KIDNAPPED WEEK: Nightscape Press

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Sometimes fortune does smile on us; I’ve been lucky enough that the excellent publishers (Jennifer and Robert Wilson) at Nightscape Press decided to reprint two of my books: The Gentling Box and Deathwatch, and have now further asked me to provide a behind-the-scenes look at both of them for this blog.

THE GENTLING BOX

During what was probably one of the best evenings of my entire life, The Gentling Box garnered The Bram Stoker Award for first novel the same year Stephen King won for Duma Key in 2009. It’s always a heady experience to be nominated or win an award, but in this case it was validation—the culmination, really—of a very protracted span of years when my work was essentially consigned to the realm of oblivion. The Gentling Box had two major NY agents who forwarded a slew of lovely compliments to me from various editors at the big houses, but couldn’t sell it. My mother (to whom I dedicated the book) loved it—along with several enthusiastic friends, but that book (and in my mind, my career as a novelist) seemed dead in the water. Winning the award felt like a wonderful tribute to my mother and to the very small part of me that continued to believe in the book despite numerous rejections and which wanted to keep working.

To this day, people ask me if the hideous surgical procedure of “gentling” is real and if it was practiced by the Hungarian Roms. No comment. Grin.

A brief synopsis:

Imre, a half-gypsy horse trader, is on his deathbed suffering from a hideously disfiguring disease called glanders; though the infection can be passed from horses to people, his antagonist, Anyeta has afflicted him. He knows he can save himself, his wife, his daughter from the sorceress–but only at great personal cost. Narrating the story, he recalls the events that have led up to the terrible choice before him.

Tricked into believing she can save their daughter, his wife, Mimi has cut off her own arm to claim the power of a savage gypsy charm called the hand of the dead. Those who claim it have the power to bring healing; but Anyeta, who is Mimi’s mother, knows that those who own its power are doomed to eternal unrest: They lie awake, aware, paralyzed within their graves, their minds churning endlessly. Anyeta finds a way to escape the torment by possessing the minds and bodies of those she dupes into claiming the hand.

One by one Imre finds his circle of loved ones falling under the sway of the sorceress as Anyeta sets out to destroy them. He learns from Joseph, an aged Lovari gypsy horse trader, and Constantin, a mute cursed by the sorceress, the only way to make an end of Anyeta, to grant her victims peace, is gentling–a crude surgery performed on wild horses in order to tame them. Imre’s most hellish childhood memory is witnessing his father opening the crate-like gentling box and placing wood and leather devices around the heads of the horses. Jutting inward from the circular wooden bands are metal spikes which penetrate the horses’ brains, and Imre cannot forget the sight of the blood or the dimming of the horses’ huge glossy eyes. Though he is a horse trader, he has never gentled a horse–nor can he bring himself to face the fact that ironic as it seems, he can free Anyeta’s victims if he gentles them.

In failing to do so, he sets up the final conflict. His wife is possessed by the sorceress– her mind and personality shattered; his daughter, Lenore, will certainly claim the hand of the dead and suffer similar tortures–unless he can bring himself to intervene. His decision, then, is whether he can summon the courage to heal himself of his disease by claiming the hand of the dead, knowing that once he does so, he must ultimately face the terror and the freedom of the gentling box.

Excerpt:

My wife sits in the corner of our caravan, because this morning it is her personality which has come to the fore. Her hands are folded quietly in the lap of her skirt. Just above her left hand is a thick purplish scar that circles her wrist like a hideous bracelet. I don’t want to think about the scar, about how it is the source of the evil afflicting our lives.

If I raise my head from the sweat-soaked pillow I can see her bare feet splayed against the worn floorboards, but it is her face I find myself staring at: small, kitten-shaped, dominated by her huge dark eyes. She has gypsy eyes. They were very bright when we were both younger; now they are ringed by deep gray shadows like bruises and filled with pain. Meeting mine, they beg: Save Lenore.

My wife is right of course, and she is living evidence of what will happen to Lenore, our daughter, if I don’t intervene. But Christ, I think, how can I save her when the foul disease I’ve taken is ravaging through me like a brushfire? I close my eyes and instantly hear the swish of skirts, so I know she has gotten to her feet, she is moving toward the bed. And now I feel her hand tapping my shoulder urgently.

