PseudoPod 733: Late Sleepers
Reviews of It Came from the Multiplex edited by Josh Viola and Echoes of a Natural World: Tales of the Strange & Estranged edited by Michael P. Daley were written and read by Shawn Garrett, co-Editor.
by Steve Rasnic Tem
Ted woke up in the dark with a dull headache, deciding to sneak out before the rest of the family got up. Going home for Thanksgiving was a terrible idea. He’d have to find some excuse to stay on campus for Christmas. Maybe he’d come home New Year’s Day, if he wasn’t too hungover.
He’d slept in the same clothes he wore at dinner. He didn’t know why he hadn’t changed; he didn’t remember going to bed. His dad worked all day on their ancient furnace, banging a hammer and making dinner late. Mom was furious, and that started the first argument. Then his brother got into it, followed by his brother’s wife. There’d been something about Ted’s major, the wasted college fees, his low grades, and other upsets he couldn’t remember at all. Politics maybe. Or a neighbor’s careless and tragic end. So much he couldn’t quite point to. For once his dad hadn’t participated. He just sat there staring at them. Ted remembered leaving the table mad at everybody, but nothing after.
The meal might have gone better if Emily had come. They might have tried harder with a stranger present, but Emily was amazed Ted had even invited her. “We don’t have that kind of relationship.” His confusion and embarrassment over her answer made him feel stupid. He’d promised them his girlfriend was coming for Thanksgiving. His brother always gave him shit about his “unrequited loves.”
Just once Ted wanted to be the one who got the girl. In the movies, the loser sometimes got what he wanted. That was supposed to encourage guys like him.
He carried his coat and bag out to the staircase landing. The inside of the house appeared unfocused, layered in shades of gray. He couldn’t have said what about that bothered him. He strained to see more detail, making his headache worse.
He crept down the staircase gripping the railing and watching each step. He walked into the dark dining room. The table should have been empty, but he could see a spread of silhouettes. He flipped on the light. Dirty plates were still around the table, greasy glasses and silverware, a fork under his sister-in-law’s chair, debris from the great bird and bits of lettuce and bread scattered across Mom’s best tablecloth, a bowl almost empty of mashed potatoes, an unserved pumpkin pie. His father’s plate was still full, surprisingly untouched.
His mother hadn’t cleared or cleaned anything, yet she was such a neat freak. Had she been that angry? Or maybe she’d gotten sick. He’d call in a few days and apologize, make sure she was okay.
He paused at the front door. The stillness troubled him. He didn’t hear anything, but it seemed the noise of nothing was pounding in his head. He breathed in deeply, smelling only the stale air. Maybe all would be forgotten by his next visit.
No one was up in their small town. The downtown Christmas lights were hung, a glitter of brilliant white with the occasional splash of red. Everything else lay dark.
A half hour outside town, Ted saw the Paradise Cinemas sign, the only building visible for miles. The vertical theater name and the rectangular marquee below were outlined with a triple row of blinking blue and red bulbs. He’d gone there all the time when he was a kid. It was the first twin cinema in this part of the state. Showtimes were staggered so you could see a movie in one theater and then move to the next. By his high school years, most people had taken their business to the eight screens at the new multiplex.
The Paradise used to run movies all Thanksgiving night for those with no better way to spend the holiday. He slammed on his brakes to make the turn onto the access road, the rear end of his Celica fishtailing on the icy pavement. He felt suddenly ill. He stopped the car, opened the door, and threw up onto the road.
There were six or seven cars in the gravel parking lot. The marquee said “Late Sleepers & S*l*cted Horror Clips.” A hand-lettered cardboard sign on the art deco door stated “Final Day / Thank you for 50 great years!” The theater’s front door made a soft scraping noise as he stepped into the ice-cold lobby.
The interior had the same décor Ted remembered from childhood. The carpet bore a complex pattern of Asian temples and jungle animals in several colors. Badly worn when he was a kid, it was far worse now. Dark floorboards peeked through in spots. The wallpaper was pinkish-red and flocked with a felt pattern a few shades darker. The main figures resembled giant upside-down roaches. The chandelier overhead was missing numerous prisms and other glass trim.
