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Cold Turkey by Carole Johnstone

TTA Press, 2014, 159 p. (Novella no. 3 from TTA Press, publishers of Interzone and Black Static.)

Cold Turkey cover

I don’t know why I was sent this. I had agreed to read TTA Press Novella no 2 (Nina Alan’s Spin) and review it on my blog but had thought that was a one-off. Yet this too has turned up in the post (though it was actually sent to my old address.) It seemed only polite to accord this book the same courtesy.

I had not realised before starting it that it would count towards the Read Scotland 2014 challenge but the author is a Scot whose blog is here. (She now lives in Essex. I did that for two years.) The first clue was the mention of Fir Park – one I have still to cover in my series on Scottish Football Grounds. (The story is set in a Lanarkshire town.)

Raymond Munroe is a Primary School teacher in Glengower. His mother and father have had gruesome deaths due to smoking. Raym is trying to give up. Again. This time his attempts are accompanied by the sound of a nursery rhyme and memories from his childhood, of the tally van and the grotesque figure of Top Hat – a creature with black tails, “really long ones, like party streamers.” Raym is also losing time. Each cigarette lapsed into eats up an hour in the real world. Johnstone has Raym explicitly acknowledge to himself that he could be suffering hallucinations due to nicotine withdrawal, but some of the children can also see Top Hat and what occurs in the lost hours is not remembered by anybody else.

Raym’s slow decline while trying to maintain his mental equilibrium under this joint barrage is the meat of the story but the other characters are equally well drawn, with Raym’s girlfriend Wendy very acutely observed. Only teaching assistant Caitlin seems too pat, too designed to the purposes of plot.

Despite Cold Turkey being in essence a horror story there are flashes of humour – “You are a fine teacher; even if you did pursue your degree in Dundee.”

Towards the end a drunk he encounters tells Raym that the phrase “cold turkey” is derived from a US saying and means the unvarnished truth. In any novel the truth has to be varnished. Johnstone is good with the brush.

Note to non-Scots readers. At one point Raym is described as “careering along the road like an escapee from Carstairs.” Carstairs is the location of a State Hospital (that is, an institution to house the criminally insane.)

Pedants’ corner. Raym is said to work in a “small rural primary school on one of the worst estates in Lanarkshire.” If the town is big enough to have an estate (which here means housing scheme) then it’s hardly rural. The staff room (I’ve been in a few – though admittedly mostly secondary school ones) seems excessively sweary to me. There is a reference to town meetings. (In Lanarkshire? I’ve lived in Scotland for all but two years of my life and never known of such things here.) The impression is given that primary schools have their day structured by periods and that basic trig is part of their curriculum. (They don’t and it isn’t.) Though “totilly waddy an’ a hauf” is new to me, neither “absolute mince” nor “the old heave-ho” is an obscure catchphrase. There was a shrunk count of 2 and 1 sunk. We had “site” for “cite,” “snuck” for “sneaked,” a “gotten,” “scroat” for “scrote,” starter blocks (starting) and a faux “Macintosh” chair.

Incubus by Nick Gifford

Puffin, 2005, 225 p.

Danny Smith’s secret is that his father is a multiple murderer. His mother has taken the family to a new home far from those who know their background. His reticence about himself is tested by Cassie Lomax, a bright classmate who finds him interesting. As the book unfolds Danny’s worst fear, that the voices in his head that drove his father to murder would manifest in his own, comes to pass. These belong to a family kobold, a Hinzelmännchen called Hodeken, legacy of Danny’s German grandparents – they amended their surname from Schmidt when they came to England. The weirdnesses build up only gradually as the book follows Danny’s burgeoning relationship with Cassie (both of these developing in a chat room) and his struggle against the kobold’s influence, during which the story ranges from modern England to Berlin (both of the Second World War and of the erection of the Wall in 1961) as Danny learns more about his family’s past.

Writing for young adults is not easy but Gifford handles all this very well, with clear lucid prose and a pleasing level of complication with the adults around Danny. He also finesses the necessity of information dumping about kobolds by having Cassie and Danny perform internet searches.

