I’ve always been grateful that I never started smoking. I’m the kind of person who would be smoking a good three packs per day if I had, and I’d probably already be at death’s door, having been unable to quit. It would be easier to climb Mount Everest.
Carole Johnstone gives us a lesson in just how hard it is to give up the coffin nails in her novella, Cold Turkey. Raym has just done so for the umpteenth time, and it’s turning into the third-worst day of his life, precedence being given only to the days his parents died. Raym doesn’t understand why he continues to smoke, despite the fact that his parents died gruesome deaths because of their own smoking habits; but now he’s giving up cold turkey. No, really. None of the other teachers at his elementary school really believe he’ll do it. And he suffers mightily that evening as he sits in front of the TV chewing on matchsticks and his fingernails. His sleep is full of nightmares and he’s late getting up.
On his way to school that next morning, things start getting strange for Raym. He hears music that he hasn’t heard since he was a child, the music of the tally van where he used to buy his penny candy when he was a child, along with smokes for his dad. Despite the music, there’s no van in sight. But the music brings to mind the image of a man in a crooked top hat and tails, a man with long fingers and sharp teeth. It’s no wonder that he is once again tortured with nightmares, and that the stress becomes so great that he succumbs to a quick cigarette — just one, only one — on his way to school the next morning. But that “quick” cigarette somehow costs him an hour, and he’s very late to work even though he started out early. Before long, Top Hat shows up to explain to him where the hour went, and what’s going to happen next.
From there, Raym’s life spins out of his control. He repeatedly sneaks a smoke to regain control of his nerves, but Top Hat isn’t too happy with that plan. Soon Raym is living in terror, even of himself and what he’s doing.
Johnstone has written a tense story that can make a reader feel as short of breath as if he’s chain-smoked a quick pack himself. She carefully builds to a crescendo of horrors, one piled on top of the other — yet these are not supernatural horrors, but horrors of Raym’s own making. And all because he couldn’t give up the smokes. This wickedly compelling novella is a Halloween treat.