Black Country Prophet – Joel Lane Archive 1

About The Joel Lane Archive:

When Joel Lane sadly left us in November 2013, Simon Marshall-Jones and I discussed a way of preserving the memory and oeuvre of the finest short story writer of his generation. To this end, and with the particular assistance of Nicholas Royle who has been handling Joel’s literary estate, we have been in touch with fellow writers and editors who knew Joel, who worked with him, who published him and who were friends with him. We are therefore collating the Joel Lane Archive which will feature works by Joel, individually chosen by those whose lives he touched. These stories and reflections will remain in place at the Spectral Press website as a memorial to our dear friend.

Our knowledge of Joel’s circle is extensive but not exhaustive. If you wish to contribute a favourite story of Joel’s and a reflection on Joel and/or his work, please get in touch with us.

We miss the man; we will always miss the man; but we can celebrate his legacy

 Allen Ashley and Simon Marshall-Jones

 

Joel Lane - photograph by Nicholas Royle

Joel Lane – photograph by Nicholas Royle

BLACK COUNTRY

Joel Lane

INTRODUCTION BY STEPHEN JONES – ANTHOLOGIST AND EDITOR

 

LESS THAN A month after he won the World Fantasy Award for his collection Where Furnaces Burn, Joel Lane died in his sleep on November 25, 2013, from heart failure brought on by sleep apnoea, with diabetes as a contributing factor.

He was just 50 years old.

Joel’s short fiction also appeared in the collections The Earth Wire & Other Stories (winner of the British Fantasy Award), The Lost District and Other Stories, The Terrible Changes and Do Not Pass Go, and he also published a novella, The Witnesses Are Gone.

He was the author of two mainstream novels, From Blue to Black and The Blue Mask, and he edited an anthology of subterranean horror stories, Beneath the Ground, co-edited the crime fiction anthology Birmingham Noir (with Steve Bishop), and co-edited an anthology of anti-fascist and anti-racist stories in the weird and speculative fiction genres, Never Again (with Allyson Bird). He also published two volumes of poetry.

Joel was one of a new generation of British horror writers that included Nicholas Royle, Michael Marshall Smith, Mark Morris and Conrad Williams, who began their careers in Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s and came to dominate the field with stories that combined traditional horror themes with the social, sexual and political upheavals of the time.

Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, Joel’s fiction continued to rally against the system and prick our conscience beneath a deceptive veneer of genre fiction.

The following story of his is one of my favourites. It was part of a sequence of weird crime stories he wrote set in the West Midlands, and was also a sequel to his earlier story ‘The Lost District’, which described another narrator’s experience of Clayheath.

‘Black Country’ sums up everything I loved about Joel’s fiction – its bleak, but atmospheric setting; its flawed but believable protagonist; its oblique but no less chilling element of the supernatural, and its beautifully-crafted prose.

The story was originally published in 2010 as a stand-alone chapbook from Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press, and I reprinted it the following year in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror Volume 22.

—Stephen Jones

 

BLACK COUNTRY

 

By Joel Lane

 

And time would prove the weapon

His crime would be to breathe the air

He would stain the sheets of the Black Country

                                                                                    —The Nightingales

 

CLAYHEATH, THE TOWN I was born in, is no longer on the map. We moved to Walsall when I was nine, and I never felt like going back. I vaguely knew that it had become a district, and that its boundaries had changed. Then it just ceased to exist as a distinct place, so that by the early 1990s it had been absorbed into the Black Country landscape somewhere between Netherton and Lye. The mixture of redevelopment and dereliction had gradually erased it. Even local people I knew seemed to disagree about where it was. Perhaps they weren’t local enough.

In the late 1990s, my superintendent at the Acocks Green station passed on to me some case notes about an outbreak of juvenile crime in a part of Dudley. Perhaps he thought the stranger aspects of the case would interest me; I was already getting a reputation as the Fox Mulder of the West Midlands police force. A mention of the waste ground near the swimming baths struck a chord in my memory, and I found a couple of the streets named in the report in the A-Z map. Another street wasn’t there, however, and it was hard to relate the map to the place I half-remembered. Perhaps it only sounded like Clayheath because I wanted it to.

