30 thoughts on “SCAR CITY – a new collection by Joel Lane


    “The death of religion has left us all to create our own rituals.”

    A significant work of Joel’s that I haven’t read before, but now in my reading holster thanks to this new collection. A story that is a city with its first scar, that of a recurrent emotion that can never die, even if the actual person with that unique emotion has died, leaving its repercussions to play out in this darkest Black Country of Homebase, detox, raw love, semen and stabbings…
    For those who remember, a re-staging, a crude haunting that is stronger lasting than the hallowmas weenings that haunt more respectable or wimpish ghost stories than this one. Condemned to rehearse the scene forever till perfected.


    “It hadn’t always been that way, but modern life was a disappointment.”

    This author was always strong on understatement!
    And this story, carrying another scar in the city, another stabbing, another sense of re-enactment in having it prefigured by a card. A card that didn’t have a meercat in it, unlike all the other meercat cards he received. Raw love at home and then the other’s home, home from home, rented man with rented man. A sheer poetry of razor-branches in a tree. Another animal erect.

    I will now check my previous review of this story from when I first read it. Link will appear in next comment.


    “The scar was there, as she’d known it would be.”

    A MittelEuropean möbius of dreaming and being dreamed, making excuses for one’s actions by pretending they are others doing them. They probably do the same to you. This scenario works on a marriage that shops in Waitrose, from the woman’s point of view after discovering hubby’s fantasies about Romanian girls with English names, whereby a naggingly trafficked dream remorselessly recurs and re-enacts, like much of this book’s recurrences and re-enactments so far. The reader is dragged into it screaming that books should be lighter like drinkies with colleagues near the Embankment or like the suitcases as light as passports in dreams. Bad for your health and safety, reading this author.


    “Why had Richard died? It didn’t sound like an accident. But I couldn’t believe he’d gone out hating life or himself. He wasn’t like that. He enjoyed his own pain too much.”

    Having just read this work, I consider it to be an important one, most disturbing and revelatory. But I suppose I must have read it before, as I also had a story in the same 1998 book whence it has come!
    It tells of the news of the sudden death of the narrator’s ex-lover and the consequent reactions to it, of numbness at first, attendance at the funeral, surprise, questioning, memories of why Richard was an ex-lover not a current one, then more rarefied images and dreams and dreams-within-dreams, an assessment of Richard’s need for ‘ambiguity on a plate’….
    The narrator is now in another relationship, with Carl, which is probably more like a botched bridge on the canal…
    And there are visions of a baby, child and youth (that seem more real than dream, but sharing a bit of both), in the flat he shares with Carl. And there is a striking outcome of what are explicitly called ‘patterns’, including these visions. And an earlier willow tree and the broken shards of a willow-patterned plate – in tune with my ‘synchronised shards of random truth and fiction’?
    I hesitate even to try to work out how these patterns cohere into a gestalt, as I would normally. Sometimes they are meant not to be.


    “It’s not just getting out of this world, it’s finding the right bridge.”

    A poignant story of a yearned-for land created by a musician as part of the music of Moth that like most rock groups became, if it wasn’t all the time, ephemeral – as the characters approach but fail to achieve a ménage a trois: a woman (the writer of the ECHOLAND song), a youth and a man, a confused set-up of leading and led… With elements of human as well as musical transience, while drugs, drink and sex become ingredients in a quest for a Machen-like mystical city, a Fragment of Life, called ECHOLAND (of which Brirmingham they feel is a poor cover version) , or an Elizabeth-Bowenesque ‘Mysterious Kor’ or, even, at the end, tellingly, a portal to a ruined Narnia…through the earlier veil of cigarette smoke, here betokening overdubs or other presences?
    I hope the bridge was eventually found – even a botched one, if it worked.


    “Three generations of self-pity: Roy Orbison, Neil Diamond, Robbie Williams.”

