Where Furnaces Burn

Recently I read Where Furnaces Burn by Joel Lane. It came recommended by a loved one; it was urban crime-related weirdness; it was set in my oddly otherloved Birmingham.

It took a while to properly catch my heart, but when I’d finished it lingered well-long in my mind.

These are slight and skirling tales of dis-ease. Sparse and scantily worded, yet they make a scrawny thing greater than the sum of parts. The wire thin voice of the narrator stitches through these ribs and lightly fleshes them in whisps of his barely-there life. There is no crime-opera backstory here. No lovingly described steak subs from Bronx diners. If you didn’t lose your appetite from these tales they may well yet choke you later.

The inner Birmingham of many of these myths seethes with the creeping malaise of childhood darkness adulted into your here-and-now fear of human fey and fury. These are the grown-up dreams I have of the evils that have turned real, even though I squeeze them into my conciousness’ corners. The ones that hurt, that kill, that steal children.

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Dealing with my adult fears seems a lot more about playing the odds. Trying not to worry. Hoping you won’t be the one. Making me more vulnerable than when I was a child – hope is so much less than magic, ritual, superstition. When I was small, all I had to do was not turn my back on the thing I feared. Some of these Furnace tales whisper through the bricky backstreets to exhale into the exurbs – places of more familiar look and feel to my childhood. Holes, minings, rocky outcrops.

When I was small, fear lived down these holes in the beechwoods. But all I had to do was keep them in the corner of my eye – neither entirely neglected nor exactly noticed. Then I’d be safe. There was a bench once, above this hole and underneath a green barked beech tree.  I’d walk an edgy spiral of the cavemouth to sit on the bench above and not quite look down, or dare to slow my breath until I ran back home.

The hole seems small now, not fearful. The wood of the bench has long gone leaving two concrete toadstools. They’re big enough to perch a while – here I enjoy the daring of smoking and ignoring and being blase. Looking down into my home town, it nestles into the cup of the valley like a clutch of grey eggs unhatched for several centuries.

And I hear the hourchimes of the town clock that measured life and ruled the heartbeats of my dreams. And it was a different flatter bell – not the remembered tonal patter. And this not-rightness of my memory made my heart remember the its younger fear’s flutter.

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