Friday, 29 November 2013

Joel Lane - 1963-2013

There are no words.

When someone close to you dies at first there is a terrible, stunned silence; an absence that it's impossible to describe. When news of Joel Lane's death came through Twitter and Facebook on Tuesday evening I could only sit and stare, struck dumb that he'd gone, just like that. Only a week before we'd been promising to keep in touch more, Joel said he missed 'setting the world to rights' with me over the phone.

I first met Joel 19 years ago at my very first convention - Welcome to my Nightmare in Swansea, 1995. On the Saturday night I decided to try my hand at The Worst Horror Story Competition, and, being full of nerves, I totally misread the rules. I thought that it was the worst horror story competition because you only had 5 minutes to read your story, not because the story was supposed to be bad. Joel won that night with a series of Lovecraftian postcards and I came second, gritting my teeth and standing firm through the laughter as I read a story I was quite pleased with at the time. Joel came up to me in the corridor afterwards and said: 'You should have won.' It was the first, but by no means the last, critque of my fiction Joel would give me.

That encounter was fleeting but a couple of years later I did my BA dissertation on Miserabilism in Modern British Horror Fiction. Using the entry on miserabilism in the BFI guide to horror I contacted the prime-movers in miserabilism and asked if I could interview them. Joel was the first. (For those intrested, the other interviewees were Ramsey Campbell, Conrad Williams and Mark Morris). Even before the interview had taken place, however, Joel had written me a lengthy letter on which writers I should consider, giving a potted history of urban and socialism realism in horror which proved to be the very foundation stone for the paper that followed. Joel was always generous with his time when it came to discussing fiction, and he was one of the most insightful critics of the field that I have known. He helped to introduce me to works that have become enormously influential in my own writing, bringing to my attention such writers as Robert Aickman and Fritz Leiber. He was, as am I, also a huge huge fan of Ramsey Campbell and we really bonded over our shared love for this remarkable writer.

Ever since that interview, Joel and I became firm friends, talking to each other on the phone most weekends, talking not just about literature but about what was happening in our lives. I remember well the awful grief that Joel went through after his father's tragic death, I remember how kind he was whenever I was going through some petty moment of self-doubt or loneliness while at university, and when I met Ali, who was to go on to become my wife, Joel was one of the first people I told.

I can hear Joel's voice now, those softly spoken tones, the words carefully chosen, and the delight you could hear whenever he burst into laughter. He was a funny man, was Joel. Friends have already noted his prediliction for godawful puns, but I still want to share my favourite with you. I think it was a BFS open night and I was chatting to Joel about books and, without changing his tone of considered academia he said: 'I was reading one of the last interviews H.P.Lovecraft did the other night and the interviewer asked the question: "Mr Lovecraft, where do you get your cosmic awe from?" H.P. Lovecraft responded: "From the meteorite in the back garden."'

Whenever Joel told a joke he would look up at you, very slightly nervously, with his hand usually stroking the back of his head, but with a gleam in his eyes, a twinkle that would spread across his face to a mischevious smile. He was also the master of timing, often scathing but always funny. I remember bemoaning the fact that I was still single in my early twenties and said: 'Of course, playing Dungeons & Dragons probably doesn't help.' There was a long pause on the other end of the line before Joel said: 'Aye... or your fucking Doctor Who videos.'

I was alway hoping and praying for better for Joel. I was so hoping that he'd meet a good man, someone who would bring stability to his life, and love. He suffered with his health, both physically and mentally, and sometimes talking to Joel could be hard, not because I didn't want to chat with my friend, but because it was so hard to hear someone I love in pain and anguish. Joel was always thinking of others first, and I'd alway hoped that he'd take a little time for himself now and again. I was always saying to him: 'Get away from it for a few days. Go somewhere and do what you want to do.'

Others have said far better than I could what a good, no great, writer Joel was. His fiction was incisive, deeply felt and always relevant. When I put together my first anthology for Solaris, The End of The Line, Joel was one of the first writers I contacted for a story. And he was always very generous with his time when it came to my own fiction. Joel made me see things in my stories that I didn't realise were there, good things I'm pleased to say. He always gave the best, and most supportive, advice of anybody I have known. And it's up to us now, to tell others about Joel's work, to mention him in the same breath as other greats who have passed, Joel deserves his place amongst such practitioners as Robert E. Howard, Robert Aickman, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, as a master of the strange story, one of the finest writers, and most important writers, of dark fiction there was.

