This volume is two novels under a single cover. They have similar scales and some thematic common ground, but no narrative coordination. The jacket copy calls them “love stories,” which is not completely off the mark, but probably fails to do justice to them. Publisher Gollancz has classed them as “Science Fiction/Fantasy,” which is again fair, but the subtlety of the fantasy (in the first) and the science fiction (in the second) is profound.
The first is The Course of the Heart. It has a vivid sense of place in its English settings, reminding me in some ways of a very adult version of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. The novel impressed me with both its ability to be dreamy and icky by turns, and its verisimilitude in representing postmodern occultism. It’s not about occultism really, but it traces the troubled paths of three characters (one of whom is the narrator) in the decades following their initiation into “the Pleroma” by Yaxley, a loathsome magician who lives above the Atlantis bookshop in London. The closest comparison I could make for this book would be to the “Aegypt Cycle” of John Crowley, but boiled down from those practically Wagnerian proportions to a comparatively Beckettian economy, and with a distinctly different metaphysical verdict.
I found The Course of the Heart enjoyable and enigmatic enough for me to track down and read Harrison’s short story that it had elaborated: “The Great God Pan” (1988). Reflecting on the novel through the lens of Machen’s “The Great God Pan” (1890) is certainly interesting. It places all three of the central characters in the position of Mary, the experimental subject who had her brain altered to expose her to the “real world” in Machen’s story. Harrison uses Gnostic language to figure this exposure as contact with the “Pleroma.” And he supplies each of them with different outcomes. But in an author’s note to “The Great God Pan” in the collection Things That Never Happen (2003), Harrison notes that the story owes more to Charles Williams than to Machen. And indeed, if John Banville were to write a Charles Williams novel, I would expect it to turn out pretty much just like The Course of the Heart, which tips its hat to Williams with a mention of War in Heaven on the final page.
As long as I’m making comparisons (still trying to take a measure of Harrison, who is a new author for me), I would note that the second novel, Signs of Life, reminded me of the work of Chuck Palahniuk — but less funny and consequently more disturbing. It partakes of typical Palahniuk tropes regarding vehicular speed and medical gore, along with laconic characters of inscrutable moral sense. I’m glad to have read this story, although I’m not sure I can quite say I enjoyed most of it, and there are certainly fewer people to whom I would recommend it than The Course of the Heart.