[Influx Press; 2023]

First released in 2012, Where Furnaces Burn is a collection of linked stories and the last book published by Joel Lane, a leftist UK writer of weird fiction, dark fantasy, and horror. When he died in 2013, Lane had just won a World Fantasy Award for these stories, which follow a police detective narrator through his twenty-four-year career in England’s West Midlands, a county about three hours northwest of London. The detective—who reads as a jaded noir hero, but more depressed—recounts the strange cases that have come to his desk over the years. These cases are brimming with the weird, the eerie, and the outright supernatural. The stories’ descriptions on the back jacket sound like pulpy X-Files plots: “A young woman needs help in finding the buried pieces of her lover . . . so he can return to waking life.” Or: “When a migrant worker disappears, the key suspect is a boy driven mad by memories that are not his own.” Anyone who loves this kind of thing (and I’m one of you) might already be sold. Where Furnaces Burn is indeed full of darkly inventive strangeness well worth digging into. But this represents only half of the arcane engine that powers Lane’s masterwork. The rest is Lane’s brilliant melding of character and landscape.

Lane himself lived in the setting for these stories. His part of the Midlands is sometimes referred to as the Black Country, referring to its historical steelworks and coal mining operations during England’s Industrial Revolution. While looking for the source of the collection’s title, I came across Samuel Sidney, the author of an 1851 travel guide to English railroad sightseeing for “those who, having a brief vacation, may wish to employ it among pleasant rural scenes.” Sidney described Lane’s stomping grounds:

In this Black Country . . . a perpetual twilight reigns during the day, and during the night fires on all sides light up the dark landscape with a fiery glow. The pleasant green of pastures is almost unknown, the streams, in which no fishes swim, are black and unwholesome; the natural dead flat is often broken by high hills of cinders and spoil from the mines; the few trees are stunted and blasted; no birds are to be seen, except a few smoky sparrows; and for miles on miles a black waste spreads around, where furnaces continually smoke . . .

Sidney also reported on the denizens of this land, muttering from his coal-powered, steel train that they were “in full keeping with the scenery—savages, without the grace of savages, coarsely clad in filthy garments, with no change on weekends or Sundays, they converse in a language larded with fearful and disgusting oaths, which can scarcely be recognized as the same as that of civilized England.”

Or, as one of Lane’s doomed Black Country men says with infinitely more authority in the story “Slow Burn”: “What belongs here doesn’t belong in the world.” Throughout this collection, Lane focuses on people who live in the ecological and social byproduct of the cancerous society they helped build.

One story in particular, “Wake up in Moloch,” literalizes the toxic specters of the Black Country’s industrial beginnings. It’s one of the more unsettling pieces of the collection. The detective tracks a series of what appear to be accidental deaths linked to mechanical relics of industry. A man is poisoned by gas which suddenly leaks from an ancient machine his neighbor had been using as a yard sculpture. A teenager sneaks into an old industrial estate and dies when a “crude security device . . . something like a back shrub, with cameras instead of flowers” launches shrapnel at her. Another sculptural piece of machinery resembling a cherry tree kills a child when he tries to pick its fake fruit. The detective traces these deaths to a sacrificial cult, the members of which worship an enormous machine. Lane seems to be claiming that there’s something fatally false about the industrial landscape, which appears natural but in fact is inimical to life. He warns, too, against worshipping machines that comfort us even as they kill.

Cults appear frequently throughout the collection, and most stories involving them draw the same narrative and thematic shapes. The detective is attracted to these cults during his investigations, often via invasive thoughts and uncontrollable urges, but manages to escape oblivion long enough to stumble into the next case. Thematically, the cult stories center around our self-destructive need to dignify and valorize what consumes us. Lane repeatedly focuses on the cultists’ loss of self. Sometimes this focus leads Lane’s stories to miss out on more potent framing:  In “Blind Circles,” for example, a neo-nazi cult performs a ritual that culminates in the cultists’ self-sacrifice. This violence felt displaced. That even a story about neo-nazis derived its horror from self-destruction rather than the destruction of other lives, was difficult to read as anything other than a failure to widen the frame. But Lane’s insistence on a narrow frame might be intentional, the author’s way of playing with the archetype of the noir detective—his solitude, narcissism and failure of clarity.

Unlike buddy cop shows, a noir detective is almost always alone. This stubborn isolation grants him (it’s usually a guy) his powers of moral eccentricity and impulsive action. It also makes him a bit of an idiot. The noir hero’s inability to combine his understanding with even one other partner’s perspective leaves him short-sighted, always one step behind where he needs to be. Because of this, he is also a chronic failure.

