This is our second Modern Marvel feature this week, but I haven’t really explained what that means. I’ve declared women, like Elizabeth Massie, Modern Marvels because they are the best horror fiction writers in the genre right now. Keep in mind, I won’t be able to feature every Modern Marvel, I just picked my favorites. Modern Marvels create macabre lit of the highest caliber, but they also exhibit talents in other genres and often outside the world of writing altogether. Although Lisa Mannetti got her first Bram Stoker Award just a few years ago, her resume continues to grow rapidly, and each book has the staying power of a classic. Her writing talents aren’t isolated to horror either. Mannetti delves into supernatural fantasy, black humor, and even non-fiction educational books (at least one that I know of), so she fits in nicely here.
Mannetti shares a few commonalities with our Monday Modern Marvel feature, Elizabeth Massie. You can find both ladies in the phonebook under “Ma.” They each garnered a Bram Stoker Award for debut novel. Both have a sweet disposition that rivals the graphic violence and horrific content often displayed in their books – to look at them you would never think they write some of the most cutting edge *gasp* horror novels today. And both women have a varied and complicated catalogue, not always isolated to our beloved genre.
I have to give props to horror author and filmmaker Greg Lamberson for introducing me to Lisa Mannetti. He popped into the Rue Morgue Mortuary’s Grim Readers thread – once a horror fiction fan’s paradise – to tell members that Lisa Mannetti’s Deathwatch was coming out soon and we all had to read it. By this point, Mannetti had already acquired a Bram Stoker Award for The Gentling Box, so she was hardly obscure. Not surprisingly, I had missed that title. As I mentioned before, I always struggle to keep up with what the cool kids are reading.
I was a burgeoning Lamberson fan and had bantered back and forth with him on the board, so I trusted his opinion and knew he wouldn’t lead me astray. I set off on my journey into the mind of a mani…er, I mean, the mind of Mannetti with Deathwatch in hand and it was a disturbing, often uncomfortable trip – uncomfortable in the sense that Mannetti took me outside my comfort zone and this is a quality I crave from writers. I love to be shocked by a book and surprised by my own sensibilities.
What I expected to be a quiet horror was actually quite the opposite. Deathwatch collects two companion novellas, “The Sheila Na Gig” and “Dissolution,” the latter nominated for a Bram Stoker Award in the long fiction category in 2010. Both stories are distinct in tone, but share similar themes; psychological terror and sexual perversions that really get under the reader’s skin. She leaves a breadcrumb trail that cleverly leads outside the realm of normality and into the supernatural.
“Dissolution” was my personal favorite of the two, although “The Sheila Na Gig” was equally horrifying. The former takes the reader back to a time of horse and buggy, crude medical practices, and the desperate isolation of one tragic family. I think Lamberson was spot on when he said “Lisa Mannetti’s evocative prose is at once romantic and terrifying.” That describes both stories quite perfectly.
Mannetti is quite skilled at weaving intricate details into her stories to draw the reader in without bogging down the pace. The Gentling Box is another great example of her ability to bring an unknown world to life for the reader. Mannetti ensures she has tight footing on the historical context of her story and this plays an important role in its believability. Set in the 1860s and following a gypsy family through a terrifying and possessive grip of evil, every little detail is essential. Here’s the full synopsis:
The philosophies of the Age of Enlightenment create sweeping changes throughout 19th Century Europe, but to Hungary’s despised nomads, the gypsies, the world is still a dark and very dangerous landscape. Adversaries both mortal and supernatural lurk in the shadows, waiting to strike without mercy. Imre, a half-gypsy horse trader, understands the danger to his small family all too well.
Cursed with a hideously-disfiguring and fatal disease by the vengeful sorceress Anyeta, he watches those around him suffer and fall. Mimi, his wife, who is tricked into cutting off her own arm to create a powerful talisman. His friend Constantin, struck mute by Anyeta’s wrath. And Lenore, his and Mimi’s young daughter, who has been placed in the greatest jeopardy of all. With his health deteriorating and death imminent, his wife possessed by the witch’s ghost and Lenore being groomed for a fate far worse than death, Imre turns to desperate measures and a hellish memory from his childhood—to still the sorceress and end her reign of bloodshed. A presence even more powerful and terrifying to him than Anyeta: the gentling box.
