Norman Prentiss is many things. He's a writer, an editor, an educator. He's also my boss at Cemetery Dance. But that has nothing to do with him being the featured author at Horror Drive-In this month. Honest.
Norman is the real thing. I've been screaming to everyone that will listen that his upcoming novella, Invisible Fences, will be THE debut of 2009. He has also published a number of thoughtful, intelligent, disquieting short stories.
We've published various types of stories so far with Horror Drive-In Original Fiction and I've enjoyed them all. Fun, violent, ironic, but Control is my favorite kind of tale. A short story that makes you think and gives a whisper of a chill down the back. I think Charles L. Grant would have liked this one.
Stick around after the feature and we'll pick Norman's brain a little.
He couldn’t get that subway girl out of his head. A college student, judging from the young face nested under a knit cap and multi-colored scarf, and her two male friends, one of them wearing a Terrapin jacket with the team mascot hovering beside the university name, the other boy casual in a rugby shirt, as if November wind didn’t chill the world outside the tunnel. They started teasing her, the good-natured way that friends do, pushing the cap askew or untwisting the scarf and tucking one end in her coat pocket, wrapping the other around her wrist, stepping back to admire their handiwork. She smiled, a beautiful smile playing along, and a laugh too, but inaudible over the screech of a southbound train on the opposite tracks.
Barry had left work early, so the platform lacked its familiar rush-hour bustle. This was a rare, empty world: he was free to study the group of college friends, rather than jostling them aside to reach an empty seat then bringing a tightly folded newspaper to his face to shield against inevitable, inane chatter. In this calm moment, the girl was charming. She did a quick little rag doll dance, and one frilled end of her scarf rippled like streamers in a breeze. He was tempted to smile at her, then, or maybe a slight nod, but stopped himself—their age difference, for one thing, besides his not wanting to intrude. Instead, he glanced at his feet for a moment so he wouldn’t appear rude.
Let them enjoy their frivolous moment in private. Perhaps some professor got sick and their Thursday afternoon class was canceled—that’s why they’re so happy. A pleasant scenario, as opposed to one he might imagine for later this evening on the same platform, a similar young woman frail beneath a bundled coat, and two strangers approaching from opposite sides; the empty platform is dark instead of spacious, and smiles signal a threat as surely as knives pulled from the front pocket of a hooded jacket.
He snapped out of his reverie, looked up to ensure himself nothing had changed. The girl was still happy, permitting the boy in the rugby shirt to bend up the sheepskin-lined collar of her coat. Her friend in the Terrapin jacket laughed and held his hand up as if to say, No, no, let me try—then he tugged down the brim of her knit cap, nearly covering the girl’s left eye, and she kept smiling, and he grabbed one arm and bent it to rest her fist on a swiveled hip, and the boys both pointed at her new pose and laughed good-naturedly, and…
… and she was crying. Barry couldn’t pinpoint the moment when things changed, but he was a step ahead of the two boys, one of them reaching out to readjust her scarf and stopping only when he realized her whole body was shaking with sobs. Barry wanted to comfort the girl, but that was the role of friends—and they clearly were her friends, the way concern and confusion washed over them and they huddled close to her as she nearly collapsed to the ground, friends unaware if they’d done something wrong, or if some random thought had burst like a blood vessel in her brain.
The Terrapin boy had pulled off her cap and, nearly in tears himself, was patting her light brown hair. For Barry, it was one of those moments when he had to look away out of embarrassment, had to pretend not to notice even though it’s obvious he had. Luckily the northbound train arrived; he found a crowded section, far away from the once-happy girl who did not even get on the train, her sobs growing distant as doors slid closed and the cars pulled north, other passengers pressing their faces to windows trying to figure out what tragedy had occurred.
He didn’t look. He gave her a meaningless sliver of privacy.
Now, he couldn’t stop thinking about her. He sat in the living room and flipped through his usual programs—Weather, Headline News, Sports Review—and even paused on some of the daytime “Judge” shows he rarely had opportunity to watch. But he couldn’t concentrate on the television, instead wondering how a girl’s mood could shift so thoroughly from joy to anguish. What in her life could be so traumatic? A recent death, he supposed, and her friends had helped her forget for a few stolen moments. Or past abuse laid its grimy hands on her again, a familiar touch twisted into violation.
