The Horror of Memory: John Burnside’s Glister

Posted by Timothy C. Baker on April 20, 2015 in Guest Blog, Timothy Baker tagged with , , , ,

In Tentacles Longer Than Night, the recently-released third volume of his Horror of Philosophy series, Eugene Thacker offers a reading of horror novels as philosophy, arguing that ‘Perhaps genres such as the horror genre are interesting not because we can devise ingenious explanatory models for them, but because they cause us to question some of our most basic assumptions about the knowledge-production process itself, or about the hubris of living in the human-centric world in which we currently live’ (p. 11) The furthest extent of these horror texts is the supernatural horror novel centred around negation or unknowing, previously the territory of a religious or mystical tradition. While Thacker concentrates largely on Poe, Lovecraft, and Lautréamont, there may be no better example of such mystical horror than John Burnside’s Glister.


Glister-main-200Glister is, to my mind, the most important Scottish novel of the past decade. It is also one of the most elusive. It combines elements of crime, horror, and gothic; its allusions encompass Romanticism and Modernism, Buddhism and Christianity; its narrative is, at times, almost impossible to fathom. It is set in a place that is clearly Fife, just as clearly Corby, and possibly nowhere at all. It is a book that stalwartly resists explanation, even as it continually demands it. And all of these complications stem from the twin acts of mourning at the novel’s heart: the protagonist’s mourning for his life, and the novelist’s mourning for literature.


The novel opens with Leonard Wilson, its adolescent protagonist, reflecting on his life sometime after his apparent death, in a limbo or afterlife constituted by ‘cold, grey water turning on the shore’, the sound of gulls, and nothing else. When alive, he ‘thought life was one thing and death was something else’, but now he wants to tell his story ‘in full even as I forget it, and so, by telling and forgetting, forgive everyone who figures there, including myself. Because this is where the future begins: in the forgotten, in what is lost’ (p. 1). Leonard’s story becomes a simultaneous act of remembering and forgetting. And what first must be remembered (and forgotten) are the dead. The toxic world of Innertown is defined by its dead, by the teenage boys killed in horrific ways but immediately forgotten, by ghosts and phantoms, by murder and dying animals. John Morrison, the town policeman, is ‘an expert in mourning’, but mourns privately, out of guilt, whereas Leonard can only posit that ‘I suppose it’s good for the dead to be remembered’ (pp. 52, 124). One way of reading the story is as Leonard’s journey to understanding the duty of remembrance, necessitated by his need to remember his own death.


Remembering the living and the dead also entails remembering their thoughts, their beliefs, their creations. Leonard reads, it seems, the entire Western Canon, finding answers in the texts of the past. The novel itself begins with epigraphs from Melville, while its final section is titled ‘The Fire Sermon’, after Eliot’s The Waste Land. The novel is relentlessly allusive. Yet these allusions do not provide clarification, or even resemblance: the world of the novel is almost entirely removed from familiar narratives. Religion offers no greater consolation. As Leonard moves towards his eventual murder, he briefly quotes Julian of Norwich: ‘All will be well and all manner of thing shall be well, I thought […]: words from a book, I knew, but they had been something else once, they had been words that someone had thought, in a moment like this one’ (p. 216). Both Leonard and his killer spend the novel trying to find the sacred in the every day, moving from stasis to a state of constant becoming (perhaps alluding to Deleuze and Guattari, and perhaps not). Yet like fiction, the quest for the sacred cannot explain: the reader is always aware that, though framed in mystical language, the story is still that of a serial killer, that the world, no matter how beautifully written, is still filled with hardship and horror, that the answers to life that are provided, no matter how persuasive, might also be delusions.Books1505JohnBurnside


The horror of Glister is located not in its cruel and violent world, a distorted reflection of our own, nor in the actions of its characters. It is found in its status as exemplar of Todorov’s fantastic: when one cannot choose between the natural and supernatural, Burnside implies, what one is left with is negation, with loss, with an act of remembrance and forgetting that is never finished. Burnside takes the familiar Gothic motif of the fear of texts, of reading, to its limit: the fear is not that texts will change us, but that they won’t; the fear is that all the systems we have made to understand the world – and the novel – are never sufficient. To quote from a very different, but strangely similar, text, Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm: ‘Nothing is going to happen in this book. There is only a little violence here and there in the language, at the corner where eternity clips time’ (p. 24). In Glister the violence in the narrative is nothing compared to the violence in the language. And yet in this duty of mourning, in this world of suffering, Burnside also suggests there might still be grace, in the ceaseless cycle of remembering again and again.




John Burnside, Glister (London: Jonathan Cape, 2008).

Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).

Thacker, Eugene, Tentacles Longer Than Night (Alresford: Zero Books, 2015).


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