A huge man in a pale-yellow suit and a fur cap stood up from a chair wedged behind the heavily-scratched glass counter. His forced smile looked painful. His “Manager” tag was pinned to a ratty-looking red sweater beneath his suit jacket. “Hello sir, welcome to Paradise,” he uttered in a monotone. His lips were wet and his eyes red and tiny.
“Hi, the movies still playing?”
“Right until dawn.”
The manager pouted. “Usually five bucks, but this is the last night. Let’s call it free. Besides, the main feature, Late Sleepers, is a weird independent film out of Atlanta. But it’s all we got.”
“I can’t argue with free. What are the clips on the marquee all about?”
“Just a bunch of scenes the owner put together from stuff that’s played here. I don’t know where he got it all. Some of it he’s had for years. Sometimes a reel falls apart on you, you know? Sometimes part of that reel doesn’t get put back.” It sounded dubious, but what did he care? “Can I sell you some refreshments?”
“A medium Coke, I guess.”
Ted looked at the popcorn maker, half full of yellowish, stiff-looking popped kernels. The butter appeared discolored. The candy bars sat neatly arranged in the glass case but they all had faded wrappers. As he surveyed the offerings, he was pretty sure most hadn’t been made in years—Marathon, Reggie, Starbar, PowerHouse, and Texan.
The manager had the drink ready on the counter, two thick fingers tapping the lid. “The Coke will be enough. It’s kind of late,” Ted said.
“Three bucks then. Find yourself a seat in theater two. Movie’s on a loop. You’re about forty-five minutes from the end before it all starts up again. Stay as long as you like, until dawn at least. That’s when I kick everybody out and the Paradise is done. Next month they’re turning us into a parking lot.” He made a hoarse, gurgling laugh.
Ted had no idea what he was talking about. “What’s playing in theater one?”
“We shut that one down years ago. Projector went bad. Couldn’t afford to replace it. I like them old projectors. They make a little rattling noise that tells you you’re in a theater and not watching TV.”
Ted nodded and walked to the gold curtain with the black numeral “2” above it. A small paper sign by the opening said No Sleeping Allowed. “Are you serious about ‘no sleeping’?”
“I am. People snore—it disturbs the other customers. Almost worse than talking.”
“But people fall asleep during movies all the time.”
“Not in my movie theater. They get one warning. After that, they’re gone.”
“I see…” Ted paused. The manager’s face became angry. “I’ve never heard of this before.”
“It’s like church. You’re not supposed to sleep in church. You let the screen do your dreaming—that’s what it’s there for. Did you know in the 30s they called movie theaters dream palaces? They understood back then. We’ve just forgotten.”
“Well, thank you. I didn’t know.” Ted pushed apart the curtain and stood inside until his eyes adjusted. He hoped he wouldn’t fall asleep. It was pretty late.
More of the old carpet ran down the aisle. The rows of seats looked uneven as some seat backs had collapsed and some were missing corners. He could see very little of the walls in the dark, but he remembered huge water stains descending in some sections, and even bigger ones flowering across the ceiling. He doubted they had been fixed.
The screen was watchable, despite several vertical splits and puckers near the edges that distorted the image. It was framed by two halves of a giant red velvet curtain. He wondered if they still closed the curtain between shows. Even in its shabby state it suggested the possibility of something grand.
His tennis shoes stuck to the carpet with each step, making a soft kissing noise when he lifted his feet. All those decades of dripping butter and pop, he thought. He looked for the seats that appeared less worn, less sunken. Pickings were slim. He tried several before finding one somewhat bearable. He had to squeeze past a few patrons as collapsed-looking as the upholstery. His apologies were met with silence.
He assumed the scene playing on the screen was from Late Sleepers, but he couldn’t figure out what was going on. He was looking at a vaguely familiar living room in a modest home somewhat like his parents’, so dark it might have been black and white but for a few visible glimmers of blue and green. The soundtrack had a discordant metallic hum, the rhythm of which shifted unexpectedly, increasing in volume gradually until he found himself wiggling around in discomfort.
