Graham Joyce was a monumental writer in the fantasy genre. His humane, intense writing was like a masterclass in how to put story first, and he knew how to write people, with all our blind spots and our hopeful mistakes. He died today of lymphatic cancer, and it's a huge loss to fantasy literature.
Top image: Angus R. Shamal.
By a weird coincidence, I was up late last night finishing Joyce's new novel, The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit, which I planned to write a review of today. It's another great personal novel about families and brushing against the uncanny, in which the fantastical is mostly a dark thread interwoven with all of the odd colors of regular human interaction. Much like his previous novel , Some Kind of Fairy Tale, it's one of those books that worries at you after you've finished reading it.
So it's especially sad to wake up after staying up reading Joyce, and wake up to learn that he's gone. It's the sort of weird sad confluence that might have turned up in one of his novels.
It's really hard to describe Joyce's books, or categorize them under one single label. His work is generally described as "dark fantasy," but he used genre trappings to tell different kinds of stories. At the same time, his books often seemed to feature a kind of magic that's lived in and a bit worn down, not showy or dazzling. His best stuff often deals with families, and the uncomfortable intimacy that comes with blood relatives. And the moments when private strangeness suddenly becomes public.
Talking to the Guardian in 2000, Joyce explained his approach to genre:
My story reflexes come less from fantasy or horror than from the darker sort of psychological thriller - not as plot-driven as most, rather more mood-driven.. . My interest in the supernatural is a complication - though I am less interested in ghosts than in people who see ghosts.
Talking to Twisted Tales Events a few years ago, Joyce added that he started out with the core relationships in his books, and then built the fantasy elements on top of that:
The central relationships come first for me. I think this is why some perhaps dedicated Fantasy readers don't always feel they get what they want from my books. There is fantasy, there is magic and the supernatural in my books, but those things only interest me for what they reveal about the characters. There are some different traditions of fantasy around and I belong to the tradition that looks for the magical in human beings, not for human beings in the magical.
And here's one more quote, from Locus, where he talks about his interest in the shift between rationality and irrationality, and the space in between:
I'm interested in the idea that most of us have our rational objections to notions of irrationality, yet we have a point where we might accept certain things that can only be apprehended irrationally, and we shuttle back and forth as we try to process experiences somewhere between those two positions. The fascination for me is in the shuttling, the capacity we have to whiz back and forth and not resolve things, and live with ambiguity. If you don't resolve this issue, then you leave the energy of that movement intact in a story. If in telling a story I was to come down on one side in a science-fictional sense and offer a rational solution or framework, I would kill that movement.
These things are a big part of why Joyce was such an indispensible fantasy writer — he understood why we need stories about magic and the inexplicable. Most of us have things in our own lives that we can't quite explain, and these things are part of what shape us as people. I haven't read all of Joyce's books — although I really want to — but the ones I've read have had this understanding of human capacity to live with confusion as part of their bedrock.
You really ought to read Joyce's final blog post, where he talks about the clarity that he got from having terminal cancer, and the wastefulness of snuffing out hundreds of lives for no good reason. It's really extraordinary stuff, really beautiful and intensely moving.
This was Joyce's gift to all of us: he understood something about humans and our capacity for cruelty and self-deception — but also our ability to understand something important in the gaps between certainty and confusion. If only we had a dozen more books from him.