Tuesday 28 November 2023

A Tribute to Joel Lane 1963-2013

Guest post by Rachel Verkade

If you dig through the refuse and litter of the old internet, you may come upon the ruins of old message boards. Scattered and context-less, these pages and words drift through the invisible ether of cyberspace, offering little snippets of life in the internet’s heydays.

Among these lost pages is the former message board of prolific, long-lived, and celebrated British author Ramsey Campbell. While perhaps not the most populated corner of the internet, Campbell’s message board became a haven for spec fic readers and writers, young and old, to congregate, share work and plans, discuss stories and novels, and generally make connections regarding the craft. Included in there are some names that dark fiction afficianados will recognise, talking amongst each other and their fans, sharing stories and news, planning meetups. It was a little haven for those who loved and created and consumed weird literature, a dark sanctuary where like-minded people found each other.

Sift through those old pages, and come upon an entry from mid-November 2013. At 7:24 PM, a user posted that Birmingham author Joel Lane had died in his sleep. What followed below was a raw outpouring of grief and shock.

What?! You are sure it is no joke?

This is awful, awful news.

This is a joke, right?

This can’t be true. […] It just can’t be true.

Ah fuck, no.

This is like the most weird experience I’ve ever had. Crying over a man I’ve never met…

Life isn’t fucking fair.

No. […] for me, for now: no.

These are just a few of the responses from people who were acquainted with Joel Lane, whether online or in the British streets and pubs he frequented. It seems that no one here was untouched by this loss. It’s clear that on this day, the British dark fiction community had lost someone remarkable. But despite this, outside of the British spec fic circles you will find few who even know Joel Lane’s name. And this is a tragedy; despite his relatively short life and small body of work (consisting almost entirely of short stories), Joel Lane is held up as one of the finest and most brilliant writers of modern weird fiction. The smoke-stained, fog swirled words of his tales crawl across the page, creeping into the smallest cracks of your vulnerabilities and straight into your heart. They are bleak, these stories, but deeply human, and despite their bleakness a deep core of compassion shines through. Lane’s stories are strange, surreal, sometimes difficult to unpick… but they are gems, every one of them.

This year will mark the tenth anniversary of Joel Lane’s death. To commemorate it, I sat down with two of Lane’s close friends to talk about him, his work, and his life.

Simon Bestwick (right) is a British writer of horror and dark fiction who has published multiple novels and stories since the 1990s. His work has been selected for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year collections multiple times, and he has been four times been nominated for the British Fantasy Award.

Mattie Joiner (below) is a spec fic and poetry author who haunts the streets of Birmingham, Joel Lane’s hometown. Their short fiction has appeared in multiple anthologies and ‘zines including Not One of Us, Lackington’s, Stone Telling, and Strange Horizons. From 2014 to 2018 they co-edited the critically acclaimed poetry ‘zine Liminality.

These two folks were kind enough to spend almost three hours of their Sunday afternoon chatting (and laughing, and rambling) with me and answering all of my questions. Ironically, I got to know both these wonderful people when I published a review of Joel Lane’s last anthology, Scar City. So even in death, Joel continues to bring people together, an irony I think that he would appreciate.

For clarity’s sake, my questions and interjections will be in plain text, Simon Bestwick’s words will be in bold, and Mattie Joiner’s words will be in italics.

RV: How long did you know Joel, and how did you meet?

MJ: I met him in 2003 and I knew him up until his death in 2013. I’d already known Joel’s work from various anthologies, Best ofs, and I’d owned a copy of The Earth Wire, From Blue to Black, since about 2000. I even, I actually… I wrote him a gauche fan letter care of Serpent’s Tail which thankfully never reached him. I found that out later. Then, simply, I just met him at the bus stop in Birmingham. I was coming back from the pub, he was coming back from another pub. I recognised him, we started chatting, swapped numbers, and basically the rest is history. He was just… it was just quite a surprising end to a Friday night.

SB: It was either ‘98 or ‘99, and Joel had read a couple of magazines I’d appeared in, Sackcloth & Ashes and Nasty Piece of Work, and wrote to me. He was putting together what was his first anthology, Beneath the Ground at Alchemy Press, and invited me to contribute. Now, when he wrote to me, he made one terrible mistake. He included his phone number.

So, I was still a fairly lonely young man, single, living with my parents, I didn’t have… I was forming friendships with other writers, and of course those were scattered across the country. So any poor bastard that gave me his phone number could expect me to ring up and bend his ear as if he didn’t have anything better to do. Of course, a lot of the time possibly Joel didn’t have anything better to do, or he was just too polite to pretend otherwise. Because I babbled fairly nonsensically until he was like, “I have to go.”

I rang him back a couple of days later to apologise. And we just… fell into it.

RV: Tell me about your friendship/relationship. What kind of man was he?

