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Black Static


The Late Review: Scar City

26th Aug, 2019

Author: Peter Tennant

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As publisher David Rix reveals in his introduction to this book, when he passed away in 2013 writer and critic Joel Lane was in the process of releasing a new collection through Eibonvale Press. SCAR CITY (Eibonvale Press hc/pb, 230pp, £22/£8.50) is that collection and it contains twenty two stories, at least twenty of which have been previously published (we're not clear on a couple of them).

After background information by publisher Rix and a foreword by Alexander Zelenyj, we get into things proper, but while 'Those Who Remember' may be first out the starting gate in this collection, it was the last story in the book when it originally appeared in weird west anthology Gutshot edited by Conrad Williams. I reviewed Gutshot back in Black Static #30 and had this to say about the story - "Last but not least, we have 'Those Who Remember' by Joel Lane, a ghost story of sorts, very effective and cleverly pitched, but its inclusion striking a note of arbitrariness, despite the author's claim that it 'attempts to set a Western in the West Midlands'." Writing today I'd add that it's beautifully written, a tale of spectral vengeance, the story mixing up our moral imperatives so that we can't help but feel sympathy for both parties locked into this terrible relationship.

'In This Blue Shade' sees a mob enforcer with even more dubious acts in his past coming undone just as Christmas approaches, the story strong on atmosphere and with effective minatory strokes courtesy of the strange card Lee receives, one that seems to foreshadow the story's denouement. In Black Static #31 I reviewed Where Are We Going? edited by Allen Ashley and had this to say about the next story - "Kathy, the protagonist of Joel Lane's 'A Faraway City' is haunted by the idea that her husband is visiting vice girls from Eastern Europe, eventually taking on the guise of such a woman, the keenly felt story showing how we can become alienated in our own lives, and seek to control the very thing we fear most by embracing it."

 In 'The Willow Pattern' a man is haunted by manifestations of an old lover, his regret over what might have been given a tangible and minatory form. It is a story rich in emotion, with subtle shades of feeling and a quite horrific turn towards the end, though perhaps the most unsettling thing is how matter of fact the narrator feels about it all. The next story originally appeared in Shadows Edge edited by Simon Strantzas, which I reviewed in Black Static #35 when I had this to say - "Joel Lane strikes up the band with 'Echoland' in which two musicians try to find their way back to a place of which they had visions in their youth, using drugs to attain altered states of consciousness, but underlying it all is a feeling that even visions can become tainted with time, so that the land Diane finally enters is just a ruin of her memories, the story putting me in mind of the seekers who often crop up in the work of Clive Barker."

Next story 'This Night Last Woman' originally appeared in mini-collection Do Not Pass Go from Nine Arches Press, which I reviewed in Black Static #26 when I had this to say - "Opening story 'This Night Last Woman' takes the old cliché of a pub pickup with a monstrous payoff and turns it on its head. The first person narrator has his one night stand with oddball Cary, and then a few days later sees her picture on the front of the local paper, the accompanying text revealing that she was a serial killer who preyed on lonely men. Instead of accepting that he got lucky in several senses of the word, he wants to know why he was spared, thinks she might even have liked him. The reality is far different in this sad and bitter story of two lonely people finding their own ways to deal with what ails them. Economically written and finely observed, it addresses the idea of people who give up on life and in doing so prove themselves unworthy even of death."

'Birds of Prey' originally appeared in Murmurations, an anthology of bird stories edited by Nicholas Royle which I reviewed back in Black Static #29 - "Joel Lane's story 'Birds of Prey' features a band of that name, a raptor exhibition in a museum and a predatory motorcycle gang. First person narrator Paul is a young man attending university and discovering his sexuality, finding solace and pleasure in the arms of musician Robert, but the latter has unresolved issues from his past that blight any hope of happiness. Lane is as perceptive as ever, his story taking on themes of prejudice and guilt, isolation and emotional disconnection, and at its heart the idea that, no matter how much we love them, we cannot save another unless they first wish to save themselves." Post a second reading and at risk of over egging the pudding I'd add that the story is imbued with insight into human nature and keen understanding of the ways in which we delude ourselves and each other, while the recurring bird of prey theme adds an almost supernatural angle to the proceedings.

Two people in a relationship and into self harming are drawn to 'The Last Gallery' where their activity is elevated to an art form. Again there is an assured build up, with the reader able to believe totally in these damaged people, and to see how they too are part of the pattern of humanity so that what should be grotesque at the story's end is in fact a note of triumph. A dysfunctional couple are kept together by the children they give birth to in 'Making Babies', the story another one where Lane gives us miserablist relationships with an element of the outré introduced courtesy of the way in which they acquire the children that provide the glue in their relationship, the way in which inner yearnings or resentments are embodied as babies.

