The Terrible Changes – by Joel Lane
My 25th real-time review
posted Monday, 6 July 2009
I’m starting another of my real-time reviews. This time it is of ‘The Terrible Changes’ a collection of short fiction by Joel Lane (Ex Occidente Press 2009). I shall attempt to draw out the book’s leitmotifs and mould them into its gestalt. [My previous reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/ ]
After The Flood
The main student protagonist lives in a bedsit in Leamington Spa where, during his weekend break away in Cardiff, there was torrential rain and a flood. When he returns his girl friend is missing. He then finds a replacement in a scenario of casual sex and performance music I do not understand. The flood is perhaps a metaphor for the internet. By not understanding, I find myself more easily believing the protagonist’s re-absorption into replications that become a swampy web of self and selves, sired by Occam’s Razor out of Blade Runner. Thankfully, spoilers feed off understanding first and foremost. Nothing but paper-cuts. (6 July 09)
From paper cuts to paper cuttings, pinned scraps of newsprint around the seedy backroom where the rent-boy had brought his customer, a customer who is the story’s protagonist (Lake by name, appropriate after the first story’s flood (?) and uglier sounding than ‘Lane’ because of the ‘k’ sound if not the smoother meaning of a scenic ‘lake’ as opposed to the dark ‘lanes’ in a Midland city). This protagonist seems to be an uncaring prominent man but nevertheless a man needing the comfort as well as danger of such human contact amid the world’s mass communications that isolate rather than bring together … tempted in this direction by the story’s topping and tailing of his lonely desperation by the candles of an old-fashioned Aids march through the city that finally threatens to subsume him as if he were (for me) some sort of wicker man. Those newspaper cuttings already on the rent-boy’s walls turn out, of course, to be significant. I hope that’s not a spoiler. The ‘enjoyment’ and meaning of Lane stories, I maintain, do not lie merely in what happens but in the way each individual reader reacts metaphorically and/or literally to it and in how it is described by the texture of language. You need to read the stories themselves for all that! Each reader’s reactions are thus liable to produce a different book. This timeless story will haunt you because you begin to realise that changes are terrible when changes never manage to happen. Or terrible because they do happen. You can’t win. (6 July 09 – 3 hours later)
I’m left open-mouthed with the seedy ambiance of bedsits, small factories, physical ghosts that are emblematic of cruelty or despairing love or mutation from mirrors or faltering identity, above all, the safety-net of shuttling relationships that has too many holes in it, an ambiance so cold the denizens actually dream of central heating, a horror video of cannibalism, a bone jigsaw, and I forgot the shapes of wicker-light in the previous story leading to “traces of candlewax gleamed on the mantelpiece” in this, and, here, the protagonist’s need to repeat her name time and time again. Every story needs a name, too – as well as its protagonist. This story cries its name time and time again. Then when that doesn’t work, it cries out its own author’s name. But nothing can come out of an empty mouth. A story that knows no bounds to its imputed despair. It cries my name. But I’m many miles away in a different ambiance altogether. It doesn’t even know I’m reading it, let alone writing about it.