Mannetti’s books aren’t popcorn horror, the kind of fast-paced novel you devour like a late night movie snack. Her stories are to be savored, digested with a nice glass of dry red, and pondered long after the taste has faded from your palate. I remember when I first read Deathwatch, I considered it “smart horror,” but it turns out there’s actually a word for that style – “literary horror.” I’m sure you already knew that, but I once commented at a wine tasting that my sample had a woody flavor only to find out that’s what you call “oaky,” so please forgive my ignorance. Anyway, if you want to hear Mannetti expound on what the “literary horror” classification means to her, there is an interesting interview on helluo librorum that is quite illuminating.
Mannetti has carved her own little niche in the genre and made herself quite at home. Her “smart horror,” “literary horror,” or whatever you want to call it is intelligently written and at the same time accessible. Her background in 18th and 19th century literature is apparent. Actually, I should say I’m not surprised she has a background in literature of that period because I probably would not have made that connection myself. Regardless, she uses her extensive knowledge of the written word to build an elaborate landscape unbound by the shackles of the present. She has the ability to take the reader anywhere she wants.
She shares an important characteristic with an old splatterpunk favorite, Richard Laymon; she boasts strong readability. Everyone here at Dreadful Tales, and the horror fiction fans in my extended reading circles, love Mannetti! I mention Laymon in the same breath because it seems like Laymon fans especially – people who will read Laymon exclusively for months on end – are particularly fond of this writer and it’s not hard to see why.
When discussing the meaning of “literary horror” with helluo librorum, Mannetti said “…the best “literary” works incorporate popular appeal and intellectual and emotional grace notes.” And I believe she has accomplished that fete in her own work.
While Deathwatch and The Gentling Box are dramatic horror tales, Mannetti has a couple stories in which she indulges her dark sense of humor.
For a taste of Mannetti’s black humor, check out 51 Fiendish Ways to Leave Your Lover. This Bad Moon Books release has illustrations by Glenn Chadbourne and the best tagline, “Revenge is the best revenge.”
Just released this past summer, The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn also shows a warm and humorous side to Mannetti’s writing. I recently reviewed The New Adventures… and I can’t praise it enough. Anyone who loves cats, Mark Twain, or both has to read this book! It’s a heart-warming tale of whimsy following Tom and Huck with Tom narrating. They are reincarnated as cat familiars to witch and get themselves into all sorts of trouble, just as they did in the famous Twain novels. There’s plenty of laughs and a few good scares in what is a true love letter to Mannetti’s own beloved favorite, Mark Twain. She still sneaks in a couple morbid parts to the story, but cut out a couple R rated bits and this is fit for reading to the kids. In fact, a YA version will be published in about a month or so. Dreadful Tales will let you know when it’s released because if you’re a parent, this is the perfect dark lil’ tale to share with your kiddies. Or your grandma! I got a copy for my grandma at Christmas and she absolutely adored it. Now she’s interested in reading more of Mannetti’s titles, but I may need to screen ‘em first because I’m not sure my gentle grandmother can handle the hard stuff… yet!
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention Mannetti’s YA educational book that I briefly mentioned earlier, Iran and Iraq: Nations at War. Her non-fiction book is for grades 7 and up and was published back in 1986, but I ask her about that in an upcoming interview, so you can get the scoop directly from Mannetti herself. Here’s a quick description:
Surveys the historical background and recent events of the war between Iran and Iraq and considers the resulting political and economic complications for the region and for oil-dependent countries.
As far as I know, Mannetti can’t rival Massie’s knitting abilities (Massie recently finished a Dr. Who-inspired scarf that’s almost 20’ long!), but she is an exceptional confectioner. You’ll have to take my word for it.
Stay tuned to Dreadful Tales because we have an interview with the author coming up soon!