I owe a lot to Joel Lane, who supported ST in its early years, and wish I could have known him well. In the meantime this excellent book, with a moving introduction by Nicholas Royle and wonderful cover art by Polly Rose Morris, is a literary memorial service I can attend.
Of the fourteen stories here, three are original to this collection. The rest appeared in anthologies and magazines, with a roll-call of editors such as Andy Cox, Ellen Datlow, Peter Crowther, and D.F. Lewis. Joel Lane's range as a writer was far greater than some of us realised. I certainly associated him, at first, with a particular sub-genre of Brit horror often called 'miserablist'. But in fact, as this book quietly demonstrates, his approach ranged from science fiction horror to the subtleties of modern ghost story. His interests were as broad as his creative imagination was profound.
Thus the first tale, 'Sight Unseen', is a Lovecraftian work with echoes of Stephen King's 'I Am the Doorway', A man learns that his estranged father has died, and tries to make sense of the apparent madness that gripped the man. A journey back to Manchester is also an expedition to the wilder shores of his father's imagination. As in all Lane's work, the visionary and the mundane are combined to powerful but understated effect.
'Crow's Nest' begins with the line 'Christmas was a bastard', a very British sentiment expressed by Kevin, a character who has made some questionable choices. He finds himself alone during the festive season, and a series of strange incidents reveal that his solitude is unlikely to end. The descriptions of battered, noisy, violent urban life are all the more effective for being economical. There's an oddly Dickensian feel to the tale, but not in any Pickwickian sense - buildings glimpsed from a train resemble 'prison hulks', for instance.
If Yuletide in the UK offers a rich seam of strangeness and despair, so too does the British seaside. The seedy Brighton hotel in 'All the Shadows' has featured in many stories, but Lane rings the changes here rather well. Among the few guests is one cursed with the ability to see the deaths of anyone who has stayed in a particular room, slept in a given bed. But others have even worse burdens to bear.
I'm particularly susceptible to spooky stories about books, especially 'lost' works, and 'Midnight Flight' is a great example. An older man becomes increasingly obsessed with finding the eponymous horror collection he read as a boy. Apparent dementia robs him of his mundane memories as he closes in on the book, its horror stories concerning strange nocturnal creatures still vivid in his mind. The most potent image is of an alien, moth-like entity with vast wings...
Memory is also central to the title story, a powerful shorter tale in which Matt notices that more and more features of his world are blotted out with black rectangles. The gradual redaction of reality coincides with the disappearance of Matt's memories. He has got into 'the business of forgetting', but things are going too far.
Like several stories here 'Ashes in the Water' draws on a well-established tradition - supernatural fiction about canals. 'The canal system is a kind of language', says an eccentric narrow-boat dweller. There is a parallel here with 'Three Miles Up' by Elizabeth Jane Howard, but the Grand Union Canal's post-industrial grubbiness offers a very different setting. By the same token, Terry Lamsley fans might recognise some landscapes here, especially in 'The Messenger', set in a polluted industrial Midlands.
'All Dead Years' takes us into another familiar zone of weirdness, London, and more precisely its famous underground rail system. A therapist finds that her patient's phobia about travelling on the Tube may be infectious. The journey that results is a worthy addition to the dark mythology of the capital.
Lane's political concerns pervade his work, albeit subtly. Like many of us he despised Thatcherism (and its bastard offspring, Blairism), which destroyed our brief, imperfect post-WW2 experiment in real meritocracy. But the short-short 'Bitter Angel' is rare in that the theme of a repressive and divided Britain is in the foreground. As order breaks down in a major city troops are sent in to restore order. Thousands die, but this is the story of two lovers and their apparent leap of faith. Does it symbolise hope or despair? Perhaps the question is more important than any answer.
Similar in theme is 'For Crying Out Loud', in which a few random individuals begin hearing things - cries of pain from people unseen. They get together, form a kind of support group, and discuss their experiences, but nothing comes from it. In a sense this is a story in which nothing happens, yet it is pregnant with meaning because it skewers the pernicious effects of political quietism.
Several stories here concern unrequited love, which is apt, as love and death have always been two great and intertwined fictional themes. In 'After the Fire' a young man who is 'friend-zoned' by a female friend resigns himself to never seeing her when Theresa meets the strange, possessive love of her life. who takes her to Eastern Europe, where it seems ancient beliefs and customs are still alive. While not exactly a Hammer production, this story plays intelligently with the Gothic notion of the innocent Brit lured abroad by the exotic stranger.
The final story, 'Some Of Them Fell', would be a good place to start for anyone unfamiliar with Joel Lane's work. It embodies all his virtues. An economical tale of troubled, uncertain relationships, it begins with a typically foolish juvenile experiment in demon-raising. What results is a strange and compelling possession, which must be exorcised. Love and understanding are necessarily limited, Lane suggests, but together they are our best hopes.
There is little sunlight in these stories, but they offer rich and varied forms of darkness illuminated by the author's wit and intelligence. They confirm that all of us who love the short story lost a good friend in Joel Lane.