FREE FICTION: “The Canyon of Terrible Lizards” (Part 4) 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 Fatherand 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 Shawnthey joined another couple on a “Dinosaur Safari” tour, their guide Troy leading them downriver. Unfortunately, Jack is afraid of water, and he’d projected a vision of a vast, malicious ocean into his partner’s mind…



Troy manned the raft, his oars through guideloops on either side.  He sometimes asked Ken & Barb to twist a rudder at the aft, but for the most part he could steer using one oar more than the other.  

We were gliding through the water.  Gliding.  No need for more of Jack’s visions.

He’d tried to apologize, whispering again about “subconscious” and “unintentional,” and I whispered back my irritation.  We got shushed by the backseat rafters.

Troy had begun his rehearsed speech about the wonders of prehistoric times, and the regrettable extinction of our planet’s most magnificent, terrifying lizards.  He raised an “or are they?” eyebrow, lifting one oar from the water as he steered us around a bend in the stream.  “Now I can’t promise anything, but previous tours have gotten lucky.  As I said, this secluded location has preserved some rare specimens.”

Preserved them from meteors, or the ice age, or whatever the current extinction theories suggested? I was skeptical, but willing to keep my objections silent.  Jack, for his part, seemed to have calmed down.

The guide continued: “To your left, look carefully at that piece of driftwood.  Well, maybe it’s not driftwood.  Maybe it’s something from Loch Ness.”

  While everyone else directed their attention at a floating log, I noticed an instrument panel at the head of the raft — like throttle switches for a speedboat, some dials and slider levers, and the recessed grill of a radio speaker.  A manually operated raft wouldn’t need mechanical controls, so my radio guess seemed most plausible.  Troy’s right hand lifted from a stilled oar, moved subtly to the controls beside him, and flipped the first toggle switch.  

A slight murmur sounded from the couple behind us, as the driftwood dropped below the surface.  Several feet away, slightly closer to our raft, another shape rose slowly from the water.

Although it was about the size of a wooden barrel, this new shape wasn’t driftwood.  Fiberglass, I think:  the same material used to fashion castles and farm animals on miniature golf courses.  Water rolled off the top of the generic dinosaur head, dripped out of the wide, toothy mouth.  Unblinking eyes stared in different directions.  Green paint, clearly not waterproof, cracked and flaked in an accidental approximation of scales.  

I stifled a snort.  Especially after the guide’s build-up, the debut dinosaur should have been more convincing.  I turned to my right, ready to share my comical disappointment with Jack.

He wasn’t looking toward the water.  He wasn’t looking anywhere.  Jack’s head was down, eyes closed.  One hand held tight to a looped rope-rail around the raft, and the other white-knuckled the chest seam of his life jacket.

Obviously Jack had taken on more than he could handle.  So far, the water had been mostly calm.  Not smooth as glass, but with gentle ripples and a rocking sway in sync with the motion of Troy’s oars.  And yet, the water stretched out in all directions, its murky depths uncertain.  Layers of inflated plastic were our only protection.

I wondered if Jack was on the verge of getting sick.  Behind us came a quick flash of light and the click of Kenneth’s camera.  

I’d been too distracted to notice Troy’s next subtle movements at the control panel, whether or not he turned a volume dial to its highest setting before flipping a new switch.

The animal roar seemed to come all at once from the flake-painted head in the water, from the speaker grill on the instrument panel, and from the lake itself.  The raft vibrated with the noise, and my stomach gave a startled lurch.  The couple behind us screamed with amusement-park delight.

If the sound startled me, Jack’s surprise would have been even more dramatic.  I checked next to me, but Jack hadn’t budged:  head still down, hands tight to steady himself. 

Troy made another subtle gesture over the control panel.  Not to trigger another roar, I hoped.  

Kenneth’s camera shutter clicked again, catching a second shot of the dinosaur head before it dropped beneath the water.  

The raft jostled as Kenneth replaced his camera within a plastic bag.  He moved more than was necessary, though, and I turned my head to give a disapproving glare.  I was planning to throw back Barbie’s line from earlier — Do you mind holding still?  Thanks. — but it turned out the two of them looked almost as nervous as Jack.  Their heads were down, too, staring at the raft itself, or imagining something may have moved under it.  

