Haunted 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. Cemetery Dance is proud to publish this new novel (with an e-book version now on sale at Amazon for 0.99!), and to celebrate we’re serializing a new novella featuring the characters from the books!
When we last saw Jack and Shawn, they were visiting a roadside attraction that promised lizards (and dinosaurs!). The proprietor directed them to a back curtain, and proposed an unusual wager.
THE CANYON OF TERRIBLE LIZARDS, PART 2
(A HAUNTED ATTRACTION WITH YOUR OTHER FATHER)
BY NORMAN PRENTISS
(Celia, it’s hard not to react to the signature sound of a rattlesnake. If you hear it, not in a recording or a movie but in real life, something primal and instinctive kicks in. You’re immediately overcome with fear.
Even if the sound is muffled behind glass — even with that layer of protection between you and the reptile ready to strike.)
A clump of dried leaves shifted. The branch atop them stirred.
Eyes opened at the end of the branch. Cool, greenish-yellow eyes with dark vertical slits. The reptile’s head bobbed side to side, judging the distance between itself and its audience. The shopkeeper kept tapping his ring against the terrarium glass.
The rattlesnake’s neck extended so its head was almost level with the shopkeeper’s own. More precisely, at the man’s neck level — which, whether intentional or not, was the same height where he held his hand, the ring continuing to tap.
The snake’s head bobbed side to side, accompanied by a subtle backward motion. A spiral almost, a near-hypnotic dance. I couldn’t look away.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
I felt my own head swaying. The rattle sounded like loose pebbles jostling in my skull.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
When the reptile struck, the slam against the glass was a gunshot. Jack and I staggered back. Ken and Barbie, too.
Alone among us, the old shopkeeper had stayed in place, unfazed, his hand still on the glass. The tapping of his ring had now ceased, as had the unsettling rattle from the terrarium.
“Where is it?” Kenneth’s question gave me a fresh shiver. I cast anxious eyes to the floor as if the snake had somehow escaped from the enclosure and was ready to slither up my pants leg.
“I see it,” Jack said. “Back where it started.”
None of us had noticed when the rattlesnake retreated to its earlier position. Had our attention been diverted by shock? Had time passed while we shook off the reptile’s hypnotic trance?
The proprietor finally dropped his arm from the glass. He turned around, stared at each of us in turn. “Any you fellas care to make a wager?” He adjusted the ring on his finger. “Don’t suppose my missus would mind if I let you borrow my wedding ring for a moment or two.”
“I’m not afraid,” Kenneth said, but he didn’t step toward the offered ring. “It’s just that I don’t like snakes.”
So much for his frat-boy bravado.
Barb stepped forward, but the proprietor stopped her before she could say anything.
“I can’t even let you try, little lady.”
(Feminism was strong in those days, Celia, but so was old-fashioned condescension — disguised as chivalry, of course. She didn’t argue with the old guy.
It’s also possible she didn’t really want to go against that rattlesnake. Who could blame her?)
Then Jack stepped forward, his hand outstretched for the ring. It made sense that he’d rise to the challenge. He’d made fun of the other couple earlier, cast them as toys. As a perfect, plastic couple. Once he’d made that visual joke — even to me, in private — he’d set up a competition with them. He’d cast himself as the clever one in the crowd. The risk-taker.
“Let me guess,” Jack said. “To win the bet, you have to keep your hand against the glass while the snake strikes.”
The shopkeeper nodded.
“The glass holds,” Jack said. “Should be pretty simple.”
“Should be.” The old man had heard similar comments before, no doubt.
Jack turned to me, gave an over-confident wink meant for Ken and Barbie’s benefit as well. “My friend and I can both get free admission to the safari?”
“Yep. But if you flinch, if you jump back or pull your hand offa the glass…you each pay double.”
“It’s a bet.” Jack reached forward, not for a handshake, but to accept the ring from the shopkeeper. He closed his fingers around the ring, shaking his fist the way a craps player might shake dice for luck. He glanced at the glass enclosure, focused on the spot where the snake blended in with its surroundings, and took a deep breath to steel himself for the challenge.
Then he turned around and handed the ring to me.
“Go ahead, Shawn. I know you can.”
I’d accepted the ring without thinking, mostly because I was in shock. Why would Jack volunteer me for such a task?
And why was Jack’s face contorted into a dance of nervous twitching? If the others glanced at him, they might assume he was having an epileptic seizure. Instead, they were all looking at me.
