Conducted by Joe Howe
When Cemetery Dance sold subscriptions to their 2008 Book Club, it is understandable purchasers were looking for books by the genre’s heavy hitters—Edward Lee, Ray Bradbury, Simon Clark, and so on. We got those, but the real gem of the club turned out to be an ARC of Invisible Fences, the first stand-alone book by Norman Prentiss. Those fortunate enough to read it were entranced by a beautifully written story of loss and regret, of how the mistakes we make linger on with us, and how we lie to ourselves to deal with them. The buzz for Invisible Fences has grown to intense levels, and in Spring of 2010, the novella will be published by CD, so that everyone can share in it.
Maryland native Norman Prentiss teaches high school English in Baltimore, and is an associate editor for Cemetery Dance magazine. His short fiction has appeared in Volumes IV and V of the Shivers anthology series, Postscripts, Tales From the Gorezone, Damned Nation, and online at The Horror Drive-In. He is also a published poet and literary critic.
CD: Norman, tell us a little about the background and inspiration for Invisible Fences. Are there autobiographical elements there?
NP: I was actually planning to write a short story when I started Invisible Fences, but the initial metaphor expanded when I started to write about it. I considered those cautionary talesthat parents concoct to warn (i.e., scare) their children to stay close to home. My father always had a fun, gruesome sense of humor, so he embellished his stories more than most dads. One time we visited his workplace and he showed us a rusted door that led to a below-ground storage area. He told me and my brother that there was a monster down there: “If you touch the metal, you can feel his breathing.” My older brother touched the door, but I wouldn’t—because I believed him, of course. So, I thought about a character who believed these kinds of cautionary tales as a kid—and still believed them as an adult. Not literally, of course, but the message of those tales, which is basically: Something bad will happen to you. And the novella just grew from there. I wanted the book to have an autobiographical “feel,” if that makes sense—but I learned from my dad, and from my favorite horror writers, and put in a lot of embellishments.
CD: Your work has been compared favorably to the “quiet horror” of the late Charles L. Grant. In a time when written horror often attempts to outdo itself in explicit violence and mayhem, do you think books like this operate at a disadvantage in the marketplace and with readers?
NP: For me, there’s always room for different effects and styles. I like violence and mayhem as much as any horror fan. But I also enjoy a steady, atmospheric build-up, if it suits the story. I think the main issue is expectations: if it says “Horror” on the spine, what do readers expect?
CD: You are also an accomplished poet. How does working with poetry influence your prose style?
NP: Probably more at the level of structure, rather than at the stylistic level. There’s a kind of subtle impact a poem often has on the reader at the end—maybe a lingering image, or an unresolved ambiguity—and I sometimes strive for that same effect at the end of a story, or at the ends of sections in a longer work.
CD: You’ve mentioned elsewhere your fondness for the work of Thomas Hardy. Who are the authors (or others) who have been the biggest influence on your work, and why?
NP: I have a lot of trouble tracing my own influences. I know which authors I like, but I don’t always know which ones I “borrow” from. With my short fiction, especially, I guess I’d cite M. R. James. I’d also cite Arch Oboler and Wyllis Cooper for their radio scripts for Lights Out and Quiet, Please. For longer works, I’d say Douglas Clegg and T. M. Wright. But really, what got me back into writing fiction, and horror fiction especially, was a free hardback of Laymon’s The Travelling Vampire Show that wasincluded in the “goodie bag” at the first Horrorfind Convention in Maryland (2001, I think?). The pace of that novel, and the almost stream-of-consciousness writing style—it was one of those things that just hit me the right way. I’d been away from contemporary horror for quite a while—in academia, then in poetry—and suddenly I wanted to read and write fiction again. Then I got to hear so many great writers read at conventions, and worked with many of them as part of the Borderlands Fiction Bootcamp—Tom Monteleone, David Morrell, F. Paul Wilson, Jack Ketchum, Thomas Tessier. They’ve literally been my teachers, and I continue to learn from reading them.
CD: The obligatory desert island question: What five books do you want with you when you’re shipwrecked and why those five?
NP: My two favorite genre novels are Douglas Clegg’s Neverland, and Cold House by T. M. Wright (once it’s published from CD, I would take Bone Soup, since that includes Cold House, and lots of great short fiction as well). I’d also take A Pleasing Terror, Ash-Tree Press’s M.R. James omnibus. For my other two, I’m gonna cheat with big anthologies, so I can get the most authors: The Best of Cemetery Dance, and David Hartwell’s The Dark Descent.
CD: Invisible Fences will soon be out, and once it is read by the general public, Norman Prentiss will be a household name. So what lies ahead? Will we see a long-form novel from you in the near future?
NP: Well, I might be a household name in my own household for a day or so. That’s kind of like claiming best-seller status if you have good sales for one week in a local bookstore (where you know the owner and bought most of the copies yourself). I do hope there’s more on the way, however. I’ve finished a mini-collection called Four Legs in the Morning, and am currently drafting the violence and mayhem conclusion of a new novel.
CD: As the warden says before he pulls the switch: Any last words?
NP: Just want to encourage people to keep supporting the genre: buy whatever you can afford, from mass-market paperbacks to limited editions (and especially short story collections, since there aren’t enough of those being published lately). I also want to encourage people to purchase the other novellas that are coming out from CD the same time as Invisible Fences: Tim Curran’s The Corpse King and Greg F. Gifune’s Catching Hell. I’ve read those books pre-publication, and like them both a lot!
More information about Invisible Fences and Norman Prentiss can be found on-line at www.normanprentiss.com, and Invisible Fences is available for pre-order at www.cemeterydance.com. Order it now, or you could miss what may be the best book of 2010.
Joe Howe was born, raised and lives in Alabama and has been a horror fan since he read his first book—Dracula. When not wasting your tax money as a government employee, he reviews good books and (mostly) bad movies on his website http://deadinthesouth.blogspot.com/ as his web alter ego Kent Allard. He previously worked as a history professor and a lawyer, and has already heard your lawyer joke.