CAROLE JOHNSTONE

British Fantasy Award Winner 2014; 3x British Fantasy Award Nominee

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Moonrocks and Monoliths



Place is so important. I carry around in my head pictures of the places that mean the most to me, so that when I need them, I can immediately access them. It’s an old self-hypnosis trick, and invaluable when I’m writing and need to feel a certain mood or emotion. But I use them when I’m scared or lonely or uncertain too; they’re a talisman, a temporary shield or escape, the most effective method of “try to think of something nice”. Places have an atmosphere, a personality. They provoke a response. And place often, of course, means people. But not always. Sometimes a place is everything all on its own.


Our time in the Highlands was brilliant. We spent the summer in a log cabin at the bottom of the Great Glen, surrounded by Ben Nevis and the Grampians, dense forests of firs and pines. It was beautiful and great fun. Fish restaurants and cocktails, loch cruises, historic towns, and the Harry Potter train.
But islands are my first love. Mountains and forests don’t move me. I don’t just want to see the sky, I want to see the horizon. The sea. I want to be on the edge of things, not the middle. And there’s just something about islands that even the coast can’t match: an atmosphere, a personality, and a unique way of life that has been common to all the islands we’ve stayed in this year, from Cyprus on the middle-eastern edge of the Mediterranean to the Outer Hebrides on the eastern edge of the Atlantic.

Since May, we’ve mostly lived across the Outer Hebrides. Also known as the Long Isle, the Western Isles, or Innse Gall (Islands of the Strangers), this long chain of islands are approximately seventy miles off the west coast of mainland Scotland. Of the sixty-five islands, only fifteen are inhabited. North to south, the main islands are Lewis, Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, and Barra: one hundred and thirty miles of sandy beaches and machair pasture, mountains and treeless peat moors, thousands of lochs and lochans. We’ve spent two months on the sandy west coast of Harris, one on the tiny island of Point, joined by a causeway to Lewis at Stornoway, its capital, and the last three months in the settlement of Cliff in the remote coastal area of Uig in northwest Lewis.

What can I write about the Outer Hebrides? What do I think — do I feel — about these islands on the edge of the Atlantic, an almost three hour ferry ride from the Scottish mainland? I’m not sure. Not because I don’t know what I think, or how I feel, but because I’m not sure how to do those thoughts and feelings, or the islands themselves, justice. So I’ve put it off, until today. And after a morning of packing and cleaning, an afternoon of rum, snow, and a three-fifteen sunset on our very own beach, and now, an evening in front of the fire, the Atlantic wind howling down the chimney, with not another soul within half a kilometre, I can put it off no longer.

I’ve been to many other Scottish islands. None are like these islands. We come back again and again, and every time I stand on the CalMac ferry deck and watch as Loch Broom gives way to the Summer Isles and the choppy grey waters of the Minch; as the lights and mountains of Scotland disappear behind great curtains of sea mist, and it makes me feel like a kid at Christmas. I should be bored, I suppose, stuck on the wild edge of nowhere, with only occasional phone signal, broadband, streetlights, pubs, or friends. But I’m not. My heart beats faster here. Not only because of its stark and unique beauty, awesome wildness and inaccessibility, the way it can always make you feel like the last person left alive in the world. But because of the sum of all its parts. There is nowhere like this place any place. I am heartbroken to be leaving.

It feels a little like love or infatuation, probably because it is. I over sentimentalise everything: the views, the storms, the people, the brutal history, and the eerie forgotten roads full of stony ruins and abandoned vehicles, haunted blank-faced sheilings with low rusted corrugated roofs. The low, mean-eyed blackhouses, thatched roofs hung with swinging stones, alongside their successors, the two-storey lime-washed white houses. The rusty fishing boats and swaying Pampas grasses, the ubiquitous sheep who vastly outnumber the people and wander at will wherever they please. The always running out of everything on a Sunday because you’ve forgotten the entire island shuts up shop. The rain, the rain. Even the wind that howls and howls and howls and never ever stops. But I can’t seem to help it. Being here makes me feel closer to something. I don’t know what. Maybe nature: any kind of walk is an adventure, more terrifying than enjoyable until you know for sure you’ve survived it. Whether inching around sheer cliffs above rock and glorious white sand; sinking in boggy mud or splashing across endless beaches before the tide roars back in; pushing back against gale force winds and the intense vast flat howling emptiness of inland peat moors and glassy lochans; avoiding pissed off sheep (or dead ones; skulls and wooly corpses abound), Golden Eagles, and huge-horned, stoically unimpressed Highland cows. Everything is exciting, terrifying, a wee bit bonkers. Here, you are responsible for yourself. And that’s exhilarating; sad but true. But here too is a kind of peace and quiet and sense of solitude that still exists in precious few places. And which is more — far more — than just an absence of the impatience and barely restrained rage that boils inside overgrown places with too many people and not enough houses, amenities, roads, or space.

