“Dark times lead to powerful writing – just think of what the Depression and the war brought to American horror fiction. But the danger for modern weird fiction is that it struggles to break out of a tiny coterie of Internet-connected fans. The world needs intelligent horror fiction just as it needs socialism, and for the same reasons: the power of truth is the only thing that can give us a future.”
– Joel Lane (via email, 20/04/2009)
[via Gary McMahon’s blog post]
Adapted from Lane’s wikipedia page:
Joel Lane (1963 – 2013) was a British fiction writer, poet, critic, editor, and activist. He published two novels, seven collections of short fiction, and four volumes of poetry. He won the British Fantasy Award twice (for his first collection The Earth Wire in 1994, and his short story “My Stone Desire” in 2008), and the World Fantasy Award in 2013 for his collection Where Furnaces Burn. He lived in Birmingham (UK), and was active in the Tindal Street Fiction Group and the Socialist Party.
Alan Beard’s obituary, with comments from Lane’s friends and associates
Simon Bestwick’s article from thisishorror.uk
Nina Allan’s blog post
Joel Lane’s goodreads page
Joel Lane’s page at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
Joel Lane interviewed @ Swan River Press
Joel Lane interviewed by David McWilliam
The writer S.D. Stewart on Lane’s first collection (most of these observations are just as appropriate for Lane’s later fiction):
To call it ‘horror’, ‘weird’, or ‘urban fantasy’ would be a misnomer, and would likely cause some potential readers to turn away. But you should not turn away, for these stories are worth your time. They are also not always blatantly fantastic or horrific in nature. Most project, at least on the surface, a grimy urban realism based in the English West Midlands—nearly always suffused with a dark, melancholic tone. This atmosphere pervades all of the stories, thus connecting them through a common sensorial experience generated through their reading. In the less obviously unreal examples, below this layer of grime lurks a slight tinge or element of strangeness. Accompanying this is often a current of social consciousness that I find rare in literature of the weird. Lane’s style is self-assured, quietly capable. Even in the descriptions of the frequent messiness permeating his characters’ lives there is clarity and precision. The subtlety of his writing has a lulling effect, and once transfixed by it a reader may miss important keys buried offhandedly in the text.
Lane displays a stylistic kinship with Robert Aickman, yet often taking that writer’s type of trademark ambiguous strangeness to an even higher plateau. I was also reminded of Christopher Priest’s authorial voice, yet Lane is more oriented toward human relationships than Priest, and more successfully probes at their nuances. I found more emotion in Lane’s fiction than in Priest’s, though it is still somewhat muted by his style. … there is never a neat and happy ending, or that it’s all presented so matter-of-factly yet still touched with pathos (as in lines like ‘The opposite of love is indifference’). Though not exclusively so, I have found this kind of restrained emotionality to be common in British writers, and it’s usually a welcome relief to encounter.
A Personal Note:
I found out about Lane’s work less than a year ago, and quickly became a fan. I am also sad that I never got to meet Lane. I’d spent more than a few weeks in depressing Birmingham, Lane’s stomping grounds, and would have loved to hang out with a writer of such dark and powerful fiction, who was obviously very familiar with the local indie rock scene, and a passionate leftist activist.
I took to his writing almost immediately, with its backdrops of garbage-strewn cityscapes, abandoned industrial buildings, bricked-up windows, and dark languid canals. Initially plausible everyday situations are disrupted by random violence, or slip uncontrollably into blurred supernatural nightmares. Lane’s stories remind me a bit of Ramsey Campbell’s post-Lovecraft work from a similar period, but Lane has more empathy with his characters and their challenges. Like with Campbell’s characters, sex (both gay and straight for Lane’s characters) is often on the agenda, and mostly uncomfortable and unsatisfying. Lane effectively evokes decaying urban cityscapes and cold, gray interiors; the writing is always so skillfully executed. His characters stare into the bleakness, with no illusions; however, they soldier on and somehow find ways to stay afloat. This is the kind of weird fiction that I love.
Joel Lane stories available online:
Joel Lane’s 7 Short Story Collections and a Novel
The Earth Wire and Other Stories (1994)
S.D. Stewart: Joel Lane’s first collection of short stories does not read like the work of a beginning writer. Either Lane wrote hundreds of unpublished stories before he wrote these or his gift simply sprang fully formed onto the page.
