Badvent Calendar Day 6

Night Terrors

Radio 4 has begun serialising Alice Vernon’s critical autobiography about insomnia, somnambulism and other sleep disturbances. In the first episode, she looks at how they have been depicted in supernatural terror classics like Dracula and the ghost stories of M.R. James. She points out that in his best-known story, ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad,’ the bed is itself the source of terror.

Alice Vernon often wakes up to find strangers in her bedroom.

Ever since she was a child, her nights have been haunted by nightmares of a figure from her adolescence, sinister hallucinations and episodes of sleepwalking. These are known as ‘parasomnias’ – and they’re surprisingly common.

Now a lecturer in Creative Writing, Vernon set out to understand the history, science and culture of these strange and haunting experiences. Night Terrors examines the history of our relationship with bad dreams – how we’ve tried to make sense of and treat them, from some decidedly odd ‘cures’ like magical ‘mare-stones’, to research on how video games might help people rewrite their dreams. Along the way she explores the Salem Witch Trials and sleep paralysis, Victorian ghost stories, and soldiers’ experiences of PTSD. By directly confronting her own strange and frightening nights for the first time, Alice Vernon encourages us to think about the way troubled sleep has impacted our imaginations.

Abridged by Polly Coles

Read by Emily Raymond

Produced by Clive Brill

A Brill production for BBC Radio 4

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Badvent Calendar Day 5

Let the wild Krampus begin!

Yes, folks, it’s Krampusnacht, when the demonic counterpart to Santa Claus is abroad punishing the bad children with his switch and loading them into a basket to carry off. So, here’s my annual reminder to buy my Eibonvale chapbook ‘How I Learned the Truth About Krampus’ today before the Xmas rush.

Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure of legend with a classic half-goat half-demonic appearance.  The night of the 5th December is Krampusnacht, when this hairy devil appears on the streets – on his own or accompanying St. Nicholas, but always carrying a bundle of birch twigs ready to punish those who have misbehaved.  At least, that’s how the folk-festivals that take place across Europe go.  The truth may be stranger still.  This is a sharp and intelligently written horror story that delves deep into seasonal mythology and folk legend.  An atmospheric and chilling tale of the dark side of the winter season.

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Badvent Calendar Day 4

Lucy comes to stay.

I recently revisited a classic ATV Sunday evening children’s serial about which I remembered very little apart from the disquieting title sequence, in which a little girl is looking in the mirror, but remains facing it while her image walks away. Finally the her head turns to face the camera, or rather it doesn’t, because framed by her dark hair is an empty space…

In my previous post, I mentioned certain similarities between Lucy in this classic drama based on a Pamela Sykes novel and Esther in Orphan. Both are orphans with a taste for dowdy, old-fashioned clothes, struggling to fit in with their adoptive families, where they’re almost certain to put their new guardians’ biological childrens’ noses out of joint. These comparisons are of course somewhat superficial, as the respective stories go in violently different directions…

In Come Back Lucy (1979), the eponymous little girl has no murderous proclivities, but falls under the influence of a cruel and manipulative spectral companion, called Alice, who does indeed bear more than passing resemblance to Lewis Carroll’s heroine, as she’s most commonly depicted by John Tenniel. But the one traveling through the looking glass is Lucy, undergoing a tug of love between her new family and her possessive Victorian semi-imaginary frenemy.

The seasonal link is that the story is set in the run-up to Christmas, which is no accident, as it’s a time of year when the veil between the worlds is thin, hence its traditional association with ghost stories. Thus it seems apt that one of Lucy’s forays back in time to Alice’s era takes place when she goes missing from a Christmas shopping trip with her Seventies foster family.

They’re a boisterous bunch in a big, chaotic house that used to belong to Alice’s family. There’s a young brother who predictably resents and despises the newcomer who’s moved in with them (another similarity with the family dynamics in Orphan), kept in check by two older teenage siblings, one male, one female, who do their best to ease her out of her shell, which often presents as an almost stuck-up primness. But remember, she’s lost both her parents, and subsequently the aged aunt who has brought her up until now, then some brisk solicitor type dumps her on other relations, an awkward but frightfully right-on middle-class couple (older son’s in the Young Socialists, you know!), who struggle, often in vain, to welcome her into their household. But her own grief and trauma makes it hard for her to accept her new family’s overtures (such as the teenage girl offering her jeans), which makes her vulnerable to Alice’s malign influence.

