“One night, I dreamt that trapped cries of ecstasy were turning to water between the floors, staining my ceiling with the shape of a naked woman. I woke and turned on the light, but couldn’t make out anything from the scattered bruises of damp and the cracks in the wood-chip wallpaper. As I was a bout to drift back into sleep, I heard a faint stirring and a dull moan, then a long shuddering wail. I curled into a fetal position as my crotch spasmed uncontrollably, impregnating the dark shape of my dream….” (The Bootleg Heart)
Mostly set in England’s industrial north, The Lost District Joel Lane’s second collection of short stories uses bleak, unrelenting cityscapes to explore the human condition. The burnt out factories, the grey weather and the depressed economy are ever-present characters in his tales.
The cover of the edition, by J.K. Potter, is an apt representation of the imagery within. Smoking grey chimneys, and a sepia-tinged image of an emaciated person’s hand that looks like it’s begging or asking for help. The landscape mirrors the souls that prowl through these tales.
The first thing you notice about a Lane story is that they are full of description. The narratives are dense and layered, mostly unbroken by dialogue. The work of Thomas Ligotti comes to mind—the textuality of the page and the insularity of the imagery are major weapons in the author’s arsenal. The stories also move at a leisurely pace, and linger over descriptions. The action is slow and deliberately torturous. The supernatural content in the story is often implicit in the establishment of mood rather than any explicit action. What action that does happen occurs within the character’s mind, as much as it occurs in the physical world. Lane’s characters come from a variety of milieus; all lead lives of “quiet desperation,” to coin a phrase.
Lee, the protagonist in “Pain Barrier,” is visiting a gay bar, aimlessly looking for sex in a soulless city. He meets Tony, who he recognizes from an avant-garde fetish film. The two of them go to the abandoned house where Tony is squatting, and have sex in a decaying room. The sex scene is explicit but tender, and filled with tension, as Lee recalls disturbing images from the film that Tony appeared in. What threatens to become a gorefest , a la Dennis Cooper, is a meditation on loneliness.
This dark slice-of-life form reappears in “Scratch,” a story about a young man in a Council Estate who befriends a stray cat. The story follows the narrator through the downward spiral of his life: running away from home, stormy relationship with his girlfriend, and living on the dole. The cat Sara is the one constant in his life, until she is killed by hooligans. Lane brilliantly uses cat behavior as a philosophical symbol of human nature:
“People say there’s no such thing as a domestic cat, and it’s true. Females in particular. Whatever you feed them, they still hunt. When they bring you something they’ve killed , it’s not a gift. It’s a lesson. They’re trying to train you, like you’re a kitten…A cat’s world is full of territories, friends and enemies, safe roads and dangerous roads. Patterns.” (Scratch)
The outright horror tale here, “Among the Dead,” is an ironic allegory about vampirism. Corporate culture and the culture of ghouls are compared/contrasted with a skill that doesn’t beat you over the head.
Most of these stories are short, but they are heavy pieces. Like Ligotti, Lane is a writer’s writer. It’s as much about craft as it is about story. For fans of cerebral horror, vectored in the direction of Kafka, The Lost District is an exquisite gem.