Published by TTA Press
Quitting smoking can be one of the hardest things a person goes through. While getting the nicotine out of your system takes only a matter of days, the need to continue with the physical habit and its associated rituals often proves too much to overcome. And thus, we continue to see those sternly warned of mortal consequences continue to partake in full knowledge of what it will do to them.
After watching both of his parents succumb to such a smoking-related fate, mild-mannered schoolteacher Raymond (Raym) Munroe has decided that he’s going to pack in the fags once and for all. Having previously had little success with clinically-recommended substitutes such as gum and patches, he’s going about it the old-fashioned way: plain cold turkey. Unfortunately for him, it isn’t going to be a walk in the park.
Stuck in a loveless relationship with his live-in, long-term girlfriend, Wendy, and feeling increasingly distant and cynical with regards to his job and colleagues, Raym finds his situation getting ever worse as his first day sans nicotine sees him terrorised and pursued by a figure from his childhood: the tally van man. As the van’s signature ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ nursery rhyme sightlessly stalks him, Raym also finds his dreams invaded by the malevolent figure he names ‘Top Hat’: a terrifying entity garbed in his namesake, alongside Winklepicker shoes, endlessly flowing coat-tails and clawed, elongated hands offset only by his impossibly wide, sharp-toothed grin.
As the intensity of his nightmares worsen and the difference between reality and fantasy becomes harder and harder to recognise, Raymond finds a redemptive light in pretty young Cate – a teaching assistant newly assigned to his class at school. The two begin a passionate affair, yet despite the recognition that kicking the habit is the best logical choice for him in embracing his potential new life, Raym still struggles to stop himself having that odd crafty smoke – and it won’t be long before Top Hat decides that he’s had one chance too many.
Cold Turkey, the third in TTA Press’ ongoing ‘TTA Novellas’ line, is one hell of a read. Johnstone’s prose is consistently lively and engaging throughout, speckled with moments of wonderfully dark comedy and the native lingo and accents of the (fictional) Scottish town in which it is set. The sense of place is palpable as Raymond’s disenchantment with the area grows – all nosy neighbours, curtain-twitching gossipers and barely-friendly residents hanging out at the local boozer together because, quite frankly, there’s nobody else to hang out with. As a protagonist, Raymond himself is well-drawn and sympathetic – the illogical nature of feeding his addiction after small successes in avoiding it is well known to him, and should ring due to anyone who has battled with dependence on the deadly weed. It becomes relatively obvious mid-way, however, that his continued justification for the odd smoke in the face of what Top Hat has threatened him with means that he is headed down a very dark path.
Bringing the arena for Raymond’s 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. They’re providers of some of the best slices of comedic dialogue to be found amongst Raymond’s descent into a living nightmare. Best of all, though, is the villainous Top Hat, who is brought to life so vividly that his every stretched grin fills the mind’s eye with ease. His sneering taunts and consistently sardonic dialogue seem to lie somewhere between Freddy Krueger and Brainscan‘s Trickster, with Johnstone holding you constantly hooked throughout with measured restraint, keeping you waiting for that next moment Top Hat will appear or speak directly to Raymond’s inner dialogue. He’s creepy, frightening and just sheer nasty – a brilliant character, realised impeccably.
Questions are raised throughout as to the nature of what is happening to Raymond – if Top Hat is actually real, or whether the stress of attempting to quit his almost lifelong habit has simply tipped him off of an already fragile perch – but Johnstone throws a few curveballs in there to keep us guessing, such as the suggestion that a couple of the children in Raymond’s school can actually see the monstrous figure, and a climactic occurrence that appears to unfold directly due to the real-world physical actions of the villain. Ultimately, the choice is yours . As Raymond’s therapist states many times, “The brain is a bastard”… and it can convince us of just about anything to satisfy our wants. One thing you can be assured of is that Cold Turkey is an excellent novella, and highly recommended. No trickery needed there.