Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Norman Prentiss

In 2010, a story called “In the Porches of My Ears” (originally published in Postscripts 18), won the Bram Stoker Award for Short Fiction, appeared in two “Year’s Best” anthologies, and marked the arrival of a significant new voice in horror fiction: Norman Prentiss. In the seven years since, Norman has continued to produce acclaimed fiction, poetry, novellas (Invisible Fences), and collections (Four Legs in the Morning). In 2016, he submitted his cross-genre novel Odd Adventures with Your Other Father, to Amazon’s Kindle Scout program—in which readers vote on books they’d most like to see published—and he won publication. The book has received both sales success and critical acclaim, and Norman is now planning more books about Shawn and Jack, the couple at the center of Odd Adventures. Norman, who also works as Editor for Cemetery Dance’s eBook line, is now finishing up a coming-of-age novel, Life in a Haunted House, and is also undertaking the publication (on his blog) of a new original short story every day.

Your childhood apparently influenced some of your fiction (especially the novella Invisible Fences). Can you tell us a little about what growing up was like for you?

I grew up in suburban Maryland. I always had a few close friends, but a lot of my time was spent reading—monster comics and literary classics, pretty much simultaneously. I was lucky enough to have a father who liked horror movies. In the pre-cable and pre-rental days, you didn’t get unlimited opportunities to see horror films: to supplement, I’d look at pictures in Famous Monsters, and listen to my dad’s summaries of favorite movies from his own childhood. I think Universal monster movies, and Hammer films edited for television, were a big influence: early films often kept violence off screen, and TV stations snipped the gore from later films, so I tend towards implied violence in my fiction. Most of the time, that is.

Invisible Fences definitely fictionalizes a lot of my childhood. The agoraphobic mother is very close to how I remember my mom; the fictionalized dad, I made a bit stranger to fit the horror elements of the story.

Did you start writing horror fiction later in life, or are there secret notebooks of unpublished Norman Prentiss horror stories?

I wrote fiction pretty early, and remember turning in a serialized vampire story to my 5th-grade English teacher. I asked her to write comments in pencil, so I could erase them later—since I considered my careful handwritten pages to be a kind of “publication”—but she used a red pen anyway! I also remember a short story I wrote in high school about a love potion given to a necrophiliac—really inappropriate, but surprisingly the school literary magazine published it!

My lifetime goal had always been to be a horror writer, but college writing workshops tried to badger that sensibility out of me. It almost worked, because I stopped writing genre fiction for many years, veering into academic writing, then several years as a poet. But my academic writing was about gothic elements in Thomas Hardy, and my poetry often had dark titles such as, “The Heaven of Severed Arms,” or “Apology to the Ape Girl.”

When I attended the first Horrorfind conference in Baltimore, initially to see the movie celebrities, I ended up favoring the visiting writers. Cemetery Dance had a huge booth there, too, and put magazines and books in the goodie bag—and I read everything. That was a real transformative moment for me, and it brought me back to my first love: writing horror fiction, after essentially a twenty-year hiatus. My first story was “Glue Traps,” which I have posted on my website, and include in my mini-collection eBook, In the Best Stories . . .

You’d published a handful of short stories before 2010’s “In the Porches of My Ears,” but is it safe to say that story was your real breakout piece?

Definitely! I felt really good about that one when I finished it; structurally, the pieces came together very naturally, and I think I achieved an emotional level I hadn’t attempted before. But I held onto the story for a bit, almost afraid to send it out. Pete Crowther, of PS Publishing, was a guest at the Necon convention, and it took me until the last day to get the nerve to ask him if I could submit to Postscripts magazine. He said, “Send me your best one,” so I emailed “Porches” (which was then titled “Commentary for the Blind”). I got a nearly immediate response, which I thought would simply be an acknowledgment that he’d received the story . . . but it was an acceptance letter! I was knocked out. And then for the story to get selected by Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran for their year’s best anthologies, and to win a Stoker—yes, very definitely a breakout piece . . .