I imagined throwing the ring to the floor and running from the room. Maybe I could wait in the car until this portion of the show was over; I certainly wasn’t going to be the star.
“The old guy made it look easy,” Jack said. His facial twitching had ceased, but he squinted his eyes a bit, just shy of winking. He leaned in as he spoke, coaxing me. “Think of it like a movie.”
The small ring felt heavy in my hand. I wanted the metal to grow warm, burn its way through my palm before I’d submit to this ridiculous challenge.
“A movie is just images,” Jack said. The ghost of the wink was entirely in his voice now. “Images that aren’t real. All in your head.”
He put that strange emphasis on your, which would only make sense to me.
Jack had figured some kind of angle. He decided he could rig the game in our favor, but needed me to take the lead.
I still didn’t want to do it. Couldn’t I be like Kenneth, say “I don’t like snakes” and step aside? Pay the regular admission, like everybody else?
They were all looking at me. The shopkeeper smiled, certain he’d hooked another sucker. I remembered his wry comment that “human nature” rigged the game in his favor.
In that moment, I considered all the previous visitors to this roadside attraction, all the men with foolish bravado who stepped up to the glass only to be embarrassed in front of their wives or girlfriends, or proud fathers made to look weak in front of their disillusioned children. Maybe some of those men screamed in terror afterwards, or wept humiliating tears. If Jack had an idea to break that chain of indignities, I guess I could try playing along.
The ring didn’t fit me on the proper finger. I moved it to my pinky, where I could slide it past the second knuckle.
I stepped up to the glass, assuming the position the shopkeeper had occupied previously. The smell of unkempt reptile cages seemed to reflect off the warm glass. The old man’s handprint was still there, one section slightly distorted by an imprint of the snake’s head. How often had that hand stood in the same spot, with that thunderous force attacking from the other side? Over time, mountains erode from wind; at some point, weakened glass won’t be able to withstand the next strike.
“Put your hand right there,” the proprietor urged. He slapped his hand on the spot for emphasis, then backed away.
Without realizing it, I’d placed both hands behind my back, fingers interlaced. Reluctantly I loosened my grip and placed my hand near the glass.
“Gotta lay it flat, then tap the ring.”
“Give me a minute,” I said. The instructions weren’t necessary, since I’d seen everything he’d done earlier.
“Let the light catch the ring,” he continued. “Then start tapping. One, two, three. One, two, three. Queenie likes the rhythm.”
This running commentary was part of the old man’s strategy, I guess, making things more stressful than they already were. To spite him, I planted my palm firm against the glass. On contact the ring made a louder click than usual, and I worried I might have chipped the glass a bit.
This could be the time, I thought, when Queenie finally breaks through.
I heard a rustle that may have been behind me, Jack or another spectator gasping or shifting their weight, or one of the half-dead lizards sliding through woodchips. I stared ahead at the pile of leaves where the coiled rattlesnake lay hidden.
“No fair keeping your eyes closed,” the shopkeeper said.
I hadn’t been blinking, but wondered if that was the old man’s trick for avoiding the flinch. Or maybe he just had bad eyesight, and used that to his advantage.
I tapped the ring. Tried those triple beats the man suggested. For a while, nothing happened, then the rattle started. I could swear I felt it first, through a vibration in the glass. Then it filled the room — as if amplified through speakers, brought close through tightly-fitted headphones. It shook my palm, conveyed a rhythmic tremor through my whole body.
(Celia, I’d mentioned earlier how terrifying that sound was, evoking an overwhelming, primal sense of fear. Well, that’s how it felt the first time. Now that I was closer to the source, after I’d seen how fast the snake could strike, the fear was many times worse.
I bet more than half the challengers lost the bet at this point, when things had barely gotten started.
Before the snake began to raise its head…)
The old man’s taunts continued: “Keep tapping,” and “Don’t flinch, now, or you’ll pay double.”
Finally, a supporting voice joined in. “Christ’s sake, let the poor guy concentrate.”
I’d been wondering what Jack was doing all this time. Thankfully, the shopkeeper finally quieted down.
The rattle grew even louder in the silence. An overhead light flashed on the moving ring, and a corresponding flicker brightened the snake’s greenish-yellow eyes. Those eyes were higher now. Level with my neck.
My tapping ring finger echoed in the room like footsteps. Like the sound of me backing away from the glass, tap dancing out of the room in triplet rhythm.
