“Excerpts from a Film (1942-1987)” by A.C. Wise is a disturbing horror novelette about a young woman, who like many others, goes to Hollywood to become a star and is haunted by the murders of several other aspiring actresses. And of her influence, rippling up through the years, on the man who “discovered” her and on film itself.
Silver Screen Dream Productions, August 1987
Alone in his office George Harwood watches the dailies. She’s there in the background. After so long, he almost dismisses it as a trick of his imagination, or maybe the Laphroaig at his elbow, ice warming and cracking in the glass. But no, she’s there, his Mary.
George still does things the old-fashioned way, running 16mm film through his Bell and Howell projector. He leaves space on his office wall blank, the furniture cleared to give a clean line of sight. Mary Evelyn Marshall. Sometimes Mary, sometimes Evelyn or Eve. Eva. Lillian. A myriad of names to slip into like a different dress every day.
He comes around his desk, moving closer to the images on his wall. Black and white, a recreation of another time, all high silver and sharp-edged night. The women smile with lips like coal; the men watch them through eyes like high-beams beneath their hats. A bar scene. Couples dancing in the foreground, men and women sipping cocktails in the middle ground. In the background, Mary, Evelyn, Eva, stands almost out of the frame. She isn’t watching the band or the couples, she’s watching him.
She’s been dead for almost forty years. A shallow grave is the best he can hope for, because the other options are her body crammed into a storm drain, rolled into a tarp alongside the highway, scattered in pieces across defunct rail ties. In the dark, in an alley, in a rain-slicked dead-end.
Or she isn’t dead at all. The truth is, he doesn’t know what happened to her, but she’s here now, blooming like a stain across his latest film. He stops the projector, pulls free a ribbon of celluloid, and holds it to the light. Not just one frame, all of them. Always in the background, smudged-hollow gaze fixed on him.
There are other dead girls, too, fitting themselves into the spaces between actors. As George fits the film back into the projector and runs it again, the ghosts are so obvious he can’t believe he missed them, spreading outward from the point that is Mary Evelyn Marshall. Like mushrooms, fruiting after a hard rain. Their skin soft, born on the edge of rot, and so easy to bruise. Once he’s seen them, he can’t un-see them, until the rest of the film blurs and they’re all he can see.
George reaches for his drink. He fumbles, knocking the glass to the ground. Leaving the amber liquid to soak into the carpet, he pulls canisters of film from the safe in the corner of his office instead. 1973 – The Lady in Green. 1967 – Blue Violet Girls. 1959 – Bloody Rose. 1946 – The White Canary Sings. A whole rainbow of his sins. He runs them through the projector one by one, even though he already knows. She’s there, in all of them.
Shaking so he can barely thread the film, he opens the last canister, the first canister from the bottom of the safe. 1942. Mary Evelyn Marshall is there again, but not dead this time, not yet. She’s on the beach, a screen test from a lifetime ago. Wind tugs her curls, and she lifts a hand to push them away. There’s no sound, but he hears the question anyway.
“What do you want me to say?”
He answers from behind the hand-held camera, and from decades away in his movie-studio office, here and now.
“You don’t have to say anything. You’re perfect. You’re going to be a star.”
She doesn’t answer, but her eyes and her smile say, I know.
Waves crash silently, and she turns to look at the ocean. She’d claimed to be eighteen; he hadn’t believed her. Another runaway with dreams of being a big star. A dime a dozen. She’d come miles and miles. He could smell it on her skin—the road, the desert, pine trees, crossing the whole country chasing her dream, or running away from whatever was chasing her.
He hadn’t lied about making her a star. She had it. Like hunger, but the opposite somehow. The kind of thing men, and even some women, wanted without being able to name. The kind of thing audiences would tear through meat and bone to get their hands on.
George watches the film, spools it back, and watches it again.
There’s another film that isn’t in the safe. One that arrived nearly forty years ago, wrapped in brown paper, delivered to his office with no return address. Amateur. Full of skips and jumps, cutting off before the end, the last frames ragged and burned.
He finished the job, putting the rest to fire, as if destroying the evidence could undo the crime.
As if reducing it to ashes could bring Mary Evelyn back from the dead.
It occurs to George—far too late—that the only kind of magic he ever needed was this. Watching his films backward to arrive here, on the beach in 1942. This is his Mary, better than resurrected, not yet dead, bright and terribly alive. She flashes her teeth as she flickers on the blank space of his wall like she wants to devour the world.
George smells the ocean, licks the tang of salt spray from his lips.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers.
He puts his face in his hands. It isn’t enough. After almost forty years, he finally understands. She isn’t here for him. This haunting isn’t about forgiveness, or offering redemption from the cheap thrills he put on screen. She isn’t even punishing him. All she ever needed from him was to see, and stop trying to reshape her story and make it his own.
The weight of it crashes down on him. George’s chest tightens. Pins and needles tingle up and down his left arm. He’s cold. It takes him a while to notice. That’s always been the way. He never sees what’s in front of his eyes until it smacks him in the face. Too late for apologies or good-byes.
His vision narrows. A pinpoint, a tunnel. He’s not rushing toward the light, it’s coming at him. A train. When it hits, the impact bruises across his entire body and he goes down. His legs fold. He grasps wildly and gets only a handful of film canisters. They clatter to the floor and he goes with them. Ribbons of film flutter and crackle, tangling in his fingers and around his legs. Thousands of frames of her, over and over again. Mary Evelyn Marshall. Lillian. Eve. His last thought as the screen fades to black is, Finally. Finally, at last, thank God.
