The former Beaufort Academy headmaster is responsible for the second Short Story America Festival & Conference Friday through Sunday, which will bring together writers and readers of an art form he says was pushed to the margins of American culture by radio, television and electronic entertainment.
At Friday night's opening reception at the Old Bay Marketplace Loft, volume two of Short Story America's anthology will be unveiled. Johnston edited the collection of 47 contemporary short stories.
Book festivals are everywhere, and C-SPAN brings many of them into living rooms with its weekend Book TV channel. But few festivals focus solely on the short story.
"It is new," Johnston said. "It is different."
He knows that a short story that wastes no space and immediately drops a reader into the conflict of an intriguing protagonist can grab the imagination and hold it like the title of one of his favorite short stories, "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets."
At the festival, readers will be able to meet accomplished writers from around the region and nation and ask them what they meant by their words.
Locals can hear their neighbors read classic short stories, people like Natalie Daise, Margaret Evans, Leo Gannon, and Mark Shaffer.
People can attend seminars to sharpen their writing skills, or get inside information from an expert, like Carl Eby. The chairman of the University of South Carolina Beaufort's English department will speak on Ernest Hemingway's craft of the short story.
And they'll get more familiar with the Short Story America website, offering classic and contemporary short stories that Johnston thinks inspire the soul.
And that is the other reason for the festival -- one of so many that fill Beaufort County with lovers of film, classic cars, visual arts, performing arts, music, golf, tennis, food, wine and a lot of other stuff. This weekend, people have flocked in to help heal wounded warriors in the third annual Lt. Dan Weekend.
Why short stories?
Johnston wants visitors to read between the lines.
He wants them to see the beauty of Beaufort County. He thinks this place -- this setting -- can inspire the creative soul like none other. He says it can move writers the way Edgar Allan Poe said good short stories move the reader -- with a "single effect."
"There's something about this area, this place, that's really good for the soul, if you let it be," said Johnston.
He moved here eight years ago and still shudders at the thought of the hours he used to spend daily on the clogged Georgia 400 highway near Atlanta. Beaufort County offers a better way to build creative and intellectual capital.
It's easy to see how visual artists have been inspired by the Lowcountry.
Johnston wants short story writers to have that same brush with the muses blowing in the warm, late-September winds.
Besides keeping up with the publishing and web presence of Short Story America, based in Beaufort, Johnston writes four short stories per year. One is being considered for a film by a producer introduced to the Lowcountry by the Beaufort International Film Festival.
"I see the future of the corridor from Beaufort to Hilton Head Island as being tied to a burst in creativity, rather than new physical industry," Johnston said. "This soul-enriching community and environment is ideal for creative individuals and companies, and hence I want to create a literary tradition here that is annual and at a beautiful time of year.
"That's why I decided to have our event here, rather than in Atlanta, as this is not only where I live, but this is what I want both writers and readers to discover: a place of great natural beauty and historical significance, where people value conversation and each other."
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.