The snake’s head bobbed in that mesmerizing rhythm. I tried to blur my vision, let the image inside the terrarium fade into a brown fog of dirt and dried leaves. But the cruel pinpoints of green-yellow eyes shone bright through the fog.
Another touch of light intruded on the scene, a vertical sliver that expanded into a tall rectangle. Initially I thought the effect was a reflection on the glass, but I soon realized a door had opened in the adjoining room.
A hunched shadow obscured the light of the doorway as a hunched figure stepped into into the room and lurched toward the opposite side of the terrarium. If siblings mimic each other’s movements, this was the shopkeeper’s twin. The only difference was an extra wobble in his right step, his gait altered by a large basket he balanced on his hip.
No, not a twin, but the same guy: he must have stepped away once Jack shamed him into silence, his departure masked by the rattle and my taps on the glass. If the shopkeeper wasn’t allowed to talk, apparently he had another strategy to sabotage the bet.
The large basket was in similar shape to the store’s other items. Sections of the rattan weave were missing, and the contents were partly visible through the holes.
The shopkeeper pressed the basket against the opposite side of the terrarium, held it in place with his right hip. The contents shifted. Squirmed.
He lifted the lid of the terrarium and then reached into the basket. The snake’s bright eyes broke their rhythm and its head turned toward the back of the glass enclosure.
(A friend of mine who kept a pet snake once mentioned how he fed it baby mice. Owning one horrible slithery pet means you’ve got to store a pile of other unsavory creatures in your household as the food supply.
So naturally, Celia, I’d assumed from an apparent glimpse of dirty white fur, and the chewed-up-from-the-inside condition of the basket strands, that the old guy kept a heap of mice on hand to toss into the cages of his bigger reptiles.
I was wrong.)
The wriggling bald thing the man raised in his hand looked less like a mouse, and more like a large albino tadpole. Veins showed through the body, as if through the translucent skin of a boiled shrimp, and there were small bristles of hair along the back (if I could distinguish which part was the back while the tiny creature flailed in the old man’s fist). The creature’s face twisted into view, its fish-pucker mouth opening and closing as if trying to form words. And the strangest detail of all: the suggestion of dirty white fur I’d glimpsed through the holes of the basket turned out to be an approximation of a diaper, somehow fastened tight around the creature’s tapered torso.
(That diaper changed everything for me, Celia. The writhing lump of snake food reminded me, in the most uncomfortable way, of a human infant. A disgusting but helpless infant, advanced enough to sense its fate, its mouth with disturbingly red lips trying not simply to breathe, but to scream.)
The shopkeeper tossed the creature into the terrarium and it landed on a section of dirt and wriggled there, an inverted comma in diapers. Another creature followed, the size of a boneless chicken cutlet. The man’s hand returned to the basket, scooped out several plump morsels at once and dropped them into the tank. A wide grin spread across his face, distorted by the layers of glass between us to the point where he appeared almost demonic. He seemed pleased about the slaughter that would inevitably follow.
I should feel grateful that the rattlesnake had turned its attention away from me. It shifted position in the terrarium floor, away from the height of my neck and closer to its fresh, writhing buffet.
Although the tadpole things were disgusting, I couldn’t banish the suggestion of human infants. Infants born too soon, their mothers living too close to a nuclear power plant, a factory pumping chemicals into the local water supply. Horrible, but infants nonetheless.
I tapped my hand on the glass harder, harder, the ring clicking loud against the glass. I banged so hard the glass could have shattered at any moment, but the snake ignored me. It bit into two of the deformed creatures at once, blood bursting around its venomous fangs and spraying into the air. Then it swallowed one of the tiny victims, and the shape of the creature slid like a bulge down the snake’s body, to be digested later.
There were so many of these fleshy, veiny infants, and the snake looked ready to consume them all. I wanted to stop it, kept banging against the glass.
And then the gunshot.
I felt the slam against the glass. I blinked, peered again into the terrarium where the snake pulled back from its lunge at my hand.
When Jack had demanded silence from the shopkeeper, he hadn’t done it to help me. The silence was for his own benefit, so he could imagine terrible images and project those distractions into my mind. Horrified by the plight of those grotesque tadpole creatures, preoccupied by the alternate horrors Jack created, my hand maintained its position when the rattlesnake struck at the glass.
I hadn’t flinched.
Jack patted me on the back. “We won free admission, fair and square.”
