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The Hollywood Career of Dorian Gray

The Hollywood Career of Dorian Gray
By Douglas Kolacki

I've never gone to a film premiere in my life. Not too many of those back in Norfolk, Virginia, where I fashion sheet metal for the Navy. My little sister is buried there also. With the ocean nearby, she might have drowned herself like Ophelia, but instead she went for poison--prussic acid, or white lead. That was the first clue.

I hold my ground at the front of the crowd, leaning on the red velvet ropes that mark the corridor for the stars. The fans on the other side look bored. They haven't been here as long as me, I can guarantee that. The ever-present men with cameras chat and joke among themselves.

Actually the crowd's not that big. My Cecil DeMille imagination envisioned a place overflowing with fans, like Times Square on New Year's Eve. Silly. And I've been waiting here since this morning. But I have to be up front, because I need a good look at him as he walks by. I've studied his picture in all the magazines, and the tabloids, even purchasing a magnifying glass. Every one confirms "frank blue eyes," "finely-curved scarlet lips," "crisp gold hair." Every one of the six close-ups reveals "a face you want to trust at once."

All of them show a man too young and too perfect to play zombies. He is unspotted from the world--too unspotted.

Well that settles it right there! you might say. Why don't his photographs wither and waste away, like his portrait?

Lord Henry possessed sixteen or seventeen such photographs, remember. No mention is made of them decaying, and motion picture film is a whole different animal besides. Who can say how these deals with the devil work? And get this: three film critics, a newspaper journalist and two horror-film websites declared Mr. "Granger Faulk" the most horrifying, realistic film zombie they'd ever seen.

He has a hand in his own makeup process, so the rumor goes.

* * *

This whole thing's given me an idea about justice. Or karma if you like. In cases like this that get unreal, justice exerts an extra effort. Shows you clues. Sets up coincidences that aren't so coincidental.

Like my sister's very name--Sybil Vane. Like my own name--James. Matching the Oscar Wilde novel letter for letter. No, she wasn't an actress like in the book, and I'm not a sailor, but what are the odds, I ask you? I even have the short, thick-set build.

And I've seen every zombie movie under the sun. Night Of the Living Dead of course, along with all its sequels. I always sit up close to the screen, legs stretched out, feet stuck in the crevice between the two seats in front of me, head resting on the seat cushion. I watch the screen like a stargazer, the awful scenes of blood and people being torn apart. And more than once I've asked myself why I like this so much, the attacks of groping, wailing zombies, even after seeing them a hundred times. Especially after what happened to Sybil. But I understand now: this was a clue.

A swell of excitement rises up from the crowd. The paparazzi (someone dubbed them "stalkerazzi," and after seeing them in action I agree) snap to attention with their cameras. The first black, glossy limousine is pulling up. It keeps pulling up, and keeps pulling up until you wonder if it's as long as Sunset Boulevard itself, but finally it stops, positioning its doors in the corridor between the legions of anxious fans.

The crowd jostles me. Some guy shoves an arm over my shoulder, holding a pen and paper for when the first star comes by. I stiffen and clutch the rope with both hands.

* * *

Sybil's neighbor, an older widow, swore to the police that she saw a blond, young, well-dressed fellow leaving Sybil's apartment the night before her suicide.

My sister told me about him, too. She gushed of him on the phone. She lived on the other side of town, and I did not see her as often as I should. As God is my witness she described him as a man in "all the bloom of boyhood," those very words, same as author Wilde's.

Somehow she never mentioned his name to me. I didn't really realize this until she had died. Described him, rather, as "my glorious boy" or something like that, boy more often than man. And once she said "lad."

Like a lad of twenty summers.

That night I got home to find my message machine blinking like a whole fleet of police cars, and one long anguished cry from Sybil. He had rejected her. Dumped her. Wanted nothing more to do with her. The reasons were unclear. I tried to call her back, but she wasn't home, nor did any machine pick up. I drove to her apartment, and she didn't answer the door.

No such boy came forward at the funeral.

* * *

The men with cameras bump and elbow each other for position while simultaneously unleashing a volley of flashbulbs the moment the limo door opens. I lean forward with the other fans.

Someone's emerging. Is it...?

No. It's the leading lady. Won an Oscar for Best Actress five years ago. Inevitably she looks smaller and plainer in real life, despite the efforts of makeup and hair stylists. I keep my eyes fixed on the limo door, but steal a glance at her as she walks by, smiling and waving. I wonder if she was all that enthused about this film.

A foot in a dress shoe emerges from the open door, plants itself on the purple carpet; and then, after a pause, he makes his entrance.

The crowd goes wild, of course, jostling me all over again. I grip the rope like a lifeline. At first I think Sheesh, you'd think he was Lawrence Olivier, but then I remember these are fellow zombie fans. He walks with an easy stride, lacking the tension of the leading lady; he's in his element. He should have been a politician.

Everyone's dressed like royalty, of course, but he looks like he was born in fine clothes. He carries the air of a prince. He was made for premieres. Perhaps that's what drew him out to Tinseltown--the next asthetic experience, like music or art or poisonous yellow books. This is probably just one more sampling of the elixir of life to him.

