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(Credit: Remko Hoving)

Music

‘We Were Strangers’, the short stories inspired by Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’

In 2019, We Were Strangers, a collection of ten short stories inspired by the Joy Division debut album Unknown Pleasures was released to celebrate the seminal album’s 40th anniversary. Three years on, I feel the book hasn’t yet received the attention it deserves. 

Submitted by various acclaimed authors and fellow Joy Division fanatics, the stories were named after and influenced by each track on the album. In an attempt to add a more lucid narrative to each of the songs, the stories cover a range of emotions and settings that reflect the ostensible storyline for each song. 

Where the opaque poetic ether of Ian Curtis’ lyrics left off, these devoted authors have respectfully picked up the loose threads and filled in the gaps of the tapestry. What results is a brand new experience for Joy Division fans. 

For many Joy Division devotees, the songs of Unknown Pleasures will likely have manifested a substantial degree of imagery in mind. Upon reading these short stories, one has the experience of vividly living out the perceptions of another, giving the music a new life. Needless to say, this anthology is best read with the LP spinning. 

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Part of the anthology’s beauty is in the wide variation captured thanks to the array of different authors from different perspectives. Some took their inspiration more candidly, while others conveyed more abstract and imaginative plotlines. 

For example, Disorder, written by Nicholas Royle, was created using only the words found in the lyrics of the eponymous opening song. Royle cut up the words like a post-punk William Burroughs and rearranged them to create something new, yet still in keeping with the atmosphere of the song. 

Later on, Insight, by David Gaffney, follows the narrative of someone who has just moved into Ian Curtis’ old house in Macclesfield. The plot focuses on a strange neighbour and his obsession with owning all the garages on the street. The neighbour is reluctant to give a reason for this strange obsession, adding an air of mystery. The odd tale comes to a surprisingly satisfying conclusion. 

Another highlight is She’s Lost Control by Zoe Lambert. The story focuses on a young woman with epilepsy, the condition that Curtis sadly suffered from. The song’s meaning is given a new angle as the title references the protagonist’s health condition as well as losing her motherly influence on her estranged daughter. This stark and harrowing story promises to grab and hold your attention. 

On the more abstract end of the spectrum, Toby Litt’s Shadowplay brings the album’s dark feelings of loneliness to his own imagination in a wonderfully effective fashion. The protagonist here finds himself losing touch with the Earth as he floats into space longing for the comfort of his pet cats. 

I Remember Nothing, the concluding track on Unknown Pleasures, was adapted by Anne Billson into a tale of horror and deceit. The thriller ensues following a one-night-stand, and from the early moments of guilt follows something dark and twisted that spirals ever out of control. 

The book adds fresh “insight” (see what I did there) to an album that, despite being over four decades old, appears just as artistically relevant today. While the songs are exceedingly difficult to tire from, these intriguing, haunting and vivid short stories add a whole new dimension to Ian Curtis’ creations.

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