Lisa W. Cantrell is an American author of horror and suspense. She is a Birmingham, Alabama native and lived for several years in North Carolina. In an interview with the Greensboro News & Record, Cantrell said she wrote several short stories early in her career, submitting to “national magazines” without much luck. Then fortune smiled upon her in the mid-1980s. “I met my editor at a writer’s conference in New York and she asked me if I could write a horror story about a haunted house. I said I would try.”
Cantrell’s first novel got very nice treatment from Tor Books. The Manse was published in November 1987 — 25 years ago this month. It received accolades, sold well into multiple printings, and won a Bram Stoker Award for First Novel. She wrote two more horror novels: The Ridge (1989) and Torments (1990), which was a sequel to The Manse. Her 1992 novel Boneman took a side-step into the realm of crime fiction. It was also Cantrell’s first hardcover release. Kirkus gave the book a lackluster review, predicting Cantrell’s change of focus from horror to police procedural would not appeal to fans of either genre. Publishers Weekly on the other hand predicted Boneman would still appeal to fans of both genres, praising its characterization and plot twists, with a “fast-paced style [that] redeems a multitude of sins.”
In November 1992, Cantrell told Francis M. Ward of the News & Record that her fifth novel, The Adjustor (sic), was scheduled to appear in October 1993, but that book was never released.
For all intents and purposes, there seems to have been buzz about Ms. Cantrell from the beginning. An interview in the Fall 1989 issue of 2AM Magazine by Stephen T. Ward reveals an interviewer enamored with his interviewee as he writes of their ride together on a bus from the old Stapleton Airport in Denver to the 1989 Horrorfest held at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. Ward talks to Cantrell about The Manse, the supernatural, her philosophies on how to write scary fiction, the key role characterization plays in writing good horror, and gets her to admit she’s afraid of the dark. There’s also a twist of irony here in her answer to the question about supernatural horror vs. real horror: “It’s a different approach to the heart of fear,” Cantrell said. “There are certain things I stay clear of in writing. Things that there is no way to take apart, such as a psychotic killer … and the drug-crazed brutos” (Ward 51). She seems to have had a bit of a change of heart, as within a couple of years she wrote Boneman, with a murderous drug lord villain joining forces with a voodoo zombie maker.
You may wonder if the buzz about The Manse is justified. I was curious myself. I plowed through my reading copy of The Manse this October and found it to be a serviceable horror novel, fairly tame by the standards of its contemporaries, but nonetheless possessing its charms.
There is very much a teen feel to this novel. Even though the main characters are adults, they are not far removed from their high school lives. We have the main character Samantha, a local reporter, who had a long term on-and-off relationship with Zack, the town sheriff and former star quarterback, still hanging out with his high school buddies who have nicknames like Tank, Mick the Kick, and Atilla the Hun. “Wolfman” Zack is actually something of a bully jerk. One wonders how Samantha could have possibly been so enamored with the guy, especially after he demonstrates some borderline physically abusive behavior. I had a very hard time seeing Zack as a sheriff. Another of the primary characters in the book is L.J. who goes by his nickname “Dood” throughout the book. Since Dood is an African-American man who owns his own video store, and seems in many ways to be the most rational actor of the bunch, one wonders at the choice to have the character saddled with such a cringey nickname. Cantrell introduces a young lawyer character from the outside world — Ted moves to town after a rough divorce and becomes Samantha’s romantic love interest, supplying some new conflict for the dysfunctional Zack and Samantha show. All of the main players belong to the local Jaycees, who run an annual haunted house at an abandoned mansion in town: the manse with a dark history, high atop a hill, eerie and brooding.
The story gives us a lot of detail about the set-up, organization, and operation of the haunted house. There are some supernatural happenings along the way, but not many until the end of the book. When supernatural events do occur they are interesting and inventive, and one can see how the average reader might even have found this book scary. By the 13th annual haunted Halloween festival at the manse, something dark is stirring, tied to the history of the family who lived there, and by the end of the book, the supernatural powers of the house are at high swirl when all hell breaks loose.
The Manse was a decent book. Cantrell’s writing is solid, even if the pace lags a bit in the middle. I can see where fans of horror craving a “quieter” kind of novel would have embraced this book in the late ’80s. Of course, anything Halloween-themed seems to enjoy a perennial popularity. My five star system (1 = sucked, 2 = okay, 3 = good, 4 = great, and 5 = amazing) gives this a solid 3 — it was good. The Manse is also currently holding its value in the collectors market; even low grade copies of the book, which has been out of print since the early 1990s, currently fetch $40 or more.
Looking back, Cantrell was both a phenomenon and a mystery.
The phenomenon started with the success of The Manse. Tor was clearly behind her. The advertising, promotion, and production values of her books were top notch. The book sold well. She won a Stoker, presumably no small accomplishment for a newcomer. She was the subject of multiple interviews in small press magazines of the era; Paul B. Thompson in a 1991 issue of Forbidden Lines called her “The First Lady of Horror.” Her shorter work appeared in After Hours and Cemetery Dance #4 plus a prestigious list of mass market anthologies including Women of Darkness II, Hotter Blood, Under the Fang, and Monsters in Our Midst. It seems her last published fiction appeared in a Martin Greenberg anthology Phantoms of the Night, published by DAW Books in 1996.
The mystery is how someone who was so visible and so successful could suddenly and completely disappear from the scene — or so it seems in retrospect anyway. One is tempted to speculate, but the possible reasons for this, given the twists and turns of real life, are many. Yes, the horror market was pretty much finished by the mid-1990s, but she seemed to have disappeared well before the end of a solid run. Perhaps it’s best to leave this mystery unsolved until, or unless, Ms. Cantrell chooses to resurface and tell us all about it. I’m sure, with the enduring demand for her work, she’d be welcomed back with open arms, and could find a whole new readership with audiences today.
Special thanks to Jonathan Reitan for sharing the Cantrell interview from his Fall 1989 copy of 2AM Magazine.
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