And I said that there are no words, but words are exactly what there are. Go and look at Facebook, or the many blogs of Joel's friends and colleagues, for literally thousands of words expressing our grief and our love for this incredible individual.

Joel is gone, but his words are still with us, and what an amazing, what an incredible gift to leave us with - something we can share with others and say: 'This was Joel Lane. He was a remarkable writer and a dear friend. These words are the best of him, and these are yours too, to enjoy and draw inspiration from. Here, read these stories and novels and you'll see exactly why we miss him so very much, so acutely. Joel was our friend and we loved him.'

Because there are words. There will always be words.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

A Father's Ministry

So, last Sunday (29th September) marked my Dad's retirement as a full time minister in the Church of English. Canon T.G. Oliver (to give him his full title) has come to the next chapter of his life after dedicating over 40 years to the Anglican church. Having grown up in the church, having seen my Dad's ministry at its various stages (from vicar of Huthwaite in Mansfield, to a lecturer on theology at St John's college, Nottingham, to Director of Theological Training for the Diocese of Rochester and, finally, to the Rector of Meopham, Kent) it's really only just sinking in that Dad's retiring, and what that means for my father going forward (lots of fishing, reading, writing and various theological duties) and what it means for us as family as we look back on my father's life in the church and his life to come.

I remember one well-meaning and rather over-sincere English lecturer at Luton University (yes, only the top academic establishment for me!) telling me that it must have been 'awfully hard' for me having been raised in the church, and having a psychiatrist mother. As if, by the roles they had taken in life, she instantly knew who they were and what they were like. Okay, not every son has a priest father and psychiatrist mother, it is unusual and noteworthy (I shall grant you that), but really I couldn't have been brought up in a more enriching, creative, loving and spiritually rich environment. From the start my father's ministry has been about the human in the divine, and vice-versa; how we encounter God in the every day, how Christ's ministry inspires compassion for those from all walks of life.

My family moved to Huthwaite in the early 80s, and dad became the vicar of All Saints church. Shortly after my father took up ministry there, the last coal mine was closed down in Huthwaite. Unemployment was rife. He'd come to a troubled community but I remember very well the warmth he found and nurtured within that community. And I remember my father always having a sense of fun about his ministry. One of the many duties Dad had to attend to was the monthly garden party. Well, it felt monthly, maybe it wasn't that often, but I can remember the marquee on the vicarage lawn, the bric-a-brac sale, the cake sale, the tombola, there were probably even prizes for the best marmalade or something. Dad found the garden parties essentially pretty dull, so one year he decided to liven it up a bit. What quite was going through my father's mind when he hired the Spiderman costume, I have no idea. But, around midday, Spiderman climbed out onto the roof of All Saints in full view of the garden party and had a clamber around. Other comedic moments in my father's ministry weren't always intentional: he once fell through a pulpit and uttered a VERY NAUGHTY WORD (apparently the front row stood and applauded), he once had to knock out a Rottweiler with a Bible on a pastoral visit he met on a dingy staircase in a high-rise, and I remember when he was miced up once at a service and had forgotten to switch it off - there was a very evangelical and very long and tedious hymn with the refrain 'Is anybody thirsty' to which my father's muttered response, broadcast to the whole church was, 'Aye, make mine a pint.'

Dad never really had much time for the pomp and circumstances of the church, he wasn't really a gaslight and gaters kind of guy. When he decided he wanted to enter the church, he was sat down by a high-ranking church member who lit a cigarette, looked Dad in the eye and said, 'Gordon, why do you want to be my fucking vicar?' To which Dad's response was 'I don't want to be your fucking vicar.' They decided, after that rejoinder, that he must be serious about his path. Another interview in Rochester hadn't gone quite as he wanted. A cadre of bishops, interviewing my Dad for the role of Director of Theological Training at Rochester Diocese, fired the question at him, 'What do you think the church will be like in ten years' time?' To which Dad responded, 'If I knew that I'd be wearing a purple shirt like you guys.' Dad came home convinced he'd messed it up. Turns out he was their first choice for the role. And that's why he is such a respected theologian and much loved minister; because he cuts right through the BS to the heart of the matter. Because he never forgets that love is the key in all things, that the compassion of Christ was what set him on his path in the first place.

But it isn't just a strong foundation in faith that my father has given me; my love of books comes very much from my parents. My mother read to me every night when I was a small boy. I've spoken elsewhere how her reading Alice in Wonderland to me cracked open my imagination and made me utterly fall in love with the possibilities stories present us. Dad once told me that his job was basically 'being paid to read books' (he being a lecturer at this point) and the idea that you could be paid to do such a thing stayed with me and led me down a path to a life in books. 'Books are one of the most important things in the world,' he said. And he wasn't wrong.