Bars in the top windows of houses are either to imprison or to protect from things getting in… and silence is to protect mouths from getting frogs in the throat. (6 July 09 – another 4 hours later)
The Last Cry
A far future story where tumours are catching between a dead loved one and yourself. Just waiting for the cure. Words-in-themselves touch you more when the past is still built into them. One also needs to read ‘A Horse In Drifting Light’ and perhaps ‘Albert Ross’ to complement the experience. Nothing stands on its own. Like words, names can’t stand on their own: they need to be written or said. But stories, once read, can stand on their own or can be screwed up and remembered better for never being able to read it again. Crows are angels in disguise…or vice versa? My own loose thoughts on this amazingly haunting story. A city looks tidy by contrast with the protagonist’s flat’s messiness. At least there seems to be a hope that the ambiance in ‘Empty Mouths’ has been exorcised. But Ted Hughes could never save anyone, let alone himself. Dreams of landfills. Then a countryside. A countryside lane still contains the same over-used safety-net as any city’s back-alley. But now it’s eating barbed wire. Not bars. (6 July 09 – another two hours later)
Every Form of Refuge
Love Lane’s work as I do, I think this is the story I love most (so far). It conveys the office life that I easily recognise, its random secrets (called by Allen Ashley ‘the apocryphal grapevine’), the astrological harmonics (including a ‘Blind Moon’ and the two balanced ‘planets’ of London and Birmingham in the fiction and fame ethos with echoes of Big Brother TV emotional politics), missing people, dimmer-switch identities, random coincidences, dark outcomes – it tells of a gay narrator watching a heterosexual couple’s difficulties of relationship when faced by life’s intractable ‘rush hour’ as unrelieved by any emotional flextime. Haunting moments of imputed nightmare as the involuntary, unconscious quest by the narrator to find some sense in the relationships around him actually meets nightmare head on as fed to him by the unstoppable onrush of emblems and symbols that life contains. Lies and truths. There are many memorable maxims in this story. I will not quote them here. One includes the phrase: “a way to change”. Go thee and seek these darksome maxims.
It seems cheating to angle for a catch of running leitmotifs in Lane as the pop groups’ names alone provide many a hook for my bait. (I’ve heard of Billy Joel, by the way). It’s just the book’s gestalt? That’s going to be difficult. I can see it before me. But to describe it to you is impossible so far. Why, indeed, the need to discover it? I wish I was someone else. (7 July 09)
The Hard Copy
Another Leamington story, welcome companion pages to ‘After The Flood’. Stories get lonely, too. Here there are more paper-cuts and another flood plus envisaged ‘Power Cut’ rooms surrounded by incriminating scraps of newspaper. When a child, put to bed too early on Summer evenings, I used to tweak and tease the bedsheet into imaginary towns and landscapes. Here the sheets are cumulatively used to form a safety-net for a memory. A mugging that was made into a work of art, then a touching relationship with its victim, then the memory trawled (photosynthesised?) into the protagonist’s fabricated life years later. We all become husks eventually. So why have regrets? That’s my question. Not necessarily this story’s. But if you read fiction for monsters or ghosts, then read Lane. But the slope of imagination needed for them to come to you for real may mean you need to meet them halfway. Cuttings gone almost opaquely brown with age (or wakingly dreamt incontinence?).
“Twilight reduced the trees along a steep avenue to iron silhouettes, like bars.” (7 July 09 – 4 hours later)
Similar to finding the victim of the mugging in the previous story – but here the young male victim is evidently dead with face down in the canal (canals being places, I seem to recall, whence things can’t be dredged). Did the story protagonist imagine it – waste police time? As in ‘After the Flood’, we have a meticulous metaphor (of the recurring waterlogged body in this case) for the Internet, a metaphor which works for me throughout. Of course, I may be wrong. Only others can tell me what they think. Or have all the witnesses gone? It is unquestionably a most memorable and nightmarish piece, with this metaphor or not. And a mind-blowing ending.
“Yet what I saw wasn’t terrible.” (7 July 09 – another 2 and half hours later)
Tell the Difference
“But it was more a matter of having got used to the changes.”
The female protagonist (whose relationship with Jamie seems fitful at best) suffers from bouts of empathy sickness or witnessing-self disorder. The book’s gestalt now stands before me, even as I speak, yet more clearly, but it is only with your own empathy that you will guess its true nature, as my power with words is insufficient to contain its image as well as to fathom Lane’s stories themselves to their bottom bone. This story tells of a jigsaw of a person depicted with the face missing. If you had empathy-sickness, would you seek out strangers to make it worse? I think not. But she does. And there are some scenes in this story that any sensitive reader will regret reading. Including the Ligottian visions at the end. Or are they primary Lanean images filtered through Ligotti back to Lane again?
“She wanted to hold an unblemished, unnamed body, without as much as a birthmark.” (7 July 09 – another 2 hours later)
“That was always the thing that got him with Coltrane: not just the innovatory technique, but the way his visions were rooted in an acceptance of what was in the past and could not be changed.”
