“Between a Rock and a Hard Place” by Carole Johnstone

This story from Black Static #18 marked Carole Johnstone’s third appearance, and she’s racked up another credit since to become the magazine’s most frequent female contributor.

The premise here is a ridiculously simple one – a woman walking home alone late at night through a city’s streets and scaring herself at every shadow and noise, with the dramatic tension in part arising from the question of whether she has anything to actually be scared of, or if it’s all in her imagination. And, as far as that goes, it reminded me very much of an episode in Ray Bradbury’s mosaic novel Dandelion Wine.

But we’re a long way from the happy days of the 1950s and an idyllic Green Town, Illinois setting and sensibility, something Johnstone is perfectly well aware of, giving her story a thoroughly modern feel, making it something just about anyone, woman or man, can visualise happening to themselves courtesy of the urban jungles many of us have come to call home.

At the start of the story protagonist Janis is not a happy camper. She’s just walked out on a blind date set up for her by a friend with a man who turned out to be a ‘bloody creepy wanker’. But as the dark and cold of the night digs deep, her anger and resentment give way to the realisation that, possibly, walking home alone at night wasn’t the wisest decision.

Johnstone is excellent at bringing the minatory nature of the largely deserted city streets to life on the page, with a wealth of sensory detail – the smells and sights and sounds, those things that go bump in the night and whose cause can only be inferred, a dimly lit landscape in which help seems far away and danger ever close to hand. Janis’ ‘bad date’ experience and a wealth of watching news reports have combined to shape her expectations of the night time, so that when she hears heavy footsteps following close behind her psyche is primed to anticipate the worst.

Janis tries to keep calm, to continue walking as if everything is perfectly normal, because running is the last thing you should do in these situations (it told her so in Cosmo), but inside she is panicking, imagining the worst case scenario. She finds herself trapped in a world she has only ever looked out on from behind the safety of curtained windows, and how she wishes that somebody was looking out now, but the curtains are all drawn and the cars passing by in the night are all so far away and wouldn’t stop even if she could run out in front of them. There is only Janis and the ominous clip clop of those booted feet behind.

The sound of footsteps is constant, and then it stops altogether, and then it speeds up again, the predator playing some sick game. Resigned, Janis wonders who will play her in the police reconstruction of the crime, and momentarily frets that it might be somebody fat, laughing in the dark to keep her spirits up even if the joke is at her own expense. She remembers how she and her friend had always mocked the stupidity of characters in horror movies, but the memory is no consolation now.

Panic sets in, and Janis runs, Johnstone’s prose seeming to fracture in token of the character’s near hyteria, concision giving way to blurred impressions and imagery. She falls to the ground. She abandons her coat to the grasping branches of a tree. She flees into an alley and seeks the protection of a tramp but he gets the wrong impression when she throws herself into his arms, almost precipitating the very encounter she fears.

And then her nemesis is revealed, a ‘six-foot man in a long coat and biker boots’ and ‘a face that ordinarily would have been forgettable’. The night, the combination of circumstances and Janis’ imagination, have made a monster out of this man, and he has enjoyed the role – ‘he grinned and he chuckled and he scowled’, or at least that’s how she interprets whatever look he gives her. And then the man is gone, leaving only ‘dark, empty space’, and a memory that will stay with Janis for the rest of her life.

It’s an ending that put me in mind of a saying from my childhood – ‘The boys throw stones at the frogs in fun, but the frogs die in deadly earnest.’

This man has been playing a game with Janis, one in which her imagination has colluded, but for Janis it hasn’t been a game at all. She’s left with the realisation that he is the outsider looking at her, witnessing fears and feelings which he himself will never experience, because of his size, his gender, his assurance. Looking ‘Past the window. Through the curtain. And into that other world.’

I’ve often felt that most horror stories pale in comparison to the dangers implicit in walking the streets late at night (dangers that, as here, are mostly imagined). Johnstone’s story taps into this incipient paranoia and brings it to vivid life on the page. And it’s also reminded me that when walking out late at night, as I occasionally do, if I should run into a woman out on her own, then crossing over to the other side of the road is the sensible and polite thing to do.

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