It’s the spookiest day of the year – time to settle down with that bowl of goodies you’re supposed to be handing out to any visiting trick-or-treaters and lose yourself in a scary story. I love a good fright as much as anyone, but I love a love story too, and I tried to combine the two when I wrote The Spirit of Stage 13, the tale of a struggling Hollywood screenwriter and the ghostly actor he encounters on a disused sound stage.
The inspiration for the story came while watching Mark Gatiss’ excellent series, A History of Horror, curled up on the sofa in a rented Amsterdam apartment with a nice mug of hot Chocomel (who says I don’t know how to live?). Gatiss might be best known for his work with The League of Gentlemen and, more recently, as a Dr Who scriptwriter, but he’s a serious horror buff, and his love for the genre infuses his written work and acting performances. In the series, he discusses Lon Chaney’s seminal role as the Phantom of the Opera, but what struck me about that film was its amazing set, constructed on Stage 28 at Universal Studios, and how a portion of that set still remains in place nearly 90 years later. Indeed, it’s rumoured that Chaney’s ghost still haunts the set, and that’s what triggered my idea.
In The Spirit of Stage 13, the film being produced with the incredible set is a version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, itself a notoriously unlucky play as far as actors are concerned. During its production, a young actor named Jack Buckler is killed, and his ghost is said to linger, though screenwriter Evin Pierce doesn’t know that when he first steps on to the stage.
The first thing to greet him was a pale, battered face staring sightlessly ahead. He almost jumped out of his skin, till he realised he was looking at some leftover prop from a horror film, a head no doubt designed to fly across the room having been severed with one swing of an axe, wrenching shrieks and laughter from a movie theatre audience in equal measure. Now he knew how people got the creeps simply walking around this place.
Getting over his shock, he took a better look at his surroundings. What struck him more than anything was the sheer size of the building. Even with all the crates and pieces of old scenery stacked up against the walls, it still had the dimensions—and solemn, silent atmosphere—of a great Gothic cathedral. No one challenged him as he walked further into the vaulted space, and he couldn’t help wondering who might have left the door open.
Gazing at the far wall, he whistled in admiration. Before him stood a perfect recreation of the interior of a mediaeval castle, complete with a deep-stepped stone staircase. He’d watched a lot of films over the years—first through the sheer love of cinema he’d developed as a kid, then later in an attempt to define what made the perfect script as he honed his writing skills—and he didn’t remember ever seeing anything set in a building like that. Why would anyone spend so much time constructing it, only to let it rot forgotten on an unused sound stage?
As he continued to stare at the castle wall, thinking he really ought to leave the deserted stage before somebody saw him and questioned what he was doing here, he seemed to feel a hand brush his cheek. The touch was featherlight, strangely intimate. Startled, Evin glanced round, wondering who’d crept up on him, but no one was there.
Of course, it’s Jack who lurks in the shadows, and who sees meeting Evin as the opportunity to live out all the erotic pleasures he never got to experience. But what will happen when Jack’s dreams of mind-blowing sex are finally fulfilled?
You can find out more about Stage 28, and see pictures of the stage as it was and is in this article by Michael F. Blake, while The Spirit of Stage 13 is available from Total-e-bound. Don’t have nightmares…