FREE FICTION: “The Canyon of Terrible Lizards” (Part 1) by Norman Prentiss

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cover of Haunted Attractions with your Other FatherHaunted Attractions with your Other Father by Norman Prentiss is the sequel to his Odd Adventures with your Other Father, and continues the horror/fantasy road trip adventures of Jack and Shawn as they fight monsters and homophobia in the ’80s. Since CD is publishing the new novel (with an e-book version now on sale at Amazon for 0.99!), we thought we’d catch up with the author to hear a little bit about the new book, and learn why he’s serializing a novella-length adventure for free. (Keep reading after this brief interview to begin the free story!)

CEMETERY DANCE: Tell us what we can expect in the new novel.

NORMAN PRENTISS: Like the first book in the series, it’s a quirky mix of horror and fantasy and queer romance, with a present-day story of one father narrating these adventures to his daughter because her other father died when she was four years old. The stories, fantastical as they are, keep the father alive for her. Dad Jack has a different kind of presence in this sequel, and the adventures in the past here focus on haunted places that amplify Jack’s limited supernatural ability: he can project images into his partner’s mind…but the images have to be grotesque distortions of reality instead of something comforting or pleasant. (Maybe that’s a metaphor for someone who lives with a horror writer?). The places they visit include an amusement park ride, a strange theater, a house that selects particular victims to haunt, and a cheesy concrete-pillar replica of Stonehenge.

How did you make all these pieces fit together?

 That’s part of the challenge! The adventures themselves are fun to write, but they have to build towards a larger purpose. The frame story with their daughter Celia gets more attention here, and connects the adventures and the two fathers together. I worked really hard to make these elements flow into each other, especially to get the right tone: dark and sarcastic and a bit romantic, too.

Speaking of tone, sometimes starting a novel doesn’t go as smoothly as I hope. The first adventure I planned for the book was 80% written when I realized it wasn’t a good fit for the material that would follow. Unfortunately, it was also turning out to be one of the longer adventures…which meant I’d put a lot of time into it. The setup is funny, about a roadside dinosaur attraction, but the comic elements got a bit stronger than I expected. Even a bit goofy in spots, ha! It broke my heart, but I had to remove it from the book.

I think I can guess what happened to it.

Yep! I’ve been working to finish those opening scenes…also adding a bit about the concept of the series so the story will stand on its own — though I hope the story will show enough of Jack and Shawn’s world to encourage people to buy the new book (and maybe seek out the first book in the series, too). It’s ready to show now: “The Canyon of Terrible Lizards,” a 7- or 8-part serial novella for free reading here at Cemetery Dance Online. In future installments, I’ll try to add some comments at the end about the writing process. The plan is to release two installments a week, so keep checking back for new material!

I hope people enjoy the Other Father series, and have some fun with these terrible lizards.


The Canyon of Terrible Lizards, Part 1
(A Haunted Attraction with your Other Father)
By Norman Prentiss

“We’re ahead of schedule,” Dad Shawn said. “Need a break?”

They’d hit a quiet patch in the drive to her grandparents’ house. Celia was reading from her Sherlock Holmes Omnibus, her third time through the Blue Carbuncle adventure. Sunlight flashed the page and the jostling car made lines of type weave together, and she already knew the mystery’s solution. “I’d rather keep going.” 

“You sure?”

Celia realized she must have unconsciously shielded her eyes or rubbed at her temples, signaling a headache. She didn’t want to complain about the long drive, because it was the only way her two fathers could be together. “I’m okay,” she said. 

“You weren’t tempted by that billboard announcing ‘The World’s Biggest Wicker Basket’?”

She hadn’t noticed it.

“Because that’s the kind of thing your Other Father might have stopped for. Especially if he’d heard a rumor that midnight wind through those unnatural basket strands, if you listen at midnight, in the right frame of mind, will reveal secrets of dark magic.”

Celia closed her book, offered her own embellishments. “Giant footsteps once led toward the basket, with no footsteps leading away. Authorities tried to suppress that detail.”

“Very good, Celia. It’s the giant’s voice people hear, instead of the wind. He wants someone to let him out.”

It was fun to tell fanciful stories with her father, but her parents’ lives, and now her own, were odder than any fiction she could concoct. In their years after college, her two fathers had driven across the country seeking curiosities to feature in Dad Jack’s proposed collection of travel essays. They found more than they bargained for, monsters and haunted places and homophobia, and Dad Jack’s supernatural ability — projecting ghastly and disturbing images into his partner’s mind — made the adventures more exciting. More preposterous, too.