Stuck in a strange city at night, Alan has an encounter with a couple whose conduct blurs the lines between sex and violence in 'Keep the Night', the story very reminiscent of Aickman's 'The Swords', with the emphasis on the audience who watch these events, who seem to feed on the hatred and emotional nullity of it all. 'My Voice Is Dead' originally appeared in A Season in Carcosa edited by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., which I reviewed in Black Static #33 when I had this to say - "Joel Lane raises the curtain with 'My Voice is Dead', in which a man riddled with cancer and disillusioned with the Catholic Church connects with a cult worshipping the Yellow King, their version of Carcosa an isolated religious commune. The story hints at far greater terrors than those laid out on the page, with the prevailing mood one of bitterness and regret, anger at betrayal, Lane deftly leading us into an examination of the need for certainty felt by many."

Shortest story in the book, 'A Hairline Crack' has two men, possibly lovers, talking of the nature of reality as displacement activity for the tiredness of their relationship, with a rather naff pun at its heart (and probably the inspiration for the story). It's fun and amusing, but very slight. In 'The Long Shift' a man plots to murder his formermanager who has driven others to suicide, but inside the man's kingdom he encounters something even more horrific. This is one of the less subtle pieces, but strikingly effective, both in the way it portrays the horrors of the workaday world where petty tyrants hold sway and also for the shocking scenes at the end of the story, with the implication that things could be much worse than we imagine and there is little point in asking for something better; even violence is a false end. 'Internal Colonies' gives us a snapshot of the life of a bigot, as seen through the eyes of his younger brother. It's a work of social realism where the attitudes and opinions expressed are more horrific than anything that actually takes place, though I'd still issue a trigger warning for animal lovers.

Janet's memories and interpretation of events in her life have been distorted by a past relationship and its tragic end. The remains of that past are burnt 'Among the Leaves' in a story that moves profoundly with its depiction of our tenuous grip on reality, how events are perceived differently with the passage of time and the lies we tell ourselves to make life bearable. A man whose lover died in an oil rig catastrophe is temporarily reunited with him thanks to the intercession of an old man with special abilities in 'The Grief of Seagulls'. In effect this is a ghost story of sorts, with a keen sensitivity and awareness of how loss can affect us, with a side order of social commentary directed at profit first, people later business concerns.

The past comes back to haunt a former gang member in 'By Night He Could Not See' with old colleagues being murdered and their dead faces painted green and blue. It's a clever story, one with a sure knowledge of human nature and the things we will do out of spite and for revenge, while cleverly treading the line between crime fiction and the supernatural. Co-written with Chris Morgan, 'Feels Like Underground' has illicit lovers at a works conference discover the true nature of the concern they're engaged in. It's a striking story, one that brings to life the thrill and compulsion of sex outside a relationship, but then mixes it up with a whole bunch of weird stuff to chilling effect, with some lovely touches of detail and strong echoes of film Society along the way, plus a subtext that seems to imply the real love under consideration here is for power and all that it entails.

The protagonist of 'Upon a Granite Wind' adds some meaning to his life through dreams of the ruined city, the story one on the ways in which people are able to endure things they would otherwise find intolerable through remoulding reality so that they are the heroes of their own story. In 'Winter Song' (or 'A Long Winter') we see the workings of a manipulative man, one who likes to control the behaviour of others, and not to their best advantage, the story rather like a character based version of Matheson classic 'The Distributor', with a subtext that reveals how lonely the character is, how he is always left feeling let down by what he does. 'Rituals' is another story that first appeared in the mini-collection Do Not Pass Go and reviewing that book I had this to say about it - "In final story 'Rituals' a career criminal discovers his homosexuality after accidentally killing a gay young man, and there is the suggestion that guilt drives him to seek out gay bars and offer himself. Certainly guilt and disgust at his nature leads him to accept the judgement of his criminal peers that he has to die to atone for his 'sins', the story touching on self-loathing and an inward turned homophobia, as the character's realisation of his true feelings seems to undermine his conception of self."

Finally there is 'Behind the Curtain' in which a man seeks out a vampire for the sexual thrill of giving blood, the story beautifully written and giving the genre archetype a thorough makeover, the tale a black and bitter comedy, pushing a subtext in which humans have made a world unfit for vampires, unfit for everyone including themselves, inflicting more death and suffering than the undead ever could. By way of a bonus we have an insightful and articulate essay on the author's work from Nina Allan, 'Socialism or Barbarism: Joel Lane's Blue Trilogy and the Poetry of the Lost' (later published in This Spectacular Darkness - see previous blog entry).

This book is a reminder of how much the horror genre lost when Joel Lane passed away, but at the same time a celebration of his life and work. Flesh withers and dies, but the words and the memories remain.



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