THE YOUNG WRITER MET THE ONCE FAMOUS ACTRESS, the woman remembered as Lady Bluebeard, at her house for tea.
Pamela Lane had been an extraordinary woman once. Among the readers of the young writer’s online horror blog, Pamela Lane’s image was a blood-stained idyll, a Gran Guignol tableau, a woman both innocent, beautiful and irredeemably bad. She was youth and girlishness in her diaphanous white gowns and long blonde hair but she was also a great white spider weaving sticky tapestries. Her very tissues were poison. The young writer thought this a fine description and he wrote it down so that he would remember it.
Pamela Lane’s crumbling old Victorian house squatted in a neighborhood, once fashionable, now squalid and villainous. Despite its age and disrepair, the house was somehow more vertical than the others on the street. Though it slumped and sighed in its old age, it nevertheless held onto a certain beauty and dignity, much like Pamela Lane herself.
When Pamela Lane answered the bell, the boy could see that little remained of the beautiful blonde woman that had floated through the most famous of the Hatchet horror films – Dracula’s Concubine, Ligeia, the Dead Maiden, Lucretia, the Lady Poisoner and, most infamously, Lady Bluebeard. The woman standing before the boy looked as if she had melted, her hair had thinned and what was left of it had been dyed an unconvincing yellow. She could have been Miss Havisham, shut up inside a wallpapered tomb, leaving scraps of yellowed wedding lace in her wake. Pamela Lane must have been aware of her enduring status as a cult figure. She was wearing a high-waisted white dress made of lace. The youthful Pamela Lane, the one whose sensuousness still haunted the dreams of men, had been famous for wearing high-waisted white costumes in her Hatchet heyday, just a shade darker than transparent.
She led him to a small table in the sunroom where she prepared the tea. When they were both seated, she folded her hands in her lap, looked at the young man levelly and asked him to begin. Nervous, he forgot the question he’d planned on asking. He asked her first about her childhood.
“I was discovered while working in my father’s carnival,” Pamela Lane said. “I played Beauty to the Goat Man’s Beast nearly every night. What a dreadful man he was, if he was a man at all – I was never sure. In a strange way, our little stage play – where he tore me to pieces in front of the horrified masses – was a rehearsal for my love affairs to come. I have died on stage and screen thousands of times and always out of love.” Pamela sniffed a little and straightened a flounce. “My father said he found the Goat Man in the Carpathian mountains. My father spoke of the Carpathians often. He said he learned many unholy rites there, living amongst the mountain people. My father was undoubtedly full of shit.” Pamela stopped to sip delicately at her tea. “My second husband saw me playing Beauty and cast me as Poe’s Ligeia. But my true love was my first husband, Christopher Pocket, who played my Dracula in Dracula’s Concubine. He died young, the poor boy.” She leaned forward and lowered her voice. “You remind me of him a little. You are young and handsome just as he was. Afterwards, I married my favorite of the many directors I worked with and we settled here. I have been here ever since.” Pamela Lane’s performance at teatime was as deliberate and as mannered as her youthful performances had been. Her movements were as fluid and as practiced as that of a powdered and bewigged geisha. The boy tried not to look around at the decaying house whose confines had constituted the whole of her experience for the past 25 years. She was a known recluse, as mysterious a woman, in her way, as Greta Garbo. The wallpaper was streaked, the rugs and floorboards worn, the grey velvet curtains moth-eaten. One wall of the glass sunroom had shattered and dull green fingers of kudzu were pushing their way into the house. “Now,” she said, settling back into her wicker chair and smiling. “Whatever does a young man like yourself want with an old lady like me?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “I normally turn down interview requests. I get them from time to time, of course, but your letter was different, my dear boy. It was so earnest, so alive with youth and enthusiasm for those silly old movies I made.”
“They are classics, ma’am. Maybe not with the snotty film critics in New York but with people like me who attend horror conventions and collect memorabilia – well, you will always be a star. There has never been anyone like you, Miz Lane, not before or since.” He sipped at his tea. It was curiously tasteless. “Would you like to see some of the collectables I’ve purchased?” He pulled his iphone from his pocket.