The scene went on with no actors, and no other sound except for that loud mechanical noise. Ted began to wonder if there might be something wrong with the projector. He twisted around and checked out the rest of the audience, looking for impatience or confusion or alarm, anything indicating they might be seeing it the same way he was.
There were eight or nine forms slumped into their seats, heads tilted back, motionless. Ted couldn’t see any of their eyes, but from their attitude and their stillness, it seemed some of them must have been asleep. Maybe all of them. They were breaking the special rule of the Paradise, so why hadn’t they been removed? They were completely silent—no snoring that he could hear. He couldn’t even hear them breathe. Perhaps making noise was the major concern.
He returned his attention to the screen just as the machine noise faded and the scene ended. The words “End of Part 4” appeared.
There was some scratchy black leader and then the first clip began, or at least the first clip Ted had seen. A hand-written title appeared in black ink over white stock. Possession. He’d seen it, if it was the one he was thinking of. Isabelle Adjani appeared walking through a heavily shadowed subway passage and he knew immediately it was that movie. Suddenly she was convulsing, throwing herself around as if an outside force controlled her body. Ted clutched the armrests, knowing what was coming. Isabelle fell to the dirty pavement in agony, hemorrhaging copiously as she had a miscarriage. They’d picked the most terrible scene from the film.
The “clips” appeared to be a compilation of scenes from 70s and 80s horror flicks, many Ted recognized and many more he did not. They ran without interruption, separated only by dark or bloody or plain nasty-looking leaders, each introduced with a hastily-scrawled identifying title, one after the other like a feverish, disjointed nightmare.
Next came Jason’s rotting body pulling the girl under the lake in Friday the 13th. Then there was Chucky coming alive in the mother’s hands in Child’s Play, followed by an illegibly-labeled clip in which a baby ate its own fingers in a jittering black and white soundless sequence so badly scratched Ted wondered if maybe he just imagined it.
The music behind many of the scenes was loud to the point of distortion, the colors so bright and garish they appeared to burn through the screen. His head ached again. Then came that awful ending to Sleepaway Camp in all its politically incorrect glory, the shattered looking face he had never been able to get out of his head. Ted felt ill again so he climbed out of his seat and ran for the bathroom off the lobby.
The manager wasn’t behind the counter. The men’s room was under the staircase leading to the closed balcony. As far back as Ted could remember, the balcony had always been closed. He squeezed through the narrow doorway and down a crooked hall. At some point the three toilets and sinks had been painted bright red, but the paint was mostly chipped off, leaving a haphazard blood-spatter effect. He went to his knees before the first bowl and vomited, almost passing out. He put his head against the cold floor, vaguely aware of how filthy it was. He got his head above the bowl before vomiting again.
He had no idea how long he was in there, and he felt no urgency to return to his seat. He rubbed water onto his face and into his hair and staggered out. Still no sign of the manager.
As he walked past theater one, he thought he heard a noise from inside. Like the sound of a projector motor. He pulled the curtain back and peered inside. The projector clattered above his head. A bright white nothingness flickered on the screen. The dark outlines of all the seats appeared swollen and misshapen, as if occupied by a sold-out audience. Suddenly a heavy hand on his shoulder pulled him back into the lobby.
“I told you that theater ain’t open to the public!” The manager’s face was livid and dangerously close. That hadn’t exactly been what he’d told him but Ted wasn’t about to argue.
“I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” Startled, he squirmed away from the manager and ducked back into theater two. He felt sick with embarrassment, like some stupid kid.
Late Sleepers was apparently in the midst of another chapter. Still no actors in evidence, but the camera was taking the audience up a staircase and down a hall, presumably to the bedrooms. The hall was so dark Ted could make out very few details. It all looked terribly familiar, but then many houses built during that time had similar layouts. Then “End of Part 7” flashed on the screen. He had no idea he’d been gone that long. There seemed little point in staying—he hadn’t seen any characters yet and had no idea of the plot—but another round of clips began and he was reluctant to leave.
