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Life in a Haunted House: Norman Prentiss and the joy, camp and horror of B-movies
30 September 2017.


by Drew Rowsome -

Being so enthralled with Norman Prentiss' Odd Adventures with Your Other Father, I immediately downloaded a previous work, Life in a Haunted House, and two of the three tie-in novellas. The concept is irresistible, combining a classic mysterious haunted house horror tale with the plotlines of a handful of (invented) low budget b-movies by a deservedly forgotten film director. Life in a Haunted House is above all a coming of age story so the horror is mainly conjured from the protagonist's mind, but Prentiss manages to get in a fair amount of suspense and scares through misdirection: reality and the events of the films, and the imagination of the protagonist/writer, have somewhat fused making the supernatural and the terrifying possible.

The skill with which this is done is considerable and one turns the pages alternately absorbed in the horror, and then chuckling at being fooled. And of course the horrors in the films leaking into real life are nothing compared to the horror of real life as the protagonist begins to solve the secrets of the haunted house. Prentiss obviously has an affection for old horror movies, particularly B-movies, and that love glows on the pages as scenes are recreated, described or viewed. Most delightfully he has a foreshadowing trick, echoing silent film intertitles, that works effectively while winking outrageously.

The basic plot is that Brandon who is a fan of Bud Preston, the producer/director of the oeuvre churned out by his Low Budget Productions. Brandon is a child of divorce who has just moved to a new town with his mother. The mother does not, did not, approve of such films as The Dungeon of Count Verlock or The Twisted Face but for Brandon and his father they were a bonding experience and almost an obsession. As Brandon adjusts badly to his new school, his misadventures are quite painful but the teenage angst reads accurately as his obsession grows. So it is a stroke of luck - or is it something more sinister? - that he discovers that one of his classmates is the daughter of the deceased Preston.

Not only the daughter but she also still lives in the house where many of the classics, at least they are classics in Brandon's mind, were filmed. He cultivates a relationship with the daughter even though she may have hopes other than being exploited so that Brandon can savour unfilmed screenplays and covet old props. It is a complicated and painful relationship that evolves realistically and with a lot of tension. And the tension ratchets as more of the house's secrets are revealed, Brandon begins to write a screenplay that is an amalgamation of Preston's scripts, Brandon's home and school life become more unbearable, and b-movie melodrama and the screenplay begin to bleed into real life.

The love of old horror movies and camp becomes clear in a twist ending even though it is revealed in a mere sentence. It is - SPOILER ALERT - that Brandon is gay. All of a sudden the entire book is seen through a different lens and one wants to go back and start from the beginning. Life in a Haunted House is great creepy fun and a solid coming of age story even if, in true B-movie fashion, it is not as scary or lurid as the cover art teases.

Tying in with Life in a Haunted House are three novellas that purport to be discovered novelizations of Bud Preston's greatest hits: The Dungeon of Count VerlockThe Lake Monster and The Space Visitor. The manuscripts were written for a pulp magazine entitled Monster Project but were never published. The conceit give Prentiss lots of room to indulge his love of pulp fiction and that peculiar language unique to books based on films. The Dungeon of Count Verlock is entertaining if barely coherent but then that is probably consistent with the imaginary film version. There are several dream sequences and, like a hallucinatory passage towards the end of Life in a Haunted House, it appears to be for less than artistic reasons and more for problem solving.

The Lake Monster is much better, a riff on The Creature From the Black Lagoon with comical sartorial descriptions that reference Life in a Haunted House. And, like a Twilight Zone episode or Saki short story, there is a surprise shock ending that is both obvious and delicious. The Lake Monster is pure campy fun that would be right at home in a trashy, the best kind, horror anthology. I will eventually get to reading The Space Visitor (the descriptions in Life in a Haunted House and Brandon's imagination are hysterical) but if Prentiss, I mean the mysterious scribe, had penned a version of Preston's opus starring a killer oak tree with predatory tentacle branches and an evil bark face, I would drop everything to read it. 

 

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