Black Country Prophet – Joel Lane Archive 2

Today, we bring you the second in our celebration of the life and work of the much-missed writer Joel Lane, who died last year at the age of 50 due to complications arising from sleep apnoea and diabetes. Today, writer Rosanne Rabinowiz chooses her favourite story of Joel’s and introduces it below.

Joel Lane - photograph by Nicholas Royle

Joel Lane – photograph by Nicholas Royle

Midnight Flight

Commentary by Rosanne Rabinowitz

I first encountered Joel’s writing in 1995 when I read the Last Rites and Resurrections anthology, which included his story “Take Me When You Go” (I commented on this story here (http://rosannerabinowitz.wordpress.com/2013/12/07/joel-lane-1963-2013-theres-always-a-link-between-deprivation-and-fantasy). Later on, I was proud to see some of my work end up in anthologies alongside Joel’s.

We both contributed to Des Lewis’ anthology The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies, where each story included a horror anthology as its central focus. Mine was “The Pearl and the Boil”, and Joel’s story was “Midnight Flight”.

As usual, I turned to Joel’s story first. I found that both our stories took on a similar theme – someone is searching for a disturbing and alluring anthology that they read as youngsters, which wielded a great influence on their lives.

And while mine was 10,000+ words, Joel told his story with enviable and haunting economy.

Joel’s faltering protagonist is looking for a book called Midnight Flight, which he took out of the school library as a child. The book contains strange tales centred on flight and winged nocturnal beings. Many involve creepy moths. Curious children get drained of blood; there is a creature that can only fly in utter darkness.

Like the anthology at its centre, Joel’s story is also disturbing and dark. His protagonist is losing his memory, and needs to recapture moments from his childhood. While the stories in Midnight Flight horrified him, the book also represented escape and pleasure.

His determination to track down a copy of this book leads him to the editor himself… Yet Joel denies the reader an easy resolution, and ends on an ambiguous note. Perhaps the meeting with the aged editor is much more frightening than all the creepy winged things in the anthology put together. This very non-supernatural encounter in a nursing home summons the fears of many maverick writers or editors. How will I end up? Will I die alone, trembling and forgotten? Will the one person left in the world who remembers  and values my work ever find me?

‘Midnight Flight’ is an altogether bleak yet beautiful tale.

 

 

Midnight Flight

by Joel Lane

Paul Cooksey remembered the book’s title on the same day that he forgot where he lived. As his bus neared the Hockley Flyover and the tall buildings on either side receded, he had a momentary sensation of flying on wings of concrete. Night was falling, but the streetlamps hadn’t yet come on. Cars streamed past on the outside lane. He closed his eyes, and a name he’d been trying to recall for months came back to him as naturally as if he’d never lost it. Midnight Flight.

The editor’s name continued to elude him, and it wasn’t any of the usual suspects. The book had been in the school library, quite battered when he’d read it in… 1956 it must have been, when he was twelve. The first book of horror stories he’d read, unless you counted the children’s versions of Norse and Greek myths and Beowulf, which you probably should.

As the bus crawled through heavy traffic on the Soho Road, the teenagers shouting into their mobiles and headphones leaking beats drove the book from his mind. But now he’d remembered the title, maybe he’d be able to track down a copy. It might even have the original cover. He couldn’t see through the murky windows to identify his stop, and the chanting around him was getting louder as if the reception was better at this point. Paul rose to his feet and cautiously pushed his thin body past the standing youngsters. Nobody moved to let him through.

Midnight Flight. There was a story about a lonely boy who collected moths and was drained of blood by a vengeful giant moth with skulls on its wings. And a story about a dead lake haunted by a terrible black moth. There were other kinds of winged creature in the book, including one that could only fly in utter darkness because it came from outer space, but it was the moth ones he remembered most clearly. For years he’d dreamt of flying through the night on fragile wings.

“Get out the fucking way!” A boy on a racing bike narrowly missed him on the pavement. The cold air transmitted the near-impact. Paul looked around in confusion. He must have taken a wrong turning: there were no familiar landmarks in sight. A woman with a pram was approaching; he’d better ask her.

“Excuse me,” he said as she drew level with him. “Do you know the way to…” What was the name of the road? He shook his head. “Shit.”

“Even my daughter knows that.” The woman smiled. “Where are you trying to get to?”

