‘In some places we are all ghosts…’: The Incalling

Hauntology, a much discussed, perhaps abused term; but one whose veracity is demonstrated by the fact that, as is often said of verse, its seems to capture something intuited but hitherto unarticulated. It was already a spectre lurking on the fringes of the consciousness of a demographic, but until its programmatic formulation remained inchoate, a frisson triggered by certain sounds, images, memories that remained tantalizing vague.

In retrospect the particular fascination that M. John Harrison’s short story ‘The Incalling’ had long exerted over me is best understood in hauntological terms. I encountered it as a teenager when multiple copies of  The Savoy Book (as well as the rest of the publishers back catalogue) could be acquired for a few pence in remaindered bookshops. While the majorty of that collection made little impression, I found over the years that I repeated returned to the story, and significantly found that I could never read without preforce imaging its prose in televisual terms, played out on the creaking sets of UK TV drama, in an VTR image distinguished by the curious halos around points of light, the lingering impressions left by moving light sources. Hauntology avant a lettre haunted my reading of this story of haunting.

In keeping with tale in which ambience and milieu will emerge as a protagonists, The Incalling narrative frame is slight. Austin, a London publisher, increasingly concerned about the mental and physical wellbeing of one of authors, Clarke, submits against his better judgement to attend the ‘incalling’ a scenence cum ritual held, memorably, in ‘that warrent of defeated streets which lies between Camden Road and St Pancras’. The address he has been given, leads him to a second hand clothes shop on a largely derelict street, staffed by a sinister boy whose diction and accent are entirely incongruous with his age, dress, and ethnicity, directed to an equally decayed house, where he witnesses the ‘incalling’. This ritual is figured as cheap mummery, tawdry theatre exploiting the sexual and emotional frustration of Clarke, a middle aged man whose minor literary success has trailed into indolent asperity. Alice Sprake, a girl of about 18, shuffles inelegantly around the bare boards of an undecorated room, in a chalk circle inscribed by the sinister boy, where she is soon joined by Clarke. As the incalling approaches what promises to be an apparently libidinal climax, Austin exits.

Sullied by this encounter, Austin resolves to abandon Clarke to his obsessions. But his participation is a compact, and after a scene in which Austin catching a bus at the Victoria Embankment observes Clarke shadowing Alice, both parties moving obident to a motion that issues from neither, he finds himself entangled in their fates. Following the delivery of an illegible manuscript,Austin is forced to visit Clarke in his Tuffnell Park bed-sit. Here he learns that Clarke had a few months to live, and that he believes the Sprakes to be his only chance. Agitated, fearful, and contempous of the superficial concern of his publisher, Clarke becomes hysterical and opening the window of his flat delivers a stream of invective at what is revealed as the ‘Sprake’s son’. Disgusted at the ongoing exploitation of a desperate man, Austin returns to the Sprake’s shop, and in the absence of any adult authority berates the boy. This exchange, the story’s denouement, is chilling. The young boy with malign precocity informs Austin ‘ Your horrified Mr Austin and who can blame you? It was immaterial what Clarke did with his life…Good, its never too late to feel compassion … Later you may discover that your compassion is not so pure…’  and instructs Austin to look out of the window, where he glimpses Alice and Clarke shuffle in their sonambulistic reverie. Enraged at a situation that eludes his comprehension Austin beats the child. The story concludes with a coda, when following Clarke’s expected death, Austin is visited by a dream, which adds a further dimension of ambiguity to Harrison’s shadowy tale.

What eludes this summary is what elevates the Incalling to poistion of a masterpiece of ‘Weird’ fiction, comparble to Blackwood’s ‘The Willows’, namely the role of its milieu, whose presence is so powerful that it assumes the status of a character.

From this perspective the Incalling becomes an allegory on the urban as a sort of gnostic hell, a world of fallen materiality.


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June 2009
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