Russell Bradbury-Carlin is a part-time writer living in Western, MA. His stories have appeared in A cappella Zoo, Pseudopod, Hogglepot, and Bewildering Stories, amongst others. You can find him at Russellbradburycarlin.com.
Hauntingly Horrific Extravaganza
Professor Tinderbrooks’ Hauntingly Horrific Extravaganza (featuring Mordecai the Ghost) begins each night when the stage lights dim bit-by-bit. On this particular evening, the heightened murmurings of the audience dims alongside the lights. The sound of amiable chatter and restrained bouts of laughter are followed by the creaks of chairs along with the clatter of canes and umbrellas being set down at people’s feet.
Eventually, and only for a moment, the entire theater is plunged into complete darkness. Some in the audience gasp. Some titter.
Then Professor Tinderbrooks enters from curtain-left with two large candles in his hands. The large flames flicker and dance. They create eerie shadows across the Professor’s craggy and creviced face. Two stagehands bring more candles from curtain-left and curtain-right. They place them on tables arranged around the stage. The collection of flames provides the only illumination.
“Ladies and gentleman,” the Professor announces with a voice that is both sweet sounding and filled with authority. “Tonight, prepare to be astonished. Prepare to be amazed. This will be an evening you will long not forget. For on this very day, on this very stage, I will produce for your education and entertainment an actual spirit. A once living and breathing person. Now, long dead.”
Quiet exclamations ripple amongst the crowd.
Professor Tinderbrooks rests his hands in the pockets of his brown tweed jacket. He stares out at the audience through his wire-rimmed glasses. “You see, ladies and gentlemen, I am a scholar in the world of the paranormal. The world of long-gone souls and ghouls. The ephemeral and the hidden. I study the things that are all around us, but that we cannot see. Spirits are real, ladies and gentlemen! Trust me, they are quite actual. This evening, you will bear witness to the manifestation of a very authentic and astoundingly articulate spirit. We will be visited by Mordecai. Mordecai, the Ghost.”
The audience claps appreciatively.
Mordecai is a seven-year-old ghost.
This does not mean he has been a ghost for seven years. He actually does not remember how long he’s been dead. But when Mordecai passed away, he had been a seven-year-old boy.
Now, he lives in a jar. A jar that once held blackberry preserves. From inside his home, he can see the ring of old moldy jelly that still clings to its lip.
Professor Tinderbrooks keeps Mordecai in the jar all the time. That is, until he needs to produce the ghost for the stage show. The jar is small and cramped. Though, in reality, a ghost could easily fit inside a thimble, if needed. To Mordecai, however, it is still confining.
But all of this confining and all of this time gives Mordecai the space to think.
Many ghosts don’t think. Some ponder.
Most just tend to repeat the same thing over and over, such as recreating the manner of their death again and again.
Mordecai does not do this.
Mordecai is also a bit different from other ghosts because he has memories of his life before his death.
Very, very few memories.
On this typical night, this is how Professor Tinderbrooks’ Hauntingly Horrific Extravaganza (featuring Mordecai the Ghost) continues:
The Professor saunters slowly amongst the candles and talks about his travels around the world to hunt for signs of the paranormal. As he does this the flames of the candles waver and wiggle from the current of air that trails behind him. This makes shadows leap and loom all over the stage.
The Professor’s voice dims to a whispered hush when he describes sneaking into cold haunted castles or into dusty underground mausoleums. Then his voice will boom, menacingly, when he announces his encounters with the denizens of the afterlife.
Once he has completed his tales, the stagehands come out and extinguish all the flames except for the two large candles the Professor began with.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time for you to meet our special guest”, he announces.
This is the signal for the stagehand on the left to open the preserve jar that sits on a stool just behind the curtains.
The Professor closes his eyes and takes a deep inhalation. His chest expands like a barrel. Then he releases his breath in one long slow hiss. The audience stares in fascination. Then he turns and looks at what seems to be the empty space between the dancing flames of the candles.
“Why hello, Mordecai,” he says amiably.
The audience starts to whisper. Then they began to murmur. Some even guffaw. Why there is no ghost there. “The Professor is insane”, someone declares aloud.
The Professor glances out over the audience with a small smirk on his lips. This is all part of his act. He leans forward to the empty space where the ghost is supposed to be. He brings his broad hand up to his mouth and appears to whisper something into thin air.
Once the audience noise reaches a certain decibel, the Professor raises his hand and speaks with a bellow of deep authority.
“You protest because you cannot see,” he announces. “But what of gravity? You cannot see it and yet you believe.”
The audience’s sounds begin to die down.
“You protest because you believe me to be mad, perhaps.” He waves his hand through the space between the candles. “And did they not label Galileo insane for declaring that the Earth traveled around the Sun, when it appears that the Sun, in fact, circles the Earth?”