In his most effective stories, Lane consistently steers clear of horror cliches, and builds disturbing and ambiguous situations (and, sometimes, creatures). His empathy for his characters is always clear; his prose is sharp, poetic, and full of memorable and quotable passages.
Like (say) Brian Evenson, Lane can slip us the essential details in an artful and economical fashion. “The Night Won’t Go” starts:
The first real day of winter was the day he put on the wrong clothes. He’d stood for ten minutes in the shower, trying to wash away his hangover. Going back into the dark bedroom, he’d reached into the chest of drawers on the left-hand side of the bed. Daniel’s clothes were hardly distinguishable from his own; they often swapped T-shirts or sweaters when one of them ran out. Without putting the light on, Peter dressed himself in Daniel’s shirt and trousers. The fabric was briefly as cold as glass. The mirror showed him only a blurred figure, like a shadow.
He didn’t know what he was doing it for. But it couldn’t do any harm. It wasn’t as though the other were dead, or even seriously ill. Most of Daniel’s clothes were at the hospital now. These were probably what he’d wear if he came back to stay for a few days. When he came back. Peter left the flat, unable to face breakfast; he took some coffee in tablet form. Outside, the pavements were smeared with frost, like the residue of a million cars’ exhaust fumes. On the bus, he watched people folding themselves inward, keeping their faces tight against the cold.
“And Some are Missing” feature the indescribable anti-people; encounters with them are always slippery and unsettling.
The first time, it was someone I didn’t know. Inevitably, I’d gone out to use the phone box, around eleven on a Tuesday night. This was a month after I’d moved into the flat in Moseley. I phoned Alan, but I don’t remember what I said; I was very drunk. Coming back, I saw two men on the edge of the car park in front of the tower block I lived in. It looked like a drunk was being mugged. There was one man on the ground: grey-haired, shabby, unconscious. And another man crouching over him: pale, red-mouth, very tense. As I came closer, he seemed to be scratching at the drunk’s face. His hand was like a freeze-dried spider. I could see the knuckles were red from effort. With his other hand, he was tugging at the man’s jacket.
Eventually, Jason’s name was called and he followed a nurse out through the swing doors. I waited, still drunk but sober in whatever part of me reacted to what was happening. Half an hour later he came back, with fourteen stitches in his forehead. It was past four o’clock. Jason lived in Kidderminster with his parents; he’d had to move back there after losing his job. I took him back to my flat, where he slept like a child. In the morning, I woke up and lay there for a while, looking at him. If anything visited him in the night, I didn’t see. He woke up around midday and left soon afterwards, thanking me repeatedly for my help. But somehow, I still felt responsible. Fourteen stitches are not enough.
The collection ends with “In the Brightness of My Day”. The promise of sexual encounters is enticing, but the outcomes are amorphous and disturbing. Interactions between characters can be intimate and even fleetingly beautiful, but an ominous detail will skew everything in a much darker and even dangerous direction.
An hour later, someone bought Moth a drink. He was a nervous man in his mid-thirties, his forehead already on the way towards joining the back of his neck. ‘I’m surprised you’re on your own,’ he said. As he spoke, he held his pint up to his mouth like a faulty microphone. His name was Glen, and he’d come up from Stoke for the weekend. Moth said he was a six-former who lived with his parents. Inwardly, he calculated that there was no point in taking this one back. He was too old for Matt. Moth asked Glen for his impression of Birmingham. ‘Icy,’ was the reply. ‘All except you.’ Moth smiled in his best angel manner. ‘Well, I’ll have to be going soon,’ Glen said.
Moth touched his arm, as though brushing off a loose thread. ‘I know somewhere we could go for a while.’
We’re never sure about Moth and Matt’s motivations, or even their cryptic relationship; it’s often unclear what exactly is happening, other than a situation that we should probably flee from. Later:
In the kitchen, Moth turned Darren around to face him, and kissed him slowly. It was the first serious kiss he had given anyone. They sat at the kitchen table, drank coffee and ate thin biscuits with the image of a coffee pot and cup engraved in them. Then Darren got up to go to the toilet. Moth followed him into the hallway. When Darren came back out of the bathroom, Moth embraced him silently. He let some of his own face tear away, like cobweb, between Darren’s fingers. Then he pushed open the door to the other bedroom, and switched on the light. ‘Meet my other half,’ Moth said, closing the door behind them.