As you’d expect from producer Shaun O’Riordain, (responsible the following year for traumatising my generation with Sapphire and Steel) it’s an eerie tale, but also rich with social observation of the era, and a genuinely touching finale.

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Badvent Calendar Day 3

“C’mon! Let’s have snowball fight!”

[This was supposed to be yesterday’s extra post, but I kept nodding off over it, so it’ll be today’s birthday bonus…]

Snow is the mainstay of cosy, pretty Christmas picture-cards, but much of their appeal derives from the fact the weather conditions they depict are outside our window, while we remain safely inside. In fact, a perusal of frozen landscapes in horror cinema reveals we’re safer inside, away from them. Not just survivalist nightmares set in the frozen wastes of Antarctica, but those closer to home too. From the opening scene of The Changeling quoted and pictured above, whose catastrophe sets up the funereal atmosphere of Peter Medak’s classic haunted house movie, to Orphan (2009) and The Children (2008), which turns the snow and ice into a diabolical playground for its fiendish children’s diabolical pranks.

Perfect winter viewing for those who like watching ghastly, right-on parents being horribly murdered by their own virally-altered children.

And let me just say, for avoidance of doubt, while Esther may not actually be the little girl who Santa Claus forgot, but Orphan IS a Christmas movie…

“Little Bo-Peep just texted — she wants her outfit back.”

So says the schoolgirl bully of Esther, which segues into today’s next Badvent Calendar post, concerning another old-young little orphan girl with an affinity for old-fashioned pinafore-style frocks, but one who is not so vicious…

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Badvent Calendar Day 2

Trying to catch up…

Yes, I know… Trying to do a daily seasonal blogpost now life is back to ‘normal’ is more challenging now than it was in the Lockdown Christmas of 2020, so to try to get back on track, I’ll get in two posts for the price of one as it were…

The last time I did this, I surely must have expounded at length on the ghost story at Christmas tradition, and the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas tradition in particular. I certainly mentioned ‘Lost Hearts‘, one of a number of M.R. James stories adapted as part of that irregular annual series. Brighton fans of these TV folk horror classics may be interested to know Dr Bramwell of the Catalyst Club is putting on a public screening of this tale this coming Thursday, along with other ghost story-related talks.

These days, the Master of Ceremonies for the Beeb’s revival of this tradition is of course Mark Gatiss, who this year is tackling what is arguably James’ darkest and bleakest tale, ‘Count Magnus’. Readers of the story may remember the eponymous nobleman went on a ‘black pilgrimage’ to Chorazin. Cue tenuous link to plug for my own fiction: this location also features in my story, ‘A Heart of Stone’, which also has a kind of black pilgrimage as one of its themes. You can read it in my collection, Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking, which also contains my Jamesian Christmas folk horror story about the ceremony of ‘The Cutty Wren’

Now the thing about the Lawrence Gordon Clark films like ‘Lost Hearts’ is they often had distinctly non-wintery feel, filmed as they probably were in summer for a December screening. When Stephen’s out flying his kite, or playing hide and seek with his pallid, long-fingernailed predecessors, tracking them around his creepy old cousin Peregrine Abney’s estate, the trees are in full leaf.

But in the second of today’s posts, I’ll be talking about snow in horror movies…

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Badvent Calendar: Day One (A Day Late…)

A couple of years ago, during the Christmas Lockdown, I did a blogpost a day through December. I’d like to try and repeat that this year…

I’ve hit the ground crawling, a day late, with a heads up for a Belgian Christmas horror movie, appropriately called The Advent Calendar, which you can stream on the Shudder Channel. Belgium is of course renowned for its chocolate, but you wouldn’t want to eat one of the ones hidden in the one in the title. In the film, paraplegic Eva receives a beautifully-crafted but mysterious and creepy wooden Advent Calendar as a birthday present from a friend, who bought it from her in a Christmas market in Munich. The film then counts down the days to Doomsday, a device that worked very well in Ringu, and is effective here too. At midnight, every night, this little man appears to remind you to open a door…

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‘Hinged Jaw’ is a ‘Goodread’, according to some…

In which I review the reviews.

While reviews of my collection, Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking, have been slow to appear, the title story has garnered qualified praise from readers of the thirteenth volume of Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series, in which it appeared last year. Here are some from Goodreads:

“Far more complex than it appears on the surface. Uses the ‘spooky doll’ cliché in some great new ways.”

Jacob Mohr, who gave the anthology as a whole four and a half out of five stars.

