Black Country Prophet: Joel Lane Archive 6

Notes On Five Poems by Joel Lane

As well as being a celebrated fiction writer and essayist, Joel was also a noted poet. My thanks are due to Simon Bestwick for passing many of Joel’s poems over to me. As someone who goes to a lot of poetry readings, what strikes me most about Joel’s poems is that each piece has a purpose and a clear point of view. I have chosen a few here where he is writing about being a writer, about his childhood and, of course, about Birmingham and the west Midlands. 

Allen Ashley

 

 

Joel Lane - photograph by Nicholas Royle

Joel Lane – photograph by Nicholas Royle

Five Poems by Joel Lane

 

1001 Nights

The stories. How did they start?

From broken nights. Trying to escape.

I made things up all the time.

Kept a torch under my pillow

for when they kept me awake.

Tried to build a wall of stories

thicker than the plaster between

my little room and their war.

Journeys, adventures, miracles,

dreams and terrors. Night after night

it was the only place I could go.

 

How often were you woken up?

Maybe twice a week, for ten years.

First the arguing, low but intense,

then the shouting, howling, fighting,

slamming against walls, the crying. 

Those were the thousand nights.

I never slept well. Still don’t.

 

And the thousand and first night?

Don’t ever ask me that.

 

Hard Face

It took three days of junior school:

to weave a wire frame around

an inflated balloon, then burst it

to leave an empty skull

 

over which I moulded a face

of torn newspaper and glue,

left it to dry in class overnight

and then painted on eyes,

 

dark red hair and a smile.

The annoying little brat I was:

so bright, but so full of words.

A liar. Too fond of himself.

 

You don’t want to know that child.

These days, neither do I.

The mouth that never closed,

the void behind the painted eyes.

 

The voices fighting in my head.

Blows falling beyond the wall.

Words I can’t set to any music.

Tapes that can’t be erased.

 

My only barrier the mask

of not caring about anyone.

Hard face, little bastard face,

so brittle it might crack open.

 

Some day I’ll try to cut through

this sallow, middle-aged skin

to reach that bitter child –

but it won’t work: the razor

 

will only slice away layer

on layer of newsprint, minor events,

lying editorials, sports results,

never getting close to the wire.

 

Stained

In the shadow of the flyovers

and tower blocks, the old streets

of North Birmingham are drowning

as the water table shifts up

 

through brick and woodwork,

through the roar of traffic.

It’s too late for a spray job,

for not in front of the kids.

Put It Back

Redrafting is a nightmare.

Too many conflicting parts:

some too personal or too cold,

some libellous, some obscene.

 

Cutting out what doesn’t fit

creates a batch of side projects

while the book itself is pure

but thin, in tune with its own

 

delicate silence. Outside

a storm rattles the window

and the dark is pressing hard.

The traffic won’t let up.

 

Last night I was blind drunk,

today I was crying. Tonight

I’ve reopened the files.

Time to put it all back in.

 

The Ballad of Tyseley Dump (abridged version) by Joel Lane

He did not wear a scarlet coat,

For blood and wine are red;

He was a vicious little scrote

With stubble on his head,

And he often drank, then had a wank

And sometimes pissed the bed.

 

He never would repay his debts

Nor drive a bus or truck,

But sank his cash in scams and bets

Yet never had much luck.

He had betrayed the thing he loved,

But no-one gave a fuck.

 

For each man cheats the thing he loves,

It always comes to pass:

Some do the dirty on their wives

And some sell out their class;

The hard man does it with his dick,

The faggot with his arse.

 

In Tyseley town near Tyseley dump

There stands a knocking shop

Where sad old gits drool over tits,

Then shag until they drop;

For each man born will get the horn

And won’t know when to stop.

 

For each man cheats the thing he loves,

By all let this be known;

Some do it on a dusty floor,

Some on a mobile phone;

Some do it in a crowded place,

Some do it on their own.

 

 

                

Black Country Prophet: Joel Lane Archive 4

I published this short piece of Joel’s in New Horizons #6 which I edited for the British Fantasy Society in 2010. In many ways it’s indicative of his fiction: there’s the unyielding city, the victim, the confusion of reality and fantasy, and the downbeat ending; but there’s also a glimmer of Joel’s humour: “…it’ll be over soon. Because I’m going downhill. You’d think that was easy in a wheelchair, but it isn’t.”

