Joel Lane – In Memory

For those who haven’t heard, writer Joel Lane passed away in his sleep Monday night.

He was fifty years old.

I’m not going to write a tribute. I never met Joel, and didn’t correspond with him very much, so to be penning eulogies would feel presumptuous, false even, when there are so many people who were privileged to call him friend and better placed than I to capture the essence of the man, what made him so special as a human being.

In particular, I recommend Simon Bestwick’s moving tribute over at This Is Horror.

I knew Joel Lane mainly through his fiction, so it seems appropriate to reprise the feature I did on his work in Black Static #13.

I also interviewed him several times – you can read his thoughts on his BFA nominated story ‘Winter Journey’ here and take a gander at some of his ‘preferences’ here.

From Black Static #13:-


Joel Lane is a writer thoroughly steeped in the traditions of supernatural and weird fiction, but also one who uses the tropes of genre not for their own sake, as plot drivers in some clichéd tale of revenge from beyond the grave or similar, but as a lens through which to filter reality, to view the world from an oblique angle, a perspective that, in the best horror genre tradition, shows us things that we would rather not see and which perhaps should not exist at all. To read a story by Lane is to step into a reality where urban blight is a living entity, a vampire that sucks the life blood from society, where the city streets are not so much mean as broken and rundown and abandoned by all except the rats and the few people who have no other choices, where damaged men and women cling to sex because love is only a pipedream and everyone is just trying to get by, to step across the void and make a human connection.

In his introduction to short story collection The Terrible Changes (Ex-Occidente Press hardback, 131pp, $40 ), describing how stories were selected for the volume, Lane writes ‘each story needed to have an internal narrative, not just a plot. It had to communicate something.’

Lane also strikes me as a writer who is acutely aware of the power of language to shape and destroy, and the importance of choosing the right words. And perhaps because of the painstaking work ethic that implies, Lane’s productivity is a far cry from that of his more prolific peers, who are accustomed to producing a book a year with machine like efficiency. A look at the Bibliography below is enough to show that having two books by Joel Lane published within months of each other is a singular occurrence, remarkable enough to rival any of the events that take place in his fiction.

The Witnesses Are Gone (PS Publishing hardback/jacketed hardback, 65pp, £10/£25) is Lane’s first novella, and it’s a form he has taken to with ease, deftly manipulating the building blocks of Lovecraftian horror to construct an edifice which is purely his own, even though it bears the mark of much that has gone before.

Martin Swann moves into a new house where he finds a box of old videocassettes in the garden shed. One of them is a tape of a film by little known French director Jean Rien, which fills Martin with alarm thanks to its disturbing imagery. The tape is stolen before he can watch it again, and all attempts to find out more about Rien and his oeuvre come to nothing. There are critics who claim to know of his work, but on following up Martin finds them wanting, and similarly his efforts to attend a Rien retrospective in Paris, or to visit the Scottish setting of one film, prove futile. All he does with this obsession is drive away his girlfriend and jeopardise his job. One rumour has it that Rien doesn’t really exist, and another tells of some terrible force that obliterates the director’s films to keep their secret truths from mankind. Finally, hearing that the director is shooting a new film in Mexico, Martin sets himself on collision course with what the story holds for him of destiny.

There’s a lot here that seems familiar, as with the rare cultural artefacts that echo forbidden knowledge of the human condition, and incidental stuff such as naming characters after those of fellow writer Des Lewis, hints of how it all ties into some earlier chaotic experience. At times it reminded me very much of Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images, another book in which a rare film is the MacGuffin that drives the plot, taking characters into the occasionally seedy world of cinephiles and obsessive film buffs. There seems to be a certain inevitability about it all, a fact recognised by Martin who, in mimicry of a Lovecraftian protagonist, talks of what is going to take place in the opening paragraph and concludes ‘I think it would just have found another way of happening.’

Martin and girlfriend Judith are young and idealistic, politically motivated individuals, and yet there seems a certain hopelessness to their efforts, a sense in which it is all doomed to come to nothing. Martin recognises this on some level, and possibly that is part of why Rien’s films (rien is French for nothing) both appeal to and yet disturb him so. His quest is that for the grave, the true nothing, and it leads him to the realisation that Rien’s films with their hints of some awful nullity are just too terrible for the human mind, that we have self-censored them out of existence.