Something’s got into the children was the best the DS at the Netherton station could manage by way of an explanation, while the only adult witness to any of the crimes had offered the comment “Must be something in the water round here making them yampy.” To which the helpful DS had appended a note: This means insane, unpredictable or violent. I remembered the word from my childhood – in fact, it had probably been applied to me on a few occasions. I couldn’t remember much about those days, which was fine by me.

To start with, the local primary school had reported a series of unexplained injuries to children: facial bruises, a dislocated arm, a broken finger. The children claimed nothing had happened: they’d fallen asleep in bed or on the bus, and woken up having somehow hurt themselves. The school nurse had reported the injuries to the police, who’d made discreet enquiries and learned nothing. The possibility of parental abuse didn’t explain the pattern of similar injuries in children from around the area. One eight-year-old girl had offered the confusing comment: “They all hate me, the others, it was all of them. All of them in one.” Asked to draw her attacker, she’d gone on drawing one face over another until the image was impossible to make out. She’d been referred for psychiatric assessment.

The local toyshop had been broken into via a back window, too small for a normal adult. The cat burglar had escaped before the police could respond to the automatic alarm, taking a random sample of items: toy soldiers, plastic musical instruments, model aircraft, dinosaurs, monsters. A newsagent had been burgled by the unusual process of making a narrow gap in the felt roof, perhaps over several nights. All that had gone was a shelf of comics. Someone had smashed the front window of a hairdresser’s simply in order to spray black paint over a displayed photo of a cute smiling child. The discarded spray-can had the small fingerprints of several individuals, all apparently children.

The name Clayheath didn’t appear in the report, but one of the episodes detailed brought back strong images of place for me. Someone had gone into the swimming baths early on a Sunday morning and dropped a litter of new-born kittens into the water. Around the same time, their mother had been garrotted and hung from a fence at the back of the waste ground nearby. She was the pet of a local family, and had been missing for a week. The murdered cat was seen and reported by a teenage couple on the Sunday evening. During the day, children had been playing football on the same patch of waste ground. They hadn’t bothered to tell anyone about the cat. An autopsy found four small metal objects in the cat’s throat: a car, a boot, an iron and a dog, playing pieces from a Monopoly board.

Finally, the same primary school that had seen an epidemic of injuries to pupils was broken into in the early hours of a Monday morning. All the pieces of children’s artwork on the walls had been viciously slashed with a knife. All the mirrors in the school toilets had been smashed. The caretaker, who’d come into the school at seven a.m., claimed to have seen a “scraggy-looking” child of nine or so, moving so fast his face was a blur. “Shaking like he was in a fit, all over, had to keep moving not to collapse. And laughing, or pretending to laugh, like when a kid’s trying to upset another kid. There must have been a few of them because the laughing was everywhere.” The caretaker had since been dismissed for drinking at work, which cast some doubt over the reliability of his account.

I contacted the Netherton station and offered to help out with the investigation, telling them I knew the school and other local places from my own childhood, and might be able to shed some light on what was happening. They agreed to put me up in a local hotel for a couple of days while I looked around. But the more I thought about going back to Clayheath, the less it appealed to me. It felt like going back to nothing – not in a neutral way, but in a way that might suck me back in and draw the life out of me. The night I was packing up, I asked Elaine whether she thought losing memories could actually change the past. She looked into my eyes and said: “You should charge yourself rent.”

#

Driving to Netherton, I decided to stop off in the area I’d identified as having been part of Clayheath. From the expressway, I could see old factories and terraced streets that reminded me of my childhood. I wondered how much of the past was waiting for me to rediscover it. All I could think of was my own recurring dream of another life in which I was a musician, travelling from one country to another, staying in ancient hotels and meeting beautiful, unattainable women. I found the street where the school was, but it wasn’t my school: it was a small, flattened building not unlike a secure unit. The houses had been replaced by tower blocks and prefabs, while the high street had become a shopping mall. The location of the swimming baths eluded me. I ended up in Netherton an hour late, confused and tired.