Jack’s life-jacket hand was now clamped tight on my upper arm.  We all sat still and expectant, as if our own lack of motion would steady the raft.  Our guide’s eyes widened, and he shot exaggerated, nervous glances to the water on either side.  I tried to convince myself it was the fake-fear tour guides sometimes assumed, to add excitement for their most gullible patrons.

Honestly, I didn’t think Troy could be that good an actor.

The water was dark and murky, as I said, but a large patch to our right rippled even darker, a wave of gray-brown froth preceding it.  

That wave rushed towards our raft, a shadow in its wake:  a submarine shape with the suggestion of fins or reptilian arms.  Its arched back rose above the surface for an instant, revealing a rough-scaled back, a hide as tough as a tortoise shell.

“Brace yourself.”  Our guide barked like an army commander, as if Jack or any of us needed the warning.  The frothy wave hit on Jack’s side of the raft, and my arm was around him, and I tried to find a string to pull or nozzle to blow into to inflate my life jacket, because I was sure the impact would capsize us.  

Then the shadow shifted, sank.  The tail end of it — perhaps literally a tail — rose out of the water like a tentacle — perhaps literally a tentacle -=- then swayed in the air before slithering below the surface.  The raft rippled beneath us, and the gray-brown wave and murky shadow continued past on the other side.  

“Row,” Jack says to our dumbfounded guide, and I remember being proud that my boyfriend was the first among us to gather his wits. Considering how scared he was about water, Jack’s mental command was pretty impressive.  

He still held to the rope-rail, though, and my upper arm felt sore from his renewed vice-grip. 

To our guide’s credit, Troy went at those oars like an Olympic contender.  Even in the midst of my anxiety I admit to being freshly impressed by the muscles of his arms, the veins that stood out on his thick neck as he rowed.  I don’t want to objectify him, though, and mostly should praise his efforts to get us out of harm’s way.

Except, some of his movements were a bit jerky.  His elbow might have slipped at one point and flipped one of those toggle switches again, prompting a second massive animal roar from the speaker grille.  

Had that same mechanical roar summoned the underwater beast in the first place?  A hunter’s call that simulated the heated cry of a potential mate?

I became uneasy about the sound, and where it originated.  The speaker was my hopeful estimate, because the roar was so loud.  So clear and close.  

If the sound was different than the earlier roar, if it came from the water behind us…

I didn’t dare turn my head.


(Of course I did, Celia. My adventures with your other father trained me to look directly at the worst possibilities. Here’s what I saw:)


The head of a dinosaur, mouth wide, teeth wet and gleaming.

Nothing more than a fiberglass head, covered with chipped, peeling green paint.  And safe in the distance, bobbing like a warning buoy.

We were in the clear.

Then, a spread of larger, wider jaws emerged beneath the weather-worn attraction, closed over it, raised the fiberglass head into the air above frothing waters, and then swallowed it.  

Our guide had rowed us quickly from our previous stopping point, and we’d navigated into a tighter gully with overhanging trees on both sides, foliage partially blocking my view.  It’s possible my eyes played tricks on me. Nobody else on the raft seemed to have noticed, and I certainly wasn’t going to speak up, demand that we turn around to verify the spectacle I alone had seen.   Whatever it was, the bottleneck we’d passed through would keep it from coming after us.

(Now Celia, I see you think you’ve figured things out.  I have to clarify again that our large sea creature didn’t fit the pattern of Jack’s previous illusions.  His powers only conveyed visual sensations.  Although the raft’s speaker panel could have been the source for each accompanying animal roar, there’s no way Jack’s images could have shaken the raft while the prehistoric shadow passed beneath us.  

At the time, I considered the Ouija Board effect:  rather than spirits, nervous fingertips move the glass planchette via power of suggestion, seance participants pushing subconsciously from one letter to another until they spell the very words they’re most afraid of.  Applied in this case, all of us on the raft tensed up, our hands along the rope rail conspiring to pull the raft one way and another, mimicking the jostle of some great beast passing beneath.