SB: We caught up in real life at a couple of writers’ get-togethers, we’d usually chat every week or two. But I think the real turning point in our friendship came in 2004, after the death of his father.

Because the death of his father had a huge, pretty much seismic effect on Joel. I don’t think anything was quite the same for him after that. It was while he was grieving and there was all sorts of chaos surrounding his dad’s death and the court case around it. And I just remember, we’d talked a bit about the court case, and he said, “Oh, there’s a documentary about Gil Scott-Heron over on BBC2. I think we should watch it.” We both put down the phone, watched this documentary, then rang back and talked about that. That’s Joel, to me.

A few months after his father died, he came up and visited me for a weekend, and we shared a bottle of cannabis vodka, and we talked all night about his life, his family.

His parents’ marriage was in a slow and painful decline for years, and they decided to stay together for the children. Which went about as well as you’d expect. And a lot of it was… there was not much overt conflict, it was more a constant state of tension and undeclared war, and almost anything he said or did was being interpreted as siding with this or that parent. He basically said it was hell. If you look at his stories with that knowledge, you can see an awful lot of it. Certainly his view of family life is a very jaundiced one. Not because he was a gay man, he just didn’t see the family unit as anything to aspire to. The idea of meeting a nice boy or a nice girl and settling down with them and living together just wasn’t something that I think he really felt entirely comfortable with.

And it’s really sad because he deserved to be happy, he deserved so much more happiness in life than I think he often got.

There’s a poem of his called “1001 Nights” in which he talks about how his love of fiction began as a way to escape the shouting and banging on walls. The final lines are “And the thousand and first night / Don’t ever ask me that.” And I knew what that must refer to.

I think if you knew him well enough, and he told you stuff like that, then you would see how so much of that is in so many of his stories. How personal a lot of them were. But while he would often expose himself, as it were, in his stories to that extent, he was often quite reserved about it in conversation. I was probably just in the right place in the right time when he told me all of this. And possibly the cannabis vodka. But that led to our relationship becoming a lot deeper. I got to know him so much better.

And in the aftermath of his father’s death we were speaking almost daily, because he was having to be there for everyone else and he needed to have someone to talk to.

MJ: Well, I always thought of him as a very modest guy. I didn’t know until after his death… I knew he’d been at Cambridge, but I didn’t know how successful he was academically. He apparently got straight As before he went there. And it just wouldn’t occur to him to be boastful about his background. He was never like that. He was a tremendously erudite guy, but he never lorded it over you in conversations. He’d always encourage you to bring your own interpretation of a text or music… because we chatted about music a hell of a lot as well. So he’d encourage you to bring your views to the table.

I remember we had a hell of a lot of conversations over pints at certain real ale pubs, and we had a lot of late night talks. We were dating for a short while, mid-naughties, probably about 2003, 2004, I’m hazy on the details. It was only for about three months, and I was going through quite a stressful time with my workplace, and it sort of bled through into the relationship. We just agreed we made better friends, which in hindsight was the best thing we could do. But that time has never gone away from me. I’d never forgot it.

He gave me a lot of copies of his books, and he’d always inscribe something in there. He’d often describe me as a comrade. He’d word it “Fellow comrade in the West Midlands Socialist Republic”, or something. Simon, I bet you have similar messages in your books.

SB: Yes, probably my favourite one… I have to share this. One of the first times he crashed over at mine, we demolished a bottle of Slivovitz, which is an East European plum brandy that can double as fuel in tractors. At about four o’clock in the morning, I was like, “Oh, Joel, would you mind signing my copy of From Blue to Black?” And this is what he wrote:

It says, “To Simon, with inebriated best wishes, Jesus I’m pissed. Respect and best wishes to a serious and profound writer, Joel XX. Jesus, I’m wankered, nevermind.”

And there’s a little drawing of a heart underneath.

RV: I love that.

MJ: Yeah, that’s very typical of him.

SB: He was a very careful writer. He planned all his stories out with quite copious notes beforehand, which is one of the reasons Something Remains happened.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Something Remains is an anthology created to memorialise Joel Lane in which his friends and colleagues wrote stories based around his notes and unused story concepts.

SB: So when he made on of those little notes in your book, he’d want to do something memorable. Even if it was just a little note like that.

MJ: Oh yes, I remember he’d bring copies for me and our mutual friend to the pub. And when he’d sign them, he’d think about it long and hard. He was that sort of person, I think. He’d write some absolute filth in there. Don’t you have the best inscriptions though, Simon?

SB: I think I may have. I think the From Blue to Black one is possibly…

RV: I’d have that framed. That’s wonderful.

MJ: Oh, definitely. I feel like I got the clean ones instead. I’m quite jealous.

SB: As I say, I’ve got them all here. But, you know, he would always find something personal to say that made it far more than just another signed book. It was a gift from somebody who genuinely thought highly of you.