For me, this was also one of the first of Joel’s stories that I read which could loosely be described as crime. He began to introduce more weird crime elements in his fiction towards the end of his life and they really appealed to me. Perhaps the juxtaposition of law and disorder added an extra frisson to the weirdness, emphasising the differences between what was solid and what was fluid. Either way, it’s a shame that now there is no longer the chance to read more of his work and how it might have further developed.

 Andrew Hook

Joel Lane - photograph by Nicholas Royle

Joel Lane – photograph by Nicholas Royle

Incry

 

Joel Lane

 

It was a Friday night in Acocks Green, a deteriorating suburb on the southern edge of the city. The pubs had closed. A young couple, rather drunk, were looking for a place to make love. The alley off the Warwick Road was blocked by overturned rubbish bins. Outside the garages at the top of Shirley Road, a stray cat was slowly dismembering a mouse. The teenagers, who were on their first date, crossed through the car park on the traffic island and looked around. To their left was a coin-operated toilet box. The boy pointed towards it. The girl pressed her face into his chest. They looked around. No-one was in sight. Quickly, they walked to the automatic toilet and the boy reached in his pocket for a coin. They’d have twenty minutes inside; that was long enough. The door slid open. A man was lying on the floor, twisted over, one arm flung out. His jeans were soaked with urine. They thought he was just unconscious until they saw his face.

 *

That was in my first year at the Acocks Green office. I was in the incident room that night, and talked to both of the youngsters. They were sobering up fast, withdrawing into themselves. After tonight, I suspected, they wouldn’t see each other again. The man in the toilet box had lived locally. His bruises were compatible with his having had some kind of fit or seizure. He’d bitten through his tongue, and then dislocated his jaw. An X-ray established that he’d choked on his own blood. The girl’s comment was as much help as anything the hospital gave us: “His face looked like a scream had torn it apart.”

The next day, the dead man’s medical records failed to suggest any medical condition that could explain his death. And CCTV footage showed him going into the toilet box on his own. DC Monk told me the camera had been there for a year, since a man had been severely beaten in the same place. His two attackers had been charged, but there hadn’t been enough evidence to convict. Both men had since left the region. Their victim had survived, but was crippled by the attack.

The autopsy recorded no suspicious circumstances, so we filed a report and moved on. But echoes of the toilet box death kept recurring for me. I’ve always been claustrophobic, hated the idea of being locked in. A drunken friend of my wife once told me I’d joined the force to deny my fear by imprisoning others. I suppose my reaction to her could have been more polite, but I don’t like people who think cleverness is a substitute for experience.

That summer, there were a number of unexplained deaths in the streets among otherwise healthy men. None of them were suggestive of violence. Our pathologist called it ‘sudden death syndrome’ – which I can’t say shed a great deal of light on the problem. The other recurring theme was gangs beating people up for the usual reasons. Or no reason at all. I couldn’t shake off the conviction that the two things were linked in some way. No doubt being a persecutor of the innocent was affecting my state of mind.

 *

The whole episode might have been forgotten if I hadn’t been on a night shift in the Green a few weeks later. I was in uniform, helping to keep an eye on a house whose front window had been shot out from a passing car. After three hours of nothing, I was desperate for a piss. DC Joiner arrived to take over, and rather than walk back to the station I decided to use the automatic toilet around the corner. It was nearly two a.m. and there was no-one about. The machine accepted my coin and the steel door opened silently. The room inside reeked of disinfectant.

While I was relieving myself, a voice jabbed in my ear: You fucking twisted scum. You vicious little prick. Don’t mind handing it out, but you don’t like getting it. Do you? The voice stank of sweat and rage. I felt a hand on my shoulder, a fist jabbing me in the kidneys. Panic gripped my throat. I couldn’t seem to breathe. Then I finished, zipped myself up, tried to get to the door. You won’t get away with it this time. Fucking piece of shit bastard lying scum. A hand gripped my hair, pulled my head back. I turned and struck out at nothing.

Rage moulded itself on me like a skin-tight costume. I fell to my knees, reached out blindly to the panel beside the door. Somehow I pressed the button, got the door to slide open, staggered out onto the empty street and knelt there for a few minutes, fighting for breath. The echo of a cry was trapped in my head.

 *

Carl Bradmore lived on the nineteenth floor of one of the tower blocks on Holloway Head. The smell of disinfectant in the lift made me feel nauseous and close to panic. When I rang the bell, he opened the door almost at once; I’d phoned him to arrange the visit. He was a short, chubby man of thirty or so in an electric wheelchair. He’d been living here for nearly a year, since the attack. Presumably the better security compensated for the more difficult access.