I hadn’t flinched, but I was still shaken up by those awful images Jack created. I loved him, but I wasn’t always happy with the things his mind came up with.
The proprietor stood a few steps behind me. He’d never actually left the room. “Tapping that glass like a crazy man,” he muttered under his breath. “Ain’t never seen that before.” He looked into the cage, displaying that strange affection people could feel towards a dangerous pet. “’Bout gave Queeny a heart attack.”
Of course, no thought to the heart attack he’d practically planned to give me — and countless patrons before and after.
“Good work,” Jack said, patting me on the back again. He nodded to Kenneth and his girlfriend to celebrate my bravery, though in that moment he probably saw me as a figurehead. After all, he’d come up with the plan himself, had done all the heavy lifting behind the scenes.
To be continued….
For the most part, I like to write in order. It’s hard for me to leave sections blank or jump ahead to the end, because I want to see how the story unfolds as it goes along. For this particular adventure, though, I skipped over the first 20% of the story — the whole section with the roadside sign, finding the shop, the wager with the snake.
Because I’d already written that part. Sort of.
In my years away from fiction writing, I spent time writing scholarly essays in graduate school, then detoured into poetry for about 5 years. My poems gravitated toward dark subjects (with titles like “The Heaven of Severed Arms” or “Dead Animal Remover” or “Apology to the Ape Girl”), and at some point I realized I should go back to my first love as a reader and writer: horror fiction.
One of the things I wrote during my poetry detour was called “Flinch.” It was one of my favorite poems from that time, based on an anecdote I’d heard long ago from my high school chemistry teacher. The poem was composed in fragmented blank verse (broken iambic pentameter lines), with the idea that the words might twist and turn on the page like the slithering of a snake. Of course, online formatting being what it is, that effect might get scrambled in an online version, but I’ll take the risk by reprinting that poem below:
If the billboard ever tempts you
to turn off
at exit 33 to search for JAY’S
(a cartoon snake battening
on the owner’s fading initial, a long forked
flicking towards the possessive ess), then soon
you will feel
the highway shift to sweltry dirt
off the tires, rolls
up the hood
and hazes the windshield.
Two wrong turns, then find
to what used to be a gasoline station,
pay five dollars and join
the 3 o’clock show
to file past former aisles of overpriced snacks
or Fix-a-Flat, replaced with
you now peer into
a clump of snakes,
tangled like old telephone cords;
overcrowded chameleons, running over rocks
and leaves, bitterly
refusing to change colors;
a fat bullfrog, more like a breathing coconut
that doesn’t bother to jump when Jay
You wonder what here justifies the billboard.
Until your guide motions the group to follow.
at the back of the store
behind a blanket.
Barnums with the best of them,
this ex-attendant in mechanic’s overalls.
Sliding the green wool blanket aside, Jay
reveals a framed window
into the next room,
a raised floor
covered with leaves and branches.
The glass, he says, can withstand five hundred pounds
of force. Now, watch this:
he ties a red rag
on the end of a stick,
against the glass,
calling for “King.”
You hear a spitting sound,
watch the end of a banded branch
and raise itself.
Beneath the head and neck,
ribs of color expand in a threatening hood.
Small bronze eyes begin to follow the rag.
When it strikes,
the slam against the glass
is a gunshot. Everyone staggers back.
After you all recover, Jay points out
that the glass held up:
Would anyone care to make
Ten dollars says
that none of you
could keep your palm against the window,
while King strikes. It’s not possible.
brave—a man, usually—
takes the bet.
He lays a hand on the glass, and King begins
In an instant, the bet is over: you watch
the poor guy flinch
and jump back.
you are not in the woods, that the glass is strong enough,
knowing about telephones and paramedics
you know you would do the same.
It’s only a sideshow trick, but what does it mean?
Can you interpret that layer of glass:
you can see through? certain knowledge that fails
in a crisis?
But you are, in all things, a skeptic.
So this means
I’m sorry to predict that,
in the hospital, watching a parent fade,
or watching tubes lead away
from your arms, feeling
the scratch of each machine-assisted breath,
afraid to lose that other bet,
your unbelief will also flinch.
you’ll tell yourself that it’s only a reflex—not
a philosophical issue,
not at all.
I hope the poem offered some interesting insights into my writing of this “Terrible Lizard” story, especially the idea that a classroom anecdote from the late ’70s can become a poem in the ’90s and later reappear transformed within a queer roadtrip adventure!
Join us in a few days for the third installment!