“No, dear, please put that thing away. I’m afraid the electronic waves those things emit are damaging to my health. I don’t even own a TV. All those shows are such tawdry things. Now, tell me, young man, what do you want to ask me about myself. I know I told you I would answer any question you put to me and I mean to stick by my word.”
The boy had only been half-listening. He was trying to sculpt the features of the beautiful Pamela Lane from the melting sagging wreck of a woman that sat before him. If he looked long enough, he could make out the lines of her full mouth and there was still something of the light that had lived behind her enormous grey eyes, obscured now by the milky patina of age. He thought of her as Ligeia, the pale woman who had risen from her black death bed, pale and hollowed but still humming with an unearthly vitality. Or Lucretia, the Lady Poisoner, the charming hostess who poisoned her dinner guests with a ruby-studded heart-shaped locket that hung from her neck.
“Your letter spoke of a horror magazine that you hope to publish. Tell me about this project of yours,” Pamela said. She lifted the cup to the lips that were smeared with bright red lipstick. The young reporter spoke too rapidly about his horror blog, his article about Dario Argento, his exclusive interview with Tom Savini. The one thing he’d always wanted more than anything else was an interview with the legendary Pamela Lane but he’d never imagined that she would actually accept. He did not tell her how little was left of the Pamela Lane he remembered. The only thing about her that had not changed was the strange quality of her speaking voice. She still had a voice full of indecent promise, full of whispers behind a drawn curtain. If the boy closed his eyes and only listened, he could easily imagine himself the young Pamela Lane’s lover, the one that would die soon, hired for only a day with only a few lines and then never seen again. The boy wondered if she had the ruby heart-shaped locket tucked somewhere inside her house.
“I have a sweet tooth for the young,” Pamela Lane said. “Do you mean a soft spot, a soft spot for the young?” the boy asked, smiling. She was an old woman now. She probably forgot things.
“Oh my, what a silly old lady I am,” she said, her bright red lips, like wrinkled caterpillars lying on top of each other, spread themselves into a smile. “Ask me anything you’d like.” Pamela Lane still affected an unconvincing British accent, just as she had in her actress days.
“Can you tell me anything about your time in the carnival?” “Freddie the Goat Man didn’t last long, fortunately. The old satyr wouldn’t leave me alone. He was such a large man. It was very difficult to mount him.” The boy began to scribble on his little pad. He stopped suddenly.
“Pardon me? What did you say?”
Pamela Lane laughed and the boy thrilled to the sound of it. “I am not being indelicate. When poor Freddie died, my father had him stuffed and placed inside a glass casket for public viewing. Freddie was so large and his casket so heavy that it was difficult to mount onstage.”
This would be wonderful for his magazine. How wonderfully odd and grotesque she was, like a ghoulish Gloria Swanson, a great fat white witch squatting within her filthy lair.
“My father would do practically anything to make money. We were eternally in need of it in those days. And it was a sort of tribute, after all, for poor Freddie to live on, even in death.” “Tell me about the filming of Ligeia. It is a fan favorite.” “Oh, the director was lovely. He treated me like a princess. It was his idea to have me wear that white diaphanous nightgown through the whole film. It became the fashion accessory to have that season, if I remember correctly. I wore it again, you know, for Lucretia, the Lady Poisoner.” “Do you still have the ruby locket?” the boy asked. He tried to compose himself. He was excited by visions of Pamela as Lucretia leaning over her Renaissance table in a white gown to open the red heart locket and dust poison into someone’s goblet. The film itself was not one of the better Hatchet films but it was a favorite nonetheless, despite it being little more than an excuse to display Pamela Lane’s sumptuous bosom.
“I believe I may have it around here somewhere,” Pamela said. “Perhaps I will show it to you later, after you’ve conducted your little interview.” The boy beamed. He scribbled on his pad. He asked her is she had any thoughts about the unsolved disappearance of Peter Knight, director of Lady Bluebeard and Ligeia and The Blood-Soaked Maiden, a man she later married. She murmured something inaudible and shook her cartoon yellow curls.