Monument Valley, Utah, April 1942
The land here is like something out of a dream. Or a nightmare, depending on your perspective. The sky is huge; the rocks are impossible colors that would look like a mistake if someone tried to paint them that way. There are whole cities carved out of the land by the wind. From a distance, they look like castles in a fairy tale. The kind where ogres live.
I wish Mama had stayed to see this. She turned back in Nebraska. I knew she would. Just like she must have known I would keep going. Nothing in the world could make me go back home.
Because here’s the first thing I remember—in my life, I mean. I couldn’t have been more than two years old, standing up in my crib, looking out into the hall. A lamp had fallen over, and the light was shining on Mama and Daddy, casting their shadows on the wall like a picture show.
Daddy had his hands around Mama’s neck, choking her. She was smaller than him, weaker in every sense of the word. He got her down on her knees before he finally let go, and left her there, crumpled on the floor.
At the time, I was too frightened to cry. If I made a noise, any noise at all, he would strangle me, too.
That moment right there was when I knew. Even if I didn’t understand it fully at the time, the knowledge was burned right onto my soul. That’s what happens to girls. If you don’t fight back, if you don’t run away, someone bigger and stronger will chew you up and just walk away. They’ll leave you crumpled on the ground like so much trash, and the world will never know you existed at all.
So, no, I’m not going home.
I thought maybe when we saw the dead girl Mama would change her mind. That was proof right there of the same thing I’d seen standing up in my crib, watching shadows projected on the wall. But of course she already knew, and despite that knowledge, she’d made up her mind long ago.
The summer I was twelve, I broke my arm trying out the brand new pair of roller skates my neighbor Wilma Jean got for her birthday. Mama sat with me in the doctor’s office and held my hand while I cried. When I was done, she leaned over and wiped my tears. There are worse things than pain, she told me. Like what, I asked her, because right then all I could think about was how much my arm hurt. I’d heard Daddy screaming at her the night before; no matter how I tried to block it out, it kept on coming right through the walls. He said if she was so unhappy, she should just leave. I heard him throw her suitcase on the floor. He must have started throwing her perfume bottles next, because I heard glass breaking and the scent of them all mixed together—rose water and violets and lily-of-the-valley—coming through the wall, strong enough to make me gag. But even after that, in the doctor’s office, Mama looked me in the eyes and whispered like she was telling me the greatest secret in the world. She said, Like being alone.
We first saw the dead girl in a little roadside diner just outside of Ogallala. We’d been driving all night. Well, Mama drove and I helped keep her awake by finding songs on the radio so we could sing along. To her, we were still on vacation, on a lark of a trip to visit Cousin Joyce in Hollywood. That’s what she’d told Daddy at least. Neither of us ever said the words running away out loud.
I ordered a big breakfast: eggs, bacon, sausages, and toast. All that grease was delicious, and I just wolfed it down, but Mama only picked at her food. She’d ordered scrambled eggs, pushing them around her plate. Her shoulders were hunched the whole time, like she was waiting for something heavy to fall.
That’s when a man at the counter started talking about the dead girl. He was loud, like he wanted everyone in the diner to hear, not just the waitress refilling his coffee. He’d known the dead girl, you see. Nancy. A real looker, but sweet, innocent, the girl next door that everyone knew. Her family owned a gas station, and sometimes she would help her daddy at the pumps. The man at the counter sounded so proud, like he was special by association now that Nancy was famous, now that she was dead.
He waved around a newspaper with her picture. The killer hadn’t been caught, and other dead girls had been found in other towns, like the killer was working his way from coast to coast. Just like me and Mama on our road trip. Look at the pattern, he said, a big jagged line like a bloody smile right across the face of America.
Some kids found Nancy dumped by the side of the road. Another girl had been found in a storm drain, and one inside an empty rail car. Nancy’s body had been rolled into a tarp with a few rocks and dirt thrown over top, but whoever killed her didn’t bury her. He wanted her to be found.
When I looked up, Mama was staring over my shoulder. I twisted around to see what she was looking at and there was Nancy, the dead girl, in the booth behind ours.
I don’t think anyone saw her except Mama and me, and Mama looked down so fast I knew she’d never admit it out loud. The thing about dead girls is once you see them, you can’t un-see them, and you realize they’re everywhere. If Mama admitted to this one, she’d have to admit what might happen to me, what might happen to her, and she couldn’t bring herself to do that.
So she looked away, and I kept looking at Nancy. There were none of the cuts and bruises the man at the counter had talked about, but I could tell she was dead. She looked me right in the eye, and I knew what had been done to her.
I touched Mama’s hand so she’d have to look at me, but she pulled away like she’d been burned.
“I can’t do this,” she said.
There were tears in her eyes. No matter how many times Daddy hit her, she didn’t know how to be without him.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
She dropped money on the table, then she was out the door. A plume of dust kicked up behind her wheels, and she was gone.
I should have been scared, or sad, but I was only relieved. All I could think as I watched her drive away was finally.
I know how it all sounds. How many girls run away with the same silly dream of going to Hollywood and becoming a star? But I’m not stupid. I have a plan. My cousin Joyce, the one Mama and I were going to stay with, she’s had a few small parts in films. Not speaking parts, but she’s up on the big screen. She can introduce me to people, take me to the right parties. And there are things a girl can do to get noticed at those parties. You see? Like I said, I’m not stupid.
It isn’t about being famous, not really. The way I see it, the camera sees people in a way we don’t see each other. The camera doesn’t lie. Sure, there are movie tricks, but those are all man-made. The camera sees what it sees and it remembers. So that’s me. That’s my plan, my dream. I’m going to live forever, up on the big screen.
Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, September 1946
Cameras flash, pinning their shadows to the red carpet like the splayed out wings of a butterfly. This is it, Mary’s screen debut, The White Canary Sings. George shouldn’t be nervous; he’s done this before. Mary—except she’s Eva today—should be, but she’s perfectly poised, lightly holding his arm so he feels like he’s the one clinging so he won’t fall.
Her curls have been tamed into gentle waves. Lips red, teeth white, dress sleek, and heels impossibly thin. Yet she never stumbles, despite the champagne in the car on the way over. Her eyes are bright and hard. She smiles in a way that seems to light up her whole face. Only he knows she’s baring her teeth.
He stumbles, right at the door, but Mary keeps him upright. She should let him fall. This whole thing has been a mistake, nearly four years from beginning to end—from a year of stalling and putting Mary off while he found just the right project for her, to conceiving The White Canary Sings as her debut feature, to production problems, delays in shooting, to just now in the car on the way here. Three glasses of champagne for her, two of whiskey for him, his hand on her leg, the silky sheen of her dress under his palm. Her head turning, her hand firmly lifting his and putting it back in his lap.
“We’re not doing that anymore, George, I told you.” Barely twenty to his thirty-five, but she sounded like his mother, scolding him as a naughty child.
He’d flushed shame-hot, but his hand moved to her arm, gripping harder than he intended. “Please, for old times’ sake,” on his lips. This is exactly what he’d expected. Why else put her off for so long?
At the same time, he’d expected her to comply, fold as she had when they first met at the party on the beach, the taste of salt on her mouth and then his. In his mind, he was already guiding her to his lap, feeling the warm wetness of her wrapped around him. Picturing her carefully reapplying lipstick afterward, smoothing her hair.
She pulled her arm from his hand. “No,” once more, final and firm.
The ghost of his fingers remained, fading by the time the car pulled up in front of the theater. She hadn’t even needed to dust on powder to cover the marks, like they’d never been there at all. He hated himself, and he hated her, the resilience of her skin, resisting him, and the sickness roiling in his stomach with the aftertaste of whiskey.
And now she’s guiding him into the darkened theater like a little boy who can’t find his own way. They take their seats in the front row. Mary, Eva, Lillian, Eve. The taste of all her names coats his throat as he glances at her out of the corner of his eye. She’s rapt, sitting forward, waiting to breathe in the silver screen ghosts and hold them in her lungs. He might as well not be here at all. Except, no. She needed him to see her first, to see that hungering thing inside her and put her up on screen.
He holds on to this, even though she’s changed since those first moments in front of his camera. Did he change her, or did she do it on her own? Was she always dry tinder and he only the spark that finally let her burn?
George wants to take her hand. He wants to apologize. It was supposed to be different. She was different. Not like the other girls, but he treated her just like one of them anyway. He’s always hungry, starving for more. Mary, Eva, Evelyn melting on his tongue like cotton candy. All spun sugar, at least the parts he can reach. Her core, whatever it is, lies beyond him.
The curtains rise and Mary is there, larger than life, filling the screen. He cast her as a young ingénue, of course, a wannabe star. She wears a dressing gown, waiting to go on stage, her curves tantalizingly visible through the sheer material. A little titillation for the audience, as though she’s something they can have. And oh, did he deliver up the satisfaction.
Even as the opening credits roll, George can feel the end of the film rushing toward him. Her discovery, her meteoric rise, her jealous lover, her obsessed fan. Her body splayed in a cold alleyway, arranged as though death was a beautiful thing. Her throat opened like a bloody smile beneath lips painted jet and ash. The curves of her still a buffet; her body an invitation for appetites of another kind. A cautionary tale and an object lesson—this is how we break our girls and make them tame. This is how we keep them fresh and young. This is what happens when you run away.
It’s all wrong. George bolts for the bathroom. He brings up whiskey and his breakfast from hours ago. He brings up guilt and bile and slides to the floor, resting his head against the wall.
He killed her. He killed her because he couldn’t have her. He killed her because he doesn’t know what else to do with girls. His head pounds. Mary Evelyn Marshall is inside the darkened theater watching herself up on screen and he can’t shake the feeling something terrible is coming for her, for him. Like a train, barreling down a tunnel, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. Nothing at all.
Hollywood Hills, May 1942
I’m up above the city, smoking. All the glamorous women smoke in Hollywood, that’s what Joyce told me, so I figured I’d better get on board. I can see so many lights, and it’s peaceful. I’ve never been this far from home. Back in Detroit, nothing ever changed. Here, the air tastes like rain and electricity and everything waiting to happen.
There’s a big party tomorrow at some producer’s house on the beach. Joyce promised to take me. There’s a swimming pool, and there’ll be lots of alcohol, and maybe even drugs. Joyce said I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to, she’ll look out for me. She’s lying, though not on purpose. The only person Joyce’ll be looking out for is herself. I don’t blame her. We all do what we have to do.
Girls like me, and Joyce even, we’re a dime a dozen. There’s so many of us, but there’s only so much room we’re allowed to take up in the world. So it’s every girl for herself.
I’m thinking of introducing myself as Lillian, just to see how it sounds.
Anyway, the dead girls followed me here. Unlike living girls, ghosts don’t take up any room. They can fit themselves in anywhere, spread themselves out and multiply, on and on. It’s more than just Nancy. There are dozens of them now. It’s like the man in the diner where I met Nancy said. There’s a monster killing his way across the country. I guess I followed behind him and cleaned up the mess he made. This whole damn country is haunted, every single step of the way.
Silver Screen Dream Productions, January 1947
George looks up from his desk as Mary Evelyn barges into his office. She’s unsteady; she’s been crying, and he can smell alcohol on her—something much cheaper and harder than champagne—as she slams a newspaper onto his desk.
“We did this, George.”
