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Sep. 25th, 2015

The Best Horror of the Year, Vol.7

The Best Horror of the Year, Vol.7, edited by Ellen Datlow is now available to buy in the US and the UK. I last had a story selected for this brilliant series back in 2010 with Dead Loss, and although I’ve had a few honourable mentions in the years since, I’m so pleased to be reprinted again.

This time, the story is called Departures, and it was selected from my short story collection, The Bright Day is Done. (By happy coincidence, Dead Loss can also be found in the same collection...) :-D

Catching Flies, which appears in Fearful Symmetries and the forthcoming The Monstrous was also one of Ellen’s top 50 Honourable Mentions printed at the back of the book.

And three other stories made her full recomended list:

Equilibrium; Black Static #41

Gettin High; The Bright Day is Done

Victoria Sponge; The Bright Day is Done


And finally, just to really make my year, Ellen Datlow also had this to say in her 2014 Summation at the start of the book:
The Bright Day is Done by Carole Johnstone (Gray Friar Press) is a terrific debut collection of seventeen stories by a British writer whose work has been published in Black Static, Interzone, and a host of anthologies including The Best Horror of the Year and The Best British Fantasy. Five of the stories and novelettes are new. A must-read.” ©Ellen Datlow


The Best Horror of the Year, Vol.7 was recently reviewed by SFRevu:
...My favorite stories are "It Flows from the Mouth" by Robert Shearman, a wonderful piece told in a superb narrative style, which casts some light on the little mysteries of our existence by portraying a strange friendship surviving beyond the grave, and "Departures" by the amazing Carole Johnstone, an outstanding tale set in the departure section of an airport, incredibly well told and frightening in the extreme. In short, a great anthology not to be missed.

©Mario Guslandi
You can read the whole review here


Finally, SF Signal are running “a series of guest posts featuring the authors of The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 7. Each gives us a glimpse into the how and why of each story.” Here's the link

And here is my how and why:
I hate airports almost as much as I hate tube trains; more specifically, I hate departure lounges. Even more specifically, I hate domestic departure lounges. They’re cattle markets. Flights land and then take off again with mindboggling speed; arrivals often have to battle their way past impatient queues determined to take their place before they’ve even managed to leave. No quarter is given to late arrivals or the confused. They’re soulless, noisy, pitiless, desperate places, and when I’m forced to be in one I’d rather be almost anywhere else.


As well as making me tense, nervous, bored, and frustrated, airports also make me very, very stupid. I’m forever going the wrong way; making an art out of looking guiltily shifty; panicking about losing my passport and boarding card, despite rarely losing anything that I’m not hanging onto for dear life wherever I go; wearing as many metal things as possible, so that I beep enough to deserve literal exposure in the dreaded body scanner; stressing about my plastic bag being the wrong size or whether or not lip balm is a bloody liquid; making ill-considered jokes about a party I went to last week while a biosensor checks my hand luggage. And really panicking about being late – about Missing The Flight!!! – to the extent that I’m always far too early.


On one such occasion, I was in Stansted airport waiting for a flight to Edinburgh. I’d just come through security, and as usual, I got caught up in the mass hysteria of Missing The Flight!!! (these come in waves, I’ve found, but whenever there is a sudden, noticeable shift of people in one direction, you can be sure that a wave is about to begin). I blindly followed this exodus, of course, and ended up at the departure gates’ lounge – you guessed it, far too early for my flight. I sat down anyway – seats in domestic departures are like gold dust – and it was only when everyone around me started stampeding towards the Belfast flight gate that I realised I’d been sitting at the wrong gate anyway. Again.


I waited until the flight had boarded before getting up and nonchalantly wandering back towards the right gate, pretending that I wasn’t a moron. It was quite late at night, and the Edinburgh flight must have been the last of the day, because I suddenly realised that the place was nearly deserted. A deserted domestic departure lounge is almost as intimidating as a packed full one. It was incredibly creepy. The shops were mostly shuttered; the gate corridors yawned empty, opening onto nothing but empty space (really creepy); the flashing, beeping puggies were my only companions, and I marvelled at the contrast – the weirdness of it. That lull didn’t last long – a few minutes at most – and then the place started filling up again, making me wonder whether I’d imagined the whole thing completely. So I wrote a story about it. And I started writing it while sitting at that correct gate, feeling vaguely smug while all around me panicked waves rolled and crashed and went the wrong way.