This one isn’t so keen on the aforementioned sub-genre, but still appreciates the story:

“Puppets as a horror device don’t resonate with me, but the tinges here of class and patriarchy worked very well.”

Zach, who gave the anthology as a whole four out of five stars.

But the sub-genre puts this Goodreader off the story altogether altogether:

“Puppets and an evil ventriloquist or something. I’ve yet to read an evil ventriloquist story that really hit me, but there’s gotta be one out there, right?”

Studonym, who gave the story two and a half out of five, and the anthology three.

Yes, trawling through one’s reviews on Goodreads, or anywhere for that matter, can be a bitter-sweet, if not gruelling, experience. This is particularly true of Best Horror of the Year, whose very title’s claim of excellence gives some reviewers a target for them to shoot its contents down in flames, or damn them with faint praise. There’s a sense in some of these reviews that if any story doesn’t turn the reader into a sleepless, gibbering wreck, checking all the doors and windows of their home and turning all the lights on even in these straitened times, it doesn’t deserve its place in such an anthology. Those of us hopeless scribes who have failed to elicit such a response in jaded horror anthology reviewers can take some comfort from this article by Brian J. Showers. Reading them also gives rise to conflicted emotions and divided loyalties, when someone rates your own tale but slates another you enjoyed, or vice versa. They liked my story but hated that other one I thought was really good. Does that mean my story’s bad, or the other writer’s story is bad, or my taste is bad, or what…?

However, the plaudits are beginning to trickle in for the collection of my own work named after this story. Here’s one from Misha Herwin, also on Goodreads:

“Another chilling collection from Alchemy Press. No gore just quiet horror that lingers long after you’ve read the last page.”

The story itself also receives praise from blogger Michael Hartford in his story-a-day review of Best Horror 13:

“This is an interesting retelling of ‘Bluebeard’ – it’s no accident that the narrator’s father is ‘Mr. Fox’ – with a creepy ventriloquist dummy and a free-spirited woman imprisoned through some undisclosed black magic.”

Nice that someone spotted the story behind the story, a product of a V.H. Leslie-led creative writing workshop on folklore and fairy tales!

‘Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking’ isn’t the only story from my collection that also put in an appearance in one of Datlow’s annual digests: ‘Slaughtered Lamb’ made it into Volume Eight, and so, aptly perhaps, has also been through the brutal Goodreads meat grinder. (Don’t even get me started on Amazon reviews — another place where horror stories go to die!) I’m exaggerating of course. I shouldn’t be so sensitive, but when you scroll down the reviews and see your story getting one out of five stars, it can be a little disconcerting.

It’s not all bad news though!

One reviewer put it in the “good but slightly flawed” category, which also included no lesser lights than Stephen Graham Jones, Reggie Oliver, Kate Jonez and Steve Rasnic Tem, so no complaints from me there. This goodreader, named Shawn, suggested it might have been a good fit for another anthology:

“Despite the minor spectral aspect, could easily have been placed in an Akashic Books Dublin Noir: The Celtic Tiger vs. The Ugly American anthology.”

Comments from other reviewers ranged from “creepy” to these plaudits from Jeff, which definitely warmed my heart:

“It definitely stays with you. I felt the genuine terror the narrator did.”

This one gave it four out of four, but again, how seriously can I take this when the same review gave two out of four to Gary McMahon and Priya Sharma? I suppose tastes vary.

But the story I mention, ‘Slaughtered Lamb’, also calls into question Misha Herwin’s review of the Hinged Jaw collection as a whole, which suggests there is “no gore”. Perhaps this is something of an exaggeration, which might put gore fans off buying the collection. She is correct to call it “quiet horror”, and as another Goodreader suggests of ‘Slaughtered Lamb’, for the most part it “only suggests the carnage”. Nevertheless, carnage there is, aplenty, from Ulster Loyalist death squad torture to Haitian plantation owner mutilations, from Bluebeard-inspired dissections to Biblical crucifixions, from rats nailed to posts in sixteenth century Ireland to tongues bored through and teeth ripped out in seventeenth century England. Admittedly, many of these are hinted at or in some cases viewed through the haze of mock-archaic language!

I’m really selling it here, but for those who don’t wish to part with their hard-earned cash for a copy and can’t borrow the copy in Brighton’s Jubilee Library, let me repeat my call for reviews and offer of a free PDF review copy. For those who do, you can buy it online or, if in Brighton, from actual bricks and mortar bookshops that stock signed copies!