“He was a drinker, you know,” she said, as if that explained everything. “I enjoyed him. What fun we had with our little horrors.” Then Pamela Lane began to talk of her films with enthusiasm. How her first brief marriage had been to her Dracula, Christopher Pocket, in Dracula’s Concubine, and how she’d been devastated when he’d died only a year later of a massive heart attack in his sleep. She had lost so many friends, family and lovers over the years. She leaned forward and fixed the boy with her grey eyes. The fading sunlight that had fled the room seemed to have gathered itself inside her irises. “My dear boy, there is only one way to live forever and I do not mean you should make movies as I have done. No, there are better ways.”
The boy beamed. She was clearly attracted to him. Somewhere in this creaking and leaking house, she probably had treasures she didn’t even know she possessed. If he played along with her delusion, maybe she would give him the ruby heart locket. He knew a collector who would pay handsomely for it. The boy put down his pad slowly. He looked into her eyes. There were few things an older woman loved more than the attentions of a younger man.
“I want to live forever. I want to be here, facing you, the beautiful temptress of Lady Bluebeard, the (he pretended to search for the right word) magnificent vampiress of Dracula’s Concubine. I would be a consort for Lady Bluebeard, even if – even if she had to kill me, poison me with her love.” He reached out a hand and touched her gloved one. “It is all I’ve ever wanted.” Pamela Lane smiled and dropped her gaze to the floor. There now. He had her. Her hand stretched toward his face and he felt the soft fabric of her glove against his cheek. “How young and handsome you are. You remind me of my first husband, my Dracula, my demon lover.”
The boy stifled a laugh. He smiled when she rose and gestured to him to follow. He followed her out of the sunroom and through a parlor and up some enormous winding stairs to a room at the very top of the house. On the third-floor landing, he stopped. “I feel a little dizzy,” he said.
“The air in this place is a little thinner,” Pamela said. “It can be a shock to the system until you are used to it. She dug around in the pocket of her gown and pulled a heavy iron key from it. “I seldom let anyone inside this room but you, young man, are different. I knew it when I read your letter. You are a true demon lover, a real connoisseur of the grotesque.” Pamela Lane looked worse up close. Her white makeup was heavy and caked into the wrinkles of her face, her red lipstick had begun to bleed. The boy began to feel somewhat sick and nauseated. Pamela Lane put the iron key into the lock and opened the door. The room was completely dark, an impenetrable black. “Come inside, my boy,” Pamela breathed. Her voice had taken on the youthful tones of her days as an actress. The young man followed her into the darkness and waited.
“Nocturnal illumination,” Pamela Lane purred. “That’s what Emperor Nero called the burning of Christians alive. Nocturnal illumination.” The room flared with the light from the candles of a black candelabra in Pamela Lane’s hand. The door closed behind them. The boy noticed with a start that Pamela Lane had become young and beautiful again. There was the gleam of her shapely blonde hair, the grey eyes lit with a subterranean kind of light, the strange phosphorescence of those sea creatures who live at the bottom of the ocean, forced to become their own source of light within an infinite seeming darkness. She was wearing the white nightgown she’d worn in Lady Bluebeard. Between her full breasts swung the luminous ruby heart locket.
Pamela Lane led the boy over to a wall and lifted her candelabra. The light swung over a glass case shaped like a coffin and within it stood a very hairy man, dead, lifeless but leering angrily and lustily at the viewer. “Freddie, the Goat Man,” Pamela said. “I hated him, of course, but he was an important part of my childhood nonetheless.” She took a few steps, holding onto the boy’s sleeve. She lifted her candelabra again. There was the face of Dracula from her film Dracula’s Concubine. He stood in a full black greatcoat at a height of nearly 6’ 7”. His collar was turned up. His lips peeled back into a snarl, as if he’d just been confronted by Van Helsing’s stake. “He was my first love,” Pamela said. “But he died so young and he was never very serious about me anyway.”
“He is certainly serious now,” the young man said. The room swum in his vision but he was seized suddenly by euphoria. He’d seldom been more excited to be anywhere. “Show me more,” he said. The thoughts in his head had become fuzzy and indistinct. She must have put something in the tea. The boy stared at the beautiful young woman. She was before him, his dream, his midnight lady. He decided he did not care if she’d dosed him.
“Here is my second husband. Oh, how he loved me. He loved me and the wardrobe girl, the makeup girl, my stand-in, my best friend. He never raised his voice to me on the set but in our marriage – he berated me daily.” The boy recognized the face of the man who sat forever now within a director’s chair, an absurd beret sitting at an angle on his head.