Carl led me into his minimally-furnished living room and beckoned me to sit on the black sofa. “How can I help you?” he said.

“I need to ask you some questions about the attack on you last year. Can you please talk me through what happened?”

He closed his eyes. “Just walking home, near midnight. I was in Oxford Road, near the post office. Two young men approached me from either side. I felt a knife in my back. One of them told me to go to a cashpoint. I refused. They marched me to the automatic toilet. There was no-one else in sight. The other man asked me if I came here to get sucked off. I didn’t say anything. They started hitting me. I fell down, curled up, trying to cover my head. Something gave way at the base of my spine and I passed out. That didn’t stop them.”

Carl was trembling. “Can I get a drink?” he asked. I nodded and he poured himself a shot of brandy. “I suppose you want to know why I didn’t give in?” I said nothing. “I thought if they didn’t get what they wanted, they were more likely to let me live. I’m not like the brightest of people.”

“What happened after?” I asked. He sipped the brandy slowly, avoiding my eyes. Eventually he looked up at me.

“I was in hospital a long time. When I came out, I got this flat. Had to give up working. I used to be a record producer. My hearing isn’t right any more. But friends help me with stuff. I get along. Never saw those two again.”

“Last month, Carl, a man died in the toilet you were beaten up in. Something frightened him to death. I’ve been there and felt… a trapped rage. Something that went for me because I was there. Caught in its own past. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

A longer pause. He finished the glass and refilled it. Still looking away from me, he said: “I was in hospital a long time. So many voices echoing in the long corridors. So many dead people. Every night, I dreamt of fighting back. I still do.”

His dream hadn’t come true. It had just echoed, distorted. “An innocent man has been killed. It’s got to stop, Carl.”

He looked at me silently for a few minutes. His face was very pale. “I couldn’t stop it if I tried,” he said at last. “Can you hold your breath in your sleep? But it’ll be over soon. Because I’m going downhill. You’d think that was easy in a wheelchair, but it isn’t.

“It’s not just me. There are the others. The backing vocals. That’s where it really comes from. They’ve been waiting for a chance to come through. And they don’t care.”

“Can you hold them back?” I asked.

He tried to shake his head, winced with pain. “But I’ll be one of them. It’s harder on the other side.”

“It doesn’t seem too easy on this one.”

I stood up and shook his hand. “Goodbye, Carl. Take care. I hope you find your own voice again.”

“No chance.” He smiled. “Won’t be long now.”

I let myself out. As the door was closing I thought I heard him call after me: “Just keep your ears open.” I walked down the stairs, which took long enough for me to persuade myself that nothing out of the ordinary had been said.

 *

Three days later, I was on a night shift in the jewellery quarter.  The sky was written over with the blank message of autumn. It was a couple of hours before dawn. I’d been watching the streets, looking out for suspicious activity. But it had been a quiet night. I was looking down over the Victorian cemetery in Vyse Street and thinking about coffee when a faint cry echoed from the buildings. It rose to a scream of fear, then trailed off. I shivered. There was no-one in sight.

Another distant voice cut through the still air. Then two or three at once. The cries opened the night like wounds. They were all around me now, but not coming from the streets: they were in the sky, or else in the unlit tower blocks. They joined together in an atonal chorus that had disturbing power, but no harmony. Then, as suddenly as they had arisen, the voices faded to the restless static of cars on their way into the city.

Black Country Prophet: Joel Lane Archive 3

This Joel Lane story was suggested for the Archive by Peter Coleborn of Alchemy Press. The story was originally published in the anthology Swords Against The Millennium edited by Mike Chinn and jointly published by Saladoth and Alchemy Press. In the author notes Joel mentions being inspired by the writings of Clark Ashton Smith and the music of Robert Smith (The Cure). To this, I would add that there’s also a touch of Jack Vance (The Dying Earth) in this dark recasting of Chaucer’s ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’. Joel is forever associated with the West Midlands so we’re glad to include this piece set in “Zothique, the last of Earth’s continents”. Although, hang on… “Acoxgrun” – hasn’t that got a Birmingham postcode?