He recognizes the picture under the headline: Killer Sought in Brutal Murder. Elizabeth Short. She’s been all over every newspaper for days. Her mutilated body was found in Leimert Park just under a week ago.
He looks up from the black-and-white portrait of the smiling girl with curls in her hair, the wannabe star. It could be Mary Evelyn, but it isn’t, because she’s leaning on his desk, her hands in fists, shaking.
“We did this to her,” Mary says. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The movie was supposed to help them, give them a face, a name, so people would finally see.”
“What are you—?” He stands up, but before he can get the words out, her hand cracks across his skin, hard enough to leave the ghost of her fingers behind.
Then she crumples, sinking to the carpet in front of his desk, and putting her head in her hands. Her fingers muffle her words.
“We put it up on screen, my body in the alleyway, so people would see.”
George almost corrects her, telling her Elizabeth was found in a park not an alleyway, and that some wannabe starlet’s death has nothing to do with her. The movie they made, The White Canary Sings, all they did was make a crime flick, something to put behinds in seats and make a quick buck. But deep down, George knows it’s a lie. He made a crime flick, Mary made something else. Despite his best efforts, on screen, she transformed. So Mary is right; this is their fault, even if he doesn’t fully understand how. Movies are a special kind of magic, playing with make-believe and blurring the line between real and unreal. Humanity is the other half of the equation; they have to be willing to believe, take the ghosts flickering up on screen into their very souls and allow themselves to be changed.
He looks at the newspaper again. The dead girl. He looks back at Mary. Evelyn. Eve. So many names. So many girls all rolled into one, and the dead girl on the front page could be her. He pours a measure of whiskey from the bottle in his desk and holds it out to her even though a drink is the last thing she needs.
Mary downs it in two long swallows. He watches her throat work as the liquid goes down. She stands, a fawn on unsure legs. Her eyes are pinpoints of light, coming out of the shadows straight at him. She takes one unsteady step, bringing the raw sweat-and-alcohol scent right up to him. Her fingers graze the buttons of his shirt.
“For old times’ sake.” Her words slur.
Her mouth lands hot on his skin, and she murmurs words he can’t hear against his throat. His fingers move to help hers even though he wishes they wouldn’t. In his haste, in his regret, his shirt rips, buttons scattering. This isn’t about him; it’s about Mary and he’s caught up in her wake somehow. He should say no. He should be stronger, but she’s always been the strong one.
She pushes him hard against his desk. Pain jars from his tailbone up his spine. Script pages and a letter opener and a heavy glass paperweight scatter. Every part of her is furnace hot, burning like a fever. George lets himself sink into the dark and the heat, the slick sweat of her, praying he’ll fall all the way through to the other side where light will shine again.
Hollywood Hills, February 1947
I saw her last night, Elizabeth Short. She came and sat beside me and we looked out at the city together. I offered her a cigarette, the one I was halfway through smoking. She put it to her lips, took a deep drag, and I watched the smoke go right through her and swirl beneath her skin. Part of her was as blue as the sky above us. Part of her was silver, like a goddess up on the screen. Part of her looked just like me.
That was only if I looked at her head-on though. If I looked out of the corner of my eye, I could see what had been done to her. The smile extending to the edges of her face, the cuts all along her body, the line bisecting her.
I wonder if some mortician stitched her up before they buried her, tried to make her look pretty and presentable. Just like George cut up The White Canary Sings to make my death beautiful up on screen. Did someone do that to Nancy, too, and all the other dead girls?
The world should have to see what happens to girls like Elizabeth and Nancy. They shouldn’t be able to look away.
All the dead girls without names stood behind Elizabeth. The girls who followed me across the country and stuck to my skin. Vague outlines in starlight, the way ghosts are supposed to be. Only Elizabeth was sharp and clear.
I figured it out pretty quick. They made her that way, all those newspapers and cameras, her image everywhere, repeated again and again. They made her a star. Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia.
I didn’t tell her I was sorry. What would be the point? Sorry never brought anybody back from the dead. I swear I thought I was helping, but of course it doesn’t work that way. Dead girls up on the big screen are a thrill. My body filtered through the lens was a lie. It’s like I said—the camera tells the truth, but the tricks, those are all man-made. In the dark, it’s easy to bend the truth into something safe. When the lights go on, people can step back into the sun knowing a girl didn’t really die in an alley, it was all a show.
I have to do more. I can’t just be a face or a name, I have to be every face, every name. I have to be all of them in one. If I can put all those ghosts up on screen with me, people will have no choice but to see.
Dead girls aren’t lovely. The media tries to make them so, but they’re only dead, clogging storm drains and rotting on railway ties.
I have an idea though, or at least the beginnings of one. The way Elizabeth died, and the way she’ll never die because her picture is on every newspaper page—there’s something there. I was always going to live forever in camera shots, in flashbulb lights, up on the big screen, but now it’s going to mean something. I’m going to bring the other dead girls with me. We’re going to show the world what we really are.
Silver Screen Dream Productions, October 1965
“What the hell are you saying, George? You want to make a snuff film?”
“No, Jesus, no. Aren’t you listening?” George’s hands tremble, so he shoves them under the desk as he looks across it at Leonard, his sometime business partner.
He can’t help thinking of a film, one that doesn’t exist anymore, wrapped in brown paper and delivered to his desk. He sees it when he tries to sleep, playing on the screen of his eyelids. There’s something there, something Mary was trying to tell him. He needs to drag the horror out into the light. All those dead girls, he owes them an apology.
“I want to recreate a snuff film.” George is aware he’s slurring his words, but if he doesn’t get them out fast enough he’ll choke.
