Whilst I’d be the first to admit that the TTA novella releases haven’t been quite as frequent as I would have hoped (The first was released in November 2012, the second over a year ago in March 2013), you certainly can’t fault the quality.
I reviewed the first two novellas (“Eyepennies” by Mike O’Driscoll and “Spin” by Nina Allan) when they came out, and having been a fan for a number of years of TTA’s periodical publications (Interzone for SF and fantasy and Black Static for horror) I was very pleased that they managed to match the peerless, boundary-pushing quality quality of the shorter stories I loved in the magazine.
Now we’re at novella number 3, by Carole Johstone. Carole has featured in Black Static a number of times, as well as a wide range of anthologies and collections, and I have read her stories myself several times.
And now we have a novella. Called “Cold Turkey”. With a terrifying man (?) in a top hat on the front. First impressions are, you have to admit, distinctly good.
“Cold Turkey” follows Raym, a school-teacher in small-town Scotland, as he tries to give up smoking. As well as cravings, he has to deal with mind-bending oddness, a ghostly tally-van (which apparently is a Scottish ice-cream van, which also sells cigarettes and the like; seeming like a corner-shop on wheels — you learn something new every day), and the creepy sod on the cover. The reader watches as his life slowly comes apart at the seams.
The actual premise of the plot is remarkably simple, which I think there is something to be said for. Overcomplicating horror rarely works, and “keep it simple, stupid” is as true as it is a cliché. Just look at the beautiful simplicity of Joe Hill’s “Heart Shaped Box”…
But despite — or more likely because — of the uncomplicated premise, what Johnstone does is take us on an intricately guided tour of Raym’s life coming apart. From his occasional lapses, to the bizarre way he seems to lose time; from his haunting at the hands of Top Hat, to the arrival of a new temptation in the form of a teaching assistant.
There is an element of the Shakespearean tragedy to “Cold Turkey”; the way that ultimately Raym is the author of all the misfortunes which befall him. In that manner we end up with a character who is sympathetic to the reader, who follows his journeys, but who we can see would be decidedly unsympathetic to those whose paths cross with his.
One of my favourite things about “Cold Turkey” actually was the use of the schoolchildren and Raym’s position as a teacher. As well as suggesting a life that has stalled — working at the school he was educated at, living in the same town he grew up in, with his high school sweetheart. And that fact that the children can also see Top Hat lends him more than simply the feverish imaginings of a mind suffering from withdrawal.
I think that “Cold Turkey” might be my favourite of the novella series so far. It’s straightforward on the most immediate level, but through that delves into an entirely believable character. It is what I would term traditional horror, predicated on basic ideas of human nature, and even evokes a chill at the bottom of the spine when it really gets going. Well-written and engaging, it represents another triumph for Carole Johnstone and TTA themselves.