Preposterous or not, Celia believed those adventures as Dad Shawn recounted them to her. Those stories were her best connection to a father she barely remembered: Dad Jack had died when she was only four years old. Gone, but not forgotten. 

And not entirely gone, as it turned out. Celia later stumbled upon Dad Jack’s spirit in her grandparents’ home, and was thus able to reunite her two fathers after many years. But like most long-distance relationships, there were complications. Travel logistics, schedule conflicts, her grandparents unaware that their dead son haunted the guest bedroom — that sort of thing.

“Jack wouldn’t stop for signs promising homemade jam or ‘The World’s Best Ice Cream,’” Dad Shawn said. “He’d zip past arrows pointing to a presidential library or a Revolutionary War battlefield. But a goofy faded drawing of a haunted hospital or a concrete Stonehenge replica, and he’d slow the car, jerk the wheel toward the exit ramp, and I might as well have thrown my carefully annotated maps out the window of our VW Beetle. No point arguing with him.”

billboard for The Thing

Celia noticed that her headache had disappeared. From the tone of her father’s voice, she knew he was building up to an adventure. 

Sherlock could wait. She hadn’t heard this one before.

“This one time we drove past a billboard with dinosaurs on it,” Dad Shawn began. “Cartoon dinosaurs, all faded green with long necks or tiny arms, and infantile versions of the scientific names: BRONTY and REX, like they were family pets instead of massive, extinct reptiles. 

“ ‘Oh, please,’ I said. ‘It’s probably just a gas station with a snake cage.’

“ ‘I wanna.’ ” His imitation of Dad Jack’s voice was higher than his own, a slightly mischievous lilt that contrasted with Dad Shawn’s usual pragmatic tone. 

“I think he expected to find actual dinosaurs there,” her father said. “Maybe we did.”


As was often the case with places your Other Father took me (Dad Shawn continued), my initial impressions weren’t positive. The dimly-lit interior was slightly larger than the typical roadside gas station, but only one convenience-store aisle extended past the front entrance. The rest of the floor space was dedicated to waist-high enclosures formed by chicken fence and crooked wooden slats. 

Whatever lurked or slithered in these amateur exhibits hadn’t been washed in a while. The smell coming off the open-top cages reminded me of a prize pig exhibit at the county fair, but with no ventilation. From a distance all I could distinguish were moss-covered branches, brown leafy weeds, and mats of dry grass. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn some of the attractions had died from neglect, their reptile corpses decaying into liquid, heat bubbles bursting occasional fetid sprays into the stale air.

The proprietor was nowhere in sight.

Despite the obscure location and unimpressive publicity, another couple had arrived ahead of us, and they peered with exaggerated interest into one of the enclosures. “I don’t see anything, sweetie,” the man said to his female companion. “Oh, there’s the bullfrog.”  He pointed down into a caged-off section of floor. 

“That’s a rock, Kenneth.”

Jack waited at the unoccupied counter, his wallet out.  A hand-lettered sign beside the register read, “Reptile Zoo — FREE.”  Beneath that, another line listed the “Dinosaur Safari” cost at ten dollars per person.  A lot of money in those days, especially for a roadside attraction in an out-of-the way, unkempt gas station.  As a point of reference, a day’s pass to Disneyland would have been only $16.50 back then, and Walt’s park would be a lot cleaner and brighter. Another hand-lettered sign, this time star-stickered on the register itself, promised a possible solution to the steep admission price: “ASK US HOW YOU CAN WIN A FREE TICKET FOR THE DINOSAUR SAFARI!”

Behind me, the man said, “I think I found the snake, honey.”  I heard the click and pop of a flash camera.

“You just took a picture of a branch, Kenneth.”

I shifted from one foot to the other, wishing there’d been a counter bell to summon the proprietor.  “Let’s check out of the reptile zoo while we wait,” I suggested.  The free portion of the attraction would be so disappointing that Jack might decide to skip the main event, saving us twenty bucks.

Before Jack could respond, a swirling rumble sounded from the back of the store.  The flush got louder as the bathroom door opened, and an older man emerged.  He adjusted his suspenders as he hobbled towards the counter, and he seemed to be muttering under his breath.  Hold your horses, be right there, can’t be two places at once — or whatever the Loveable Gramps character might say during TV’s family hour.  That, or Had to finish my afternoon plop-plops

As he lifted the hinged section of the counter and slid his large belly past to get behind the register, I noticed his lower jaw was still moving.  Chewing gum instead of muttering, I decided — though I didn’t rule out the possibility of tobacco chaw, and a sling-shot spit into a tin bucket before our “safari” was underway.