I open my eyes; her face is full of defiance. Her black brows contract angrily and she points at her wrist. Again.

Yes,” I say, my voice a ragged whisper, “I know.” I know we will die shut up in this stinking grave of a caravan and Lenore will be possessed by the same hungry spirit that has taken my wife’s life, that has killed Joseph and punished me.

No. She shakes her head, and suddenly her thin hands go to her face; her shoulders hitch and great wracking sobs shake her small frame. She is crying, and the wailing voice I hear is the first sound she has made as Mimi, as my wife, in more months than I can count. She speaks when she is Anyeta, I think bitterly, but never as Mimi. Anyeta has taken that from her, too.

She sinks onto the edge of the bed, her long hair falling forward, and I want to comfort her. I sit up but my chest burns. I cough, my throat a column of fire, but it’s so hard to breathe. I make myself cough harder and up comes a wad of greasy yellow phlegm streaked with blood. I manage to hide the clotty mess in a handkerchief before Mimi turns her head and sees it.

I put my arm around her shoulder. Her eyes flick toward my fingers. She whirls around and points at the livid scar on her wrist. I nod. Mimi is reminding me again. She has tried to save Lenore herself, but her powers have fled. I admire her courage. It wasn’t failure.

Not your fault,” I rasp before the rumbling cough cleaves me again. We both wait until the fit passes. I let my hand rest on her knee.

All at once, Mimi seizes my wrist hard. Her grip is like iron, like steel pincers, and I’m suddenly terrified the change is on her and in a second her eyes will blink and I’ll see Anyeta’s demonic eyes, hear her mocking screams and taunts.

But Mimi throws my hand back at me and runs to the oval mirror. She jerks it from the plastered wall so fiercely the nail pops out with a shriek and she nearly loses her balance. The silvery mirror sways between her hands, she holds it to her chest like a shield, she moves toward the bed. She is making a grunting noise, trying to tell me something. I concentrate on her lips. She is moving them carefully, slowly. Then I have it:

Look, Imre.”

In the mirror I see my features are blurred with thick scabs and crusts. My face is overrun with the red weeping sores and I would weep for the sight except I think she has seen it spreading and nursed me and never shown revulsion or fear.

Mimi thrusts the mirror toward me again and makes a furious sound, shapes the word, “Look!”

She wants me to know that time is short, that I’m dying, that the pustulent blisters will eat through my lungs, completely consume my flesh—

Mimi hurls the mirror to the floor. The sound is deafening inside the caravan. I see her feet moving among the splinters from the shattered mahogany frame, the chunks of broken glass. She squats. Heedless, she clutches a long sharp shard and I see drops of blood welling from her palm and fingers then running down and staining the white filmy sleeve of her blouse. She points at her wrist with the glass knife, then at mine, and pantomimes sawing.

And then, Christ, then I know what she wants. A sick feeling eddies through me, and I feel the vomit rising in my throat. I push it down because Mimi is asking me to be strong, to save Lenore. I look into her dark eyes and I know what she wants. She wants me to claim the hand of the dead.

Print: https://www.amazon.com/Gentling-Box-Lisa-Mannetti/dp/1938644182/

Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/Gentling-Box-Lisa-Mannetti-ebook/dp/B00HFU297A/

DEATHWATCH

I get a kick out of people’s responses to both novellas in this collection—with some preferring the Bram Stoker-nominated “Dissolution,” and others just as adamantly standing up for “The Sheila Na Gig.”I rather like them both and am thrilled that “Dissolution” will soon be a feature-length film directed by Paul Leyden.

Dissolution,” set in upstate New York in the 1890s, is about a young medical student thrown out of his university who travels north thinking he’ll be a tutor to twin girls only to discover that they are conjoined and their father—also a doctor—has hired him because he means to separate them surgically.

Two excellent books that influenced the novella’s winter-bound isolation heavily are ETHAN FROMME by Edith Wharton and GHOST STORY by Peter Straub.