The last time we saw him, we got him one of those little desserts, those little cakes that were shaped like hedgehogs. Joel was very fond of hedgehogs. He felt an affinity, I think mainly because he liked the idea of being able to hibernate through the winter, emerge occasionally to forage for nuts and berries. That was the last time.

Joel Lane with his hedgehog cakes

MJ: I heard the news of his death over Facebook. I can’t remember who broke the news first, and I was just absolutely gutted. I was staying at my boyfriend-at-the-time’s flat, and I was just… I phoned up a mutual friend to let him know. It was very brief, and our mutual friend sounded absolutely gutted too.

SB: I was luckily not on Facebook. My phone started ringing and it was Ramsey Campbell, who I knew a bit, but he’d never actually phoned me before. Straight away, he sounded very different. He was talking very slowly, as if he was in pain, and he said, “I just wanted to make sure you’d heard the sad news about Joel.”

I was kind of like, “… what?” Then my other phone was ringing. It was my then girlfriend, now wife, ringing because she’d just seen it online. So I got a phone from Ramsey, talked to Cate, and then the next thing I knew, the phone was ringing again, and it was Joel’s mother to tell me. And she actually seemed a bit put out that someone had gotten there first. And that… that was awful.

Joel was… because he was so almost pathologically unselfish, he was very vulnerable to people who were pathologically selfish. I can think of a couple of occasions where people took advantage of his good nature. He was very vulnerable to certain kinds of emotional blackmail, even when he could recognise it was being practised. And I think a lot of that came from the example of his mother.

MJ: Yeah, I think if there’s one phrase I’d use to describe Joel, he couldn’t stop caring. He didn’t like to not care about people, even if he knew he was being used. And I’ve often thought it burned him out before his time.

SB: I think so, yeah. I think if he’d just been a little more… not even necessarily selfish, but just had a little more in the way of enlightened self-interest… but of course, if he had, then he probably wouldn’t have been Joel. I did hear somebody say he was too gentle for this world, which is probably true in many ways.

He would criticise me when I wrote characters who were unadulteratedly loathsome and horrible, because I think he never liked the idea that anyone should be portrayed as irredeemably evil. You should never lose sight of their humanity. But I think there probably are people in this world who to all intents and purposes are irredeemable shit. And I think sometimes it can be necessary for your own psychological survival to think of certain people that way, to just be able to cut them off, or do whatever’s necessary not to have them in your life and not be vulnerable to them. And Joel was… I don’t think Joel was capable of that. He was very, very vulnerable in that respect, and he deserved far better. He deserved somebody who would have loved him, cared for him.

I think the happiest I knew him was in a relationship with Christina, a local writer. He identified as bisexual in the later years of his life. He used to joke, “I tend not to go out drinking on my own in the gay scene in Birmingham anymore because… well, you’re aware of the difference between a straight man and a bisexual man.”

I said, “Yes, about five pints, is that right?”

He said, “Yes, well, unfortunately the difference between a bisexual man and a screaming queen is about the same.”

MJ: Yeah, I remember once there was a joke I told him about how I came out. I told him I had a gay, deaf friend at college, and I told that guy I wore bifocals, and then he shagged me. That made Joel cackle. It’s a terrible joke, but he appreciated it.

SB: That is the kind of pun Joel loved. He loved to come up with ones that would take a half an hour for him to build. There’s a story of his which he was very disappointed that nobody got the reference to Oklahoma! in the opening line. It’s about two lovers in a predictably dysfunctional relationship, on a train travelling across Surrey, and the sky resembles a fringe.

RV: Oh, God!

MJ: Oh, God! Oh, God, yeah! I’ve had this theory for years that the horror fiction was just an excuse for him to inflict terrible puns on a wider public.

SB: It could have been. There’s a story he wrote in the 2000s, and the whole thing was based on this joke: this guy catches up with an old friend, and they’re going through this increasingly sinister part of the woods, and the main character says, “Oh, this is scary.”

The other guy, “Oh, shut up, it’s all right for you. I’ve got to come back on my own.”

And you’ve heard this joke before, but this was like a 2000 or so word story that was all constructed so Joel could tell that joke.

RV: What do you guys feel was his masterpiece?

SB: Where Furnaces Burn. Joel shone, I think, greatest of all as a writer of short fiction. He was an undisputed genius at that. He wrote a couple of novels, but they were very much mainstream fiction. I would have dearly loved to have seen him write an actual out-and-out horror novel, or a crime novel.

And I think Where Furnaces Burn is first, on one hand, a collection of some of his finest short stories. It’s also the closest we’ve got to a horror novel from Joel. Because the stories in that all revolve around the same character, this unnamed detective in the West Midlands police. He wrote those stories over quite a few years, and Where Furnaces Burn finally arranged them into sort of chronological order. They don’t tell a single overarching story, but they do follow this guy’s career through the police.