The joy here, if that is the word, is in Lane’s prose, which brings to life the atmosphere of doom and gloom that permeates the book, the sense of some inchoate threat to the characters. In quiet, measured phrases he makes everything seem somehow matter of fact, but also imbues each act with the most acute significance. Rien’s world view leaks off the cinema screen and into reality, threatening to infect viewers with an inconsolable despair. The scenes Lane gives us from the films are of vague, shadowy things, seen obliquely, and actions that menace and mock through their sheer senseless, the lack of any clearly defined purpose.

And finally there is the end note of almost triumph, with Martin reborn and realising that all ideologies, even nihilism, are simply constructs of the human mind, no different from the buildings in which we live and the clothes we wear, all other manmade objects. We can choose to believe differently. It’s a conclusion that seems curiously at odds with the general air of gloom and doom that Lane conveys throughout the rest of the narrative, and all the more welcome for that.

The fourteen stories collected in The Terrible Changes span almost twenty five years of Lane’s writing career, with the earliest published in 1985 and the latest from 2008. Certain themes and images recur, such as death by water and masks and dreams, so that while each story can be considered in isolation they have a cumulative effect that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Opening story ‘After the Flood’ sets the tone, with student Matthew returning to Leamington Spa after the town has undergone flooding. His girlfriend Karen is missing and the fear is that she has drowned. Matthew carries on with his life, until he meets new girl Terri, an archivist at the university, who also plays in a Goth band. As their relationship progresses Matthew catches her copying things that Karen said and did, eventually unveiling a grim secret, but one that paradoxically provides Matthew with a form of closure he can accept. All of Lane’s most obvious traits are here, with Leamington described as a seedy, graffiti covered environment, the town’s aspirations in grim contrast to its reality. Matthew is a loner, seeking release through alcohol and loud music, his relationship with Terri doomed from the start, because he attempts to reconfigure it in terms of the past, and one reading of the story might allow that she is simply a construct from his memories. Matthew dreams of figures marching past on a staircase, and the story ends with his own descent of such a staircase, the revelation he finds in the cellar of Terri’s house a subtle shift of perception, so that he is led to reassess Terri’s nature.

Several of the stories have political subtexts, as with ‘Power Cut’ in which the spectre of AIDS flits in and out of the text. Lake, a right wing politician responsible for health service cuts, who prides himself on speaking for the ‘common man’, finds his world closing in until, rejected by everyone, he is left with nowhere to go and must confront his own hypocrisy before completely fading away. The story demonstrates the nullity of the philosophy Lake espouses, packaged for the masses as self-help and standing on your own two feet, but really a form of disconnectedness from common humanity.

There’s a similar feel to the last story in the book, ‘The Sleepers’, in which nature itself seems to revolt against man’s inhumanity. Protagonist Michael joins in the marches protesting the Iraq war, but all in vain. And then the snow starts to fall, bringing with it a terrible omen of the dead children, the victims of a foreign war, and the whole world is stuck in a limbo of white as Michael and everyone else waits for the screaming to begin. There is a polemic side to this story, but no attempt to dress politicising up as fiction. Instead, we get a powerful and epiphanic reminder that what you sow, so will you reap, an image that will resonate and linger in the mind every bit as long as that of hands steeped in blood.

‘All Beauty Sleeps’ is perhaps the most straightforward story here, and is more character study than any of the others. Written in the first person, it tells of a young man growing up with his romantic aspirations shaped by the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. The likes of Berenice and Ligeia are his female desiderata, and he longs to find the perfect woman, one who will die in his arms, but of course reality fails to provide this longed for soul mate. Instead he is led to a confrontation with the shade of Poe, bemoaning what fate has done to him. This is the story where Lane’s sense of humour is most evident, and I suspect he had a lot of fun in gently mocking the Goth sensibility, while fully appreciating its appeal.

