Phantasmagoria! by Sharon Lathan


As promised yesterday on my Regency Horror Flick history lesson on magic lantern shows, here is the closest I have ever come (or likely ever will come) to writing horror. The Phantasmagoria show as viewed by Darcy and Elizabeth while in Great Yarmouth was inspired by the vivid reports of actual shows from the era. From My Dearest Mr. Darcy, I give you Phantasmagoria! by Sharon Lathan—

Phantasmagoria, an etching of the originator, E’tienne Gaspard Robert.

Suddenly several of the dim lights were extinguished, throwing the already dusky room into deeper shadows. Numerous gasps were released, folks shuffling to their seats in earnest. A deep, sepulchral voice erupted into the hushed hall, startling everyone as the disembodied voice intoned without inflection: “Ladies and gentlemen of the living, find thy seats hastily. The spirits are restless, desiring to arise in a dance macabre. None has the power to detain them. Do not be found wandering the empty aisles! This would be… unwise. Can thoust control the whimsy of the dead?”

The voice continued in the same vein as the final stragglers took their seats. The remaining lights were doused one by one until total darkness was achieved. As the final lights went out, slowly one by one, music gradually swelled. Music eerily brought forth by a glass armonica and accompanied by whining winds and clapping thunder. The gloomy voice grew fainter as it beseeched the dead to rise and begged for pity on the living until drowned completely by the wailing sounds emanating from the depths of the orchestra pit. Abruptly a deafening boom rent the air, succeeded by utter silence.

The boom was rapidly followed by the appearance of a hazy red fog at center stage, the curtains apparently having been withdrawn. Out of the smoke a phantom appeared, growing larger and larger as it seemed to float over the gasping audience. The evilly grinning phantom was bathed in the red smoke, giving it the impression of blood, with a dagger in one hand and a severed head in the other. All instantly knew this to be the French Revolutionist Marat. Screeches pierced the void; fans could be heard fluttering wildly. Crazy laughter emanated from Marat’s grin as he disappeared into thin air.

A collective breath was taken, but released in a rush as another apparition emerged. A woman in trailing garments, face beautiful initially but incrementally morphing into an old crone bent and wrinkled, her elaborate dress falling into rags as her old face decayed before their eyes until only a skeleton in strips of moldy cloth remained. She moved over their heads as she decomposed, skeletal form joining the now visible skeletons positioned all about the stage, or rather what had been the stage, but was now a cemetery replete with crypts and headstones. One by one the dead rose, walking on spindly legs, speaking from lipless mouths, empty sockets roving over the crowd.

On and on it went; one scene after another in rapid succession allowing no time to collect oneself. The haunting music rose and fell, ghostly voices droned, thunder and lightning crashed, specters and demons of all sizes materialized. Many of the scenes were familiar from literature or history: The Nightmare by Fuseli, The Head of Medusa, Macbeth and the Ghost of Banquo, other French Revolutionaries manning the guillotine, The Opening of Pandora’s Box, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and more. Interspersed were the random bats, goblins, and ghosts, manifesting from all points on the main floor. The figures magically expanded to gargantuan sizes, hovering over the audience so closely that one felt they could touch them, and then shrunk before sinking into the ground as if returning to the underworld.

It was terrifying and fascinating. Fleetingly one would wonder how the effect was created, but generally the images and emotions engendered were so spectacular and realistic that coherent thought was eradicated. Lizzy, once past the introductory fright and comforted by Darcy’s sturdy arm and warmth, calmed to a vague trembling and moderately heightened pulse rate. Screams were frequent, crying could be detected, and undoubtedly swooning occurred. The heat in the room increased from the combined press of bodies and raised body temperatures.

The crescendo was an appearance of all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Biblical Riders trampled across the stage and into the crowd, swords and scythe brandishing, the clap of horses hooves echoing, while the original inhumanly bleak voice quoted from Revelations. With final bursting neighs and a resounding crash of cymbals, the Horseman rode through the back wall and precipitous silence fell, the room plunged into cavernous darkness for a full ten minutes.

The lights were lit all at once, revealing a tiny figure before the drawn curtains on center stage. The familiar voice again penetrated the quiet, although now it spoke with a bit more warmth and normalcy, “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Illusionist Extraordinaire, Master of the Magic Lantern and Limelight, Creator of the Macabre, Professor Leonardo Finocchi Sciarratta!” The tiny man bowed with a flourish, his grandly feathered tricorne doffed and swept theatrically as he blew kisses to the audience. The crowd erupted in applause and cheers, standing for a glorious ovation. Darcy and Lizzy stood as well, clapping enthusiastically. Her heart still raced and she was yet torn between loving the spectacle or hating it, but there was no doubt it was a stupendously artistic performance. Certainly one she would never forget, her fervent hope being that the ghosts did not resurface in her dreams!

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