To me, it’s got so much of what made Joel so great. It’s got the West Midlands, Birmingham in particular, as this brooding presence throughout, almost like a character in its own right. It’s got his sly humour, his beautiful skill with language, his deft characterisation, and his ability to just seed something deeply, deeply weird and unsettling into the most ordinary of settings, and to find some profound meaning with it. And it turns all that into, as I say, something that’s almost a novel in its own right.

I mean, everything he wrote is fantastic, but I think this is the thing of his that I would most like to be remembered in the future.

MJ: I found this was one of the toughest questions to answer, and I nearly picked his novella The Witnesses are Gone. But instead, what I’m choosing is an early short story of his. It’s called “The Foggy, Foggy Dew.”

SB: I think that was his first published story.

MJ: Yeah. For Joel, it’s a very enigmatic story. It’s not quite Aickman-esque, but it’s… putting it bluntly, it’s about two young men who were school friends meeting each other in a dead-end job sweeping anonymous Birmingham factories clean of dust. The protagonist goes to see his friend in his childhood home. And it seems to imply that a contact has been made or is being made with the dead. It’s also conflated with visions of the dead being portrayed almost as animate dust. And there are also visions of a nuclear winter the protagonist keeps dreaming about, or seeing when his friend is playing this dust-choked piano in the music room. And one bleeds into the other.

The illustrations in the original chapbook are very evocative. The front cover is an image of the book of a piano keyboard, but the black keys are chimney pots. And you’ve got bleeding fingers trailing blood to form the white keys. It’s just tremendously spooky.

And it leaves things so open. There’s recurring images of chessboards. The mother is endlessly weaving a design you can’t quite make out. And at the very end, the mother is showing the protagonist a black and white checkerboard design, and she said, “Stand back from it, then you’ll see what it is.” It’s implied that this thing is a message. The protagonist claims he can’t see a design in it. Whether or not he’s lying is unimportant. And this woman just says, “Then you’ll be all right. It can’t hurt you.”

And upstairs his friend is just playing at the piano, almost obsessively, no tune coming out. Just endless wisps of dust. They might be the dead. It might just be conventional dust. But they’ve both been overtaken by something. It might be his lost father, playing back into what you said earlier, Simon, about his own family. And this protagonist walks out of the house just wishing it would rain.

It’s tremendously affecting. You can’t say exactly what’s happened in the story, and I think that’s why I love it. I’ve read it time and time again, and it just never quite yields up its mystery or its meaning. Something’s happened, but I’m not sure what, and I think that’s why it’s a haunting in itself just to read it.

SB: I was just looking through my copy, because there was a little passage which really caught me. When his friend’s playing piano and he’s got that whole vision of nuclear war, and also a bit of a chessboard as well. “Kings and knights turned to pawns and were captured. The curled bodies glowed faintly like their own ghosts until the grey covered them over.”

MJ: It just gives me shivers to hear that.

SB: I’d just like to be able to write one line like this. It would be amazing.

MJ: Yes, I know. I could just think, “There, I’ve done it.” I’d be happy. But it wasn’t enough for Joel. He just kept getting more polished and more brilliant. And the story came out in ’86, the same year as the Chernobyl Disaster. I wonder whether that news kind of infected the story. I could be wrong about it, but it’s something I’ve often suspected.

SB: I hadn’t even thought of that. But yeah the timing is… but then if Joel wrote it before the Chernobyl Disaster, we’d be saying “It’s your bloody fault, Lane! You caused Chernobyl!”

RV: And that kind of bleeds into my next question, which is about some of the over-arching themes of Joel’s works.

SB: Wow. There’s a lot of them.

RV: I know that in the review I wrote for his collection Scar City I noted that loneliness seemed to be the antagonist in all the stories.

MJ: Very much so. It’s almost like a negative character in his stories. It’s absence in the shape of a human being. I remember in one of his early stories in The Earth Wire

SB: “Waiting for a Train”, maybe?

MJ: I think so, yeah.

SB: Cause I remember Joel said the story was about loneliness and need. He said that when he was younger, he saw loneliness as an inevitable part of life, and now he sees it as something that can be avoided, but too many people miss the opportunity.

But loneliness… because he wasn’t someone who got into relationships very easily, I think he’d had a lot of casual encounters, but not many actual committed relationships. And I don’t think he found the idea of living with another person an easy concept to get with. He was somebody who didn’t want to be alone, but I think a lot of his experiences of the family unit he’d grown up with made him very, very leery about replicating it. Even in the sort of idea of finding a nice boyfriend and adopting a couple of cats together.

RV: It’s interesting you saying that, Simon, because one of my favourites of his stories was “Birds of Prey.” And that’s very much about the protagonist being stuck in a very toxic relationship with a boyfriend who could not seem to break himself out of this continuous cycle of violence and abuse. And the protagonist just having to watch him destroy himself.