“My flat. Just can’t…” Blood rose to his face, silencing him.

“Have you got a bus pass?”

“I can walk, it’s not far.” Though he was no longer sure of that.

The woman touched his arm. “For your address.”

Doubtful, Paul pulled out his wallet and checked. His address in Victoria Road was there. He’d never been good with women’s names. “Thank you,” he said, breathless with relief.

“No worries.” He watched her continue up the road, weaving to negotiate the shattered paving-stones. The sky overhead was fully dark; a helicopter’s light moved slowly above the rooftops. Paul replaced his wallet and buttoned up his coat. He wasn’t convinced the face in the bus pass photo was him, but you couldn’t be sure of everything.

*

Three days later, he remembered the editor’s name. It happened in the Black Eagle, while he was trying to read the new menu. The lines were too close together, blurring like ripples on still water. He folded the card and put it down, trying to recall what he’d last eaten here. At the next table, a middle-aged man with a beard was being tugged from side to side by headphones plugged into some round, black device that looked about to crawl away. He raised his arms above his head. Paul looked back down at the menu card and immediately saw the words: Thom Creighton Parr. He adjusted his glasses and read: Torn chicken pasta. But he was sure it was the right name. When he closed his eyes he could see it under the book’s title, superimposed on an image of blurred wings against the night. Black on dark blue.

The pasta was too expensive, so he opted for pie and chips, which didn’t remind him of anything. It didn’t taste of anything either. The bearded man played invisible drums in the air. The sound of voices arguing at another table rose to a violent pitch, though Paul couldn’t see any movement. He left his pint unfinished. On the way out, a grey-haired woman turned her head towards him and smiled. “How’s it going?” He didn’t recognise her; she must be speaking to someone else. But she looked disappointed when he didn’t stop. Embarrassment made him head for the door as quickly as his shaky legs would go. Was it possible that every memory he regained had to be paid for with another one?

*

A grey dawn was filtering through the curtains, turning his bed to concrete. Paul sat up and gripped the sides of his head to absorb the dull throbbing before it could break free. His throat was dry. Flakes of dead skin drifted from his fingertips. Was that what old age meant, that the layers of skin went deeper so that less and less of you was alive? He reached out to the bedside table, switched on the lamp and picked up a second-hand book. A detective story. But his eyes were too tired: the lines of print crept across the yellowing paper. When he couldn’t read, why was he convinced that Midnight Flight would release him from pain and loneliness? Was it just because it had done that for him as a child?

Perhaps the local library could help him. Not that it would have the book, or any book published in the last century. But the computers whose blank screens had frozen him out might hold some answers. Paul washed and dressed a little faster than his usual lethargic morning pace, putting on his favourite cardigan despite the holes he noticed in its left shoulder and arm. Midnight Flight was out there, nestling on a wooden shelf, its pages waiting to be turned again. Maybe the same copy he’d read and re-read all those years ago.

The library’s few bookshelves were mostly taken up with standard reference works and large print volumes – which Paul, for the first time, wondered if he ought to borrow one of. A few newspapers were scattered on the tables between the long ranks of computers.

The librarian, a short middle-aged man with an oddly boyish expression, looked up Midnight Flight on his desk terminal. “No copies in the library system any more,” he said. “There’d be one at the British Library, of course, but that’s in London. Have you tried ABE Books?” He didn’t know what that was. The librarian checked his ticket, then found him a computer and showed him how to search. No second-hand copy seemed to be available online. The librarian left him to further searches. “Good luck, Mr Cooksey.” Paul wondered who he was talking to. He had to look back at his own ticket to see that was his name.

A search for Thom Creighton Parr yielded seven links. Three of them were to listings of second-hand copies of his book on bowling, Green Pastures, while two more were bowling society websites that cited the same book. Another was a Wikipedia entry that gave Parr’s birth date as 1923, but no death date. It mentioned Midnight Flight, but only to describe it as a “long-forgotten horror anthology” with only one edition, in 1954.