And it continues.
The Lost District (2006)
The first few stories are relatively straightforward: bleak realist vignettes familiar from Lane’s first collection. Then comes “Scratch”, and the language seems to kick up a notch. It opens:
Do you know, I can’t remember the name my mother gave her? All I can remember is my secret name for her, Sara. Without an “h”. It was my sister’s name.
The depressing vérité backdrop lulls us into expecting another outing similar to the earlier stories. But a brief flash of the fantastic careens into a spectacular ending.
The Terrible Changes (2009)
(This is a rare limited edition. Good luck on locating an affordable copy.)
From writer Alan Beard’s goodreads review: A terrific imagination is at work here, with memorable images – in The Hard Copy (again set in Leamington) a gay lover leaves his bloodied impression on (bed)sheets, in ‘Face Down’ a corpse seen in the canal begins to haunt the protagonist until it appears beside him everywhere and the ending, when he tries to turn the body round is deeply disturbing. I like the images that Lane conjures, eg a vibrating phone shivered in my hand like a tiny bird (Alouette); The aeroplane lurched like an ice dancer with food poisoning (City of Love).
Where Furnaces Burn (2012)
This won the 2013 World Fantasy Award for best collection. It has the familiar Joel Lane touches: the clean, matter-of-fact prose; the post-industrial depression of the Midlands; plucky characters trying to get by in challenging circumstances; the promise and often unsatisfactory outcomes of sexual encounters; violent events that may have some supernatural agency. Unlike Lane’s other collections, a single narrator is shared by the brief stories (some early pieces are just 3-4 pages). The narrator is a policeman, shades of X-Files; Fox Mulder is namechecked jokingly. But there are some terrifically unsettling ideas here, and the atmospheric treatments are almost always surprising, with open-ended non-resolutions.
Do Not Pass Go (2013)
A booklet of five very short crime stories, two of which are also available in other collections.
“No More the Blues” packs so much into two pages. An excerpt:
I consider kicking the crap out of Dec, but my good mood and the distant rumble of Nine Below prompt me to help him. I pull out my wallet and look for my last tenner. His pale hand moves so fast I hardly see it, grabbing the leather and yanking it open. Credit cards and train tickets spill onto the concrete floor.
His reflexes are quick, but mine are quicker. I’m not a junkie. Before I really have time to think about it, my penknife is open in my hand and my hand is pressed to his throat. Like a knee-trembler, how quickly you reach the point of no return. I push him back into the cubicle and shut the door, then wash my hands. There’s blood on the floor, but not much. Could be a nosebleed. I wonder what to do.
The Anniversary of Never (2014)
This slim volume is finally back in print. In his introduction, Nicholas Royle quotes a line from email sent by the author to the editor:
The Anniversary of Never is a group of stories concerned with the theme of the afterlife and the idea that we may enter the afterlife before death, or find parts of it in our world.
The collection opens with “Sight Unseen”, which appeared earlier in Ellen Datlow’s Lovecraft Unbound anthology. It’s an affecting tale about the narrator dealing with his father’s death, composted with hints of cosmic horror.
We meet the narrator of “All the Shadows” at the start of a depressing holiday:
The hotel hasn’t changed. Same tired-looking woman behind a reception desk cluttered with paperwork. Same outdated optics behind the bar. Same obscure, faded pattern on the carpet. Same feeling that not only the air but the light has gone stale. I remember Nathan standing there, uttering to me: ‘This is a place where people come to die.’
And here I am again, in the same hotel. Alone. I need to remember what happened, get it clear in my head by setting it down. If I can set it down. Memory is an infection: you can pass it on, but you can’t get rid of it. Still, I need to pass the time somehow. I buy a drink at the bar, a vodka and cranberry juice. That’s what Nathan used to drink. It seems important to remember him somehow. There are five men and two women scattered around the bar, all drinking alone. I don’t feel like breaking the mould, but there are no free tables left. So I take my glass upstairs.
Hints are dropped that this is not just a tale commemorating a doomed affair, but there’s a surprising concluding event and reveal.