He strides on, waving, through an explosion of popping flashbulbs. And I see it all plain, the gilded threads of his rebellious curls, the white purity of old Greek marbles, the purity unstained even by Hollywood.

I drop my eyes as he continues into the theater. No more doubt, no doubt now at all.

As sure as my name is James Vane, his is Dorian Gray.

* * *

His first zombie movie--the only one before this--was called Devourers of the Living. When he appeared, it was like they had spliced in a shot of an actual corpse, someone who expired at ninety and then rotted for a week. At that moment, all the zombies I'd ever seen paled into insignificance, the tricks of makeup, prosthetics and computers all too woefully apparent. This went beyond Hollywood illusion. Up in the front as I was, it hit me like a train.

At first I thought it was the next stage of movie realism, like IMAX and high-def. Nothing like that had been advertised.

The actor went by Granger Faulk. I looked him up online.

Mr. Faulk's entire acting career consisted of two films: Devourers, and a western called Buffalo Soldiers. This was based on a best-selling novel. No television appearances, no commercials.

Nor did he really appear in Soldiers. The listing included a notation in parentheses: "replaced by"--and another actor's name, whom I forget.

Paramount made this film. I called them and tried to connect with the producer, director or casting person. No luck; they weren't available, or they had moved on, or the receptionist just didn't want to bother.

But this same studio also made Devourers...and production started before Soldiers was even released. With the same actor they'd booted from the western. As the lead.

When Mr. Faulk, A.K.A. Gray, got his first film role, he also got a nasty surprise. His likeness, lurking wherever he keeps his portrait, now showed over a century of age, a century of sins that included at least one murder. When Soldiers began shooting, and the dailies came back...

(Wouldn't they have filmed him when he tried out for the role? Maybe not. His agent probably called them or something.)

Everyone knows movie execs are practical. Zombies are the thing! Just dress him up in tattered clothes and film him as is, no makeup needed, no nothing. Develop the film, and let magic do the rest. Tell everyone it's motion-capture.

One of these days, some flick of his might win Best Special Effects, and no one will ever guess. Ha, ha.

Except someone did guess.

* * *

The theater doors open, and we file in. Huge blown-up posters and decorations everywhere, like Las Vegas, but I hurry past them. Normally I buy the largest size popcorn with no butter, munching till I'm sick to the stomach, but not tonight. Down in front. I need to be in front.

Fortunately those are always the last seats taken. And the crowd, as I said, isn't all that big. I get the first two rows to myself, sitting right up center, the prime spot if this was a rock concert. No rail, even. Good.

I don't have to search the crowd for him. His seat is the same as mine, front row center, except it's up in the balcony. The gilded threads of his hair actually seem to glitter in the light. A white-haired man is pumping his hand, and three starlets fawn around him. His perfection stands out all the more. Beside him, anyone would look shabby.

I watch him and think, he must know the book himself. It's his damned book. He knows how it ends. It showed him what would happen if he ever got sick of his white-elephant portrait, too sickened by its ever-increasing desiccation and rot. Do not damage it!

And especially, do not cut it with a knife.

My thin, rigid contraband presses my lower right leg, secured by two strips of duct tape. I'm glad the theater doesn't have a metal detector.

Yes, he must have his portrait locked somewhere safe, out of harm's way where nothing sharp ever comes. And no worries about all his celluloid reflections playing in a thousand theaters--who would ever guess? But justice finds a way, Mr. "Faulk." Justice always finds a way.

The lights go down; the film starts. Almost immediately he graces the screen, and he even holds still for me, facing down two policemen and a farmer who's shaking a pitchfork.

I pull up my pants leg and rip the knife loose. The strips of tape make a loud tearing sound, and it hurts enough to wince. I reach the screen in two bounds. I go to work with the blade, plunging it into the taut fabric, pulling it out and stabbing again. This time I rip downward as well, the material giving way with difficulty. By now I'm blinded with tears and don't know if he's still there or left the screen, but I can't stop, I slash and tear and vent everything, Sybil! Sybil! I shout and weep it. Cries erupt behind me...and a shrill, terrified scream from the back, that goes from clear to gargly before it fades among the other cries.

Men in gray uniforms arrive. I drop the knife and raise my hands. The house lights go up; the movie plays on for a few seconds as they cuff me, The two-story images moving about on the torn screen, dialogue echoing from the wall speakers. I think to look up at it--is he there now? Has his image changed?--but by then the projector has stopped.

The theater rent-a-cops take an arm each. Everyone gapes as they lead me up the aisle. I don't notice crowd or guards; I'm searching the balcony. The star is nowhere in sight. But the three women are, and along with everyone else they're gathered around, looking down at something. A woman holds a white-gloved hand over her mouth; men are turning green. Everyone's eyes are wide, and they're pointed not at me, but down.

Down at Granger Faulk...and how I wish at this moment that I could see him.

* * *

Douglas Kolacki began writing while stationed with the Navy in Naples, Italy. Since then he has placed stories in Weird Tales, Dreams & Visions, SciFan and the Lorelei Signal. He now haunts Providence, Rhode Island.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?

The sheer love of it. Writing keeps me healthy and sane in a crazy world.