I’ve discussed this story before, over on the Case Notes blog back in 2009 when it was nominated for a British Fantasy Award, but it needs to be reprised over here at some point for the sake of completeness and as I’m pushed for time right now a quick copy and paste seems in order, with the addition of a snappy end note.
Originally published in Black Static #5 and approximately 2500 words long, “Winter Journey” is typical of Lane’s work, a subtle and concentrated narrative in which every word counts, and with several layers to it, so that on each new reading fresh possibilities occur.
The story is a first person account from a never named narrator, though very early on his credentials as a member of the police force are established. Investigating reports of disturbances on the Fox Hollies estate, the officer traps a feral child. In the most well known of such incidents, the feral child lives in the wild, and is possibly raised by animals, but Lane cleverly reverses this. In common with the foxes that have been forced from their natural habitats by spreading urbanisation, Mark Knowles comes in from the forest to scavenge on the city streets, his plight in some ways a mirror image of that of the homeless and society’s dispossessed, only his ferocity separating him from them.
Taken in to psychiatric care, the boy claims to have been infected by Irena, an East European woman with whom he may or may not have exchanged body fluids, but though others know of her, the officer cannot trace Irena. Instead he is haunted by visions of a fox that leads him a merry dance through the city streets at night. Before any conclusion can be reached, Mark Knowles dies in care and according to the physician ‘It was as if he’d been gnawed to death from the inside’. All that remains is a page of writing produced by the boy in Occupational Therapy, a rambling, disjointed narrative that hints at some terrible journey of exile, and perhaps gives the narrator a glimpse of the future that awaits him, that awaits us all.
Though nothing is pinned down, the text of “Winter Journey” suggests the existence of some kind of fox being, a creature that possesses one person after another, always travelling, its life in constant flux. Central to the story is the narrator’s night time pursuit of a fox through abandoned streets – ‘I had the feeling it was trying to recapitulate a much longer journey within this district, to tell me something’. The creature is obviously in great pain and periodically it stops, each time shedding pieces of its own substance, ‘a fragment of dark, inorganic tissue’. Finally it vanishes altogether, and the next day the narrator discovers that, coincidentally or synchronously if you wish, Mark Knowles has died of ‘severe internal trauma’.
While thoroughly modern, there are echoes in the story of the supernatural literary tradition, hints of were-beasts and the older tales of folklore, and at a stretch one can even find in this story a link with that other great exile from Eastern Europe and plague bearer, Count Dracula, with Mark Knowles as his Renfield. The taste and appearance of blood is frequently referenced – ‘blood on his lips’, ‘a smear of blood on the ground’, ‘mouth full of blood’. It’s highly suggestive, but while he might use some of the tropes Lane is too subtle a writer to give us something as obvious as a vampire, and one senses that his creature is as much, if not more, the victim as those she possesses, the fox is only a symbol or metaphor for some purely human tragedy.
There’s another tip of the hat to the forms and devices of traditional supernatural literature in the story’s conclusion, with the discovery of a document in which Mark Knowles has written of his fate, though he is far from as coherent as, say, Lovecraft’s Robert Blake. Reading it, nothing conclusive is given, and yet there are hints of that ‘much longer journey’ referenced above, the winter journey of the title, and perhaps also a suggestion that the narrator himself is not home and dry. When captured, Mark Knowles spat in his mouth, and since he has reported ‘a persistent metallic taste’ among other symptoms, of which his obsession with the boy is perhaps one, while his pursuit of the fox began with ‘walking, then running, simply to be on the move’.
We’re all in transit and flight, all refugees from some disaster or other in our own lives, searching for a place of sanctuary that probably doesn’t exist except in the myths of our tribe and ‘the happy ever after’ of tales told to children.