City Books, Hove

Jubilee Library, Brighton

Kemptown Bookshop, Brighton
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The Corona Book Club, Part Two

Monster Hunting as Male Bonding in Stokes and Stoker

Yes, I know, I’ve been neglecting my blog. Here’s a post I meant to finish editing and publishing months ago, but time has got the better of me, so here it is now!

During my Covid-isolation reading week back in April, Jonathan Harker’s plight in the first section of Dracula acquired new resonance for me. All right, I wasn’t actually under lock and key due to the machinations of an undead Count. Nor was I subject to the depredations of a trio of voluptuous succubi.

What’s more interesting is what happens afterwards. No, I don’t mean Dracula denying the brides a go on his bountiful wine-press until he’s had his fill, fobbing them off with sloppy seconds and a wriggling peasant baby in a bag to keep them going. I’m referring to the mirror image of this sexual dynamic: what happens to the hapless Lucy ‘Three Suitors’ Westenra.

Rather like Harker, it’s funny how the trio’s variably successful pursuit of her mirrors the toothsome threesome’s seduction of Harker. Their rotating blood transfusions, to replace the plasma she’s constantly haemorrhaging because of her nocturnal visitations from the Count, are an inversion of the female vampires’ intended extraction of Harker’s blood. That their attempts to save Lucy are doomed to failure doesn’t seem to lessen the social cohesion of a group that, Mina Harker aside, is entirely male. If anything, the reverse is true. The erstwhile sexual rivals, Arthur Holmwood, Quincy Morris and John Seward, become more firmly bonded once their quarry is consigned to her premature grave.

And the hunting metaphor is apt. As they move into the endgame of tracking Dracula to his lair under Van Helsing’s tutelage, we pick up snippets of their past history together going all Ray Mears in the wilderness as youths, preparing them for their hazardous trip through the Carpathians. Also notable is the histrionic behaviour of Seward’s erstwhile mentor after Lucy’s death. Even the most faithful screen adaptations of the novel (arguably Gerald Savory’s for the BBC, which includes the genuinely horrific and disturbing baby-in-the-bag bit) misses out Van Helsing’s inappropriately hysterical attack of mirth where he suggests the boys all got to take turns consummating their shared passion for the dying Lucy through the medium of blood transfusion.

Turning from Stoker to Stokes, the wilderness in Gigantic is somewhat closer to home, which is part of this recent comic horror novel’s mock-heroic conceit. It shows the world according to unreliable narrator, Kevin Stubbs, a self-styled ‘Knower’ whose life has never been the same ever since his exposure at an impressionable age to footage of the hominid cryptids he is convinced populate the minimal yet liminal wild spaces of his native Surrey. Stubbs is weird about women after his mother’s death, lionising and idolising a substitute father figure after his biological father’s desertion: Eddie Gartree, an absent Van Helsing figure, whose apparent disappearance at the outset of the story sets up the borderline psychotic Stubbs for a farcical but horrific denouement.

How Kevin Stubbs would no doubt like to see himself…

In both books, the men go tearing about in search of a monster in a sort of team-building exercise, like paint-balling with higher stakes (in Dracula, the safety of Mankind and His Womenfolk, in Gigantic, the Quest for Knowledge), with a token woman who despite her own formidable skillset they seek to exclude and marginalise at all costs, even at the risk of jeopardising their own enterprise. In Mina Harker’s case, her subordination is what you might expect in Victorian Patriarchy, whereas to Stubbs’ chagrin, he’s passed over for the job of Lead Investigator on GIT (The Gigantopithecus Intelligence Team) by the mentor he hero-worships, in favour of… A WOMAN! — Maxine Cash, AKA The Sci-Borg (Stubbs uses the phrase ‘AKA’ a lot).

There’s a good deal of humour in both books, but much of the comedy in Dracula may well be uninentional, whereas Gigantic is a masterpiece of comedic writing, up there with Garth Marenghi, to whose Terror Tome I’m very much looking forward. Stokes’ novel is a study of masculine pomposity and self-delusion, but one where you can’t help feeling a certain sympathy for the protagonist despite his gift for self-sabotage when you’re not laughing sometimes out loud at it.

During that week of isolation, I also read Toni Morrison’s Jazz, but extraordinary as that book is, I can’t find a way of shoe-horning it into the theme of this post, so that is, as they say, another story…

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All Aboard the ARC!

In my last post, I mentioned my new Alchemy Press collection Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking. Well, it’s now at the printers, and there are ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) available in PDF form for those brave souls willing to peruse its pages and write a (hopefully favourable) review, either on their blog or Amazon or GoodReads or some fabulous publication for whom they happen to write…

Cover image by Peter Coleborn.

