I read Joel Lane’s short story “Ragged Claws” (in Astrologica) on Monday. In it, the protagonist is being consumed by an illness, a cancer-like disease, until he dies. Then the following day, yesterday, I received two emails telling me the God-awful news: my friend of 30 years had died – he was found in his bed, apparently dying in his sleep. That story suddenly became prophetic (I must stress that at the moment the cause of his death is unknown).
I first encountered Joel through his fiction – I think it was probably in the pages of Dark Horizons, edited by David Sutton. I then met him in person – it was Dave who introduced us. I have to admit that at that meeting I failed to recognise his name and when I asked if he had written anything Dave put me to rights. Joel was amused by ignorance, but never held it against me. We became good friends, part of the Brum Balti Boys (Joel, David, Mike Chinn, John Howard, Stan Nicholls and I and later James Brogden), meeting semi-regularly for a few drinks and then a meal in one of the numerous Balti houses in Sparkhill (after buying our beverages in the Off Licence, of course). In fact we were in the process of trying to arrange a meal before this Christmas…
When I edited Winter Chills (later Chills) for the BFS I included two of Joel’s stories, and a poem, in its ten-issue run, including the astounding “The Earth Wire” (in WC3). Then when he proposed a themed anthology for The Alchemy Press, I jumped at the idea: Beneath the Ground appeared in 2002. A story of his, from Swords Against the Millennium (co-published by The Alchemy Press and Mike Chinn’s Saladoth Productions), “The Hunger of the Leaves” was selected for two Best Of annuals: for best horror and best fantasy.
Joel was an incredibly bright and perspicacious devotee of horror and weird fiction. He saw things in stories that most of us lesser mortals would take an age to spot. Yet conversely I suggested that a particular story of his which I had just read was packed with autobiographical elements, but elements he hadn’t seen for himself. His fiction had many levels, although often rooted in Birmingham and the Black Country. Reading them was like reading a map of the tragedy of that city and its environs.
But Joel was more than a colleague in the fantasy/horror arena. He was a good, empathic friend. When my first marriage was breaking down I told Joel before anyone else. He offered not just sympathy but support, helping me through a difficult time. And as many of you know, Joel often suffered ill health himself, had his own emotional burdens. Then Jan Edwards and I would have him round to our house for dinner and an evening of conversation (we lived about a ten minute walk apart – five minutes if you walked like Joel did). When Jan and I moved away from Birmingham and couldn’t meet up so frequently, and his ill health and ill-luck increased (his father died, his mother’s ailments) I felt as though I was letting him down. Several times he tried to come visit us but that just didn’t happen. Now it never will…
What else? We shared a passion for music, swapping compilation cassettes of our favourite songs trying to convert each other, although our tastes overlapped for the most part. We went to gigs – sometimes with Jan and Mike, sometimes just us – seeing the likes of dEUS, Flaming Lips, Drugstore, Only Ones, Tindersticks, Sparklehorse … and all the way to some of the icons of rock music: Nick Cave, Lou Reed and especially Richard Thompson. But he never converted me into a Bruce Springsteen fan.
If Joel had a weakness it was in his modesty – he didn’t tell us about a major poetry award he won, for example. But that was part of his charm. I am privileged to count Joel as a good friend and I am so depressed at his passing. He was only 50, for God’s sake! If there is an afterlife then he is in the company of his favourite writers, chewing the fat with HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, William Hope Hodgson and Clark Aston Smith. RIP Joel.
[I took the photo of Joel in September, 2008]