The Sheila Na Gig,” which bookends the previous novella,and is also set in the past, is about a young man whose grandmother uses witchcraft in Ireland to ensnare him and his whole family. His struggle to escape the horror of dysfunction in the extreme is both harrowing and poignant. A few of my Beta readers noted that parts of the story made them weep.

As Elizabeth Massie wrote in her introduction to the collection, “…pushes us headfirst into nightmarish, claustrophobic worlds where families cling together even as they try to destroy one another.”

Excerpt:

DISSOLUTION”

I was twenty when I first came to Hyde Park, New York and fell in love with the child who was both woman and ghost. And God help me, it was my infatuation–or obsession–if you prefer, that spawned both her strange shadow life as my bride and–later, much later–her death.

It was December, and the Hudson River was frozen. I hailed from the Carolinas, and after a bleak train ride north, my first, my strongest memory of the region was that solid white mass like a road, of wind blowing and the sight of tight-lipped red faced men hauling blocks of ice on sledges, the horses straining for purchase on the slippery surface.

Their shouts were muffled by the heavy quietfall of snow, even the sound of the train whistling as it left the depot was deadened, and standing on the wooden platform, the chill of the boards penetrating my thin-soled shoes, I thought, I have come to a lonely place. White and cold and deathly still.

Excerpt:

THE SHEILA NA GIG:

“They made Brigantia a saint.”

Tom looked up from the bench where he was polishing his brother Bob’s boots. His grandmother had a wild, faraway look in her brown eyes. She was huddled near the fireplace with a bowl of milk and bread in her lap.

“The stupid Irish, they made Brigantia a saint!” Rose Smith said again.

Tom knew she might go on with this–or another equally meaningless phrase–for hours. He skinned the bristle brush against the leather instep and gave out a sigh.

“Tom,” Cedric said. “Show some respect for the aged.” He rustled in the drift of manuscript pages–most of them halved scraps–that covered his desk. “What does it matter if she prattles a bit? She can’t help it.”

“Right.” He left off shoe blacking and got up. But it did matter, Tom thought, because his father was spouting a lie. Cedric urging tolerance of his grandmother had nothing to do with respect and everything to do with his own motives. Rose was said–not by the family, but by the local farmers and their wives–to be a hag, a witch. Cedric liked to hear her talk because in some way, Tom knew, his father secretly believed she would come out of her mania and empower his failed writing, set right the wreck of his life.

He’s just waiting for a chair to fly across the room so he can put it in his bloody book. Tom didn’t know if Cedric felt his mother leant atmosphere or just spurred a flagging imagination, and he didn’t care. What he did care about was the way the snarly-haired old woman gave him the flits.

Tom glanced at her. Her head was canted sideways, her wrinkled mouth, dripping milk. She was staring at him; then her tongue flicked out and she licked the warm milk from the corner of her mouth. She began to chuckle lightly.

Print: https://www.amazon.com/Deathwatch-Lisa-Mannetti/dp/1938644190/

Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/Deathwatch-Lisa-Mannetti-ebook/dp/B00H91NEZQ/

Stop by and check out my author website, www.lisamannetti.com or visit my virtual haunted house, www.thechanceryhouse.com

An Interview With Lisa Mannetti

Our Featured author for episode 132 of the HorrorAddicts.net podcast is Lisa Mannetti. Lisa writes what I like to call historical horror fiction. Recently she talked to us about her work:

What is your story for episode 132 about?

Stoker_NomineeI will be reading from The Box Jumper, my stand-alone novella about Houdini which was nominated for both the Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson Awards and won “Novella of the Year” from This is Horror. The protagonist or narrator is Leona Derwatt, a former “box jumper” i.e. assistant to the great magician himself. Thirty years after Houdini’s death, she says she’s going to reveal his secrets about the paranormal—but is she telling the truth? Leona was in love with Houdini and she helped him debunk fraudulent Spiritualists, but in the present (1956 in the novella) she’s trying to guard herself from telling a shady medium/magician named Emory the real source of Houdini’s powers. As the book progresses, we (as readers) realize she’s been drawn into a dangerous situation with Emory and two of his cohorts that is more nefarious than she ever imagined. The novella’s five parts and main structure follow the five classic symptoms of demonic take-over—from “invitation” to “summoning” to “obsession” through “infestation” and finally, “possession.” Has Leona been “invaded” and overcome by dark forces? Or is she merely a tragic, lonely figure who’s fallen prey to madness? Terrifying and poignant, the novella delves into the darker side of a broken woman who worshipped an immensely charismatic public figure—and maintains—was loved by him in return.