I was coming off years of rejection over scholarly papers (scholars can write mean rejection letters, let me tell you), and very limited success with poetry submissions (just a handful out of a hundred sent out), so the positive response to this one story carried a lot of symbolic weight with me.

You cite M.R. James as an influence. Is M.R. James as well known by horror fans as he should be?

Most horror writers know about him, certainly, and I include his stories in a Horror Fiction course I teach semi-regularly. He doesn’t necessarily click with all of my students, but he does the kind of “slow burn” horror that I always enjoy.

You’ve already written a number of stories about Dr. Bennet Sibley (see the mini-collection Four Legs in the Morning), an aging academic who has written a definitive textbook on Greek theater. Why do you keep returning to Sibley?

Sibley helps me visit the world of my earlier academic life, but in fiction I have more distance, more control. I think my experiences in the 90s as a university professor, my disappointments in that role, I could say, help give these stories more authenticity. As writers, I think we like to find stories that are “our” stories—ones that really grow out of our lives and our perspectives. And the Sibley stories are essentially satires of academia—the odd dynamics and often petty competitions that create their own kind of horror. A department chair already has too much power. With Sibley, the idea is: What if that department chair also had the power of a sorceror?

I recently published Sibley’s “origin story” in Black Static magazine (“The Future of Literary Criticism”). There are some horror elements in this story, but I also consider it my best piece of comic writing.

One of the things that I think really distinguishes your work is your use of elderly characters (even in Odd Adventures with Your Other Father, one of my favorite scenes involves young Celia’s first meeting with grandparents). What is it about the elderly that you find so interesting?

As emerging writers, I think the elderly offer us an opportunity to observe. We watch them from the outside, try to imagine the motives behind their behaviors—in the same way that we struggle, as children, to understand our parents. Then, as we grow older as writers, we start thinking—will I be like that? Am I like that already? What once seems “other” or “alien” starts to seem familiar (possibly with more than a touch of dread). There’s a changing dynamic of empathy and fear that makes elderly characters fascinating to me.

Your Halloween story “Quiet House” was based on a note you made on a scrap of paper. Is that true for many of your stories? Do you have a lot of scraps of paper?

That’s a habit from my poetry days, when I wrote notes in a miniature composition book I used to carry in my pocket. I’d do something I called “Phrase dumping,” when I’d throw down lines I liked. Or titles, which I’d jot down at the top of a blank page and hope I’d later come up with a poem to fit.

The poem “The Lies of Janet Leigh” (from A Sea of Alone: Poems for Alfred Hitchcock) includes this line: “We’re the ones/entitled to fear.” How is fear an entitlement?

I love this question, but I think I need to figure out the context from my poem! The idea here played off Janet Leigh’s assertion, in TV interviews, that she was afraid to take showers after how her character was murdered in Psycho. So, the poem’s narrator accuses the actress of lying: why should she be scared, since she was in on the trick, and knew her death was only “movie magic.” Those of us in the audience, we’re the ones who jump in shock at Hitchcock’s shower scene. That is, we’re the ones entitled to say we were scared by the film; the actress should know better, ha!

But to speak of fear in general as an entitlement . . . Yes, I think readers should expect some element of fear in the horror fiction they read. We’re disappointed when something in the genre doesn’t deliver some fear or dread or unease.

When you discuss your work, the word “atmosphere” appears frequently. How do you build atmosphere into your stories?

The key there is the idea of “build.” At its best, storytelling casts a kind of spell, and I feel like a horror story needs to take its time to summon ghosts or other supernatural entities/emotions into the narrative. To invite the demons in. So an odd detail, a movement into unfamiliar territory, a tension about what’s real or unreal—these kinds of touches can be some of the ingredients of the spell.

Atmosphere seems more important in the horror genre than others. Is it even possible to have a truly successful piece of horror fiction without atmosphere?