SB: Yeah… as Mattie was saying earlier, Joel could be very vulnerable to being taken advantage of. Even when he recognised that emotional blackmail was being done, he found it very, very hard to say no. So maybe there’s a certain fatalism, or a certain way of looking at relationships, in that you can always see the darker aspects of people, the things where conflicts are gonna be born. And it was hard to imagine that something as simple as human love could bridge those gaps.

MJ: And there’s a hell of a lot more in his work. But it seems like it’s almost always gay men. Not just looking for a quick fuck, but looking for a deeper connection, communication, contacts, and they never quite achieve it, but it’s about the attempts as much as the success.

SB: It’s one of the profound contradictions of Joel, that for someone who was a committed socialist and a confirmed atheist, he had this highly individual personality and worldview. And there is a deep, deep yearning in his fiction for something else. Something numinous.

I remember him saying after his father died that one of the things that haunted him was that he’d never properly said goodbye to him. And he said that even though he’d never believed in an afterlife, he was tempted to go to a spiritualist meeting just to be able to have that kind of peace, even if it was faked. It would at least be some way of doing that.

There was always that yearning for something more that you could never quite define. Which, of course, made the search a very painful one. There is that thing of wanting somewhere to belong, and at the same time being afraid of that and the loss of self that could possibly result. Because a relationship, a marriage… it changes you. I’m a different person now than I was before I met my wife. I’m a better one, in many respects, but there are things I used to enjoy that don’t do anymore. You wouldn’t trade it, but there’s change. And I think especially if you’ve been in bad relationships, it can make you very leery about going into another one. And if you’re someone like Joel, he was hugely vulnerable to that.

MJ: Yeah, he definitely believed in community, or at least reaching forwaard, but there was also a fear of… not friendship, but relationships. There’s that story, “The Pain Barrier,” in The Lost District. It’s another one night stand, but one of the protagonists has scar tissue. He and the other protagonist sleep together, they’re happy, but then the protagonist starts being absorbed through the scar tissue and has to physically pull away from this guy. The symbolism of it just gets me.

SB: There’s an early story of his as well called “And Make Us Whole,” where there’s a guy who’s been split apart into so many different versions of himself. Who is he anymore? He’s like all these multiple selves that have been pulled apart. That also seemed very symbolic.

He also had a real hatred of mimicry.

MJ: There’s a poem he wrote about that very subject, it’s called “Mimesis.”

SB: Yeah, it’s in his first collection. That’s one of the poems that really stood out for me when I first read the collection. It’s about a childhood bully imitating him.

MJ: It’s chilling.

SB: There’s also a line at the end of From Blue to Black on how one of the characters has a hatred of fakes and of mimicry. Joel was very much someone who was trying to take the weird tale and use it to say what he wanted, what he needed to say. I suppose he was looking for answers out of that.

MJ: I don’t think he wanted to say something about the world we’re in. I don’t think he was necessarily proposing solutions in his weird fiction. It was more like saying that we should strive, not give up hope. And bleak as a lot of these stories often are, you always get the feeling that people hold onto their idealism. Even if it’s quite deeply buried. And the important thing for Joel was to hang onto that, no matter how brutal things were.

SB: There’s a story of his called “The Only Game.” And the character’s father in “The Only Game” often talks about his time at the railway union and trying to fight the bosses. And he said that it was a fight you could never win, but that was never a good enough reason to give up. I think that’s quite possibly coming near the core of Joel’s political philosophy.

RV: There’s our lead in, let’s talk politics. Joel was very famously left-wing, socialist, antifa… would you say his politics bled into his work?

SB: No, not at all! *laughing*

MJ: More like was utterly steeped in it. So many of his heroes and heroines are activists. And I think a lot of these experiences where, say, you’ve got some hardline gammon pulling a guard dog out on some luckless activist came from his own experiences.

SB: Oh, yeah. He did a lot of leafletting with the anti-Nazi league, possibly later on with UAF. There was a poem about this, about some guy ripping down one of their pamphlets and saying the firm’s on their way, and Joel was like, shit, we’ve got to get out of here, they’ve been known to use paving slabs.

One of the things we would disagree on is… I have a propensity for using shooty-bang-sticks in my fiction. And Joel was very, very much against the idea of violence ever being a solution. When one of his fellow activists said “We should have guns,” Joel replied that he was completely mad. He said that if you depart from rational and democratic means to achieve your ends, then the ends you achieve will ultimately be neither rational nor democratic. The idea that you can harness the methods of right-wing vigilantism to achieve the goals of social justice is a bit like saying a loving relationship can start with rape.

I don’t necessarily think he was a pacifist, I think if somebody attacked him he was quite capable of hitting back. But in terms of his activism, he was very much of the opinion that you don’t use violence. He took it seriously.

RV: I definitely did get the sense that his stories had a strong anti-capitalist and anti-industrialist bent.

SB: Very much so.

