Joel Lane 1963-2013November 28, 2013
I wasn’t really planning to write something about Joel Lane here. His sudden death, while tragic, is not my tragedy in the way it is for his family and friends–and he had so many friends, who loved him so dearly, and I dislike people who piggyback on the tragedies of others and try to make them their own. However sad and angry I feel at the news of his untimely death, it is still a distant sad and angry compared to the visceral wounds of others.
But one of the things that keeps coming up is how central he was to the horror genre, how many of us he touched and influenced, and a fierce desire that his work not pass into oblivion. And on Facebook, Richard Gavin said that John Langan mentioned it must be the way the Lovecraft circle felt about the death of Robert E. Howard or Lovecraft himself. And I think about Charles Beaumont, and I think about Karl Edward Wagner, two other authors who were wildly talented, not well-enough-known and dead suddenly and far too young. Nobody wants to end up in that club. And all you can do with that anger and sadness is try to do better yourself, and try to keep that person’s memory alive in the way that means the most to you.
For me, that will in part be through the impact Lane had on my own fiction, and that’s what I want to talk about here, because I do want to help document how important he was.
In the 1990s, I was reading a ton of contemporary horror fiction and feeling quite discouraged. I loved a lot of older work from Shirley Jackson to Arthur Machen to Daphne Du Maurier to Robert Aickman and more, and I loved a lot of work from the 1970s and 1980s–Ramsey Campbell, Lisa Tuttle, Karl Edward Wagner, TED Klein, to name just a few, and the seminal anthologies Dark Forces and Prime Evil and Wagner’s Year’s Bests, as well as, to a lesser degree, Charles Grant’s Shadows anthologies and Stuart Schiff’s Whispers. But I wasn’t connecting in the same way with a lot of newer stuff I was reading in the 1990s. I was honestly starting to wonder if there was a place for me in the horror genre as it currently existed.
Then I hit upon a vein of newer British writers in Year’s Best anthologies who were writing a kind of bleak, subtle, urban horror that for me hearkened back to one of my favorite stories, M. John Harrison’s “The Great God Pan.” Joel Lane and Nicholas Royle were the first two names that kept coming up for me. And I rejoiced! I loved the dark, gritty poetry of their fiction, the fierce intelligence that informed it. I didn’t know who these guys were but I wanted to be a part of it all. Then I discovered The Third Alternative, and saw those names in the first issues I picked up. What I’d found, it seemed, was a whole magazine dedicated to the same aesthetic that I loved, and when I sent Andy Cox a story and he bought it, my first published story, I was so, so proud to be in there, to be published alongside the other writers there whom I admired so much. I couldn’t really find anyone to share my excitement, though. TTA Press wasn’t yet known on the other side of the Atlantic, and every time I told an American I’d been in The Third Alternative they looked at me like I’d just said I’d been published in my cousin’s zine turned out on a mimeograph in his basement. I didn’t care. Well, no, I did care, actually, but I knew how amazing TTA was, and there was no other place I’d have rather placed those early stories even if it did give me absolutely zero cred initially on my side of the pond.
In the years that followed, I kept reading those British horror writers, and even occasionally selling something to TTA or another British market, and although what I was doing and what I aimed to do wasn’t the same thing, and although I am obviously not British and not a miserablist, what I admired was their prose and how their fiction was so rooted in realism and the way the weird intruded gradually. And then I began to slowly discover some American writers who appealed to me–here, the first two names that come to mind are Nathan Ballingrud (his “You Go Where It Takes You” left me stunned the first time I read it on scifi.com) and Glen Hirshberg–not like the British writers I was reading, but I loved their emphasis on story and character and fully realized settings, and a genuine humanity, and writing that was writing first and genre second, yet still clearly fully engaged with the genre, not shying away from it, not ashamed.
In 2010, I was living in the US, I had recently started writing for publication again after a few years off, and the World Horror Convention was in Brighton, UK. I hadn’t attended a convention for years, hadn’t wanted to, but at the time I didn’t know when I’d have another change to go to a UK convention, and I saw this as my big chance to see some of these writers who’d meant so much to me on panels and at readings. I didn’t know a soul, outside of having met Steve Jones a couple of times, who’d reprinted my stories in Best New Horror, and I didn’t care. I was fully prepared to be a wallflower all weekend if it meant a chance to hear Joel Lane read one of his stories, and to tell him how much I enjoyed his work.
So yeah, as I was actually just telling someone a few weeks ago, Joel Lane was one of the reasons I attended that World Horror Convention. Joel Lane and others I’d been reading over the years in TTA Press and Year’s Best publications. You all kept me believing in the genre even though I didn’t know any of you. I didn’t tell him that, of course, or any of you–maybe I should have; it’s so hard, to know where to draw the line, we don’t want to sound stalkery or sycophantic, but it’s true. I went to his reading and I told him afterward that his work had meant a lot to me and true to form, as so many have said of him, he turned it round to me. “Let’s go sit somewhere where we can talk,” he said, and once we’d settled. “How is your writing going? What are you working on?” I was flummoxed; who knows what I said. We talked, and I was shocked when he said he couldn’t seem to sell novels–he seemed discouraged about that, as you would be–and, you know, it was just lovely. I’ve always remembered him as so kind, to take time out for me like that and to chat with me with real interest. I was so pleased to have met him and heard him read and to have had a little talk.
Last year I ended up heading off to Fantasycon at the very last minute, and he was there, but I didn’t get a chance to speak with him again, as is always the case at these things, and who knows if he’d have remembered me or not (and–confession–I am shy, and although I absolutely love meeting new people at conventions and I love good conversation, it is extremely difficult for me to go up to people and just start talking to them, so sometimes I just don’t)–and you know, there’s always next year, that’s what you think, and I’d reintroduce myself again, because I wanted to talk with him some more. Yet there wasn’t a next year, as it turned out–I’ve only recently learned that he wasn’t at WFC because his mother broke her hip, but at the time I knew there was always York in 2014–
No. There won’t be a York, there won’t be anything, and this is upsetting for me, but it is unspeakably awful for those who knew him and loved him. I’ll say it again: this is not my tragedy. I’m a bystander. I didn’t know Joel Lane, but I did love him through his words, and they say you shouldn’t meet writers you admire but you know, I find that’s rarely true really, and in this case it certainly was not. The little bit I gleaned of who he was from our brief meeting seems to be exactly who he was: unfailingly generous, selfless, modest, and concerned about others. And while it is not as raw for me as it is for his loved ones, it does feel closer than the other writers we’ve lost this year because he felt more like a peer to me.
Joel Lane was an important writer, absolutely crucial to the genre, and to me personally; he is one of the writers who always filled me with hope for what could be achieved in horror and weird fiction. His writing is one piece of what made me the writer I am. If you have not read him, I urge you to seek out his fiction. There is talk now of perhaps naming one of the British Fantasy Awards after him, and I so desperately hope this comes to pass. He did not deserve to die so young, and he deserved to be better known in life. It is imperative not just that he is not forgotten, but that his work become better known, and that writers coming after can build on what he achieved.
Because I don’t know if anyone else is doing it outside of on his FB page (I wasn’t even FB friends with him, even though he joined earlier this year, and why? because, again, I worry about being stalkery and sycophantic), I’ve tried to collect as many of the tributes from blogs I could find; drop me a line over email or in the comments or on FB to let me know what I’ve missed, and I’ll keep adding to it. Read them all, if you haven’t already, especially if you weren’t familiar with his work, and you’ll start to understand why he mattered so much to so many, as a person and as a writer.