“Ashes in the Water” (with Mat Joiner) is the kind of dark, melancholic tale that Lane does so well. The narrator is trying to process the death of his boyfriend, wandering through various barges and boats:
The canal walkway looked colder than it was. Boarded-up factory windows, coils of razor-wire, gaunt bridges, blackened leaves on the path. But the still air was dense with traffic fumes, warm enough to make Josh sweat under his winter coat. After dark, the only light came from the distant streetlamps; it turned the view to a sketch, more remembered than seen. He’d known this stretch of the Grand Union Canal for thirty years; it never seemed to change. Maybe that was why Anthony had come to live here. The pace of abandoned things was better than no peace at all.
The small supernatural intrusions just add to the overall melancholy. What the narrator is seeking is never explicitly stated, and we have another beautiful ending with no answers:
Then he walked on. There was no moon, but the clouds and traffic fumes held the city’s light like a dusty crystal ball. In the distance, he could make out the long black shape of a narrowboat. He hoped it was the right one.
“Bitter Angel” wastes no time, opening:
Hello, Michael. It’s good to see you again. I’ve missed you. Can you hear me? I don’t know if you recognise me, even. It’s Lee. Do you remember? The nurse wouldn’t tell me whether you can understand things. The last time I came here, you were covered in bandages. Now I can see it’s you. But what’s damaged or lost inside, nobody seems to now. I just — I want to tell you that I think I understand what happened to you and Jason. I’ve made sense of it.
So much is packed into its five pages: brief thoughts on politics and social unrest, dealing with the death of loved ones, dreams of flying. Another beautiful, tender, melancholic piece, another lovely and sad ending.
The collection ends with “Some of Them Fell”, another affecting and ambiguous story. We follow the narrator on his meandering and unpredictable path over the years, through teenage misadventures, a queer and sometimes troubled love affair, and brief but disturbing supernatural intrusions. Again, a departure that is tender and relatively unsentimental:
I knew our affair was over, but it didn’t matter. For him, it had only been a means to an end. Maybe that’s true of most people. If you accept that the end is more than the obvious things.
When the bus came, he touched my cheek and said, “Thanks. I couldn’t have done that on my own.” Surprised, and briefly upset, I watched the lights of the bus diminish as it sped downhill and on through the night. If I could, maybe the city would let him go.
Scar City (2015)
Lane’s posthumous collection contains some of his strongest stories.
“In This Blue Shade” opens:
Lee was woken by a voice speaking into his ear. But when he raised his head to look around the dusty, curtained bedroom, the voice had gone. He must have dreamt it. Instead of drawing him deeper into the dream so he could answer, it had woken him up so he couldn’t remember the question. That was people for you.
The subsequent events only seem to have tenuous connections, and Lane again eschews condescending explanations. Our understanding of the narrator evolves significantly in a few pages; a fleeting but oddly tender queer encounter is only part of the complex picture. A few striking images recur in his journey, which ends:
There were no buildings, only trees with the lights beyond them. This must be a park. He could see thin figures like meercats drifting between the trees. Lee recognised their faces, but they didn’t notice him, or they ignored him. The shadows under the trees were blue. As he stumbled onward, a branch lashed out and cut his hand. He passed another tree and felt it slash his cheek. All the trees had razors, he realised. How many more did he have to get past? He suspected he wouldn’t reach the light. But there was only one way to find out.
“Echoland” is a snapshot of ’80s-90s indie rock lives, as the troubled characters search for a supernatural portal into a darkly alluring city. We meet Moth (and Matt; characters who share these names also appeared earlier in “In the Brightness of My Day”):
Moth had fans now, a chosen few. At least half a dozen in the audience, probably all students, wearing the silver on black T-shirt they’d been selling at the last gig. Just before the band started, Diane went out for a breath of fresh air. The Victorian church at the centre of St. Peter’s Square was closed up and unlit; she stood in it doorway, sheltering from the invisible rain.
As usual, the destination never turns out the way it should. Another lovely ending:
Diane walked on towards the tower until a hanging veil blocked her path. Drops of moisture glittered in its woven surface. This was the last proof that human presence survived in Echoland. She touched the fabric. It tore, and some of it came away on her hand. The gap reminded her of the portal by which they’d come here. Staring at the silvery net, she saw movement within it; a silent community of tiny spiders.