“The movie is about a guy who fakes snuff films, it doesn’t matter why. But the more he makes, the harder it gets for him to tell reality from fiction, until he crosses the line. Or maybe he doesn’t. Who knows? The whole idea is the audience can’t tell because the guy in the movie can’t tell. He’s gotten lost inside his movie. It’s a cautionary tale.”
“I can’t sell a cautionary tale.” Leonard frowns.
George wipes sweat from his palms.
“Okay, how about this, then? It’s a movie within a movie, so the audience is two layers removed. It’s safe. It’s okay for them to be titillated by the sex and the violence. It looks real, but it can’t possibly be real.”
George hears the words like someone else is speaking, and he wants to punch that guy right in the face. He wants to hear bone crunch, watch blood spill down a crisp, white shirt.
Leonard’s expression changes, a smirk edging out the frown. George wants to punch him, too, but he keeps his hands where they are.
“You’re not a director, George. You’re a producer, that’s what you’ve always been.” Leonard chomps on an unlit cigar; George sees the dollar signs spinning behind his eyes. It’s all show when Leonard throws his hands up. “What the hell. If that’s the movie you want, and you’re putting up the lion’s share of the cash, who am I to say no? I’ll get you some hot-shot kid to write it, find you your ingénue…”
The word no sticks in George’s throat.
“I want to see headshots,” George says.
“Fine.” There’s a sour note in Leonard’s voice, like George has admitted something shameful. He tries not to blush.
Leonard stands, but doesn’t leave.
“What time’s your shindig tonight?” Leonard asks with a twist to his mouth, as if the thought of spending time with George socially is suddenly distasteful somehow. Did George invite Leonard to a party tonight? He doesn’t remember.
“It’s an open house, come whenever you want. Someone will let you in.” George takes a guess; it sounds right. That’s the way his parties have always been, free-flowing, an endless succession of strangers, names and faces he doesn’t bother to remember. They all want something from him, feeding off him like parasites, and he feeds off them in turn.
The door opens and closes. Leonard is gone and George is alone. George wonders briefly if anyone would even miss him if he failed to show up at his own party. But he squares his shoulders. It’s his duty to be a good host. Tonight, there will be a party. Tomorrow, Leonard will arrive at his office with a handful of glossy 8 x 10 photographs, a whole bouquet of girls for George to choose from.
He imagines shuffling the headshots like a deck of cards, using them to tell the future. Except George already knows his future; it’s the same as his past.
He’s tried this before, with Bloody Rose in 1959. It was a movie about a disappearance or a sensational murder, the line between the two all blurred. His ingénue was a girl calling herself Lily, a girl lying about her age, a girl with the sense of running away tucked under her skin. So much like Mary, but without the scent of desert and pine trees clinging to her from all the distance she’d run. Oh, her eyes were bright enough, pupils all blown with drug-fueled desire, but they were nothing like Mary’s eyes.
Blue Violet Girls will be different; George swears it. Leaning back at his desk, he closes his eyes and watches it unfold. The ring of bruises left around the victims’ throats after the killer is done with them. The metaphor extended with flowers scattered on their graves. He reaches for his drink. There won’t just be one starlet this time, but a whole string of beautiful dead girls. Too many to ignore. His film will be a mystery and an apology. Maybe, just maybe, it’ll be enough this time.
Behind his eyelids, the imagined movie changes. It’s Lily with contusions around her throat, Mary with flowers on her grave. George’s eyes snap open. Violets aren’t bruises. Death isn’t lovely, but he’s trying to blur the line again, sugar around a bitter pill so the audience will swallow it whole.
He scans the corners of his office, half expecting to find Mary there, or Lily. He can’t tell whether he’s disappointed to find himself utterly alone.
After the baby—he paid to take care of it—Lily went home, back to Kansas, or Texas, or wherever the hell she was from. Bloody Rose was a critical success, but she didn’t even stick around for the preview. Audiences ate it up, and it left him sick, as sick as he knows Blue Violet Girls will make him feel, but he can’t stop.
Every time he watched Bloody Rose, he kept looking for things that weren’t there, flickers of movement shivering across the screen. He wants Mary to haunt him. He wants it so badly it hurts. If he could just see her again, maybe he could make it okay. Maybe she would forgive him.
George reaches for his drink and finds it empty. He takes a swig straight from the bottle rolling around at the bottom of his desk drawer instead. Almost empty, too. He lets the bottle fall, and it clunks uselessly to the floor.
Mary Evelyn has been gone for almost twenty years, but how can he be sure she’s dead? There’s a headstone in Mountain View Cemetery, the same place Elizabeth Short is buried, but there’s nothing underneath. No body. All he has, had, as evidence of her death is a film that cut off before the end, a film he burned. Some days he knows beyond a doubt what he saw. Other days, the line is blurred; there’s room for death to be clean and beautiful again.
He has to know. George stands, holding on to the edge of his desk. He fumbles open the drawer opposite from the one with the bottle, then goes to his knees to dig beneath layers of paper. Good old George, he never throws anything away unless it’s a living, breathing girl.
He pulls the film canister free and hugs it to his chest. A séance. He’ll call Mary, Evelyn, Eve back from the dead with the ashes of her last film. He’ll fall on his knees and beg her to forgive him. It’ll be like it was always meant to be, Mary at his side, his ingénue, his star.
He looks around his office for something. What? What does he need to conduct a séance? George’s mouth is dry, the back of his throat fuzzed and aching. He needs another drink, is what he needs. He needs witnesses. An audience. His party.
He makes his way to the door, clutching the film canister under one arm. The sky is dark, but lights burn all along Hollywood Boulevard, smearing in his unsteady vision. The night is crisp, clear, a breeze ruffling his hair and tugging his clothes. He considers walking all the way home, but his feet won’t agree on a direction. He calls a car, slumping into the backseat and holding tight to Mary Evelyn’s remains.
