I’ve read M John Harrison’s 2002 novel Light three times and to the extent that I understand it, I love it. In it, a mysterious creature called the Shrander haunts the main characters only to be revealed toward the end. That is a fantastic book but as the Shranders says to one of the main characters, "I don't want you to understand it Ed, I want you to surf it." That lets the reader off the hook as well. It is a fantastic ride. The characters in The Course of the Heart, published a decade earlier, are also haunted, sometimes literally, as a result of some sort of rite they performed while they were in college. I don’t have to completely understand it on this read to know it is as good as Light.
I picked up a copy of this at a used bookstore sometime in the past year on the strength of my love for Light and finally read it after reading Elizabeth Hand’s excellent short story The Boy in the Tree. That story was, in part, a riff on Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan and was expanded into a novel. This book was apparently also expanded from a Harrison story that was riffing on Machen’s novella. The original Great God Pan starts with a rite that happens off camera, so to speak, the specific horror of which is not revealed, and then obliquely, until the end of the book. While The Course of the Heart takes a similar tack in obscuring the initial rite, a second rite resembles the one in Machen’s story and doesn’t sugar coat the horror of it. Machen’s character is uneasy with the rite, as is the narrator of Harrison’s book, but Harrison pins him to the wall and makes his actions more obviously unconscionable. There is a horror hidden in the subtext here, but it’s also explicit. The timeline of The Course of the Heart is over 20 years and eventually the unnamed narrator makes peace with himself, but it is an uneasy peace. The other characters build a unique edifice to hide their own complicity which the narrator co-opts.
The narrator and his friends Pam Stuyvesant and Lucas Medlar are Cambridge students who get mixed up with a magician who wants to break through to the Pleroma, what the gnostics (or certain of them, anyway) saw as the pure realm of spirit. The specifics of the rite are elided but the results haunt the students into middle age and beyond. Stuyvesant and Medlar marry and keep sporadic contact with the narrator over years. They are pursued throughout life by personalized horrors. To keep them at bay, they recreate a history of the middle ages, with a memoir of a fictional (within the text) man as their guide that posits a realm of the Heart, or Coeur, that functions as a sort of gnostic/pagan analogue of the Kingdom of Heaven brought to earth. It is religious in nature, but also erotic, but it is more than either. If they make a narrative of the kingdom of the heart, that area where the Pleroma and the quotidian world overlap. they may be able to keep their sanity. That elaborately constructed narrative also shields them, and the narrator from their complicity in the trauma of others. The horror here is both literal and imaginary and it takes much work on their parts to build their defense against it.
As with Light, I am certain that I did not get everything out of this on first pass and that rereads will be necessary. However, Light did prepare me a bit for his style and concerns. Harrison is a master prose writer, and the book is worth reading on that level alone. A literary horror novel of the very first order. As profoundly disturbing as it is beautiful. This will decidedly not be for everyone, but I loved it and look forward to rereading next year.
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 55/75