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Black Static


Joel Lane's Winter Journey

10th Jul, 2009

Author: Peter Tennant

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Joel Lane won the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction in 2008 with My Stone Desire, which appeared in the very first issue of Black Static. 2009 sees Joel once again in contention, and again with a story from Black Static - Winter Journey, which appeared in #5 (June 2008).

Approximately 2500 words long, Winter Journey is typical of Lane's work, a subtle and concentrated narrative in which every word counts, and with several layers to it, so that on each new reading fresh possibilities occur.

The story is a first person account from a never named narrator, though very early on his credentials as a member of the police force are established. Investigating reports of disturbances on the Fox Hollies estate, the officer traps a feral child. In the most well known of such incidents, the feral child lives in the wild, and is possibly raised by animals, but Lane cleverly reverses this. In common with the foxes that have been forced from their natural habitats by spreading urbanisation, Mark Knowles comes in from the forest to scavenge on the city streets, his plight in some ways a mirror image of that of the homeless and society's dispossessed, only his ferocity separating him from them.

Taken in to psychiatric care, the boy claims to have been infected by Irena, an East European woman with whom he may or may not have exchanged body fluids, but though others know of her, the officer cannot trace Irena. Instead he is haunted by visions of a fox that leads him a merry dance through the city streets at night. Before any conclusion can be reached, Mark Knowles dies in care and according to the physician 'It was as if he'd been gnawed to death from the inside'. All that remains is a page of writing produced by the boy in Occupational Therapy, a rambling, disjointed narrative that hints at some terrible journey of exile, and perhaps gives the narrator a glimpse of the future that awaits him, that awaits us all.

Though nothing is pinned down, the text of Winter Journey suggests the existence of some kind of fox being, a creature that possesses one person after another, always travelling, its life in constant flux. Central to the story is the narrator's night time pursuit of a fox through abandoned streets - 'I had the feeling it was trying to recapitulate a much longer journey within this district, to tell me something'. The creature is obviously in great pain and periodically it stops, each time shedding pieces of its own substance, 'a fragment of dark, inorganic tissue'. Finally it vanishes altogether, and the next day the narrator discovers that, coincidentally or synchronously if you wish, Mark Knowles has died of 'severe internal trauma'.

While thoroughly modern, there are echoes in the story of the supernatural literary tradition, hints of were-beasts and the older tales of folklore, and at a stretch one can even find in this story a link with that other great exile from Eastern Europe and plague bearer, Count Dracula, with Mark Knowles as his Renfield. The taste and appearance of blood is frequently referenced - 'blood on his lips', 'a smear of blood on the ground', 'mouth full of blood'. It's highly suggestive, but while he might use some of the tropes Lane is too subtle a writer to give us something as obvious as a vampire, and one senses that his creature is as much, if not more, the victim as those she possesses, the fox is only a symbol or metaphor for some purely human tragedy.

There's another tip of the hat to the forms and devices of traditional supernatural literature in the story's conclusion, with the discovery of a document in which Mark Knowles has written of his fate, though he is far from as coherent as, say, Lovecraft's Robert Blake. Reading it, nothing conclusive is given, and yet there are hints of that 'much longer journey' referenced above, the winter journey of the title, and perhaps also a suggestion that the narrator himself is not home and dry. When captured, Mark Knowles spat in his mouth, and since he has reported 'a persistent metallic taste' among other symptoms, of which his obsession with the boy is perhaps one, while his pursuit of the fox began with 'walking, then running, simply to be on the move'.

Having exhausted my own attempts to unravel this complex and multi-faceted story, I put some questions to the author:-

PT: Can you tell us a little bit about your inspiration for Winter Journey?

JL: The story is about immigration and the trans-European journeys, driven by fear or hunger, that many people have made in the last decade. It's also about the things people keep hidden from the world and themselves, the way secrets are part of what travels with you. My answer to your fox question below explains how, specifically, the elements of this story came together.

PT: Both Winter Journey and your 2008 BFS Award winning story, My Stone Desire appear to have policemen as protagonists. What is it about using authoritarian figures as POV characters that appeals to you?

JL: Same character - it's a series. It will hopefully be a collection some day. The aim is to combine features of the traditional 'occult detective' story and the modern police procedural. I don't think the narrator is particularly authoritarian: several of the stories make it clear that he regards most crime as representative of the corruption and exploitation that are the norm under capitalism. That's not an original approach to the detective story, of course: it's the underlying principle of Dashiell Hammett's Depression-era novels, as well as a lot of later noir fiction.

PT: Why did you settle on the figure of the fox for your story? Was it suggested by the Fox Hollies location, or did you decide on the location after you had picked the animal?

JL: It was suggested by the location and the local statue - but that connected in my mind with the legend of the Spartan boy who stole a fox and, when questioned by soldiers, kept it hidden under his coat. Suddenly he collapsed and died, and they discovered that the fox had eaten his heart. That always struck me as a powerful image both of secrecy and of human endurance.

PT: Given that the narrator remains in the same place, geographically speaking, how would you characterise the journey aspect of Winter Journey?

JL: It's the fox that makes the journey, carried by various people. But the fox's journey is symbolic of the travelling of immigrants and refugees, and the burdens of secrecy, trauma, memory and danger that they carry.

PT: Aspects of the story reminded me of Carter's retelling of Little Red Riding Hood in The Company of Wolves? Some of the characters in your story most definitely stray from the path and there is the suggestion of a 'beast within'? Do you have any particular interest in fairy tales? Would you list them as an influence?

JL: Folklore, myths and legends were my first and most important literary influence: from the Beowulf story, Norse, Greek and Egyptian myths to the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. I connected very early with the nightmarish power of these myths, and the fact that they conveyed themes it was hard to talk about in any other way - especially if you were a child. I remember reading the Andersen tale 'The Rose-Elf' when I was about seven - that's about a prince who beheads his rival and hides the head in a flowerpot in his bedroom. The rose growing in the flowerpot reveals the secret to a rose-elf, who tells a swarm of bees, which sting the murderer to death. The roots of supernatural horror fiction are in traditional stories of this kind, and the underlying human themes - murder, lust, obsession, guilt, madness - are very near the surface.



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