    The narrator on the pick-up at a pub karaoke night, amid memories not staying the same, more cigarette smoke inferred with its flame to ignite a paper mask, even more scars “too fine to see”, and mis-overheard conversations. He takes one willing pick-up back to his flat, their faces hiding each other from exterior notice, each loneliness too, as things turn out. A highly moving emotionlessness of contact – and later re-contact when the implications of the one night stand become, in retrospect, an aborted whodunnit. A pub talk of a tale that one understands when involved in it, drink for drink. Afterwards, you wonder why it makes you want to cry.

    I shall now check my previous review of this story when I first read it. The link will be in the next comment.


    “I used to watch him moving over me, his eyes shut, flying.”

    The trials and tribulations of sex, in the characters’ past and present, are conveyed here for two music students, where using an instrument is not just in playing the music, but also by mutually strumming or scraping as with a bow. The past has come retributively to haunt one of them, but also lending premonitory dreams to the other student, a cross-cruising of night’s motor-bikers and birds of prey, and eventually a frozen tableau in a museum’s backroom.
    A strong story that deploys its images like playing instruments of “alcohol, lust and sleep deprivation” in a work physically staccato as if, say, by Xenakis or in tune with this story’s mention of Tchaikovsky (cf Russell’s The Music Lovers) – or with a more traumatic pub gig’s fiddling. This story’s ‘cock’ become a bird of prey…or just prey?


    “Stained tissues were heaped up on the desk like a stage set representing a fire.”

    This is landmark Lane, a story of Sean and Carol in a mutual interface of half-ignored self-harming scars, more scars than ever in this Scar City, as many scars as reasons, forming a sort of inoculated Braille in the mind’s eye, one that seems to take over the story from the print. Till they are both called to the stunning epiphany of its ending, a gallery, I feel, of Bacon skin, to which you can contribute like a mass signing. Lugosi in a vodka bar. A war on terror by some clot cloned from Churchill. Smoked out but not burnt. Branded, tattooed as well as cut. The loneliness of love as an art installation or a happening on skin in the last gallery of all, a love already factored into by its own ending, as if “like masturbation, it had no meaning beyond itself.”


    This is a relentlessly recurrent document of a marriage that is estranged but stays together for the baby, an open relationship where each suffers the other’s disloyalties.
    Their regurgitated babies come out as silent frozen words from within an empty guitar. That’s the way I see it. A devastating poem in prose. The last two sentences a classic couplet that I dare not spoil by quoting here.
    The Acocks of Tyseley and Solihull. Those Entries and Exits of life.


    “How much longer have I got to live inside your madness?”

    This book itself sometimes makes the reader call out, too, with similar words. Seriously, pitifully so.
    ‘Keep the Night’ is a double-edged sword of a title. Like saying ‘you can keep the night, and you’re welcome to it’ as if giving someone else the unwelcome duty of taking it over from oneself or ‘keep the night’ as an order to oneself to keep it forever close. It tells of someone, worse for wear from attending a wedding, who takes the wrong train to Birmingham, and ends up kicking his heels in Milton Keynes during the small hours until the next scheduled train departs for his onward journey. The text has an unwelcome feel of an alternate world, but welcome enough as a tranche of brilliant writing about such unwelcomeness. And cold detached people with eyes too big for their heads, people of the night in paid re-enactments of pitifully painful disputes between couples. Voyeurism of the very nightmare that the story deploys for its own sake. For its own sake, but unutterably real, a fractured didacticism that we never learned in time for now, from those days when people used the phones provided by the station rather than their own ones. A phone with a tugged out, amputated flex lying dead on the ground.


    “Life fades but death goes on forever.”

    A tantalising story of a Stephen who, with terminal cancer and disillusioned with his Christian church and its scandals of priests with minors, somehow finds himself, via the normally crazy internet, engaging with an ostensibly madcap cult based on ‘The King in Yellow’ by Robert W. Chambers (my earlier review of this classic book HERE).
    The story’s strength is in not knowing where its own strength lies. Which (or any) faith? We can only read it through its own or the author’s Pallid Mask: ‘The sky was a clouded pane of glass. It wouldn’t let the light through.’ from the previous story, Keep the Night…

    I shall now check my review of this story when I first read it. The link will appear in the next comment.


