Thursday, 28 November 2013

Joel Lane

On Tuesday night, after I finally got our baby to bed, I returned to the living room to find the TV off and my partner, Sophie, telling me that she thought I should sit down. All kinds of things run through your mind at that point, but I certainly didn't expect her to quietly say: "Joel Lane has died".

Joel was a writer I had known through his work from 1994 onwards and had met and spoken to on several occasions from 2003 onwards. It's hard to understand how such an overwhelming sensation of loss and grief can come from the death of someone that I could hardly claim to 'know' in the 'friend' sense of the word, until I realised that his impact was far greater than a simple friendship might have been. Because I also knew him through his work, through the intensely brilliant and often very personal short stories that were charged with the inner visions that defined him, and through the respect that I had for him due to the honesty and integrity with which he wrote and conducted himself.

My first published story, "Pussycat", in the 1994 Barrington Books anthology, "The Science of Sadness" edited by Chris Kenworthy had introduced to me a group of like-minded individuals that I hadn't even known were in existence at that time. These included Nicholas Royle, Conrad Williams, Tim Nickels, Brian Howell, and Joel Lane. His story "Like Shattered Stone" in that anthology is one that I've never forgotten. And in the anthology as a whole, I think it's not too extreme (or even ridiculous) to suggest that I had found family. Whilst I didn't attend conventions until I began publishing as Elastic Press in 2003, between 1994 and that date I had read the work of these independent press writers avidly and felt that the cohesiveness of their body of work (both collectively and individually) expressed my own feelings and desires, and in turn, impacted on my own writing.

I met Joel at FantasyCon 2003 where I had an Elastic Press dealer's table for the first time. A somewhat reticent man in black shirt, blue jeans, and carrying a carrier bag of books examined all I was selling and then bought the lot. I remember glancing at the name badge and realising it was Joel and then having a bit of a fanboy moment and gushing something along the lines of "You're Joel Lane!" It's rare that I get such a feeling of inexpressible admiration - and I've subsequently met a lot of people who I admire and respect, in both literature and music - but thinking back to that first meeting today it indicates how enamoured I was of his work.

I was lucky enough to publish Joel's short fiction twice with Elastic Press (in anthologies both edited by Allen Ashley), and also very happy that he agreed to write an introduction to my story collection, "Beyond Each Blue Horizon", back in 2005. Within the introduction was a line I re-read yesterday that seemed to summarise his own fiction:

Writers of the past were able to construct dystopias; writers of the present have to negotiate them.

Joel was a writer who was very socially aware of the power fiction had to both reflect and comment on the times. Perhaps more than that - he felt it imperative that it commented on injustice wherever it occurred. His work co-editing the anthology, "Never Again", is an obvious illustration of this, and the fact that he was editing an anthology of austerity-themed stories before his death is another reflection.

He emailed me asking if I could write a story for the latter book in September this year. Whilst I did so, and he acknowledged receipt, I guess I will never know if he read my hopeful contribution. I very much wanted to get into the book because it mattered to me that Joel would get my story. Joel was someone whose opinion I wanted as a writer. He was part of the family.

Joel had mentioned in his email that he had been diagnosed with a sleep problem and was taking medication which unfortunately meant he was sleepwalking and having fits and problems with concentration. That email on the 9th October was to be my last communication with him - I mentioned I hoped to see him at World Fantasy in Brighton in November but unfortunately his mother was ill and he couldn't attend (I think he would have been staggered at the whoops which resulted when it was announced his collection, "Where Furnaces Burn", had justly won a World Fantasy award). He also mentioned he hoped to write a story for the punk anthology I am editing, based on Joy Division, epilepsy, and their song "She's Lost Control". It would have been stunning, I'm sure of it.

However, I am glad I made the effort to attend the launch of the Eibonvale Press anthology, "Rustblind and Silverbright" in London in August, as it was the last time I would see Joel. Even if I can't recall the details of our conversation - it was just good to see Joel again. As it was always good to see Joel. And Joel's support, mutual respect, and enthusiasm for the genre was ever present.

Despite those early days of that Barrington anthology which lauded Slipstream as the new genre, Joel always considered it was horror that he wrote. Even when his story, "Alouette", was published in "Subtle Edens" (Elastic Press's swansong publication dedicated to slipstream) he knew it was really horror. We had these discussions from time to time, always with wit at the heart. In my copy of his Nightjar Press chapbook, "The Black Country", he inscribed it with: "To Andrew - Maybe horror is the new slipstream! - Joel x".

