The first call came at about six o’clock last night, just as I was about to start making dinner. It was Ramsey Campbell, who’d never rung me before. He sounded subdued, speaking more slowly than usual. The way people do when something terrible’s happened.
He’d called about a piece of news that was already spreading across Facebook and Twitter, and I’m grateful to Ramsey that I heard it from him first, rather than learning it from those sources.
Joel Lane – author, poet, critic, scholar and, above all, friend – had died in his sleep the previous night. He was fifty years old.
Before I’d even finished the call, my landline was ringing too; my girlfriend, over in Liverpool, had just heard. Minutes after that, the phone rang again; it was Joel’s mother, Ella, ringing to break the news.
I spent most of the evening with a neighbour; he’d only met Joel two or three times, but had liked him immensely. Joel was like that; I don’t think he realised how many people loved and admired both him and his work. If there is an afterlife, and if it has any access to social media, I think he would have been dumbfounded by the outpouring of grief, affection and admiration, personal and professional, that emerged last night on Facebook and on personal blogs.
I’ve written tributes before to writers whose work I loved, like Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson; their loss was almost like a personal bereavement. Note the ‘almost’, because this one’s different. This one is the real thing.
I first encountered Joel’s work in Nicholas Royle’s Darklands anthologies, back in the 1990s, which played a big part in drawing me back to the weird fiction genre (to use the term Joel would have preferred.) His stories were always deeply individual: written with a poet’s eye for detail and language, a dark, dry sense of humour, haunting characterisation and a determination to use the apparatus of the genre to say what he needed to say, on his own terms. That last quality, most of all, defined Joel’s work: he wanted, needed, to write of loneliness and isolation, alcohol and sex, of how painful and destructive family life could be, of social injustice and political oppression, and in doing so he reinvented the weird tale. As Nick Royle said of one of Joel’s earliest stories, there was a little bit of Ramsey Campbell there and a little bit of Dennis Etchison, but there was something uniquely his.
I’d been writing for a year or so, seeing my first stories appear in small press magazines like Nasty Piece of Work and Sackcloth and Ashes, when I first encountered Joel in person. He wrote to me about an anthology he was working on, of horror stories with a subterranean theme, inviting me to contribute.
In doing so, he made the mistake of enclosing his phone number, so I rang him. As often when nervous, I babbled nonsensically, and God alone knows what Joel made of that. I clearly didn’t make a complete idiot of myself, as it marked the beginning of a great friendship.
There are many kinds of friends; the most important are what I call ‘four o’clock friends’ – the people you can ring at four in the morning when everything’s fallen apart, and you know they will be there for you. Joel was one of those.
What was he like? Dauntingly intelligent, for a start – he had a First in History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge – but there was a deep emotional intelligence as well. He was also one of the kindest and most unselfish people I’ve ever known, who’d never think of himself if there was someone else he could think of first. He was there with a sympathetic ear at many dark times in my life; I’m glad to have been there at similar times for him.
He also had a wicked sense of humour, especially when it came to puns; some of his are quite possibly outlawed under the Geneva Convention (or if not, should have been.) He loved music, particularly Joy Division (I’m currently playing the Closer album as I write this), cinema (although he was often scathing about horror films – it was always deeply entertaining to get Joel started on the subject of films like The Last House on the Left or Suspiria, both of which he loathed with a passion) as well as literature.
Joel never enjoyed the most robust of health; he’d had Type 1 diabetes since his teens, and following his father’s death in 2004 – a sudden event that occurred in horrible, tragic circumstances and which brought back many painful and traumatic memories from his childhood – he struggled with both depression and sleep apnoea. All of this derailed the composition of his third novel, Midnight Blue, which was not completed until several years later and which remains, at the time of writing, unpublished. As I said above, he never seemed to realise what a superb writer he was, how much of an influence he had been on others, or how greatly he was loved and appreciated: he always reacted with delighted bemusement when his work was praised or received an award.
Joel became increasingly involved in political activism in the last decade of his life; he was an unabashed socialist, an impulse that stemmed from the kindness, compassion, rationality and desire for justice that he demonstrated in his personal life as well. That’s something else I must say about him, one of his defining characteristics: he was one of the most honest and principled people I have ever known, with deep personal integrity. Mark Samuels once called him “the conscience of horror”; I believe that’s a great description of him. That same kindness and integrity made him savage towards the unjust, the bigoted and the cruel; in 2010 he co-edited, with Allyson Bird, the anti-fascist anthology Never Again, whose proceeds went to the Sophie Lancaster Foundation and PEN. I was proud to be included therein.
I last saw Joel shortly after his birthday, back in October; he was in Manchester for a big demo against the Tories’ attacks on the NHS. Cate and I joined him on the march, following which we took him to a nearby pub and presented him with birthday presents. “Thank you, children,” he beamed, resembling a fond uncle. After that we enjoyed a substantial Chinese meal; for dessert we insisted on getting him some of the small pastries the chef called ‘hedgehogs’ – an animal that Joel always identified with, believing that hibernating through the winter months to be a very desirable prospect.
Joel published two novels, four collections of poetry and five story collections, together with scores of uncollected short stories, the form he most excelled in. In addition, he wrote articles on weird fiction that confirm him as one of the field’s most intelligent and original scholars and commentators. His last collection, Where Furnaces Burn, won the World Fantasy Award at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton a few weeks after our last meeting. Sadly Joel wasn’t there to accept the award in person; his mother had fractured her hip in a fall and he was taking care of her.
We spoke most weekends, but in his last weeks, due to his mother’s illness, he was spending most of his time with her, going directly to her house after work and not getting home until midnight. I left messages on his answerphone congratulating him on his win, but never got to tell him in person how happy I was for him and how well-deserved the award was. On Monday I sent him an email, sending him our love and the latest bits and pieces of news. That, as it turned out, was the night he died.
No one was happier than Joel when I got together with Cate, and she adored him. We planned to make a day trip to Birmingham to visit him, to invite him up when we got a place together, and we wanted him to be the best man when we get married – which he knew, and was very flattered by. And Joel, in his turn, planned – among other things – to write a full-length horror novel and a history of the genre in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, a sort of contemporary version of Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror In Literature. His death denies us these works, as it denies us so much else.
I have spent over 1500 words trying to capture something of him, and it still doesn’t feel as if I’ve done him the justice he deserves. 2013 has been a truly horrible year in terms of writers dying: we’ve lost so very, very many wonderful authors this year, and I know many of us couldn’t wait for it to end. We all suspected it might have a bereavement or two left in it before it wound up, but I don’t think any of us suspected it would strike so close to home. I know I didn’t. The world today is a colder, darker, meaner place than it was.
And it happens all the time. Boats go down, cars crash, houses burn; and damaged people spill out onto the road. The only way to go on is to realise that it is always the same. You have to hold onto the few who mean enough to you to bring out the healer. And sometimes the healer is very hard to find.
– Joel Lane, ‘Wave Scars.’
Joel Lane was one of those few. So pick up one of his books tonight and read it. He deserves that, and so do you.