reach out from the dark like branches,
complex and definite."
Joel Lane, 'Matt', from Instinct (2012)
I have heard with great sadness that author, poet and scholar Joel Lane, a regular contributor of fine critical essays to Wormwood, has died. I have also lost a friend. I first met Joel at the British Fantasy conventions held in Birmingham in the Nineteen Eighties. He became part of an informal circle of keen enthusiasts of fantasy and horror, the Doppelgangers: he was one of the most well-read and thoughtful characters in our group.
Joel contributed his short stories of bleak but poetic urban horror to Aklo, the journal of the fantastic I co-edited with the late Roger Dobson, and also to Dark Dreams, the journal of the macabre edited by Jeff Dempsey and David Cowperthwaite. Despite the darkness of his vision in these stories, Joel enjoyed as much as anyone the flippancy and japing of Doppelganger gatherings and publications, and there was always a side of him that relished bad puns, improbable book titles and persiflage.
But in his work, from the first, his was a sombre, powerful but compelling voice. I was pleased to publish his short story ‘The Foggy, Foggy Dew’, in a chapbook (1986, with a poem, 'Lifting the Cover') which, to our delight, was selected by Karl Edward Wagner for his Year’s Best Horror series, the first of many such tributes to his fiction. Joel’s reputation as a master of urban horror continued to build over the years, culminating in the World Fantasy Award for Best Collection (for Where Furnaces Burn), a fully-deserved accolade, which he received only weeks ago. Amongst his notable publications were The Earth Wire (1994), From Blue to Black (2000), The Blue Mask (2003), The Lost District (2006), The Terrible Changes (2009), The Witnesses Are Gone (2009) and Do Not Pass Go: Crime Stories (2011).
While it will be his short stories that will prove an enduring legacy, Joel was also a fine poet, who used modern forms and imagery while at the same time expressing concisely and acutely the perennial concerns of love, mortality, longing and loss. And Joel was furthermore an exceptionally pensive and insightful critic of the fantasy and horror fields. For Wormwood he contributed a series of essays on major figures in the field, including H P Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury and (most recently) Robert Aickman. We had recently discussed an essay by him for next year on Shirley Jackson.
Joel never relied on past evaluations or readings of these figures: he read everything of importance by them with great care and focus, and thought through his own original perspective on their work. I know from our correspondence how much concentration and creative energy he put in to these studies, which should also stand as a testament to his devotion to our literature. He would, incidentally, give the same respect and acumen to other arts too: I remember, and wish I'd kept, his remarkable insights into the lyrics of Joy Division and New Order, some of whose words he made use of in his book titles, epigraphs and themes.
Joel was never in good health, and had also faced tragedy in his life, and when I think of him, I see a vulnerable, slightly tentative figure, for whom words were worth serious weight. That image, however, must be balanced with the extraordinary determination and depth of thought that characterised everything he wrote, the intense, vital intelligence that gave us so much that was so strong and unique in his commentary, poetry and stories.
"then walk out into a fractured night
that aches with the promise of winter:
the ceasefire, the falling snow,
an album whose every track is silence."
Joel Lane, 'Autumn Light', from Instinct (2012)