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Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Dark · #2258557
A method actor aspires to greatness. Winner of SCREAMS!!! Pop-Up Contest, 09.17.21.
Undead Ambition

Be the role, they said. You have to wear the skin if you’re going to feel it. Until you’ve looked through those eyes, you’re just an actor, pretending to be what you’re not.

Brendan knew the words by heart. His performing arts teacher had screamed them at him often enough. And he’d proved their validity in plenty of roles before this one. Time after time the method had worked for him, creating in him the very essence of the part, so that he was no longer conscious of anything but the person he was supposed to be.

It made it easy, the lines flowing naturally from his lips, the actions purely instinctive and the emotions capturing his soul in one character after another. He had been a hundred people, from faces on the edge of crowds to bystanders with no more than a line or two to say, and then the big parts where he shared billing with household names and, finally, lead roles as he became famous and adored for his natural style.

And all because of those simple words that he knew so well. Be the role, he muttered once more to himself. And keep doing it or you’re yesterday’s news.

He looked once more at the title page of this latest script. Mitch Lawford’s King of the Undead, the title, was in the largest type, standing out proud in the centre of the page. It was proud, too, of the author’s name given top billing before the name of the movie. That was the big draw and it mattered not whether the script was good or bad. Lawford’s name made the part the most desirable of all. It promised certainty of success and stardom for whoever was chosen for the main parts. No one turned down a role in a Mitch Lawford film.

Brendan never considered refusing the lead. It presented him with a problem but, not for a moment, did he think of anything but how he would make the role his own. They wanted a king of the undead and that is exactly what he would give them, a shambling, rotting husk of a man but much more than your average zombie. His would be a zombie as never before had been numbered among the undead. He would be fast and accurate, with full ability to wield weapons and think ahead. Not for him the stumbling, awkward and disintegrating cliché of so many horror flicks. The king would be so much more, a thing to strike fear in the hearts of the unsuspecting audience, to traumatise them for weeks afterward.

There was the minor problem, however. Brendan knew well enough how to immerse himself in a character, to become the role and so occupy it that he became totally believable. But that was with creatures that he understood, fellow humans who could be mimicked until you became them, understanding and living for them beyond what the script called for. Yes, often enough he had spoken words from his soul rather than the pitiful offerings from the script. And always it had not been remarked, so clear was its superiority to the vague groping of some hack writer.

But how do you get inside the mind of a zombie? Do they even have minds? How did life seem through dead eyes? There had been plenty of attempts to answer these questions but they were wafer thin to Brendan’s thinking. The single motivation, brains, the mindless shuffle with arms extended, the complete disregard for danger, these had all been explored to the point of mockery. Brendan wanted more.

He had a plan. It was still vague but was becoming more definite and attainable in his mind. All he needed was a little more information, a location, a name and a dark night to bring everything together.

Which is how Brendan came to be standing at the gate to St Stinian’s Church in the hamlet of Wodenham on a moonless night in September. The sky was clear and starlight was just enough to allow the ghostly image of the gate to stand out in the blackness. It creaked slightly as he opened it.

He passed through and began to make his way up the path, a dim arc leading off into the darkness. On either side Brendan was conscious of lighter forms emerging from the shadows as he passed. He knew they were gravestones, mostly rectangular but some ornate and others broken, mysterious shapes in the night.

As he neared the church, a looming presence that cut off the light from the stars, Brendan left the path and began to pick his way through the graves. He moved cautiously, feeling his way through the low boundary walls and carvings in the gloom. He had the certainty of one who had worked this out beforehand, planning his approach with care and precision.

The grave was new, without headstone and the earth covered only with a length of astroturf. The blades of plastic felt different underfoot, they moved unnaturally and told Brendan all he wanted to know. He bent down to run his hand over them, then, satisfied, he rose and paced to a corner of the grave. In one movement he knelt, grasped the corner of the false turf, and pulled upwards. It came easily and he tugged it aside, allowing it to tumble in folds over a neighbouring grave.

Now he opened the greatcoat he was wearing and allowed the spade to fall to the ground. He threw the coat over the astroturf, bent to retrieve the spade and set to work. The ground was soft, being so recently moved and he made good progress in the dark. Without resting at all, he dug like a metronome, removing the earth until the hollow, dull sound of metal on wood told him that he had reached his goal. Scraping sounds ensued as he cleared the soil from the lid of the coffin.

