In September, TDS hosted a writing contest that was named after Professor Jon Meyers, The Jon Meyers Dark Humour Prize for Gothic Literature (a.k.a. The Jon Meyers Gothic Prize). Entries were read in October with the winners – selected by Meyers himself – announced on October 31st, just in time for Halloween. The winners were:
Rose Biggin, Mrs. Pepper’s Ghost (1st Place)
Liam Hogan, Practical Alchemy on a Budget (2nd Place)
Steven Lombardi, To Cross a Vampire (3rd Place)
Mary Sloat, A Bad Place to Meat (Honorable Mention)
Now, over the next two days, all four short stories will be released individually to celebrate Contemporary Gothic Literature. And what better time to release them than December, when the cold bite of snow and ice warrants snuggling into a warm blanket in the dark? These four stories may not be Christmas-related, but they definitely fit into the Gothic tradition of storytelling during the Christmas season.
So without further ado, sit back, snuggle down, and grab your cocoa as you nestle into read…
Mrs. Pepper’s Ghost
by Rose Biggin
Of all the theatrical ghosts appearing that season in the seaside town of Trippingly-on-the-Tongue, most were in agreement that the spirit hovering about the wings of the Repertory Theatre was fast becoming the biggest nuisance.
It began by appearing very briefly, always shortly before the interval. The more observant theatre-goers took its hint to rise from their seats and get in early at the queue for ice-creams. At this point the ghost seemed harmless enough, even benign.
The proprietor of the Trippingly Rep did not mind the theatre ghost at first, convincing herself a momentary flicker at the end of the first act brought some character to the place. But very quickly this was exactly the problem.
‘Did you see it?’ she would hear the punters asking each other as they left of the theatre. ‘Best thing of the night, I’d say!’
Its appearances became sporadic, unpredictable: ‘It flashed across the stage exactly at the point the detective revealed the murderer! I almost missed who did it.’
Soon it was on stage for whole scenes at a time: ‘My aunt thought it was part of the plot, a character everyone was ignoring.’
And as the snow fell: ‘Was the back half of the horse more see-through than usual to you?’
This wouldn’t do. Mrs Pepper had successfully navigated the Trippingly Rep through many a disastrous season. There had been the year of the actors’ strike, when she had played many of the parts herself; there had been the heatwave summer, when nobody had wanted to sit in hot darkness and watch a play.(Discounted ices had come to the rescue there.)There had been box-office flops, last-minute replacements, emergency closures and deadly rivalries with other theatres. These Mrs Pepper was particularly proud of seeing off. She had even, with her vivid and varied programme of entertainment, overtaken the town’s most prestigious theatre, the Trippingly Grand in all its gilt-and-velvet splendour, in popularity. She was certainly not about to lose her Rep to so insubstantial a problem as a ghost.
She could not deny that audiences seemed more interested in the ghost than the plays themselves. To counter this, Mrs Pepper decided to put on a very famous play, a classic they would definitely want to pay attention to, and chose the great tragedy Tarquin of Rome. She spent a lengthy tea-time convincing a local legendary actor to leave retirement and play the main role. Rehearsals went well, the rest of the company honoured to be playing alongside such a celebrity and spurred on to do their best, and expectations were high — until opening night, when the ghost appeared during Act One Scene One, in the guise of the legendary actor’s younger self, the first time they had played the role many years ago. He tried to ignore it, but his distraction was clear. In Act Two Scene Four the ghost appeared as the most famous actor to ever play the part, hovering sinisterly as tonight’s Tarquin struggled through the lines, sometimes even speaking over him. The rhapsody of the ghost’s delivery, evoking a performance from nearly a century ago, made the poor fellow on the stage nearly inaudible. For the rest of the play the ghost continued to reappear as various other Tarquins, and Mrs Pepper’s actor spent the whole night navigating through them.
‘We’ll go the other way,’ said Mrs Pepper, who was not to be deterred. ‘If the ghost is bothering my canonical drama, let’s try a crowd-pleaser. It might be a cultural snob.’ And so posters went up announcing the Rep would that night play one of the most popular pieces in its programme, the outrageous farce The Kicked Bouquet, set in an overstretched florist struggling to provide for multiple weddings and the funeral of a man who was faking his death.