The final link was to a website called Crypt of Cobwebs, dedicated to British and American horror fiction. Paul hadn’t read much in that genre since Midnight Flight. He’d tried a few other anthologies in the sixties and seventies but had given up, nauseated by severed heads and vats of acid. The linked passage was in an article on British horror anthologies before 1980. It said:

One of weird fiction’s great ‘lost books’ is Midnight Flight edited by Thom Creighton Parr (Acheron Press, 1964), which is thought to have included tales by Lovecraft and Jacobi. All the stories involve winged nocturnal creatures. A reviewer called the book “too disturbing to read”, and it was never reprinted – though of course, true weird fiction stood little chance of being appreciated in the Marxist sixties. Copies are hard to track down. It’s rumoured that copyright problems led to copies of the book being recalled. Or maybe they just flew away.

The article was by Niall Verde. Working back through the Crypt’s elaborate structure, which seemed to extend under a broad church, Paul found topics ranging from an early Gothic novel to a recent erotic vampire thriller. Verde was among the most frequent posters. His comments, always made in the early hours of the morning, were mostly concerned with how little “the herd” understood about “true weird fiction”. In the course of a bitter argument with another insomniac, he remarked that “visionary” works such as his own collection The Veil of Fail were doomed to oblivion because “writers who care more about creating great fiction than self-promotion will always be passed over.” There was a link to Verde’s personal website, but Paul had seen enough. He cleared the screen, then tried a search for Acheron Press. Much to his surprise, the imprint still existed. He wrote down the address, which was in Stafford.

*

The train shuddered as it lost and gained speed, pausing between stations in a landscape of shut-down factories and empty fields. The view had been sprayed white and called morning, but he could see the night sky underneath. Then the young man sitting in front of him pulled down the grey curtain so he could read his phone. Paul closed his eyes and shivered. He didn’t want to be alone with his memories, because they couldn’t be relied on. The gaps were spreading, a ragged pattern of darkness like the wings on the cover of Midnight Flight.

He’d written to Acheron Press, and a typed letter had come back with a shaky signature. The original publisher was still alive, though a decade older than Paul, and said he still got occasional queries about Midnight Flight. Their stock had been destroyed in a fire in 1971. There’d been some ex-library copies in circulation for a while. They’d never considered reprinting the book because, after the fire, they’d switched to publishing non-fiction – mostly natural history and Egyptology. The business was steadily winding down, though a few local societies and museums supported it.

What had made Paul buy the train ticket was the news that Parr was still alive. The Acheron publisher still sent him occasional royalties for some entomology books he’d provided photographs for. Since 2006 he’d been living at a nursing-home in Stoke-on Trent. The publisher had commented: “He and I used to keep in touch, but these days I’m afraid he’s hardly there.”

The train ground to a halt. Paul wiped his eyes with a hand that felt dry as paper. Surely this was the fool’s errand to end them all. A man losing his memory on a quest to find a man who’d already lost his own. He wanted to believe that Parr could help him find the book – or even tell him, from further down the road, where his own journey into darkness was heading. Perhaps this happened to everyone who’d read the book.

Last night he’d sat by the phone, trying to remember his sister’s number or the number of anyone he knew. His address book had flown away months ago. Paul had lived alone since his teens. Hadn’t slept with a woman in thirty years, still missed it though he doubted much would happen if he got the chance. All in all, he’d rather miss things than forget what they were like. Hence the ticket.

On the platform at Stoke, Paul was surprised how unsteady his legs were. As if not just the two-hour journey but the change of scene had affected his connection with the ground. He bought an A-Z map in the station newsagent, but couldn’t make out the street names. Outside the station, everywhere seemed to be boarded up. He’d never find the way. It was hard enough with places he knew. Behind the derelict buildings, the illusion of daylight seemed more fragile than ever. He waved down a black cab and asked the driver for the Tyton Retirement Home.

“Been away, have you?” the driver asked as Paul settled himself awkwardly in the back.

“Yes.” Why not let him think that? If he said he didn’t live here, there would be questions he couldn’t answer. The cab swerved around potholes in the road, passed the grey skeletons of buildings. This might as well be his home: a town that had lost its sense of identity. He belonged here. The driver stopped at a traffic light; a young woman crossed the road, a phone pressed to the side of her face.

The nursing-home was a few miles out of town, where the dereliction was softened by the flame and rust of autumn trees. Dead leaves marked the road with an incomplete pattern. The cab’s wheels crunched on the gravel driveway. The building had a new white frontage, though its side was rotting grey brick. Paul paid the driver; it was almost all the cash he had.

