Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Weighing the Harpy

Originally I toyed with giving this blog post the title 'I'm Sorry I haven't a Clute' as a punning reference to the BBC Radio 4 comedy program, but it would be highly inaccurate, for the simple reason that I do have a Clute. The latest Clute in fact, Pardon This Intrusion, a collection of 47 essays, just published by Beccon Publications.

John Clute (1940-2086?) is perhaps the most significant British critic of science fiction and fantasy. His reviews appeared in the legendary New Worlds magazine among many other places, and he is a multiple Hugo award winner for his outstanding encyclopedias, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. I think I might be included as an entry in the revised edition of the latter. If so, I'm chuffed, as I'm extremely fond of being an entry in encyclopedias!

Pardon This Intrusion features two essays Clute has written about my books. I'm delighted to report that he has given me permission to replicate one of these essays, which concentrates on my Worming the Harpy book. I am flattered and honoured to do so here. Ready?


[John Clute's essay on Worming the Harpy]

Welcome to the first big room in the house of many mansions of Rhys Hughes, at last. It's about time. An earlier version of Worming the Harpy has of course already appeared – Tartarus Press's handsome but highly limited edition from 1995 – but for most of us that edition can have been little more than a rumour. A few copies were available on the net, it's true; but the cheapest of them – complete with torn dustwrapper — was listed at almost £170, or $300 plus. Undamaged copies were a lot more. Rhys Hughes may have benefited from the intense industriousness of presses like Tartarus, but their niche focus has clearly kept him from most of us.

This cannot have entirely pleased Hughes; and for anyone interested in the literature of the fantastic at the cusp of century change, it has been extremely frustrating not to be able to start at the beginning of an enterprise – a career – so far iterated in what seem to be hundreds of stories, though it is hard to count. Partly this is a practical consequence of their fragmentary publication history over the fifteen or so years of Hughes's active career; more importantly, his avowed goal to write a thousand stories – each one of them somehow linked to all the others, a kind of rat-king whose roots adhere Eden to Jerusalem – turns out to be a good deal more than flamboyance. The echolalia one feels in the heart of a typical Hughes story is generated by at least two motors of referenciality. The first is the hyperlinking of story to story, so that each story reads, in part, like an eddy in the gnarly ocean of the whole.

But there is also the outside world. As with some other creators of works at home surfing the fractal chassis of the exceedingly strange era we are now passing into, Hughes seems to inhabit – to breathe the air of – almost any earlier writer one might think to recognize signalling up through the banyan of the thousand stories as they hit the open air out of their single root; in an introduction to his New Universal History of Infamy (2004), I mentioned echoes and transfigurations I thought I noticed from J B Morton to Italo Calvino, from Franz Kafka to John Sladek, from William Hope Hodgson to Michael Moorcock, from Franz Kafka to Ray Bradbury. I didn't mention E T A Hoffmann then, but would now – the title story, 'Worming the Harpy', plays his slow tunes hurdy-gurdy, hilariously – and I did mention Spike Milligan, and would again, because (I think) in these early stories Hughes exposes himself, rather more than in later work, to our recognition that his similarity to Milligan runs deeper than the occasional shared lurch of phrase, that he writes as though he'd been bloodied in the same wars Milligan fought for eight decades: the same up-yours melancholia about the malice of the absurd – about the absurdness of the world defined not only as an inherent lack of species-friendly grammar in the convulsion of the real, but also a sense that anyone who acts as though he believes what he is told by our Masters will almost necessarily inflict pain on others – that made Puckoon (1963) a very nearly great novel, and that made the five volume War Biography beginning with Adolf Hitler: my Part in his Downfall (1971) one of the funniest demolitions yet published of our cultural narratives. I'm sure I'm not the first one to think of Spike Milligan as a kind of gonzo Beckett; I would also suggest that Rhys Hughes also has what one might call a relationship of noise with Beckett: his response to the irrefutable Beckett mantra – I can't go on I must go on – being precisely that of going on. "You're going the wrong way" says Vladimir in Waiting for Godot (1952). "I need a running start" says Pozzo. "Stand back!"