Allen Ashley

Joel Lane - photograph by Nicholas Royle

Joel Lane – photograph by Nicholas Royle

THE HUNGER OF THE LEAVES

 

 JOEL LANE

 

Joel Lane presently lives in Birmingham. In 1994 Egerton Press published a collection of his short stories, The Earth Wire; and his first novel, From Blue to Black, has just been published by Serpent’s Tail.

The Hunger of the Leaves was inspired, in equal measure, by Clark Ashton Smith (whose Zothique cycle of stories originally appeared in Weird Tales in the 1930s) and Robert Smith.

 

The forest realm of Yhadli occupied many miles of unpopulated terrain within the central lowlands of Zothique, the last of Earth’s continents. It was rumoured to include the barren remains of towns and garrisons, abbeys and cemeteries, which the forest had reclaimed. None knew its full extent, since there were no longer any maps. No man living had seen its infamous ruler, the aged sorcerer Niil; if he still lived, he and his subjects had no need of the outside world. Like Zothique itself, the forest realm lived in a silence bound by the shadows of the past.

The three men passing from the twilit fields to the deeper gloom of the forest canopy were possessed of no desire to escape into a bygone time. Nor had they rejected such convivial pleasures as the violent towns of Ultarn and Acoxgrun had to offer to embrace the austere life of a hermit. Passing through these towns, they had heard tales of the great wealth of the sorcerer Niil: a wealth that must have been hoarded, since it had never been spent. It was a permanent harvest, with gold for wheat and jewels for berries. That harvest had been gathered through deeds of blood and terror that were already the stuff of grim legend. They intended to reap some portion of it through kidnap, robbery or simple theft. All three were experienced villains, with an acquired lack of scruples and imagination. Their evil repute in the regions of Tasuun and Xylac had forced them to come to a place where they were unknown – and thus, one which was unknown to them.

The forest was as quiet and still as a vast underground vault. In places, the faint red light of the Earth’s dying sun played on complex traceries of black twigs, jagged leaves and bark mottled with pale lichen and mould. Cobwebs hung everywhere, fine and translucent like shrouds; but no spiders could be seen. Nor could any bird or beast be discerned in the tangled branches or the shadowy, yielding undergrowth. The dead leaves beneath the robbers’ feet were of an unfamiliar kind: clawlike, with three hooked points and hard, reddish veins. As the thieves continued, the shadows thickened; soft tatters of cobweb clung unpleasantly to their sleeves. Soon they were forced to light torches in order to see where they were going. The paths were twisted, overgrown and impossible to follow. The torchlight distorted the shapes of the overhanging branches, made them resemble the faces of starving creatures or the intertwined bodies of human lovers in the grip of desire.

After nightfall, they took their direction from the northern star (which an ancient myth told them was a world much like their own). The nocturnal life of the forest seemed oddly subdued. No owl cried in the darkness; no bat swooped overhead. Even the lonely baying of wild hounds, thin demons that preyed on their former masters, was absent. The only sound was a faint, dry rustling, like the sand on a desert shore, only just distinguishable from silence.

At length, they came upon a small clearing where they might pause for the night. Jharscain and Dimela cut some twigs and branches; while Medarch prepared a small fire. By its light, they saw that another traveller had reached this place. Hanging from the twisted branches of a squat black tree was the wide, hooded robe of a monk. It was full of dead leaves, from which the pale glimmer of bones indicated the presence of a long-decayed cadaver. No rope held the skeleton in place, and the cause of death was not evident. His skull was packed with leaves, like the black thoughts of a madman; leaves clung to his ribs and pelvis, and to the inner surface of his ample robe. Beneath the dangling bones of his feet lay the dull shards of a broken wine flagon.

More imaginative souls might have deemed such grisly company unwelcome; but the thieves had lit a fire, and were loth to delay their rest. They ate of their spiced provisions, and drank deeply from a flask of the thrice-distilled spirit of grain. Jharscain raised his cup in ironic salute to their silent companion: ‘Wilt thou not share a drink with us? Hath Mordiggian taken thy thirst along with thy throat and belly? But know this: we too are of his realm. We are merely in that earlier phase of death which we please to call life. What thou seest tonight, we too shall see in the red light of morning.’

They slept that night the deep sleep of drunkards, each man soaked the light of his own visions. Jharscain dreamed of finding the house of the sorcerer Niil untenanted, and of gaining access to the treasures of his wine-cellar: wines so rich and fragrant, spirits so fiery and evocative, that they would shame even the abbeys of Puthuum. The dreaming soul of Dimela visited not the cellars of Niil, but his comfortable bedchamber, where it was entertained by the seven young women of the sorcerer’s harem on sheets of the finest black silk. The dreams of Medarch had less of actual theft about them: he saw himself beside the ageing sorcerer as a valued servant, entrusted with the patient torture and execution of his master’s enemies. And among those dying in blind, limbless, voiceless ruin were Dimela and Jharscain, wearing bright skins of blood.

