29.44 (free postage)

Wheelers Books
RRP: $NZ 49.50
As usual, the Book Depository seems to offer the best deal, but remember that copies can also be purchased at a discounted rate, $20, at the Waiheke Market, or (for that matter) directly from Lasavia Publishing:
Lasavia Publishing
37 Crescent Rd West
Waiheke Island
Auckland 1081
Lasavia Publishing: Editorial

RRP: $NZ 20.00 (+ postage)
We're planning a big launch party later in the year, which I'll describe in detail here on the blog once all the arrangements are finalised, so - if you prefer - you could wait until then. But I know what eager beavers some of you readers can be!

So what exactly is the book about? The easiest thing might just be to quote from the blurb:
David Foster Wallace once wrote that 'every love story is a ghost story.' Not all of the stories in Jack Ross’s new collection are about love, but certainly all of them concern ghosts – imaginary, real, or entirely absent. As it turns out, there are even stranger things in the world: from haunted hotel rooms in Beijing to drunken poetry readings on Auckland’s North Shore. Or perhaps, as the Mayan prophets foresaw, the world really did end on the 21st December, 2012, and 'all bets are off, all the rules have changed, and – new Adams, new Eves – we have to find the courage somehow to start naming the strange new things we see.'

'There’s no one in New Zealand literature exploring the dark ways of narrative with the alchemical touch of Jack Ross, and his gift of spinning tales which jump "from track to track on the time-space continuum" never fails to leave me exhilarated, in outright awe'.
- Tracey Slaughter

Jack Ross works as a senior lecturer in creative writing at Massey University. He is the author of five poetry collections, four novels and three books of short fiction. His novel The Annotated Tree Worship was highly commended in the 2018 NZ Heritage Book Awards. He has also edited numerous books, anthologies, and literary journals, including brief, Landfall, and Poetry New Zealand. He blogs at

And here's a - slightly more informative - abstract I composed to send to my masters at Massey University, who insist on full details of every publication by their staff:
This is a set of ten short stories, with two essays: 'The Classic New Zealand Ghost Story,' an introduction to the collection as a whole; and 'Kipling and the Cross-Correspondences,' an account of the alleged attempts at communication from the other side by various dead members of the Society for Psychical Research in the early years of last century. The stories, too, are grouped around the common theme of ghosts and ghost stories, but in some rather unexpected ways. Two ('The Scam' and 'The Cross-Correspondences') are set in China, but most are explorations of the haunted landscapes of the New Zealand's North Island, from Featherston and Eketahuna to Raglan and Auckland. All of them (with the exception of 'Paragraphs') have been previously published in periodicals or online.

Now those of you obsessed (as I am) by numerology, might well have noticed an ominous feature of that list of publications in the blurb above. My breakdown of books now stands at:
5 poetry books
4 novels
3 short story collections
+ 1 stand-alone novella
= 13 in total
Yes, this is indeed my number thirteen!

All I can say is that nearly as many traditions see thirteen as a lucky number as fear it for being unlucky.

Mind you, I could fudge the count a bit if I wished. I could count my novel The Annotated Tree Worship as two books rather than one, given it appeared in two separate volumes. But they are intended as interlinked novellas, and were never really meant to be read independently.

There's also the fact that I've published 16 chapbooks at one time or another. That would bring up the total to an innocuous 29!

And then there are the various books and anthologies I've edited (15 in all, it would appear). That would bring us up to 44.

But these expedients would really just be cheating. So far as I'm concerned, I've now written 13 books, so I've taken some care to make the thirteenth as appropriate as possible. It is, after all, an exploration of the paranormal, the supernatural, as it manifests (for the most part) in some of the gloomier parts of New Zealand ...

I hope it's enjoyable. I know not everyone shares my fascination with such matters, but a great many people do. And I would argue that most of these stories can be read in a variety of ways: as actual 'ghost stories' being just one of them.

Here's a list of the contents:
The Classic New Zealand Ghost Story

The Scam
Leaves from a Diary of the End of the World
Is it Infrareal or is it Memorex?
General Grant in Paeroa

The Cross-Correspondences
Kipling and the Cross-Correspondences

And here's a list of my 13 books to date:

  1. City of Strange Brunettes. ISBN 0-473-05446-9 (Auckland: Pohutukawa Press, 1998) [poetry book 1]
  2. Nights with Giordano Bruno. ISBN 0-9582225-0-9 (Wellington: Bumper Books, 2000) [novel 1]
  3. Chantal’s Book. ISBN 0-473-08744-8 (Wellington: HeadworX, 2002) [poetry book 2]
  4. Monkey Miss Her Now & Everything a Teenage Girl Should Know. ISBN 0-476-00182-X (Auckland: Danger Publishing, 2004) [short story collection 1]
  5. Trouble in Mind. Titus Novella Series. ISBN 0-9582586-1-9 (Auckland: Titus Books, 2005) [novella]
  6. The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis. ISBN 0-9582586-8-6 (Auckland: Titus Books, 2006) [novel 2]
  7. To Terezín: A Travelogue. Afterword by Martin Edmond. Social and Cultural Studies, 8. ISSN 1175-7132 (Auckland: Massey University, 2007) [poetry book 3]
  8. EMO. ISBN 978-1-877441-07-3 (Auckland: Titus Books, 2008) [novel 3]
  9. Kingdom of Alt. ISBN 978-1-877441-15-8 (Auckland: Titus Books, 2010) [short story collection 2]
  10. Celanie: Poems & Drawings after Paul Celan. by Jack Ross & Emma Smith, with an Afterword by Bronwyn Lloyd. ISBN 978-0-473-22484-4 (Auckland: Pania Press, 2012) [poetry book 4]
  11. A Clearer View of the Hinterland: Poems & Sequences 1981-2014. ISBN 978-0-473-29640-7 (Wellington: HeadworX, 2014) [poetry book 5]
  12. The Annotated Tree Worship (Auckland: Paper Table, 2017) [novel 4]
    • Draft Research Portfolio. ISBN 978-0-473-41328-6. Paper Table Novellas, 2 (i).
    • List of Topoi. ISBN 978-0-473-41329-3. Paper Table Novellas, 2 (ii).
  13. Ghost Stories. ISBN 978-0-9951165-5-9. 99% Press (Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2019) [short story collection 3]