“Close the door!” The Hunchback shouted without looking up.
Johnny swung the rusty metal door shut with a clang. The projection booth was as dark and narrow as a submarine. Around the room were stacks of film reels, piled into towers and teetering on shelves.
Johnny leaned against the door and folded his hands. Ignoring the boy, The Hunchback pulled at length of film and held it up to the room’s single lamp. The light glistened over his bald head and long hooked nose, revealing wrinkled skin and liver spots.
The Hunchback placed the film on the cutting board and clipped off a segment with sharp slicing sound.
“I am Mr. Wilhelm the projectionist. Mr. Castle tells me you wish to become my assistant.”
“Yes sir! My name’s Johnny Carpenter. It’s gunna be swell working with you Mr. Wilhelm, I’m a huge fan of the movies.”
The Hunchback grunted, pushing the strand of film away. Swiveling in his stool, he turned and looked at the boy.
“Mr. Castle may own this theatre, but I have been its sole projectionist for thirty eight years. Any assistant will be of my choosing.”
He pointed a clawed finger at the boy, “I need a worker, not some slack-jawed squirt, looking for free showings of cartoons and Jayne Mansfield.”
“Don’t worry, I’m a go-getter, Mr. Wilhelm,” Johnny said. “My work ethic is just as strong as my love of movies.”
“Are you from Socorro?”
“No, sir. I’m from out of town, near Elephant Butte.”
“Ah…the trailer court by the air force testing grounds,” Wilhelm groaned. “What do you know about the movies?”
Johnny scratched his head. “Well sometimes, I get Photoplay and Modern Screen magazines from the druggist. At least once a week, I take the bus up to the theater. I could swear I’ve seen over thirty movies last summer.”
Wilhelm grabbed a column of film cans and moved them to a shelf; the smoke from his cigarette followed him like a fog.
“That tells me nothing. What do you know about film?”
“I know sometimes they scare me.”
Wilhelm returned to his stool and lit a cigarette. “Ah, you like the horror films?”
“Oh yes, sir!” Johnny said. “I’m they’re my favorite kind!”
“Bah,” Wilhelm said, spitting some loose tobacco from his lip.
“You don’t like monster pictures, Mr. Wilhelm?”
Wilhelm leaned back, resting his hump against the metal shelves and blew out a cloud of smoke. “Oh, many years ago, I found the works of Melies and Rupert Julian delightful. They had atmosphere and imagination. Now today, it’s all unpleasant violence, or dreadfully grotesque creatures.”
“That’s not fair, Mr. Wilhelm,” Johnny said. “That’s the same thing the critics said about The Phantom!”
The Hunchback snorted as he squeezed the lid closed on a film can.
“See Mr. Wilhelm, horror movies really aren’t any different. It’s us that’s changed.”
The kid cleared his throat. “Seems to me, movies are just a reflection of the thoughts and fears of the people who go see them. It’s no coincidence that people went in droves to see Dracula at the same time as the polio epidemic. Or think about Frankenstein, and how it echoed the anxiety of a nation coming to grips with science and industrialization.”
“Oh that was a wonderful picture.” The Hunchback sighed. “Karloff is magnificent; he even made me feel sorry for the monster.”
“See, you’re getting it, Mr. Wilhelm!”
“But why are they so…” He searched for the right word. “…bloody.”
“Well, I would guess because our world has become more bloody. Today, we’ve got color photos of dead soldiers from Cuba, and television brings images of tragedies and accidents right into our living rooms.”
Wilhelm snorted. “But where is the mystery, the magic?”
“It’s still there,” the kid said smiling. “Now that film stock is cheaper and cameras aren’t so big, filmmakers are able to use new techniques and effects to reflections of our current fears: foreign invasion, atomic power, radiation.”
“If giant bugs are the new magic, send me back to 1922 and Nosferatu!”
The Hunchback made claws with his hands and pantomimed reaching for the boy. Johnny inched back and the old man smiled.
“What’s a Nosferatu?” Johnny asked.
“You’ve never seen Nosferatu? And you call yourself a monster fan?”
“Nosferatu is a brilliant film about a blood thirsty vampire.”
“Vampires don’t scare me much,” Johnny said.
Wilhelm frowned. “Is that so?”
Turning, the old man placed his hands on the cutting table. His Hunchback began to twitch and expand under his shirt. The fabric tore away as two leathery wings unfolded themselves from the old man’s back. He turned to Johnny, revealing his bat like face and snarling mouth of jagged yellow fangs.
“Feeling scared yet?” Wilhelm asked as he moved closer.
Wilhelm froze as the boy pulled his shirt open. Wriggling from Johnny’s chest were several long ropy tentacles that slithered and undulated from his skin. At the center of these was a gaping hole, lined with dozens of sharp twisted fangs. It opened and closed slowly, hungry to be feed.
The old vampire turned to run as the tentacles shot forward and entangled him. As the slimy feelers pulled him toward the chomping mouth on the boy’s chest, Wilhelm screamed.
“See sir,” Johnny said. “Old fashioned monsters just aren’t as scary as those from the atomic age.”
©2012 Frank Larnerd
Frank Larnerd is an undergraduate student at WVSU where he has received multiple awards for fiction and nonfiction. His first anthology as editor, “Hills of Fire: Bare-Knuckle Yarns of Appalachia” is due out in the fall of 2012 from Woodland Press. Frank lives in Putnam County, West Virginia.