Jane Austen never wrote about anything outside her experience, so her fiction only presented settings she knew and conversations between women, and women with men, but never men with men.
“…the drizzle of knowing that he would never emulate his influences: he could only mimic them.”
I will not attempt to critique this story. It is too beautiful for me to understand. It’s a sinuous jazz solo in text but overshadowed by a train that took people to settings they didn’t want to visit. Family that they didn’t choose as they once chose friends. Shades of fate in faith or colour. There are only a few stories in the world you can have inchoate experiences with as this one. Take five more stories…in due course.
“He didn’t trust the Internet. What was friendship worth if everyone was your friend, whether they knew you or not?” (7 July 09 – another 3 hours later)
The City of Love
To wake up this morning and read this piece as my first act was a strange experience. It tells of a male/female couple in Paris – to go clothes hunting or make a film? A trip to a cemetery? A fairground? Mixed with the woman’s ‘dreams’ of being lightly masked, more facelessnes, cinematic unreality…? So perhaps not dreams at all. Let’s put inverted commas around my first use of the word. Hey, just done it. Must get on with my day. This story will haunt me, make no mistake. Jazz in the morning makes coffee go down better. And invisible smoke.
“Belinda drank several glasses of water, though she wasn’t conscious of thirst.”
Read also ‘The Witnesses Are Gone’ and ‘Tomb of the Janissaries’ to complement this experience. (8 July 09)
All Beauty Sleeps
“When I say ‘dreamt’ I am speaking literally, and you can fill in the rest of the picture for yourself.”
A felt autobiographical essay where growing up is threaded with the works of Poe and eventually a Gothic yearning to connect in some way death with the act of sex. The protagonist pays the price of watching Corman’s versions of the stories. When I watched them in the cinema in the Sixties they hadn’t yet become iconic. There are more bodies to be impossibly dredged from canals. A sense of identity only being possible by addressing death head on. Lane’s work is often about the loss of identity but I guess many readers of Lane regain their own identity by that act of reading it. A reader woken like the Sleeping Beauty. The rite of return via the allotments brings an ending where the text itself is death and wakes someone from within its print who plays himself and doesn’t depend on an actor to bring him to life. Fiction writers are so much more facilitators of living things than film directors or even midwives.
The eponymous women in Poe are like the planets of astrological harmonics.
In Lane, often there are scenes towards the end of stories where many quiet, hushed beings await the protagonist after his long fateful journey towards them. Coming to this book is very much like that. All these stories, (some read before, others not) quietly, facelessly, bending their heads at my approach and whispering together in the darkness, blending and merging into each other but without yielding their separateness. Indeed, their separateness is enhanced by the process of blending. (8 July 09 – seven hours later)
For me a deeply textured prose poem, combining DH Lawrence and Angela Carter – not the dark maze of a Midlands City but, as in ‘The Last Cry’, the countryside Lane. It is also a Boyhood of Raleigh, a ‘wax painting’ (or palimpsest?) over parts of ‘Power Cut’. And minds protruding through faces like dry puffballs, echoing earlier caster sugar masks…
Bodies left in a river this time, not in a canal. Perhaps they’re more salvageable from rivers. A body in a Lake may be far more problematic for obvious reasons. There are rarely any seas in Lane (only floods). Perhaps that’s the Jane Austen syndrome?
A truly beautiful story. A ‘Nemonymity’ like Lane’s poem of that title? ‘The Drowned’ with the boys ungrown up? (8 July 09 – another three hours later)
“The next night, I turned my phone off. But that felt wrong, as if I was playing dead.”
I feel I’m playing dead these recent years when I turn off the Internet.
Lane has here identified an extreme horror phobia of mine – a phone ringing in my house in the middle of the night.
This story tells of something beyond my experience: a mobile phone that shows moving pictures of the caller, and in this case, callers. And something called ‘happy slapping’. Nevertheless, this is a very effective horror story for me. And significant that the protagonist’s crisis takes place on a canal bridge. Self-immolation by technology? But he doesn’t fall into the canal.
