“The Morning After” by Carole Johnstone

This story first appeared in Black Static #3 back in January 2008, and I read it ahead of the stories by women in #2 because it was a three page story and I only had a three page window of opportunity. It was also Carole Johnstone’s first published story, though she’s had a fair few hit print since, including a couple more in Black Static, one of which got picked up by Ellen Datlow for Best Horror of the Year Volume 2.

The first line reads ‘At least it was downhill, there was that’, and as we read on that ‘downhill’ takes on a rather daunting significance. Initially though it’s a situation most of us will have experienced at one time or another, the male protagonist having got up half an hour late and now having to dash to catch his train.

There’s some vivid descriptive writing in the opening paragraphs, and indeed throughout the story, Johnstone capturing the glamour of the story’s backdrop – light on the castle in the distance, a rocky peninsula, the river Clyde – and contrasting that with the terrain through which the narrator is moving, a short cut down a steep slope, one that is agony on the knees, overgrown with vegetation in places, the haunt of junkies and teen gangs. The ‘good life’ is somewhere off in the distance.

Reading the title, the mind automatically adds ‘the night before’, and this is when most of the important stuff took place, the narrator filling in the blanks. A meeting with an ex-girlfriend and the hope of reconciliation, gives way to a savage (and very sinister, as described) beating by her new fellow and his mates. And with this revelation the reader’s sympathy shifts somewhat, the narrator’s abuse of the girlfriend when things don’t go his own way striking a sour note.

There’s magic of a kind in this landscape. The castle was once, according to legend, Merlin’s place of exile. Things recur – a broken gate, a syringe with blood in the end. The face of the narrator’s watch shows 8.15, over and over again. Slowly we come to the conclusion that the narrator is trapped in a cycle, a hell of repetition, and as he feels the wound on the back of his head we realise that the beating may have been far worse than previously allowed.

There’s a subtext, a cosmic irony in that repeating old patterns with his girlfriend has led to an afterlife in which he is nothing more than a mouse on a wheel, travelling towards the things he wants but fated never to arrive.

The slightly breathless last paragraph captures this feeling perfectly, that from now on everything is fated to be downhill for this man, reinterpreting the story’s opening in fateful terms and also, in the wording, echoing the penultimate paragraph of The Great Gatsby:-

‘Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future, that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning – ‘

But for the protagonist of Carole Johnstone’s story there is no tomorrow, just an endless today.

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