When did you start writing?

I first started writing when I was eight years old—and the very first story I dwatch 277x419wrote (that wasn’t an assignment from one the nuns who taught at my school) was a psychological tale about vampires. Sounds pretty sophisticated, right? It wasn’t though. It turns out my parents were going crazy because I had night terrors and I was keeping the entire household awake night after night. When I wrote the story, my mother read the “Twilight Zone” ending I’d tacked on which was that the girl’s frightening nightmares and dreams were actually triggered when her mother came in each every evening to kiss her while the child was asleep and resulted in her bolting upright and screaming an hour or two later. This goodnight ritual was my mother’s routine because she was going for an advanced degree from NYU and by the time she got off the train and came home, I was already in bed, asleep. The great thing from my parents’ point of view was that by writing about it, I saved them megabucks at the psychiatrist they were just about to drag me to. The important thing for me was that if you let your subconscious run, great stories (not this one, necessarily) can happen. And sometimes it doesn’t matter if truths about the author emerge—I mean unless you have my mother as your first reader, chances are excellent you won’t know what the hell you’re revealing and won’t have to feel embarrassed.

What are your favorite topics to write about? 

I really like writing about the dark side of life. Disease and disfigurement are prominent themes. I’ve written about polio, glanders (a disease that afflicts horses but can also spread to humans), radiation poisoning, and a host of other terrible ailments. In fact, I think one of the reasons the door to my imagination opens wider when I set the stories in the past is because the medical treatment was so abysmal compared to today’s standards that disease (of all kinds) was more part and parcel to everyday life. I like to write about the things that “seize” us mentally or physically and force us to cope with what’s beyond our control. I also like to write about the changes a disease has—not just on our bodies—but on our psyches. Both disease and possession/manipulation in my work are metaphors (ultimately) for the things around us we can’t control—those profoundly painful moments each of us face in life. We all encounter deep disappointment, death of loved ones; harrowing circumstances that make us question ourselves and the world around us. I like to write about that nexus—the things that impact our lives and create permanent change in our bodies, minds and hearts.

Who or what inspires you?

I think a lot of my stories are still attempts to reckon with the fact that we all die someday. Because my mother was a nurse (later a public health director) we had plenty of medical-type textbooks around the house and the pictures and the diseases both fascinated and terrified me. From fourth through seventh grade, for example, I was obsessed and phobic about getting leprosy. It sounds funny now, but I really did worry about it to the point I was getting up in the middle of the night to check and see if my palms were turning yellow or if I’d lost feeling in my feet. The Catholic nuns were big on discussing it back then (and collecting money to send to leper colonies) and there was plenty to read in the school library about notable figures like Father Damien. The big thing about him, as I recall, is that during one Sunday sermon he began speaking about the affliction “we” lepers endure and that was the hint to the rest of the colony that he’d joined their little weeping sore club. There were also tons of books in each classroom that dealt with the lives of the martyrs—all of whom died gruesome, miserable deaths. (Everything from being shot with arrows, to roasted over coals, to thrown to lions) and between those books and my mother’s handy pictorial guides, disease became a lifelong fascination for me. I didn’t really move to the next level—how it impacts our personalities—until I was in my late twenties and diagnosed with a benign pituitary tumor that turned out to be no big deal. But, while I was at the doctor’s office, I saw a woman about my age who was not only disfigured, but completely miserable. Don’t get me wrong. I had the utmost sympathy for her, and it was abundantly clear she was suffering. It was also obvious that she couldn’t help snapping and being somewhat nasty to people around her because her life had been utterly ruined by her disease. It was terrifying to me to contemplate—not just the havoc and devastation the disease wrought on her physically—but how her mind and heart had given way and succumbed, too. Years later I read Pet Cemetery and realized Stephen King was probing the same idea when he depicts what Rachel went through on account of her crippled sister.

