Norman Prentiss, winner of the 2010 Bram Stoker Award for Long Fiction, took some time out of his schedule to talk to FEARnet about his new novella, The Fleshless Man. He's previously won a Stoker in the Short Fiction category for In the Porches of My Ears, which originally appeared in Postscripts 18.
Other publications include a mini-collection Four Legs in the Morning, a chapter in the round-robin novella The Crane House: A Halloween Story, and anthology appearances in Blood Lite 3, Zombies vs. Robots: This Means War, Horror Drive-In: An All-Night Short Story Marathon, Black Static, Commutability, Damned Nation, Tales from the Gorezone, Best Horror of the Year, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, and three editions of the Shivers anthology series. His poetry has appeared in Writer Online, Southern Poetry Review, Baltimore's City Paper, and A Sea of Alone: Poems for Alfred Hitchcock. Visit him online.
Your newest work is The Fleshless Man. Can you tell us a bit about that?
This is my newest book, and it’s part of the Delirium Novella Series. I think of it as a haunted house story, in tone and atmosphere especially. It’s about a man who returns to his childhood home after a long absence, because his mother is dying. Her illness seems to permeate the house itself, and unsettling things happen there: the protagonist has strange dreams and dark waking thoughts; his brother grows ill; the attending nurse behaves oddly. And the mother whispers that “The Fleshless Man” is coming to kill her.
Why the title, The Fleshless Man? What inspired this particular tale?
I “borrowed” the title from a character mentioned in a Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb. In the Arthur Conan Doyle story, it’s kind of an offhand description of a guy who’s thin and sinister, and I thought: “That would make a good title for a horror story.” Once I had the title, I thought of different things a Fleshless Man might be. First, I linked it to a kind of mythology I was toying with in a larger work, and that’s where a kind of monster-story element developed. But as I kept thinking about the concept, different possibilities arose, and I wanted to work several of them into a single story. He ends up being a kind of manifestation of the mother’s illness, but he’s perceived differently by different characters. Maybe they’re all right. Maybe none of them are.
I was also really interested in how a terminal illness affects both the patient and her loved ones. Life becomes surreal in these circumstances, and I think that’s why The Fleshless Man has more surreal elements than a lot of my other works. It’s a haunted house story without a ghost, a monster story that’s (maybe) without a monster.
In the novella, there's the line: "The Flesh is soul. You're trying to lose your soul." What does that mean in terms of the story?
That line comes from the brother’s part of the story, and his version of the Fleshless Man relates to body image. As he exercises compulsively to lose weight, the stress of caring for his dying mother wears him down as well: is he giving up his own identity to become a caregiver? Has he let others influence how he sees himself? He might be losing more than weight, and doesn’t want to admit it.
If the novella is adapted for the screen, who do you see playing the main characters?
I’ve actually been considering a script version of this book—but for the stage rather than film, so I’m going to sidestep the question a bit. The challenge would be deciding how to represent the Fleshless Man meaningfully on stage. For example, I’ve got an idea of lantern slides to help the nurse tell her “history” of the Fleshless Man—kind of shadow puppets, projected onto the patient’s privacy curtain. Another representation could be a full-sized puppet, which might have some interesting symbolism (who’s controlling the puppet, especially if some of the characters create him in their minds?)
What was the writing process like for The Fleshless Man?
Well, whenever I write, it tends to be in a library—away from the distractions of home and the Internet. I wrote this book on weekends, and on afternoons when I didn’t have classes to teach. The novella came together in layers as I worked on it—not a straightforward plot that I mapped out, since the book doesn’t quite have a conventional plot—but more like effects and moods that would accumulate as the story moved forward.
How do you think it compares to your other works?
It’s a bit more experimental than my other works—more surreal, as I mentioned earlier. There’s a lot of ambiguity, with some possibilities still open at the end. I knew I was taking some risks with it, and a few readers have wished for more answers—but quite a few people have told me they think it’s the best thing I’ve written.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I should point out that Delirium/Darkfuse prints a very limited number of hardcover editions, and the print version of The Fleshless Man sold out pre-publication. However, electronic editions are easily available—Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Kobo, Google Play. Check the publisher website for more details: http://www.darkfuse.com/the-fleshless-man-by-norman-prentiss.html
A lot of my stuff initially appeared in signed limited editions (including Invisible Fences and Four Legs in the Morning, both from Cemetery Dance), so I’m happy they’re getting a “second life” as eBooks!
Nancy O. Greene started writing at the age of nine. Her short story collection, Portraits in the Dark, received a brief mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2007. Other works have appeared or will appear in ChiZine; Lovecraft eZine; Cemetery Dance; Tales of Blood and Roses; Haunted: 11 Tales of Ghostly Horror; Shroud Publishing's The Terror at Miskatonic Falls; Dark Recesses; Flames Rising; Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore!; and others. She has a BA in Cinema (Critical Studies) and a minor in English (Creative Writing) from the University of Southern California, and is a Film Independent: Project Involve Fellow.