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…And the Conclusion of Last Week’s Fireside Tale.

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If you tuned into last week’s edition of my semi-regular Jackanory / Spinechillers tribute act on YouTube, in which I read my stories by a roaring fireside in the middle of a heatwave, you may have noticed the story was only Part One of two. Just to recap, in the first episode, you will have heard how a little girl called Betty hears the legend of a mysterious entity that preys on the children on her local council estate. In the chilling conclusion of ‘Mum and Dad and the Girl From the Flats Over the Road and the Man in the Black Suit’, she begins to wonder about her dad…

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Another Fireside Tale…

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Continuing in my social media age version of Jackanory or rather its spookier older cousin Spinechillers, I’ve uploaded another video of me reading one of my stories by the fireside: a wood-burning stove, not the open fire Freddie Jones warms himself by when telling ‘The Red Room’, and I’m not Freddie Jones, but I hope to evoke memories of these TV teatime tales of terror with my own Fireside Tales

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This time it’s the turn of ‘Mum and Dad and the Girl From the Flats Over the Road and the Man in the Black Suit’, which first appeared in Supernatural Tales, Vol. 33. When I first wrote it, I was in the middle of co-editing an anthology of austerity horror and though this story didn’t appear in that, it’s certainly one I would have submitted to it if I’d had my writing hat on. As the title, and more to the point the story itself, was too long to fit on one Youtube video clip, here’s the first installment of this two part tale…

Mum and Dad and the Girl From the Flats Over the Road and the Man in the Black Suit (Part One)

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To be continued…

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‘What I Found in the Shed’ — The Movie!!!

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When I found out StokerCon wasn’t happening last weekend, and I therefore wasn’t going to be able to perform my scheduled reading, I decided I’d experiment with videoing myself. But what to read? This story, ‘What I Found in the Shed,’ is very short, so takes up less than fifteen minutes of your time. It’s also a tale that straddles different stages of my writing career. It first saw print four years ago in Supernatural Tales 31 when my literary resume consisted of a handful of short story appearances in various magazines and anthologies. Last year it reappeared in a slightly modified form in my first collection, Last Stop Wellsbourne (Omnium Gatherum Books). Later this year, it will see another reprint appearance in Ellen Datlow’s forthcoming anthology Body Shocks, which will make it my most reprinted story! I am hoping to make this fireside video reading a regular fixture, at least during the COVID-19 lockdown. So sit back and tune in to the first of my Fireside Tales

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Deliciously creepy, and beautifully written… A master-class in build-up, relentless in its path to the climax.

Tracy Fahey, author of The Unheimlich Manoeuvre and New Music for Old Rituals.

This is a strange horror story, one in which love creates the most improbable and disturbing events… A weird tale that is also poignant in its economical depiction of loss and how we cope, or fail to cope, with it.

The Supernatural Tales Blog.

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Nightscript 6 acceptance and pre-order

I was recently very happy to hear that my story ‘Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking’ will appear in Volume 6 of C.M. Muller’s acclaimed Nightscript anthology series. Although it won’t be out until October 1st — in time for Hallowe’en — it is already available to pre-order!

Nightscript 6 Cover

Here are some plaudits for previous volumes:

* A very promising debut anthology. —Ellen Datlow, Best Horror of the Year

* An annual highlight of the genre. —Anthony Watson, Dark Musings

* Weirdness with truth at its heart. —Des Lewis, Real-Time Reviews

* Winner of the 2015 Dark Muse award for “Best Multi-Author Collection”

And here’s the fantastic line-up of which my story is part!

Dauda’s Return — Timothy B. Dodd
The Patent-Master — LC von Hessen
Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking — Tom Johnstone
The Best Thing About Her 
— Ralph Robert Moore
What Crows Mean — Julia Rust
A Postcard From White Dunes — Jeremy Schliewe
Baddavine — Dan Coxon
Beyond the Lace — Charles Wilkinson
The Gods Shall Lay Sore Trouble Upon Them — Christi Nogle
A Photograph — Alexander James
The Owner— Francesco Corigliano
Passed Pawn
 — Selene dePackh
The Death Bodies of Kanggye — Kurt Newton
Loneliness — James Owens
Victims of a Transitional Time in Morality — J.R. Hamantaschen
The Whisper Gallery — Amelia Gorman
Long Rock — Gary Budden

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Star Spangled Knuckle Duster Available for Pre-Order

My new novella Star Spangled Knuckle Duster, sequel to The Monsters are Due in Madison Square Garden, both published by Omnium Gatherum Books, is now available for pre-order! Here’s the lowdown on what it’s all about:

In The Monsters are Due in Madison Square Garden, as Herb Fry told his story, his friend Daniel Spiegel mentioned his own association with mobster Meyer Lansky. In Star Spangled Knuckle Duster, we hear the full story of this encounter, which pits Lansky’s boys against dark forces at work in New York. In a tale more hard-boiled than the eggs on a Seder Plate, they face the Nazis of the German American Bund, who appear to have their very own costumed comic book hero on their team. But the anti-fascist mobsters also have help in the shape of the mysterious Donna Meyrink.