“He looks as if he could stand up at any minute and bark orders at a cameraman.”
“Quite,” Pamela Lane said. There was a long stone table from the film Lucretia, the Lady Poisoner, still set with silverware. In one corner stood an old armoire full of white silk chiffon gowns. The boy staggered over to the armoire and, grabbing fistfuls of pale chiffon, rubbed his face into the soft fabric. Something in another corner caught his eye.
“It’s the bed of Ligeia,” he said. He made his unsteady way to the four-poster bed of carved black wood, hung with cream-colored silk panels studded with crystals. He ran his hands over the creamy satin bedspread. He climbed onto the mattress and laid himself down slowly, his face rapturous with an unwholesome delight. “Pamela, come to me,” he said. He held out a shaking hand. “You can’t know how long I’ve dreamed of this.”
Tears ran down the face of Pamela Lane as she took the boy’s hand. “I should not do it,” she said. “I love you too much already, my young wild thing.” The boy sat up. He stared at her and pleaded with his eyes. He was being faintly ridiculous but he felt such a strong love, a quickening fever-love that had infected him like plague. Pamela Lane lay down with the boy. Their night together was full of cries and whispers and promises but when the boy awoke and saw the bright sunlight splattering the room, when he saw that Ligeia’s bed was little more than a hastily built theatrical prop, that Lucretia’s stone table was merely painted wood, that her heart-shaped locket was a tawdry trinket, the gold dull and the ruby clouded, he wondered what could have come over him. The woman beside him, though still young and beautiful, had mussed her blonde hair. There were black smudges beneath the long thick lashes that lay on her cheeks. The old woman must have dosed him with that awful tea. What else could explain the idiocy that had seized him the night before? He couldn’t possibly stay here with her in this gallery of horrors. He crept over to the sleeping form of Pamela Lane and gently pulled the ruby heart locket from around her neck. He placed it into his pocket. He bent down and kissed her on the cheek. He made his way downstairs and to the front door. He began to hum a popular song. Where was his iphone, anyway? He needed to call his connection right away. The collector would be ecstatic over the ruby locket. He threw open the front door and took two steps into an absolute blackness. The darkness was studded with tiny lights, like the shining crystals of Ligeia’s black bed of death. The boy stared around wildly. He looked at the ruby locket in his hand.
“Don’t worry. I will never hurt you.” It was the unmistakable voice of Pamela Lane. “I will never do to you what I did to them because you said you wanted to be with me forever.” The boy turned and stared at the white figure of Pamela Lane. He opened his mouth to speak but no words formed on his tongue. Pamela floated towards him, touched his face with her soft hands. She was perfect again, the Hatchet horror heroine. Behind her, the house changed to the fogbound exterior of a Transylvanian castle, a great stone shriek of an edifice. Pamela took the locket from the boy and smiled. “You wanted something to remember me by, didn’t you?” She shook her head and smiled. “This life can be a shock to the system but you will grow accustomed to it.”
The boy nodded. He remembered how he’d felt the day before, so foolishly in love that he’d overlooked this woman’s bizarre murder tableaus. He turned to gape at her. She had never played a part. She really was all those women in her movies, the poisoner, the lover that came back from the dead, the woman who kept her murdered lovers in a locked room. He felt a rush of love again. He took her in his arms and kissed her with more feeling than he’d ever felt in his short life.
“Perhaps I could have some more of that tea, darling,” he whispered into her ear as they walked together.
“We will take tea together every day,” Pamela said. He saw that the castle was little more than painted wood, flimsy and insubstantial, that the fog had the texture and smell of the vapors that came from a fog machine. From somewhere within the painted trees on the backdrop, a wolf howled. The sound was little more than a tinny sound effect. He was now the stock paraphernalia of one of her blood-soaked melodramas, a love interest that would fill a scene or two, perhaps wring a tear from her unearthly eyes and, in the final act, when he’d been written out of the script (perhaps with a poignant final speech) he would be sent upstairs to the attic, that unspeakable attic, like an unloved doll destined to be arranged into another grotesque tableau. Perhaps she would still let him have the ruby heart-shaped locket, he thought, as the castle doors swung shut behind him.