The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison (1992): If you’ve read Harrison’s novella “The Great God Pan” in the 1988 horror anthology Prime Evil, then you’ve read a chunk of this novel, though the characters’ names differ. The novel also makes the title of the novel, an homage to the classic Arthur Machen story of the same name, abundantly clear in a way that the novella itself did not.
Machen’s novella, first published in 1890, essentially involves a series of encounters with either Satan himself or with an amoral avatar of the natural world. Opinions differ. I tend to side more with the latter than the former, as Machen’s story seems to me to foreground the possible metaphysical implications of the seemingly Godless natural universe being revealed to scientists in the 19th century. More than any other Machen work, “The Great God Pan” gestures forward towards H.P. Lovecraft’s mathematically malign cosmos.
Harrison’s novel deals with similar cosmic issues, though Harrison has always been one of the most mysterious and difficult to quantify of all writers of horror and dark fantasy. If that’s even what he’s writing. The movement to come up with a new way of categorizing certain stories that led to the concept of the ‘New Weird’ in the early 21st century oriented itself around Harrison and his body of work, at least initially. He is really a one-off: no one writes like him.
In The Course of the Heart, three British university students and a self-styled Gnostic magician conduct some sort of ritual back in the early 1970’s. 20 years later, they’re still dealing with the consequences of that ritual. Strange, seemingly supernatural events plague the three students. The magician himself has plunged further and further into the world of magic, though whether or not magic works remains a question throughout the novel.
Harrison can frustrate people in his short stories with the lack of answers to the questions his stories seem to pose. At the length of a short novel, that mystery grows accordingly. The Course of the Heart isn’t exactly a horror novel — it is, instead, a novel of Something Sublime interacting with the human world, and the multitudinous consequences of that interaction.
I can think of two recent novels — Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter and Joe Hill’s Horns — that seem to me to be much less successful attempts at what Harrison has succeeded in creating here: an existential mystery, a Sublime whodunnit, a Mysterium Tremendum. It might actually be a great novel. It might be an ultimately pompous and non-committal mess (though beautifully written in either case). I’m still digesting it. Or being digested by it. Highly recommended.