Like amateur spiritualists, we’d come on this dinosaur tour expecting a thrill, and we manufactured it.

I quickly realized the flaw in this theory.  My special connection to Jack — which I sometimes thought of as my curse — was that his monstrous visions appeared to me alone.  I should have been the only one freaking out, while other passengers remained calm.   Instead, everyone aboard had seen the large murky shadow that terrorized our raft, the prehistoric tentacle-tail that rose from the water then slithered beneath.  

Our full group couldn’t have experienced one of Jack’s visions.  Which could only mean we’d narrowly escaped being swallowed by an authentic, prehistoric sea creature.)


Now that the danger had passed, Troy prompted us back to the regularly scheduled, cheesy tour.  He shrugged off the earlier glitch with a quick phrase — Not sure what happened back there, but… — then resumed his scripted remarks.  Encyclopedia snippets about Cretaceous vs. Jurassic eras, plant-eating vs. carnivorous dinosaurs, the etymologic derivation of dinosaur, which means terrible lizard in Latin.

“As I mentioned,” he said, “there’s no guarantee we’ll encounter many actual dinosaurs on this tour, but previous groups have been lucky.”

We drifted into a larger lagoon, with no perceptible current.  Troy barely touched the oars, yet we were able to glide across the water.  The motion was subtle enough, that even Jack calmed down a bit.  

Probably we were all busy denying what happened — or might have happened — moments earlier.

“Some of the biggest dinosaurs are as gentle as household pets.”  Troy raised an arm, pointed to the tallest trees on a nearby shore.  

Classic misdirection.  While we craned our necks toward where he pointed, Troy quickly brushed against another toggle switch.  A low rumble sounded, more mechanical than organic, and two tree tops began to shake.   After a rattle of chains, like an anchor being dropped off a yacht, a giraffe-high neck emerged from the foliage.

This time, the cracked paint on the fiberglass was purplish blue, rather than green.  The eyes were painted on, but so was the closed mouth.

The whole effect was incredibly fake, like a cartoon figure.  Even less realistic than a mini-golf obstacle, or something preschoolers would climb over on the playground.

A rip-off.  I felt outrage that the tour presented mostly-hidden dinosaurs — a head from the water, a long neck from the trees — to avoid the expense of building the entire massive animal. 

Terrible Lizards indeed. 

Not that I wanted a replay of our earlier terror.  But it would have been nice to look up with child-like, open-mouthed awe — to pretend for a moment that we’d been safely transported back in time, to the Lost World of the movies, to One Million Years, B.C.

Jack sat close to me on the raft, silent.  I realized his body had shifted into a different kind of tension:  not from fear, but from anger.  He was as agitated with the tour as I was.

Yet Troy continued with his ludicrous script, prompting pre-recorded snippets from the control panel.  This time, the speaker emitted cooing sounds, as if the ersatz Brontosaurus were a cuddly puppy or friendly dolphin.  

Another flip of the anchor-switch, and the dinosaur head and neck went in reverse, retreating between the trees.  

“Gee,” Troy said, “I wonder what scared the big fella away. Maybe we shouldn’t stick around to find out.”

And I knew, I just knew, that the last phrase meant we were going even cheaper with the next dinosaur — no neck, no head, but simply another sound-effect.

Our guide grabbed the oars again, rowed with a steady enthusiasm that contained no hint of authentic panic.  The raft glided smooth and straight across the lagoon, picking up speed.  

Troy lifted the oars above the water, briefly letting the raft continue on its own momentum.  He made a quick move at the control panel, and the drumbeat of heavy footsteps filled the air, followed by a thunderous roar.  

It was presumably the roar of a Tyrannosaurus Rex — the one we’d never see.  A deep leonine growl, a gurgle like rocks avalanching down a cliff, and the hiss of a tremendous serpent.

We looked behind the raft, all of us, but the shoreline trees didn’t move.  The imaginary monster growled and gurgled and hissed, but didn’t make an appearance.

Troy’s went back to active rowing, shifting course to the left.  I noticed that he exerted the same muscular effort with each arm, so it seemed odd that the raft was turning.  Perhaps Barb and Ken were being helpful, adjusting the rudder without being asked.