What do you find fascinating about the horror genre?

Tom and Huck adult 2014Well, one thing that strikes me—as both a reader and a writer—is that the genre has both suffered and gained from a schizophrenic perception of its merits and faults. The first gothic supernatural novel, The Castle of Otranto written by Horace Walpole in 1764 (which was both enormously popular and truly awful) claimed to be drawing on the works of Shakespeare. In my personal opinion the only thing Walpole really has in common with the bard derives from what I consider one of Shakespeare’s more preposterous works: Titus Andronicus. Castle includes some pretty laughable scenes including one where a giant helmet falls out of the sky, and Titus has a lot of over-the-top action, too—his daughter, Lavinia, enters at one point carrying her father’s severed hand between her teeth. Sure, there were and are some terrible horror novels—just as there are in any genre and in mainstream books as well. As a reader and a writer, I find it both fascinating and wonderful that authors like Stephen King and Peter Straub and Shirley Jackson (and many others—too numerous to mention) completely legitimized and elevated horror—and it’s a pleasure to be able to write serious, literary works in their wake. Without their achievements, horror would be consigned to remainder tables, beach reads, and scrap heaps for the most part. The general public seems to have difficulty in making the imaginative leap or transitional analysis that (for example) makes them aware that a book like William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice or a play like Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer are fraught with horror—and that many of us draw upon the same kinds of important themes when we write.

Could you tell us about 51 Fiendish Ways to Leave Your Lover?

It started as a little joke to amuse myself, then P.D. Cacek suggested I find an illustrator and she introduced me to the wonderful and wonderfully talented Glenn Chadbourne. 51 Fiendish Ways is a macabre gag book of mostly one-liners about the nasty side of breaking up. There may be copies here and there, but alas it’s pretty much out of print. The good news is that sometime in what I hope will be the near future, Glenn and I are going to reissue the book with new cover art, a new introduction, etc. I’ve always been drawn to dark satire—it’s a skewed perception of a situation—just as horror the “overlay” used by horror writers.

This is a small video trailer of 51 Fiendish Ways for your enjoyment.

Could you tell us more about The Gentling Box?

Although it wasn’t the first novel I wrote, it was my “debut” novel and I was thrilled beyond measure when it won the Bram Stoker Award.

The book is set in 19th century Hungary and Romania and its protagonist (who is suffering from a fatal disease), Imre, a half-gypsy horse trader; his immediate family; and his close circle of friends have all been duped by his wife’s mother, a sorceress named Anyeta whose goal is to gain personal power and to throw off a curse that will condemn her to being eternally awake and aware in her own grave. But, the only way to make an end of Anyeta and to grant her victims peace is gentling—a crude surgery performed on wild horses in order to tame them. Imre’s most hellish childhood memory is witnessing his father opening the crate-like gentling box and placing the wooden and leather devices around the heads of a herd of wild horses. Jutting inward from the circular bands are metal spikes which penetrate the horses’ brains and Imre cannot forget the sight of the blood or, more sorrowful still, the dimming of intelligence in the horses’ huge glossy eyes. Despite his trade, he has never gentled a horse—nor can he bring himself to face the ironic fact that in order to free Anyeta’s human victims, he must gentle them. His decision, then, is whether he can summon the courage to heal himself of his disease by claiming the curse known as the hand of the dead, knowing that once he does so, he must also ultimately face the terror and the freedom of the gentling box.

Here’s the trailer from the second edition:

N.B. The book is currently in its third edition (with wonderful cover art by Steven Gervais) published by NightScape Press and available from Amazon and other online retailers.

It seems like a lot of your work is a mix of historical fiction and horror, Do you have a favorite time period to write about and how long does it take you to research a book before you write it?

gbox+280x419My background (actually my graduate degree and half my Ph.D.) is in 18th and 19th century English Literature; but this is a sort of chicken vs. egg situation since I’m not sure which actually came first. I’ve always been drawn to that period and it seemed like a natural fit when I began writing fiction. That said, I’ve set books and stories in 16th century Scotland, the late 19th and early 20th century in America, as well as in the present. I find that the past often opens the door imaginatively for me and I often write in the first person because it’s a natural and immediate identifier for the reader. Unconsciously, the reader accepts and becomes one with the narrator and therefore finds it easier to slip into the past as present.

