Joel Lane

Me with Ramsey Campbell and Joel Lane, photo by Peter Coleborn
Me with Ramsey Campbell and Joel Lane, photo by Peter Coleborn

In 1986 I was desperately trying to find like minds. I wanted more than anything to be a writer but there was nobody at the sixth form college in Warrington where I was studying for ‘A’ levels who was similarly driven. Then I heard from one of the older boys in my form about a writers’ group in town that he sometimes attended. It was hosted one evening a week by a poet called Gary Boswell in a cold, prefabricated unit (now demolished) on Museum Street. I went along and met Gary, and the other members of the group, and continued for a year or so until the group disbanded. On one occasion, Gary invited Rupert Loydell along as a guest speaker. Rupert edited (edits! it is still going) a small press publication called Stride. He brought some free copies for us to take home. Inside these magazines were mentions of other small press markets looking for stories.

All of this is a long-winded way to explain how I first learned about Joel Lane, who died on Tuesday. It was through the small press publications being produced in the middle to late ’80s that first alerted me to a wonderfully dark, perceptive and very British voice. It was also the first voice in fiction that really called to me, as if something stoppered inside had been uncorked. He wrote fearlessly, honestly, with verve and crunch, and narrated urban horror stories about places I recognised. He became a great influence and it was wonderful to finally meet him at the Midland hotel, Birmingham, in 1992 when I attended Fantasycon for the first time.

We became good friends. He visited me when I was living in Morecambe, studying for my MA in 1993. In an age when people were turning more and more to word processors and electric typewriters (one email he wrote to me after sending him a PDF while I was putting together the Gutshot project, for which Joel provided the closing story, reads: There’s no attached PDF on my screen. I have no doubt you sent one but my PC won’t register it. Technology hates me. It’s mutual. I have no solution except smashing my computer, which won’t give me a proof, or burning down the house, which won’t help anyone. If this were the wild west I’d know what to do, but you know what? It isn’t), he was resolutely old school, writing long letters to me in his unusual, almost childish handwriting, very neat (I wonder how many bottles of Tippex he went through), the words transferred so hard to the paper that the back of the page felt like Braille. He would send me mix tapes he’d created (Joel cared very deeply about music and had deep knowledge of and an eclectic taste in it) with titles such as The Miserablist Tape [you ever heard]). Sometimes he would phone me and we’d talk about how we were doing, what we were working on, what we were reading and listening to. Once, in that soft, lightly lisping voice of his he told me he’d been a bit fed up – health issues, problems at work, etc – and then he sighed and said: ‘I’ve been reading a lot of Polish war poetry lately…’

His fiction is sometimes difficult, but in a good way. It often paints a bleak picture, but it is underpinned by love and hope and humour. Joel was a very funny guy. He was also deeply thoughtful and ludicrously intelligent. And he was generous with his time, reading drafts of new stories, offering detailed constructive criticism, encouragement and suggestions. He became greatly animated when I told him I wanted to write about insects for The Unblemished, and rattled off a list of authors I’d do well to read. I hardly ever saw him angry, but he was fiercely against injustice of any kind. He was one of those rare people who are more concerned for those around them than for themselves.

Since getting married and having children, I saw and heard less of him and now, of course, I’m regretting that. At least I got to see him once a year at Fantasycon, and I will always remember him from those times, in his tight-fitting jeans and silk shirts, rubbing at his head as if trying to quell the machinations of his brilliant mind, carrying his plastic carrier bag of books. Hi… how are things with you?

It’s unbearable to come to terms with the knowledge I’ll never see him again, but I’m privileged to have known him. And how lovely that we will always have his many, many outstanding stories to help remind us.

Nothing lasts for ever, and there’s no eternal. Everything falls apart in the end.

Talking about it

‘Writers speak a stench.’ – Franz Kafka

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There comes a time during the creation of a novel when I feel the urge to discuss what the book is about, especially (as is currently the case) if I’m mired in problems surrounding the ending. Though I’d really rather not – I’m uncomfortable about discussing any issues I have with a piece of unfinished writing, because rambling on about something that was meant to be written can make the premise itself sound ugly (but also because I’m not the most articulate speaker on the planet) – I find it can help to unblock the old pipes and render evident a solution that seemed otherwise intractable. I’m not one of those writers who is able to keep everything close to their chest from conception until delivery.

Sometimes the poor soul (or souls… today I explained the plot of my novel to a captive – if not captivated – audience in the shape of my third year creative writing students) don’t need to say a word. The simple act of verbalising the problem I have might be enough to dislodge its solution. Those third year writers (themselves involved in trying to unpick the knotty intricacies of plot holes and narrative logic) were very helpful, and offered numerous suggestions and possibilities, some of which could turn out to be helpful. Although I did hijack their session somewhat, it was a helpful exercise for the students too and it led to a discussion of their plans for the piece of writing they’re expected to submit at the end of the year. A number of interesting offshoots appeared in relation to their own work once they’d opened up about it. It’s a little bit like magic, this conjuring of ideas from the simple act of batting words back and forth.

One word of warning though, especially when talking to non-writers, or family and friends, is that you beg a boundary be drawn before a word is uttered, born of bitter experience. Please, you might ask, please don’t just say: what a shit idea.