As I said, my Dad is inspirational. My sister, Anna, though not in ministry herself, is a theologian and works for the Methodist church, my mother became a lay preacher . Friends who meet my Dad for the first time often come away saying, 'Really? Your Dad's actually a priest?' The fact that he isn't the traditional cliched image of the buck-toothed, rather dry, well-meaning but ultimately dull vicar shows how important he has been in the church. And Dad loves and has loved the church. Not always; he is very dismayed that women bishops still aren't a part of the Anglican community and he hasn't always seen eye-to-eye with some of the higher-ups. But, hand on heart, I think that my father has left the church in a better place than when he first came to it. And he will no doubt continue to inspire others with the strength of his faith, his compassion and the fact that he is just huge amount of fun to know.

The minister presiding at my Dad's retirement service said that God had a message for my parents as they moved away from this chapter of their life, that God has asked the minister to pass on the message, 'Much loved children, thank you for your play." And that sums up the love, the warmth, the very human core of my father's ministry - that we are God's children, that we are loved and that we are here to share that love with all of God's creation.

I love you Dad. Thank you so much for raising me in faith and with love, and joy.

Monday, 22 July 2013

"You want it all but you can't have it."

So, I finished Erikson. And by finished I don't mean I took him round the back and finished him with a spade, no. What I mean is that I have read all ten volumes of The Malazan Book of the Fallen series that began with Gardens of The Moon and ended with The Crippled God. Each book pretty much weighs in around a thousand pages and the whole thing tops three million words. Finally, closure!

Yes and no. As you may be aware the Malazan books are also written by Ian Cameron Esslemont, who has authored several volumes so far with more forthcoming. While Erikson's epic is a whole story in itself, the universe he and Esslemont created is so vast that the stories it contains are going to require several more volumes. Adds to this the fact that Erikson also recently embarked on the prequel Malazan series, detailing the origins of Anomander Rake.
So while the saga of the Crippled God is done, Erikson and Esslemont are by no means done with the worlds they have created.

 I was drawn to the Malazan series with that elusive promise of closure. My friend and fellow gaming geek, Sam, had been talking about the books in glowing terms for ages. I had just finished A Feast For Crows by GRR Martin and was desperate to know when A Dance With Dragons was going to come out; a thing every other fan (and probably the publishers) were also desperate to know at the time. So, I made a rule then and there that if I were to read epic fantasy, I only wanted to start on a series when it was finished. The Crippled God had just been published and I was liking the sound of Erikson's works. Do I regret my decision? Not for one second.

But it got me thinking that the longer something goes on in fiction, the bigger the expectations of the audience for a huge pay-off at the end of the series. A big satisfactory ending that sends us away, clicking our heels and thinking that was the best thing ever! But such thinking seems to be a bit of a hostage to fortune. Consider the TV series Lost, where everybody was expecting the last episode to be some mind-blowing revelation and most were deeply disappointing. What appeared to be happening there was that the viewers thought that the writers had some grand plan from the beginning and weren't just exploring their world as they went. Again, for disappointing endings, or endings that invoke mixed reactions rather than outright praise, need we speak here of Battlestar Galactica?

But that's just it, very few writers are going to sit down and plan out their worlds and say, yup this is ten novels and it ends at this point here and I'm going to stick to that! Because you can plot all you want, when you actually get down to the actually writing the story will evolve in its own organic way, and if you try to cram it into a box, it's going to show. This is not to say that Erikson is the first fantasy writer in a while to give us an amazing sense of closure and a fully, realised cohesive world. As admirable and as brilliant as the series is, there's still a lot more I want to know. So, what Erikson has done is cure me of my unrealistic desire for closure when it comes to epic fantasy. The journey is as much a thing as the destination. The story is never done.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

London-based frights and other writing news

When Paul Finch (multi-talented author and editor bloke) asked me to contribute to Terror Tales of London, I got a bit of the fear myself. I actually venture to London fairly regularly, but it's pretty much always to the same bit: Charring Cross Road and Soho, the place with all the book shops and the arty folk. And that's where my knowledge of London pretty much comes screeching to a halt. Take me out of Zone 1 and ask me to go anywhere else and I start to feel the jitters. Wood Green used to be about as exotic as it got for me, London-wise. (That far flung and strange land). And that was only because that was where our distributors of the time were based. Oh, and thanks to various lunches with Christopher Fowler, I now know a bit more about the rapidly changing Kings Cross. But here was Paul asking me to write a story set in a city which I knew only a little bit. So, of course The Horror Writer is set on Charring Cross Road, but a Charring Cross Road from the past, one where Murder One was still in its larger store, and before it went the way of many other book retailers on that stretch. The actual story is inspired by two bookshops in Kent. The Bookmark in Rochester is one. It no longer exits and, sadly, the owner - my chain-smoking, sweary, jazz-loving friend Graham - died a few years ago. The other is still there, Baggins Bookshop, and those familiar with this literary haunt will recognise some of the labyrinthine corridors in my story.