DS Richards, a thin man who seemed vaguely ill at ease, took me for lunch at the local pub. “No-one seems to know what’s going on,” he said. “It must be a bunch of kids, or maybe a few teenagers who aren’t quite the full shilling. You get the feeling they’re doing it to make a point. To get attention. Maybe they think it’s a joke. We catch them, they’ll find out how funny it is.”

“The place has really changed since I was a kid,” I said. “I’m not even sure it is the right place. What happened to the old school?”

“They shut it down twenty years ago, the building’s gone now. Not enough children. The old town was just dying off. It was called Clayheath in those days. Local people never seemed to be well, probably toxic waste or something. The population fell. It just became . . . well, what you see. A grid reference.”

“It must be difficult living with that sense of a lost community.”

“For the older people, yeah. Not the kids, they take it for granted.”

I swallowed a mouthful of black coffee. It tasted of nothing. “When I offered to help out, I thought I could find where local kids are hiding. Getting up to things. I was that kind of kid too. But I’m not sure those places still exist.”

“Do you want to give us a statement?” Richards asked, then winked. “Only joking, our kid. Don’t look like that. You never know, there might be something we’ve missed. Local team aren’t exactly the FBI, you know.

“It’s a shitty place to live. I don’t blame you for leaving. But don’t start feeling sorry for the little fuckers that are doing these things. What’s important is stopping them before something worse happens.”

The Netherton hotel was quiet and inexpensive, which is what you need for undercover work. A couple of sales reps were talking market access in the bar. Alone in my cell-like room, I pocketed a book of matches (I didn’t smoke any more, but the memory of 1970s power cuts stayed with me) and switched on the TV to catch the local news. More firms going out of business, more violence on the streets of Dudley; but nothing about juvenile crime. I switched off the set and at once, as if looking through a window into a darkened room, saw my parents sitting on opposite sides of the living-room table, not speaking. And then the narrow bed where I’d curled up with a pillow over my head, night after night, hoping they wouldn’t start. Not knowing what to do when they did. The relief I’d felt when my father got a job that took him away from home most of the week. Then discovering that my parents saved up all their resentments for the weekend. The shouting, the bitter silences, the hours of quiet crying, the times when it became violent. The years of it.

I’d suffered from nightmares and broken sleep, been put on a medication that I’d discovered only quite recently to have been a tricyclic antidepressant known for its side-effects. Yes, I’d got up to stuff. Nothing that would make a play on BBC2, but enough to hide my childhood beyond the view of everyday memory. I’d stolen from shops and other kids, defaced library books and posters, smeared my own shit on the walls of toilet cubicles. In family photos, I used to pull faces and pretend I had a stomach-ache. Throughout junior school and the first year of secondary school, I was a disruptive, friendless, arrogant little sod. My parents knew it, and felt it was their duty to keep telling me. If they ever glimpsed the hopelessness behind it, they didn’t let on. Eventually puberty gripped me and I turned quiet.

Despite being effectively on duty, I went down into the bar and had a pint of real ale. The two reps were swapping accounts of their one-night stands. It still sounded like they were talking about market access. I was grateful for their voices, which covered up the silence in my head. Maybe that’s why heavy metal is so popular in the Black Country. Either that or it evokes some collective memory of the generations of factory work.

A leaflet pinned to the wall of the bar caught my eye: a blues night at a local pub. The date was tonight. That could be a chance to relax after visiting what had been Clayheath. But I’d better get a move on. I drained my pint and went out into the narrow street, the case notes in a vinyl folder under my arm. Richards had told me the number of the bus from here to the swimming baths. He’d also given me a file of press cuttings that I’d flicked through, noticing a photo of the newsagent who’d been robbed. I recognised him.