“Birds of Prey” is another bleak realist piece about a queer affair in the 80s that spirals into darkness. As in “Echoland” and his first novel, Lane’s sketches of musicians and gigs are realistic and sympathetic. We are not told outright what happened with the protagonist and his sometime lover, but we fear the worst with the ominous hints.
“The Grief of Seagulls” is a tender, elegiac tale of memory and desire; Lane’s restrained approach and avoidance of explanations make it all work. It ends:
I stood up and reached for him, but something was changing. The scars on his chest were denser, and they gave way under my hands. I reached up towards his face and could feel only a web of scars, as if that was all that held him together. Glad that I couldn’t see anything here, I gripped his torn arms and we pressed together against the wall. I felt a cool breath against my lips. And then my hands and my face were crushed against cold, damp brick.
When I walked back along the quay, night had fallen. A frail aurora was glowing above the dark water: a ragged veil of blue and yellow like bruised skin. As I watched, the colours melted into each other and the night. Near the station, I saw the old man sitting asleep on a bench. He looked worn out, as if after a hard day’s work. Then I realised what his work was.
I saw him again — the old man, that is — a few weeks later. By then it was autumn, and a bitter wind was blowing in from the iron sea. He and a younger man were walking towards the harbor. As they passed me, deep in conversation, I avoided catching the old man’s eye. I didn’t want to interrupt his work. Or make him think I was jealous. Or, to be honest, know him.
From Blue to Black (2000)
Lane’s neo-realist first novel takes place in the indie rock scene in the British Midlands. The writing is typical Lane: always thoughtful, cliche-free, and engaging. Lane’s descriptions of grim cityscapes and suburbs always ring true.
As usual, Lane is so good with the details of independent music scenes. The protagonists are (more-or-less) openly queer, a rare thing in the early ’90s indie rock scene. There are lovingly constructed descriptions of songs, recording sessions, gigs, and stressful tours. Readers of (say) Jon Savage’s oral history of Joy Division would find this eerily familiar. It is easy to forget that the band in the novel, Triangle, never existed:
The three of us went out together, in darkness. The audience were hardly visible. Ian beat out the time signature, and we crashed into ‘Third Flight’ as a pale blue spotlight flickered above us like a police car. I’d helped Karl to tighten up all the instrumental arrangements, link them to a hard beat rather than an ocean of ethereal sonic effects. Karl was still jittery, playing too fast in a stop/start manner that turned the song’s feeling of menace into violent panic. Third flight / Coming back for more / Goodnight / Heard you kiss the floor / Blood footprints on the stairs / Blood footprints on the stone. We paused for a count of three, then blasted out a discordant storm. The audience were drenched in cold blue light. I could see the front row moshing viciously, their eyes blank. Karl’s black hair was highlighted with sweat. His voice was nervous, a little higher than usual. It didn’t matter. Triangle were his real voice.
The central relationship between two of the band members, David (the narrator) and Karl, is messy, complex, and packed with gritty and beautiful detail. (And alcohol.) In this scene, David has just walked into a dark recording studio, looking for his boyfriend:
The music pounded and surged around us, an enclosure without walls. I could see a point of red light on the tape deck. The tape reached its conclusion and juddered to a halt, without the slow fade we added later on. Against the level whine of the machine, I heard Karl’s breathing. He was standing by the wall, close to me. ‘Karl,’ I said, ‘It’s me.’ He reached out, drew me to him. Our mouths clasped together like empty hands.
There’s a disastrous and funny band interview with a gay rag, highlighting the complexities involved with being queer in (largely) non-queer music scenes, and making art in forms that do not have large queer audiences. It’s one of the few sections in the novel where Lane really let loose and had a little acerbic fun.