Several odd characters scrolled across the screen, followed by some quick cuts of an old lady being ripped apart by giant demonic crickets in some nameless, sickeningly-lit Asian film. This was followed by the exploding head scene in Scanners. Apparently, the owner, who Ted strongly suspected was also the manager, liked this so much he repeated it twice.
After a pause and random streams of color, he was treated to the incredibly visceral transformation scene Rick Baker delivered in An American Werewolf in London, one of Ted’s favorites. A couple of friends once claimed it was a comedy but he couldn’t remember ever laughing.
The next clip began but almost immediately bubbled and burned. The house lights came up abruptly and Ted could hear cursing—or was it screaming?—coming from the projection booth behind him. He saw an irregular patch of shadow flowing down the center aisle and realized it was a mass of roaches fleeing the light. They disappeared into a rip in the carpet. He turned around wondering if anyone else caught a glimpse. Some people must have left because now he could only count four besides himself. Three of them had their eyes closed, heads tilted sideways. The remaining pallid elderly man stared at him, unblinking. He slowly caressed the curved handle of a thick wooden cane he had clutched to his chest. Ted turned away.
It was his first chance to get a good look at the theater’s walls and ceiling. The stains were still there, but multiplied. In some places, the wallpaper had disintegrated completely to show separating sections of plaster, their edges gleaming with moisture.
The lights went out again and the clips continued to roll. The tree outside the boy’s window in Poltergeist warped into footage of the overactive hand in Evil Dead 2. The clip ended abruptly and went directly into Jeff Goldblum’s final transformation in The Fly.
The deep suggestion of filth in that movie made Ted feel profoundly uncomfortable. He shouldn’t have left his parents’ house so abruptly. He should have stayed and made amends, helped them clean up the dreadful mess the next morning.
The nasty kitchen in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre appeared on the screen. It was an unstable clip, which only fueled the electric anxiety of the characters. Layers of flesh and bone debris, greasy plates and silverware, dried regions of blood. Ted began to sweat, and a burning sensation moved across his chest. He wanted to scratch himself, but the itch spread everywhere, and once he started scratching, he couldn’t imagine stopping. Things moved in the far corners of the scene, a suggestion of insects wandering across the table and touching the scattered bits of food, something crawling in and out of a small carcass, a suggestion of a rodent.
“End of Part 3” flashed on the screen, followed by some scratchy leader, then more footage from Late Sleepers. The pieces must have been out of order, not that it mattered as far as he could tell. Still no actors. The camera moved slowly into the dark dining room when a small spotlight, like a flashlight—presumably attached to the camera—went on and off to illuminate individual plates, serving platters, wine glasses tipped over and staining the lovely tablecloth with splotches of deep red. Grease gleamed off the fine holiday china and close-ups zeroed in on forks, knives, and spoons smeared with animal and vegetable remains.
Ted grew increasingly anxious as each new detail was revealed. With the camera so close to the table this could have been anyone’s dining room, and holiday meals had a certain uniformity across the country, but some angles and perspectives appearing at such size across the theater screen shook him with unsettling recognition. The burning and itching returned and were more intense, like armies of filthy insects marching around his torso. Soon it was almost unbearable. He jumped out of his seat again and raced for the bathroom.
Once under the mirror’s bare bulbs, Ted shed his coat and peeled off his shirt and stared at himself. Large cherry-red blotches covered his pecs and belly. Even brighter red islands had risen on his forearms, like the flocked patterns of the lobby wallpaper. These continued onto his hands, blistering one of his knuckles. He probed the tender spots, searching every inch of skin to map the spread of his symptoms.
Maybe he was allergic to something on the seats, and the blotches would be gone by the time he got to campus. But this place was so filthy, it could be anything. God, he should never have drunk that Coke! It was probably contaminated. He might have to go to the infirmary once he was back on campus. Not that they could help him. He wondered if they were even real doctors. He locked eyes with his mirror image. It was like watching a movie of himself. This damn Thanksgiving. His damn family. He’d heard that sometimes people got rashes just from being upset. Well, he was plenty upset. Every time he came home he was upset. He should have left right then, but he wanted to see how it all ended. He put his clothes back on and went into the lobby.
