Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Paul K. Johnstone

Paul K. Johnstone (b. St. Louis, Missouri, 27 February 1910; d. St. Louis, Missouri, August 1985)

Apparently born Paul Johnson (with his mother’s first name Brigetta), Paul Karlsson Johnstone claimed later in life that his great-uncle was the famous mountain man of the American west, known as “Liver-Eating” Johnson (c. 1824-1901). Little is known of Johnstone’s early life, beyond the details he gave in a jaunty autobiographical sketch when his first short story appeared in Blue Book Magazine in May 1948. Here Johnstone noted that he left Missouri at an early age and “had the inestimable benefit of growing up in Oklahoma, where there was plenty of room for it (6 feet 4 and 240 pounds at latest returns).  Met Indians, oil-men, hijackers, and pistol-packin’ mamas—it was a lively land. At twelve, I had been under fire three times.”  With his mother (his father seems to have been out of the picture by the 1920 Census and dead by the 1930 Census), Johnstone moved back to St. Louis just before the onset of the Depression.  He worked at a number of jobs:  “wheelbarrow chauffeur, ball-player (I never made the pro grade—good hit, but no field), wrestling referee, door-to-door salesman, florist, art student.” His eyesight (“myopic peepers, souvenirs of a childhood bout with typhoid”) prevented him from serving in World War II, but he did work as a guard at a war plant.  He gave his hobbies as “boxing, baseball, and collating Dark Age genealogies, traditions and place-names.” It was this latter interest that would underlay all of his publications.  Years later he would correlate his interests in the fringe of the American Wild West with the older Völkerwanderung of the Germanic tribes in Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries.

His first known publication is a letter in Weird Tales in the April 1927 issue. He began publishing more seriously (as “P.K. Johnstone”) with some letters on “The Victories of Arthur” in 1934 in Notes and Queries.  These were followed in 1938 by the first of more than a dozen contributions to the scholarly journal Antiquities. These include shorter considerations like “Caw of Pictland” (September 1938) and “The Date of Camlann” (March 1950), to longer ones like “Cerdric and His Ancestors” (March 1946) and a book review of The Races of Europe (1939) by Carleton Stevens Cox, under the title “Racial Contexts of Prehistory” (September 1946). His most significant scholarly piece is doubtless “A Consular Chronology of Dark Age Britain”, a summing up of the results of two decades of work (June 1962).  It was intended to form the basis of a projected study of the Brittonic Heroic Age, but the project was never completed.  A short biographical note appeared with the article, certainly to distinguish the American Johnstone from the South African-born British television producer and authority on the archaeology of ships and prehistoric sea-craft, Paul Johnstone (1920-1976), who was then coming to prominence. 

In 1948, the first two of Johnstone’s eight contributions to Blue Book Magazine appeared.  These are the short stories “The Rusted Blade” (May 1948) and “Free Swordsman” (October 1948). They were followed by two further stories in 1949 and one novella in 1950: “The Wall of the Eternal” (May 1949); “High Kindred” (December 1949); and “Up, Red Dragon!” (March 1950).  Johnstone’s final three contributions to Blue Book Magazine were all nonfiction: “Winner Take All” (April 1950); “The Far Land”, about St. Brendan (November 1950); and “Robin Was a Hood” (February 1951), a “true story”.

Johnstone’s career as a fiction-writer culminated with the publication of his only book, the short novel Escape from Attila (New York: Criterion Books, 1969), illustrated by Joseph A. Phelan. It was published (perhaps mistakenly) as a children’s book, probably  because of its heroic and mythological nature.  It tells the story of the escape of two Frankish prisoners, Walter and Hildegundis, from Attila’s army in the middle of the fifth century, and their desperate journey to warn their people of Attila’s planned invasion.  Johnstone combines legendary materials from many sources (and discusses them in a “Historical Note” at the end of the book). His prose is at times weighed down by historical detail, but the tale is enjoyable. 

Late in life Johnstone continued publishing articles on specialist topics. Several appeared in Stonehenge Viewpoint, a kind of new-age newspaper that began as a mail-order catalog but evolved into a small press magazine.  Johnstone’s articles include pieces on “What Language Was Spoken at Stonehenge” (no. 16, First Quarter 1977); “King Arthur’s Silverware” (no. 19, later 1977); and an unfinished posthumously-published two-part piece on “Merlin”  (no. 69, January-February 1986; and no. 70, March-April 1986).   Johnstone also found an audience among role-playing gamers, contributing two articles to Dragon Magazine:  “The Return of Conan Maol” (no. 24, April 1979) and “Origins of the Norse Pantheon” (no. 29, September 1979).

Johnstone’s final scholarly publication, “The Languages of Pictland”, appeared in ESOP: The Epigraphic Society Occasional Publications, volume 13 (1985).  He died in St. Louis in August 1985. 

NB: Thanks to Morgan Holmes for sharing information with me.  

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