Viewed decades later, the sleeve of Unknown Pleasures anticipates the after-effects of the vinyl it enfolds: its image the radiation signature of a star long dead, its transmissions still detectable by those with ears to hear. The traces of its signal pulse in barely diminished intensity, resonating from generation to generation of young men and women in the gravest earnest, discovered anew even as rock’s heritage monthlies seek to drain and dissect it, reducing it for ready re-sale.

It’s reasonable, then, to be sceptical of the motives behind a literary response to Joy Division’s debut LP, to ask whether it represents a pragmatic vampirism or something which beats without borrowed blood?

We Were Strangers certainly looks the part – its jacket’s understated evocation of the Peter Saville original marking it out as an apt Factory companion piece. That Ian Curtis himself read with the avidity of the autodidact affords a further pretext; the lead singer who carried his words around with him in a plastic bag may not merely have been flattered to have inspired a constellation of paperback writers, he would have been more likely than many to have read what they wrote.

His own favoured authors – Kafka, Ballard, Gogol – bled into his lyrics, informed his own rigour, and there are contributions to this volume which drink from the same dark wells. In particular, Nicholas Royle‘s opening Disorder borrows from Burroughs to ventriloquise Curtis, tuning into his words like electronic voice phenomena caught between radio stations.

Perhaps the most effective of those pieces which share the penumbra of Curtis’s influences is Jessie GreengrassCandidate, a Kafkaesque parable allegorising the Situationist concept of recuperation that holds its nerve unwaveringly from the bold declaration of its very first words, “We have always lived in the factory.”

Others wear their inspiration in clothes cut less austerely. Tonally, Zoe Lambert‘s take on She’s Lost Control has more in common with Belle & Sebastian than anything issued under a Fac number. More kitchen sink than sunk in despair, the trials of its safety-helmeted heroine as she struggles to emerge from her maternal cocoon are never less than captivating. Similarly, in her Wilderness, Eley Williams etches an oddly affecting moment of wilful disorder in the Sisyphean rounds of an ice rink resurfacer, effacing the trajectories of an artistry she regards as inconvenient.

We Were StrangersIn the end, the stringency of influence is of less importance than a quality the collection shares with its analogue predecessor. Unknown Pleasures, the fragility of vinyl’s linear spiral notwithstanding, was not an album improved by the skipping, and nor is there a story here that does not reward immersion.

This is the way, step inside…

(Or perhaps that invitation should await a companion volume, devoted to Closer?)

By Desmond Bullen


We Were Strangers, edited by Richard V Hirst, is published by Confingo.