And this anthology is not just brilliant because I'm in it! I find myself in the company of writers I've known and admired for years: Nina Allen, Adam Nevill, Christopher Fowler, Nicholas Royle, Barbara Roden, to name just a few.

Paul Finch is a terrific editor and this anthology, complete with its 'true' stories concerning London's dark history, is a real gem.

Which means you should buy it. And you can do so by ordering directly from the publisher here, Gray Friar Press.

I don't get to write as much as I like, but I'm thrilled to bits that after many years of tinkering I'm actually getting somewhere with my fiction. Today sees yet another story acceptance, and more on that soon.

Happy Reading.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

A D20 saved my life

... not literally of course, though a D20 certainly saved the lives of Orlok the Dwarf, Albert the insane inventor with the monkey head in a jar of whisky, Tivian Stark the Paladin and a host of other strange characters played by me over the course of more than a decade of gaming. And while a D20 may not have actually saved my life, gaming has certainly saved my sanity (ironic coming from a Call of Cthulhu GM, huh?). My gaming group has provided a solid core of friendship and entertainment, a place we gather once a week to tell each other ridiculous stories and roll dice, and laugh (there's always a lot of laughter).

I actually got into gaming relatively late, most of my group have been rolling dice and slaying orcs since they were kids, but I actually only seriously got into the hobby in my 20s. I'd been put off RPGs fairly early on. In my teens I was a fan of the Ravenloft books published by TSR and, finding that it was also a game, I wanted to play it. When the guy in the shop told me that I'd have to fork out for the Dungeon Master's Guide, The Players Handbook and the Monstrous Manual on top of the Ravenloft sourcebooks, I decided not to bother with Dungeons & Dragons. Pocket money only stretches so far. Monetary consideratiosn were probably why I also never seriously got into Warhammer. There was just too much stuff. So, though I was a genre geek, gaming never really played a large part in my formative years.

And then, sometime in my late teens, a friend of mine told me about a game that was based on the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. That anyone could take anything as mental as Lovecraft's work and make an actual game of it, meant that I just had to play it. So, when I went to do my MA at Reading University, I signed up to the gaming group and decided to get into the hobby properly.

My first game wasn't actually Call of Cthulhu, however, it was Werewolf. And it wasn't entirely my cup of tea. A bit too gothy, a bit too serious. Some of the folk in that group, however, quickly became solid friends (even if I did piss a couple of them off in the first few sessions) and remain in my gaming group to this day. So as a social thing, gaming was brilliant. I was meeting lovely new folk and a few times a week we'd get together and do one of my favourite things - tell each other stories.

And then... then, I finally found it in the local gaming shop:

Yes, the Call of Cthulhu RPG was mine! And it was just as every bit as good as I had been hoping. You see, the reason that this is my favourite RPG is that it's so simple. You can get the rules on the first read-through and the game dynamic is such that it positively requires you to rely on story-telling and inventiveness to actually advance through the plot.

Even after I left uni, I stayed in Reading and the gamers I'd met during my MA became my friend base. And, yes, we continued to game. A hobby that has joined us together ever since. Gaming has been a huge influence not only on my social life, but my imagination generally. Both Call of Kerberos and The Wrath of Kerberos were not only hugely influenced by the works of Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber, but gaming, particularly Dungeons & Dragons (see, I eventually got round to it!). In fact, my gaming group appear as city guards in the first novel and are, obviously, messily and hilariously dispatched.

We've all grown up, we have responsibilties, jobs, wives, children, mortgages - but once a week we get together to spin tales and roll dice.

My family keep my grounded.

But Pete, James, Owen, Sam, Craig - you give me that much needed weekly dose of insanity.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Writing, and that...

Wow, so apparently I have a blog, who knew, right?

So anyway, apologies for all the radio silence etc etc. The main reason for this is that I have been busy as all fuck with the day job. All going well at Rebellion HQ and I'm delighted to say that David Moore is now the commissioning editor of Abaddon. David has some very exciting plans for the imprint and I couldn't be happier to hand over my literary mutant baby to someone who is not only a superb editor, but also a great friend.

