These last two stories are set in my home city of Birmingham. They both make use of the conventions of crime fiction and are by writers who I know personally. Joel, who died five years ago, had the ability to make known territory very strange indeed. In his hands the West Midlands becomes “a lonely and faceless country”. Often the detective story is a vehicle for criticism of society, but in Joel’s hands social realism is tinged with supernatural elements. Kingstanding on the city’s outskirts becomes a territory rather like Oran in Camus’s La Peste– only rather than rats it is ‘pale men with hair like frost’ who worship ‘the Light of the North’ who spread pestilence.
First published in Where Furnaces Burn, PS Publishing, 2014. Collected in The Book of Birmingham, Comma Press 2018
Joel Lane (1963-2013) is the single most underrated writer of fiction I can think of. I was at Fantasycon 2016, in Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast, where I picked up a collection of his and was immediately sold by the following bit of blurb: “Blurring the occult detective story with urban noir fiction, Where Furnaces Burn offers a glimpse of the myths and terrors buried within the industrial landscape.”
I devoured the book in big greedy gulps, amazed that such writing even existed – precisely the kind of writing I was hunting for and trying to write myself. Using the well-worn trope of the melancholy police officer as the access-point to all the strata of the society in which he lives, Where Furnaces Burn is a bleak and heady mix of the kind of brutal British crime writing of David Peace, Derek Raymond and Ben Myers’ crime novels, mixed with existential pessimism and prose stylings of horror writers like Thomas Ligotti. I always thrilled to Joel Lane’s use of a specific landscape – and one curiously underrepresented in fiction. Here we have expert evocations of a blighted Black Country, the derelict warehouses of Digbeth, mysterious trains rattling through a dark and rain-soaked Birmingham. Joel Lane creates a terrifying world of post-industrial machine worship, bizarre pagan ritual and ghosts comprised of plaster and rotten wallpaper that make the place nightmarish, frightening and weirdly compelling.
I could choose any of the stories in this collection, but I will choose ‘Black Country’ as it captures everything I love about Joel Lane’s writing.
Lane is well known amongst genre circles, and had had a couple of more mainstream novels published by Serpent’s Tail in the early 2000s (including the brilliant From Blue to Black), but seems largely unknown otherwise. This is a crying shame, and should change.
First published 2010 as a Nightjar Press chapbook. Collected in Where Furnaces Burn, PS Publishing, 2012