But that did not work either. The play moved through its series of misunderstandings, its plot steadily gaining absurdity and speed — and in the second half the ghost appeared, with its vicar’s collar coming loose, running from door to door and back again, ghostly trousers around its ankles, confusing the audience as to what belonged to this farce and what had barged in from anotherfarce entirely. The curtain call was a mixture of applause and confused muttering, and the actors went home glum.
Drastic measures were now called for. The following day, alone in the theatre (more or less), Mrs Pepper unlocked her desk and consulted the faded letter from the previous proprietor of the Rep, recommending a course of action for exactly this emergency. Then she went down to the darkened props store, following the letter’s directions until she found a corner that had not been touched for many many years, and rummaged around until she found the object she was looking for. She held it out before her and examined it.
‘How curious,’ she said. Then she frowned. ‘And oddly familiar.’
Finally, she sent missives to the stage crew to meet her in the theatre that afternoon.
‘I have an answer to our current problem,’ she announced, standing centrestage. She held up a diagram drawn on the back of an old playbill. ‘Can you make me something like this?’
The crew stood in a semicircle around Mrs Pepper. Beside her was a sheet covering a bulky shape: the object she had found hidden in the props store.
‘Shouldn’t be too difficult,’ said the head carpenter, peering at the diagram. ‘What’s that, a mirror? Easy.’
‘Better than that and even simpler,’ said Mrs Pepper. ‘It is a pane of glass. We shall place it beneath the stage, angled to reflect the action above. Strength of the limelight will ensure it acts as a mirror, and then it shall merely be a matter of keeping watch. ’
She looked around the company as the same doom-laden thought settled upon all of them. There was a long pause, and an anxious shuffling of feet.
‘This is to do with getting rid of the g— getting rid of the presence, miss?’ asked one of the more superstitious stagehands, knotting her fingers together over her pinafore.
‘You have it exactly,’ said Mrs Pepper, smiling. ‘And we can ensure our efforts will be successful. By using this.’ She pulled the cloth away, and the assembled stagehands gasped at the sight of the contraption.
It was made from brass and resembled a blunderbuss, with a greater number of pipes than might be expected on a blunderbuss and several valve-like buttons like those on a trumpet. The end of the barrel widened out like a gramophone, or a metallic flower seeking the sun.
‘I’ll be depending on you all to hold your nerve,’ said Mrs Pepper. ‘This will be a true test of our powers of stagecraft.’
‘Sounds like forbidden stagecraft to me,’ and ‘Dangerous business, that’ — mutters of this kind rippled across the company, but Mrs Pepper overrode their reluctance with the promise of a ghost-free existence.
‘Besides,’ she added. ‘I shall be the one operating the device. The rest of you have nothing to fear. Just help me set it up.’
That evening, during the performance of Tarquin of Rome, Mrs Pepper stood beneath the stage balancing the ungainly gun on her hip. Before her, leaning against the far wall of what would have been the orchestra pit, was a pane of glass. One of the carpenters had detached it earlier from a window he hadn’t been using. The theatre itself was a full house, and Mrs Pepper could feel the warmth and energy of hundreds of restless spectators. Her chest butterflied with anticipation.
Up there on the boards, the legendary actor creeped along holding a lantern out before him, exploring a spooky ruined fortress. This was a famous scene: Tarquin’s big monologue.
The theatre ghost appeared, this time looking exactly like the legendary actor when he played this scene a few nights ago. The audience murmured with recognition. The ghost copied how the actor had moved about the stage, going left when the actor, tonight, went right, and making similar gestures slightly out of time. Suddenly the ghost strode forward with determination, which the actor tonight was too alarmed to do, and so the ghost passed right through him. From the balcony came a few cries of alarm at the sight.
‘All right, that’s quite enough of that,’ said Mrs Pepper, and she turned the contraption on.
For several moments nothing visibly happened, but the brass grew warm beneath her hands. The actor continued to totter through the lines up on the stage, followed closely by the pale image of how he had done it previously. Sharp blue electric light emitted from the contraption’s widened end, getting steadily brighter until it shone fully on the pane of glass and made it glow. Mrs Pepper watched the glass carefully until the image of the ghost was there, perfectly reflected from the stage.
