Carole Johnstone’s Cold Turkey is the third in a series of beautifully presented novellas published by TTA Press of Black Static, Interzone and Crimewave fame. There’s little doubting Johnstone’s credentials as an author – as well as writing for the UK’s premier literary horror magazine, her work has been featured in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year Series and Salt’s Best British Fantasy imprint. Amongst her many skills as a writer is a perfect ear for regional dialogue from a wide range of social backgrounds. So good is it that on meeting her, one could almost be disappointed not to be confronted by a burly deep sea fisherman or, in the case of Cold Turkey, a hard bitten Scot who has grown up on one of the worst housing estates Lanarkshire has to offer.
Raymond ‘Raym’ Munroe is a schoolteacher who is trying to give up smoking. The book begins as, after multiple failed attempts, Raym begins his most concerted effort yet. But Raym’s got a few other problems in his life that aren’t going to help him in his efforts to quit. His relationship isn’t the best, his job is unfulfilling and he’s regularly late for work. On top of all of this there’s the regular appearance of a terrifying spectre he comes to dub ‘Top Hat’. Whether Top Hat is there to haunt him or help him conquer his addiction is something you’ll have to read the book to find out. As his resolve begins to crumble, so does his life, and soon Raym finds he is losing time – an hour here, an hour there – and those around him are starting to be affected too. As events reach a climax Raym’s life and sanity begin to fall apart to such an extent that he is no longer sure what is real and what is part of the weird fantasy existence he has begun to experience.
Cold Turkey is not a book about giving up smoking. Rather, it is an exploration of one man’s attempt to remove from his life that has become such an integral part of it. Smoking is one of the props Raym’s existence depends on, to the extent that its abrupt cessation can only lead to horror. That this horror is expressed through the metaphor of the kind of rubber reality popularised by 1980s horror movies like Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and, in particular, Bernard Rose’s Paperhouse, is an absolute delight. Johnstone wears her influences here proudly, with one of Raym’s early nightmares features several key iconic images from the cinema of that period. Of course Johnstone has created her own iconic villain in Cold Turkey in the form of Top Hat – a nastier, far more horrific version of the cartoon ‘Nick-O-Teen‘ character voiced by Valentine Dyall for British Stop Smoking advertisements in the 1970s. A terrifying rendition of an especially demented Ronald Searle cartoon come to life, Top Hat is as memorable a villain as Cold Turkey is a novella.
Beautifully written by Johnstone and beautifully presented with superb cover art by Warwick Fraser-Coombe, Cold Turkey acquits itself admirably as a nightmarishly disturbing addition to the TTA novella range. All the smokers out there should save their cigarette money and buy this instead – just to make the experience ever more intense.
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
Publisher: TTA Press
Release Date: Out Now