The islands as a whole feel utterly unchangeable, although of course, they’re not; their history is long and bloody, an endless struggle against injustice and tragedy (it’s ironic that it’s the legacy of such unrelenting misfortune that has made the islands what they are today: beautiful, timeless, and very sparsely populated). Its prehistory is everywhere in remarkably preserved iron age brochs and random coastal circles of five thousand year old Neolithic standing stones. In fields. Not roped off and set behind expensive car parks and souvenir shops and visitor centres, but just there. In windy, muddy, otherwise empty and forgotten spaces, looking out at the sea and waiting for you to find them, touch them.
Rome never came close to the Highlands, never mind the Islands, but the Norsemen did. Towards the end of the 8th century AD, the Outer Hebrides became part of the Norse kingdom of the Suðreyjar. Many of its place names are Gaelicised Old Norse: Uig, Beckrivig, Hủisinis, Sgalpaigh na Hearadh, Losgaintir, Sgarasta Mhor, Meavik. After four hundred years of Norse rule, sovereignty was transferred to Scotland in 1266, and the islands were ruled instead by clans, including the Morrisons of Lewis, MacLeods of Harris, MacNeils of Barra, MacDonalds of the Uists. The Jacobite Rebellion of the 18th century briefly united them under the banner of the Bonnie Prince Charlie and his doomed plan to return the Catholic Stuarts to the thrones of England and Scotland. The Highland Clearances of the 19th century — when their Scottish landlords decided there was to be more profit to be had from sheep than tenant crofters — devastated them, scattered them to the ends of the Earth. And the islands have never fully recovered. There are few castles here, no occupying keeps, walled towns, or ostentatious cathedrals. Instead there is a deeply ingrained sense of long history and fierce identity. Towers and wonderful vast stone sculptures line the roads and tracks: monuments to Bonnie Prince Charlie, or to the islanders’ land struggles and riots against the merciless greed of the mainland; memorials to all the sailors and fishermen who perished in as merciless seas, often within sight of their homes.

The Callanish Stones in Lewis are standing stones placed in a cruciform pattern with a central stone circle.
Built in the late Neolithic era, they are older than Stonehenge.

It’s pretty inevitable then that the people who live here as are unique as the islands themselves. Many of the islanders have lived here all their lives, or left for years but then returned. Many are descended from the original ruling clans. Morrisons, MacLeods, MacAuleys, MacNeils, and MacDonalds abound. Every person I spoke to was genuinely baffled as to why anyone would ever want to live anywhere else. No one locks any doors here; everyone knows everyone else. Life is hard, of course, but that’s just the way it is, the way it’s always been. Practical, friendly, and brutally direct, open and generous; here, no one is a stranger, no question is impolite. Never before have I been invited to turn up at someone’s house unannounced and at any time I please within five minutes of meeting them, or been asked more personal questions than acquaintances I’ve known for months would ever dare to. Never ever before have I been made to feel so welcome, so vital, so part of a place I’ve only just begun to know.
Because above all, this is a place of extremes. The weather is schizophrenic or profoundly contrary: winter at the end of your driveway, and summer at your backdoor. The Outer Hebrides are where rainbows were invented. The storms are spectacular and furious, but mostly fleeting and rarely cold. There are palm trees.
A few nights after we first arrived on Harris, a storm raged outside our blackhouse, and it was like none I’d ever heard or felt before. The wind roared against the foot-thick stone walls, whistled through our tiny windows. We could hear the sea thundering into the Sound of Taransay, battering against the beach and rocks. We could smell it. The next day was so still and warm and sunny, we both wondered if we’d had the same dream. When we went down to the beach, the waves had carved great snaking wounds through the sand dunes, and we realised that the sea had roared inland fifty yards or more to the grassy bluffs, while we’d been lying warm and not so faraway in our bed, laughing about it reaching us.

The amazing Uig Sands. A storm rolls in from the Atlantic.

The eastern coastline is rocky and stark, studded with glassy lochs and lochans, low slow clouds pierced by dark gold shafts of light. Empty single-track roads wind between stony bens and purple glens. But there are different degrees of aloneness on the islands (to call it loneliness or isolation implies a weight, a gloomy quality of desolation that simply isn’t there); further inland there are vast, flat expanses of moorland inhabited only by herds of red deer and those haunted stone sheilings with corrugated shutters for eyes. The Coffin Road links both coasts, along which the dead were once carried from the rocky east to the fertile west. Swathes of headstones sit high on the grassy Atlantic cliffs, sharing the same view as all those standing stones: always outward, always seaward. Coffinless, we barely managed to walk the distance on a gloriously sunny day.

