M. John Harrison’s Black Houses

"Let's give up language..."


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



Desirina Boskovich is a graduate of the Clarion class of 2007. As a freelance writer, she specializes in weird, fantastic, and unlikely things, both true and imaginary. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, Last Drink Bird Head, Fantasy Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, The Steampunk Bible, and The Way of the Wizard. She lives in Springfield, Missouri. 

4 replies to “M. John Harrison’s Black Houses

  1. The story has one of the best openings I have ever read in a story anywhere: “I was introduced to Elaine on the pavement outside Black’s club one winter in the early ’90s. She was wearing a belted PVC jacket over a Lycra skirt. She had bobbed hair and bright red lipstick, and as I began to say hello she already turning away to laugh at something someone else had said”. One could almost dispense with the rest of the prose in the story, because the inherent tragedy of the relationship it depicts is set out right in that oepning paragraph, which in itslelf could be seen as the Black House of the story. That “already turning away” is so poignant, so powerful, it almost makes me weep whenever I read this story. The combination of Harrison’s sharp observational skills as applied to Elaine’s appearance, with the narrator’s accurate observation of Elaine’s character but his fatal unconsciousness of what her “turning away to laugh” will mean for him for his desire for her, are almost unbearable. Truly great writing.

  2. I apologise, I left the “was” out of “she was already turning away” in quoting MJH above.

  3. When I saw this posting, my thoughts mimicked Nathan Ballingruds’, yet it took me a while to get to it. I hope the discussion is not yet dead. I admit I was frustrated at the story’s truncated narrative and reliance on symbols, but reading your thoughts inspired me to give it a closer look. All the references to light (there’s also a lot of water) caught my attention: “glittering fenland light” “pale diffused light on walls” “It’s April, and the light is very strong” “bathe in the same light” “pale light flickers away” “pale aerial light” “we turn into the sun and it blinds us” “setting sun on ice” and one of the most powerful (though Harrison has many), “I see the lips of your cunt silhouetted against the light and the water running off them and back into the bowl. Everything in that moment is held in the light, clarified by it; held in the mirror and intensified by it.” That sentence beautifully shows the connections of Martin’s illusions; his desire that blinds him and the unreality of the mirror world, his fantasy world, the illusion of depth; I see it as the light of truth, though that’s oversimplifying. It’s like the sunlight on the black houses, unable to penetrate within to the “inner landscape”. It’s also telling that Elaine likes structures and sites, similar to the physicality/sensuality of their bodies, but not what’s inside; what’s inside scares her.

    Martin has another fantasy, “so we live in a house with two houses in it…and are thus enabled to bathe in the same light in different ways…every possible image of both of us is printed imperceptibly on the walls of the house. Whatever else happens, those images are always there, fluorescing; densely imbricated yet always divisible; always lisible. What is so bad about that? What is so bad if only the water, or the light itself, comes to read them?” What’s wrong with living a simple life together, he seems to suggest, shared only with one another, building memories, separate yet together, in –(love is never mentioned)? (Yet what does it mean that the water and the light come to read those images?)

    When writing to her about desire sated and renewed, he calls it “a kind of dusty but convoluted interior space,” which is also a perfect description of the black house’s interior space. Perhaps Elaine’s desire is unquenchable because she can’t leave the black house, whether it’s her shadow-self or something more. She’s afraid or unable to face the light. Then after they break up, he paints her front door black as if labeling her is cathartic in some way. But staying in the black house is narcisstic, she’s hiding from herself, the world, from love and the hard, ugly truths of existence.

    And then, thrown in at the end, is the mention that after their first fuck (it is always fucking, never making love), Elaine takes a book from his shelves, “Angel” by Elizabeth Taylor, about a writer of romances; wikipedia summarizes: “Although she finds fame and wealth and marries the love of her life, Angel is condemned to a life of isolation and disappointment: critics regard her work as absurd and her closest relationships — with her publisher, her husband, and her sister-in-law — are doomed by the inability of others to conform to her unrealistic view of life.” Elaine is a black house, perhaps we are all black houses, trying to live vicariously through our shadows, by the light of our own delusions. And that last line tells us that Martin is willing to delude himself in order to be with her; a sacrifice, a surrender, or both, but not love.