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The fiction of Joel Lane – ‘To read Lane is to enter into an unforgettable, beautifully ambiguous landscape’

Joel Lane (1963–2013) was surely one of the UK’s best and most distinctive, not to mention underrated, writers of weird fiction. Now, thanks to Influx Press, two of his short story collections – The Earth Wire and Scar City – are back in print, allowing his singular work to reach a whole new audience.

The Earth Wire was Lane’s debut, first published in 1994. Much like his first novel From Blue to Black (of which more later), it seems preternaturally assured and feels like the work of a much more experienced writer. The hallmarks of his whole body of work are already in place: the cool, measured tone; urban locations, usually in and around Birmingham; political undertones; a sense of loneliness; elements of the weird and supernatural related in a matter-of-fact style.

In a Lane story, the strangeness is often ephemeral, on the margins. When it is explicit, the characters take it in their stride. The realism is so strong, the people so authentic, that it is easy to forget you are reading stories with elements of fantasy and horror. This is certainly true of The Earth Wire’s standout, the virtuosic “The Clearing”. Indeed, with its deserted streets and talk of quarantine, the reader might be forgiven for mistaking it for a commentary on Britain in the time of coronavirus.

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You couldn’t tell, these days, who might be dying. People mostly kept to themselves, locked in with television and a shelf of videos that kept the past alive.

“The clearing” of the title is a project of urban redevelopment that pushes the poor and sick into substandard estates; the premise exists on a knife-edge between dystopia and reality. Like other details from The Earth Wire – Stephen and Rosalind’s economic anxiety in “Common Land”, or the communities described as “reverting to a pre-war state of isolation” in “Albert Ross” – it feels eerily timely. It is a nightmarish vision, both brilliant and terrifying.

Elsewhere, “Wave Scars”, which portrays a mercurial musician and is narrated by a man who is in love with him, seems to prefigure From Blue to Black (2000). Set in the early 1990s, the novel is about two members of a Birmingham indie band who become lovers. It charts the rocky path of their relationship as they navigate burgeoning fame, past trauma, and the challenges of commitment. It is not primarily a horror novel; in fact, it’s doggedly and often miserably realistic. However, it’s no exaggeration to say that the mood of unease the author creates is essential to its effectiveness. The narrator’s occasional encounters with the inexplicable are made all the more chilling by their incidental nature.

From Blue to Black is not alone among the author’s work in taking music as a central theme. And this is fitting, as Lane is a writer who instinctively understands melody and rhythm and how they can translate to the page. For me, one of the great pleasures of his work is how good the writing is at the sentence level. His paragraphs are often miniature lessons in perfect structure and tempo. His descriptions are unique and startlingly evocative, with an uncanny knack for finding the perfect phrase, however odd it might be. A hailstorm is “a sharp percussive frenzy, like a thousand heads vomiting their own teeth”, the sky “the blue of a Romero zombie”. We meet a cat “whose face had the weird stillness of early films”, and a man whose hand “was like a freeze-dried spider”. When Lane describes a “record player pounding out damage and atonement”, I can almost hear the music.

Lane’s second (and last) novel The Blue Mask (2003) – a fragmentary, elusive story about a man recovering from an attack that leaves him with significant facial scars – has much in common with From Blue to Black. Again, while it cannot be categorised as horror, it possesses much of the eeriness and ambiguity of good horror, and it is similarly haunted by shadowy figures who seem to represent the protagonist’s separation not only from the world, but from himself.

The stunning novella The Witnesses Are Gone (2009), however, is certainly a horror novel, and it takes a great trope, that of the ‘lost film’, as its starting point. Moving into a new home, Martin finds a stack of abandoned videos which includes a mesmerising French art film, the work of a director with the dubious moniker Jean Rien. When he becomes obsessed with learning more about the filmmaker, he discovers that any mention of Rien seems to degrade and disappear: disintegrating magazines, dead links. Martin embarks on an increasingly hallucinatory odyssey, resulting in a story that fully embodies its own sense of unreality.

While The Witnesses Are Gone takes Martin all over the world on his search for Rien, it starts, of course, in Birmingham. To be exact, it starts in Tyseley, “a district in transition from industry to retail” with a boarded-up railway station and factories pumping out smoke. Such a location is typical, in both its specificity and its transitional nature. Derelict buildings, dying industry, “broken scaffolding, car bodies, nothing at all”… The reader of a Lane story can never escape the feeling of being located squarely in banal reality. It’s this that makes any intrusion of the supernatural so shockingly effective – because the picture he creates is so palpable, and because we recognise some version of these lonely streets from our real lives.

Scar City was the last collection to be assembled before Lane’s death in 2013, and was published posthumously in 2016. It opens on a decidedly brutal note: “Those Who Remember” is a desolate, violent tale of revenge. Highlights such as “This Night Last Woman” and “Keep the Night” convey a powerful nighttime ambience and an undercurrent of cruelty; when I think of this book, the scenes that spring to mind are wreathed in darkness. There are softer moments to be found in stories like “This Blue Shade”, though the endings are often unforgiving. 

Undeniably, Lane’s work is bleak. But, as Nina Allan points out in her excellent introduction to The Earth Wire, that does not mean it is without hope. Time and time again, what matters in these stories is human connection. Lost people find one another – even if only for a night; friends and lovers help each other weather the storm. “There’s more humanity around than I’ve tended to think,” says David in “And Some Are Missing”. It’s an important message, one that, once again, feels wholly appropriate for our times.

I can only hope that some of Joel Lane’s lesser-known works get their own reissues someday. For now, we have The Earth Wire and Scar City, collections I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in literary horror. To read Lane is to enter into an unforgettable, beautifully ambiguous landscape.

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