On Creation
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On Creation

The Hollywood Revue of 1929

An excerpt from my novel SCREENS

I found myself seated in a crowded movie theatre.

There were people all around me, excited, smiling, eager for the movie to start. I was one of them. I could feel the happy anticipation, the giddy thrill of seeing this picture. It was the premier, and I had managed a ticket! I was a twenty-year-old woman, an aspiring actress working as a receptionist at Wilshire Production Scaffolding. It was June 20, 1929, and my father’s attorney had managed to procure two tickets, provided I would accompany him.

The film was The Hollywood Revue of 1929; the place was Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

A cavalcade of stars and famous people were everywhere. Flashing cameras, interviews, so much glitz and glamour. It was like a dream! I smiled and felt the giddy thrill of mixing with so many famous people. There! Was that Stan Laurel? And I could see Jack Benny laughing with Buster Keaton! It was all so incredible. Flashes and sequins, tuxedos and cigarette smoke, the perfume of uncorked champagne and the bright, star-filled eyes all around me.

My father’s attorney, a man in his latter forties, with a lot of shaggy hair, a barrel torso (my mother always called such people “heavy set”) and black eyes, was nodding around and smiling. His smile came from a twitch in his upper lip which never seemed to stop. He nodded like he was satisfied, then turned to me. He had his arm around my chair. His twitching lip went up as he looked at me, and he nodded some more.

I tried to smile back, but I was nervous and not sure how to act around him. He was my father’s attorney, so much older than me, and there was something about the way he looked at me that made me want to look away. But I was here, and he had brought me, so I smiled back. It was incredible! I was at the biggest Hollywood premiere of the year, possibly the decade!
My father’s attorney (”Please, call me Terrence”) gave me a long look, then turned and stood up to shake hands with a man who had recognised him. They conversed as men do, flippant and harsh, laughing and slapping one another on the arm. When they’d exchanged their back and forth, he introduced me.

“Miss Sylvia Templeton, may I introduce the big man himself, Mr Harry Rapf.” Harry Rapf laughed in a self-deprecating sort of way and put out his hand.
I was stunned. I stood there, mouth open a little bit, eyes goggling. This was Harry Rapf. The Harry Rapf! This was his movie! He was one of the biggest producers in pictures, and here I was, meeting him! It took me a moment to have the wits to give him my hand.

“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Templeton,” Mr Rapf said. I nodded and thanked him.

“What’d I tell ya,” my father’s attorney said, putting his arm around my waist and giving it a firm squeeze. “Is she not the spitting image? Is she not perfect?”
Mr Rapf looked me up and down, and nodded. “If you’re confused, Miss Templeton, it’s just that Terry here told me about you. He said you were the spitting image — ”

“The spitting image, I said!” my father’s attorney exclaimed, laughing and squeezing me again.

“ — Yes, the spitting image of Dorothy Burgess.” Mr Rapf smiled. “I must say, he was not wrong. Are you an actress, Miss Templeton?”

I told him I was, or I was trying to be. I worked as a receptionist at —

My father’s attorney cut me off. “She’s ready and willing and able,” and he laughed in a way that I didn’t like, but I smiled and nodded politely.

“Well, we’d love to do a screen test, if you’d be interested, Miss Templeton,” Mr Rapf said. I thought I was going to faint.

“You just send me the details, Harry,” my father’s attorney said, pulling me closer. “We’ll get the sparks flying!” Another laugh which made me squirm inside. I could feel his hand inch a bit lower down my waist. I felt ashamed and a little sick, but I stood properly and smiled, as my mother had taught me to do. This was my moment. I was going to get a screen test at MGM!
Mr Rapf said it was a pleasure to meet me. He and Terrence quipped a moment more, and then we took our seats.

The film was about to begin.

And so I watched the movie, smiled and laughed and tapped my toe to the music. It was delightful. I was so spellbound by the film, but even more, that I was going to be a star! I mean, it wasn’t sure, not entirely, but how many girls were asked to MGM for a screen test, and by Harry Rapf, no less! I felt alive, thrilled, and so engrossed in the movie that I thought I might burst!
The movie was a talkie, and so many big names were performing! Singing, dancing, so much glamour! Jack Benny and Conrad Nagel were the masters of ceremonies, introducing every act. Joan Crawford sang a lovely song at the piano. The chorus and dancers made us smile and laugh and sigh. Cliff Edwards sang “Nobody but you” in that dreamy voice of his. We were all laughing as Laurel and Hardy tried to perform a magic act, but only ended punching and pinching one another, and when Oliver Hardy slipped and fell on that giant cake, the whole theatre roared with laughter.