Barry indulged the strange sensation that he caused her distress—not by staring (he’d been discrete enough), but by imagining a violent mugging on that same platform. As if his dark thoughts could project into her mind, manipulate her mood as easily as her friends could bend her arm or drape a scarf over her wrist.
At some point the Headline News cycled to the top of the hour. The same warehouse burned again, the same soldier died and the Dow Jones dropped the same amount.
A key rattled in the front bolt, and Joan stepped into their apartment. “You’re home early,” she said, surprised, but neither pleased nor annoyed to see him. She shut the door, shook her hands as if to brush off the cold before taking off her coat and hanging it in the closet. He told her he hadn’t been feeling well at work.
“Well, where’s your water?” She stepped into the kitchen and turned on the tap. “You need to drink your water.” He hadn’t said what was wrong with him, but water was Joan’s cure for everything from headaches to influenza. If his leg was broken, she’d tell him to drink more fluids. In Barry’s case, the advice was usually legitimate: he suffered from kidney stones about once a year, and drinking more water would help flush them through his system more easily.
She stepped into the living room, recounting some workday outrage. “Those internists can be so immature, not ready to be doctors by a long shot. Though the doctors are just as bad sometimes, encouraging them by laughing.” Instead of placing the water on the endtable next to his chair, she pressed it into his hand, curled his fingers to match the curve of the cool, wet glass.
Barry didn’t tell her the reason he’d come home early. A little difficult to explain, really. He’d filled out the onscreen forms, as usual, but the program was behaving differently. As he moved from one record to the next, the computer didn’t always display the usual prompt: “Do you want to save your changes? [Y/N]”. He was on automatic pilot, perhaps. In moments of tedium life becomes an out of body experience: we let the world wash over us instead of interacting with it. Whatever the case, he gently asked Amy why the onscreen prompts had changed, why the program stopped saying “Please press [Enter]”, and why it didn’t always wait for his input. When Amy looked blankly at him, he told her how the computer didn’t say please, it didn’t say please—and maybe he shouted it a third time, pointing back towards his desk and then daring her to disagree with him.
Before he knew it, Mason’s hand was on his back, leading him to his station. His boss touched him the way you touch somebody who’s just lost a loved one. “Maybe you better take a break, go home and lie down or something.” Mason held up Barry’s sports coat and guided his arms into the sleeves.
What are you doing?
His eyes asked the question, but of course Joan couldn’t see him in the dark of their bedroom.
She answered him anyway. “I’m just touching you,” she said.
But it was more than that. Her hand had brushed over his head while he slept, smoothed the side of his cheek. Next she’d held his wrist and moved his arm under the blanket, then pulled the bedspread tight to his neck. An affectionate gesture. But he wasn’t a child. Not a child needing to be tucked in.
Now he understood why the girl cried on the subway platform. Relationships were like that: you love the attention at first, smile and play along and let yourself be controlled. But at some point you lose yourself. It isn’t funny anymore.
And he’s in front of the television again. His hand is on the remote control. Still, the channels change without his effort, clip past the shows that used to interest him and pause on the wrong programs—spirituality, finance, cartoons and blaring snaps of commercials and music videos. He is in a large room, and others are deciding what to watch. “Damn interns,” Joan says under her breath. He feels a draft as if he stands near an open vent, wearing only a gown that doesn’t fasten properly in the back. He hears distant laughter. Someone grabs his arm, lifts it, bends the elbow joint and smacks his stiff hand against his forehead, posing him in a soldier’s salute.
HD-I: Norman, can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration and the execution of Control?
NP: I started with the image of those college kids goofing around on the subway platform, and went from there. It was a tough "assignment" for me, though, since I rarely write stories this short--usually I expect a story will be 4,000 words, and it drifts into 6,000 or so. For this one, I kept cutting back, maybe even pulling in some strategies from my poetry days. I think the story retains some mystery as a result--but there's enough clues along the way that (I hope!) readers won't feel frustrated at the end.
HD-I: Do you feel the story improved by your need to keep it short or suffered?
NP: For this story, definitely improved by being shorter. Usually when I edit something, I take things out in one place and end up adding text somewhere else. With this one, I had a lot of other lines and images and ideas that might have made their way in, but I know they would have diluted the story.