George dozes; he must have, though he doesn’t remember falling asleep. He comes to himself as someone presses a drink into his hand. Everything is lit like the inside of a silver screen, a movie seen the wrong way around.
Panic slams him for a brief moment, but no, the canister is still tucked under his arm. A bright, beautiful girl swirls past him, dropping a kiss on his cheek as she heads toward his pool. She’s wearing stiletto heels. She doesn’t bother to take them off before she dives into the water, splashing with all the other bright, beautiful nymphs.
George doesn’t recognize anyone. Did he invite them? He downs the drink in his hand, and comes up coughing and sputtering. Champagne.
Empty bottles are scattered on tables and chairs. Some even float in the water. Broken glass crunches under George’s feet. He’s kicked over a thin-stemmed flute, and crushed it.
“Swell party, George,” someone says.
Bare feet. He’s worried she’ll cut herself on the glass, but she’s already gone, a shooting star off to drown herself.
“It’s not a party,” he says, or tries to say. “It’s a wake.”
The garden is dark. The only light is from the pool’s depths, leaving the swimmers shadows lit from below. They all seem to be girls, they always are, dying to be discovered, desperate to be made. But in the half light they might as well be sharks or mermaids, selkies or sirens, or something more terrible by far.
George watches them glide in the dark, liquid motion. Is Lillian among them? Mary, Eva, Evelyn, Eve? No. She’s dead: he has the proof in his hands. He pries open the canister. The world tilts and he tilts with it, emptying the ashes of the film—Mary’s film—into the water. He’s keeping his promise to make her a star, just not in the way he originally intended. He watched the film, and it infected him. Every movie he’s made since then, whether he means it to or not, contains a piece of this one. Now he’s spreading it even farther. The starlets swimming beneath him, he’s infecting them, too. Mary Evelyn is not just one star, she is all of them.
“Time to come home,” he says.
He sways, perilously close to falling in, but he keeps his balance. Or something pushes him back. He isn’t wanted here. He isn’t needed. This sacred communion is between Mary and the girls. Her ashes swirl through the impossibly blue water, and all the pretty little wannabes swim in the ghost of her, soaking her through their skin.
George desperately wants to join them. He wants to throw himself into the water. He wants to drown. What the hell has he done? The empty film canister slips from his fingers to the ground. George follows, his legs folding beneath him. He puts his face in his hands and weeps beside the pool while all around him fey starlets, nightmares, and unreal creatures, swim.
Hollywood Hills, March 1947
I’ve been reading a lot lately. On set, there are long stretches with nothing to do except smoke and drink and wait. So I’ve been reading history and religion, mythology and astronomy, weather patterns and agriculture. It’s all connected. Everything.
I was onto something with Elizabeth, and why her ghost is clearer than the rest. The cameras made it so, all those pictures of her plastered everywhere. The image becomes the thing, and the image gets passed on and on, and she’s resurrected over and over again.
It’s like sympathetic magic. A black goat is sent out into the desert carrying the sins of the entire village; communion wine and wafers become the blood and body of a man nailed to a cross; the chief of a tribe consumes the flesh of his enemy to gain their power. Symbols have power.
The man killing his way across America, that’s a kind of magic, too. One killing begets more killings, copycats spreading outward from a single gruesome death. How do you stop something like that?
I stop it by becoming a symbol, too. A woman dies up on screen, and she stands for all women everywhere. A woman who already has other women folded up inside her, ghosts stitched onto her skin. The film gets passed on, the image endures, and no one can ever forget those ghosts or pretend not to see them ever again.
Silver Screen Productions, December 1972
George switches on the projector. Drawn shades darken the room as he watches the rough cut of Lady in Green. He’s made a ghost story this time. A story about a man haunted by the death of his lover, a married woman killed in a car crash on the way back to her husband, even though they both knew he was no good for her.
He’s trying again.
Flickering against the blank space on his office wall, rain slicks the LA streets. Windshield wipers sling it out of the way, but it isn’t enough. His lady in green strains forward to see, but she’s crying. This is the scene where she dies. In the next scene, she returns as a ghost, a phantom hitchhiker causing drivers to veer off the road and have crashes of their own.
George holds his breath, leaning forward like the actress. He peers through the same rain she does, straining to see, heart beating hard, the electricity of the movie-set storm telling him something terrible is about to happen. A shape appears in the road, and George’s heart nearly stops. A glitch in the film, a splice cutting in a later scene where the ghost causes a crash. But, no. The sweep of headlights illuminates the figure through the pouring rain. Mary Evelyn.
Mary. Eva. Lillian. Eve. The lady in green slams on the brakes. The car slews. She takes her hands off the wheel, throws her arms across her face. Shattered glass flies everywhere; metal and his leading lady both scream. Through it all, Mary Evelyn continues staring directly at him.
George is halfway to reaching for the phone on his desk, calling down to his director, his AP, someone, anyone to find out if—oh God—he’s killed his leading lady. His hand hangs in the air, not touching the phone. He sets it back on his desk, and lets out a shaky breath.
They never shot that scene, not that way. The lady in green dies and becomes a ghost, not vice versa. Time does not fold in this film. His lady in green is not her own haunting. George was there when they shot the scene, just as he has been on set every single day, hovering over the director’s shoulder, peering through the camera lens, judging every shot as it is set up and framed. The scene playing out on his office wall is impossible; it isn’t real.
He rises, tripping over the edge of the carpet as he reaches for the projector. Instead of hitting the stop button, the whole thing goes over and George with it, tangling and crashing to the ground. The projector jams, devouring celluloid even as he tries to pull it free. Faint wisps of acrid smoke sting his nostrils.
