Four Legs in the Morning
by Norman Prentiss
Cemetery Dance (2011)
Four Legs in the Morning is a collection of three short stories, and I knew this ahead of time, yet there was some silly piece of my brain that was looking for the fourth story on account of the title. The title says Four, so why aren't there four? Despite the completely irrational sense that I'd been denied a story, the three I did read were a treat.
While each story is different, they each revolve around a university professor named Dr. Bennett Sibley. Sibley is a mild-mannered and seemingly well-liked presence around Graysonville University, but each story peels back a layer on people's views on the professor and what they see isn't quite so cozy.
"Four Legs in the Morning" is the first story with Leonard, a jealous junior professor at the university fuming over Sibley's perceived obstruction and antiquity, all while holing himself up in in Sibley's cabin the woods at the old professor invite. He's hoping for peace, quiet, and maybe a little inspiration. as he attempts to write his second book.
The next story called "Flannelboard" involves a student turned plagiarist who winds up volunteering for Sibley's at a library where the professor uses a flannelboard and hand cut figures of flannel to tell stories to children. The most understated of the three stories, but I thought the eery quality was just the right chord, making the story feel weird without really being overt in any way about it.
And finally, "The Mask of Tragedies" and a university administrator named Michael who is ill at ease over Sibley's influence within the university and an unsettling fascination with masks. As Michael seeks a way to slash Sibley's departmental budget, and maybe be rid of Sibley in the process, Sibley visits the Michael's wife and offers a gift. A little wooden hand-carved infant, a thoughtful gift in the wife's eyes, but ominous to Michael given their attempts to start a family.
There's nothing overtly horrific in any of the tales, but there's an unsettling allusion to Sibley's true nature that can send a shiver up your spine while you read. There's a bit of a Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock quality to the stories that I enjoyed, though I was hoping there might be a little more in the way of connecting narrative of the three stories. Still, Norman Prentiss has an intriguing touchstone with Sibley, exploring the effects he has--or inflicts--on others. I wouldn't mind reading more of these stories.