Thursday, 17 March 2016

Recommendation: Cold Turkey by Carole Johnstone

I very much enjoyed Carole Johnstone's novella from TTA Press, Cold Turkey–no real surprise, given how much I liked her short stories. Cold Turkey is a tar-black comedy of horrors about Raym, who is trying to give up smoking. Again. Raym lives in his home town, works as a teacher at the school he went to as a child, and is still with his girlfriend Wendy despite the lukewarm nature of their relationship. It's safe to say Raym is bad at giving up anything, never mind something as addictive as cigarettes...

As he goes cold turkey, Raym starts to see a nightmarish figure in his dreams: Top Hat the tally man. As befitting someone who can't move on from his past, Top Hat represents all sorts of horrors from Raym's childhood (not least the deaths of both his parents from smoking related diseases) but he is also a compellingly monstrous and physical being in his own right, with his booming, jocular threats and hideously long fingers that sometimes look like cigarettes–and burn like cigarettes too, when they grasp Raym's arms. Top Hat reminded me of The Library Policeman in Stephen King's novella of the same name: a childhood monster come back to terrorise someone in adult-life.

Raym isn't sure if Top Hat is real or just a delusion caused by nicotine withdrawal, and neither is the reader. But real or not, Raym's life starts to fall apart anyway, because as Johnstone's astute characterisation makes clear, cigarettes for Raym are just one aspect of his addictive, regressive personality. The plot builds to bravura series of climatic set pieces, which manage to be funny, painful and scary all at once.

Cold Turkey (UK | US)

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