September saw the release of Something Remains, an anthology of fiction inspired by and based on the notes and outlines that Joel Lane left behind when he died three years ago at the age of fifty. Over thirty writers contributed – friends, fans and colleagues, including myself, working from a fragment or an outline, or even just a few words.
I’m enormously proud to be a part of this anthology, although I wish it didn’t exist. I’d much rather have Joel still with us, still producing the kind of astonishingly unique weird fiction that made me want to write in the first place.
Writing my story, Charmed Life, was difficult but strangely cathartic. Joel and I had often talked about collaborating, but we never quite found the opportunity to do it. To be honest the notion of writing a story with him was a little intimidating; how do you manage to write with the same level of vision and clarity and honesty as Joel Lane? He wouldn’t have seen it that way, of course. He was too generous a soul for that. So this was the page of notes I chose for my contribution. It was pretty detailed but still vague enough for some interpretation to happen, which was when it felt like a sort of collaboration. It was a melancholy exercise, but I’m pleased with the result.
The following is a short piece I wrote after Joel’s funeral. It was originally intended for another anthology of fiction inspired by Joel, which failed to materialise. Oddly the story I wrote for that – A Very Lonely Revolution – will be published next month in Black Static #55.
I first met Joel in the early 90’s when he was living in Handsworth. When I arrived he was in the kitchen, wearing marigolds, doing the washing up. I’d missed dinner but stayed for the chocolate bunnies (it was the era of Twin Peaks). We didn’t get a chance to speak much that night but eventually he came into Andromeda Bookshop, where I worked, and he offered to read a story I’d written, inspired by the remarkable work being produced back then by Joel, Nick Royle, Chris Kenworthy and others. Those three Barrington books filled with slipstream fiction that opened the door for so many of us. I was grasping at their coat tails.
A week or so later, Joel returned the manuscript to me with annotations in the margins, and a letter filled with encouragement and criticism. He discovered depths to my story that made me feel a lot smarter than I was. It was exactly the kind of support I needed to keep going, keep producing new fiction. I’ve since discovered he did the same for a lot of writers. It was one of his many gifts to us.
Over the subsequent years, we’d meet up with friends and go out to pubs in Earlswood, Acocks Green, Tanworth in Arden; balti houses in Brum, parties in Handsworth Wood. We’d retreat to a corner and discuss the latest REM or Manics album, the newest Buffy episode, or stories we’d been impressed by. Just as often we’d talk about our lives, relationships, work. Joel was a good listener and his advice was considered and astute. You were always fully engaged in a conversation with him. It made you want to try harder. Even when we didn’t see each other, there’d be long letters and postcards, and his very individually doctored Christmas cards. Meanwhile I continued to learn from his fiction: about the craft of writing, about finding your way into a deeper truth about the world, and – in his own words – scaring the shit out of your readers. My friend was almost single-handedly reinventing the weird tale by investing it with a singular sort of anxiety; deeply felt and imbued with a poets eye for isolation and injustice in all its forms.
He gave me some advice around the year 2000 on a story he thought was lacking. I think I was already aware of that, but his thoughts galvanised me into digging deeper. He’d also recently introduced me to the work of Derek Raymond and Cornell Woolrich; it led to me writing my first crime story, which was nominated for the CWA Dagger. More importantly, Joel loved it, and I knew that I’d finally found my ‘voice’. I was delighted to contribute to two of his anthologies – Beneath the Ground and Birmingham Noir – and nervously read beside him at the launches. The chance to contribute to books he edited felt like a chance to repay him in some small way for his years of encouragement.
While we didn’t lose touch entirely in the late 2000’s, we didn’t see each other as regularly. Life got in the way, as it often does. But I continued to read almost every story he put out, and he continued to read mine, and we’d email each other. He’d found a kind of solace in political activism. He told me it helped him make some sense of the madness of the world and the grief and confusion he felt after his father’s death. It wasn’t just those people close to him; he cared deeply about the vulnerable and the disenfranchised. Then he joined Facebook and the last exchange we had was to make plans to meet up for dinner. I was looking forward to asking him about Where Furnaces Burn, which had just won the World Fantasy award, and picking his brain about a novella I’d been writing. To me, the book wasn’t finished until he’d read it.
And then Joel was gone. Chris Monk, the same friend who introduced us twenty years ago broke the news to me over the phone. It didn’t feel real. It still doesn’t. I still find myself trying to find meaning from such an abrupt ending; how such a kind and generous soul could be taken from our lives far too soon. Perhaps there is no meaning to be gleaned. But standing at his funeral and seeing so many people there, many of them with similar stories to mine meant more than anyone could adequately express in words. We were there not because he was one of the finest practitioners of the weird tale, but simply because we loved him: his generosity, his empathy, his integrity, his warmth, his wit, his friendship. If we could all pass on just a little of what he gave us, the world might be the kind of place Joel hoped for.
Something Remains, by Joel Lane and Friends, edited by Peter Coleborn and Pauline E. Dungate and published by Alchemy Press is available from Amazon.
All profits go to Diabetes UK.
Something Remains https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1911034049/ref=cm_sw_r_oth_tai_ocw.xbCN465JF