Here are the direct links to buy The Best Horror of the Year, Vol.7 at:

Amazon uk

Amazon.com

Night Shade Books

Sep. 9th, 2015

I'm a British Fantasy Award Nominee!

For reasons many and varied - and not at all interesting - it’s been yonks since I’ve posted anything on here. My apologies to the half dozen or so folk who actually read it! (love you guys... ;-) )

My biggest - and tardiest - news is that I have been shortlisted for not one but two British Fantasy Awards! Amazeballs!! I was so sure that I’d be up for none (and this is genuinely true, not Uriah Heep true) that I didn’t even check out the announcements, and only ended up finding out on Facebook when people started tagging me.

I’ve been shortlisted in the Best Novella category for Cold Turkey and in the Best Collection category for The Bright Day is Done.

I’m delighted and nervous and excited all at the same time. I know awards aren’t supposed to be the be all and end all, but there’s almost no better feeling than having your peers - many of whom you admire immensely and have done for years - say that something you’ve created could be worthy of a BFA. It makes all the doubt and sacrifices worth it. It makes your writing feel worth it. It makes you feel worth it. And so, despite my best efforts to believe otherwise, that pretty much feels like the be all and end all to me.

The winners of the British Fantasy Awards will be announced on Sunday 25th October at FantasyCon in Nottingham. I will be crapping myself.

You can see all of the shortlisted nominations here

Oct. 9th, 2014

Black Static #41 and #42


I keep forgetting to post about these, and I don't know why; it's not as if I'm so innundated with acceptances and the like that I've no time to mention them. Although, I am very lazy...

My short story, Equilibrium, appeared in Black Static #41, and it was a bit of a departure for me. I wanted to write a very physically dark story about the ways in which other people change you: in this particular case, for both the worse and the bettter (though I hasten to add that I'm no great advocate of the latter either). Although it was, on the surface at least, about domestic violence, other people's responses to it surprised me a great deal. But that's for another post, I think...

Black Static #41 available as a back issue here

And in Black Static #42, Pete Tennant reviewed my short story collection (a brilliant excerpt here), The Bright Day is Done, and subjected me to the most detailed and probing (and hugely enjoyable) interview that I think I've ever had. Pages and pages of me! Sometimes a little too much of me for my own comfort; I was perhaps a wee bit too forthcoming in places - not to mention the huuugest photo of my fizog ever printed. It gave me a terrible fright anyway...

Black Static #42 is available here

Sep. 19th, 2014

The Morning After...

So, I’m supposed to be doing some serious editing right now, but after today’s result I’m having trouble concentrating.


I would have voted Yes. No one is more surprised at that than me; in fact, in the (many) years leading up to the referendum, I would have said No. Not that anyone would have given a shit: I live in England and didn’t get a vote. But because I live in England, I could see the huge difference in quality of life north of the border. Yes, the Scots pay more tax, but they get a hell of a lot of bang for their buck. Free education and an (actually) free NHS are the best of them, but there’s plenty more. So, No would have been sensible, you know? And then there was all the uncertainty, the Euro boogeyman, and the really shitty campaigns on both sides - that I’m just too busy ironing shirts and wiping drool to have any kind of opinion; that’s my husband’s job woman was undoubtedly the top banana, although she had plenty competition.


But...come on.


Of course it’s easier to stay part of the UK. Just like it’s easier to never move out of the house you grew up in, or to stay in an alright job because you don’t hate it and the money’s good. It’s also easier to pretend that you can live with what that security costs you. And while folk might argue that it would have been pretty bloody easy for me to say Yes, when I wouldn’t have had to immediately live with the consequences, I’m pretty sure that an England without Scotland would have been a pretty shitty place. I mean, for a start, I vote Labour.


The Scots are funny and stubborn and hard and proud and brilliant, but throughout history we’ve also done a bang up job of sabotaging ourselves, most often when we’re so close to getting what we deserve. I’m not saying that that’s what has happened; as it goes, I’m actually even more proud of Scotland, and especially Glasgow, today than I was yesterday, and I was always absolutely prepared to stand by whatever decision the majority of us made.

