Steven Sherrill

Steven Sherrill is a poet, painter, English professor at Penn State Altoona and banjo player. Oh, yes, and he also writes novels, three so far, the most recent being "The Locktender's House."

Previously, he wrote "Visits from the Drowned Girl" and "The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break."

Although all these books fit into the horror genre, Sherrill is loath to concede it: "The only pattern I'd admit to is challenging myself with every book I write, each one to be different than the others," said Sherrill during a phone interview from his Pennsylvania home. "Yet all three books have things in common. They all occur in a crazy, imaginative place where imagination gets warped. The supernatural is more present in "The Locktender's House."'

In all his books, Sherrill writes "paragraphs as if they were poems, like the music of language. Some say it is overwritten. That criticism seems silly. It's akin to telling a painter he can only use primary colors."

In "The Locktender's House," Janice Witherspoon's boring life is thrown into chaos when her boyfriend, an American soldier, is killed in the Iraqi desert. When his family discovers that she was sharing his North Carolina apartment, they insist she move out. She grabs her meager belongings and hits the road but has no idea where she is going, maybe to meet her boyfriend's body on its return from Iraq.

Inner voices drive her in strange directions and she ends up in rural Pennsylvania

where she finds an abandoned, ramshackle lockhouse. Exhausted, she explores the house and is taken by the feeling of calm, so she stays, it turns out, for months. Finally, she meets Stephen Gainy, an art professor and stone carver, and they are attracted to each other.

But strange things keep happening to Janice which eventually puts their promising relationship in jeopardy. Suspense gradually builds until horrific events explode.

It is a masterful work, especially from such a youthful author. Sherrill based the novel on actual events he researched along the canal systems of the Northeast around the turn of the century.

Sherrill admits to having been influenced by the "whackiness" of Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut, especially the latter's "Slaughterhouse Five," although he has also enjoyed Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King. But Michael Ondaatje, author of "The English Patient" and other powerful works, had "the most amazing influence" on him.

"Ondaatje has an orchestra conductor's command of the language," Sherrill said.

Sherrill's novel grew from his own arrival in Altoona in 2000 and exploring the old canals and locks. "Part of me is still a 12-year-old boy fascinated with this kind of stuff," Sherrill said. He concluded that "the canal system was flawed and lasted 40-50 years until it was overtaken by the railroads as a transportation system."

Sherrill admits to a huge imagination and said that "some things never make it out of my imagination, but this one did. I started consuming material that was readily accessible to learn about the canals. If you charge forward with open eyes, good things will come to you."

Although his research and interviews with park rangers and others were extensive, he made no pretense of "sticking to the truth. I have no problems taking liberties with geography or moving around mountains," Sherrill said, chuckling.

According to Sherrill, he often taps into his own insecurities in his writing, creating characters "from a collage of my own problems and people I've known. Janice has psychological issues, but some things in her life are not her fault. She matures in Steven's presence and finds her grown-up self. The closer she gets to Steven, the more the supernatural rears its head."

Sherrill enjoys "manipulating the pace" of a novel, creating suspense as he goes, as well as the passage of time. It took Janice a long time to get to the lockhouse because the author was creating a mood.

"At a reading, someone asked me if the book is a fantasy novel, and it baffled me. I had not even remotely considered it to be fantasy. But there is horror," said Sherrill. His wife easily recognizes his "novel face." She notices when he "gets glassy-eyed, as if I were watching a movie in my head. It's a great place to be. When I get excited about it, I try to step back and not rush it just to get to the end."

Often Sherrill writes for as much as seven hours a day. "I've always been blessed or cursed with imagination. I can't imagine life without imagination. I spend a lot of time in my head, making up stuff. I've always had a willingness and desire to go into my head. In fact, I'm convinced that everyone has a stream of nonsense going through their heads all the time — little narratives, little horrors they relive, triggered by something they see."

Sherrill believes that most people have such a tendency, and "if it isn't beaten out of you, you may acknowledge it and utilize it. I'm not willing to believe that there are any humans with no imagination."


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com