I think it's clear to say that Joel was a respected and much loved member of the genre community. The outpouring of shock and grief on facebook, discussion boards, and emails since his death is tantamount to that. I wish I knew him more than I did, I regret that I won't get the chance to do so. I wish there were more conversations and more stories to read. I wish Joel were here.

Writing is such a solitary profession - and within it Joel seemed more solitary than others - but as mentioned above I have certainly found it to be family. In Graham Joyce's acceptance speech for his British Fantasy Award for best novel this year he touched on it beautifully, and this is the same message which has been repeated in all the discussions since Joel's death. I would go further to state that it's actually more important than family - my own family will never know me to the depth that those writers do who have read my work. Our community is a family that knows us intimately and accepts us for what we are, through our work which reflects, illuminates, and lays bare our inner selves. That's why it hurts so much when one of us passes. And Joel reflected, illuminated, and laid bare vividly, with great compassion, incisiveness, and - in conversation - humour. This is why he will be missed. Although acknowledging this doesn't stop the tears from flowing.

Joel at the Subtle Edens launch, London, 2008

Monday, 25 November 2013


"Kodokushi" is a story I've recently had published in the new PostScripts anthology, "Memoryville Blues", from PS Publishing, which also contains fiction by John Grant, Lavie Tidhar, Alistair Reynolds and Ramsey Campbell amongst many others. As has become common in this blog, I'm going to post about how the story came about for those who might be interested in the 'where do writers get their ideas from' thing. Naturally, this post might contain spoilers for those who haven't read the story.

Memory is a strange thing. I wrote this tale back in October 2010 and it was accepted for publication three days later. I think it was last year or the beginning of this year that the signing sheets came around for it together with a request to write an intro to the story. Foolishly, I didn't re-read it, and over time I came to mis-believe that 'kodokushi' is the name of the place my character visits in the story, hence the confusing intro for those who have the book. On re-reading, however, I realised 'kodokushi' actually refers to 'a lonely death'.

I've been writing a series of Japanese-themed stories, touching on the quaint absurdities that the country seems prevalent to. In this case, 'a lonely death', relates to those who have died but have remained unburied for long periods of time. Often because they have no relatives. But also as I was researching this story I became aware of a newspaper article about relatives who hid the death of their relatives in order that they could continue claiming benefit for them. In my story, an estranged family member returns home to discover her father died three years previously and his body has yet to be buried. The story takes on a slight fantastical feel when she then visits Ryōan-ji (the false 'Kodokushi' of my memory) where fifteen boulders have been placed in such a way that only fourteen can be seen simultaneously (unless from the air). It is traditionally said that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the fifteenth boulder. My elegiac ending fuses the experience in discovering her father with the trip to the zen garden. It's an ending prone to interpretation and - I think - almost too subtle unless the story is re-read and possibly re-read again. I do like to make the reader do some work! On re-reading, however, this story has become a favourite of mine. As with much of my work, fusing two seemingly separate story strands creates (or uncovers) something greater than both of them. It will be interesting to see how this story fares in review.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Autumn Horror In The East 2

Following the recent World Fantasy Convention where 1500 attendees descended on Brighton for their annual literary and social fix we attended a scaled down version of the same thing at Lowestoft this weekend, the second year of Autumn Horror In The East. Not dissimilar to WFC in many ways, this also saw the general public outnumbered by the writers and whilst it would be unfair to extend the comparison too far it was interesting to have sold more items at the quieter event than we did at the larger event (although the fact we were manning a table here of mixed goods including Sophie's home made jewellery made a difference as well).

Lowestoft is a perfect location for a horror convention as even in the best of lights it seems apocalyptic, both architecturally and in the form of the general populace, but the location of the venue was a little out of the way to attract the casual attendee (even a free event has to be obvious). Even so, the authors who were there (Adam Millard, Darren Barker, Adam Baker, Joseph Freeman, Nat Robinson, Paul S Huggins and David Moody amongst others) were ready to entertain the attendees on the various panels, and in the afternoon a special screening of the 1992 BBC programme Ghostwatch was scheduled with a Q&A afterwards with Ghostwatch 'biographer' Rich Hawkins and the director, Lesley Manning - quite a coup!

