A review that originally appeared in Black Static #42:-
DEATH AND THE HUMAN CONDITION: CAROLE JOHNSTONE
With ten stories published in Black Static, Carole Johnstone is our second most regular contributor, with only Ray Cluley showing her his heels. And if you include the novella Cold Turkey (TTA Press paperback, 160pp, £10/£30 five novella subscription) in terms of word count Johnstone might just have the edge.
Her first collection, THE BRIGHT DAY IS DONE (Gray Friar Press paperback, 245pp, £8.99), contains seventeen stories, five of which previously appeared in Black Static, another from Interzone, and five that are original to the collection, including the closing novelette.
It starts with a bang, opening story ‘Dead Loss’, which as well as appearing in Black Static was selected by Ellen Datlow for her year’s best anthology. The story is told from the viewpoint of deep sea trawler man Lachlan, whose boat encounters a strange new life form and becomes the victim of something even more deadly than man, the story bringing to vivid life the sense of the sea as an alien environment, one whose perils we have only scratched the surface of, and the existential sense of dislocation felt by men alone in its vastness. Second story ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’ has a woman deciding to walk home on her own late at night, with an ever mounting sense of menace as she realises that somebody is following her, the story cranking up the tension effortlessly until the end reveal that there isn’t really a threat, just a jerk doing what comes naturally, which of course is no real help to the beleaguered protagonist. While her ending is entirely different and somewhat more substantial, in tone and build up Johnstone’s story reminded me very much of “the Lonely One” episode in Bradbury’s classic Dandelion Wine.
In ‘Machine’, which is set in the near future, a tourist attraction offers the possibility of re-enacting scenes from WW2, only for everything to go horribly wrong as a taint of fascism infects the proceedings, the narrative showing all too well how such extreme politics can become popular, and touching on the dangers of forgetting the mistakes of the past, trivialising them for our entertainment. There’s also a political element of sorts to ‘Stamping Ground’, whose protagonist finds himself targeted by a group of tramps, this only leading to his own propulsion down the slippery slope and into a similar lifestyle, the story coming with the subtext that there but for the grace of God go I, with the protagonist’s helplessness in the fact of his stalking and the fear of what the tramps represent brought to compelling life on the page.
‘Sanctuary’ is the only story that didn’t work for me. A sick woman waits alone in a hotel room, becoming obsessed with the painting of Orpheus and Eurydice leaving the Underworld on the wall, eventually getting drawn into the canvas, or possibly going mad. It’s beautifully written, presenting us with a vivid picture of sickness and despair, but on the whole felt a little too nebulous for my liking, a “so what” story with the closing moment of epiphany scant reward for the cloistered, claustrophobic build up. In a much lighter vein there is ‘For The Attention of the Occupier’ in which a bereaved man finds that he does have a reason to live after all when the world outside his door is overcome by giant plant life, the story reminiscent of the old Genesis song about giant hogweed. Johnstone obviously had a lot of fun taking this unlikely end of days scenario and running with it, the sombre feelings of her protagonist in direct contrast to the madness going on elsewhere.
Set in a tourist attraction where visitors are terrorised by aliens, ‘God of the Gaps’ has a young woman who is escorting a schoolboy learn somewhat rather more than she wishes about the truth behind alien abductions, the story rather tongue in cheek for much of its length, but with a suitably sinister payoff, well developed characters and sense of growing unease. ‘The Morning After’ has a man racing down a steep slope to catch his train, but the inner monologue going on hints that things are not as we, or he, quite believe them to be, that the narrator may in fact be a dead person, a ghost who is unaware of his condition. Flash fiction ‘Victoria Sponge’ is the story of a kind of psychic vampire, someone who gorges on the memories and knowledge of other people and then has to purge themselves of all they’ve acquired, the story evocatively told and with a unique take on the material.
Eli in ‘Electric Dreams’ is perhaps the nearest Johnstone comes to giving us an angel, a young boy who travels endlessly on underground trains and grants the wishes of those who come to him, asking payment in the form of random favours, while others of his kind try to persuade him to return to the fold. It is a powerful rendition of the outsider figure, made all the more unsettling by the very randomness of much that takes place, as if Eli is acting in accordance with guidelines or rules known only to him, things that the rest of us can never hope to understand. And of course, it asks by implication how we would act if granted the kind of opportunities that Eli holds out to his appellants. The one historical fiction in the collection, ‘The Monster of Venice’ tells of a merchant prince who becomes a monster in his efforts to be free from pain, the story rich in detail of the Venetian Republic and offering us a subtle and winning variation on the vampire archetype, showing how easy it is to fall from grace when circumstances become too much for us.
Set in an airport departure lounge, ‘Departures’ has a kiosk attendant become the prey of a man who nobody else can see, with the hint that she has become vulnerable to this type of stalking and the man’s crying need because of the emptiness in her own life, that she is not securely anchored in reality thanks to an abusive boyfriend and unhappy past, Johnstone cleverly conflating these two strands of her story and with an end twist that gives another interpretation to the haunting. In the vignette that is ‘Despair’ the possibility of suicide is reified as an online computer game, one in which confronting the beast means to embrace your own death, and in doing so receive validation and acclaim from a group of your peers, the story peeling away layers of significance and meaning attached to suicide forums, with the taking of one’s own life reduced to a spectator sport, a challenge to be overcome.
The Edinburgh Fringe is the setting for ‘Scent’, a story of the hunted and the hunter, its never named protagonist fleeing from the implacable Red, the text bringing alive the thrill of the chase and the possibility of reversed roles, with the sights and sounds of its setting grounding this story of the fantastic in a textured reality. Small town politics and gossip combine with the impending death of a minister in ‘The Black Veil’ to drive his son mad and lead to a campaign of terror against the entire community. This is a keenly felt story, one that shows what despair can lead to, the terrible bargains made to thwart fate, and while we deplore what Evan does at the same time we can identify with him to a degree, or at least understand why he acts this way, the story filled with anger at the circumstances that cause him to go over the edge.
‘Bury The Truth’ is the story of a young woman who believes she knows a grim truth about suicide, that there are terrible creatures waiting on the other side of death and ready to devour our souls, and yet she cannot resist the temptation of trying to reach them, to be one with her former lover Alex. There’s a bleakness and unnerving sense of foreboding to this story, with the knowledge that no matter how bad life becomes something even worse is waiting, as in Brian Hodges’ World of Hurt. We can feel for the protagonist and yet be scared by what she is capable of doing to herself and others, the emotional turmoil she creates through her need to know the truth.
Ex-Para Bob is the operator of a tower crane in ‘Gettin’ High’. His life and marriage are starting to unravel causing him to see things, eyes that appear in the cabin of his crane and regard him, almost as if sitting in judgement. This novelette is one of the undoubted high points of the collection, rich in incidental detail and never less than convincing as Bob’s past is made manifest in his present, the terrible things he has seen and may have done during his time on active service. The strange events taking place become emblematic of the character’s state of mind, the way in which he is losing his grip on sanity, the story a compelling and absorbing read, one that triumphs over the more fanciful aspects of the plot simply through the sheer quality of the ideas and prose on offer. It is the perfect end to a powerful collection from a bright new talent whose day is only just beginning.