Occasionally, if you read voraciously enough, you will encounter a story with the power to change your life. For me, M. John Harrison’s “Black Houses” is just such a story. “Black Houses” is a perfectly crafted missive, a weapon aimed straight at the heart – so darkly comic and fiercely erotic that you might not notice its destructive path until its final devastating line.
In Things That Never Happen, a 2003 collection of Harrison’s short fiction, “Black Houses” appears toward the end of a lengthy assortment of stories that draw on the strange and uncanny to varying degrees. This placement – with its accompanying sense of the cynicism and despair inherent in both the Real World and its supernatural counterparts – no doubt influences my reading of the story. On its face, the story is simply the tale of a failed relationship, one of those extended romantic entanglements that never really becomes. But it is also a story about The Weird in one of its most familiar forms – the strange and uncanny place we visit when we try to love. This world resembles our own in many dimensions, yet it also harbors horrific apparitions and pitch-black pitfalls; it is booby-trapped with the darkly unknowable dimensions of our lovers and ourselves.
In short, it is a world filled with black houses.
The protagonist is named Martin; his lover is named Elaine. From the beginning, she evinces an unusual preoccupation with these anachronisms of the countryside:
“She drove me out into the hard frost and glittering fenland light to look at black houses. …They confront you eerily from the flat exhausted landscape. …Elaine said that black houses were full history, death, human stuff.”
Later, as Martin feels Elaine slipping out of his grasp, he writes to her in a pleading letter:
“If you want a black house, we can live in one—
It is a house that belongs to neither of us. …
You say, ‘We’re too different, we could never live with one another.’
In the black house we already do.”
As I set out to deconstruct the meaning of this story, I found myself wondering.
Is the black house the place where we can escape from the pressures and expectations of the Real World, and be free to behave as we wish, confident that the black house – like a black hole – will prevent information about our exploits from ever reaching the outside?
Or, is the black house the stagnant resting place of all our personal monsters?
Maybe neither. Maybe both.
Martin and Elaine continually battle to understand the other, while each attempts to remain unknowable. (The first time they make love, Elaine reportedly cries “I can’t control this. I can’t work out what kind of man you are” in the throes of orgasm. This need to control, work out, analyze and deconstruct affects both characters.)
As their love affair unfolds, Martin’s desperately whimsical letters are increasingly preoccupied with language itself. He writes, “Male languages are such a threat, even to men.” Privately, he contemplates the speech patterns of his elderly neighbor, a disgraced nobleman whose archaic pronunciation is a kind of performance of better and wealthier days now gone. Language is called upon like an incantation: “I know how we could live together now. Make me come into your hand. Use my come to write the alphabet on us in the dark. After that we can start.”
But the language of the Real World is not powerful enough to bridge the gap between Martin and Elaine, and that uncanny place. Later Martin writes instead, “Sit up close to the wall here in this near darkness with your legs open and drawn up – so you look like a new letter in the alphabet – some character made of residual fight or memory or desire itself.”
Finally he says, “Let’s give up language, make Egon Schiele figures in an upstairs room. Let’s not tell each other anything at all. Let’s be a black house.”
Language can conjure remarkable things. But as all lovers know, sometimes silence is the most powerful incantation of all. Sometimes, when you’ve already found your way to a black house – or become trapped there – it can be dangerous to say anything; it could break the spell.
If language – or lack of it – is not powerful enough to transport the two lovers to a timeline where they can “live together,” the mirror at least provides a look into what that place might look like… untouchable though it might be. One day, Martin is transfixed by the sight of Elaine in the mirror, which is placed in such a way as to reveal a scene in the room at the top of the steps.
“You are naked, standing on an old blue and white towel, washing yourself with warm water from an enamel bowl, sometimes crouched over it, sometimes almost upright, your thigh muscles strongly delineated… I see all this in the mirror, but at the same time I imagine it, I make it… If I was to enter the mirror I could be with you in some more acute, more heartbreaking, more real way than if I simply left my room and took the stairs and perhaps clasped you gently from behind…”
As their relationship continues, and he grows no closer to really knowing her, he remains fixated on that vision: the room that is inside the house yet also inside the mirror, just up the stairs and yet forever unreachable.
“I can imagine the little room with its sloping ceiling, the bowl of water, the towel, the flicker like a signal between the two poles mirror/world mirror/world mirror/world.”
Maybe the black house is the place where both mirror and world can exist at once, where the flicker of dual signals between the Real World and the world of longing is flattened and integrated into only one.
But. But. Maybe the black house is akin to the blank and impassive performance space of a black box theatre. Just as what is happening inside a black box is irrelevant to an outside observer, what is happening outside the black box is irrelevant to an inside observer. The connection to reality is tenuous and its context unimportant. In this case, the inside observers are also the participants, in an unfolding drama staged for their own benefit alone.
Perhaps – it occurs to Martin as their relationship sputters to its predictable ending – Elaine has been in the black house all along. She has been performing the role of the pursued inamorata, the same way the elderly neighbor performs his role of tattered gentleman.
But Martin is not entirely innocent of this theatricality, either. Early we learn that he “rarely posted” his letters to Elaine, instead giving them to her in person. “I liked to watched her read them, though I can see now how tiring this must have been.” With his extravagant messages to her, he has been participating in her stagecraft and performing his own.
After their relationship comes to an end, he writes to a friend:
“Her life is a performance. You’re a support player, an audience, a theatre. She uses you not only on stage but as the stage. You become what she would call the ‘performance space.’ She wants you to fill the same role as all the others.”
And while Martin claims to reject this role entirely, it is not so easy to do: perhaps he has fallen under her spell.
In the end, for me, this story is also a black house. The language beneath the language – the meaning of the metaphor – is too complex, it contradicts itself, it eludes my understanding.
I’m still not sure what a black house is, or what it means.
I know what it does to me. I know what I felt when I reached that final line.
(It was like looking in a mirror and truly seeing for the first time.)
But how it happened – how it brought me there?
That part remains opaque.
Read more from Boskovich at: crackingdes.livejournal.com.