Joel Lane, Scar City. Eibonvale Books, 2016. Pp. 230. ISBN 978-1-9081-2539-2. £8.50.Reviewed by Rachel Verkade
Personally speaking, I always found Joel Lane’s work to be a bit subtle for my taste. Many of the stories that I’d seen in the pages of Best New Horror and the like seemed to have little in the way of an antagonist or monster besides the unbearable entropy of urban life. But even I couldn’t deny the quality of Lane’s writing, the vividness of the landscapes he described, and the raw emotion of his characters. He wasn’t my cup of tea, I thought, but he was a pretty fine brew nonetheless. It was only when I read the ever-useful ‘Necrology’ in Best New Horror 21 that I found out about his death. And whether I liked his work or not, I mourned with the rest of the horror community. So, when the list of books to be reviewed for this month came around, I couldn’t help but be drawn to Joel Lane’s name. Scar City, his last anthology. David Rix of Eibonvale Press was in the process of writing an email accepting the collection for publication when he received the news of Lane’s death. I can’t help but think that Lane would appreciate the irony.
And to my surprise, this little anthology exceeded my expectations in almost every single way. While some of the stories were ambiguous in their conclusions, and few contained what we would consider typical horror monsters (one serial killer and one ghost, by my count), every tale in this collection was unquestionably horror, and all were beautifully written and suffused with Lane’s signature style and humour. They were still more about feelings and images, whether they be as mundane as taxidermied birds in a museum or as quietly unnerving as a voiceless, black-eyed baby, but each was so disturbing and bleak that the reader cannot help but be swept away.
Lane’s stories, as I have discovered, all have a very distinct flavour to them. It’s the taste of old metal, of smoke, stale cigarettes, and warm beer. Of unwashed skin and the rosined reeds of woodwinds. Lane’s stories are inexorably wound through with the hopelessness and bitterness of the urban English, the artists struggling to find the niche they fear doesn’t exist, the lost lovers, the workmen long come to terms with the idea that there is nothing more to life than this. What I’ve come to realise about Lane and his tales, dear readers, is this: whether the stories have an apparently clear monster or not, the true antagonist (or perhaps even protagonist) in these pages is loneliness. The loneliness that comes when your loved ones have died, or simply don’t understand you. The loneliness that comes with poverty and desperation. The loneliness that comes with being an artist in a world where it seems art is rarely valued, and the chances of success (or even subsistence) are few and far between. And, threading through many of these stories, the loneliness of being queer in a world where alternative sexualites are tolerated at best and, at worst, met with violence. This is a loneliness that Joel Lane, as a gay man who died alone while caring for his ill mother, knew intimately. I don’t mind telling all of you that after I finished ‘Birds of Prey,’ a story about a young man watching his lover being slowly destroyed by forces neither can control, I came very close to putting the book down and weeping.
It’s rare for a story to affect me so deeply, and it made me realise why Lane, still hardly known, is still so deeply mourned. Those who knew him and his work declared him a rare gem in the fields of horror and weird fiction, and after reading Scar City, I can’t help but agree. Particularly poignant epitaphs are found in Alexander Zelenyj’s prologue and Nina Allan’s afterword, which is also a dissection of Joel Lane’s ultimately uncompleted (in the sense that the last book was never published, though Allan had the privilege of reading the manuscript) trilogy of novels.
I feel driven to include here that I have found, in my years of loving the genre and trying to make my way into it as an author, that horror literature is by and large populated by gentle, kind, and unassuming people. Stephen King, Richard Laymon, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell… despite the horrors they write about, are by and large reported to be warm, welcoming, and good-natured men. And I think it needs to be said that Joel Lane is no exception. Every testimony I had read describes him as a deeply intellectual and compassionate human being, a joy to be around and a treasured friend. And while the stories in Scar City are pessimistic, featuring the worst of humanity and the bleakness that can surround it, that warmth and compassion somehow shines through.
When I was fifteen, I visited the British Museum and saw the Assyrian stone reliefs of the king’s lion hunt. The piece featured graphic depictions of dying lions writhing on the ground, broken spears protruding from their bodies, vomiting blood in their death agonies. One of the souvenirs I purchased from this trip was a reproduction of one of the panels featuring a mortally wounded lion. My mother was puzzled asking why I, a devoted animal lover, wanted such a gruesome image of a creature suffering. My reply was that someone, so many thousands of years ago, had watched this scene, seen these animals dying, and been moved enough to render their suffering with such detail, such care. There was something beautiful about that, a beauty that was evident even through the ugly reality of the subject matter. And that’s very much how Joel Lane’s fiction feels to me. Lane’s characters are lost souls, searching for meaning in drink, in art, in sex, as they fumble their way through a Britain still reeling from the aftereffects of Thatcherism. Their suffering is hard to watch, but there is true beauty in its rendering, and true compassion in Lane’s words.
This book is a fitting epitaph to a man well-acquainted with the sadness and loneliness inherent in the world. But though his characters are frequently bitter, angry people who have resigned themselves to the darkness of the world, all those who knew Lane said that same bitterness never touched him. I wish that I could have met the man behind this beautiful, disturbing, dark collection of tales, and I am also thankful to have been given the privilege of reading it.