Karl’s downward spiral is not surprising. But the events after are sweet and thoughtful, with cogent commentaries on contemporary politics, changes in LGBTQ socializing, messy, complex interactions and personal relationships, and music (an atonal violinist named Erik Zan! Pansy Division and the new queer rock!) As one of the characters quipped:
There’s no such thing as the whole story.
p.s. Hey. This weekend you have the true pleasure of exploring a post by the superb composer/visual artist Bill Hsu concerning Joel Lane, a sadly late writer of very charismatic, unnerving, and fun (yes, all three) short fiction and one novel. And like so many artists featured on this blog, his work is inexplicably under-known. On a personal note, Joel and I were comrades backing the 90s when our works were lumped together in the ‘transgressive fiction’ heyday, and he was a terrific, intense guy. All of which is to say you have a lot of good up there awaiting your close perusals please do peruse at the very least, and spare some words in your comments for your guest host Mr. Hsu, if you don’t mind. Thanks, all, and really thanks to you, Bill. ** David, Swear to god I’ve never screamed, and I’ve never seen or heard anyone real scream. Whine, gasp, go eek, etc., sure, but scream? Nah. I think screaming is an old wives tale. But I believe you have. I’ve just never been so lucky as to be in your presence when you screamed. I haven’t found a watchable ‘Vivarium’ yet, but my hunt is far from over. ** nb, Hi there. I know, two, how about that? And poor Roger Eno, ha ha. What’s up? ** Sypha, Ah, okay. I was getting kind of Christopher Nolan vibes off your description of the book. On second thought, your bro’s novel sounds more like a pretty fun video game waiting to get made. Do novels ever get made into video games without having been made into a movie first? Huh. So, how does it end? ** Dominik, Hi!!!! Ha ha, yeah, love was just a little stressed out yesterday. And packing. Not the world’s best combination. I think your love might have found the key to releasing my love’s pent up …whatever. Love in the form of your yesterday love’s girlfriend automatically crossing her arms upon hearing her boobs being used as a negotiating tool and giving your love an evil sidelong look to say, in effect, ‘as of now, my boobs are over you’ then casually reaching inside her shirt and withdrawing a little pistol she keeps hidden in her bra and shooting your love and my yesterday love in their heads with great skill, speed, and aplomb, G. ** _Black_Acrylic, You would think I, or at least my writing, would have been impacted by that kidnapping incident, and that’s logical even, so probably, huh. In fact, Gisele is trying right now to arrange to revive ‘The Ventriloquists Convention’. It’s looking good. I hope so too; it’s one of my favorites of our works. I’ll let you know. Thanks, bud. Super great weekend to you! ** David Ehrenstein, I swear to god ‘Antoine Monnier’ is a really terrible piece of shit, but thank you for your rose coloured memories of it. And please don’t let anyone read your copy, thank you, ha ha. Everyone, Mr. Ehrenstein’s FaBlog responds to Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal in this manner. ** Bill, Hi, host with the most. Thank you so much again for the weekend. I’m very grateful, and of course it’s really nice to have Joel’s work placed out in the bright light of whatever amount of day reaches this blog. Yeah, had Brian and Kenji collaborated back in the ‘Taking Tiger Mountain’ era, that really could have been something. Have a fine weekend, B, and thank you so very much again! ** Toniok, Hi, buddy, so good to see you! No, I know about the existence of the ‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’ game, but I’ve never played it. That sounds really good. I’ll hunt. Thanks a lot! I’m good, and I hope you are too, to the max even. ** Brian, Hi Brian. I love video games, and, as I’ve often said, I learned a whole as a writer from playing them, so that’s a recommendation to dip into them right there. I’m actually about to watch a Dreyer film for my Zoom bookclub thing, as it’s the current assignment: ‘Odet’ (1957). I really like all of Bret’s novels, although I think the only lesser one is the most recent, ‘Imperial Bedroom’. It seems a bit rushed or something. I saw ‘Satyricon’ projected the last time I saw it and, oh, man, what a perfect way to see it. It’s so great. And ‘Toby Dammit’ is a blast too. Very, very nice. And of course the Fassbinder. Not bad. Me: ‘Titane’ sometime today. And there’s a Resnais retrospective at the Cinematheque, so that’s likely. And I have two interviews to do. And hopefully friends. I would happily wander into a Demy movie, so I’ll see if I can find its no doubt secret entrance. Your weekend seems pretty covered, so maybe I’ll just wish you get to eat some really fucking amazing and delicious food of your choice in-between your moviegoing stints. Awesome tidings! ** Right. Joel and Bill are up top waiting for you, so head back up there, and I’ll see you on Monday.