For reasons I can’t fathom, I only discovered the work of Joel Lane this year. Specifically at the Fantasycon in Scarborough where I picked up a copy of Where Furnaces Burn from the PS Publishing stall and was hooked by this bit of blurb - ‘offers a glimpse of the myths and terrors buried within the industrial landscape’. The fact that Lane’s work was focused on Birmingham and the Black Country was also a big draw, an area that always seemed curiously underrepresented in fiction (there are notable examples though, such as the excellent Midland by Honor Gavin). The city that gave us Steel Pulse and Napalm Death always seemed worth some serious treatment. And this is exactly what Joel Lane gives it. Expert evocations of a blighted Black Country, the derelict warehouses of Digbeth, mysterious trains rattling through a dark and rain soaked Birmingham. Joel Lane creates a terrifying world of post-industrial machine worship, bizarre pagan ritual and ghosts comprised of plaster and rotten wallpaper that makes the place nightmarish, frightening and weirdly compelling.
Hooked as I was, I went and tracked down his debut novel From Blue to Black, the story of a Birmingham post-punk band in the 1990s, just around the Tory reelection of . Though not falling into the weird fiction category Joel Lane is known best for, stylistically this is very similar to Where Furnaces Burn in its hard-edged but beautiful descriptions of Britain’s post-industrial landscape. The country described is broken down, knocked down or only partially rebuilt. The IRA are still a threat, decaying factories are sprayed with swastikas and KEEP BRITAIN WHITE graffiti. The pubs are full and people drink like there’s no tomorrow.
Writing about music well is very difficult, especially rock music, and Lane really pulls it off. There’s a clear love for the music described here, as well as a keen awareness of its flaws and absurdities. Anyone who has been a fan of Felt, Nick Cave, The Cure or Hüsker Dü will find something to love here (the book made me dig out all my old favourite Bob Mould songs such as this one),
It’s a novel the power of music, about Birmingham, about Irishness, about destroying yourself with booze, and importantly it’s about gay men not adhering to the cliches of what gay men are supposed to be. As one character comments: ‘I don’t know any other gay men who are into rock. It’s either opera or musicals. Rock is just so uncouth.’
I don’t think I can recommend this book enough. Go and read it.