I absolutely love coming of age stories. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m an overgrown kid myself. Maybe there’s something inside me which looks back on those years fondly, but also remembers how hard it was to be a kid. Everyone expects you to “grow up” and figure out what it is you want to do with your life, all before your sixteenth birthday. I remember those years well, and as a high school teacher, I see it enacted before me, in living color, every single day. So I’m always a sucker for a well-told, engrossing coming of age tale.
Bram Stoker Award-winning author Norman Prentiss (Invisible Fences, Odd Adventures With Your Other Father) has done more than just provide such with his latest offering, Life in a Haunted House. He also continues to chart his own path through the horror genre, a path which more often than not is haunted by the monsters hiding inside us rather than slavering demons or serial killers. As you’d expect with a Norman Prentiss tale—though there is the slightest touch of supernatural weirdness—Life in a Haunted House offers a poignantly moving, sometimes funny and oftentimes bittersweet human portrayal of a young man trying to make sense of his parents’ divorce, his place in the world, and the true meaning of friendship.
First of all, I love the concept—Brendan stumbling upon the house/movie set of his favorite low-budget horror film director—because how many of us have wiled away rainy Sunday afternoons watching those really bad horror movies in a time slot no one else was watching? And, in true Prentiss fashion, the story doesn’t shy away from Brendan’s conflict: does he really like Melissa Preston and value her as a friend, or is he using her to get close to the movies he loved watching with his now distant father?
That was hard to read—especially one scene, in which Brendan completely misses a grand gesture of Melissa’s affection because of his obsession—but the story is impossible to pull away from. We don’t like watching Brendan using Melissa this way, but we kind of get it, too. We were kids once. We did stupid stuff, and we know we probably treated some of our friends the same way. That’s where the power of Norman Prentiss’ fiction comes from: it’s a mirror he holds up to us, a mirror which reflects back our dark inner selves.
Also, the strained relationship between Brendan and his father and his desperate attempts to use this discovery to bridge the gap between them makes for powerful storytelling. An essential aspect of coming of age stories is harsh realizations of the world as it really is. The possibility that Brendan’s memories of enjoying these horror movies with his Dad are tinged with nostalgia and maybe more one-sided than he remembers is haunting for all of us. How many of our childhood memories are tinged by the same nostalgia?
It’s also hard for Brendan to learn a harsh truth: the man he’s idolized for so long was very likely a dismissive and maybe even cruel husband, and most likely would’ve turned into a distant and uncaring father. However, it’s not all harsh self-realizations and guilt. In true Prentiss fashion, the story is balanced out with clarity and growth, the mystery and magic of small budget movie production, and I absolutely love the ending. I can do no less than give Life in a Haunted House my highest recommendation.