Short Story: A Spectral Revue by Melanie Roussel
There is nothing more tragic than the sight of a long-abandoned theatre. The old Acheron Theatre in the centre of the thriving city was due to be pulled down at the end of the month due to its extensive structural damage and health risks. But as David set the tripod legs down in the dust and grime, he felt rather pleased with this find. There was an irony in the decay of so much opulence. The combination of peeling gold leaf; tarnished metal and fraying velvet gave the dying theatre an atmosphere of tragic dignity.
Time had not been kind to the place. It had survived war, flood and fire, yet it was new health and safety laws which had finally been its downfall. Despite objections from heritage protection societies, it was deemed too hazardous to remain standing. Here, in the somewhat dated interior, evidence of its longtime alone showed in inch thick dust and industrial strength cobwebs. The decay was rampant; a mixture of neglect, vandalism and aggressive mould fuelled by the holes in the roof, letting in the rain. The mould had been the final straw, excuse enough to finally demolish the theatre and now urban legend said the spores could affect you if you stayed long enough.
The photos would be an easy sell. The nostalgic yet eerie scenes always captured people’s imaginations. But no photo he could take would reflect the feeling this place had. That pervasive sense of the energy that had once been here now heartlessly stilled. The invisible, captivated audience; the silenced applause, laughter and tears; the sound of rising music now replaced by whistling wind through glassless windows in lifeless corridors. Even in death, the magic of the theatre seemed to linger. And this theatre had a history.
David felt an unbidden chill run through him in the hollow, echoing auditorium. The sense of a usually filled space being so empty gave him a sense of unease he couldn’t quite place. He tugged his collar higher up his neck to keep out the cold.
As one of the oldest theatres in the city, generations of stage legends had made their debuts here. Many a diva had sung their final, farewell performance before, inevitably, returning the next season. And, like any self-respecting old building which had seen so much life, there had been death here. An old patron had died in his seat during a four-hour production. Having seen the play in question, David could hardly blame him. A beloved diva had ended it all in her dressing room rather than face her dwindling fame. Perhaps most famously, an actor had died after a stage fight had gone wrong.
Of course, it’s likely that some or none of these things had actually happened. But like the plays performed, reality took a backseat to fantasy and it only mattered that people wanted to believe it was true.
As he coughed into the sleeve of his jacket, he tried not to think of what he was likely breathing in, just standing here. The dust seemed to cling to his throat and lungs. The thrill David had felt at this illicit adventure into the past was starting to ebb. Best take the shots and leave.
He focused his camera on the stage from the back right of the theatre. An artistically convenient hole in the once ornate ceiling let in sunlight at a slanted angle. It almost made it seem like a spotlight, illuminating the centre of the barren stage. Almost as though it was ready for the grand entrance of a sad clown.
As he fussily adjusted the lens again, he saw movement. David’s heart leapt like had missed a step on a well-known staircase. His head darted up as he scanned the room for a fellow trespasser in this mouldy mausoleum. Nothing. David felt a shiver as he imaged the pests which must have made their home here since the theatre closed its doors. Maybe it was the mould putting him on edge. He was going to start hearing things next too.
David scolded himself and returned to work. He calculated his likely fee for the photos as a dreary comfort in these hollow surroundings.
He turned his attention to a long shot, showing the dusty backs of faded red velvet chairs. Using the mid-distance as his point of focus, he adjusted the lens with practised ease and jerked up again. Unmistakable this time, a movement in the corner of his frame. He looked up the row but saw nothing, just empty seats waiting for an audience who would never come again.
He quelled an urge to call out, realising with a startling horror that a forthcoming reply would be even worse than the unknown. He licked his lips, his heart beat a symphony in his ears, then shook his head. He was disturbing the usually idle dust, causing strange shapes in the air. What else could it be but an uncanny result of the uneven light?
With equal measure of trepidation and curiosity, he gazed through the camera. The lens had been knocked out of focus but his startled movement. The shape hadn’t disappeared like a fleeting shadow in a waking dream. David’s mind tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Try as he might convince himself of anything else, all he could see was the outline of a person. A person travelling along the row in that awkward, sideways shuffle until coming to a pause.
David gasped as the vague shape changed. He could imagine it taking a seat. David’s head reared back again but still, he was alone in this theatrical graveyard. The sense of danger was building, creeping through his mind like a black spider. But if the shape he was seeing was a person, their head was looking up at the stage. As though it was watching a performance, but of what?
David picked up his tripod and with a hurried, determined step he took his place in the centre aisle. He aimed his camera up at the stage, bringing it into focus and… nothing. Rationality chided him for his fantasy. After all that, a trick of the light.
Against every instinct he had honed as a photographer, David pushed the lens out of focus, until the stage and seats were nothing more than a blur. Only the rough shapes and outlines indicating what he was looking at. But as the world through the lens blurred out of focus, three figures on stage began to appear. Their forms were unmistakable, but the details were impossible to see. Two distinct shapes, full of animation yet stilted; darting forward and back across the front of the stage. As he watched, David realised that it was stage combat, the kind he remembered being enthralled by as a boy – all clash and flash with little actual contact. And stage centre, standing in the natural spotlight, a person with arms outstretched like a tragic heroine singing her last aria.
What was this? What were these unreal apparitions which only appeared in the world of the unfocused lens of a camera? Every glance at the theatre told him he was alone, yet the figures were there to see. The unreality of what he was seeing on the stage fascinated and horrified him. It was an illusion, but one that he couldn’t look away from, even as that clawing sense of danger began to rise in him again.
With unconscious muscle reflex rather than conscious thought, David’s finger twitched, striking the shutter button. The intense flash of artificial light ripped through the theatre in a vague hope of showing the truth behind the delusion.
But the forms didn’t fade. They paused.
The fighters stopped mid-battle, the prima donna lowered her arms and the head in the audience turned its faceless face towards him.
All other emotions tumbled away leaving only rigid fear as he became horribly aware that he was just as visible to the shadows as they were to him.
Another unwelcomed movement in the lower section of his frame made him shift the unfocused lens on a figure moving up the centre aisle. His frantic, disbelieving gaze was split between the eye of the camera where the figure drew ever closer and the empty theatre around him. His panting fear fogged the glass of his viewfinder. With a curse, he desperately wiped it clear with a shaking thumb in time to see the figure in front of him. No face, no person, just a trick of the mind.
All at once, a sharp pain ripped through him and he fell back. One trembling, grasping hand hit the tripod, knocking the camera down as he fell to the mould ridden floor. As the world around him lost focus and darkness tunneled his vision into unconsciousness, he heard a voice as substantial as the whistling wind.
“No flash photography, sir.”
By Melanie Roussel