The audience is now listening again.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, I tonight, will prove to you that Mordecai the Ghost does, in fact, exist. I, or should I say we, will make him visible for all of us to view.”
Now the audience is in the Professor’s grasp, again. His showman’s noose, all the tighter.
“One fact about ghosts that many do not know, is that they need human interaction in order to become visible to us. What I need from you –- each and every one of you –- is your concentration. I need you to focus your attention on the space just above these two candles. And, if we are able to concentrate enough Mordecai will, I assure you, materialize before our very eyes.”
“Are you ready, Mordecai?” the Professor asks the seemingly empty air.
Then he turns back to the audience. “Yes, he is ready.”
“Now concentrate!” the Professor bellows.
The audience leans forward collectively. All eyes stare, unblinking, at the stage. Some people’s faces turn red as they strain to focus. Some grunt audibly.
Then, the air shimmers a bit for a moment. There are a few gasps. Then the shimmer fades.
“More!” declares the Professor.
Then an outline, a kind of wispy wet fog appears. It is in the shape of a person. A small person hovering over the stage.
Then the shape wavers. It fades in-and-out of view.
“More!” The Professor bellows again.
There is nothing for a few moments. Just enough moments (the Professor and Mordecai know well) that lie between the audience’s interest and their giving up.
And then, he appears. Mordecai the Ghost is fully present.
“It’s a child!” someone in the audience declares. Others gasp.
This, of course, has all gone to plan. The Professor works the audience like they are a room full of puppets.
“Good evening, Mordecai. We are so pleased that you have paid us a visit tonight.” The Professor bows a bit to the ghost.
And, it appears, that Mordecai bows in response.
The Professor then describes a story of how he found the boy-ghost in an abandoned village in a wild valley in Romania. And that it took weeks of coaxing and careful science to capture him.
The entire time that the Professor is telling this tall tale, Mordecai hovers in space. He scans the audience. They stare back at him with slack-jaws and wide-open eyes.
These are the few memories that Mordecai has of his life before he died:
He remembers rolling down a grassy hill. The momentum builds to the point where he can no longer stop himself.
He remembers swinging a thick crooked stick and hitting a tattered, leather ball. Then the sound of other children yelling, “Run! Run!”
Then there is one where he dangles his feet in a cold stream while he sits on a wooden footbridge.
These are most of the memories that he replays again and again while he hovers in the preserve jar.
His last memory, though, is when he met Professor Tinderbrooks for the very first time. He was still alive then. And, this memory is the most vivid and complete.
He met the Professor on the street as he went to buy a loaf of bread for his parents. The Professor sat on a bench on the edge of the park. He introduced himself as a famous explorer. He told young Mordecai tales of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and of exploring ancient abandoned castles in Scotland. Many of these tales are similar to the ones he tells during his stage show.
Then, the Professor offered him a bottle of sweet syrup to sip. It is the kind of syrup that all children like.
Mordecai took a sip.
His stomach began to cramp. Then his vision dimmed. And, finally, seven-year-old Mordecai fell dead onto the ground.
For the sweet syrup was laced with arsenic.
And the Professor, who had really never traveled very far and did not really have the desire to, sought the fastest and easiest way to make a ghost.
On this average night, this is how Professor Tinderbrooks’ Hauntingly Horrific Extravaganza (featuring Mordecai the Ghost) ends:
The Professor finishes the story of coaxing and capturing Mordecai in Romania. Then he says to the audience, “Let us see if we can get Mordecai to talk to us tonight. I warn you, he rarely speaks aloud. But, on occasion, he will answer one question and one question only.”
The Professor draws his hand out over the audience. “What would you like to ask this ghost on this evening?”
It is always the same question. Every night. It never varies.
“How did this young boy die?” someone declares.
“An interesting question,” the Professor announces. He places his hand on his chin and strokes it thoughtfully. “You know, no audience has ever thought to ask this question before. Excellent!”
He turns to the ghost. The ghost turns to the Professor. “Mordecai, the audience would like to know how it is that you came to such an untimely end. In what manner did you die?”
Every night the answer is different. Every night, the Professor whispers one or two words into the ghost’s ear while the audience is questioning his sincerity. And every night, the words are meant to plant an image in the audience’s mind. Not to completely answer the question. But to give just enough information that they can fill in the gaps with whatever grisly and sad story they want. Sometimes, the word is “Suffocation.” Sometimes it is “Diphtheria.” Other times it is “Impaled,” or “Rabid Bat,” or “Decapitation.”
It is, however, never “Poisoned.” Nor is it ever “Arsenic”.
Tonight, the words are “Burned Alive”.
The audience gasps once again. Some of the ladies erupt into tears. Some men place their hands over their open mouths.
Then Mordecai droops his head slightly. He takes one more mournful look up at the audience. Then, he fades. He returns to his jar.