Even at the beginning of his career, every story Hughes writes is cast into a cruel world; but, as with any writer one really cares about, each story is loved, and its betrayal into an awful world likely to destroy it is modestly similar to the Kabbalistic notion that, in order to get the stories of the universe going, God commits tsimtsum, a kind of harakiri withdrawal from the pleroma that gives the Real room enough to bang. God so loves the story of the world, in other words, that he tears himself into stories: which get devoured in Time. So it is with every writer worth reading, though some of them do continue to think the human world as having been told off from a divine principle. I think Rhys Hughes does not. I think every echo in every story that he tells is a kind of weapon thrown into the fray of a world that has come a long way from God's beginning Word: that Hughes's stories are about the noise of continuing to go on I can't go on I must go on, in a world that offers the pilgrim – the writer – the raw stinko stump of a protagonist whom we find again and again mouthing at us in one of the stories published here – nothing but broken grammars and apparatchik savageries.

This new edition of Worming the Harpy adds ‘The Forest Chapel Bell’, an excellent dies irae fantasy which fits better here. There are 17 tales altogether. Some of the shorter ones I find a bit garish and pun-driven: ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife's Hat for the Mad Hatter's Wife’, a series of spoof turns on wordplays, derogates from Oliver Sacks's brilliant The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985), about an intensely moving case of visual agnosia, and from Michael Nyman's good opera of the same name. But the longer tales included here (I think Hughes's ideal length is the novella) are as good as some of his best later work: ‘A Carpet Seldom Found’ is an Answered Prayer story which cunningly and inexorably unpacks the fate it has in store for its greedy protagonist (Hughes's heroes are both oral and miserly: always male, usually solitary: collectors); and ‘The Good News Grimoire’ occupies pulp Europe with a jangly surety of touch, and it is also pretty funny. Hughes is in fact funny almost all the time, though it is sometimes easy to miss the sly joke in the rataplan. Here, from the hilarious exercise in taking things literally, ‘Cello I Love You’:

I have never been attractive to women, which is possibly why I mostly form relationships with inanimate objects. I have a single arm and a single leg and my stale green eyes are so close together that I am able to peep through a keyhole with both of them at once. Nor does my beauty lie beneath my skin; I have no skin.

So. Here is the first instalment, back with us at last and available, a first batch of tales tossed into the world machine. I have no idea if Rhys Hughes will ever finish telling his thousand, and to be honest I almost hope he stops counting. What I think I want is that the hurl of tales that begins here does not – short of that which stops us all – ever stop.


Needless to say, I'm overjoyed with this interpretation. The comparison to Milligan is especially pleasing to me... The paperback reprint of Worming the Harpy is available directly from Tartarus Press or from Amazon and many other places... This very morning I decided to weigh the book as an experiment. Back in 1907 the maverick doctor Duncan MacDougall tried to weigh the human soul by placing the beds of dying patients on large weighing scales. He claimed a value of 21 grams for the human soul. Worming the Harpy weighs 360 grams, the equivalent of 17.14286 human souls; almost exactly the number of stories contained in the book! Coincidence? I think not! Bullcrap? Yes, probably.

Anyway, John Clute is appearing tonight (June 21st) at the British Library, London, from 18:30 to 20:00, together with Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss and Norman Spinrad. Tickets for this event have probably sold out, but here's the relevant link anyway.

Wow, that's one good bloody review and from no less than the Great Clute himself!
I'd be chuffed to bits to get one like that *goes green with envy*
Nice one, Rhys :)
Hi Bob! Yes, John Clute has been good to me over the years, as have Mike Moorcock, Michael Bishop, Jeff VanderMeer and a handful of others. It's the appreciation of people like those who make it all worthwhile, frankly!

How are things with you? Good I hope!
Hmmm... my comment makes it look like I don't want the appreciation of "ordinary" readers. I didn't mean it that way, at all!

I mean that the support of writers one admires helps to nullify the negative energy radiated by certain small-minded people in the business!
I'm okay, Rhys, ta :)
Hope you're okay too.
Yep nice to have people you admire like your work and of course ordinary readers are appreciated too, after all, it's them we're writing for :)
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