Born in 1968, Tom Johnstone came to writing rather late in life, and so pursues it with the quiet desperation of someone conscious of the relatively short time he has left. His novella The Monsters are Due in Madison Square Garden, published by Omnium Gatherum Books, is mainly set at the time of the 1939 Nazi rallies in the place mentioned in the title, but has a certain resonance in this age of right-wing demagogues in power in Britain, America and elsewhere. His collection of interlaced stories, LastStop Wellsbourne, has a fair amount of socio-political commentary baked into it too, so much so that David Longhorn of Supernatural Tales called it a ‘state of the nation’ novel in short story form, and says of the author that he “has quietly risen through the ranks to become a first-rate craftsman of the short story.” His stories have also appeared in such publications as A Ghosts and Scholars Book of Folk Horror (Sarob Press), Single Slices (Cutting Block Press) and Best Horror of the Year #8 (Night Shade Books), with further anthology appearances scheduled in Nightscript Vol. 6 (Chthonic Matter Press) and Body Shocks (Tachyon Publications). Also forthcoming from Omnium Gatherum Books is the sequel to The Monsters…, entitled Star Spangled Knuckle Duster.
1. Tell us three things about yourself.
I can operate a Hayter ride-on lawn-mower (sort of).
I was once a stagehand on a production of ‘The Scottish Play’, which took place on the island of Inch Colm in the Forth, and starred John Bett, formerly of 7.84 Theatre Company, with the audience ferried out there for each performance.
I spent a good part of the mid-nineties up trees and sitting in front of bulldozers on various road protests. Not really the up-a-tree part so much as my climbing ability and head for heights leaves a fair amount to be desired.
2. Many writers have said the COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdown have made it harder for them to create. Have you found this? Has the outbreak affected you as a writer and if so, how?
In some ways, it hasn’t affected me at all, as my ‘day job’ has remained unaffected, so I’m not benefiting (or suffering) from any extra time at home. If anything I’ve been busier at work, so more tired. Last summer, I took to writing in a pub on the way home from work, scribbling rough drafts down in a semi-inebriated haze (well, in a notebook actually!), which proved surprisingly productive. One of the stories I wrote in this fashion (finishing a tale I began in a creative writing workshop co-hosted by the fabulous and delightful Victoria Leslie) will be appearing in Volume 6 of Nightscript! But it’s a writing setting that is obviously out of reach to me at present.
The virus has negatively affected my writing in practical ways, which have had a knock-on effect on my creativity. A novella that was supposed to be part of a series, due for publication in the spring has now been delayed until the Autumn, because of the impact of the virus on sales. This has somewhat taken the wind out of my sales with regard to working on the next one in the series.
On the other hand, the crisis and its political ramifications have inspired me to produce fiction about it. When the outbreak first reached this country, I swore blind I wouldn’t write a ‘virus story’, thinking the market would be flooded both with virally-themed anthologies and enough stories on this subject to fill them several times over. I’ve since relented and written something called ‘Untogetherness’, which thanks to my observations of what it’s actually like to live through this situation as opposed to typical fictional representations of what it might be like, I sincerely hope is not too corny. But it’s yet to find a publisher, as the deluge of Covid-themed open calls ready to snap it up doesn’t seem to have materialised…
3. What was the first thing you had published?
A short story called ‘Trail of Tears’, credited to ‘T.R. Johnstone’, in Dark Tales magazine, Vol. 12. The first one credited to ‘Tom Johnstone’ was ‘Dairy of a Madman’, in Dark Tales 13, which also featured a story by a writer many readers of your blog will have heard of, a certain Priya Sharma.
4. Which piece of writing are you proudest of?
‘The Beast in the Palace’, my Georgian gothic novelette set in and around the Brighton Pavilion in 1829, as it’s one of my boldest stylistically, structurally and thematically. It was the first, and to date only, story I sold to Black Static, so it has a special place in my heart.
5. …and which makes you cringe?
All of them, including even the aforementioned story in places. And let’s not even start on the adolescent poetry. There’s no escape from the Cringe Factor in anything I write, I find, and there’s nothing like getting something published and irrevocably in the public arena to make you spot every shortcoming, glitch, typo and other unforced error in your work. Re-reading your own work is almost as risky as reading your Amazon reviews, or indeed any reviews. On the other hand, I sometimes take a fresh look at a story that’s been rejected so many times I’ve decided to retire it (unceremoniously, without even a carriage clock) and think, You know what? This isn’t too bad. It isn’t too bad at all… That’s how I came up with my first collection. Most writers do the sensible thing and pack their debut collection with reprints of their most prestigious story sales. I filled mine with unwanted stories. So more of an album of interesting B-sides and out-takes than a greatest hits compilation. I’m really selling it here, aren’t I…?
6. What’s a normal writing day like?
On working days, I aim to start writing from 5.30am until 6.30am in time to leave for work. In practice, I piss around checking my emails, the submissions grinder, social media, news sites (for research purposes of course) and then write for about ten minutes, or at best half an hour, but somehow between these and longer sessions at the weekend, when put together and edited they end up amounting to something I can persuade myself is worthy of publication.
I used to pull all-nighters, but I can’t do that these days. I find self-doubt and negativity is stronger in the hours of darkness, which makes them better for editing. Unless I’m drunk, in which case I can scribble stuff down in the pub (or could in pre-Covid times...)
7. What work of yours would you recommend for people on lockdown and in need of a good book?
The collection I mentioned earlier’s a good one: Last Stop Wellsbourne, published by Omnium Gatherum Books. I may have called it an album of B-sides, but to stretch the musical metaphor, it’s also something of a concept album. The title refers to my adopted home town of Brighton’s ‘lost’ underground river the Wellsbourne, and also the lost town of the same name I’ve invented, in the tradition of weird, haunted places in horror literature from Lovecraft’s Miskatonic Valley to Joel Lane’s Clayheath. And while it does include a fair amount of unpublished stories, there are also some reprints I certainly wouldn’t write off as B-sides, such as ‘The Beast in the Palace’, which fits in well with the theme: George IV, who was responsible for draining the Wellsbourne ‘irl’ as the cool kids say, appears in the story as a character in a way readers will, I hope, find hard to forget…
For those who enjoyed the Spine Chillers readings that were like Jackanory for classic horror fans in the Eighties, I’ve started making videos of fireside readings of some of my stories. Here are some links to the ones I’ve done so far: What I Found In The Shed, Mum And Dad And The Girl From The Flats Over The Road and The Man In The Black Suit, Part One and Part Two.
8. What are you working on now?
My main focus at the moment is the third novella in a sequence about reluctant occult detective Herb Fry and his associate Daniel Spiegel. The first, narrated by Fry, is called The Monsters are Due in Madison Square Garden, which Omnium Gatherum Books published two years ago. The second, Star Spangled Knuckle Duster, told by Spiegel, is due out shortly. I’m currently in the process of writing The Song of Salome, which returns to the Universal Monster Movie theme of the first.
Actually, at getting on for 30,000 words each, and with their historical scope and scale, taking in events from the 1919 Red Summer to the 1950s Red Scare, and including historical characters such as Meyer Lansky and Bela Lugosi, the first two feel more like short novels. I’m hoping the third one will have more of the concentration and intimacy of a novella.