In the morning, all three men had the furtive and bloodshot eyes of villains who had not slept well. Under the vacant gaze of the monk, they partook of a hasty breakfast and continued on their way. The ebon trees and their harvest of pale cobwebs showed no sign of thinning out; every step of the way had to be forced through damp undergrowth and drifts of leaves as brittle as fired clay. Repeatedly they passed the hanging skeletons or withered corpses of men in the trees, their loose clothing snagged on branches, dead leaves clamped to their skulls like sleeping bats; and this convinced them that the house of the sorcerer Niil could not be far away.

It was a day of twilight, fatigue and silent horror. The three men forged onward, certain that the house of Niil must be surrounded by widespread farming and habitation. However, they found no occupied houses, fields or gardens. The black trees and their spectral veils of cobweb held dominion over all. Yet this region had once been tenanted. Crumbling walls and broken flagstones could be glimpsed through the undergrowth. And everywhere, human skulls stared whitely from hoods of dead leaves. A house stood with its roof and front wall in ruins, three skeletons sitting at a table covered with the smaller bones of rats. A temple of carven stone lay in fragments, the skeleton of a small child on a rust-stained altar bearing witness to the sacred rituals of the priests of Thasaidon. Among the surface roots of a great tree, two almost fleshless cadavers lay in a permanent embrace that was no longer restrained by the boundaries of skin; a fine layer of cobweb surrounded them, like the sheet of a marriage bed. Most strange of all was a great well, ringed with black stone and deeper than Medarch could discern, yet full almost to the brim with clean-picked human bones.

This domain, Medarch realised, was more than abandoned: it was the scene of some terrible annihilation, and had been preserved as a bleak reliquary of the human race. The hideous soul of a mad poet had created this roofless vault as a symbol of the Earth and its place in a blind cosmos. What the people of Zothique knew in their fearful hearts was here proven. Medarch thought this and smiled within himself, but said nothing. For his soul was deeper than those of his companions. He was a murderer, where they were merely thieves. His parents had lived and died on the accursed isle of Uccastrog; and he had been delivered from his mother’s womb by the jaws of a hound.

When the haze of reddish light beyond the trees tuned to illimitable blackness, clouds obscuring even the brightest stars, the three men stopped to light a fire and rest once more. They ate little, unsure of their destination; but drank deep of the spirit of grain, since a certain unease had come upon them. Jharscain, who was the most afraid, drank most deeply. They spoke little, but stared thoughtfully into the heart of the fire, where the twigs and branches were charred to a bonelike white. At length, they stamped out the fire and gave themselves up to sleep.

Jharscain slept poorly, troubled by a thirst that his previous intake had served only to intensify. The darkness itched at his eyes like a coarse fabric. Silently, he reached for the bag containing the vessel of grain liquor; with infinite care, he tilted it above his gaping mouth. Only a few precious mouthfuls remained. He fancied he could see the creeping denizens of the cobwebs, spinning fine threads to reach him; when he shut his eyes, he saw them still. A death-mask of perspiration covered his face. Then he heard a voice close by: ‘Wilt thou not drink with us?’ When he opened his eyes, he saw lights flickering just beyond the nearest trees.

As he staggered through the undergrowth toward the blurred lights, Jharscain heard the faint sounds of some terrific revel; wine was poured and gulped, voices were raised in drunken litany to Thasaidon. The very air seemed hazy with the fumes of wine. Around him, pale hands raised drinking-vessels and tipped them into faces of mist. The leaves shifted underfoot, and he fell to his knees. Dead leaves rose and drifted around him, their veins swollen with sweet-scented wine. But when a leaf touched his face, its thin flesh was dry as the driest paper. It stuck to his lips; as he raised a hand to pull it away, more leaves settled on his face. Where they touched him, his skin dried out; it shrivelled and broke, as if burned by the cold flame of sobriety. However much blood the leaves took from him, they remained as dry as bones in the desert.

