The phrase "one of the genre's rising stars" may be overused, but in the case of Norman Prentiss, it really is true. Prentiss has been professionally publishing horror fiction for less than a decade, but in that time he's accrued numerous appearances in anthologies and magazines, boatloads of rave reviews, reprints in "Year's Best" anthologies, and two Bram Stoker Awards (for Short Fiction and Long Fiction). In addition to the Bram Stoker Award, his 2010 novella Invisible Fences, about how a tragic childhood incident still haunts a middle-aged man, was also nominated for the Black Quill Award.
Cemetery Dance recently published the latest Norman Prentiss book, Four Legs in the Morning, a collection of three inter-connected horror stories that all center on Dr. Sibley, the mysterious Chair of the English and Classical Literature Department at Graysonville University, At first glance, Dr. Sibley seems amiable, but as the stories progress he is revealed as something more than just a pleasant old professor…
In Four Legs in the Morning, part of the collection's success is that the iron-willed and magical Dr. Sibley is so authentically drawn. Is Sibley based on a real person?
I dedicated the book to "All the sinister administrators I've worked with"—though, to be honest, I've been pretty lucky with the bosses I've had in the academic world. But like most people, I have bouts of paranoia, and that's partly what produced Sibley. Sometimes I'd wonder, What if a department head decided to sabotage my job for some petty reason or another? And then I'd look at some administrator and think, there's other folks with better credentials or people skills or whatever, so how did this guy get to be in charge? Maybe he's outlived all his competitors. Or maybe he had some special powers that somehow just made the competition...go away.
Since I'm an English Department Chair myself, at the high school level, I sometimes hint that the book's about me.
The way the three stories—"Four Legs in the Morning," "Flannel Board." and "The Mask of Tragedies"—work together seems to cover the entire spectrum of college life, from the viewpoint of (respectively) the teachers, the students, and the administrators. Was that a deliberate choice?
Not initially, since I only began with the first story in mind. I wrote that one as a kind of satire on my days in graduate school and as a young college professor. I'd try so hard to keep up with trends in literary theory, but some of them began to seem increasingly silly—and yet everyone took things so seriously, as if life depended on it. I was teaching at a state school in Alabama, and people fought over "points" to apply to their merit pay (there wasn't any money in the budget for raises, so you competed with your colleagues over these points that would supposedly, someday, translate into increased salary). Some of that absurdity produces the protagonist of the first story, who fancies himself the next big thing in classical scholarship—just the kind of guy who would irritate a traditionalist like Sibley.
As I wrote the story, though, I realized that Sibley was the real protagonist—even though he doesn't directly appear in the story. That's where I got the idea for a story sequence, and the idea I had was that Sibley was the joining link, and he might have a cameo appearance in the stories, but he wouldn't be the obvious main character. I definitely wanted representations from different aspects of college life—student, young teacher, administrator—to show Sibley's influence across the board. I was also trying to sneak in a "stages of man" reference, to fit with the Riddle of the Sphinx allusion in the book's title.
Another influence on the structure of the stories was my ideal market for the book. Once I imagined it as a mini-collection, I wanted to aim for Cemetery Dance's Signature Series, which are fancy books with an unusual trim size and lots of art throughout. They hadn't actually done a story sequence in the series before, but I wanted to take a chance. With that goal in mind, I stressed the visual elements in the stories, continuing the idea that Sibley was a collector of artifacts—maker of puppets, flannel board shapes, masks, etc.—so there would be a lot of interesting things for the artist to draw. I got pretty lucky here, first when CD accepted the collection, and second when they allowed me to pick Steve Gilberts to do the art. Steve really did a phenomenal job of bringing these stories to life through his illustrations.
I was surprised to discover that "Four Legs in the Morning" was actually a monster story. Did the story start with the monster?
Almost. It started with the title, actually, which I thought was evocative and kind of mysterious. Once I decided to focus on a young academic, striving for fame by inventing a different (and deliberately tortured) approach to Greek drama, I got the idea for an alternate answer to the Riddle of the Sphinx—so that's where the monster part comes in.
Now seems as good a time as any to mention that this first story is available from the publisher as a free eBook. This same story is available for 99 cents at the usual eBook outlets (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, etc.)—though, of course, I hope people eventually decide to read this story in the context of the whole collection, available only in the print edition from Cemetery Dance.
In "Flannel Board," I thought it was an interesting choice to center the story around Sibley telling a sort of Germanic fairy tale to a roomful of kids, instead of a Greek myth. Is Sibley actually telling us that all great stories come from the same place?
Yeah, I think Sibley would agree with that! The other idea here is that older stories have power—that a great text has a kind of magic in it, as if the words are the language of a spell.
I also simply love how gruesome some of the older fables are. Part of the fun of "Flannel Board," for me, was to try to make the children's section of a library into a scary place—but it's not scary for the younger kids, because they're used to that kind of Grimm stuff.
To be continued…
Norman Prentiss' latest book, Four Legs in the Morning, is currently available as a Signed Limited Edition Hardcover from Cemetery Dance Publications.