I think, yes, but maybe needing some indulgence from the reader? For example, flash fiction can produce a very effective jolt, even in a story that doesn’t have much space to build setting, tone, etc. If readers knows the expectations of the genre, they can “fill in” some of the atmosphere on their own. Sometimes a horror-movie sequel can jump head-first into the supernatural mess, relying on audience memory of effects/atmosphere from the initial film.

Odd Adventures with Your Other Father is a wonderful mix of horror, road-trip saga, love story, and coming-of-age tale, all told in a style that’s sometimes downright joyful (even the two lead characters, Jack and Shawn, seem to relish some of their frightening adventures). Was it as much fun to write as it is to read?

I’ve sometimes written about how difficult, even painful, the writing process can be. I agonize over finding the right words, hitting the right emotional note. And for that reason, I’ve often been skeptical of authors who say writing is fun. But then, this book. It was still hard work, but filled me with joy at every stage—mainly for the characters, but also for the strange freedom I felt with the situations, and the ridiculous playfulness that evolved in the book’s structure. The whole time, I felt like this was the book I was born to write. And I can’t wait to get started on the sequels.

Jack and Shawn’s 1985 road trip involves some unsettling visits to small towns and truck stops. Is any part of that autobiographical?

I actually consider Odd Adventures to be the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written. More so, even, than Invisible Fences, which I’d say is 80-90% based on truth. But Invisible Fences is about my childhood. Odd Adventures with your Other Father is about my adult life, about my relationship with my partner, and how the world seemed while we lived through the 80s as a gay couple. Being LGBT makes the world unavoidably surreal, since the conventional/traditional rules or roles don’t always apply to you. To represent that accurately in fiction, realistically, some fantasy elements are necessary. Some horror elements, too. The monsters and gruesome hallucinations in the book are part of its truth, I’d say.

If you were setting Jack and Shawn’s love story in 2017, would you approach any part of it differently?

It’s hard for me to answer that, since the 80s setting for their adventures has always been an essential conception for the project. But, now that I think about it, LGBT issues continue to be “odd” in today’s world. It still feels strange to me, to be able to say that I’m legally married—after 30 years of my adult life when that wasn’t possible. That’s part of what’s emotional about it for me, as well: to say the exact same marriage vows I’ve heard for years—in movies, in TV shows, in friend’s ceremonies—and finally have them apply to me? It added another layer to the experience.

So, yeah, maybe the sequel, Haunted Places with your Other Father will bring more of 2017 or ’18 into the picture.

You chose the Kindle Scout program to publish Odd Adventures with Your Other Father, in part because you didn’t want to go through the wait times typically associated with traditional publishing. Would you ever consider going with a traditional, major publisher?

Sure! And I did try traditional publishing for quite a while with the book first, seeking agency representation. I couldn’t seem to find the right fit, though. I understood that the book itself was untraditional, hard to categorize; so going an unusual route to publication via Kindle Scout was probably the best option. I hope it’s the kind of book that could get “cult status”—but those types of books often have to wait a while to find their audience . . . Kindle Scout really helped me reach readers I wouldn’t normally reach. During the month-long campaign (some people liken it to American Idol, with the public voting on which books intrigue them the most based on the cover, synopsis, and 5,000 word excerpt), I got a lot of page-views and support from non-horror readers. I’ve gotten some reviews that say, “This isn’t a type of book I’d normally like, but it surprised me”—which is gratifying.

You’ve said that Odd Adventures with Your Other Father “touches on too many genres” to be a mainstream book. Are genre mash-ups ever going to edge closer to mass popularity?

The challenge with multi-genre books is that they can be elusive—not just for publishers and marketing departments, but for readers, too. I’ve had some readers tell me they didn’t quite “get” Odd Adventures until half-way through, and I see that as a kind of compliment (whether they meant it that way or not, ha!). It means the book kept them guessing, or defied their expectations in some way, which I think is exciting. At the same time, it means the author’s taking a risk, asking for a lot of patience or trust from the readers.

You’ve just completed a coming-of-age novel called Life in a Haunted House. Would you consider going the Kindle Scout route with that?