The manager had the elderly man Ted saw earlier in theater two trapped in his arms, dragging him away. The old man’s cane fell to the floor. The manager glanced at Ted and growled just as the man went slack. “Go back to your seat!” the manager barked as he hauled the poor man into theater one. Ted could hear that projector clacking and whirring so loudly, it must have been flying apart.
He wanted to help the fellow, and started after them, then stopped. This wasn’t a movie, and he was no match for a behemoth like the manager. He went to the front door and struggled to open it. It was locked. He looked around frantically, expecting the manager to burst through the curtains. A payphone hung from the wall by the restroom door, but the handset had been removed, colored wires splaying from the armored cable. He picked up the cane, and ran back into theater two looking for help.
Ted scanned the seats. The theater was completely empty. A snippet from John Carpenter’s The Thing was playing—that hideous upside-down head growing segmented legs and trucking rapidly across the floor.
He ran to the front of the theater and used the cane to pull back the curtains on both sides of the screen. The two emergency exits were boarded up. He walked back up the aisle trying to figure out what to do. He avoided touching the seats. He turned and gazed at the screen.
“Heeeeere’s Johnny!” as Jack Nicholson’s head protruded from a jagged hole in The Shining.
Late Sleepers started playing again. The camera glided along the upstairs hall of that too-familiar home. Ted needed to leave, but there appeared to be nowhere to go. He gripped the cane tightly, getting ready to use it as a club. Up on the screen of his dream palace an unseen hand opened each door along the hallway and the camera, and Ted, floated inside. In the first bedroom his parents lay on the floor, dead eyes staring at the ceiling, their cheeks bright red. In another room the bodies of his brother and sister-in-law lay contorted in bed, tangled in the covers. The rising sun peeked through the window.
The film ended, fading to black before it got to Ted’s room. He ran out to the lobby, cane raised. The manager was nowhere to be seen. Ted waited, looking around, listening carefully, hearing no sound. Then he noticed that the front door was cracked an inch or so, just enough to let in the dawn. He slammed it open with his shoulder, turning and swinging at nothing until convinced he was alone.
Ted drove back to his parents’ house, understanding he would not be returning to school, a surrender more than a decision. The filth and chaos of the dining room looked worse in the light of morning. He thought back to the beginning of that terrible day, and how it all seemed to begin with his father’s frustrations with the furnace. He breathed in deeply, seeking some kind of smell, but there wasn’t one. He quietly climbed the stairs even though he knew he risked disturbing no one. He thought about peeking into the other bedrooms but didn’t have the heart. He took off his shoes and climbed into bed with his clothes on. He might have taken the time to slip into pajamas, but he knew it wouldn’t be that kind of sleep.
About the Author
Steve Rasnic Tem
Steve Rasnic Tem’s last novel, Blood Kin (Solaris, 2014) won the Bram Stoker Award. His new novel, UBO (Solaris, February 2017) is a dark science fictional tale about violence and its origins, featuring such historical viewpoint characters as Jack the Ripper, Stalin, and Heinrich Himmler. He is also a past winner of the World Fantasy and British Fantasy Awards. Recently a collection of the best of his uncollected horror—Out of the Dark: A Storybook of Horrors—was published by Centipede Press. A handbook on writing, Yours To Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Fiction, written with his late wife Melanie, has appeared from Apex Books. In the Fall of 2018 Hex Publishers will be bringing out Steve’s middle-grade novel The Mask Shop of Doctor Blaack.
About the Narrator
David Powell’s day jobs have run the gamut from studio musician to farmhand to theatre director, but the fuel he runs on is always storytelling. He seeks out the little pockets where things whimsical, dreadful, or pitch-black hide. You can read his work in such places as Close 2 the Bone, Yellow Mama, Black Petals, Shotgun Honey, Calliope, and HWA Poetry Showcase Vol. 6.