    “How are we going to slant this?”

    This is gem of a Joel Lane short short, with two men, Gary and Alan, travelling in a train through Surrey, Alan to meet Gary’s parents , but Gary is not too pleased with Alan, specially today, with Alan’s gawping at teenage boys through the train window, not to put too fine a point on it, more than just fringing obscenity, I ‘d say, in Gary’s reaction. As a sideshow there is a business man sitting near them, which I take as Joel’s political satire upon such individuals, complete with their vestigial mobiles and mobilespeak. This story puts to bed the idea that Joel doesn’t have a sense of humour in his stories, as he certainly did in real life, something with which I think those who knew him would agree.
    The punchline is both hilarious and, in the context, chilling.


    A jury of peers as optics at the back of a bar, condemning you to lethal poisoning and then your going back to get more lethal poisoning because the first dose didn’t work. It’s like coming back relentlessly to Joel Lane or Thomas Ligotti fiction…

    This Lane is about the Lethal Chambers of workaday Britain and the bullies who run it with their strict timekeeping and spites. One bully in particular called Baxter. Know him?

    A page-turning rite of passage with a blade in your suitcase, even against your own best sense of self-preservation, as you journey with Jim from Tyseley Dump to Fishguard-against-Gulls just to nail the retired bully in his coastal lair. Except he’s still watch-tapping his minions, those he’s ensconced even in Jim’s last nightmare shift to do the jobs he sets on each other.
    Nothing was ever real. So all of it was real. That’s my take.


    “The moon slipped from cloud to cloud, backing off.”

    This story’s style seems more staccato than other Joel Lane stories, conveying the impulsive short-fuses of youths left home alone by the parents, the younger brother invited by the older one – as long as he keeps it quiet – to a ‘dog training’ exercise at night along with the family dog called Billy and the older brother’s friend and his dog called Hawk. Be warned, you will not easily forget some of the scenes as they unfold to the backdrop of porn magazines and other stark inchoate emotions that youths on the brink of the Territorial Army harbour. But then I looked back at this work’s title. Not an obvious meaning to it, except, then, I thought, that we all harbour our own inadmissible selves of the past still within us, whether we remember them clearly or not. Proustian selves as psychic colonies…


    “Behind the car park, a fringe of trees was on fire with age;”

    That fringe again, a hairline crack between, left for the reader to find a core of meaning. Among the leaves, a bonfire of leaves or the leaves still on the trees? Or the leaves of this book? This is a highly complex story of memory and guilt, disguised as a simple horror story about incest and madness. Living in Shard End, where the fragments end? Connections, as the text says, connected as if by a bad fortune-teller, those synchronised shards of random truth and fiction. This story continues to resonate and resonate without end. Or it hasn’t ended for me. That core of meaning reverting to marshland like Birmingham itself?

    “It would be better to go miles out of your way, Kay thought, than to turn right onto this stretch of road.”


    “Missing someone can be a place. The city of without.”

    …being another version of this book’s Scar City wherein there are manifold scars, “like a fine pale cobweb” over skin. One lover, Callum, returns to the coastal scene near where the other lover, Andrew, was killed in a health and safety accident as a symbol of today’s uncaring business concerns, a running theme in Lane fiction, here an oil rig at sea, a capsule city in itself, fixed to a hidden earth. And then meeting the old go-between as an inverse dark reaper of romance – or is he Callum’s older version from the future bringing the dead to his present? Just for a nonce.

    Like all love, even love that was once an everlasting love, but now revisited for a a few moments fixed between or against the invisibly scarred walls of time. Or so it seems.


    “Jason had bitten through his lip thinking about it, still had the scar.”

    That seems significant in view of the book’s developing gestalt. And now we have blue and green paint on skin, as if to hide or stiffen the scars, painted on dead bodies in a whodunnit that the protagonist works out into his own gestalt of gangs and people and sex affairs from his own past of drugs and cold dark Birmingham canals. This story is one whole walking nonsense poem on legs as if by Lear or Carroll or a story simply about such poems as a way to paint the past. Life’s madness today become a sort of Ligottian New Nonsense. The end of self in one’s own hands where the crime is solved even before it began. A surreal emblem beyond the whodunnit.

