Lisa Mannetti is the author of the novel The Gentling Box, which won the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel in 2008, Deathwatch, a book comprised of two novellas and 51 Fiendish Ways to Leave Your Lover, a morbid yet comedic guidebook on how to end a relationship. You can find out more about Lisa at her website.
What drew you to the horror genre?
I remember having nightmares even as a very young child—before I even started kindergarten I was dreaming about being taken away from my family by the Nazis, thanks to a special about the Holocaust, and I remember hearing jackboots on the stairs in that little mental movie; I also had dreams about the black plague (TV is a wonderful medium); and I think that I was drawn to horror because it was a way of confronting or dealing with my own interior terror in a controlled fashion. The very first story I wrote (age 8) was a vampire tale. I was thrilled when the teacher read it out loud to the class.
It also helped that my older brother was into anything even slightly grisly and that my mother was a nurse with lots of great stories about working in the operating room and some intriguing text books.
What scares you?
Disease. Poverty. Rejection. All things that make the world a scary place in everyday life. I’m also afraid of dying because I think it’s going to be very very painful. People always pooh-pooh this notion, and doctors talk about how a patient “didn’t suffer,” but logic prevails for me. Think about how much a simple paper cut hurts. And you’re going to tell me that it doesn’t hurt to die? I think it’s going to hurt like hell. I also think it’s frightening to face mortality and terrifying to think about what—if anything—comes after. Do we get to go to heaven? What is heaven? Who gets shoved out and who gets let in? Do we get to live out some fantasies and frolic? It might be worth dying if I get to finally have sex with Paul Newman...in his heyday, of course. On the other hand, I once asked a college class I taught what they thought heaven was like and something like 75 per cent of them thought we’d have to work up there. If they’re right, there’s absolutely no point to even thinking about planning for retirement in this lifetime.
I also recently discovered I’m seriously scared of my cellar. Note: It is a cellar and not a basement. I was down there the other night trying to hunt up some caulk for the bathroom tub and the lights suddenly flickered. Let me tell you how fast I got out of there—I think I set a record for flight I couldn’t have matched at age 15--and I was too afraid to go back down and turn off the light over the workbench, so I left it on all night.
Why do you think there are fewer women writing horror than men?
I think women have, for the most part, been socialized to avoid the dark side. When I was younger and met people and they would ask about my writing they’d always say, “I bet you write romance.” They were shocked when I said I wrote horror. A few of them read some of my work and joked to my paramour, “Hey, have you seen this stuff? Aren’t you afraid to sleep next to her at night?” I took it as a compliment.
Who are some women horror authors that you admire?
Well, some of them won’t strike you as typical horror authors, but parts of their work really resonate with me. Example: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. You’ve got this tremendous sense of isolation, loneliness, fear, pain—that novel is fraught with horror’s themes; ditto Emily Bronte and Sylvia Plath. It also goes without saying I’m crazy over Shirley Jackson. My contemporary favorites include Monica O’Rourke, Corrine De Winter, and Elizabeth Massie. All three write beautifully and their work is replete with haunting images that really cut bone deep.
What is your advice to aspiring women horror writers?
Read everything in and out of the genre you can get your hands on and don’t think of yourself as a female horror writer or even a horror writer per se, but as a writer. Work at making your stories and books have subtext and meaning. And don’t be afraid to write male characters’ points of view—it can be extremely liberating.
What are your favourite horror novels?
Boy, these lists of authors (and now novels) I’m coming up with are so truncated--I’m not even scratching the surface of all the great ones out there. One is certainly, Peter Straub’s Shadowland and also the brilliant, Hellfire Club. Just as I’m a huge Straub fan, I also really love Stephen King’s work in general and in particular, Misery, The Shining and Salem’s Lot. I’m madly in love with William Styron and John Irving. I also love F. Paul Wilson’s, The Keep; and without a doubt, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
What is your favourite novel you’ve written and your favourite character you’ve created? Why?
I have a couple of trunk novels best left inside the trunk (with the lock fastened and the key thrown away) so it would have to be The Gentling Box, and my favorite character is the narrator, Imre, because he has a lot of heart and he’s sensitive... but he’s no saint. But the real reason he’s my favorite is because he has to confront the most terrible thing he’s ever witnessed, the most horrific experience of his life—gentling—and consider utilizing it to save his family. It’s a concept that I think goes to the deepest area of what it means to be human and I think faced with that proposition, most of us would like to think we’d choose our loved ones—but we never really know, do we?
You run a website called The Chancery House. Can you tell us about it?
The Chancery House is a huge site that encompasses everything from a virtual haunted house to explore, dark fiction, free gothic e cards (based on my photography), TarotScope and occult divination, to all manner of things wicked and frightening. I started it because I wrote a young adult novel called The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. The premise of the book is that Tom and Huck have been reincarnated as familiars to a witch, but they long to be real live boys again; the witch has lost her powers, so Tom and Huck decide to help her out financially by starting up an inn. I actually had twin cats (named, yes, Tom and Huck) who were so mischievous and so like Twain’s characters, they inspired me to write a book. The site was developed as a tie-in to the novel. My current publisher is looking it all over, but I haven’t gotten the green light yet. My fingers are crossed, though, that’s for sure.
You wrote an article about the Lizzie Borden house being haunted. Can you tell us about your experience visiting the house? What sparked your interest in Lizzie Borden?