It’s already attracted plaudits from Colleen Anderson, Canadian speculative fiction author of the Black Shuck collection A Body of Work and poet extraordinaire, who concluded her introduction to my collection thus:

“Eldritch things that walk on their hands, strange sentient plants and mythic wraiths out of the Gaelic mists – the scope of Johnstone’s work leaves a trail that will never look the same. This is the best stew of weird fiction and firmly establishes him in the genre.” 

Here’s some more about the collection:

The sleep of reason breeds monsters in this collection of tales of terror, and some of the most frightening ones we encounter are those that come in human form.

Here you will meet the ex-undercover cop haunted by the dead child whose identity he stole…

The abused ex-convent girl who develops an affinity with Medusa…

The creeping severed hand that forges literary works…

The budding psychopath whose doppelganger takes the rap for his misdeeds…

The man in the black suit with boiled jelly eyes who haunts the corridors of a council flat…

These and many other horrors stalk the ages, from eighteenth century West Africa to nineteen fifties Brighton, from the killing fields of the English Civil War to the playing fields of an exclusive co-educational school, from the Munster plantation in sixteenth century Ireland to a sugar plantation in nineteen thirties Haiti.

Leave a comment here or wherever this is shared on social media, and / or DM me, if you would like to avail yourself of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

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Book News: Hideous Jinxed Talkie and Hinged Jaw Talking

It’s going to be a busy spring for me. You wait ages for a book to come and two come at once…

Well, not quite simultaneously, but one coming hot on the heels of the other, at least in relative terms. Today sees the release of the third novella in my trilogy of terror from Omnium Gatherum Media. The Song of Salome follows The Monsters are Due in Madison Square Garden and Star Spangled Knuckle Duster in a series of hard-boiled paranormal tales featuring Herb Fry and Daniel Spiegel that might appeal to those who enjoyed the book and HBO series Lovecraft Country. Here’s the blurb for the latest:

Maybe it’s better if some movies stay lost.

It’s 1965, and Herb Fry is reminiscing about the time about twenty years before when a reclusive collector sent him to track down a movie that shouldn’t exist. The studio destroyed every copy after its tragic first screening. But we all know lost movies have a habit of being found. Prepare yourself for a trip into the cinema’s heart of darkness to discover an early talkie whose soundtrack is a killer.

Praise for The Song of Salome:

“Tom Johnstone’s hard-boiled noir is gutsy and fun, but it’s also a mystery with the darkest of hearts.”

Priya Sharma, Shirley Jackson and British Fantasy Award-winning author of Ormeshadow

“You can’t beat a good ‘lost film’ horror story, and Tom Johnstone’s Song of Salome is far better than just good. Reporter and sometime reluctant detective Herb Fry returns, on the trail of a lost Hollywood epic with a monstrous life of its own, in a tale that lifts the lid on the seamy side of Tinseltown and American history to great macabre – and sometimes darkly funny – effect.”

Simon Bestwick, author of A Different Kind of Light

“Tom Johnstone’s series featuring black American private eye Herb Fry just keeps getting better and better with each book. In his third outing, The Song of Salome, Herb is set on the trail of the suppressed and long-lost titular film. But just when we think we’re in the realm of the King in Yellow, the elusive monarch proves to be clad in a white robe with a pointy hat. The Song of Salome turns the tropes around, with a wry noir narrative that extends to a chilling evocation of the power of art both to liberate and subjugate.”

Rosanne Rabinowitz, award-nominated author of Helen’s Story and Resonance and Revolt

As if this wasn’t enough, coming soon is my Alchemy Press collection Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking, featuring thirteen reprints and three brand-new tales!

The sleep of reason breeds monsters in this collection of tales of terror, and some of the most frightening ones we encounter are those that come in human form.

Here you will meet the ex-undercover cop haunted by the dead child whose identity he stole…

The abused ex-convent girl who develops an affinity with Medusa…

The creeping severed hand that forges literary works…

The budding psychopath whose doppelganger takes the rap for his misdeeds…

The man in the black suit with boiled jelly eyes who haunts the corridors of a council flat…

These and many other horrors stalk the ages, from eighteenth century West Africa to nineteen fifties Brighton, from the killing fields of the English Civil War to the playing fields of an exclusive co-educational school, from the Munster plantation in sixteenth century Ireland to a sugar plantation in nineteen thirties Haiti.

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