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