Of course everyone knew the sing-song rhyme about Lizzie taking up the axe, but when I was in college my mother went to the Vassar Book Fair and bought me a book called A Private Disgrace (still one of the finer books written about Lizzie) and I’ve been smitten ever since. I’ve had some amazing experiences in the house starting with my first visit during Necon in 2002. I was standing around having coffee and eating donuts, having eschewed the miniature golf outing, and asking Mary Booth about how to get to the Borden house. Two women overheard me and casually said they were considering a visit to Second Street in Fall River, too, and I offered to drive. They turned out to be Stephen King’s assistants. I kept thinking, “Holy shit, I’m on my way to the Lizzie Borden house with Stephen King’s assistants. It doesn’t get better than that.” But it did. It turned out it was Lizzie’s birthday and the house was very active. That day when I walked into Lizzie’s room, I felt like I was looking through dirty brown gauze. A couple of people heard her call me out loud from another part of the house while I was in the bathroom. Subsequently I’ve seen lights flicker in the cellar (just ask Sephera Giron about that escapade), and a mannequin--wearing one of Lizzie’s dresses--move. I’ve done some psychometry with tiny, postage-stamp-sized pieces of brick from the cellar and one of them, which I left on a bookshelf in the parlor where Andrew was murdered, actually wound up in my purse and I didn’t find it til I was home in New York. There are lots of ghostly pictures taken by me and other notable horror writers on my Chancery House website. But, I’ve also taken a turn or two into fiction with Lizzie. Most recently, I wrote a story called “1925: A Fall River Halloween” for Shroud Magazine (Autumn 2010).
Can you tell us about your latest release, Deathwatch?
In the first work, Dissolution, Stuart Granville is an aspiring medical student from the South who's been sent down for drinking and believes he's heading north to Hyde Park, New York to tutor twin girls. Instead, he discovers that his charges, Abby and Eleanor, not only have never been to school of any kind, but that they are Siamese twins their father, a doctor with grandiose dreams, means to separate surgically, taking advantage of Stuart's expertise and his vulnerability. Unbeknownst to both men, the supernatural force at work in the house has a different agenda—and a will of its own.
In The Sheila Na Gig, Tom Smith is on a ship in steerage and bound for New York from his native Ireland after facing down the constraints imposed by his family, overcoming the loss of his first love, circumventing his grandmother's wiles and occult knowledge, and trying to save his younger, mentally challenged sister, Delia, from both witchcraft and sexual abuse.
Both novellas—which are companion pieces set in the 19th century--focus thematically on broken childhoods. And there’s a nifty little twist at the end of The Sheila Na Gig I think astute readers will find especially interesting.
Do you own an e-reader? How do you think e-readers are changing the publishing industry?
Yes, I have a Kindle; it was actually part of my advance for the new issue from Shadowfall Publications of The Gentling Box (available in e versions and in print). I was genuinely surprised to find how much I love reading on it. I’m such a book fiend, I didn’t think I’d like it very much and lo and behold I love it. It wouldn’t work for coffee table books or books that rely heavily on photographs like those that I need for research (like my Everest Hauntings novel in progress), but it’s actually a godsend in many respects because I have over 5,000 books and really don’t need, say, Ann Rule’s latest (I’m a closet true-crime maven) sitting on a shelf. I’ve been so immersed at times when reading that when I’ve gotten to the end of a screen, I’ve actually lifted my hand as though I were about to turn a page—and forgot I had to click a button to advance—which made me laugh like hell.
I’m no business whiz, that’s for sure...but I think at the very least, E readers appeal to our very definite need (pumped up by the Internet the last few years) for instant gratification. You thought Amazon was fast before? Get the book you want (after downloading a free sample) in less time than it takes to navigate from your desk to the doorway.
What do you hope readers get out of your work?
Aside from the usual thrills and chills they expect in horror fiction, I hope they discover new worlds, different places, interesting ideas and connect very strongly on an emotional level. I’m certainly engaged and immersed as I work, and I see and hear and come alive during each scene; I’m literally transported and I hope they are, too. When I wrote The Sheila Na Gig, my mother cried when she finished it. She wasn’t much of a crier (in fact, even when I warned her not to watch The Exorcist alone because I slept with the lights on for 6 weeks afterward, she reported laughing throughout the film) so I thought it was a compliment but didn’t put too much stock in it. (After all, she was my mother.) But, I recently received a very nice note from a young man describing how he was nearly (and since it was a young man I’m assuming he might not have been comfortable with ’fessing up completely) in tears reading it.
That kind of thing means the world to me. Emotions are more difficult to render in writing—books lack the immediacy of films, the theater, opera—so if I can make readers shiver, laugh, learn something new and weep by turns I think everyone walks away satisfied. I may not write a happy ending, but I strive to make my readers feel satisfied and that they’ve experienced something a little different, a little off the beaten path and that they’ve found something they can hang onto even after they’ve turned the last page.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on several short stories (oh those deadlines!) and as soon as they are done, I’m back to working on the novel in progress, The Everest Hauntings. It’s basically the story of a woman, Maxie Breedelove, who’s been the financial black sheep in a very successful family. She’s also a hypnotherapist who’s terrified of heights. She conceives of the idea of climbing Mt. Everest (with virtually no experience) so that she can go on the very lucrative lecture circuit and offer a further twist of teaching self-hypnosis to overcome obstacles. Everest is littered with bodies of those who failed in their quests and what Maxie doesn’t realize is that in using self-hypnosis, she becomes more vulnerable to the ghost and spirits who endlessly traverse the mountain.