THE WITNESSES ARE GONE by Joel Lane (BOOK REVIEW)
“Everything we search for, every holy grail, is something we cannot afford to find.”
After bringing Joel Lane’s debut novel From Blue To Black (2000), short story collection The Earth Wire and Other Stories (1994), and posthumous novel Scar City (2015) back into print, Influx Press continues this essential service for enthusiasts of Weird fiction at its best with Lane’s 2009 novella The Witnesses Are Gone. This brilliant novella is a fantastic example of Lane at his absolute best. The Witnesses Are Gone demonstrates Lane’s mastery at peeling back the mundane to expose the uncanny hidden underneath. It also shows his fierce political engagement, his understanding that horror and the Weird are at their most effective when they operate as tools that help us deal with an increasingly strange reality. And it serves as a reminder of Lane’s warmth and humanity, even in the face of inescapable nihilism. The Witnesses Are Gone is the perfect entry point to anyone curious as to why Lane is regarded as one of the key writers of the Weird of the past twenty years, and a treat for those of us who are already fans of his work.
In the aftermath of 9/11 but before the invasion of Iraq, Martin Swann has just turned thirty-nine and has bought a crumbling old house in the south of Birmingham, a house that his partner Judith is reluctant to move into. One lonely evening he finds a box of old VHS cassettes in the garden shed, and amongst them he finds a bootleg copy of L’éclipse des sens, a disturbing film by obscure French director Jean Rien. Martin can’t get the bizarre film or its unsettling imagery out of his head, and begins to search for the director’s other films. However, someone or something appears to be systematically erasing all traces of Rien and his work from existence. As Martin’s obsession with Rien deepens, he finds himself being dragged away from his everyday life with his partner and friends into a shadowy nightmare world of alienation and decay which soon threatens to consume him completely.
Lane’s writing is exquisite. His descriptions of a rusting and decaying Birmingham are vivid, immediate and unforgettable. Whether describing an industrial landscape or a surreal nightmare realm, Lane brings the landscape to life. His finding of poetry and beauty amongst tower blocks and concrete ruins, and his revealing of the uncanny hiding in wait just underneath, put him in the same league as The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and Arthur Machen. The language of The Witnesses Are Gone alone makes the novella a joy to read, even as it takes the reader on a bleak and unsettling journey.
The Witnesses Are Gone is a story about the destructive power of obsession, of how an artist’s bracingly nihilistic vision can consume those drawn to it. What Lane does so brilliantly is to embed this story in the recognisable everyday world that his characters inhabit. Martin lives in Blair’s Britain, listening to Leonard Cohen records and quoting League of Gentlemen catchphrases with his friends, going on marches to protest against the imminent invasion of Iraq and worrying about companies sending nuclear waste through his town. When the uncanny and the bizarre encroach on this recognisable world it makes it all the more frightening. Lane understands that this sideways approach to reality, that is essential to Weird fiction, is a huge part of how it works. The novel is set in the early years of the internet, and vividly evokes that era of fandom where everything wasn’t documented online, when it could be quite difficult to track down obscure outsider art. Is Rien a real filmmaker, a brilliant and frightening pioneer in service to a terrifying dark muse, or is he simply an elaborate hoax that has gotten out of hand and is accreting its own mythology? As obsessive film critic and fellow Rien enthusiast Will Padgett says in his letter to Martin:
“Do you remember reading Lovecraft or Machen for the first time and believing, just for a moment, that what you were reading was not fiction? That some documents of another reality had fallen into your hands? That these stories not only changed their genre, they changed everything? And now the same stories appear in corrected editions, with long introductions and scholarly footnotes by S.T. Joshi, the suspension of disbelief is impossible.”
A lot of the Weird and the Uncanny gain their power from this curious relationship to reality, the fact that they exist on the fringes surrounded by myth and heresy, and there’s always an extent that dragging them into the light of greater visibility and availability destroys some of that. (Ironically, now that Lane’s work has been out of print for some time, perhaps we see this process echoed with the rediscovery of his own novels and short stories, but fortunately Lane’s own writing more than stands up to scrutiny.) Rien forever exists in that shadowy obsessive realm, the cracked and decaying landscapes, the blurred black and white images, a twilight world of drugs and sexual excess that never quite crystallises into reality but vividly evokes the dark obsessions hidden under the veneer of civilised human behaviour. As Swann becomes more and more obsessed with Rien’s vision, he finds himself physically being dragged into this dimension, at great cost to himself and those close to him.
The brilliance of The Witnesses Are Gone is not just in how it depicts Martin’s descent into obsession and ruin, but in how Rien’s sense of nightmare unreality acts as a metaphor for the modern world. Martin finds himself disgusted by both George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s blatant disregard for the truth, in how the search for non-existent weapons of mass destruction, a transparent lie, is used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Lane evokes the anger and the helplessness of the time, as some of the biggest protests in British history to stop the invasion are blatantly ignored in favour of supporting America’s Imperial agenda. Just as Rien’s nihilistic vision hints at a darker truth hidden beneath the banal veil of reality, so Bush and Blair’s thinly veiled lies point out the unpleasant truths about how little they care for truth, the will of their own people, or the lives that are about to be lost in a senseless war. With the hindsight of 2022, in the age of Trump and Brexit, one can see how prescient Lane was in arguing that the bending of the truth to suit political aims was a slippery slope to much worse. The cardboard-thin veneer of Bush and Blair’s consensus reality seems positively convincing compared to what we have on offer today. One is torn between being glad that Lane never had to see the blatant distortion of the truth and the limits of democracy carried out by our present leaders, and sorely missing the humanity and wisdom he would have brought to our current situation.
The Witnesses Are Gone is a powerful and disturbing novella, but Lane’s warmth and humanity still shine through even though it is a story so blatantly about nihilism and despair. Martin’s journey into Rien’s shadowy world of madness takes him through a drug-addled Paris to the Mexican deserts and an uncomfortably close encounter with the hungry devouring absence that Rien is the sinister priest of. Yet, in the end, Martin is able to close the novella with these words:
“Perhaps it’s this: if the truth of our lives is nothing, then the only reality is the one we bring to life. After all, our cities – our tower blocks, our bridges, our streets – are human constructs. They didn’t come from nature. Why should our dreams, desires and fears be any different? Whatever we make in our lives – love, violence, hope or betrayal – is the only reality that won’t fall down overnight.”
Freed of any kind of grand destiny, it is we who are the architects of both the pain and despair but also the love and hope that we see around us. Lane ultimately believes, despite everything, in the human capacity for good, and his novella ends with a rousing plea to shape the world around us for the better rather than the worse. It’s up to us to listen to his warnings and his encouragement.