THE CUT by Johnny Mains

“It’s  at that moment my mother opens her eyes and fixes them on me. She screams and with her hand that was clutching her elbow, rakes deep furrows into my skin…”

And with that elbow-trigger to end all such elbow-triggers, we enter the world of Russell Stickles and the horror literature he writes as well as his involvement during real-time in the explicitly mentioned non-linearity and subtext of ‘magic realism’, and I can safely say that I have well-travelled both these by-ways of fiction, and they here do ring true in the Mains, also with the financial ‘cut’ that is so explicitly needed by the publishing  impresarios  of the late  1950s (an era I recall well from the standpoint of a Grammar School boy) as I also do believe the passages about cruising the canal ‘cut’ in a narrowboat, as I did much of that in the 1980s, and I know full well what it’s like to steer one of such unwieldy vessels through a tunnel with only a speck of daylight in sight, which forms part of this work’s suspenseful climax. All of it seems real to me, as does the horror fiction world itself, another area I have travelled in my life and I can appreciate Mains’ detailed knowledge, here, with characters in the plot actually being, inter alios, Herbert van Thal, Robert Aickman (Bobbo) and Dennis Wheatley, the latter being someone Russell worked for on secret missions during the then recent war. I also live now — and was brought up — on the rail line eastward from Liverpool Street…It feels as if this was all written for me! But we do know that that is a moot point as we have long believed in Wimsatt’s Intentional Fallacy! 

The plot itself — impossible to cover in full here — is often quite outrageously funny as well as horrific, and in my old age it is harder to empathise with the goings-on of a potentially healthy young man. A series of scenes are described from Russell’s viewpoint and also separately from the viewpoint of a much younger woman with whom he is having a series of sex acts. He is also haunted in dream or in actuality by two dead women, his mother and the previous woman with  whom he consorted. There are twists and turns regarding the novel and stories he is writing, and what his current “darling darkling” thinks of his novel by dint of her mass marginalia. (Luckily he eventually gets a good blurb from Graham Greene.) And the intentional fallacies, indeed, of what goes on within these characters are inspiring to those who read the sort of literature I love, including when Russell steals, at night, a full collection box  from a church near the canal because its dead vicar, I think, was once a serial strangler…  And then there is the burning woman, or was it Aickman himself? I enjoyed most of the plot, even the fish pie and the brain cancer. Not forgetting the sheets of carbon paper needed by writers, instead of our using ‘select’ and ‘cut’ as today’s way to ‘copy’ and ‘paste’…

This is a remarkable work, one I have been privileged to read. But I did wonder whether  the boat’s registration number “R.A. 26181” should have had 2 instead of the middle 1?

“Three miles further down the ‘cut’ we come to a split in the canal.”


This work is available in A MAN AT WAR by JOHNNY MAINS — INTRODUCTION by CHARLIE HIGSON — Published in October 2022 by TK Pulp (Trevor Kennedy) through KDP/Amazon

My previous reviews of Johnny Mains: HERE

My ongoing reviews of single stories by living authors:

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