An Interview with Norman Prentiss -- Part 2

After the jump, you can read part 2 of my interview with author Norman Prentiss.  You can read Part 1 of this interview here.

Your award-winning novella Invisible Fences began as a childhood memory of a horrifying incident and then moved (with a great shock twist at the midpoint!) into a tortured adulthood. Can you tell us about the inspirations behind both parts of that story?

My goal with this book was to write something like a haunted house story—and the best haunted house stories, to me, have always been haunted character stories. So I started with childhood, to plant a lot of seeds for things that could go wrong later in life—things that would resonate in the haunted house section near the end of the book. That novella is also about storytelling, really, starting with the cautionary tales the narrator hears from his parents as a child; these stories outlive their original purpose, and haunt him later in life.

Your short story "In the Porches of My Ears" was reprinted in two "year's best" anthologies and won the Bram Stoker Award. Was that surprising to you? And how did it affect your writing career?

Yes, it was a complete surprise to win that award. I mean, you never think about awards when you're writing a story—you just try to write the best story you can, maybe aim to keep up with the quality of the other authors in whatever anthology you hope to break into.  But after I finished the story, I definitely thought it was one of my best—kind of hitting a lot of notes I wanted to hit, and just seeming memorable to me (if you're allowed to say that about something you've written yourself).  Getting the Stoker for it was an amazing experience: at the HWA presentation in England, so many of my favorite authors in attendance, and getting handed the haunted house statue from presenters Tim Lebbon and F. Paul Wilson. And Pete Crowther was there also, who featured the story so well in Postscripts. I told Pete I wanted to submit to his magazine, and he said, "Send me your best story," so that's what I did.

As far as career benefits, I think the Stoker definitely helped with exposure, getting my name out there. Being in Ellen Datlow's and Paula Guran's "best of" anthologies helped a ton there as well—boy, those were two of the best emails I've ever gotten! I've lately been asked to submit to a few anthologies, which hadn't happened before, and that's been really nice.

One of the things I like about your work is that the characters are often older people. Does too much modern fiction focus on young people?

I don't know if I have a particular preference for young or old characters, and certainly don't mind stories with young characters.  But here's a possible explanation, at least for why I might lean towards older characters. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to write horror. My influences were Twilight Zone, Hammer and Universal monsters, Robert Bloch stories and novels, Creepy comic books, and Saturday night movies hosted by Count Gore de Vol on Maryland's channel 20. I wrote little horror stories through high school and into the first year of college—then got swayed into slice-of-life fiction, and then into the dry non-fiction of academic writing. So my first attempts at horror were rooted in childhood and adolescence, and I took a looooong sabbatical from fiction writing. When I came back to it, it wasn't until I was about 40, and I think my horror stories were more interesting because I'd lived longer (well, and read more, too, and thought more about story structure). So, maybe I've gravitated away from younger protagonists, since I didn't quite find myself as a writer until relatively late in life.

Or, maybe it's better to say that the split I'm describing above is reflected in many of my stories. The structure of Invisible Fences has the first half of the book in childhood, with the second half following the same character as an adult.

Another stab at an answer: some of my academic background is in 19th century British Literature, so I'm thinking about William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The "Innocence" poems aren't as interesting as the "Experience" ones—"The Tyger" burning bright is much more fascinating than "The Lamb," especially for someone wired to appreciate horror. But Blake's songs of innocence become more interesting when they're paired with the darker perspectives in the experienced ones. So maybe that's why I like both young and old characters, when a story can accommodate them both.

You also work with Cemetery Dance in the editorial department and you've written for literary journals as well, so I think you're in a good position to answer this: What's the "state of the art" of horror right now? Are we in a boom time with a lot of splendid new voices in horror, or is the Internet creating a new generation of writers who just recycle splatter movies?

This is a tough one to answer. The Internet is changing things, and movies continue to have a strong influence on writers, but I don't want to say that's only a downside. The key word you mentioned is "recycle"—if a writer simply copies what's going on in the latest movies, the story won't be fresh. But I've already said how TV and movies were an influence on me as well: who's to say if it's Poe on the page or Roger Corman's movie versions of Poe that got their hooks into me first? The important thing is history. If you watch only the latest splatter film, without knowing where it came from, your "new" version won't have much depth; but if you know some of the films from previous decades, working back to the black-and-whites and even the silent era, you have a much richer palette to work with. The same with writers: read the dead folks, too. Maybe the Internet affects our attention span and makes us grab for the quick, easy, and obvious—but the positive side of the Internet is that it makes everything so available, and you can find the older stuff, and let it give your work a richer context.

What's up next for you, Norman?

I'm working on a few short stories here and there, and will have a cool story in the forthcoming Zombies vs. Robots prose anthology, and something coming up in the next Blood Lite anthology. My big project, though, is my first novel (well, actually it's the fourth or fifth novel, but this looks to be the first one I'll let people read).

And lastly: You would never plagiarize a term paper for a college class, would you?

Ha! Nope—not even if I thought I'd get away with it!


Norman Prentiss' latest book, Four Legs in the Morning, is currently available as a Signed Limited Edition Hardcover from Cemetery Dance Publications.

Invisible Fences is available from most eBook retailers and at the Cemetery Dance Publications' website.