The other couple rushed forward like the bus was pulling out of the station.

“They were here first,” I told Jack.

He snorted. “Size of this crowd, I don’t think it matters.”

The couple’s movements became mechanical. They’d been at one of the back exhibits, and in this dimly lit store I hadn’t gotten a good look at what they were wearing…but they now seemed as if they’d chosen matching outfits designed for the type of authentic safari experience we knew we weren’t going to have. Their image shimmered as they got closer, the man’s blond hair forming a plastic blond coif, perfectly combed, and the woman’s hair growing long and wire-straight. Their faces blended into the texture of glazed rubber, features frozen in a painted mask. When they stood behind us in line, they assumed a stiff pose, their limbs limited to seven points of articulation.

Jack had overheard as much as I did, the wife or girlfriend referring to her partner as Kenneth, whereas he addressed her only with affectionate nicknames. Jack had decided her name should be Barbara.

These life-size versions next to me weren’t the picture-perfect toys little girls used to wish for at Christmas. Jack’s images, which he was able to project into my mind alone, were unfortunately limited to gruesome distortions of reality. So instead of mind-conditions dolls fresh from factory-sealed packages, his rendition of full-size Barb and Kenneth looked more like well-worn toys abandoned in a box at the back of a garage.

Toys that had been played with by a psychopathic child.  

By the time Jack’s cruel imagination was finished, Kenneth’s head looked like it had been flattened under a rock, or crushed in a vice during a CIA interrogation.  One of his legs extended beneath his khaki safari shorts, the plastic foot missing where it had lost a battle with the family dog or with the grinding blades of a pencil sharpener.  The girl-doll’s left and right arms had been torn from their sockets and transposed, and her frizzy flowing hair had been burned on the right side, the painted blush of that cheek melted off — possibly from a staged accident as Barb’s Dream Convertible sailed off the dining room table and exploded. 

“What’s the deal for the free ticket?” Ken’s closed-mouth smile didn’t move while he spoke. Instead of Barbie’s happy boyfriend, he looked like someone grimacing to hide pain.

“Oh, you have to earn it,” the shopkeeper replied. 

I elbowed Jack, gave my own polite Ken-doll smile in appreciation of his visual joke. Sometimes a quiet acknowledgment was necessary, to make the image go away.

Ken’s natural image faded into view, like a department store manikin coming to life. Docksider shoes replaced or covered the gnawed-off plastic foot. He had mousse in his hair, though, which maintained the firm pattern of the manikin’s painted dome. Barb’s hair tightened to a shorter crop, the burn faded from her cheek, and each of her arms now hung from the proper socket.

“The challenge is at the back.” The shopkeeper lifted the counter gate and headed that way, not checking to see if we followed. 

“Oooh, a challenge.” Ken rubbed his hands together in an excited gesture I remembered from frat parties. Usually before an event that involved beer, cups and quarters, cans of cat food, beer, handstands or other absurd physical stunts.

“You won’t win,” the proprietor said over his shoulder.

“Why,” Jack said. “Is it rigged?”

The old man stopped to contemplate an answer. When we’d walked past various cages, I had the same experience as the other couple, unable to locate a living creature inside any of the enclosures. But in the cage we now paused beside, I saw my first reptile of the day: a bright green chameleon, stubbornly refusing to blend with its drab, dry surroundings.

“I guess it is rigged,” the shopkeeper finally admitted.  “By human nature.”

We reached the back wall of the store, and the man reached for the edge of a dark green curtain. I hadn’t expected a window here, because no outside light shone through the fabric. Upon closer inspection, I realized the covering wasn’t a curtain, but a blanket draped from several hooks in the wall.  The shopkeeper whipped the blanket a few times until it jumped the hooks and fell to the floor.

A window appeared there after all, but it didn’t overlook the outside. Instead, a large portion of the wall had been cut clumsily into the next room — a back office, I assumed.  Instead of window glass, a large terrarium filled the opening, with its contents extending into the adjoining room. The improvised opening was waist-high at the bottom, with the top edge at about the seven-foot mark. 

“Here’s your challenge,” the old man said. He rapped the glass with the back of his hand, and the ring on his index finger clicked in a steady rhythm. He called for “Queenie.”

That rhythmic click of metal on glass was soon joined by another sound…one of the most unnerving sounds I’ve ever heard.

To be continued….

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