Caveat:- I know I have a bee in my bonnet about this sort of thing but it jarred that at one point the kobold says, “aren’t I?” Kobolds are Germanic. Rather than “aren’t I?” Hodeken would surely have thought, “nicht wahr?” – which would have made the rough translation “isn’t that so?” a better choice.

Looking for Jake by China Miéville

Pan, 2006, 307p.

Looking For Jake cover

This is a collection of Miéville’€™s shorter fiction culled from various previous publications, with some original to this book.

Looking for Jake. After an unspecified disaster has depopulated London an unnamed narrator goes looking for his missing friend Jake. The very Art Deco Gaumont State cinema in Kilburn is given several mentions and an image of it appears on the book’s cover. See also the picture at the end of this post.

In Foundation a First Gulf War veteran haunted by his experiences there is known as a house whisperer because he talks to buildings. Their foundations talk back.

The Ball Room, a story written along with Emma Bircham and Max Schaefer, has the eponymous play area of a furniture warehouse not entirely dissimilar from IKEA cause its clientele to experience strange and compulsive goings on.

Reports of Certain Events in London is a typographical riot of fonts, scripts, reports, “handwritten”€ letters, interpolations and transcribed pamphlets and employs an unusual framing device. Narrator “€œChina Miéville” inadvertently opens a package delivered to his address but intended for a Charles Melville and finds himself fascinated by the contents – the proceedings of a group devoted to tracking the shifting location of, and combats between, London’€™s feral houses.

Familiar has a witch making a familiar out of a mixture of his own body fluids. It disgusts him and he gets rid of it but it comes back to haunt him. Ho-hum.

Entry Taken From a Medical Encyclopædia is errr…. an entry from a medical encyclopædia. Complete with footnotes and references. The infection described is caused by pronouncing a word in a certain way, which thus propagates itself in the victim’s brain.

In Details a young boy takes food every week from his mother to an old woman who keeps herself close, in the dark, barely opening her door before snatching the food, closing it again and getting him to read to her. She once saw something nasty, not in the woodshed, but in the details of a brick wall. She has been hiding from the patterns out to get her ever since.

Go Between sees a man receive from a mysterious organisation messages concealed inside his purchases. He fails to deliver the final one and wonders if he did the right thing.

An old man buys himself a seventieth birthday present, an old window with stained glass. He discovers he can see Different Skies through it, but there are potential horrors on the other side.

An End to Hunger has a genius computer programmer infuriated by the eponymous charity’€™s campaign. He works to expose its sponsors’ hypocrisies. They don’€™t like it.

In ‘€˜Tis the Season Christmas and its accompanying paraphernalia have been privatized. Yuleco owns the rights and so ChristmasTM, SantaTM, MistletoeTM, RudolphTM etc are all under licence – even tinsel is illegal without one, never mind a tree. An unnamed father has won a prize to Yuleco’s official party. On the way there he and his daughter get caught up in the anti-privatisation protests. Slight, in a fun way. I just hope it doesn’€™t give anybody in power any ideas.

Jack in Miéville€’s city of New Crobuzon, familiar from Perdido Street Station and The Scar, is a Remade. Altered as a punishment – feathered wings for arms or oily gears for innards and skin changed, or otherwise bizarrely surgically changed – Remades are looked down upon by the “normal”€ citizens. Jack Half-A-Prayer fights the system, standing up for the underprivileged. The city can tolerate so much as a release valve – but Jack goes too far.

On The Way To The Front is a graphic short story illustrated by Liam Sharp which would take longer to describe than it did to read. The reproduction is in black ink and might have benefited from colour (which would obviously have been too expensive.)

The Tain is much the longest story in the collection, a novella set in the aftermath of Earth’s invasion by the creatures who live behind mirrors, the Tain of the title. A Londoner is strangely immune to their attentions and sets out to parley with their leader. One of the Tain is also a viewpoint character. Not your usual alien encounter story.