HD-I: I'd like to recommend another story of yours to our readers. Sometime last year you graciously allowed me to read Commentary for the Blind, which I thought was absolutely amazing. Not only is it my favorite of your work, but it is one of the best stories I've ever read. I know you said something about the title possibly changing. Did it appear in print anywhere?
NP: Thanks for the high compliment! This is the story of mine I'd show to people who don't normally read horror--the creepy part kinds of sneaks in near the end.
I changed the title to "In the Porches of My Ears," and it just appeared in the new issue of Postscripts. For issue #18, the publisher (Pete Crowther's PS Publishing) switched the magazine over to a new format: it's a quarterly anthology, with a regular hardback edition and a limited edition signed by all contributors.
HD-I: I hope you don't mind me saying that I like the original title better. Was it yours or the editor's idea for the change?
NP: The editors wanted a different title. I think both titles fit the story, so I'm happy--although it took me a while to come up with the alternative!
HD-I: Oh yeah! I remember hearing about that! I wasn't aware it was the same story. I need to get a copy so I can have it in book form. Unless you have a collection planned in the near future...?
NP: Nothing planned for the near future, but a story collection is definitely one of my long-range goals. Not a lot of small presses (or large presses for that matter!) do story collections these days, but it's a format I really love.
HD-I: Once again I wish I had the means to publish my own line of books. I'd try to get you to allow me to produce a collection of your stories. But I'd make you change that title back to Commentary for the Blind!
NP: Well, I do whatever my publisher tells me to do!
HD-I: Hopefully you'll have one for your short stories soon. You deserve it, man.
We know about Invisible Fences coming soon from Cemetery Dance and Commentar--er, In the Porches of My Ears in Postscripts 18. What else can those that enjoyed Control look for?
NP: My story "Homeschooled" should show up soon in an unannounced chapbook. I also have a chapter in the forthcoming Cemetery Dance round robin novella, The Crane House. The ordering period for the standard limited edition has already passed, but there are some deluxe traycased copies available. Don't buy it for my little chapter, though: buy it for the other writers in the book! Other stories are currently homeless, but I'm working on placing them (working on several novels as well, in various stages of completion). I'm slow to write, and even slower to publish . . . I'll try to keep any updates at my website, which also has links to my blog and my Horror World message board.
HD-I: Will Homeschooled be available for everyone to purchase, or is it one of those subscription things?
NP: It's part of a promotional chapbook with three other authors. You might have to buy something else to get it.
HD-I: One final question. and I asked Brian Freeman the same thing, How did you come to work at Cemetery Dance and is it the dream job it might appear to be?
NP: I started as a proofreader, which I loved doing (and still do): it's awesome to get such an early look at books by my favorite genre authors. Then I had about two years of reading fiction submitted to the magazine. It was a lot of stories, and a lot of it was quite good--which made it really hard to pick out the best. Now that we're temporarily closed to fiction submissions, I've been working with the non-fiction elements of the magazine. It's the same magazine everybody knows and loves, but with a lovely new cover and page design, and several new columnists along with many old favorites. I'll be really excited to see Horror Drive-In make its print debut, by the way! Congratulations!
HD-I: Thanks Norman. Will you go back to reading fiction when CD's market opens again?
NP: I've been so busy with the non-fiction, that I haven't really thought about it. But yeah, I hope I get back to reading submissions again. It's really exciting to come across an amazing story by somebody you haven't heard of before!
HD-I: Norman, thanks for your time and especially for the excellent story. It's been a pleasure having you as a guest at the Drive-In.
NP: The pleasure's all mine. Thanks for having such a great site!
SELECT NORMAN PRENTISS BIBLIOGRAPHY
Glue Traps, Tales from the Gorezone, edited by Kealan Patrick Burke. Apartment 42 Publications, 2004
The Everywhere Man, Damned Nation, edited by Robert N. Lee and David T. Wilbanks. Hellbound Books, 2007
In the Best Stories, Shivers 4, edited by Richard Chizmar. Cemetery Dance Publications, 2006
The Albright Sextuplets, Shivers 5, edited by Richard Chizmar. Cemetery Dance Publications, 2009
In the Porches of My Ears, Postscripts Magazine, edited by Peter Crowther & Nick Gevers. PS Publishing, 2009
Invisible Fences, Cemetery Dance Magazine, Forthcoming
Norman Prentiss photograph by Roberta Lannes