Sad Stories of the Death of Kings: On Graham Joyce’s Passing

Today, Graham Joyce died at the age of 59.  He’d been battling cancer for some time, and had signed up for a trial of a new anti-cancer drug.  It’s my understanding that he had some type of reaction to the drug, as a consequence of which, he died.  I don’t know anything more than that.

He was a brilliant writer.  When I finished his recent novel, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, I was so moved by it, so out and out dazzled, that I immediately sat down at the computer and sent him an e-mail burning with admiration.  I’d had that reaction to most of his novels, his stories.  It’s been a while since I’ve read some of them, and there are still a couple I have to get to, but Dark Sister, House of Lost Dreams, The Tooth Fairy, Smoking Poppy, and Some Kind of Fairy Tale all glow in my memory, as does his novella, “Leningrad Nights.”  His novels were deftly-constructed, built around characters whose encounters with the supernatural occurred within the contexts of lives full of conflict.  There was a sense of the numinous in his fiction that reminds me of the work of writers as diverse as Arthur Machen, M.John Harrison, and sometimes Jonathan Carroll.  At the same time, his characters inhabited a contemporary Britain that calls to mind other writers, Ian McEwan and Graham Swift.  He was a particularly English fantasist.

We didn’t know each other particularly well.  I met him at the 2003 World Fantasy Convention, where Bill Sheehan very kindly introduced us in the dealers’ room.  Somewhat to my surprise, Graham  recognized my name, as it turned out, because I’d written an appreciative e-mail to Gordon Van Gelder about a story of Graham’s he’d published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Gordon had forwarded the e-mail to Graham, and he connected it to the newly-published writer babbling away at him.  I remember telling him how impressed I was that each of his novels was so singular, so much its own thing, and his (obviously-pleased) response that he hadn’t planned it that way, he’d just let each book find its shape.  It occurs to me that he must have been about the same age then that I am, now; younger, even.  That seems impossible to me.

We met again in 2009, at the 2009 World Fantasy Convention in San Jose.  I had a very memorable dinner with him, Sarah Pinborough, Laird Barron, Chris Roberson, Jeremy Lassen, and Jason Williams.  Graham attempted to tell the story of his visit to the local Rosicrucian Temple, but when he reached the point at which he attempted to speak in an American accent, we teased him mercilessly, to the point of telling him that Sarah’s American accent was much more convincing.  He played the part of the aggrieved, interrupted storyteller quite well, allowing himself to be gradually cajoled into resuming his story, until he attempted another accent and the teasing resumed.  Later, we had a more serious conversation at the hotel bar, about trying to bring together literary techniques and genre material, and the resistance such enterprises could and did meet.  I guess the last time I saw him was at the banquet for the World Fantasy Awards, for which he was nominated and for which he dressed up in a cream colored three-piece suit with a lime green shirt and a cream tie.  He didn’t win, but if he was disappointed, he hid it well.

At the end of his novel, The Silent Land, a horse-drawn sleigh drives up and takes one of the characters off, into the land of the dead, the silent destination of the book’s title.  It’s hard not to feel that’s what’s happened today.

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