Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Lost District and Other Stories by Joel Lane (2006)

The Lost District and Other Stories by Joel Lane (2006): containing the following stories: The Lost District  (2001); The Pain Barrier (1994); The Bootleg Heart (2000); Scratch (1996); Coming of Age   (2003); Mine (2006); Prison Ships  (1998); Like Shattered Stone (1994);  Among the Dead (2005); The Window (2001); The Quiet Hours (2006); Exposure (2001); The Outside World (1995); The Country of Glass (1998); The Night That Wins (2005); Against My Ruins (2004); The Only Game (2006); Contract Bridge (1996); Beyond the River (2004); The Plans They Made (1997); The Drowned (2002); Reservoir (2006);  An Unknown Past (2002); and You Could Have It All (2006).

The late Joel Lane, gone too soon at the age of 50 in 2013, was one of a handful of horror's finest modern short-story writers. Many of his stories were set in and around Birmingham, England. These stories presented a bleak, nightmarish, and very human universe of the lost and disconnected, generally trying to reconnect to something through sex, drugs, or alcohol.

And Lane really could be a short-story writer with the accent firmly on 'short' -- The Lost District and Other Stories brings together 26 stories in less than 200 pages. That's a lot of stories. Gratifyingly, none of the stories are hyper-short 'Flash Fiction,' and none of them are fragments or unfinished-feeling vignettes. They are actually stories, though often with equivocal endings.

Lane often deals with body horror, though generally in a subdued manner. When he does move into the graphically grotesque, as in "Coming of Age," the results are extremely disturbing given his general reticence when it comes to graphic violence. Otherwise, the horror and the weird intrude on the world in more muted ways, often leading to a final stinger of sentence.

In some cases, as in the title story, horror itself remains almost hidden. "The Lost District" could just be a standard-issue remembrance of things past. But if so, why the disquieting background of decaying Birmingham? And why the feeling that the civic 'renewal' that 'loses' that old district is some sort of malign, organic urban process and not simply a case of bureaucratic planning? 

There's more than a hint of Ramsey Campbell in Lane's focus on urban and suburban English horrors, but there's also a more inchoate, almost miasmic sense of decay that recalls early J.G. Ballard in its emphasis on unexplained, gestating decay. Striking stories of disquiet, beautifully and sparsely told. Highly recommended.

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