Perhaps if there’d been more of the old Clayheath still in place, I would have gone on reliving the past. But there was hardly anything I recognised. The swimming baths, badly in need of renovation. The viaduct and the old railway it carried. The grey canal below street level. The derelict brickworks. These were relics, surviving only because there was no profit in removing them. They had lost the town that gave them a purpose. The expressway that cut through the area brought people to the shopping mall and took them away to whatever jobs they had. The tower blocks and prefabricated housing units didn’t look like anyone’s permanent homes, though no doubt they were. I tried, and failed, to visualise the district as it had been. No memories of any kind came back to me.

With some difficulty, I found the newsagent where the comics had been stolen. The man behind the counter had grey stubble on his head and jowls. He looked too old to be still working. Was this the same shopkeeper, perhaps even the same corner shop? If so, should I apologise for stealing his Sherbet Fountains three decades ago? This probably wasn’t the right time. I looked around: stacked copies of Auto Trader; bags of loose tobacco; discounted end-of-line food packages; specialist porn. I bought a copy of the local Express and Star and let him see my ID card. “Sorry to hear about the break-in,” I said. “Any trouble since?”

He shook his head. “I don’t let any kids in here now without an adult. Sometimes I can hear them outside, laughing. Waiting to sneak in when my back’s turned. I’ve seed them hiding between the houses. Watching. Bring back the cane, that’s what I say. And in public.” His thin hands were trembling above the counter. I gave him my phone number and asked him to get in touch if he had any worries. Somehow I felt I owed him.

As the streets grew dark, I walked back to Netherton. One question troubled me: why had none of the stolen goods come to light? Local parents would surely be watching their children for anything suspicious. You’d expect a black market with a fairly visible audit trail. Children were no good at secrets. The more blurred and indistinct the buildings became, the more they resembled my state of mind.

Back at the hotel, I ordered a plate of sandwiches and settled down with the press clippings. The only story more recent than the case notes was a mother who’d turned in her nine-year-old son. The police had questioned him for several hours, but released him saying he knew nothing about the crimes. His mother wasn’t convinced. “He’s a liar and a thief,” she’d told the local paper. “He’d cheat at solitaire. His father’s a villain.”

Before going out I phoned Elaine to check that she and our daughter Julia were okay. She said Julia still wasn’t eating much. “Do you think she’s being bullied in school?” I said that might be part of it, and I’d try to have a chat with her when I got home. “Remind her who you are,” Elaine said. I didn’t rise to it. After I’d put the phone down, I wondered if my habit of avoiding any kind of conflict in the home was making silence a family member, giving it a place at the table, and if that might be as harmful as arguments. Then I decided what I needed was a drink.

The pub with the blues night was just around the corner. It was an open-mic session. Feeling only half awake, I firkled in my weekend bag until I found the small harmonica that travelled everywhere with me. I’d bought it in Stourbridge a few days after leaving home, back in the early 1970s. Hadn’t played in front of an audience for twenty years. I wiped it with a tissue, checked it still worked. The first note took my breath away, literally.

The next couple of hours passed in a bittersweet haze of whisky, acoustic blues and second-hand smoke. Twenty or so people in a small function room with a coal-effect gas fire – predominantly middle-aged men, with a few women and youngsters. Nearly all musicians. I played a couple of Sonny Boy Williamson songs, though my harp skills were painfully inadequate. The highlight was when a young woman with red hair sang “God Bless the Child”. At the end, most of us joined in a medley of Leadbelly songs. I felt uneasy singing about racist police officers, but sometimes unease is good for you.

When I left the pub, the cold night air filled my lungs like a cry. I was far more drunk than I’d meant to get. Something was drifting at the back of my mind, impossible to focus on: the image of a hollow face like a dried-out ulcer. I let myself into the hotel and climbed the stairs as quietly as possible. My tiny room seemed to intensify the face of loneliness in my mind. I dropped the harmonica on the bedside table, stripped down to my boxer shorts and climbed under the duvet. But I couldn’t get to sleep until I’d curled up on my side, arms crossed over my chest, head thrust deep into the pillows.