Like all of these events, it's just good to mix with people who are on the same wavelength as yourself even if I am at the lesser end of the horror spectrum. I had an interesting chat with Joseph Freeman in particular about the changes in publishing over the years (we reminisced about Nasty Piece of Work magazine in particular), and David Moody as usual had several insights in how he works the industry rather than the other way around. The panel I was on with Adam, Joseph and David discussed this in detail.

The Ghostwatch screening was good to watch. I remember it vaguely when it was broadcast and seeing it 21 years later some of the cracks are evident, some of the acting a little too obvious, but the overall effect is one inspired piece of television with the repeated setting up and demolishing of viewer expectations a fascinating examination of how we interact with television, and the breaking of the bond of trust between viewer and presenter. My favourite moment in the programme is where we realise the 'live' camera view of the haunted house is actually a moment from earlier and therefore there is no live feed into the house and what might actually be happening is unknown. Unfortunately we had to leave part way through the Q&A session due to childcare issues, but on the face of it - despite the low attendance - the event was a success for those who were there, and hopefully the organisers can build on this at a proposed new venue next year.

I, for one, will be returning.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

World Fantasy Convention 2013

Last weekend saw the annual World Fantasy Convention arrive in Brighton, only the third time in its history that it's been held outside of North America. I usually spend this time of year at FantasyCon (the British Fantasy Society's convention), but as it was shelved this year due to World Fantasy it was a no brainer to attend. It's always encouraging to spend a weekend with like-minded literary folks - many of whom are great friends and acquaintances - and to re-charge and reaffirm the creative impulse.

Whilst the convention began on the Thursday afternoon we weren't due to arrive until the following day, however our convention did begin on Thursday in some respects. I had the day off work so we were able to drop my eldest child at one set of grandparents that morning and then handed off our youngest at a halfway point at Peterborough with her grandmother who lives in Leicester by lunchtime. Returning to Norwich we had time to do a little packing before heading out to watch F W Murnau's "Nosferatu" at Cinema City. It was great to see it on the big screen - despite the irritating and inappropriate giggling of some audience members - and whilst the score wasn't as good as a version I saw on Channel 4 many moons ago, it was interesting to hear a different musical background. Because it was Hallowe'en and we were feeling particularly mischievous, we dusted off the penguin mask I use to promote Ponthe Oldenguine, and Sophie wore it into the cinema whilst I donned it on the way out. No one batted an eyelid.

Onto the convention proper. The drive to Brighton was uneventful and we arrived around 11:30 at our hotel (The Black Lion, at a third of the convention hotel price!) just north of Brighton at Patcham. A quick bus ride and a blustery walk along the seafront saw us reach the Hilton Metropole where the convention was being held. The estimated audience over the weekend was 1500 and it was indeed packed. We signed in, collected our free books, and headed off to my spiritual home in the dealer's room where we met up with Roy Gray of TTA Press and had a little bit of table space to sell Fur-Lined Ghettos. We wandered around the room, chatting to David Rix of Eibonvale, Quentin S Crisp of Chomu, Ian Whates at NewCon Press, Steve Upham of Screaming Dreams (who promised that my collaborative story collection, "Slow Motion Wars", written with Allen Ashley should be out before the end of the year), and Michael Kelly from Shadows & Tall Trees who I didn't spend as much time with as I would have liked.

There wasn't much on the programme that I actually wanted to attend, but there were people I wanted to make sure I didn't miss. To guarantee I met up with Kaaron Warren we headed to her reading where she read her story "That Girl". Not only was the reading excellent, but she handed out Koala bars to sweeten us. I originally published Kaaron in The Alsiso Project back in 2004, but this was the first time we had ever met. After the reading we found the 'secret bar' and had a drink with her along with Mihai Adascalitei from Romania, chatting like we were old friends. It got the convention off to a relaxed and friendly start.

I think from there we headed back to the dealer's room, talking briefly with Mark West, Stuart Young, Neil Williamson, Terry Grimwood, Gary Couzens, Allen Ashley and Sarah Doyle, and no doubt many others. Getting hungry by this stage and wary of forecast rain, Sophie and I headed out on our own and found a Wetherspoons to scoff in before returning to the convention and wandering around the mass-signing event. It always seems like there are conventions within conventions at these events, and the number of fans seeking autographs felt much different from my personal convention experience. Nevertheless, I ended up signing a few convention programmes myself, and we also managed to catch up with Ray Cluley and his partner Victoria Leslie (who writes as V H Leslie) for a chat. One of my favourite convention moments was Victoria's surprise at my mention of an age-gap between Sophie and myself (inadvertently either flattering me or insulting Sophie) and her further surprise that the gap is 21 years. My attic portrait must be worth it.