Later in the night, Dimela stirred from his uneasy slumber. Was that a laugh he had heard: a sound bright with youthful vigour, yet strangely curdled with desire? Perhaps a hanging cobweb had fallen on him; it had felt as soft and clinging as a maiden’s long hair. He had last savoured the pleasures of carnal love three nights before, at a debauched inn of the town known as Acoxgrun. Now loneliness rode on his back, and the darkness was faintly scented with the perfume of roses. A figure moved between the nearest trees, backlit by a distant fire: a silhouette whose contours were drawn by the hand of his needs. And now he could hear the crackling of the fire, and the voices of those who writhed and danced around it: whispering, pleading, laughing, sobbing, gasping. He could not see them clearly; yet he heard their message of joy and anguish. ‘Wilt thou not dance with us?’

Tearing at his clothes, Dimela stumbled towards the blood-red fire. Though it appeared close, his steps brought it no closer. Eventually he stopped, confused; and a cloud of dead leaves rose gently around him, evading his outstretched arms to drift like patches of lonely skin upon his body. So overwhelming were his sensations that the loss of blood went unnoticed. The leaves that floated before Dimela’s fading gaze bore the reddened imprint of faces transfigured by the secret fire of ecstasy. As his flesh joined with theirs, the night exposed the keen nakedness of bone. And so it began over again.

Medarch slept like a child until Dawn, twining about his thin fingers a cloth formerly used for strangling. The rumour of light that was sunrise in Zothique roused him and told him he was alone. His first thought was that the other two villains had abandoned him to continue their search for the house of Niil together. Then he saw that their shoulder-bags remained. Had they been taken by some wild beast of the nighted forest? But there was no sign of struggle, no blood on the dead leaves. Besides, what animal life had they seen in this crypt of shadows? Then a faint sound, as of choking breath or waterlogged footfalls, came from beyond the trees on the other side of the dead fire. Medarch gripped his dagger and crossed the ashes. Some cobwebs, he saw, had been torn aside; he stepped through the gap.

The body of Jharscain lay in a drift of leaves that half-covered him. The skin of his face was stretched like parchment over his skull, and was so dry that the corners of his mouth had torn into a hideous thin grimace. As Medarch watched, the cadaver’s sere hands twitched mindlessly; and from the stretched parody of a mouth, a pale tongue emerged to lick the cracked and bloodless lips. A dead leaf moved on his throat with a horrible purpose, cutting into skin that was already as ravaged as that of a desiccated corpse in the deep catacombs of Naat. Despite his long and pleasurable experience of horror, Medarch felt a shiver pass through him. Raising his eyes, he saw a red blur through the veil of cobweb that linked two branches: a brighter red than that of the crepuscular daylight.

The body in the next glade was not recognisable as that of Dimela. It was a scattering crimson ruin, flayed and dismembered, at its centre a mound of leaves the size of a human head. A few items of clothing lay torn on the ground. Hands, eyes, lungs, bones and patches of skin crawled among the black leaves, somehow unable to die. They shuddered as if still infused by a common pulse. The three-pointed leaves clung to them in a terrible embrace, a slow dance that was truly the pleasure of the flesh. The odour of blood and decay was like a cloud in the chill air. Medarch was no innocent; but he was human, and this was an alien horror beyond his comprehension. Madness laughed and danced within his brain as he rushed on through the twilit forest, crashing through drifts of leaves and shrouds of tenantless cobweb, blind instinct driving him first in one direction and then in another. He no longer remembered what it was that he was searching for.

After hours of insane stumbling and circling, he came upon a part of the forest realm where the trees were bare and brittle like stone. The hanging cobwebs were corpse-grey, stained with the imprints of tormented faces. It was so cold here that Medarch’s ragged breath formed tissue in the air. Memories floated before his eyes, random and meaningless: the dead and dying victims of his career. He had known many trades: mercenary in Tasuun, torturer in Naat, executioner in Cincor, jailer in Xylac. Among the scattered and frightened peoples of Zothique, warfare was vicious and perpetual. Crime and punishment were lucrative parallel trades, and the fate of prisoners was rarely a matter of public concern. It was not distressing for Medarch to recall the men, women and children he had mutilated; indeed, he kept a trunk full of dried souvenirs to help him remember his most cherished atrocities. Many times, when unable to torture within the law, he had found other means to procure young victims; and his knowledge of the ways of villains had opened many a secret and nighted door to him.

Yet, alone in the bleak forest realm of Yhadli, his sense of status deserted him; he could scarcely remember his own name. The ruined faces of his victims swam in a grey mist before him: nameless, voiceless, eyeless, hopeless. Their silence felt like mockery.