RV: There was one story in particular that I recall about a father searching for his teenage son. And he eventually finds him strapped to the machinery in an underground factory, mindlessly working, but he can’t break him free.

SB: Yes, that was a Hindu protagonist, which was quite unusual for Joel. I’m pretty sure I remember he actually wanted to make that father a practicing but moderate Muslim, but the editors overruled him.

RV: Oh, really? That’s interesting.

SB: This would have been early 2000s, not long after 9-11. There was a lot of paranoia especially around representing Muslim characters. Either you were a terrorist sympathiser or you’re gonna inadvertently caricature Muslims.

RV: That story particularly struck me both because it seemed very anti-capitalist, but also that it was terribly bleak, the ending. When he finally finds his son, strapped to the machine, he stares at him for a moment and says, “Well, what time do you call this, then?”

MJ: It’s such a bitter punchline.

RV: I know! And then just leaves him there! You find your son trapped within the industrial framework of this capitalist regime, but all you can do is leave him.

SB: Caught in the same prison you are. I have a slightly more optimistic example, certainly with more of Joel’s trademark black humour. It’s called “Among the Dead.” One of the characters is working for the union, and he finally realises he’s had enough, and he goes into the bathroom and vomits. All that comes out are coins. He didn’t remember swallowing them. No one ever does. And once he’s vomited them out, he walks out, and he kept on walking out of the building, so at least he’s found some sort of escape.

Those ones were certainly a relief from the otherwise “we’re all fucked” kind of thing, which I don’t think was what Joel wanted to say anyway. I don’t think he wanted to say “we’re all fucked and there’s nothing we can do about it”. We can find meaning if only in trying to resist the awful shittiness of things and trying to do what little good we can.

MJ: Yeah, I don’t think he wanted to be regarded as a miserabilist, but I think he was wary of becoming glib.

SB: Yeah, Joel wasn’t dressing up in any kind of colours. What he wrote came from a very fundamental part of him. It was what he needed to say and how he needed to say it.

There’s a fair bit of politics in The Blue Mask, as well. The characters in that are initially campaigning for the Labour party, but eventually say that now they’re in we can stop pretending to support them, we can stop pretending we think Tony Blair is great, and then when Labour brings in tuition fees, they cut up their membership cards.

I struggled with The Blue Mask a little bit, because there are big passages about politics where it feels like I’m being preached to. But after a second reading you realise how they do fit into the plot. But it’s not an easy or mainstream read by any means.

There was a chapter in From Blue to Black where the character Karl talks about his early sexual experiences with a lover who used to beat him but also fuck him, and it’s just after the 1992 election when the Tories have got back in again, and Karl says, “You wonder why a victim can fall for a bully and go on taking abuse without trying to stop it? I bet those fuckers know the answer.” He was not shy about going there.

MJ: No, he never pulled his punches.

RV: I hear he hated Last House on the Left.

SB: Oh, God, yes. Last House on the Left and Suspiria in particular. He referred to Wes Craven once as the Brian Ferry of horror, which was not a compliment.

I think it was particularly because he loved The Virgin Spring, but he pretty much detested Wes Craven. One of the things that made Joel a very interesting horror writer was he had a very left wing, intellectual perspective on things. He was often at odds with a lot of horror tropes, which made him do interesting things. But it also meant there was a lot of horror he didn’t have much interest in. Once he decided something was crap, he wasn’t interested in being swayed. It was part of what made him who he was.

RV: I’d be quite curious as to what he would make of a lot of the horror coming out in the last five, ten years, the more socially conscious horror like Get Out, or The Babadook, or Barbarian.

SB: I think he’d be very interested in that. He would have seen that as positive development. I would dearly love to hear what he thought of something like Get Out. Though he’d probably also say that The Twilight Zone did something like that 30 years ago. He could be pretty terrible for finding something where the same thing had been done better before, in his view.

RV: Do you think Joel’s experiences as a gay man living under Section 28 influenced his work? Talk about the queer themes he explored.

SB: There is so much humour in The Blue Mask about gay sex. We often talk about how bleak Joel could be, and how he was a poet of the abandoned, the broken, the desolate. It’s easy to overlook how fucking funny he was. He was incredibly funny.

MJ: I don’t think he’d want to be bracketed as just a socialist horror writer or a queer horror writer, but you can’t separate sexuality from his fiction. He’d got ten years on me, so he was growing up as a young man under Section 28, and I’m old enough to remember the horror of that.

SB: I went to an all-boys’ school where the homophobia was intense, and to call somebody gay was one of the worst insults they could throw. There was an incredibly vicious homophobic culture, and boys there who I think were actually gay… I cannot even imagine. I know at least one who attempted suicide, another who would down copious amounts of vodka during his lunch break. It was atrocious. Joel was about ten years ahead of myself and Mattie, so I can imagine…

He was born in ’63, so he would have hit maturity around the beginning of the 80s. So just as AIDs was becoming a thing, and the first wave of gay liberation running aground on the conservatism of the Reagan and Thatcher years. There’s a line in From Blue to Black where the protagonist talks about how he and Karl belonged to that generation who escaped the first wave of the AIDS epidemic. They were just young enough to have hit sexual maturity after it broke. “Like the survivors of a bombing raid.”