It depends on the story or book; but six weeks for a story and six months of research for a book are pretty typical. I also continue to research as I write and will look up whatever I need: a street address, the name of a song, a diagnosis. It keeps the process very interesting to say the least and I select what I find mind-boggling so hopefully the reader will also get caught up in those details. While I’m writing a particular piece, I also watch any videos and read any other books I can find that touch upon the topic—it keeps me close to the lives my characters are experiencing and even unconsciously influences the subtle details of the tale. So, for example, when researching Houdini, I not only read all his written work and biographies about him and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and watched videos of his and Doyle’s films, I also read up on and watched anything I could find about mentalism, the Spiritualist movement, séances, magic, hypnotism, demons, 1920s New York City and Boston, mediums, and witchcraft. Plus a lot more that I can’t think of right off the top of my head.

What are some of the other books you have available?

YA Tom and Huck 547 x 819There are tons of my stories published in numerous well-edited anthologies that also include some other wonderful authors—so I can recommend them all without reservation. (Check out my Amazon Author page.) But, also available are my Stoker nominated stories, “The Hunger Artist” –which can be found in Zippered Flesh 2 (Smart Rhino Publications), and my short piece about Lizzie Borden, “1925: A Fall River Halloween” in Shroud Magazine #10. “Everybody Wins,” which was made into a short film starring Malin Ackerman (Bye-Bye Sally) is available in Uncommon Assassins. (Smart Rhino Publications).

Among my books (fiction) are The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (Smart Rhino) and Deathwatch, (NightScape Press) which is a collection of two related novellas, “Dissolution” and “The Sheila Na Gig.” “Dissolution,” which was nominated for a Stoker Award, is set in 1893 and will soon be a feature-length film directed by Paul Leyden. It’s the story of a young medical student who’s been expelled from university and finds himself in an isolated town in upstate New York where he learns that though he’s been ostensibly employed as a tutor to twelve-year old twins, their father has actually hired him as an assistant in an endeavor to separate them because they’re conjoined. “The Sheila Na Gig” is also set in the 19th century and concerns a young man and his dysfunctional family and his grandmother’s supernatural powers. Both novellas are very dark.

The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (Adult and YA editions) is a lighthearted tale in which Twain’s Tom and Huck have been reincarnated as twin white cats and familiars to a witch. They long to be boys again—scheming accordingly—and, as New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Maberry writes in the introduction, “The novel is equal parts Mark Twain’s quaint and homespun humor and Mannetti’s sharp-as-a-razor modern-day wit…an adventure into the funhouse of intelligent imagination.”

Finally, “1925: A Fall River Halloween”; The Gentling Box, and The Box Jumper (April 2017) have all been translated into Italian.

Where can we find you online?

Just about everywhere! I’m also a member of the HWA and the Author’s Guild.

Websites:

www.lisamannetti.com

https://www.amazon.com/Lisa-Mannetti/e/B001HPT6J8/

http://lisamannetti.blogspot.com/

http://twitter.com/LisaMannetti

https://www.facebook.com/LisaMannetti.Writer/

https://www.pinterest.com/lisamannettiaut/

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1978203.Lisa_Mannetti

The Chancery House:

www.thechanceryhouse.com (my virtual haunted house)

Lisa 2Lisa Mannetti’s debut novel, The Gentling Box, garnered a Bram Stoker Award and she has since been nominated four additional times for the prestigious award in both the short and long fiction categories. Her novella, “Dissolution,” will soon be a feature-length film directed by Paul Leyden.
In addition to The Box Jumper, her novella about Houdini which was nominated for both The Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson Awards and won “Novella of the Year” from THIS IS HORROR, she has also authored The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; Deathwatch; a macabre gag book, 51 Fiendish Ways to Leave your Lover; as well as non-fiction books, numerous articles and short stories in newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Recent and forthcoming works include “Arbeit Macht Frei” in Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, “The Hermit” in Never Fear: The Tarot, and a novel about the dial-painter tragedy in the post-WWI era, Radium Girl.