It did not take him long to remove the lid with the crowbar he produced from an inside pocket of the coat. There followed a knife with which he began to work on the figure lying within the coffin. When he had taken what he wanted, he climbed out of the grave, placed the tools and his prize within the long inside pockets of his coat and shouldered his way into the coat again. Leaving the spade and open grave behind him, he left the graveyard before the eastern sky brightened with the light of dawn.

The next few days were taken up with the sewing of the mask and gloves. He was not adept in this task and many practice seams were necessary before he attempted the final task. But it was satisfactory in the end and he tried them on with mounting excitement. They were tight and he had to ease into them carefully to avoid tearing the stretching skin.

He stared at himself in the mirror. The effect was even more hideous than he had expected. This was no Hollywood makeup job, it was the real thing. The skin was discolouring to a sallow, ghastly shade that spoke eloquently of death, the eyeholes formed pits around the staring eyes within, his slightly ragged stitching formed jagged ridges around his face and flaps of skin hung from the neck as though he was being peeled. These last would be hidden beneath the greatcoat, he knew, and the seams would not be too noticeable in the dark.

The gloves were so tight and their seams hidden in the inside of the palms that they appeared most obviously to be his real hands. They were the final touch that confirmed the reality of his appearance and allowed him to step into persona. He was becoming the undead.

That first night of completion of his disguise he did not venture out, preferring to remain indoors to become used to the feel of his new skin. He tried on the greatcoat, still crumpled and soiled from its time beside the grave, and marvelled at how it completed the vision, hiding all the frayed edges and convincing the mind that the horror continued underneath its cloaking cover.

He stayed in the skin during the following day, sleeping in it as well, the better to grow accustomed to its feel and texture. And then he ventured out into the night while the world lay sleeping.

It was like being another creature. Those few drunks who caught a glimpse of his face recoiled in terror and stumbled away. He felt the separation from humanity that must result from his appearance and knew that he had solved all the problems of his latest role. The night became his and he wandered without care. He was, indeed, the king of the undead.

In the morning, he found that he could not remove the mask and gloves. They had shrunk on to his head and hands and seemed to be combining with his real skin to present a single stretching surface to his searching grasp. It was as though he were trying to peel the skin from his body, the pain being too much for him to continue pulling at it.

He gave up and reasoned that the dead skin would wither away and die eventually. In the meantime, he was living up to the ideals of his acting, being within the role without possibility of escape. It meant merely that he would have to stay inside during the remaining days until they began shooting.

On the appointed day, he wore his greatcoat with the collar turned up, a cap pulled down low above his eyes and hunched his shoulders to cover as much of his face as possible. The drive to the lot was accomplished without causing a stir and then he wandered into the shoot as though just another made up actor.

All went well until the makeup girl appeared to work her magic on him. She seemed surprised to see that he was already well taken care of in that area but it was when she touched the skin, curious at the technique that had produced so realistic a finish. Her eyes became great orbs of horror as she realised that the skin was real. Brendan’s attempts at explanation could not compete with the piercing scream she emitted. He staggered after her as she fled in terror and all eyes assumed that he was in pursuit. They gathered around him, staring at the monster he had become.

He pulled at his face, trying to remove the mask so that they could see it was him but it still refused to budge. And this merely brought his hands into view so that the onlookers gasped as they realised they were watching a real zombie. Some moved away or began to run for the exits, others crouched in readiness to defend themselves. “Don’t let it bite you,” yelled someone and Brendan realised he was in deep trouble.

“”You have to cut off its head,” shouted someone else and there was a mad scramble as people looked for suitable weapons. Brendan took advantage of the confusion to make good his escape. He headed outside, pursued by a yelling mob, and hopped into his car. But the crowd surrounded it and began to beat on it with whatever weapons they’d been able to find. They tipped it up so that Brendan was hurled to the roof and flailed uselessly to get upright. The smell of gasoline pervaded everything, seeping into the car from outside. Above the noise of the crowd rose a single voice.

“Stand back, everyone. I’ve got a lighter!”

Word count: 1,945
For SCREAMS!!!, Pop-Up Contest 4, September 17 2021
Prompt: A method actor who REALLY gets into the mindset of his latest role.
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