Most of Lewis is flat, but Harris is mountainous. Both landscapes feel ancient and alien. Stanley Kubrick filmed parts of the islands for 2001 A Space Odyssey. Harris was Jupiter; maybe not so surprising as the island’s bedrock is anorthosite, a rare composition almost identical to that of the rocks found in the mountains of the Moon. Some are more than three thousand million years old.

Just one beautiful beach among dozens.
This one at Port of Ness, on the north coast of Lewis

The western coastline is mostly machair, a Gaelic word meaning fertile, low-lying dune pastureland of glorious wildflowers and crushed sea shells. Its purple ling heather, grassy bluffs, shell-white sand dunes, and rolling, white-frilled Atlantic waves are world-renowned and rare — machair only occurs along the coastline and islands of north-west Scotland and north-west Ireland. The sand on the beaches is often so deep that it’s tricky to navigate: no wet, hard-packed ridges that hurt the soles of your feet; no low tides that retreat for endless featureless miles. The sea is warm and turquoise clear, the waves always high and unpredictable — paddle only if you’re not set against swimming too.

Machair in May

Hebridean sunrises are as fantastically eerie as their full moon silverscapes. Hebridean sunsets are as spectacular as the sight of a dark storm rolling in from the sea or down from the bens and headlands, sparing you no time at all to escape either a soaking or a sandblasting. All on the islands is an arrival, never a promise or a warning. The day after that first storm on Harris, we sat on the beach for hours, marvelling at the calm and sunny carnage. And after dark we stayed a little longer, facing nothing but a thin black horizon and three thousand miles of flat ocean until Canada, almost completely blind except for the kind of stars I’d last seen stuck to my bedroom ceiling, and the sounds of the waves, the high grass, the wooden echo of the wind blowing against the gate to our blackhouse more than a hundred yards away. It was as awe-inspiring as it was frightening; wondrous as it was ordinary. Even now, I struggle to put it into worthy words. By the next day, all trace had gone as if the storm had never happened at all.

Sunrise in Lewis

Sunset in Harris

We’ve spent hours on these beaches, and in all weathers. And like the islands’ ferocious storms, even their peace and beauty cannot hide their wildness; a few days before our arrival in Cliff, the body of a missing surfer washed up on our beach. But what there is to fear here makes you feel small and big. Its rawness stands apart in a western world that mostly anaesthetises and gives false comfort. It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it. Not any more. Death is here and all around: in all those memorials and monuments and cairns, animal carcasses, abandoned houses that still have cars in their drives and curtains in their broken windows. But it is death as we should prefer to see it: honest and implacable. Just another struggle we must all face. The last murder here was in 2011. The last one before that was in 1968.

Me on our beach. I'm not saying where because it's ours.

From Cliff in Uig, our once a week one hundred mile round trip to Stornoway feels like an expedition. We write our shopping list, put on our walking boots and waterproofs just in case, pack the car with everything we might need to survive being stranded in the middle of nowhere with neither phone signal nor people. We wave hello to Mo the Shetland Pony, the piping and accordion playing scarecrows in hi vis. We drive down through the cattle grids of Miavaig, past the churches, the harbour where you can buy scallops direct from the fishing boats, the little grey shore-side house with its colourful FOR SALE painted buoys. We play bad music at top volume as we slalom around single track roads and their diamond white passing places, as the flat vast plains and lochs and endless miles and skies of inland Lewis open up around us. And every time, there’s a lump in my throat. Rain, or glorious sunshine, or miserable impenetrable fog. Most often, all three. Every single fucking time. And — very unusually for me — I know what it means, that lump. I know exactly what it is I’m thinking when I look left at those snowcapped bens, low long sparkling lochs, autumn brown and green moors turning winter purple and orange, and then right at the only person I want to be looking at them with. I’m happy. I’ve been happy before. I’ve been happy with a lump in my throat before. I just don’t think it’s ever been this easy. This cheap. This certain. This simple. And — I can say this for absolute certain — never before have I been in a Tesco where everyone stops what they’re doing because of a sunset too beautiful to do anything else. Never before have I stood outside in the absolute dark and freezing cold just to stare up at the silver stardust of the Milky Way. And never before have I sat in a car and felt my chest swell just because I’m in it. Just because I feel something like freedom. Just because I can wind a window down and feel a strange warm wind against my face, close my eyes and think not just that I’m happy, but that I’m home. I’m here. And not give even the smallest of shits about how naff that might sound to anyone else; how naff it sounds to me. How silly or twee or cheesy. It’s inconvenient certainly — because if it was even remotely practical for us to live here forever, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

The new view from my al fresco writing desk in Cliff, Uig.
Some distractions are better than others.