But in the past couple of years I’ve come to believe absolutely that you should never say no. That you should grab hold of any and every opportunity, the scarier and more uncertain the better.  It’s not separatist or divisive or ungrateful to want independence. It’s about finally growing up and going out into the world, and discovering what you’re made of. It would have been a brilliant adventure.

Sep. 13th, 2014

British Fantasy Awards

So...I won. Crikey.

And that's a genuine crikey, not an I secretly always thought I had a decent chance crikey.

I get that I'm supposed to say crikey. And that I'm also supposed to say that my fellow nominees were vastly more deserving. But the thing is that I genuinely do mean crikey, and they genuinely were. Which doesn't mean that I'm not grateful; that I'm not ecstatic; that, at some point on the 7th of September, I didn't screech and jump up and down like a five year old hepped up on Skittles. Or that I haven't spent the last week secretly squeeing to myself whenever I'm alone.

It does feel very weird to have actually won something though. Particularly on merit, when so much of any win is still undoubtedly down to luck. Almost all writing awards present a similar assualt course: you must first be nominated, and then members/the general public vote to whittle a long list down to a short list, after which a jury of your peers decides upon a winner. So many hurdles, so many pitfalls. So many ways to passively drop out of the running without your even realising it.

I haven't won another thing in my life. And, with perhaps the exception of the lottery - any lottery - I'm glad. I think the closest that I've ever come was getting down to the final six of the 2010 Aeon Award. When the final three were announced, I wasn't among them. And that was that.

And so what, you know? So what. Except, the so what is never true, not really. Awards are important; recognition from your peers is important; being able to tell your mum and dad that you haven't entirely wasted your time after all is important. Having people tell you that you are worthwhile, that what you do is worthwhile, that all your sacrifices are worthwhile is something far beyond important.

Writing is lonely. And unless you're one of the lucky few regularly topping the bestseller lists, it's inattentive, fickle, and entirely lacking in any kind of assurance. It's a rubbish partner to be saddled with, except when it isn't. Last Sunday, it wasn't. Last Sunday, it made me happier than a pig in shit. And that's the truth. That's my absolutely genuine crikey.

Signs of the Times; Black Static #33:

                                                                                  © Richard Wagner

Aug. 1st, 2014

Died of Wounds

I don’t know what it feels like to die. To be dying. To know that you are dying. One day, I will know, of course; one day I’ll know too if all the things that the doctors say and believe are true.

They say that when people are terminally ill, their bodies prepare them for death. The doctors will tell you that it’s just the body slowly shutting down, a systemic and systematic ending of its biological processes from least important to most. A person will sleep; stop eating and drinking, urinating and excreting; their blood will become sluggish, their skin mottled; their breathing will become laboured, choked, rattling; they may become confused, agitated, as oxygen flow to the brain reduces. And they'll tell you that all of this is to be expected, none of it is terrible. That as long as pain has been controlled and conquered, all of these things are only distressing to see, to hear. To helplessly witness.

Feelings are called feelings because they start in our bodies. Before we think them; before we understand that they exist. Or why. The person that sits next to a bed for months, weeks, days, hours, minutes does not have a body that is preparing them for death. And all of those differences between us that endure right up until those last few minutes and seconds of life are thrown into stark relief. We sit or pace or cry, and watch systems shutting methodically down, while our own are denying or pleading or screaming or grieving or raging, and always hurting, hurting, hurting.

So perhaps it is true. Perhaps it is less terrible to die than to be a helpless witness to it. Is that a comfort? It should be, in the same way that all the stories you hear in a hospital or hospice (any and every hospital and hospice the world over) should be: the ghosts that come back for their spouses, their siblings, their children; the changes in the air, on the skin at the moment of death; the high shelves lined with obscure objects that people are able to describe on enough occasions that they will never be taken down. But more often than not, it’s probably no comfort at all. Because someone is dying, someone is leaving. And after the terrible of now, someone will be gone.

