We Were Strangers: a distinctive, haunting collection that lingers long after reading


We Were Strangers is a collection of ten short stories inspired by Joy Division’s debut album, Unknown Pleasures, which turns forty years old next month. The stories take on the album’s themes in a vast variety of settings and situations. Each piece is named after a track from the album and mirrors the music. It was an interesting experience to read them with the songs playing.

Some take their inspiration more directly than others. For example, Disorder by Nicholas Royle is constructed using only the words present in the lyrics, split up and put back together again to make something new. Disordered in the most literal sense. It captures the dark, brooding emptiness of Curtis’ lyrics and echoes long after you stop reading.

Insight by David Gaffney centres on a narrator who has just moved into a house once inhabited by Ian Curtis himself. It focuses on a neighbour and his strange obsession with owning all the garages on the street, refusing to give his reasons. The mystery is well set up, and the pay-off was certainly not what I’d been expecting, even if I’m not sure how to feel about the answers given. I can see, however, how many would be able to find satisfaction it its conclusion.

Another is She’s Lost Control by Zoe Lambert. It delves into the life of a young woman with epilepsy. Curtis’ own experience with the condition is well known, as he’d often collapse into fits onstage. This telling is devoid of glamour yet empowering and hopeful. The title is not only referencing the seizures but also the protagonist’s restrictive mother, losing the protective grip she holds on her daughter. This one spares no detail and made me physically nauseous while reading (which is a compliment in this case!)

The book is parted in the middle by Transmission, a graphic interlude by Zoë Mclean. It features a distinctive style of art that expresses what words cannot say. Curtis’ unforgettable pale eyes stare out of the page, immortalised in ink.
One that stands out in particular is New Dawn Fades by Sophie Mackintosh. It is unique in its magical realism, and its use of a second person perspective, dragging you down with the protagonist into a deeper and deeper depression and obsession with a certain address.

There are a few high-concept ones to offset the introspective realism of the others. For example, Shadowplay by Toby Litt, makes the far-reaching, bleak and empty darkness literal. A lone human, miles above the Earth’s surface, worrying for his cats. This one is particularly short, however the sense of crushing loneliness drags it out, leaving you feeling every second.
A highlight to me was I Remember Nothing by Anne Billson. What seems like a hangover after a one-night stand very quickly turns dark. This is a thrilling, gruesome horror tale with a twist ending that plays with power, control and inner demons.

Similarly, Candidate by Jessie Greengrass looks at themes of power and control. It’s a classic dystopia of slaves who are born, work and die within the factory planning an escape. A concept I’ve seen before, but one which pulls me in every time. It’s especially reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 or, outside of a literary perspective, the Oddworld series of games. If that’s your kind of thing (it certainly is mine), then you’ll love this one.

We Were Strangers is a complete solar system of stories, where no two planets are the same, all orbiting the black hole that in Unknown Pleasures. Forty years on, this is a fitting tribute and proof that Ian Curtis and Joy Division lives on, decades after the lines flatten.

Beth Lenderyou is an intern for the Northern Short Story Festival, a short story writer and an English and Creative Writing student at Leeds Trinity University. You can find more of her work here: https://bethsblogdotonline.wordpress.com/

“We Were Strangers: Stories inspired by Unknown Pleasures” is on Saturday 1st June at the Northern Short Story Festival, with readings from David Gaffney, Sophie Mackintosh, Jessie Greengrass, and Richard V Hirst. Book tickets here