Viriconium Nights – M John Harrison (1985)
A series of tales set in Harrison’s wonderful and baroque Viriconium universe.
‘Viriconium Knights’ is not set in the Viriconium that we know from ‘The Pastel City’. The young assassin, Ignace Retz, has an encounter with an old man and a tapestry which reveals disturbing visions of other Viriconiums. Like the novels these stories are packed with inventive and curious imagery and characters. The society is richly imagined, down to the smallest detail, and there are echoes of icons and symbols from elsewhere in the Viriconium canon, such as the old man’s metal eagle, reminiscent of the finely-crafted metal birds of Cellur.
Ignace Retz sees visions of himself in the tapestry, but he is identified in these visions as tegeus-Cromis.
‘Lords of Misrule’ is a short tone-poem of a piece in which tegeus-Cromis (or a version of tegeus-Cromis, since the city here is called Uriconium) visits a strangely-shaped homestead lying in the path of an invasion. An ‘idiot-boy’ keenly displays his Mari, an elaborately decorated horse’s skull with a hinged jaw, mounted on a pole which, again, is used for an undefined ritual purpose, its origins perhaps long forgotten to the Uriconians, but associated – as the title suggests – with ancient British Pagan practices.
The Mari reappears in ‘Strange Great Sins’, a tale told by a ‘sin-eater’, summoned to a house to eat the sins of a dead child (another ritual). He tells the story of his strange half-mad uncle. The sin-eater only begins to know and understand his uncle following his death and the young man’s move to Viriconium to take over his rooms, there discovering his lifelong obsession with a dancer and his secret (again ritualistic) shrine to her.
‘The Dancer From The Dance’ is another tale set in what appears to be an alternate Viriconium. In the novel ‘In Viriconium’ Harrison posits the idea that that the Earth is so old that reality itself has begun to break down. Here, the spaces within the city seem to have become fluid and unmeasurable as Crome discovers when he is forced – by fate, circumstance or design – onto Allman’s Heath with a dancer and a dwarf clown, each of which have their own practised arts of bodily expression. The dancer is Vera Ghillera, with whom the narrator’s uncle fell in love in ‘Strange Great Sins’.
‘The Luck in The Head’ again features the pagan rituals which are a recurring motif throughout the collected Viriconium works. An assassin is recruited by a mysterious woman through a dream of a sacrificial lamb to kill Mama Vooley.
It’s a dark and highly imaginative piece rich with textural detail. It was also converted into a graphic novel in collaboration with Ian Moore.
Characters appear and reappear within these tales, but one is never certain whether they are the same people or their potential selves in another incarnation of the city. This was device pioneered by Moorcock, most notably in his Jerry Cornelius series – to which Harrison contributed – although Harrison has here taken the concept to an extremely sophisticated level.
‘The Lamia and Lord Cromis’ reintroduces tegeus-Cromis, of ‘The Pastel City’ on a seemingly fatal quest to kill the Lamia who is a curse upon his family. Five of his immediate male ancestors have died in the act of killing the Lamia. The Lamia has always returned to be killed by the next in line.
It’s a Spartan and disturbing tale and – like the other stories – not a little weird, but, one is easily seduced by the prose, the obsessive attention to detail and the smothering entropic atmosphere of stagnation and decay.
The last tale ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ is the most enigmatic, being a story set in Manchester of the author’s attempts to find the way into Viriconium. The beauty of it is the captured surreal banality of conversation and characters, oddly echoing the characters of Viriconium, yet firmly rooted in our own society. The signs of burgeoning entropy are all around us, reflected in the redundant and often meaningless exchanges of words between those the narrator overhears.
Viriconium is accessible, he discovers, through reflective surfaces such as windows and mirrors, immediately suggesting that the City is ultimately a reflection of our own society, tied to its empty rituals and loth to embrace change.