But when that happens, know that this was done to you too. Only, you were the one that survived. Less than intact now, but you didn’t die of wounds. And that old cliché about carrying someone inside your heart, inside your head? You’ll know it’s true; you’ll know that one day it will be a comfort, but not yet. You’ll know that when people say that they are sorry, it’s only because they don’t know what else to say. That the earnest eye contact, gentle and infuriating handling as if you’ve become a completely different person, the neon thank God it isn’t me that flashes overhead between you won’t last forever. The knowledge that millions, billions have gone through all of this before you, and inevitably will again. You’ll know that all of those things and none of those things matter a shit. You’ll know that your sadness, your anger is okay, but that your fear, your despair should be controlled and conquered. You’ll bore people shitless with every last detail of your lives together, or you’ll just dream them, remember them, write them down. You’ll know that love is always its own reward.

And eventually, you’ll realise that you’re not alone. That you’ll never be alone. And you’ll trust that one day, someone will put themselves through this for you. You’ll sleep and dream, your body’s systems slowly shutting down, and you’ll wish with all of your heart that you could take their pain away, close their wounds, make them see that the doctors were right after all. And then maybe, one day, you’ll be able to come back for them too.

Jul. 11th, 2014

It's Here!!!!!!

At last, my debut short story collection, The Bright day is Done, is available to buy from Gray Friar Press here.


I thought I might go into a bit more detail about it in a later post, but for now, I'm happy just to bask in its being alive!


"We are all of us afraid of death; it is the human condition."

Take a journey through our world of uncertainty and fear, where thieves and opportunists lurk; where urban landscapes are the hunting grounds of gods and monsters; where tourist attractions hide horror under their skin, the sea dredges up a terrible past, and a concrete jungle sprouts deadly new life of its own.

A world where our search for purpose and joy never ends, whether we choose the sunny path or shade. A world from which there can be no escape - not even in death.

Jun. 17th, 2014

Three things I don't write (& three things I do)

So, the wonderful Nina Allan tagged me for this one. In the last few months alone, she has won the Grande Prix De L’Imaginaire for her short story collection, The Silver Wind, and the BFSA award for her terrific novella, Spin. Another novella, The Gateway, has been nominated for a Shirley Jackson award, and both Spin, and Vivian Guppy and the Brighton Belle have been nominated for a British Fantasy Award. It’s a good job that I think she’s brilliant, otherwise I might have to hate her. You can read her preceding bloghop post here.

At first glance, posting about what you don’t write and what you do seems simple, but it’s actually more of a pain in the bum than I thought it would be. Last bit’s easy, first bit’s not. It’s like that what is your greatest weakness question the HR guy asks you in a job interview. If you say nothing, you look like a smug arse; if you say, ah, yes, I can be a bit of a perfectionist etc etc, you look like a smug arse who’s deliberately missing the point.

Except...it’s not the same. Of course there are things I don’t write about. There are things every writer doesn’t write about. And if I was applying for an interview to be a rocket scientist, they wouldn’t ask me why I didn’t want to be a window cleaner. So...

Hard SF

I just don’t. Couldn’t even if I wanted to. My day job is in the scientific field, specifically physics, but I haven’t ever attempted to translate that knowledge into a story. Not where physics was the story at any rate. I don’t read hard SF partly because I probably wouldn’t understand any of it, but mostly because it just doesn’t appeal to me. I may be doing these stories an injustice, but for me, the science is secondary; the stories, the characters, the emotion is all. As a writer, I don’t want to get bogged down in extensive research, or the terror that at some point my obvious dunderheadedness is going to be exposed. I have a genuine respect for those who can and do write hard SF, but yeah, not for me.

Miserablism

I don’t know if that’s the accepted term these days or not, but it’s still a pretty well established sub-genre of horror fiction: the weird and supernatural hiding within urban chaos and social anonymity or decay. I have tried to write it because I do actually love to read it, and both respect and admire writers like Joel Lane, Conrad Williams, Nicholas Royle, Gary McMahon. And many of the settings for my stories are in deprived and forgotten corners of the world, their characters the disenfranchised and persecuted.

But I think the reason that I don’t do it very well is two-fold: miserablist fiction is, in general, very impassioned, often angry. It tries to say something, to hold up a mirror to us all in the hopes that we will actually look and actually see. And while I admire that, I struggle to emulate it. As much as I’d perhaps want it to be, that is not why I write. I don’t have the mettle for it, the drive. And secondly, even when I try to, a different story always ends up appearing. I use humour a lot in my writing, often unintentionally, and while I’m not saying that miserablist fiction can’t also be funny (Ramsey Campbell is the perfect example of a writer who does both brilliantly), my stories, even when bleak, are always trying to strive for that happy ending, even if it’s just the idea of it, the promise of it over the horizon.