So, no. My heaven isn’t Highland bens and glens and Christmas tree forests. My heaven is full of empty howling treeless moors of gold and green and purple. Of lochans so still you could climb down their slopes of scree to a stony low summit and another cloudless blue sky. Of seas so wild and deep their turquoise bellies foam wide and white and warm against your toes and the long miles of untouched sand. Of a vast blue bowl of endless sky; a dome of silverlight and moon and stardust. Quicksand and Golden Eagles. Guillemots, Puffins, Cuckoos, Corncrakes, and Arctic Terns. Sunshine and storms and walking through rainbows. Silence and howling wind. Pungent peat fires and bright small lights in the long black dark. Stones that remember, that stand sentinel over people who are hard and strange and warm and tough.

Perhaps that’s why it’s here that I’ve made huge decisions about my life in a matter of days. Decisions that I’ve successfully managed to avoid for decades. The islands let you think — make you think — about everything you’ve either forgotten or dismissed. That, I think, has been their biggest gift to me. There’s no hiding here, there’s no escaping anything at all. My life is not and has never been hard. It’s privileged and safe and mostly untroubled. But I have never ever felt at peace. At home. Here, on this alien and remote planet of moonrock and monoliths, I do. In this home that has never been my home and yet somehow still is. Maybe it’s that simple.


"Next summer, I’ll come back again. I’ll cross this narrow strait into the narrower isthmus of Tarbert. I’ll take the high road west above the harbour, winding between all those purple stony bens and glens and glassy lochs, through heavy clouds and peat farms and rock quarries, across flat lonely grazing plains and moorland.
I’ll walk along the causeway above a blanket of bright pink sea thrift, and crest the last hill at Seilebost, just as the sun rises up over the Teampall. I’ll run down through the machair beyond the coastal road at Borve. I’ll cross the little wooden bridge, climb over the stile, clamber down the grassy sand bluff towards the beach, grabbing for flailing waves of grass, my feet sinking into the sand to my ankles. I’ll look across to Taransay and the northern headland, and out at the rolling white-frilled waves and the flat miles of Atlantic beneath a vast blue bowl of sky.
And there is where I’ll finally stop moving. There is where I’ll stop and stand and look. I’ll take off my coat, my bag, my camera; I’ll stretch my shoulders free of their hunch. And I’ll watch all those others crawling their way out of the sea and onto the sand. I’ll watch them trying to shed their own armour; trying to stop, to stand, to look. To believe that they’re home again.
And last, I’ll look west towards that high plateau of sand sheltered by the bluff, but boasting the best views of the ocean, a smile stretching my mouth wide.
And there you’ll be. Standing and waving and waiting. 
No matter where we go. No matter what either of us become.
There you’ll always be."

[Extract from There You’ll Be (Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands; Gray Friar Press) © Carole Johnstone, 2015
Link to buy here]

One of many abandoned houses; this one in west Lewis, not far from the Dun Carloway broch.
Often, when an elderly islander dies, the families can't bear to sell the house, and so they're left to slowly become a ruin.

MacLeod's Stone on the west coast of Harris.
4,500 years old, in later times it became a rallying point for the Clan MacLeod.

The beautiful harbour of Stornoway, as viewed from the stunning Lews Castle Grounds that face the town across the water.
Pubs!

The Lews Castle Grounds. Amazingly picturesque walks.
Trees!

Mo, the friendliest cowgirl in the west.

Not so friendly.

Shug and Jock.
Shug began his music career playing the bagpipes, but then his arms fell off.




Postscript: Recently, I found out that the grandmother I’d always thought was as Lanarkshire as I am, as my dad is, was in fact a MacNeil from Barra. Her family, just like so many other Hebrideans, had been forced to leave to survive. So maybe a place really can be in your blood. Or maybe some of those happy places exist in your head before you see them, before you know them.
Perhaps they know you instead.





[All photos © Iain Black & Carole Johnstone]
(and without even the whiff of a filter!)