The young male nurse who answered the door stared at Paul as if trying to remember who he was. Paul knew how the lad felt. He said, “I’ve come to visit Mr Parr. Is he in?”

The nurse nodded. “You’ll find him in room 17, ground floor.” As Paul moved towards the door, he added: “Have you booked?”

“Sorry, no. I wasn’t sure when I’d get here.” The nurse looked like he was considering blocking the way, but then stepped aside at the last moment.

The interior of the home was poorly lit and smelt like an old-fashioned dry cleaner. Mothballs, that was it. Pipes vibrated behind the walls. The dirt in the cracked floor-tiles suggested a partly-erased image. Most of the doors were shut, but the open ones leaked other smells: antiseptic, stale urine, bacon. A cry echoed through the narrow corridor, more like a seagull than a human voice.

Room 17 was on the right, a long way into the building. Paul had to touch the raised number to make sure of it. The door was open by a crack. He pressed his shoulder to it and stepped through. A small room with a table and a few chairs, a bookcase, a TV set with the picture on but no sound. A flickering mercury light. Two shrunken figures in armchairs, not watching the TV. Neither of them moved as Paul entered the room.

“Is Thom Parr in here?”

The two men looked at each other. Then one of them pointed back over his shoulder. Paul realised there was a side room, or an alcove, with a vague shape just visible against a creased black curtain. “Thank you,” he said, and walked through. The stuttering of the light made it hard to understand what was there. The curtain was just random streaks of damp in the wall. The man seated in the chair, or rather held by it in a sitting position, was wrapped below the neck in a lace blanket. He was almost bald. His eyes were sunk so far into his narrow face that it took Paul a while to see that they were open.

“Mr Parr? Hello?” The face didn’t stir. Paul looked closer. He could have been looking in a cracked and grimy mirror. “I’m a reader,” he said, and blushed with shame at the uselessness of that. “Are you OK?”

There was no sound of breath. The old man’s lips trembled, but perhaps that was just the light. Paul reached out slowly and touched the side of his throat, where the pulse should be. The flesh was cold. He brushed a fingertip against the dry lips: no air movement. He wondered what he might have to do to be sure that Parr was dead. Maybe the problem was in himself.

He reported the death back at the reception desk. They didn’t seem either surprised or upset. He asked if there was anyone who needed to be informed, and was told that Parr had no relatives and no property. Everything he owned had been sold to pay for his place at the retirement home.

When Paul left, the daylight was fading. He felt drained by the effort of reporting the death, as if he’d used up his clarity of mind for the day. He’d better get back to the station, but that didn’t seem possible until he got his bearings. The still face drifted in front of him, shedding flakes of skin like dead leaves. His legs ached, but he couldn’t stop walking until the white building was out of sight. Then he walked on, looking for a sign.

Woodland, reminding him of childhood walks with his parents. Later, with girlfriends, he’d stayed in the city, maybe walked hand in hand along the canal towpath. Never made love out of doors. But the smell of decaying leaves excited him for some reason he couldn’t explain. If only he could find the book, he could become Parr, not have to go home to a city he didn’t know any more.

Not only his legs but his lungs ached, his hands were losing sensation, his throat was raw. But he couldn’t stop. As if there were wings at his back. Night was falling, crossing out the errors of daylight. Burning the page. At the edge of the wood, he reached a derelict house. Its doorway and windows were boarded up. Had Parr tried to sell it? He dimly remembered going into a derelict house on one of those childhood walks, finding a butterfly brooch, giving it to his mother. Black or dark blue. Had that happened, or was it a dream?

Behind the house was a patch of wasteground. He couldn’t see where it ended, though he could hear running water. And a faint pulse, like the beating of wings. He could just make out a few dead trees in the half-light around him, with no leaves to shed. Had this been a garden? Was his real life coming to an end, as well as the false life in a city whose name he couldn’t remember? The ground was as cold as the thin face he’d touched. The pulsing of wings made him flatten himself against the dead grass and fragments of stone, the pattern he couldn’t see.

Then the wings were above him, beating slowly in the dark, their edges brushing his face. The pages turning. The dark covers shutting out the town’s distant light. A clear memory came back to him: lying with his first girlfriend on a narrow bed, pinning back her wings of flesh with his tongue. Their hands locked together. And then the book folded around his body, and its dry pages gave the dust of their stories back to him.

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