The film is burned in half, edges bubbled and crisped, the entire car crash scene gone, so he can never know for sure. This is what he wanted, isn’t it? This is what he tried to do seven years ago. But no. That can’t be right. Mary Evelyn is waiting for him at home. Or he hasn’t met her yet.
He tries to cram the burned halves back into the projector, but his hands shake too badly. Defeated, George holds the ends of the film in either hand. They’ll have to reshoot. No one will know the difference except for him.
But the difference will be an important one. Mary Evelyn won’t be there next time. She was never there. He let her slip through his fingers, and there’s no getting her back again.
Harwood Estate, May 1942
“Do you really think you can make me a star?” She props herself on one elbow, looking down at him.
Her curls are mussed, her lipstick chewed off, leaving her mouth mostly clean. Pure, he thinks. Bruised. Only faintly stained. The thoughts drift through his post-pleasure haze, teetering on the edge of sleep. Lovely. She still smells of salt spray and beach air. When he closes his eyes, he sees her through the camera lens, waving, her lips shaping words he can’t hear.
“Of course I can. It’s what I do.” He lights a cigarette. It takes him two tries. He lights one for her, too.
There’s a glint in her eyes, something hungry as she watches him. She shouldn’t be here, he thinks. This is all wrong. She flops back against the pillow, hair spread in a halo around her.
“My name isn’t really Lillian,” she says.
Sleep tries to tug him down. He wants to sink into it, into a place where he doesn’t have to think or feel anything but this warm, sated glow.
“It’s Mary,” she says. “But I go by Evelyn because Mary was my mother’s name.”
“Was?” Something in her tone snags at him, pulls him upward and now it’s his turn to prop himself on one elbow to look at her.
“She died. I found out yesterday. An accident. She fell down the stairs.” Mary, Evelyn, Lillian, whatever her name is blows a stream of smoke toward the ceiling.
Then the girl in his bed stubs out her cigarette and stands, pulling the bedclothes with her and leaving him exposed. She holds the sheet against her body, draping her like an ancient Roman goddess. She looks straight at him, fixing him so he can’t help feeling everything he’s seen up until now has been a lie. A performance. The camera never switched off for her.
“I suppose that’s what happens, isn’t it?” Her eyes are hard.
He doesn’t know what to say. There’s no air left in the room. He can only stare at her, at the line of her mouth. Hungry. Burning. He’s touched her, been inside her, but he doesn’t know a thing about her. The sickly sweet taste of spun sugar melts on his tongue, tinged with salt from the sea. He turns away, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.
“I’ll call a car to take you home.”
“Yes,” she says, and the chill of her voice sends ice up his spine. “I imagine you’ll do.”
Hollywood Hills, December 1947
This is it, make or break time. By the end of the week, I’ll be a star, burning brighter than any other light in the sky. I haven’t slept, not since I left the Christmas Eve party at George’s. I’ve been up, smoking.
Elizabeth sat with me. She was at George’s party, too. All the dead girls were. They floated in the pool. They stood at guests’ elbows while they drank champagne. They watched everything, and no one saw them but me.
We shared cigarettes and watched the sunrise, me and Liz. Eliza. Beth. Betty. We all have a dozen names here, a dozen skins we can wear over our own when we want to hide, when it gets to be too much, when we’re tired.
Sometime around four a.m., the sky got perfectly blue. A blue I’ve never seen before. Like velvet, like a bruise before it starts to heal. Like the shadows at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, or my mother’s favorite dress, the one my daddy bought her to say he was sorry. The dress he buried her in, at least that’s what I heard.
The color matched Eliza’s skin exactly.
I bought a gun. It’s easier to do than I imagined. I have knives in my kitchen, the kind people use to debone things. Stockings can be used as garrotes in a pinch. Any number of objects in my apartment can inflict blunt force trauma. There are so many ways to die in Hollywood, so many ways to die no matter where you are, as long as you’re a girl.
I should be afraid, but I’m not.
I have a camera I stole from George. The raw footage will be delivered to his office tomorrow. He was my first, the first one to see me and put me up on the big screen. It seems only fitting that he should be my messenger as well. He’ll be my ground zero, the point of impact spreading out ripples of ghosts around the world. I have to believe he’ll hold up his end of the deal. How could he refuse a death this sensational, after all?
I’m not afraid. After he’s seen my film, it’ll be up to him whether he keeps his promise from the day we met, whether he makes me a star.
Silver Screen Dream Productions, December 1947
It’s the day after Christmas. George stares at the package sitting in the center of his desk, wrapped in brown paper, bearing his name and no return address. The shape of it is clear—a canister for a film reel.
It’s barely ten a.m., but he pours himself a measure of scotch, neat, and swallows hard against the sour taste in his throat. The projector is already set up, aimed at the wall. He threads the film, kills the light, and seats himself to watch ghosts come to life just for him.
A man lies on a bed in a tiny apartment. He looks a lot like George. He looks hungry, and more than a little drunk. He’s poorer, more rundown, rougher around the edges, but the longer George watches the more he thinks they could be twins. Pitch perfect casting.
The scenery is spot on, too. He’s never seen Mary Evelyn’s apartment, but he’s certain he’s looking at it now. The sheets on the bed are silk, or a reasonable approximation. There’s a lamp on the bedside table with a beaded shade. Brass bedposts, draped in lengths of scarves and stockings. The way they hang implies violence. Everything in the room is fraught; tension fairly crackles across his skin.