Sunday, 4 June 2017

AOB

Just a few writing related updates:

  • The Eyes are White and Quiet is a short story I wrote some time ago. It was recently announced as part of the New Fears 1 anthology, edited by Mark Morris, and out from Titan Books on the 19th of September. I believe it’s going to be officially launched at FantasyCon in the same month, and I’ll post availability when that’s announced. Meanwhile, here is the relevant page on Titan Books' website.
And here is a preview of the front cover:



  • My short story, Better You Believe, about an ill-fated climbing expedition on Annapurna in the Himalayas, is out now in the Eric J Guignard edited anthology, Horror Library, Vol.6, out from Cutting Block Books. I loved writing this one. I’m a sucker for snowy. And for scary mountains with death zones!
Available from Amazon UK, Amazon 



  • My Sherlock Holmes short, The Cannibal Club, has also just been released as part of Constable & Robinson’s anthology: Sherlock Holmes and the School of Detection, edited by the brilliant Simon Clark. This, like my last Holmes story, was a toughy to write — and research — but I was hugely happy by the result. I feel I should say here that that’s pretty atypical; I don’t go around being pleased with myself every time I manage to write something or get it published. But…I do like to challenge myself, and I do like writing things that I think I can’t. The Cannibal Club was definitely one of those.
Available from Amazon UK and Amazon


Eat, Pray, Love




So, after six very short months, we’ve said adio to Cyprus. I’ll always love it, always miss it, but it was time. The place was beginning to come alive again: Paphos was opening up, its streets and promenades were thronged with tourists. It felt a little like we were losing the Cyprus that we’d grown to love. Plus, it was getting HOT. And for two peely-wally Scots who complain about Essex summers, you can definitely have too much of a good thing.

But I’ll miss it so much. I’ll miss getting up every morning and swimming in freezing cold water, looking up into the mountains and pale blue, cloudless sky. The goats with their low chiming bells and loud, grumpy Cypriot herders. The mad birds who were our only noisy neighbours. I’ll miss the scary roads (many of which officially shared the name), the olive groves and orange trees and rocky terraces. Watching the beautiful countryside turn from the burnt gold of drought to lush shades of green and then — in our last months — back again. I’ll even miss the constant cheerful shouting and bonkers driving. Fireworks and colourful clouds thrown even more cheerfully off balconies and out of moving cars. The thunderstorms that used to lash and shake our villa and plunge us into frequent darkness. The winds that would howl down from the mountains and beat through the valleys for days. The best worst dance music in the world, guaranteed to make you feel better. Cats as big as dogs and mice the size of hedgehogs. Less said about the beasties the better. Only one word: tarantula. Yeah, ok, I won’t miss them.

Surrounded by such lovely, smiling, and welcoming people; so much peace and so many beautiful villas and pools and long sandy beaches, it was very easy to forget where Cyprus is. Syria is only a few hundred miles away; we’d frequently see the British jets heading east. Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq. And, of course, Turkey. In February, the Israelis launched a two-day training exercise, complete with ear-splitting F-16s over Peyia and Paphos, and the place erupted into immediate panic as locals thought this meant that they were at war with Turkey again. Their very real fear and uncertainty isn't something I've ever had to suffer, and even though they're arguably safer than many of their neighbours, it was still a pretty sobering thing to witness. Privilege isn't a right, it isn't something you earn or deserve, it's just the luck of the draw, but allowing yourself to forget just how lucky that makes you is as unforgivable as it is easy. I'm as guilty of that as anyone else, but living here has given me a new perspective, a well-deserved kick up the arse. Not because it was ever hard for me to be here, but because of the wonderful people I met and will never forget.

This has also been, I think, the Eat phase of our year’s journey: we’re both FAT. (Don't eat something called Dancing Potatoes. You’ll never be the same again. Well, your waistline won’t.) 

I loved it here. it’s one of the best places I’ve ever known. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier -- or luckier -- than I am right now, (and I'm pretty sure that's not all down to being here and not AT WORK). I hope — and am pretty sure — that we'll be taking that happiness away with us, wherever we go. (As well as the few dozen extra pounds...)

Where we’re going right now is the Outer Hebrides. And if we’re also moving onto Pray, then I’m guessing it’s going to have something to do with the weather.





Thursday, 17 November 2016

The View from my Writing Desk*

I cried when the plane took off (I’m always the princess who gets the window seat, of course). The seat I'd been expecting, but the crying kind of ambushed me — literally out of the blue — and once it had I couldn’t stop. I guess the bigger the blue got and the smaller the green and yellow patchwork of Essex fields got the more it hit home that I was leaving — all of it; all of my home — behind for the first time in twenty years.

It still feels strange to say that to be honest. Not once, in all our preparations, in all the bookings and cancellations and the fucking unending stress of trying to leave behind our entire lives, did it really occur to me that we were leaving behind our entire lives. And at the very moment that we actually did, I started to unravel.