We concluded Friday flitting from one room to another, talking to Joseph D'Lacey and Charles Rudkin, taking in the two bars and the free drink at the Gollancz party, but by 11:30 Sophie was dead on her feet and during a conversation with John Travis and Simon Clark she actually fell asleep standing up. We decided to make the most of tomorrow by getting an early night and took a short taxi ride home.

Saturday morning we decided to wander around Brighton before heading to the convention aware that if we didn't make time for the town we'd never see it. We wandered about The Lanes, and the much better Laines areas, before returning to the convention hotel before 12. Back in the dealer's room we finally caught up with Doug Thompson and Nina Allan and had a long chat about good things, not surprising as they are amongst our favourite people and writers. I also exchanged a few words with K J Bishop and picked up her new collection, "That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote". Sophie also bought a couple of titles from the Chomu Press table. We then headed to the signing alley where I picked up Steve Volk's "Whitstable" that I've been wanting to buy for some time, and chatting to Simon Marshall-Jones of Spectral Press. It was now late afternoon and we were starting to get tired again, so we sat in the dealer's room for a bit whilst we wondered where to eat. Doug was trying to arrange first a Texan then a Greek restaurant by leaving the hotel, talking to threstaurantnt, and then returning to say it was full. Sophie suggested it might be easier using the internet, and within a few moments a posse of us were straining into the wind along the seafront and into The China Garden where we moved from one table to another as our numbers increased. Our final group included Sophie and myself, Doug Thompson, Quentin S Crisp, Jet McDonald, Anna Tambour, John Travis, David Rix, Brendan Connell, Terry Grimwood and two others whose names I'm not sure about. The food was ok, but it wasn't long before we were battling the elements again and were just in time for the poetry readings hosted by Allen Ashley.

We'd neglected to get ourselves a two-poem spot, but we were amongst the reserve list and Sophie was fair terrified when her name was called but I think she did pretty well with it. I also read one of our collaborative pieces. Overall, it was a great event which Allen ended with a flourish. From there it was into the main bar where we were lucky enough to find somewhere to sit. From 10 until 2:30 we chatted with Doug, Allen, and Sarah Doyle. Doug had an idea that everyone could be distilled into one word. His word for me was 'workman-like', but on reflection - and no doubt he will disagree with this - I've refined it to 'dedicated'.

Sunday morning we awoke relatively refreshed and were back in the Con hotel just after ten and a rather brisk walk along the seafront. Back in the dealer's room we mingled there until it was packed away at midday (we had sold a good amount of Fur-Lined Ghettos, including the last copy of issue one which is now out of print). Nipping out for some lunch we returned to the bar and chatted with Allen, Terry Grimwood, and David Rix until the awards ceremony began at 3pm. From the public gallery which overlooked the event we had a great view of those who had banqueted beneath. Without going into too much detail we were delighted that Ray Cluley won the British Fantasy Society award for his story, "Shark! Shark!", were moved by Graham Joyce's acceptance speech for the BFS's Best Fantasy Novel, "Some Kind Of Fairytale", and very much pleased by Joel Lane winning Best Collection in the World Fantasy awards. John Probert's humorous acceptance of the novella award and Jonathan Oliver's fantastic "fuck me sideways" comment whilst accepting the best anthology award all added spice to the event. In fact, all the awards seemed thoughtfully given (apart from the appalling Cabin In The Wood's award for best screenplay).

We milled about in the dead dog party for a little while, congratulating the winners (especially Ray, Graham, Jonathan Oliver and Adam Nevill), and managing brief chats with Lynda E Rucker and Lavie Tidhar before finally leaving the convention and waiting for a final taxi. We weren't leaving Brighton until the Monday morning, but our convention was now over. We returned buzzing with ideas - some will no doubt become evident - having enjoyed a great convention whilst not really participating in the programming. As I said, everyone's convention is slightly different from everyone else's, but ours was definitely worthwhile. As Graham said, it is family. Family which we should get to see more often.

(apologies for giving up on author links halfway through this blog. I ran out of time and inclination. Apologies also to anyone we chatted to and who I've missed! All photographs are by Sophie)