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Amazonian and Supernatural Plaudits for Wellsbourne Collection

Last Stop Wellsbourne has been attracting some very favourable reviews on Amazon. One compared it to the “Golden Age of Weird Fiction”. Another gave it five stars and commented: “Can’t wait to read something else by this author.” But the most detailed analysis so far comes courtesy of the Supernatural Tales Blog, which is carrying out a rolling, story-by-story review. Colour me nervous…!

But so far this review comes to praise the collection, not to bury it, calling one story’s themes “Conradian”, saying of another:

The story’s descriptions of weed clogging an old water conduit to the Wellsbourne river are downright poetic. There is a dream-like beauty in Johnstone’s horror that sometimes recalls Blackwood’s nature mysticism…

For this reviewer, ‘The Beast in the Palace’, the latest story to receive the Supernatural Tales treatment, “combines carefully-detailed historical realism with a flight of bizarre and disturbing fantasy.” In general, this short story collection “seems to have elements of the ‘state of England’ novel.” All in all, a very thoughtful and insightful review.

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“More people should laugh in a dangerous way.”

This is a comment by the narrator of ‘A Thousand Stitches’ on her sassier, more assertive work colleague, Judy, one of the many complex and gutsy female characters that populate Kate Jonez’s fantastic collection of short fiction, Lady Bits (Trepidatio Publishing, 2019). This particular story features a narrative reveal that’s difficult to pull off without alerting the reader prematurely or leaving them feeling cheated, but Jonez employs it so cleverly I didn’t see it coming, nor did it seem a cop-out. Many of the stories in the book have killer endings like this, shocking and unexpected, but making total sense once you look back on the rest of the story. The first and penultimate pieces in the collection, ‘Carnivores’ and ‘Envy’, are fine examples of Jonez’s skill in this area. The central characters in these tales are everywomen struggling to get by and survive in a world rigged against them. That the reader sympathises with their predicament makes the conclusions of both pack all the more of a punch, though in each case for very different reasons.

A theme both these tales showcase, one that runs through the collection, is life on the social margins and the precarious nature of daily existence for those who do so. You can’t get much more vulnerable than teenager runaway Francie in ‘Carnivores’. struggling to make enough money from her waitressing job to put the lights back on and keep the darkness at bay. Similarly Celia in ‘Envy’ has to bite her lip in the face of her domineering white employer’s casual racism and snobbery, because she needs the work. Jonez uses horror in a startlingly visceral way to illuminate the class and race fault-lines of Trump’s America, in a way that reminded me of the film Get Out.

Indeed, many of the white characters in this collection, with names like Jerri-Lynn Paul-Ray and Marla Ann (“…around these parts her name came out sounding like ‘Marlan.'”), are the types of people stereotypically associated with Trump’s ‘base’. But Jonez’s depiction of them avoids crude, lazy stereotypes of ‘rednecks’ or ‘white trash’. And it’s worth noting it’s a boy called Hank Jr. who sees through the Trump-esque figure of Gaap in ‘Like Night and Day’, while the worst racist is Amy in ‘Envy’, who may be white but is anything but trash, at least in socio-economic terms.

Following on from ‘Carnivores’ in the Table of Contents and in its sympathy for women and girls on the run, ‘All the Day You’ll Have Good Luck’ introduces us to a whole family of them. a mother and her preternaturally-endowed daughters who go from town to town working the carnies, but who have moved in with the mother’s latest conquest, the town sheriff, with the narrator staying in the former bedroom of his estranged son, who’s moved out under a cloud. This is the only Jonez story I’d read before encountering this collection and the scene where the narrator discovers a box under the bed full of his love letters, a lock of a girl’s hair and a fingernail, “a full fingernail, not a clipping”, gets more disturbing each time I read it. As with Francie in ‘Carnivores’, the narrator of this story is a teenage girl with a convincing mixture of toughness and naivety, which means she’s perhaps not as alarmed by this detail as the reader is and as she ought to be.

