Scar City by Joel Lane. Book review

Scar City by Joel Lane, Eibonvale Press, 2015, £22 hb, £8.50 pb, Website

Review by Brian Ennis

Scar City seems an apt title for this, the last collection of stories from the late Joel Lane. Set mostly in his native Birmingham, it features characters who are all scarred in some way, damaged, bruised and broken by regrets, drink and drugs, or terrible past events. The title is a pun on the word “scarcity”, and these characters are also lacking something, whether that is love, hope, or the will to go on.

Scar City is a pitch-black collection of tales, some supernatural horror, some psychological horror, and some that could more appropriately be labelled as transgressive fiction. Lane maintains a uniform dark, oppressive quality to his writing as he hops through genres., telling fragmented stories in fragmented prose.

Cities are pivotal to this collection. Birmingham is presented as a city divided, torn between its industrial past and its sleek, modern future, divided by class and sexuality. Opening story Those Who Remember feels like Lane laying down his mission statement: “Over the years I’d seen the expressways carve up the landscape and titanic, jerry-built tower blocks loom above the familiar terraces […] instead of real things like steel and brick, the new businesses manufactured ‘office space’ and ‘electronics’. Only the night could make me feel at home.” Most of the stories feature protagonists alienated from the city around them, escaping into night-time worlds of violence, drugs, or sex.

There is also another city mentioned, a “ruined city” made of “glimpses of broken stone and twisted metal, houses torn open to the night”. This dark, crumbling analogue seems to be a cracked mirror image of Birmingham, a dream-version where Lane can create heightened, symbolic representations of urban and social decay, and owes more than a little to pulp fiction of HP Lovecraft and Robert E Howard (the latter gets a dedication at the beginning of Lane’s Upon A Granite Wind). There is even a tale set in Ambrose Bierce’s Carcosa.

These stories are full of terrible, arresting images: a former prisoner-of-war discovered dead and desiccated, trapped in the floorboards of a tower block after trying to dig his way out; the ghost of a boy, beaten to death again every year on the anniversary of his murder; a couple doomed to have unwanted child after unwanted child, all fated to die in infancy; self-harm, mutilation, and suicide. But Lane can be funny, too, in a dark way, such as when a vengeful ex-employee thinks of his boss: “He’d stabbed the cunt so many times in his mind, he’d become a serial killer with a single victim.”

There is a delightful perversity about Lane’s work. I don’t mean sexual perversity (although there is plenty of explicit sex, if that’s your thing) but a way of taking something and twisting it, turning it round on its head. The best example of this is the story Upon A Granite Wind, dedicated to Robert E Howard and first published in the Alchemy Press Book of Pulp Heroes. It manages to capture the feel of the pulps at the same time as having a nameless protagonist, and a monstrous creature brought down by teamwork and effort by a group of ordinary people – a perfect rebuttal of the exceptionalism that typifies pulp heroics.

Lane’s Behind The Curtain starts by asking: “You know how some days transfigure you with the thrill of being alive? […] This wasn’t one of those days.” These lines perfectly sum up Lane’s fiction;; they are not invigorating, life-affirming pieces, but dark and unpleasant snippets of broken lives, broken dreams, and broken people.

I had never read anything by Joel Lane before Scar City, and now I am eager to read more, to see what other horrors await. This may be Joel Lane’s final published work, but it won’t be the last of his catalogue that I read.