Though I shy away from a label like Science Fiction, ‘The Last Cry’ is set in an especially grim future, one where people live inside fenced off safe areas, and to go outside, while not forbidden, is to put yourself at terrible risk. Ian does so, wishing to bury his dead lover in ‘the wild’. While the character achieves a kind of catharsis through doing this, there is no such relief for the reader. A chill, dystopian wind blows through the pages of the story, as Lane paints a picture of a world in which literature has been almost completely forgotten, animals are mostly extinct, toxins are in the air and in the ground, and for human beings tumours are inevitable – ‘However many cures they developed, there were always more cancers.’ The inheritor is not the conqueror worm, but the carrion crow, here transfigured into a winged symbol of death. There is no preaching with this story, to either the converted or those who doubt. Lane focuses on aspects of our world and projects them forward, warning in the starkest terms of what awaits us and may already be unavoidable.

‘Alouette’ is a contemporary piece with a hard edge to it, a story in which the phenomenon of happy slapping (people being beaten and their ordeals recorded on camera phones) and rough justice collide. Ian receives calls on his mobile late at night, videos in which various people are beaten by a gang of youths chanting the words of the song Alouette. Other people are receiving these calls, and the whole of society seems on edge, with the rumour that the government are sending out punishment gangs to crackdown on crime. Certainly the late night streets are clear of drug dealers, prostitutes etc, but the price is too high, as witness the fate of Ian who is so broken by these images he self harms in an attempt to forestall his own beating. It’s a story that has all the sinister trappings of a horror film, with the late night streets and the inexplicable violence, the sense of the character ensnared in a web he cannot escape and which slowly closes in on him, but the subtext hints at our own collusion in the troubles that are visited on us, that we become victims through choice.

Claire, the protagonist of ‘Empty Mouths’, travels restlessly through dreary and rain washed city streets, always seeking something, but like Matthew in ‘After the Flood’ all she finds is alcohol and loud noise, with a side order of meaningless sex. Her flatmate, and former lover, endlessly watches horror movies, scenes of zombie and cannibal mayhem flickering on a screen, and the appetites hinted at there seem to inform the story. Nothing works for Claire, and certainly not her liaison with young Andrew. When she returns to her old lover it is an act of desperation. There is almost a realist feel to this, with Lane doing a passable impression of Birmingham’s answer to Raymond Carver, albeit the story and the lives in it are far bleaker. The weird angle is provided by visions Claire has of a pale, young boy with an open mouth, who when first seen appears to be feeding on the life force of a drunk and dying man. He is seen again, and we get the hint that he may be Claire’s unborn child, the son she never conceived, but that’s only one possibility and perhaps, like some ghost in the machine, he is simply a symbol of ennui, some wasting disease that destroys all hope.

‘Every Form of Refuge’ is the story of a love affair between Kathleen and Matt, as viewed by a third party. As far as that goes, Lane is pitch perfect in portraying the office romance (spoken by somebody who has borne witness to more than a few); all the attempts at interpreting words and gestures, guessing what is really meant; all the folderol of does (s)he love me, does (s)he not. But there is more to Kathleen than meets the eye, hints of something suspicious in her past. As the story unfolds and the narrator moves closer to the truth, what appears is a shifting pattern, one in which identity is negotiable. Like many of Lane’s stories, there is room for interpretation, with a resolution that touches on both mythic archetypes and the writer’s culpability in deciding the fate of his characters, but also the sense that we are who other people want us to be. And, naturally enough, the narrator colludes in this, even as he denies it.

These eight stories plus six more represent a major new collection by one of the most under appreciated talents in the field of weird fiction, a writer whose commitment to his themes and intelligence shine through every line of impeccable prose. This is a book that should appeal to mainstream readers as effortlessly as it does to aficionados of weird fiction, and will be cherished by all who appreciate fine writing and a unique vision.

Before we finish with Joel Lane and The Terrible Changes, a word about the book itself, which is an impressive piece of kit, a sewn hardcover produced in a limited edition of 300, with stunning cover art by Franciszek Starowieyski and frontispiece by Zdzislaw Beksinski. Ex-Occidente Press have done Joel Lane proud with a book that is a thing of beauty in its own right.

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