Eventually, sheer exhaustion brought the torturer to a standstill. His body was gashed and bruised from a thousand small injuries, and he had with him neither food nor water. The stark trees about him felt as cold as stone. The ground beneath his feet was slimy with leaf-mould and buried decay. Before him stood another ruined house, one different from the others they had passed: this one was made of wood, and had no windows. The black, dead twigs of the surrounding trees were woven into its dense roof. The walls were coated with layers of cobweb that glistened, rotting from within. He could discern no door in this unearthed tomb, until it opened.

The figure in the lightless doorway was like a monk, though thinner than any monk that Medarch had ever seen. He was clad in a black gown that clung to his bony frame. His hooded face was a shadow without features or skin; it was broken by countless fine cracks and wrinkles. It was a visage of dead leaves. Within it, two crimson eyes glowed with the cold distant fire of alien suns. Medarch felt those frozen eyes stare through him, dismissing him as if he were a ghost. A misshapen hand with three hooked fingers reached up to the door. And then the creature had gone, back into the darkness of its sealed house.

At once, Medarch knew that he had found the house of the sorcerer Niil, and that his offer of service had been rejected as of no value. A terrible breath of loneliness passed through him. At last, he understood why only the dead leaves were hungry. If Niil had ever been human, he was so no more. He was one with his realm of stillness and decay.

For a long time, the man who had dedicated his life to pain stood before the windowless abode of the creature for whom pain had no meaning. Then, as the weak sun bled into the western sky, Medarch set his face toward the distant towns of Ultarn and Acoxgrun. No longer running, but with steady and relentless steps, he made his way back to the abodes of men. The marks cut on his face by leaves and twigs bled freely, and decaying cobwebs tangled in his hair. It no longer mattered. Half-naked, filthy, bloody and red-eyed, Medarch strode forward to his destiny: to be the silent emissary of Niil throughout the continent of Zothique, and any other lands that might remain, until the legions of the dead lay scattered on the dying Earth like the fallen leaves of a splendid and fertile autumn.

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.

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.

25:08:2014 – Interview, review, and news

Spectral Book of Horror Stories, edited by Mark Morris - ©2014 respective individual authors/Spectral Press. Artwork ©2014 Vincent Chong

Spectral Book of Horror Stories, edited by Mark Morris – ©2014 respective individual authors/Spectral Press. Artwork ©2014 Vincent Chong

On this Monday morning, which is a Bank Holiday for us here in the UK, we present the final mini-interview of contributors to Spectral’s forthcoming The Spectral Book of Horror Stories, conducted by Angela Slatter. So, who’s the lucky person featured today? Well, it’s Simon Marshall-Jones, the erstwhile publisher/editor/El Presidente/Dictator for Life of Spectral itself. What does he have to say? Furthermore, will it make sense to anyone? To find out, go HERE.

We’ll follow that up with a new review of the volume, by Anthony Watson and posted to his Dark Musings blog – that one can be accessed HERE.

This is going to be a very special anthology, so we really do encourage you to pre-order your copy today of this first volume in a projected annual series – ordering buttons below (if you want to pay by any other means, please contact us at spectralpress[AT]gmail[DOT]com and we’ll happily send you details). All prices are INCLUSIVE of postage and packing:

£12.50 UK

FOR THOSE ATTENDING FANTASYCON 2014 YOU CAN ORDER AT THE SPECIAL PRICE BELOW AND PICK IT UP AT THE CONVENTION VENUE.

FCon 2014 Special £10

£15 EU

$30 US & RoW

NEWS

Don’t forget that we have a new website, which is now live and ready to use. It features a shop, from which it is easier to order books and accessories, and even has a swish postage calculation system which will work out how much postage and packing you should pay. Aside from that, there will also be the usual news and reviews, plus plenty of other material for you to read and digest. Sign up today to be alerted to new posts and other stuff. The URL is https://www.spectralpress.co.uk/

From tomorrow, both here and on the new website, we will be celebrating the life of JOEL LANE: BLACK COUNTRY PROPHET, the writer who sadly died last year at the far-too-young age of 50. Allen Ashley asked various writers and figures in the genre to choose their favourite stories of his and to write a brief introduction explaining why they chose that particular story, to be followed by the story itself. The first entry will be introduced by legendary editor/anthologiser Stephen Jones. Look out for it.