While not every story hits the mark, as a whole the collection illustrates Miéville’€™s range and writing ability. It also highlights his fascination with London and his recurring theme of otherness, the not-quite-identical.

And here is the majestic (in that monolithic, Stalinist kind of way) Gaumont State Cinema.

Gaumont State Cinema

Postscripts: The A to Z of Fantastic Fiction Special. BSFA Members Sampler Edition

PS Publishing, 2010, 112p.

This was the collection I mentioned had been in a BSFA mailing about 18 months ago – a taster from Postscripts.
I’ve only just got round to reading it. The authors include Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Ramsey Campbell and Gene Wolfe.

Most of the stories are not SF but are fantasy or horror; the best of which is Lisa Tuttle’s Closet Dreams where a young girl dreams of her incarceration by a man she calls the monster.

Of the out and out SF Eagle Song by Stephen Baxter concerns messages from Altair which recur at time intervals that decrease in powers of three from 7510 BC to 2210 AD. While clearly not our own history it parallels that closely, so the phrase “hippy chick” and the use of helicopter gunships in Vietnam supposedly in 1967 jarred a little. Footvote by Peter Hamilton relates the consequences of a private venture opening a wormhole to another planet and Gene Wolfe’s Comber is set on a world where cities drift on tectonic plates.

The writing throughout all the stories cannot be faulted but the fantasy and horror didn’t do too much for me.

The Company He Keeps edited by Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers

Postscripts 22/23, PS Publishing, 2010. 394 p

The book – one of the most recent in the Postscripts series of anthologies – contains short stories encompassing a range of genres from SF, Fantasy and Horror through to mainstream but mostly in the speculative realm. There are too many stories to consider individually but the standard is high. Even if not all are entirely successful the book contains very few duds. One of the most effective tales is the title story, by Lucius Shepard, about a plot by a famous movie star to enravel his associates in the – perhaps simulated – murder of his girlfriend. Eric Brown’s The Human Element works well even if it re-visits one of his early themes, the relationship between an artist and his work. All the contributions are worth reading though I found Bully by Jack Ketchum too predictable. The Forever Forest by Rhys Hughes was curiously old fashioned, as if the author was trying too hard to convey otherness; it reads as if it might have been written in the 1950s. There’€™s also a story, Osmotic Pressure, by someone called Jack Deighton, which contains a fair bit of (arguably necessary?) information dumping.

The Company He Keeps edited by Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers:- update

PS Publishing, 2010. 394 p.

I have progressed halfway through this collection (in which appears my own story Osmotic Pressure) but have laid it down temporarily as I have more time to devote to longer works when I am on holiday. I will review it in full later.

Flesh & Blood by Nick Gifford

Puffin, 2004. 211p.

Nick Gifford is the name under which Keith Brooke writes fiction for young adults.

Matt Guilder finds out shortly after his grandmother dies that he is descended on his mother’s side from a long line of guardians of an interface between the normal world and Alternity, a place where dark forces lurk, eager to breach the gates and flood into the mundane world. His immersion into this long-standing struggle is precipitated by his parents’ break up and the subsequent move to live with his cousins near to the ancestral home, seat of the local transition point.

Even though the treatment is necessarily sketchy – the target audience doesn’t want to be bored, I suspect, and things move along swiftly – the author depicts his characters with skilful economy. We are given more than enough knowledge to understand their motivations despite there being nothing spare in the narrative. Nor is Matt free from doubts and fears.

This is young adult reading from which adults can also gain enjoyment.

More From The East Coast Writers’€™ Group

I think I’ve mentioned my writers’ group before. I believe its full title is the Edinburgh and East Coast Writers’€™ Group. Its offshoot performance arm, Writers’ Bloc, I’ve mentioned many times.

Anyway, fellow group member Andrew J Wilson has a story in the latest H P Lovecraft’s Magazine Of Horror. If horror’€™s your bag you might want to check it out. Though, as another group member Zornhau says, this story is more like a Borstal style Harry Potter with overtones of horror.

It’€™s available as a free download.

free hit counter script