And detail is the key here. Like many of the best horror stories, nothing is stated outright, just an accumulation of small details. Indeed Jonez’s skill at delineating mundane detail is one of the things throughout the collection that helps the reader buy into the more out-of-this-world elements at play, such as the murderer using time travel to try to cover her tracks in ‘Accidental Doors’. In a particularly gruesome scene in another story, the actions of the woman committing a sadistic atrocity are likened to “trimming her bangs or taking a bath or doing some mundane task that brings her mundane pleasure.”

The women in these tales are often in peril because their options are limited. Neither Francie in ‘Carnivores’, nor Gwen in ‘Effigy’ have the luxury of running home to Mummy. Gwen is desperate for a job as a nanny, so she dismisses her misgivings about her potential employer:

“Not every Craigslist ad was posted by rapists and murderers.”

In fact, the threat she faces is somewhat more outre, and relates to her desire to escape from the mundane, offering her the chance to “reach for the stars”, but at a terrible price.

Yet motherhood and domesticity aren’t sources of safety in these stories either, not if ‘Mountain’, ‘The Moments Between’ and ‘A Flicker of Light on the Devil’s Night’ are anything to go by.

“The mother is always to blame. That’s they say anyways.”

Even when family life does provide security, it can be a trap, making the central character desire escape back into youthful freedom. ‘Fairy Lights’ is a bitter-sweet warning of the deceptive nature of this sort of nostalgia, as a mother enjoys a magical evening with her former lover from her party-going youth, but one that ends up going horribly sour, as he proves to be another one reaching for the stars at a terrible price.

‘Like Night and Day’ is another story of what happens when a mother succumbs to the temptations offered by a man with supernatural allure, the unprepossessing yet persuasive Mr Gaap, in a story that feels like a Twilight Zone episode penned by Flannery O’Connor. Like many of the female protagonists in Lady Bits, not least the time-hopping murderess from ‘Accidental Doors’, Marla Ann is a far from sympathetic character, with her petty, provincial conservatism. As her diabolical new admirer begins to insinuate himself into her life and take it over, her only reservation is his over-familarity:

“Now a gentleman would have said Miz. Marla Ann…”

When her own son invokes Solomon to try to defeat Gaap, her reaction reveals her anti-semitic prejudices:

“Isn’t that just like a teenager? How many times had that boy been dragged into church and made to listen? And the only words that ever spilled from his lips are from the Jew section.”

The comparison with O’ Connor is apt here, because ‘Like Night and Day’ is a masterclass in sustained dramatic irony which that writer would have appreciated, one in which Marla Ann’s inability to see through Gaap may be down to his mesmeric abilities, or perhaps it’s her own small-minded willingness to defer to a middle-aged male stranger rather than listen to her own sons that makes her vulnerable to his snake-oil charms.

Along with other stories like ‘Rules for Love’, it’s proof that the notion that a character has to be ‘sympathetic’ in order to garner the reader’s attention, engagement and, indeed, sympathy is a fallacy, for all the viewpoint characters in this collection, which ranges from teen runaways and young au-pairs to middle-aged truckers and ageing jewellers, are granite-real. There’s also an idea, reacting against the damsels-in-distress of old, that female characters have to be ‘strong’, usually meaning with a credibility-stretching ability to high-kick and back-flip their way out of trouble. While none of the women in Lady Bits are swooning maidens, Jonez isn’t afraid to show female weakness and folly, Marla Ann in ‘Like Night and Day’ being one prime example, and the dramatic irony in many of her stories comes from the tension between the characters’ strong sense of self and their lack of self-awareness and obliviousness to the threats to that self, indeed sometimes to their very existence. That’s a very long-winded way of saying this is a very fine collection indeed.

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Welcome to the lost town of Wellsbourne…

Wellsbourne’s a town like no other, an ordinary English seaside town where extraordinary things happen, a place of magic, mystery and madness. Here you’ll meet the woman stalked by drones and her own past, the politician who discovers the dark secret of the Green Man, the corpse collector with another self, the girl who menstruates yellow paint and the woman with the red, red hands. You’ll discover a garden that can disappear, boxes of books haunted by a dead writer and a 3D printer that can bring the dead back to life, though in a somewhat altered state. Wellsbourne welcomes careful drivers, but doesn’t necessarily let them leave again…

When author Tom Johnstone went off in search of the lost town of Wellsbourne, he left behind only this eerie collection of fiction, a mosaic of lost and haunted places and people.

Last Stop: Wellsbourne, coming soon from Omnium Gatherum Books

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Black Static #68, coming soon!

Title page of my novelette ‘The Beast in the Palace’, with Richard Wagner’s excellent artwork, from Black Static #68.

As a follow-up to my last post, here’s a teaser for my story in Black Static #68, which is at press and will mail out soon. Subscribe if you haven’t already!

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