The Professor bows.
“Thank you. And good night,” he says and exits the stage.
The house lights come up.
The show is over.
The last thing the Professor does each night when he leaves the theater after one of his performances is put the jar that formally contained preserves, but now contains Mordecai, into a velvet bag that he places in his leather suitcase.
And, before he close the suitcase, he glances at the jar and says, “Good night, Mordecai. Sleep well.”
Mordecai does not respond.
Even if he did, the sound of his voice would not penetrate the glass of the preserve jar.
But if he did respond, he might say “Good night, Professor. I hope you sleep well, too.” For that is the polite thing to say.
He also might inform the Professor that ghosts don’t actually sleep. They don’t have much use for it. He might add that the nights in the jar, in the velvet pouch, in the leather suitcase are, however, a good time to think.
This night, however, is not so typical. On this particular night something is different. The evening does not end in its usual manner.
The show has ended. And, the Professor pauses as he begins to put away his props. He is distracted by an attractive young woman who comes backstage to lavish praise on him. The Professor, of course, enjoys this. He spends a long time elaborating more of his marvelous tales — all to her delight.
Then the Professor realizes that it is late. The train that is taking him to the next city for his next show leaves in fifteen minutes.
He bids the young woman farewell and immediately packs his things together.
He tosses candles into bags instead of placing them carefully.
He shoves the jacket he wears on stage into his valise without folding it properly.
Finally, he rakes the velvet pouch and the preserve jar containing Mordecai into the briefcase instead of carefully placing the jar inside the pouch, first.
The Professor runs to the train station and, out-of-breath and sweating profusely, catches his train just in time.
The next evening does not begin like an average night for Professor Tinderbrooks' Hauntingly Horrific Extravaganza.
As the Professor sets up the stage, he finds that the left entrance is packed with large painted backdrops for an opera that will be performed the next weekend. He decides, rather unwillingly, to place the stool that will hold the preserve jar on the right side of the stage, instead of the left.
And, when the Professor opens the bag that contains the candles, he finds that nearly half of them have broken in half. He sends one of the stagehands out to purchase as many candles as he can.
Mordecai, in the meantime, spent the evening rolling back-and-forth inside the jar, inside the briefcase as the train weaved back-and-forth on its tracks.
The rolling disrupted Mordecai's thinking. He tried to recall the few memories he had before his death. But each was disrupted by the jar banging up against the side of the briefcase.
Rolling down the grassy hill – bang!
Hitting the leather ball – bang!
Dangling his foot in the stream — bang!
Only his memory of meeting Professor Tinderbrooks for the first time is allowed to play out longer.
And, much to his surprise, other thoughts entered his mind. Thoughts that had not occurred to him before.
On this specific, but atypical night, here is how Professor Tinderbrooks’ Hauntingly Horrific Extravaganza (featuring Mordecai the Ghost) unfolds:
The Professor introduces himself in his usual manner. He tells his stories as he does at every show. And he calls forth Mordecai as he would on any typical evening.
But throughout his performance, the Professor feels off. His voice does not boom as loudly as it usually does. The flicker of the few candles makes his shadows smaller and less looming. And it takes the Professor a few extra moments to recall the next parts of his presentation.
This became the most apparent when the Professor calls forth Mordecai.
The audience responds, as it usually does, with disbelief when the ghost is not visible. Only this time, a group of men stand up.
"Fraud! You are a fraud!" they seem to cry in unison. One of them even begins to approach the stage in anger.
The Professor feels a ripple of fear run up his spine. And when he leans in to whisper the word to Mordecai — the word that describes the supposed manner of his death — he can't think of anything. His mind draws a blank.
"Make something up," he whispers, then stands forward to rebuke the audience’s skepticism.
Now Mordecai feels off, too. "Make something up?"
He hovers in space, still unseen by the audience, and he thinks about the Professor's request.
The Professor encourages the audience to join him in bringing Mordecai into view.
Many thoughts run through the seven-year-old ghost's mind.
Finally, Mordecai comes into view. The audience gasps. Many express surprise and tears as they realize he is only a child.
And then the moment comes for the ghost to declare the manner of his death.
He pauses for a moment longer than he normally would.
And in that pause Mordecai realizes something.
Why, he could introduce a new word. A word that he had never been allowed to utter in the Hauntingly Horrific Extravaganza. He could, in fact, tell the truth — reveal an actual part of his story to the audience.
He also realizes that he could go further than this. He could, perhaps, tell a whole story, just as the Professor does each night. Mordecai could share with the audience the clearest and most recalled of his memories.
In that brief pause, Mordecai considers all of this.
And, he concludes that this is already an atypical evening for the Hauntingly Horrific Extravaganza.
So, he opens his mouth, utters the word "poisoned", and begins to tell a story.