Epic Fantasy

...or Sword and Sorcery, High Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy, I don’t know all the terms - it’s a crazy secondary world out there, you know.

Tolkien did it, and then David Gemmell, Raymond Feist, Robert Jordon, George R.R. flipping Martin etc. You know, and they’re great; I’ve read just about every Gemmell book there ever was, but it is proper old school. The invariably tortured and male hero (I suppose that Game of Thrones, if nothing else, has tried to revise that particular trope), the magicians, the castles, the quests, the chivalry, the trilogies that morph into quintologies, octologies, decologies and so on and so forth. I’m just not sure that there’s anything left to say. And if there is, I know that I’m definitely not one of the ones to say it. I have a long ago written, three hundred thousand word opus hidden under my bed that I can guarantee will never, ever see the light of day. It’s cringe-worthy, derivative, and probably downright plagiaristic. It helped me discover how to write, but it’s very definitely not what I’m supposed to write.

So, what do I write? This is going to be far woollier, I’m afraid.

Dialogue

Characters always, always come first for me. Without wanting to sound like a wanker about it, they dictate the story rather than the other way around. I know that I have a good ear for dialogue, and I’ve literally made a career out of earwigging: anywhere and everywhere. I even have an app on my phone specifically to note down brilliant words or turns of phrase that I hear on trains, in pubs, at work, on holiday. Perhaps part of that is being Scottish. I grew up hearing such a huge variety of different ways of saying the same thing; sometimes of saying a thing that doesn’t actually mean a thing in any other dialect or language. Which is invaluable. It’s taught me to love words and the unique ways in which people use them, twist them, interpret them.

And I do hear voices in my head. Sometimes when I’m writing, I have whole conversations with them. The gift of good characterisation and good dialogue is that it allows you to dispense with so much dry description, which can be a slog for any reader. If you’ve got the voices and characterisation right, the reader should instinctively know who is speaking at all times without ever being told. It’s also a brilliant vehicle for show don’t tell (technically it is telling, but you get my drift). It might be pretentious to say so, but by the end of a short story, novella, novel I know all of my characters so well that they feel almost as real to me as anyone who, well, actually is. And often I like them a whole lot better.

Place

(Pretentious wanker disclaimer again): setting is another character, perhaps even the most important one of all. A sense of place should be absolute; it should be alive, visceral, and completely realised. If you strive to make the reader feel like they’ve actually met and gotten to know the characters in your story, it’s equally important to make them believe that they’ve been exactly where those characters live: that they’ve walked its streets, or drunk in its pub, or sat in its bow, or swum in its ocean, or navigated its stars.

It can be easier, of course, to use a place that is already familiar: a city or town that I’ve lived in or visited, but often it’s an amalgamation of many settings and the smallest of observed detail. I take photographs, I buy pictures, I read books. I spy just as much as I eavesdrop. And as long as I know my setting as intimately as I want the reader to, whether that place is a contemporary city, a fictional village, an apocalyptic wasteland, or a solar-sailed space capsule is absolutely irrelevant.

The Twist

Ah now, I know what you’re thinking, but that’s not it. I’ve read those kind of books too: the ones where the plot, narrative, characterisation - the whole kit and caboodle - is one giant set piece for an incredibly clever grand reveal that renders pretty much everything that has gone before obsolete. No matter how ingenious the final twist, the path to get there - essentially the entire book, give or take a chapter - is inevitably mired in confusion and contradiction. Characters behave in ways that people never would, the plot jumps from here to there and back again with illogical and dizzying speed, and even though the reader is expecting some kind of clever and unexpected payoff (generally because they’ve been promised that in the blurb), the body of the story, the essence of it, nearly the entirety of it, is basically foreplay. Confusing, exasperating, and overly protracted foreplay.

