My friend, the dark fantasy writer, poet, and critic Joel Lane died last night in his sleep. He was fifty. I first came across his work in some “year’s best” anthology of horror stories in the nineties; I bought his first collection, The Earth Wire, a little later. He was the first writer I knew that really evoked Birmingham for me, its ghosts, architecture, and music – he loved post-punk and folk; I was never sure what he thought of Brum’s metal legacy. Then in 2000, his novel, From Blue To Black came out, and to me it was as much a ghost story as a novel about a doomed indie band; I wrote him a (probably gauche) fan letter c/o of his publisher at the time, which he never got; then we met at a bus stop in Birmingham a couple of years later. Joel was just coming back from a political demo in London; he remained a committed socialist to the end, and that conscience shone through his work like a lode. It was a hot night; Joel was wearing some garish shirt. We got talking. I’m not sure how long it took me to recognise him. He seemed pleased and surprised about it.
We dated for a short time in the noughties – it didn’t really work out, but we parted on good terms and remained friends. He got me into Nico and Nick Drake; Pink Moon he advised me to listen to “with caution”; I mightn’t have listened to quite as much Joy Division if I’d not met him. We already had early Cure as a shared interest. He was a big noir fan, but I never quite got his love for Cornell Woolrich. He called me a Goth even when I was wearing bell-bottoms and a striped jumper.
As an editor, he was responsible for accepting my first published story, South of Autumn; as a writer, he was an influence and a bit of a mentor. We co-wrote one story, Ashes In the Water, which was thrashed out one night at Bennetts’ Bar, and then the next time we met, we spent most of the night trying to recall the bloody storyline. I’m still proud of that tale. I’d hoped to collaborate further with him. I wasn’t the only writer he encouraged through critiques; there are a lot of us who’ll remember his generosity. He was a gentle man, fond of outrageously bad jokes. A few weeks ago, his supernatural noir collection Where Furnaces Burn won the World Fantasy Award; Joel couldn’t make it to Fantasycon to collect it. (There’s two brief mentions of a Detective Constable Joiner in there; I was planning to return the favour in the Furze tales, but give Joel’s copper some dialogue!)
I last saw Joel at the launch for a Tindal Street Press anthology, six or seven weeks back; I’d misremembered our final meeting being at the Rustblind premiere in the summer until just now, which cheers me a little. Over the next few days, I’ll re-read and remember him. I always hoped to see him produce a full-length horror novel. But he was a fucking great writer as it stands, and more importantly, an even better friend.
See you, Joel. You’ll be much missed.
There’s a mask of silence in your face/It keeps me waiting in this place/Where the house is three bricks high/Between still and moving water/The grass is never dry.
(lyrics by Joel, in From Blue To Black)