I sort of obsessively collect quotes, always have. And there’s one by Georgia O’Keeffe that I long ago memorised. She was an American artist, probably most well known for her paintings of large flowers, but she also did amazing landscapes of New Mexico, in particular of the Black Place: "a mile of elephants with gray hills and white sand at their feet,” which are just beautiful. Anyway, she was an extraordinary person: a loner, a perfectionist; independent, and, it seemed to me, entirely unconcerned about what other people thought of her. She’s very good for quotes. And this one: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do,” is not only one of my favourites, it’s one of my ambitions. I’ve already got the first bit down pat.   

When we arrived at Paphos airport it was pitch dark. Our hire car grunted and moaned and threatened to stall its way along unfamiliar roads and extraordinarily steep hills. We got lost more than once. By the time we got to the villa we weren’t talking. One of our neighbours was shouting at someone very loudly and angrily in Greek. We had an army of ants in our bedroom. We continued not to speak, drank too much wine, and then fell asleep.



The next day, not even waking up to this view was enough to shake me out of the weird numb dread I was stewing in. I couldn’t fathom it out. We had been saving, planning, dreaming of this moment for the past couple of years; me for far, far longer than that. And yet now that it was here, I felt almost nothing. Worse than that, what I did feel was bad — a kind of low-level sense of dread that something terrible was about to happen — was happening — and there was nothing at all I could do about it. Why the hell should I be feeling like that now, when during all of those years of saving, planning, dreaming — and they had been mostly sad, bad years — I hadn’t felt anything close to as terrible, as frightened as this?

Now. I know what all this sounds like. 
Woe is me; check out the view from my writing desk.
And I know exactly how I’d feel if I’d read this blog post while sitting at my actual desk at work, looking out at the pissing rain and thinking about maybe going to the pub on Saturday as a treat.
I have a year off work. To write. A year. And I’m spending half of it here in this beautiful place high in the hills above Peyia and Coral Bay, where the peace is almost unnerving, and the sunsets wash the whole sky and sea in a brilliant show that lasts only a few dozen cock crows before it's replaced by swooping bats and absolute dark and the invisible chirp-song of crickets. It’s already a familiar joke: “are the cricket bats out already?” What the fuck do I have to be depressed about?

But as writers, we must navel-gaze by necessity. We need to be able to understand ourselves: what makes us tick or tock; why we do or don’t feel and do certain things. If we can’t understand even that, why bother writing anything at all? That, and navel-gazing actually bloody works. It’s just given fancier-sounding, less selfish labels.

The last few years have been sad and bad for us, that much really is true. The worst we’ve ever had. Full of grief and health worries and dissatisfaction. Fear, isolation, miscommunication. And then, once we’d decided to do something about it, full of stress and money worries; no time to relax, no money for holidays or nights out. All with the undercurrent of my disease; its shitty riptides. I relapsed more often in the last twelve months than I have in any year since diagnosis. More tests, more medication, more scares, more stress. And all for this.
This year, this place, this new life which already has so bloody much to live up to.

And most of all — probably most obvious of all, although I didn’t see it until today — I haven’t written anything in weeks. I haven’t written much more than a couple of short stories in months. And all for this. The year where I absolutely must write at least three novels, find a new agent, get The Book Deal, and prove that I can do this thing full-time and not just on a Friday night with a glass of wine in my hand, otherwise the whole endeavour — including the spending of all our savings — will have been an abject waste of time and energy. A mid-life crisis. An over-privileged indulgence.

Yeah.

This morning I woke up, still feeling the same, and to a barrage of emails from home: landlord shit, medical shit that I mistakenly thought I’d managed to escape (though I don’t know who was I kidding; I was told by one doctor not to leave the UK for my own safety, and have spent every day here so far terrified of what might happen if/when I get sick again). But a strange thing happened. Instead of finally swan-diving into the meltdown that I’ve been certain has been waiting in the wings for days, I suddenly felt very calm. I stood at the bedroom’s patio doors and looked out at that tremendous view — our tremendous view — (pretending I couldn’t see the fresh mound of ant carcasses at my feet), and I made myself look and look and look until I could see it even with my eyes tight shut. 

Later, when I was showering after breakfast, I suddenly realised that I was talking away to myself, and had been for several minutes; conducting the endless dialogues and monologues that constantly run through my brain unchecked. What was even more shocking was that I hadn’t even noticed that this had even been missing — that it had gone. And for the longest time.

It feels precarious, this calm, this happiness, this peace, but it’s here, and I’m not about to let it leave. And whether what it has replaced was hangover or performance anxiety or just plain fear doesn’t matter. I know it now; I see it. And it’s getting none of me.

