The Lost District and Other Stories, by Joel Lane
Night Shade Books, 2006
256 pages – Amazon
Works of fiction often reflect, to varying degrees, the events, emotions and thoughts that have shaped the life and outlook of the writer. It has long been a tradition of mine to learn about the author—as a person, an artist, an aesthete—before reading his or her work. To some this would be borderline sacrilegious; after all, they reason, it is art that should be judged, not the artist, or at least art should be judged independent of the artist. Be that as it may, many times my inclination has enhanced my reading of a text, has deepened my understanding of and immersion into an author’s world. One such case was in my reading of The Lost District and Other Stories by Joel Lane, a collection so personal, so haunting and surreal, so heartrending yet detached from sentiment, that in my mind the book became an avatar of its author, fusing the two into a single entity of voice and viscera.
The Lost District and Other Stories came out in 2006 from Night Shade Books, a San Francisco-based independent publisher of speculative fiction. Through my internship at Night Shade I first learned about the book (which had just been released the year before) and its author. My boss, Jeremy Lassen, handed me a copy and told me, “Read this. Joel is the unsung hero of dark fiction.” At the time, I was 16 or 17 years old and trying to craft my own little short fictions; frustrated and self-doubting, having little faith in my imagination and ability, I was overdue for fresh inspiration. And inspiration I did get—but that was not all the book gave me. The Lost District visited upon me such a confounding flurry of emotions that, by the time I closed it, I was unsure if I had lost even more self-confidence or if I had been evangelized, had found a new gospel, a new sense of potential.
Joel Lane’s slim collection (clocking in at 190 pages) traverses the urban and industrial wastelands of a forlorn UK—sometimes in a distant future, at other times in a vaguely present day or in an erstwhile, disremembered decade. Its narrators often fall under the umbrella of those stigmatized, “damaged” people found just on the periphery of society. Through the collective lens of these narrators, the reader sees a monochromatic world peopled by disaffected youths, jaded elders, and shell-shocked middle-agers clawing their way toward the next brief lens flare of reprieve. Most times, these characters represent demographics who are only just now beginning to gain more of a presence in genre fiction: people of the LGBTQ community, victims of child abuse, survivors of sexual assault, artists wasting away in the poverty of unrealized dreams, drug addicts, criminals of either questionable moral standing or forced down that path out of necessity.
A story rarely reaches a recapitulation. If characters undergo arcs, their arcs are negligible and arrive at ambiguous conclusions at best. Often set in Lane’s fictional Black Country (a bleak inland region somewhere in the UK), the stories serve as glimpses into the dreary lives of a rogue’s gallery of society’s castoffs, snapshots of existences in extremis or of the aimless ennui found at the bottom of the bottle or the cellar. In “A Country of Glass,” we witness earnest and desperate love in the face of oppressive outside forces, as a closeted gay man and an ex-snuff film star rendezvous in derelict apartments while trying to evade the patrolling drones of a surveillance state. In the eponymous story “The Lost District,” a young couple explores abandoned warehouses on the outskirts of their rural working-class town, only to discover a hidden cache of jars containing deceased fetuses at varying stages of development, portending the dead-end lives destined for these teen lovers held captive in a community devoid of upward mobility. The story that resonated with me the most was “Scratch,” which—unlike most other stories in the collection—features no speculative elements at all, but rather (in a tradition not unlike that of Andrew Vachss) charts the coming-of-age of a youth in the slums. Abandoned by his father and living with a drug-addicted mother, he finds and loses love in a friend who turns to prostitution as a last-ditch effort to break free of the cycle of homelessness, substance abuse, and squalor. Along the way, the protagonist befriends a feral cat, and through repeated tragedy he discovers his special kinship with the tribes of felines subsisting at the edge of view, living day-by-day at the mercy of random acts of human kindness or violence. As it happens, this story contains echoes of my own adolescence, carrying with it a unique blend of nostalgia and the unreal; in just writing its synopsis a sensation flares beneath my ribs, as of a hot-cold pad idling from one extreme to another.
Joel Lane died a few years ago, at the age of 50. The author of two novels and a handful of collections, he passed away in his sleep, unexpectedly, and in relative obscurity. Though he received the World Fantasy Award, twice won the British Fantasy Award, and was lauded by critics, his writing never reached a mainstream readership, never broke free of the “genre ghetto,” and he certainly never received any significant financial returns for his lifelong literary output. A gay man, an outspoken socialist, a literary critic, a champion of his peers, a soft-spoken and bookish type, Joel Lane infused his fiction with all the trauma, desire, horror, epiphany, and occasional ecstasy of someone living on the fringe, observing quietly all the stories of those around him who would die with their lives and all their attendant mysteries and transcendences unknown to the world. Joel Lane’s authenticity and vision changed the way I looked at short fiction, the way I approached it. The Lost District and Other Stories is him at his absolute best, triumphantly whispering into the wind, the void, the lives and obituaries of the unlived.
Joel Lane (1963-2013) was born in Exeter, but lived most of his life in Birmingham, where many of his stories are set. In addition to two novels, From Blue to Black (2000) and The Blue Mask (2003), Lane was the author of numerous collections, including the British Fantasy Award-winning The Earth Wire (1994), The Lost District (2006), The Terrible Changes (2009), and the posthumous The Anniversary of Never (2015). The year that he died, his final book Where Furnaces Burn won the World Fantasy Award for best collection.