Anyway, I have been tinkering a bit with words and there is a new thing for you to buy which has my words in it. It's even available as an e-book, so there is no excuse not to. My story 'Tea and Sympathy', a black comedy about growing old and desire, had been published in Horror Express 3, which you can buy here:

I'm also delighted to say that I have placed my latest story 'White Horse.' I won't announce where as yet, as I want the publisher to do the big reveal of the full line-up.

Anyway, the confidence boost from the recent publications and acceptance I've had means I'm back in the writing saddle. Which is mainly a nice place to be.

Overall, then, a pretty good year so far. All is well with the Olivers. Maia, our two year old daughter, is now super excited to be in her big girl bed. No more cot. Though I did check on her in the small hours of Friday morning to find her sleeping under the rocking chair in her room. Which is both (a) pretty cute and (b) a tiny bit reminiscent of Poltergeist. Fortunately for us our house isn't built on the site of an ancient Native American burial ground, those being in somewhat short supply in Abingdon.

Yesterday I had a day out in that there London at the Book Fair, which was nice. Though Earls Court is vast and airless and way too warm. Lovely it was too, to catch up with friends in the evening. I went for drinks and dinner with the variously hugely talented and lovely folk: Rebecca Levene, Ben Smith (of the Rebellion parish), Anne Perry and Lavie Tidhar. Jared Shurin also made a bonus appearance, but it was fleeting.

So, it was a really nice day, I got a whole bunch of writing done on the train and even had more of an inkling where to take the as yet pretty much unwritten Novel 3. (I know, that title is snappy as all that isn't it?)

Meanwhile I'm working my way through the tenth and 'final' book in Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen Series, The Crippled God. I'm absolutely in awe of the way Erikson keeps such control of his vast fantasy universe. It's been a hell of a journey and one I'm glad I took. After such a huge series, though, I will take a breather before plunging back into epic fantasy. I may re-read, at some point soon, the entirety of the Lankhmar stories by Fritz Leiber. I may even blog about it.

In the meantime, go buy Horror Express 3 or, failing that, sending me unmarked bills in a brown paper packages.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

And here we go again...

So after the woeful outcome at the last General Synod not to allow women bishops, at least the recent decision by the CofE to allow gay clergy in civil partnerships to become bishops seems like a great step forward. Well, sort of. The problem is with the statement that new gay bishops should remain celibate and repent of past homosexual sexual practise. Which is obviously ludicrous, and impossible to police. The church has said that it is not obsessed with sex and I don't think it is to as large a degree as the general media claim. However, it is giving way too much thought about what goes on in the bedrooms of consenting adults. To be honest, this is none of the church's bloody business. I personally don't care how you conduct your sexual relationships as long as they are legal, safe and consensual. I do not judge people on the things that turn them on and get them going and nor should the church. Okay, so if we boil it down to the basic objection, it does seem to stand as: but that whole anal sex thing is just wrong, surely? Then if such a thing bothers you, don't think about it. Allowing practising homosexuals into positions of power in the church is not going to mean that anal sex becomes compulsory. And if such a thing repells you, really stop thinking about it so much!

Physical expressions of love within a long and stable relationship are something to be encouraged and not put down as some great sin that is against god. The church does seem out of touch on this, especially when there are much greater things to worry about in the world, which are actually sins, and deeply serious one at that. The situation in Syria. The way the government is allowing the rich to stamp all over our economy and make the rest of us suffer. Climate change. The treatment of women in various parts of the world, including here. These are things that the church should be addressing. Christ fought against injustice. Christ expressed eternal love and tolerance.

One of the elements that does wind me up about this, is the random comments I've seen on the internet where people have been expressing that if this is the church's line then it should be allowed to collapse and good riddance to it. I've been a practicing Christian my whole life, and in my general experience the church has been a place of great acceptance and the expression of the Christian message. Clearly this is not true for everybody, and we should fight until it is. But  I don't want to say fuck it then, let the church crumble. Rather I want to see the church healed. Ritual and structure are important to my faith. Yes, okay, if there was no church that doesn't necessarily mean my faith would dissapear, but the Christian community within my local community is massively important to me, and us as a family. So I'm dismayed, yes, but I will be praying for a way through this.

I think that progress has been made on gay clergy, but guys, seriously, let's get over this worry about how gay couples physically express themselves and concentrate instead on the spiritual enrichment that these people of God can bring to our Christian experience and the church.