And I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to realise that writing is the answer — whether cause or cure, or both, I don’t care. Writing I can do. It’s the easiest of all my pills to swallow. 
And so it’s time to do just that. To be me again. And most of all, to quit the navel-gazing long enough to remember that there’s someone else in this with me. Someone who’s always, always been in it with me. Through the sad, bad years, and everything before and after them. And now, he’s helping me live out my dreams, because he’s made them his too. Which means more to me even than knowing that he’s always loved me, or that he’ll never ever leave, no matter how terrible I am, how selfish, how sick, how just plain annoying.

What is it they say? Baby, this song’s for you. It’s not our song exactly; more my song for him. A song about him. The man I adore most in the whole world. Because I’ve never known another man who was anything like him. Because he’s never let anything — least of all me  keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do. Because through everything, he’s always, always been on my side. Because sometimes — often — I forget to say thank you. Or worse, what can I do for you?

(And because if I’m not allowed to be a sentimental twat after drowning in dread stew for weeks then when?)







(*By the way, check out the view from my writing desk:)







Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Wetwork: Black Static #52

My novelette, Wetwork, was the headliner of Black Static, Issue #52. Link to buy here.
I was very excited slash shitting myself about its reception as I really went all out on it. When that works, it really works. And when it doesn't...y'know. But I figure it's always too easy to stay where you are, doing what you do, especially when it's going ok. Writing every new story should be a challenge, but it should be a different challenge. I've played it safe plenty of times in the past, but stories like Wetwork teach me and show me what I could - and probably should - be doing instead. In this case: True Detectives meets Alien meets 28 Days Later. In mardy Doric and Glaswegian.

Artwork © Ben Baldwin

Thankfully, it's had a few great reviews already:

“...Some may find the phonetically-written Scottish drawls of various characters to be a little hard to “ken” (understand), but Wetwork is more than worth the effort, as it builds to a stunningly effective, tense, skin-crawling and “shout out loud” shock of a finale. This one’s a stunner.”
See full review here
© GARETH JONES

“Wetwork, by Carole Johnstone, is a terrifying view of police work in Glasgow."
© ELLEN DATLOW SF Editors Picks

“...Johnstone pens a tale that is both horrific and human, emotional and devastating, but infused with a quiet, mounting dread. Utilising phonetic Scots speech in the dialogue (both Glaswegian and Doric), she grounds her tale in the grime of the city, while her sharp, economic but descriptive prose pulls the story inexorably towards its gut-punch ending. It’s a powerful start to the issue and sets a high bar for those following.”
See full review here
© PAUL MICHAELS

“This novelette sure needs working at to start off with, but your work is half the battle towards something great. The Glaswegian dialect dialogue needs to be transcended but half its power is its direct meaning which is eventually easy to absorb...Nothing can do justice to the onward extended compulsion of the whole story but particularly of its closing scenes...And the end-revelation, too, is devastating.
Go to it! Work at this work! And it will work hard back at you, with grinding relentlessness.”
See full review here
© D. F. LEWIS

The Wildhearts also very generously allowed me to use lyrics from one of their brilliant songs as an epigraph to the story - which was a huge first for me, made all the more special because I've been in  love with them since I was about sixteen years old. Check them out - best decision you'll ever make!  

Friday, 5 February 2016

Interzone #262

Not quite sure how I forgot to post about this, but still managed to whinge lyrical (and extensively) about Myself-In-General. Probably answered my own question there...

Anyway, here it is: my short sci-fi Romeo and Juliet story, Circa Diem, which appeared in Interzone #262, published in January. I love Interzone, and always feel like a clod-hopping interloper whenever I'm lucky enough to get a gig. The artwork (courtesy of Richard Wagner) is as amazing as ever.
I love it:

Text: "They said it was the moon. Might as well have been. By then, the how probably wasn’t important to most folk anyway. Not after it had already happened: the asteroid, the tidal-locking, the lengthening days, the lengthening nights. By the time the Earth started slowing down, the only thing people cared about was how to fix it, and not one of them knew the answer to that. They still don’t."

Friday, 29 January 2016

Life's Too Short for Juggling

When I lived in Glasgow, I spent a few years living in vast houseshares with mostly mad strangers. One of these (mid-tier mad, although he lasted less time in that particular houseshare than I did) used to call anything that was worse than shit, shit on a stick.  I never knew why shit on a stick was any worse than just shit, but it was. And on Hogmanay last year, as I was feeling like crap, determined not to give that most significant of midnights any of my miserable attention, that long-remembered phrase was all that I could think of.  Because 2015 really was shit on a stick.