But then, as I watched, I frowned. There was something else. The movie played on, so full of happiness and cheer, and still there grew in my mind something unsettling. It was a feeling of impending ruin, of something creeping closer that could not be named. It was a colourless, shapeless fear, one come out of nowhere, but somehow it felt as if it had always been with me. It felt ancient, like instinct, a fear that went to one’s bones. I tried to watch the screen. I hoped it would quiet my mind, that this awful, rising anxiety would subside, but it didn’t. It only grew. This feeling, this terrible feeling of some unknown dread was washing against me in rising grey waves.

Everyone around me laughed and applauded at what was happening on the screen. But my laughter was gone. The singing and dancing receded for me. I saw the screen illuminated with shifting blacks and whites, but the shapes no longer made sense. It was nothing but chaotic light splayed on a massive rectangle. I squinted at what I was seeing, but some part of me wanted to turn away, to excuse myself and leave the theatre. But I didn’t. I sat and squinted, the fear building in me. The tide was rising fast. And then I saw it.

That movie screen was not just a canvas stretched across a wall. It wasn’t just a screen against which light was being projected. That was all anyone around me could see, but I saw that it was something awful. It was an opening in our world to another place, a dreadful place, and the source of my rising dismay. I watched with sickening fascination. This place beyond the screen was lifeless and twisting, like broken panes of clouded glass folding one into the other. The more I looked, the more clear it became. I was looking into another world, but nothing like ours. It was terrible, and as repellent as anything come lurching out of nightmare. It folded and clashed into itself, a stretch of glowing desolation. I could feel it, sense an enmity coming from it. And worst of all was its unfathomable silence. The deathly silence of that place, it shrieked. No living thing has ever given voice to anything like it. An awful, maddening screeching silence, convulsing into itself in unearthly angles.

I was shaking now, face white and eyes streaming with horrified tears. Even my father’s attorney had turned to me. I could only catch his concern out of the corners of my eyes. I could see his lip twitching in confusion and genuine fear. He was saying something to me, but I couldn’t hear him. I could only hear that silent shrieking of an impossible place, feel the hard clench in my throat as I gagged on the dreadful knowledge of what I saw.

“Ssseee THEM,” a voice stuttered in my mind. “Ssseee THEM, Mister {NHEEEEEEEEEEEEE}. This is where THEY found us.”

They came sliding out of the endless convulsions of that place. The putrid smell of them filled my nostrils. There were hundreds, thousands of them, and they came slithering to the edge of that open gate of a screen, that hole torn in the fabric of everything by the flickering of pictures and light. I could not make sense of what they were. Their shapes were ghastly and unclean, consumptive demons more awful than anything I could have imagined. They appeared then vanished in the shifting angles and edges beyond the screen. They were evil, the greatest evil that should never be known. These were creatures of malevolence, emaciated and starving.

I shuddered, and my hands tore at the seat rest, at Terrence’s jacket, but I was paralysed from looking away. From out of that blood-curdling silence, I heard the sound which pushed my mind beyond the point of sane return. A breathing, a desperate, insatiable death rattle wheezed from those things as they pressed against the screen. They were trapped, imprisoned just on the other side of the movie projection, clawing to get at us, to feed upon us, but we were fish beyond the aquarium glass. Thousands of them slashed and snarled against the limits of the silver screen, pressing as close as they could to get through. To get at us.

And then their attentions turned inevitably to me. I saw them, and they could see me. They could sense my awareness. I felt the squirming of alien minds boring into mine. I stared into the blue, lifeless void of their eyes, and knew them.

The silent shrieking was broken. It burst from my throat as the stab of a gutting knife. I screamed madness and hopelessness at the unsuspecting world. I screamed and screamed, and nothing could stop me. I could find no way to escape it, no path which did not lead me to the madhouse. They were there, waiting for us, swarming to feed upon us. The lights had come up, and the film had been stopped. People were looking at me, rushing to my side, but I could not unsee it. It only made it worse. The rising of the light only hid them from us. In the darkness, on that oblong patch of silver screen, they waited, desperate and starved for our essence. It was only a matter of time. They would find a way through. They would come for us. My scream became the high-pitched silent shriek of that terrible place. I shrieked without hope of any sort of salvation, for we were, all of us, guaranteed a coming doom.

Screens, Available Now in paperback and kindle

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Christopher Laine

Christopher Laine

Author, programmer, would-be philosopher. Author of Screens https://christopherlaine.net/screens

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