MJ: I remember one night, a while after Joel and I had stopped dating, but we were still meeting up a lot of Saturday nights. I was walking up to my boyfriend’s tower block, and somebody tried to do a queer bash. The guy picked up a wooden slat, waved it in my direction. “Oi, queer, oi, four eyes.” A couple of people went past, and he dropped the slat and said, “You’ve been lucky this time.” I was just fucking shaking. It was the closest I’ve come. I’ve seen the odd thing, I’ve been walking hand-in-hand with a guy and people spit on the pavement, but I’ve been lucky. I told Joel about it, and he was very huggy and sympathetic of course, but I was still shaking… it felt like it could have come from one of his stories. You get a lot of homophobic prejudice in his stories. The Blue Mask revolves around an unprovoked attack on a gay man, and the character trying to find his sense of self afterward, to the extent of changing his name, icing out people, and claiming a different identity. It’s quite a terrifying little book, in its way.

SB: Oh, yeah. There’s the whole thing with his boyfriend in that.

MJ: Who’s called Matt. I always had to laugh at that. I think it’s also, a lot of his gay protagonists are pretty spiky, lonely people. Even if they’ve got a boyfriend, happiness is not assured. Although it seems there is a chance of happier future relationships, but we just don’t know.

And I think it’s that just because a character’s gay or bi doesn’t mean he’s free of what we now call toxic masculinity. Look at Karl in From Blue to Black; he’s a complete arsehole. He sleeps around behind his boyfriend’s back, frequently in front of him as well. There’s no attempt to glamourise that. But at the same time, what resonated for me with that book… I think he wasn’t trying to say that bi men are complete sluts, which I was relieved to see. He wasn’t going for an easy, glib characterisation. But then later on, the boyfriend has a brief affair with a female friend, and it’s very sympathetically portrayed. They have this brief, nice, gentle love affair, and it’s a relief for them both after being involved with Karl.

SB: Joel would later define himself as being bi, though he’d had more boyfriends than girlfriends, certainly. But I think the overwhelming majority of his protagonists are queer men, people who had a lot in common with Joel himself. In many ways, his characters are everyman characters. They’re just everyman where the men are like Joel, and not like a lot of people in mainstream society. They’re coming from a very different cultural background, in many respects, despite being born and bred in the UK. He comes from these different marginalized communities, the gay community, the Jewish community, but he’s not wholly part of them. He just can’t subsume himself into that.

RV: Joel used urban Birmingham as a frequent setting for his work. Are you familiar with the area? What do you think inspired him about it?

MJ: I think it’s partially write what you know. But I think he just seriously loved the city. And Birmingham always gets a bad rap from people. We’re all dismissed as thickies, and it’s unlovely, and it’s just brutal, and Brummies don’t help themselves because they’re too self-effacing. You don’t get this problem so much in the black country, where they’re quite proud of their culture. I think Joel wanted to celebrate the city, and all its ugliness and strange beauty.

SB: I think he used his own life and what was around him as the raw material for his stories. I do remember asking him if when he was a kid he used to ask, “Mummy, Daddy, can we go out and look at the urban desolation today?”

*laughter from all*

I think… is it the Wren’s Nest in Birmingham?

MJ: Oh, yes.

SB: One of his favourite places. There’s a lovely photo of him there. One of the very few pictures where he looks genuinely happy. He was not without an appreciation of nature, but you could be forgiven for thinking that his idea of fun was to wander through the desolate, decaying, post-industrial wasteland. “Where are you going on holiday, Joel?” “Oh, I thought Detroit.”

RV: Has Joel’s work influenced your own in any way?

MJ: Oh, for me very definitely. And the shame of it is, he didn’t live to see most of it. It’s one great regret. We managed to do one collaborative story together, “Ashes in the Water,” which got reprinted twice. I was quite proud of that, and I always wished we’d done more together.

A few years ago, there was a tribute anthology called Something Remains, where every story was based on notes he’d left behind for works he’d never started or weren’t finished. And I put together one which actually, weirdly enough, felt very much like a combo of mine and Joel’s styles, and I was very proud of it. Even managed to put in some quite barbed comments that I thought Joel would have appreciated. There was a line from my narrator: “People say of a face that it’s lived in, but somebody has used Mark’s as a squat.” I thought Joel would have loved that.

SB: Oh yeah, that could almost be one of his. I did one called “And Ashes in her Hair.”

MJ: Oh, yes! That was so good.