    I shall now check my earlier review at the time I first read this story. The link will appear in the next comment.

  18. FEELS LIKE UNDERGROUND (written with Chris Morgan)

    “There was a picture of a forest, black distorted trees against a murky sunset. Or was it a fire?”

    The picture in the hotel room. This story is a revelation of accretion. We, as readers, are slowly subsumed by this business conference, attended by Mark who is married but more than just canoodling with one of his business colleagues, a conference replete with all today’s business-speak and sessions, not so much a satire but a a genuine recognisable nightmare of company mores. We are also slowly subsumed by the hotel itself, a different sort of nightmare, with all its many conference rooms, bars, restaurants, resident niches, and strange lower floors that the lift somehow reaches, where the real party is going on, the party you can normally never reach, a party that eventually gatecrashes you, YES, all these rooms and suites are each named after an individual classical composer (bound to appeal to me!), some traditional like Brahms, Tchaikovsky etc, others more outlandish like Cage, even Zann…

    I can’t seem to continue this review in such an autonomous stream of past-narrated real-time as the story itself relentlessly manages to do, while the illicit canoodling on black sheets becomes more like a “drifting membrane” of candle wax (like a scar?)

    Don’t ask! Simply believe this work is a helluva reading experience. Skating on thin ice. And a wardrobe tall enough for suicide. The ghost of Thatcher and the hologram of Blair. Walls with soft crumbly texture. Not just corporate cost-cutting and obligatory networking, but a broken wrist and ankle for two different guests. And other aberrations.

    Meanwhile Mark’s wife is at home with the kid, slowly going mad.

    Dedicated to Robert E. Howard

    “I hoarded the visions of ruin to get me through the days in a world that seemed incomprehensible and terrifying.”

    Lane’s attempt to decorate the normal rundown days of his own classic Birmingham mythos, with a derived mythos from an even more ruined city, that of some intermittent swords & sorcery vision that affects the modern protagonist.

    For me it didn’t work.


    “The game is up.”

    I consider this to be a significant work, especially its first paragraph including a description of a season, the same season in which I read this story today for the first time, the season of November leading into Winter…
    This work sometimes seems as if it is a prepared message to us all, leading to an extrapolation of various flights of dark fantasy and then a devastating vision of New Year’s Eve as crowds gather, a vision that could be a new version of Close Encounters, those encounters from within?

    “I connect well with individuals or even small groups – and I’m very good at couples – but a crowd has its own more elusive mind,…”


    “As a child, he’d believed the outside world was only a city in daylight: after nightfall it became a forest,…”

    This is probably the most powerful, but not the best, story in the book. Drugs, rent boys, snuff movies, nightmares, unquenchable lust, dereliction. Not easy to read. It is inchoate but somehow strict within its own logic: the inevitability of rituals.


    This, perhaps coupled with the previous work, is an almost unbearable coda of the whole book. It is typical in that it contains many brilliant darkly poetic phrases that might stay with you more powerfully and longer than you’d might otherwise wish. It also contains the odd rare simile that doesn’t quite work like: “The breath trailed from my mouth like an apology for ectoplasm.” It has it own trademark reference to scars, too, here on the protagonist’s inside arm, as, even, there was a “scarred roadway” in the hybrid ‘Upon A Granite Wind’ work earlier, a scared roadway that IS this book?
    This final work outdoes even the darkness of vampires by stealing their thunder, our world now being darker than theirs, I guess.
    The season of blood and snow is upon us.

    “…a pain that, no matter what we did, would never hurt enough.”

    This book itself is a fine physical product in design and feel, fitting to its contents.

    I shall now read for the first time its FOREWORD: ECHOES FROM THE PLACE WE MET by Alexander Zelenyj and its essay entitled SOCIALISM OR BARBARISM: JOEL LANE’S BLUE TRILOGY AND THE POETRY OF THE LOST by Nina Allan.
    I am sure they will give me more food for thought.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s