The actor said a particularly famous line, and the ghost raised an arm as if in salute. Mrs Pepper flicked the switch.
The entire theatre was bathed in blue light.
Crackles and sparks shot from the blunderbuss, bounced off the glass and made straight for the ghost, who seemed to explode in a shower of shimmers. The light was blinding; everyone in the theatre covered their eyes.
When Mrs Pepper opened hers, the light in the theatre had returned to normal. And the ghost was there before her, trapped within the pane of glass.
‘Hard to imagine it going much better!’ cried the legendary actor, raising his drink at everyone. ‘Thank goodness we got through the rest of the play without any drama.’
Mrs Pepper nodded her agreement, but couldn’t stop herself frowning a little. She hadn’t failed to notice how politely the audience had applauded after the play, how quietly they had filed out of the theatre. She put it down to their being overwhelmed by the spectacle of it all, but couldn’t deny that she’d hoped for a standing ovation.
‘What did you do with the beasty?’ asked one of the younger actors, wearing his cricket whites from the matinee, for fun.
The famous actor raised his eyebrows, still in his laurel wreath from Tarquin. ‘Good point. Where did it go?’
‘Never you mind,’ said Mrs Pepper. ‘Somewhere it will never bother any of us again.’ And the whole company cheered.
That evening, when the actors had gone home and the final stagehand had locked the doors for the night and departed, Mrs Pepper lit a candle in her otherwise darkened office and approached the curtain that newly hung upon the wall. She tugged on the rope and drew the curtain. There hung the pane of glass, with the ghost still trapped inside it.
‘Thought you’d outsmarted me, hadn’t you?’ Mrs Pepper wagged a finger at it. ‘Thought you could interfere with my plays and face no consequence? Well, let’s see how you like it. You’re going to hang there on my wall and see how my theatre flourishes without your meddling.’
The ghost only looked at her through a wavering eye. It did not look squashed, exactly, but it certainly looked like it would prefer its freedom. Feeling triumphant, Mrs Pepper closed the curtain over it and went home for supper.
The Trippingly Rep continued its ghost-free season, putting on a great range of plays, none of which were interrupted by the appearance of spirits to bother the actors or spoil the effects. The theatre continued to play to full houses and receive positive notices in the Trippingly Post. But gradually it became clear that something, somehow, was ever so slightly wrong.
A night of entertainment at the Rep seemed to be losing its lustre. Audiences were becoming more muted: laughter was polite, tension nonexistent, applause hesitant. Mrs Pepper overheard confusion as people left the theatre, asking each other what exactly had happened, or what a particular moment had signified, or noting that they had almost nodded off.
After The Tragedy of Lancelot and Gwenivere of all things had played to indifference, Mrs Pepper stormed into her office, pulled the rope that opened the curtain and angrily faced the ghost.
‘You’ve been doing something to my theatre,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what, but things are different somehow. Worse.’
‘How can I do anything from in here?’ said the ghost. It held its palms up, a picture of innocent helplessness. Disgusted, Mrs Pepper drew the curtains back over the glass and stalked down to see the actors. They were in costume already for Length by Width by Death, a murder mystery set in a quantity surveyors.
‘All right,’ she said, as she faced the cast in the dressing-room. ‘Tonight I want you to give it all you’ve got. Make the Trip Rep proud.’ But something in the words, in her tone, sounded hollow; she felt her platitudes miss the mark, and the actors only stood there wanly, as if stripped of all energy. Their performance that night was dire. It resembled a tired group of exhausted people, going through the motions of something dull, having long forgotten the reason for doing it. The meagre applause hadn’t even died away when Mrs Pepper drew the curtain and spoke to the ghost again.
‘What are you playing at?’ she snarled, as the ghost looked back at her with blurry, wobbling eyes. ‘Why doesn’t anyone seem to know or care what they’re doing anymore?’
‘It’s just like I said. What can I do for you while I’m in here? It’s no surprise to me your audiences are all lost. Without me, there’s nothing to remind them of what they’re watching or why. So they forget; and the actors, too.’
‘Forget what? What do they need to be reminded of?’