The gurgle and hiss continued from the speaker.  Possibly louder, though I hadn’t caught Troy adjusting the volume dial.  A mist of lake water dampened the left side of my face.

The roar.  Like the rush of water.

Our raft curved further to the left, but Troy was fighting it now, arms straining, mist and sweat mixing on his brow.  

“A whirlpool!” Kenneth said, confirming that we were all seeing the same thing.  Our raft circled the edge of a wide, frothy swirl, getting pulled closer despite our guide’s frantic efforts.  A spray of gritty water filled my mouth — the texture of coffee grounds and the flavor of rotten fish.  

I threw my body to the opposite edge of the raft, covering Jack, locking him beneath me and my hands tight to the same rope-rail he’d been gripping the whole time.  My head lay close to his, lips to his ear where I whispered the things anybody would say in such moments:  expressions of love and fear, assurances we’d be all right or at least we’d die quickly, that I’m glad to be with him no matter which.

I didn’t see the whirlpool, but I felt its effects.  Water hit my back like it was thrown from buckets, and the raft spun faster, kept turning.   I lifted my head, looked over the edge of the raft to get my bearings.

But I couldn’t.  We moved too fast, the trees a blur along the shore.  

It seemed like the trees were swaying.  They performed a tantalizing dance, their tops bowing in unison as if to wave good-bye.

The horrible lurching of the raft would never end.  

(In college, when we had classes together, I’d sit behind Jack and often stared at his neck, the wavy long patterns of hair that reached almost to his shirt collar.   To fight dizziness now, I focused on the back of Jack’s neck.    

On the feel of his body beneath me, too.

Sorry Celia.  I try not to let these stories get too graphic in front my kids, but I’m also trying to tell the whole story.  What I meant to convey was:  I forgot the other passengers for a moment.  Jack and I weren’t trapped on a sinking raft.  We were huddled together, safe in our own private world.

And that’s when the raft stopped moving.)

To be continued…



I’ll cut off the story here, at another “calm before the storm,” but will be back with another installment in a few days.

Last time, I promised more details about why I deleted this novella-length story from my latest novel in the Other Father series, Haunted Attractions with your Other Father. Although this dinosaur novella was the first story I’d intentionally written for this sequel, I ultimately decided the tone didn’t fit the overall book. As you’ll see in upcoming installments, this story gets a bit goofier and more pulp-like than the other Jack and Shawn adventures. It shifts into spectacle, which wasn’t a good mix with the quiet horror elements of the “Theatre of Majiks” and “House of Loathing” stories.

I’ve got a lot of affection for dinosaurs, and I didn’t want to lose them. What ended up happening is that, as I wrote new stories, I shifted the order, pushing the dinosaurs closer to the end of the book rather than having “Terrible Lizards” as the first story. This was making more sense to me, especially since the theme of this book was to explore moments where particular places/attractions had some effect on Jack’s limited supernatural power — amplifying the visions so they had a physical presence, or were visible to other people besides Shawn. The issue with “Terrible Lizards” is that, with its elements of spectacle, it ended up showing ALL the possible amplifications at once, rather than letting them be revealed gradually across several stories, so it would be too much at the start of the book. 

I also needed some shorter adventures at the beginning, so I could develop the present-day frame story without a lengthy interruption. “Terrible Lizards” stretched into novella territory at 15,000 to 17,000 words, so moving to the end was a better option…

…except the last part of the book grew more serious, especially in the present-day story. It’s not just that this dinosaur story had too humorous a tone, but it had too humorous a tone for the only place in the book it might fit. Plus, the sequel was looking to be 50% larger than the first book, even without “Terrible Lizards.” So, for a multitude of reasons, the dinosaur safari had to go. 

But at least that gave me a not-appearing-elsewhere adventure that I could offer alongside the release of Haunted Attractions. I still feel a little sad not to have this story inside the official book, especially since I always wanted a dinosaur on one of my covers. I’ll settle with the attached picture, with a fake-looking rubber dinosaur head outside the book, trying to bite its way into the spine!

I’ll speak more about dinosaurs next time, and more about book covers a bit later. Hope to see you soon!

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