The base of that lamp could crush someone’s skull. Those stockings could so easily be wrapped around someone’s throat. Where are these thoughts coming from? He isn’t a violent person, but he can’t help picturing it, running the film ahead to its inevitable end. There’s a straight razor on the bedside table. The drawer beneath it is ever so slightly open, and inside, George is certain he sees a gun.
A woman steps into the frame. Her back is to the camera, but her shape is achingly familiar. George’s breath catches. The woman lets her sheer dressing gown fall; it might be the very same one from The White Canary Sings, the first time Mary Evelyn was up on the silver screen.
George leans forward. For just a moment, a heartbeat, a frame, there’s someone else in the room. Where shadows pool in the corner behind the beaded lamp there’s a woman with bruise-colored eyes. Her smile is too wide, extending all the way across her cheeks, bleeding off the edge of her skin.
The film jitters. A splice stitched badly in, and there is the woman lying splayed in the park, her body cut right in two, torso here and legs over there, her intestines coiled beneath her. Sickness rises in George’s throat, nearly choking him.
Cut, back to the bedroom. The space all around the bed is crowded with ghosts, cramming every available inch and not taking up any room.
Cut. Railway tracks, and a woman’s body beaten to a bloody pulp.
Cut, and the man on the bed shifts in anticipation.
The cuts begin to blur, one scene, one location bleeding into another until he can’t tell what is happening where.
A small dark space, the mouth of a storm drain clotted with rotten leaves. Grainy. Dim. A shape, indistinct. He can barely see. He doesn’t want to see. An arm bent at a terrible angle. A thigh, a knee, a body folded up like fetal origami and shoved into the concrete opening.
How is Mary doing this? Why? Why can’t he look away?
Splice. George wants to reach through the image flickering on the wall and shake the man on the bed by the shoulders, tell him to run. The woman’s reflection hangs, caught like a glint in the man’s eye as she moves closer to the bed. George thinks of an old wives’ tale he heard once, where the last image a person sees is printed onto their retina at the moment of death, like a photograph.
Jump. Wind stirs a tarp, sifting dust and garbage and revealing a hand, pale fingers curled inward like a dead spider.
No, George thinks, please no, no more. He can’t take it, not this, but he can’t close his eyes either, he can’t help but see.
On screen, Mary, Evelyn, Eva, Eve pulls the bedside drawer open all the way, leaving the gun within easy reach. George’s heart beats through his skin. He rubs a hand over his face, stubble rasping against his palm. He needs a shave. He needs to sober up, leave town. He needs to turn the projector off and not watch the end of the film.
He pours himself another drink instead.
Cut, and the angle of view changes. A rain-slick street, which looks terribly familiar. A woman, running, dark curls bouncing. He tells himself she could be anyone. It doesn’t have to be Mary Evelyn in The White Canary Sings, even though the shot, the pacing, the beats are all the same.
The woman’s heels strike the pavement, loud as a gunshot. Her breath is ragged. She never once turns to look over her shoulder, but there’s something behind her. Someone behind her, except George knows he’s the only one here, watching her run straight for the dead-end of an alleyway.
And that’s where the scene should end, where The White Canary Sings cut to black, leaving the wannabe-starlet’s death to the imagination. This time, the camera doesn’t turn away. It follows the woman into the alley. No lights, only the faint, murky glow coming from overhead between the two buildings. Almost like it’s real. George strains to see through the pouring rain.
Cut, back to the bedroom scene. Dead girls everywhere. Ghosts between each frame. Sex wrapped up with the violence as the woman straddles the man on the bed, rocks her hips, tilts her head back so her dark curls spill between her shoulder blades, but never quite far enough that her face comes fully into the frame.
In the alley, flesh collides in a different way. A ragged scream, a wet, heart-rending sound.
Black. The image on the wall judders and disappears. The film spins on the reel, making a hollow click-click-clicking sound.
George jumps to his feet. There has to be more. He has to know how it ends.
He catches the reel, slicing his hand as the metal edge spins past him. He yanks and the projector falls over with a crash and the pop of shattered glass. The end of the film on the reel is burned. The final scenes, whatever they were, turned to ash. Did he do that, or was it always that way?
He lets the reel fall, film crackling and fluttering its way to the ground. The movie remains, all around him, bleeding off the celluloid and into the real. His office is filled with ghosts. Women with hollow eyes, bruises and cut skin. Women sliced open, their throats purpled with crushing thumbprints, their tongues ripped out and their fingers chopped off.
George tries to back away, but there’s nowhere to go. His heels strike the desk behind him and he whirls. He pulls open drawers, smearing the handles with blood from his cut palm until he finds the silver lighter monogrammed just for him. The wheel hisses, thuds dully. A spark. He falls to his knees and holds the edge of the film to the hungry flame.
The acrid smell of burning celluloid fills the room. George chokes on it, and he’s never smelled anything more beautiful. Tears stream down his cheeks, but he’s laughing, too. Laughing and weeping and breathing in the smoke as Mary, Eva, Lillian, Eve, and all her ghosts burn.
It’s blue up here, in the dark, and everything below me is stars. No one ever sleeps in Hollywood, but they dream. I wonder what Mama would have thought of it if she’d stayed, if she’d kept running instead of turning back home.
It’s peaceful up here with the wind and the smell of pine, cool water, and the desert—all those haunted places I passed through to get here. Down in the valley, down among all the glittering lights, I’m there, too. I’m up on the screen, caught in a thousand camera flashbulbs, pinned and framed and famous, just like I said I would be. There are whole constellations spread out in the dark, and I’m a star. I’m going to live forever. Just you watch. Just you see.
“Excerpts from a Film (1942-1987)” Copyright © 2017 by A.C. Wise
Art copyright © 2017 by Ashley Mackenzie