‘Why, anything and everything that has gone before, on your stage or any other.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Theatre,’ said the ghost, ‘is a cultural technology of ritual and repetition above all else. When you watch a play, you don’t just watch: you remember. Now you’ve done this to me, how does anyone have the foggiest idea what they’re looking at? No wonder something feels off. You’ve stripped your stage of its past and its potential, and everyone can feel it.’
Mrs Pepper put her hands on her hips. ‘You’re the ghost of history plays in history now, are you? The spirit of pantomimes yet to come? Don’t give me any of that. You’re nothing but a menace, and now you’ve placed us all under some sort of curse. Well, turn it off. My theatre doesn’t need you. My audiences certainly don’t.’
‘If you say so,’ said the ghost. ‘But might I suggest you’d’ve been better off thinking of me as an opportunity?’
‘You’re just trying to trick me into letting you out,’ said Mrs Pepper, closing the curtain. ‘I’ll take you off the wall and throw you into the Tongue before I do that.’
The ghost spoke through the curtain. ‘I can’t get out,’ it said, its voice muffled by the patterned material. ‘There’s no reversing your little procedure. Now we both have to watch the theatre fail.’
That idea sat heavily with Mrs Pepper, a gnawing feeling that grew ever more dreadful. Performances were increasingly lacklustre. The actors mumbled their words before half-empty stalls. They forgot their lines, and the prompt forgot to prompt, leading to long passages of emptiness. The stagehands got the scene changes wrong and nobody noticed, the furniture or backcloth clashing with scenes that were hardly happening anyway. Stragglers dotted about the nearly empty theatre whistled to themselves distractedly and left without applauding, sometimes long before the end. The final straw came when the posters announcing the plays for the following week, which Mrs Pepper had been very firm about and had told the printers repeatedly, were pasted up completely blank.
Mrs Pepper stormed up the stairs into her office and once again faced the ghost.
‘All right,’ she said, her voice weary with defeat. ‘You win. What do you want me to do?’
‘There’s nothing you can do,’ said the ghost, its tone gleeful. ‘If I may be melodramatic for a moment, it’s too late.’
‘So you say?’ Mrs Pepper looked around desperately.
In the corner of the office stood a bucket, which held an ancient set of carpenter’s tools. She picked up the hammer, swinging it slightly to enjoy the weight at the end of her arm. Her eyes were wide. ‘You’ll do no more mischief from in there. I’ll see to that.’
‘I wouldn’t if I were you.’ The ghost’s eyes on her were mocking, and it made some rude gestures along the flat plane of its thin existence. ‘You won’t fix anything that way.’
‘That’s what you think,’ said Mrs Pepper, reaching back with her arm to get a full, good, clear swing. ‘Watch this — and let’s see what we remember!’ And she took the hammer to the pane of glass.
A giant cracking sound echoed through the theatre like sharp thunder.
In the dressing-rooms, all the mirrors shattered. The lamps along the walls burst with a sudden flare, the smoked glass cracking as it dropped to the floor. In the carpeted foyer all the windows smashed themselves to bits, and in the auditorium the great chandelier splintered into a thousand crystal droplets that showered onto the seats and forever lodged between the stage boards. Onstage, all the pasteboard windows over the scenery flats were wrenched in half and torn like the flimsiest paper until the pieces floated down gently to the ground, and the wine and whisky glasses on the props drinks trolley popped and exploded, and the stage boards themselves were suddenly veined with cracks. The company looked at each other for an alarmed moment — then as one they all raced off the stage, through the theatre, up the stairs, along the corridor until finally they arrived breathlessly into Mrs Pepper’s office to find her there, standing among a thousand smithereens of glass, still holding the hammer, and laughing.
Rose Biggin is a writer and theatre artist based in London, UK. Her short fiction has been published in anthologies by Jurassic London, Abaddon Books, Mango, NewCon Press and Egaeus Press. She’s the author of Immersive Theatre & Audience Experience (Palgrave) and Shakespearean novel Wild Time (Surface Press). You can find Rose on Twitter (@RoseBiggin) and learn more about her work at https://www.rosebiggin.uk/
Be sure to return to read the next short story, PRACTICAL ALCHEMY ON A BUDGET by Liam Hogan, later this evening. The celebration continues at 7pm (EST).
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