OR: The Anniversary of Never

A review that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 29th of August last year:-

Ireland’s Swan River Press have an enviable reputation for publishing beautiful books with high production standards and, even though it occurred posthumously, I was extremely happy to see Joel Lane’s work given the Swan River treatment. I can think of few authors as deserving of having their word magic preserved in such lovely volumes or whose tales are so in tune with the publisher’s work ethic and aesthetic sensibility.

Released in 2015, THE ANNIVERSARY OF NEVER (Swan River Press hc, 142pp, £30) contains thirteen stories, all but three of which have been previously published. According to the author, as revealed by his friend Nicholas Royle in a heartfelt introduction to this collection, this 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”.

Opening piece ‘Sight Unseen’ originally appeared in Lovecraft Unbound edited by Ellen Datlow, an anthology I reviewed in Black Static #18 when I had this to say about the story – “‘Sight Unseen’ by Joel Lane has a young man going to deal with the affairs of his estranged and now deceased father, and finding in the man’s personal effects hints of Lovecraftian cosmology. Overshadowing everything here is the sense of urban blight, the sadness and solitude that it evokes, with the real thrust of the story having to do with a son coming to know his father.” On a second reading I’d add that while mental illness appears to be at the story’s heart, at the same time for the protagonist there is also the feeling that life can, at times, become too much to endure, that insanity is a form of internal refuge.

Kevin in ‘Crow’s Nest’ keeps having visions of people from his past, though we are never really sure if these are ghosts or toxic memories given visible form, like the Tibetan tulpas, thought forms. As a result he becomes an exile from his own life, in an unsettling story where different modes of reality seem to be overlapping, impinging on each other. In ‘All the Shadows’ a man has psychic impressions of scenes of death, the story told from the viewpoint of his partner who must confront and deal with behaviour he regards as a form of mental illness. Ultimately though, the story segues into a lamentation for all the things that are lost to the night, with its eerie vision of an afterlife which is simply death in life.

The next story originally appeared in The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies edited by D. F. Lewis, which I reviewed in Black Static #25 and had this to say – “‘Midnight Flight’ by Joel Lane movingly captures the onset of senile dementia and accompanying memory loss, the protagonist forgetting everyday things such as where he lives but obsessing over the eponymous anthology which he read many years ago. His quest for details of the book becomes emblematic of the struggle to retain something of his own identity, a futile journey into darkness.” I’d now add that it’s a story that keeps the reader off balance with continual shifts of emphasis, all of which lead us to the conclusion that reality is far more fragile than we believe and that our obsessions can reinvent the world in which we live.

Co-written with Mat Joiner, ‘Ashes in the Water’ is about a man coming to terms with the impending loss of his lover, with hints of the afterlife present in the everyday reality through which he walks almost aimlessly and with fear of loss paramount. The protagonist of ‘For Their Own Ends’ finds himself at the mercy of a private health system when he falls ill, the story making some telling points, but to me it all felt a little bit too polemical to succeed, a case of the political point scoring overshadowing the fiction (I’ve discussed this story at much greater length elsewhere on this blog – link here for anyone interested). Set against a background of civil unrest, ‘Bitter Angel’ tells of one man’s attempt to rise above the melee with his dead lover. It’s a story that sucks the reader in, especially for the desperate resistance of the main characters, with the irony of the title only coming clear in the magnificent final paragraph.

‘After the Fire’ reads like a variation on the vampire theme, with Gary obsessed by Theresa, a friend who falls under the spell of domineering Mark. With events that unfold over the course of several years, it details a descent into the abyss and the horror of having to be the friend who sits by and watches, but can do little to actually help. The shortest piece in the book, title story ‘The Anniversary of Never’ is a Dickian horror story, its protagonist attempting to excise certain memories but finding that they can’t easily be cut off from the rest and that consequently his world is coming apart around him. It is a powerful portrayal of a form of selective madness, one in which the victim tries to improve his situation only to find that it is constantly getting worse.

Cancer causing chemicals have allegedly saturated the local landscape in ‘The Messenger’, with the story’s protagonist haunted by the death of her mother from a brain tumour, the disappearance of her brother, and a father who is present only in body. With its hints of something terrible lurking back of the everyday, workaday world, this is a tale of ghostly imagery and a woman who is haunted by her own past. In ‘For Crying Out Loud’ the characters can hear strange noises, sounds like cries for help or death knells, but this is eclipsed by social unrest and the attendant death toll. The central conceit is fascinating, a variation of sorts on that in ‘Crow’s Nest’ above, but having set up an atmosphere of spectral dread and anticipation, Lane gives it all a political spin with an observation that sadly undercuts and perhaps even trivialises what has gone before.

The penultimate story originally appeared in The End of the Line: An Anthology of Underground Terror edited by Jonathan Oliver, which I reviewed in here #22 and had this to say – “‘All Dead Years’ by Joel Lane has a psychiatrist treating a patient who is scared of the underground, the reasons for this revolving round an unhappy relationship in her past. Or at least on the surface that appears to be the case, but scratch the surface and Lane gives it a mythic resonance, delighting with its cleverness and the descriptive prose in which so much more is hinted at than is ever revealed.”

Finally we have ‘Some of Them Fell’ in which teenagers involved in a ritual make a horrific discovery, one that haunts their lives subsequently, the story offering us a minutely detailed document on the themes of trauma and how we use each other, for companionship and sex and simply, ultimately, just to get by. It’s a strong end to an excellent assemblage of stories, a liminal collection whose ghost like state almost mimics that of much of the material contained within its pages.

The Swan River edition was limited to 350 copies and is one of the few books on the publisher’s site that appears to be sold out, though you can still pick up copies on Amazon and elsewhere at inflated but not completely crazy prices (your mileage may vary).

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