The best examples of neo-noir are extremely aware of this and address their heroes’ central failing with dramatic irony. The 1975 movie Night Moves is a great example, as is M John Harrison’s excellent and Night Moves-quoting novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. In these pieces, there is areal conspiracy somewhere, a deeply interconnected darkness menacing the world, though by the time the hero pieces it together it’s too late to save anyone. We aren’t watching the detective solve the mystery as much as we are watching them miss opportunities to do so, again and again, until the credits roll. 

Lane largely dispenses with dramatic irony when dealing with the occult mysteries. In the end, only one case is even partially solved, even from the reader’s privileged vantage point. We know nothing about these enigmatic goings-on that the detective himself does not know. Neither is there any clear connection between cases. The landscape of post-industrial urban England is the only loose tether between the stories, its history of despair acting as a generalized, inviolate momentum towards strife. The narrator’s failures are tragic, in that his inability to save anyone often makes for sad reading, but this is not Tragedy, because we can’t figure out where he’s gone wrong. There is no grand, fated design, and there is little in the way of decisive action. This effect stems in large part from Lane’s decisions around narrative mode: the stories rely most heavily on summary rather than action, leaving little room for readers to identify individual, causal choices.

Even personal investigations are conducted at a distance. The stories trace our detective’s failing marriage alongside his career. By the end of twenty-four years, we still know almost nothing about his wife, Elaine, and his only daughter. He mentions his daughter’s eating disorder once and her musical preferences twice in the middle of a case description. In two throwaway lines, we learn that his wife has a boyfriend he’s trying to be polite to. The marriage fades with apparently little input from him: “If there’d been a crisis, a terrible row, a betrayal, I could have found a way to heal the rift. But how Elaine and I behaved didn’t seem to matter. The process had a momentum of its own.” Here’s that dramatic irony. The narrator has of course been granted each of those rifts he claims could have saved them: the crisis of his child’s health, fights over infidelity, betrayal through years of silence. He just avoided all of them.

The investigators of neo-noir films like Chinatown, and noir crime novels like Miyuke Miyabe’s All She Was Worth, often uncover larger societal issues as they fail to solve their cases. But Lane’s detective fails to find an explanation for any of the world’s ills, personal or societal. That may be because this book didn’t have any explanations in mind. Or maybe it’s that Lane distrusted complete solutions.

In a 2009 article for Socialism Today, Forbidden Questions: The Politics of Noir Fiction,” Lane argued that Dashiell Hammett was the first writer of detective fiction who envisioned “the mystery to be solved not simply that of a murder but of the deceit and corruption running through a whole community.” Lane noted that Hammett came by his hardboiled worldview honestly, while working for the Pinkertons—the private detective and security agency infamous for their mercenary strikebreaking and labor espionage. Hammett quit this work when he was ordered to murder a trade union leader (in exactly the kind of fatalist twist typical of noir, the Pinkertons got somebody else to do the job just three days later), and he also quit writing in the 30s. Lane makes an oblique guess as to why: “Perhaps the noir writers who followed [Hammett] expressed in their writing what he expressed in his silence. It is a state of social and political awareness well summed up by 1940s poet Weldon Kees in his poem Crime Club:

Small wonder that the case remains unsolved,

Or that the sleuth, Le Roux, is now incurably insane,

And sits alone in a white room in a white gown,

Screaming that all the world is mad, that clues

Lead nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen;

Screaming all day of war, screaming that nothing can be solved.

Where Furnaces Burn does not believe in solutions to society’s deceit and corruption, but it also appears to distrust even coherent explanations of these problems. The first story opens with a brief mediation on what led Lane’s detective to his career. “Some people join the police force to try to make a difference to society. Some do it to try and keep things the same. Some do it because they like beating people up—and they’re the only ones who don’t end up disappointed.” When the detective interrogates his own motivations, he decides they are related to his need to avoid the unknown. “Police work was about finding evidence and explaining. There was no room for the unknown, or for the complications that lead from one thing to all kinds of other things.” But the unknown prevails. By the end of the last story, confusion is still far stronger than the detective’s understanding.

This, then, is the major source of Lane’s irony: his use of a narrator obsessed with order and simple explanation as our only guide in his weird landscape—a perpetually inexplicable, unruly, and infinitely interconnected place. His police officer narrator may also implicate the reader: even if we don’t beat people up, we can still act as enforcers of a violent and inhumane status quo, and we can still throw our lives away looking for answers we’ll never find. There is no doubt that Joel Lane cared deeply about these possibilities. He was concerned with injustice and political solutions to it. He was a dedicated member of the Socialist Party. He edited an antifacist anthology of weird fiction called Never Again. But where his editing and nonfiction work was clear-sighted, his fiction explored a universe that was impenetrably mysterious. Where Furnaces Burn is not interested in solutions. It is interested in humanity, in people who don’t belong in the world but who create the world, regardless.

Amelia Brown is a writer living in Boston. She holds an MFA from Bennington College. https://www.amelia-brown.com/writing.html


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