I was standing at the edge of the school playground, watching the other kids play some arcane game I didn’t understand. No one came near me. Then I heard laughter through the railings, and turned round. A gang of street brats, not wearing any school uniform. Some of them reached out for me. I ran towards them, jumped the railings without effort, landed hard on my knees, got up and ran with them away from the school, down the grey street, into the park. Dead leaves were falling around us like flakes of skin. Their hands brushed my arms and head as we ran, caresses that were nearly blows. The wind tore their laughter to shreds.

At the back of the park was a chain-link fence with gaps we struggled through into the waste ground. Our feet sank in the muddy grass, but we kept running. Fireweed smeared our clothes with its whitish feathery seeds. The children’s faces were pale in the moonlight, but their eyes were black hollows. When I slowed down, they dragged me with them. Finally we broke through a line of ragged trees into a valley where a brick embankment supported the railway line. A train was approaching, black against the moth-eaten grey clouds.

Set into the embankment was a tiny house: a railwayman’s cottage. The windows were bricked up. But there was a narrow passage to one side, and a dead tree with a branch close to a window where some bricks had been removed. One by one we climbed the tree, helping each other up, and squeezed through into the lightless room. The children were all around me now, their thin bodies pressed together, and they’d stopped laughing.

#

I rose slowly from the depths of sleep, still curled up on the bed. The sense of being trapped stayed with me for minutes. I could see a faint smear of moonlight on the curtain. My eyes were wet, but my mouth felt so dry it was a struggle to breathe. I pushed myself off the bed and began to dress slowly, in the dark. Then I reached out to the bedside table and felt until my hand gripped the harmonica.

Outside, it was raining softly. There was no traffic in the streets, though I could see lights moving on the expressway in the distance. I let the dream guide me the couple of miles to where Clayheath had been. Old buildings and roadways were clinging to the new ones like flaps of peeled-off skin. It was cold. I was still drunk, and more asleep than awake. Cats or seagulls were crying somewhere in the night. Soon I passed the derelict school, and walked on through the park. The smell of decay almost made me pass out. More than nature was rotting. The chain-link fence had mostly fallen apart, and I staggered over the marshy ground to the line of bare, distorted trees. My ankles were heavy with mud. My own breath was a rusty wheeze in my ears, a bad harmonica solo.

The railwayman’s cottage was still there, unchanged. I pulled myself up onto the dead branch. The gap in the bricked-up window was only large enough for a child. But somehow I forced myself through, tearing my shirt. I was alone in the dark room. There was no sound of laughter. I reached for the book of matches, tore one off and struck it. Then lit another as the contents of the den slowly revealed themselves to me. Every inch of space on the rotting shelves and floorboards was covered with stolen things: dog-eared books, flaking comics, model soldiers and aircraft, soft toys, bars of chocolate, Coke cans, sticks of liquorice. All of it carefully, neatly arrayed, to be gloated over and sampled through the long nights. A secret hoard.

The half-moon passed across the window. Soon it would be daylight. I was sobering up. He was here, I knew, but he wouldn’t show himself to me. There was only one way to bring him out. I grabbed a handful of comics with shiny covers, crumpled them and used a third match to set fire to them. A bird screamed with laughter out among the trees. I dropped my harmonica into the burning heap of paper. The fire spread up the wall, caught the dry curtain. I forced myself back out the window and fell to the stony ground, jarring my ankle. The window breathed out a gust of black smoke. I leaned against the tree, biting my lip against the pain. Something was moving inside the house, like a squirrel trapped in a nest.

There was a sound of falling bricks. Flame licked the darkness outside the window. Then a thin figure leapt onto the tree branch and fell, curled up on himself. I caught him as he tried to get away. Felt the cold and absence of him in my arms. Looked down into his blurred face as his skin creased like a thumbprint, like an image in a sketchbook rubbed out and redrawn. I was in there somewhere. I held him close as his breath faded, as his face broke apart from the inside, until I was holding something blackened and flaky like a rose of ashes.

4 comments on “Black Country Prophet – Joel Lane Archive 1

  1. Pingback: News Round-up Week Ending 29 August » This Is Horror

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