There’s much more to this story than that. Much more that allows the book’s gestalt still standing inchoately before me to accrete.
Lane –> Lake –> Lark. A pretty bird but a horrible sounding word. (9 July 09)
“She was pointing out over the canal. ‘Look at the snow. Can you see? It looks like it’s full of faces…’”
The safety-Net of polemics or didacticism? Or a genuine artistic detached vision of the quiet, gathering faces that I mentioned earlier as softly climaxing many of Lane’s stories, now culminating the whole of this book? It is for me, a genuine protest demonstration of gathering forces: a summing up of the caster sugar masks or facelets that often thread this book. And it makes me think of things the way Lane wants me to think of them – for myself. It’s a detached vision. I suspect it was however very undetached when it was written, but I shall never know for certain.
I’ve often seen blizzards as being the swarms of the ghosts of killer bees. Here the quiet result of the blizzard, after the ‘flood’, is a frozen lake made artistic by sad sparkles and facets. Identities eventually made to look like a single entity: Superman’s home planet or a Cormanesque tarn in winter.
And talking of planets, the twin balanced forces of astrological harmonics I noted before in London and Birmingham now truly meet, with the countryside lanes between by-passed, as if with the click of a button on a mobile phone or on a computer keyboard.
I shall ever be stalked by gestalts and leitmotifs. There is no escape.
But a book review must end with the book itself. And it does. A book that’s more than itself. It’s a wonderful Horror symphony, at times dincopated and at others smooth. The Lark Descending. (9 July 09 – 90 minutes later)
NOTE: I shall eventually read Joel Lane’s Foreword in the book for the first time after allowing its stories to softly take their course for a while longer without it.
Joel Lane’s public comment on my review of ‘After the Flood’ (at link immediately above):
A public comment yesterday on the book, a comment by Ray Russell of Tartarus Press at the link immediately above on this comment:
“I thoroughly enjoyed The Terrible Changes. Although different on many levels to The White Hands by Mark Samuels, it reminded me of that collection in that the separate stories somehow come together to give the book it’s own strong atmosphere. The stories are different but they do inform and give power to each other. ”
3. Joel left… Thursday, 9 July 2009 4:25 pm
Des, thank you for these thoughtful and heartening comments. I mean the stories to find some resonance in the concerns of readers as well as my own concerns – so, for example, the fact that some of these stories strike you as referring implicitly to the Internet may not reflect my intentions, but it shows that you’re relating the stories to what you think and feel about the world. Which is exactly what I would hope for. Cheers!
4. Weirdmonger left… Thursday, 9 July 2009 6:05 pm
Thank you, Joel, for kindly taking the time personally to respond on this site. And indeed, as you probably know, my working philosophy (based on certain traditions of criticism) does entail – among other things – treating any literary work as unknowable as to intentions (unknowable even by its author) once it has been posited in the audience arena – and to try, humbly, to fathom potentially viable “conscious, sub-conscious, unconscious or other possibilities” within a fiction text. Thanks again. des
5. Dan left… Monday, 5 July 2010 5:51 pm :: http://www.weirdhorror.blogspot.com
Wow, I thought I was crazy seeing parallels between Samuels and Lane as they are ostensibly quite different. I’m over halfway through The Terrible Changes. For some reason I read “Power Cut” just after “The Flood”, in other words skipped ahead (not a good idea with some collections). Stopped reading “The Terrible Changes” for a few weeks after about 3 stories (this btw had nothing to do with not enjoying them or anything) read in their entirety 2 collections by Mark Samuels “The White Hands” and “The Man Who Collected Machen”. I actually confused images acquired from reading Lane’s story “Power Cut” as being akin to images in “Mannequins in Aspects of Terror” and another story by M.S. I don’t recall the name of at present (the book has since lent to a friend). What I mean to say is that there are similarities to the work of Samuels and Lane, though Lane seems more ambitious and lasting while Samuels more visceral and immediate but with both the stories haunt after reading. Thanks Des, love the real-time reviews.