SB: Oh, thank you! It was based on some of Joel’s notes and some of my grim experiences of working in a corporate culture. And that particular kind of horrendous kind of thing where language is restricted in a way, making it impossible to say anything that the company’s doing wrong. It’s truly horrible. And, of course, Joel knew all about that kind of crap. It was great to be able to pick up some of his notes and work with them.

As an influence, huge. I didn’t realise how incredibly lucky I was that in the last decade of his life, we became very close, and for a long time we would be sending each other our stories, poems, works in progress, stuff like that. Looking back, I was incredibly privileged to be getting my stories beta read by one of the most amazing writers was brilliant. I often feel bad that… I don’t know if I gave as much, anything like the same kind of depth with his stuff. You keep thinking that this is brilliant, it’s a work of genius, and you forget that he was often his own harshest critic.

But in terms of that influence, having had his critical eye, his feedback, having learned his lessons… one of the lessons I learned was to trust the intelligence of your readers. Pay your readers the compliment of assuming they have the brainpower to figure things out, that they don’t need everything spelled out in tiny detail. It helped me to write stuff that was more brief and more allusive, and to have that attention to detail in terms of individual phrasing.

I’m a better person and a better writer for having known him.

MJ: I definitely agree with you. I think part of the reason he was so important to me, as an influence, a friend… sometimes, it sounds a bit shit to say this, a bit naff perhaps, but one thing that was so important to me, was he put the West Midlands into weird fiction. And it gave me the courage to write about the landscapes I knew.

SB: I think my favourite comment of Joel’s on the internet may well be a paraphrase of Lovecraft: “Things have learned to type that ought to scrawl.”

MJ: I’ve not heard that one. That is a good one.

SB: There should be a book of Joel’s one-liners and witticisms collected from online and his published books. There are so many great little examples of his wits, his humour, and with the kind of person he was, they really deserve to be preserved almost as much as his work does. God, I wish we still had him around.

MJ: Oh, I miss him.

SB: The shock of it is that it’s been 10 years since he died. He’d be 60 now.

He came from these very different cultures, the left-wing political culture, the gay culture, the music he loved, his Jewish background, all those different things… but he would never just disappear into any of those. He always felt there was something that set him slightly apart. And that’s part of what made him and his work so individual.

I admit that I was somewhat at a loss of how to conclude this piece. It would be easier, perhaps, had I known Joel Lane personally, but I did not have that privilege. I know him only through his fiction and through speaking to his friends. But the portrait that has been painted for me is of a man who, while faced with the horrors and cruelties and injustices of life, still also saw the beauty in it. A man who also saw the value in warmth, and kindness, and community, who still believed in fighting against the worst life had to offer, even if that fight was futile. What mattered was the fight itself, not the outcome.

He was also a man who did not realise the depth of his own abilities, or the wonder that his work brought to others. Simon and Mattie had this to say:

SB: I always remember saying at the time when he died, that if there was an afterlife, and it had any form of internet access, he would have been absolutely astonished at how much love and admiration there was for him. He was always genuinely shocked when anything like that showed up. He often assumed that nobody had the slightest interest in his work.

In the run-up to the 2013 World Fantasy Convention, Joel was on the shortlist for When Furnaces Burn. It was him and Rob Shearman, and Joel said, “There is no shortlist, only the books that Rob Shearman has allowed to exist.” And he refused to come to the ceremony. Despite the fact that Steve Jones and a couple of others had been hinting that he should come. He said, “Oh, no, I can’t. I’ve got to look after Mum. She’s broken her hip.”

They kept saying, you could just come down for the day, we’ll pay your train fare… and I was kind of like, “Joel, I think you may have won this award.”

And he said, “No, I don’t think so. I don’t.” And of course, he did.

I never got a chance to talk to him about that and say “I told you so.” I left a message or two on his phone. I’d wanted to say to his face and how proud we were, and how happy we were for him. I left the message to say congratulations and send our love. And that was the night he died.

MJ: When we met, I told him how much I loved his work, and he literally said this, this is how modest he was… “I didn’t think anybody had heard of me.”

We have heard of you, Joel. And your work continues to be read, and shared, and evoke terror and sadness and wonder all together. And your friends still miss you.

I’ll end with a final quote from C.S. Lewis, after the death of one of his own dear friends:

“In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald.”

As Mattie shall never again see the part of Simon that Joel brought out, Simon shall never see that part of Mattie. And in that way, the death of one can be, in many ways, a thousand little deaths, a prisming of deaths, especially when the deceased is loved by so many. And it seems to me that in the loss of Joel Lane, we have lost a multitude. Perhaps this is the numinosity that Simon suggested Joel sought.

Wherever Joel is, I hope that he has some sense of that now.

As I gulped bitter coffee and dressed,
it occurred to me that hope did not lie in kings and heroes
but in the hands of ordinary men and women.
The ruined city belonged to all of us,
and so did the struggle to bring it down and build one worthy to be lived in.

-Joel Lane

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