Hmmmm. Well, let’s say if I did . . . I’d probably want to have another awesome cover from Lynne Hansen, who did the cover for Odd Adventures. And maybe I’d create a handful of tie-in stories that I’d offer free to fans and newsletter subscribers.

What do you most look for in books you acquire for the Cemetery Dance e-book line?

The main thing I’m looking for is great writing. However, because it’s an eBook line, I’m often partial to things that I think deserve a chance at print publication, but maybe wouldn’t have as strong a shot. For example, novellas or story collections, that don’t get as much emphasis in a print line.

Given how many books you must read as an acquiring editor, what excites you about current horror fiction? Are there any trends you see developing?

The thing that excites me the most is that authors aren’t “locked in” to a single publisher the way they used to be. It actually helps, in the electronic age, to have books from several different publishers: it demonstrates that multiple editors have solicited/accepted your work, and also allows separate marketing teams to promote your books. Maybe you were asking about trends in content—more werewolves, maybe, or fewer zombies—but I’m most happy about the multiple publication options available to authors.

Does being an editor invigorate you as a writer?

Absolutely. Back when I read unsolicited stories for Cemetery Dance magazine, it mostly helped me understand my own aesthetics as a writer. I’d read something that used a technique I didn’t like, then realized, hey, I do that too!—and it helped me improve my fiction. But now, it’s more the sense of discovering something great, wanting to have some hand in bringing that author’s work to other readers . . . and hoping to produce a similar effect in my own stuff, somewhere down the line.

The main trouble is that I’m a pretty slow reader. So, it’s not just that I can’t always accept/reject as quickly as I’d like . . . it’s also that I don’t necessarily have free time to read other books, outside my editing gig. The bright side of that, though, is that I work for my favorite publisher, in my favorite genre, and my “work reading” is usually pretty damn great!

Why did you decide to write a story every day for your Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar blog?

Initially, I was working with a short story concept, which I was calling “Excerpts from The Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar.” I drafted section-entries for several high-profile holidays—New Year’s, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.—and added a few obscure entries to fill out the story arc. Basically, it was about a dozen entries when completed. As I was thinking about submitting the story for publication, I realized 2017 was approaching, and a dangerous idea popped into my head: I might as well try this online, and actually attempt to do an entry for each day. I really didn’t know if I could keep up with the project, so as a fail-safe, I retained the word “Excerpts” in the title on the blog’s header!

Some of the entries are a direct response to a historical event, or a calendar holiday or “awareness day.” Other times, I take a birth or death of an author or celebrity, or the release of a genre movie, and I free-associate into a related, apocalyptic scenario.

It’s an interesting experiment in story generation for me. Particularly since, as we discussed earlier, I’m often interested in building atmosphere—suddenly I’m in a daily situation where I don’t have time or space to write the way I usually do. In some ways, it harkens back to the economy of my poetry days.

Are you actually trying to write a new story every day, or do you have some stockpiled?

To be honest, I made the blockhead move of going on a two-week vacation starting January 2nd, right after the launch of the blog. I was planning to draft the whole two weeks in advance, but then I ran out of time—so on January 9th I started to write “night before” or “day of” entries (and this was on a cruise ship, with hideously unreliable internet).

So, it would be nice to have entries stockpiled, and I have a dozen remaining from the initial story draft . . . but that’s mostly it. The process might be a strain on my sanity, but deadline panic is always a good motivator. And there’s a possible side effect: the blog could offer an interesting insight on how I come up with ideas . . . and, as the blog progresses, how I connect threads as I go. Maybe one of the random characters might reappear, or a day’s entry will get a sequel. I’m also planning to work in a serialized Odd Adventure (“Celia, your other father has shown me the end of the world many times . . .”), a Dr. Sibley cameo, and a few allusions to my Life in a Haunted House project.

I hope more people visit these quick reads at my website. Here’s the direct link to the page: normanprentiss.com/category/apocalypse-a-day.

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.