What I mean are the small twists, the slow accumulation of them on the road towards The End; some swiftly revealed, others only hinted at, but always entirely guessable, entirely comprehensible, entirely logical. I love, love, love changing readers’ minds without them realising that that’s what I’m trying to do. I love writing about characters who are fluid, accessible, unreliable. If I can make a reader begin to love a character that they at first loathed, or vice versa, than I’m very happy. If I can turn a situation or a climax on its head without the reader ever seeing it coming; without them recognising all that foreplay for what it really was, then I’m even happier. It doesn’t always work, of course, and often requires a ridiculous amount of forward planning and very careful timing, but when it does it feels amazing. I love writing, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t, but in those moments when a story comes together exactly in the way that I wanted it to, sometimes without my actually knowing exactly how I wanted it to, nothing in this world - or any other - feels better.

So, that’s me. And I can now hand over the baton to my tag-ees:

First up, is British Fantasy Award winning Ray Cluley, whose ability to switch between the thought-provoking and resonant to the funny and genuinely moving, puts him into the same want to hate him but I can’t camp as Nina. His novella, Water for Drowning, is coming soon from This Is Horror, and he has a debut short story collection coming out with ChiZine next year.

And secondly, the brilliant Priya Sharma, who has been in more best of anthologies than you could shake a stick at (most recently, Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, Vol.6, with her fantastically disturbing story, the Anatomist’s Mnemonic). And whose impeccable sense of place and character and, above all, story is equally impressive, equally enviable.

Jun. 10th, 2014

I'm a BFA Nominee!

Yippee!

So, it was the BFS Open night in London on Friday, during which the final nominees for the 2014 British Fantasy Awards were announced, and I was overjoyed to discover that my story, Signs of the Times (Black Static #33), had made it into the Short Story category. It's up against some pretty stiff competition, and I don't expect to win, but just making any kind of shortlist, never mind this one, is absolutely huge for me.

I remember going to my first ever FantasyCon back in 2009. I'd only sold a few stories by that point, and dragged my poor sister along because I was a nervous wreck. But it was brilliant. Everyone was wonderful; there was none of the sometimes uncomfortable subtext that I've since experienced at other cons. It was friendly, relaxed, inclusive, and I immediately felt like I belonged. I sat next to Ramsey Campbell at the signing of an anthology that we had both contributed stories to (although I was completely mute; he probably thought I was a right berk); I met people that weekend whom I can now proudly call friends; I learned more about what it was to be a writer, and the importance of being part of a community of, if not always same-minded, then certainly similarly-minded people, than I ever had anywhere else. I remember thinking, yes, this is it, this is my gang. And I can’t tell you what a relief that was. I can still remember that feeling now.

And I also sat at a table at the BFS Awards banquet on Saturday night, drinking horrible warm wine and eating horrible cold food, and I watched writers like Graham Joyce, Tim Lebbon, Sarah Pinborough, Allyson Bird, and Joseph D’Lacey win their awards and give their speeches, and instead of feeling envious or inadequate, I felt only inspired. I never again felt like any of it was beyond my reach, which was far and away the greatest gift that that weekend gave me.

Being nominated for a BFA feels the same as that first FCon. Like I’m part of a gang; that I’m good enough to be considered part of it. I’m sure that many writers don’t give a shit about awards, or best of anthos, or peer validation, but I’m also pretty sure that there are far fewer of them than they’d like us to think. It’s important. Perhaps it’s even vital. It is for me. And you can call that timidity, or insecurity, or that need to belong that I’m always banging on about, but none of that takes away from how good it feels. How great it feels. Nearly - nearly - regardless of who actually wins. ☺

British Fantasy Awards 2014: The Nominees

May. 28th, 2014

Cold Turkey

Another brill review; this one from Gareth Jones at Dread Central:

"Cold Turkey is one hell of a read. Johnstone's prose is consistently lively and engaging throughout, speckled with moments of wonderfully dark comedy. The sense of place is palpable.

Bringing the...tale to life are Johnstone's brilliant side characters, most notably Raym's fellow teachers and the bullish headmaster who commands his staff with the same overbearing, belittling tone that he does the children...

...Best of all though is the villanous Top Hat, who is brought to life so vividly that his every stretched grin fills the mind's eye with ease. He's creepy, frightening and just sheer nasty - a brilliant character, realised impeccably...

Cold Turkey is an excellent novella, and highly recommended."

© Gareth Jones

Yeah, I'll take that!

See full review here

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