But I’ll tell you a couple of great things about years that are shit on a stick. They make you take a long hard look at your life: at who your friends are, and at who you are.  Your life is your life, of course; it’s whatever you make it, blah, blah – but pretty often what you’ve made of it is some horrible amalgamation of everything you did want, you now want, you think you will want. And then everything else that actually happens to you when you’re not looking.  It’s chaotic, exhausting, and unfulfilling.  It’s crammed full of every opportunity and every eventuality, striving towards fuck knows what; full of pleasing everyone, trying to be liked by everyone; full of self-promotion and chronic self doubt, and endless, endless juggling – and mostly you just keep on going because if you stop you’re pretty sure you’ll drop the lot.

At the end of 2015, I had good cause and pause to wonder when it was that I’d let my life get away from me; when I’d started considering myself worth so little that nearly everyone else’s opinion (or lack of) mattered more than my own.  Most of us do, women probably more: you make excuses for friends who are shit on a stick friends (and, of course, that also goes for professional relationships too, and for some, family), but ultimately folk will only value you as much as you value yourself – it’s a women’s mag cliché because it’s true. A friend who is not there for you when you were there for them is worthless, whether you met them two years ago or twenty. And sometimes, what people present to you is not the real person; finally meeting the real them can also be a shit on a stick moment. And, perhaps hardest to realise, not all friendships are meant to last. Sometimes they are just a period in time, a mutual helping along until you’re both pretty much okay to carry on without each other. And it’s always worth realising that there are probably a few folk who consider you shit on a stick yourself.

January is peak friend-culling season on Facebook.  Or rather, it’s peak announcing you’re going to be doing a friend-cull on Facebook.  You might consider this post no less passive aggressive, but in my opinion, the venue is all.  Facebook is a bunfight which makes everyone look like shit on a stick: the smugness, the tactlessness, the cluelessness, the neediness, and worst, the outright sycophancy (this one is an unapologetic favourite of certain writers, and flares up badly around award seasons). But, as far as friend-culling goes, it’s only the snide announcement of intention that gets to me.  I’ve nothing against the actual process at all.  I think it’s pretty essential.

I have very good old old friends and old friends, and in recent years, I’ve been lucky enough to have made a few wonderful new ones through writing, and I am grateful for every one of them because they have only brought me happiness and kindness and that wonderful feeling that nothing else ever beats: of knowing that someone just gets you and you get them, and you’ve both got each other’s back.  But isn’t it weird how we always try harder with people who are harder?  Such ludicrous perseverance!  Not that weird, I guess, not when indifference or rejection brings you back around to worthlessness.  But, for Christ’s sake, what a waste of time, of energy.  Of bloody juggling!  You can’t, after all, flog a dead horse.  Especially if your stick is shitty (this metaphor would like to announce its long overdue retirement).  And all of this I finally realised – also long overdue – at midnight on Hogmanay.  Because bad or pointless friendships don’t exist in a vacuum.  And getting rid of them really is passive aggressive if you don’t look at why you indulged them in the first place.  If you don’t look at yourself and your life and be honest about what’s wrong with both.

Is that what a midlife crisis is?  Most likely.  If I’m lucky, I’m in the middle of my life, and one definition of crisis is a turning point; an important change, indicating either recovery or death.  So...y'know.  Applicable here might also be the awful midlife crisis cliché of old (because not all clichés are good clichés, and neither regression nor pseudo-vampirism will sustain one of them for long).  No one really wants to relive their youth anyway.  They’re re-imagining it, that’s all.  Nobody enjoyed any of it, for fuck’s sake.  They forget that while the eighteen year old them had no mortgage, no spouse, no kids, no CV, they also had no money, no confidence that could withstand much more than a surface scratch (despite all that bravado), and no clue.  What they really want, of course, is the years back – and they can’t have them, they’re long gone.

But positive decisions can still be scary.  Distancing yourself from people with whom you once had a connection, however unhealthy, is also scary.  But life really is too short to waste on anyone or anything that isn’t worth it.  That isn’t necessary.  That doesn’t help.  Stepping into the unknown is scary.  I will never be well, I will never be rich, I will never be as sure of myself as I was at eighteen, and death and grief and illness will happen no matter what I decide or do.  But I can control what I decide or do next.  I can always control that.  And that wonderful Doris Lessing quote, “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always going to be impossible,” should ring true for us all, even those of us who have thus far lived small and careful lives.  As far as resolutions go, I reckon those are the best that we will ever make.  Because life really is too short for juggling.  Or for never knowing what you’re worth.

“There’s a lot of livin I gotta do,
Give me time to make a few dreams come true, 
Black star”
© Sid Wayne/ Sherman Edwards