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Kevin jabbed his gleaming screwdriver into Emile's eye socket as his fellow inmates pinned the terror-stricken victim down on the rough, wooden bench. Gleefully, he pried out the eye so it slid down the man's forehead in a spurt of gore to plop on the floor.
The German Wehrmacht officer front row center fainted dead away.
Even as he groped in the synthetic "gore" contained in the little rubber pouch hidden behind Emile's glass eye, Kevin grinned to himself with a glow of malicious satisfaction. When he'd forced Emile down on his back across the bench, the man's screaming head hanging over the end of it mere feet from the footlights and the front row of the audience, he'd noticed the German blanch. And as Emile's bloody eye plopped to the stage floor right in front of the man, he'd watched the Nazi officer go slack and slide down in his seat. Out cold.
The first-aid attendants who were always on duty during the performances at the Theatre du Grand Guignol hurried over to lift out the dead-to-the-world superman. Kevin noticed that one of them deliberately slammed the seat down on the major's limp fingers. He smiled to himself, as with the insane ravings demanded by his role in the play he found the eye, a gruesome object, lying in the crimson slime on the stage floor. The German would have a damned sore hand when he woke up, and wonder how the hell he got it. Tant pis — too bad.
The play was one of his favorites in the Grand Guignol repertoire. It took place in the ward of an asylum for the criminally insane somewhere around the turn of the century. Kevin played a child molester who had been blinded in rage by the father of a little girl he had killed. He'd gone insane, constantly seeking a pair of eyes as blue as those of the dead little girl to use for himself. When the other inmates in the asylum tell him that a young newcomer has bright-blue eyes, the result is inevitable at the Grand Guignol, which specialized in performing one-act plays of horror and violence — the bloodier, the better. He loved the part. A real set-chewer. He had the blind bit down pat. And Emile, with his empty eye socket (which had kept him safe from conscription and which could hold a bright-blue glass eye), was made for the part of his victim. That climactic scene on the bench never failed to reap at least a couple of dead faints.
As the curtain fell to the nervous applause of the audience, Kevin watched the limp German officer being carried away to the theater's little infirmary in the back of the auditorium, where a nurse was always in attendance. The evening had been a four-fainter, according to his count. But then, anything less than two patrons in the audience passing out cold at any given performance was considered a failure by the company.
Kevin peeked out at the emptying house through the dirt and grease-paint-ringed "house-counting peephole" in the curtain. He was always intrigued with the reaction of the audience. And its makeup. People from all walks of life and all ages came to the Grand Guignol — from sedate elderly matrons to wide-eyed sweet young things. And now, with Paris overrun by Nazi occupation troops, a great number of German officers and their mademoiselles. Even the Nazi big-shot Hermann Goering was a steady customer when he visited Paris. Kevin had often seen his fat bemedalled bulk sprawled in the front row. Horror and violence seemed to have a universal fascination.
He worked the hole around to sweep the little auditorium. In row four, stage right, an elderly couple remained in their seats. It often happened. A few people would stay behind for a while, replenishing their drained emotions, as it were, before braving the horrors and violence of the real world outside — a world torn by war and tortured by the subjugation of a brutal enemy.
The woman was staring at the program notes while collecting herself; perhaps even reading them, Kevin thought. If she were, he knew what she would read about the Theatre du Grand Guignol. It was an engrossing story.
She would learn that the Grand Guignol was one of the most unusual and bestknown theaters in all of Europe, despite the fact that it was the smallest house in Paris; a theater so tiny that anyone in the audience who budged while the curtain was up was in danger of becoming part of the gruesome acts on the stage. The auditorium had only 280 seats, a maximum capacity of 302 patrons with standees, which, happily, was often the case. Fittingly located at the end of a gloomy alley off Rue Chaptal in the Montmartre area, it had originally been a chapel, where during the early nineteenth century, the fiery Dominican preacher Henri Gabriel Didon thundered his hellfire-and-brimstone sermons. Shades of things to come, Kevin had always thought. From him the place passed into the hands of the French painter George Antoine Rochegrosse, who used it as his studio and is said to have painted his famous painting "The Rape of the Sabine Women" there. Again, quite in keeping with what was to come, when in 1896 the building became a theater.
At first it was called Theatre Salon. It presented one-act plays in the new "realistic" style of the times, and it might well have stayed that way had it not been for one Edgar Allan Poe. Nearly six decades before, Poe had written a gothic story called The Tell-Tale Heart, which had been dramatized. It was presented at the little theater in 1901 — and the Theatre du Grand Guignol was born, its fate sealed.
The theater prided itself on never closing its doors, performing plays seven days a week with matinees on Sundays, as was proudly pointed out in the program notes. The Grand Guignol had stayed open through depressions and wars. In fact, Kevin knew of only once that it had been closed. It had been the day of the funeral of the World War I hero Marshal Ferdinand Foch, in 1929.
Of the thousand to fifteen hundred plays submitted to the theater each year, only some twenty new ones were chosen for production. The oldies always seemed to draw bigger audiences. In the lobby and at the box office, pictures and posters of past performances were displayed — The Mark of the Beast, showing a leprous Hindu being horribly scorched with fire brands; The Horrible Experiment, with the proverbial mad scientist performing a bloody brain operation; and The Lighthouse Keepers, picturing a father whose face and hands had been mutilated by ferocious bites strangling his son who is seized with the maniacal fury of rabies — all in glorious color.
Some of the most prominent French playwrights submitted plays to the Grand Guignol, and a few of them were listed in the program: Octave Mirabeau, Sacha Guitry, Guy de Maupassant, and Henri René Lenormand. Many of the leading actors and actresses in Paris had had their start at the Theatre du Grand Guignol, and illustrious stars from foreign lands had performed there. The incomparable British actress Dame Sybil Thorndike, for example, acted in a horror play called The Kill in 1921, and it is said she was magnificent. But the unique aspect of the Grand Guignol ensemble were the regular company actors. Because of the special kind of plays the theater put on, several of the actors had special "endowments," as they chose to call them — a missing ear or eye like Emile, a missing limb, or other impairments. Such oddities were used to the fullest, most gruesome advantage.
This, too, was true of the two touring companies mounted by the Theatre du Grand Guignol. One that travelled throughout France, performing the most popular plays from the repertoire; the other that visited foreign theaters. Kevin, himself, had often gone on tour to other countries.
And there was more. Much more. Kevin knew it all. He had helped write the program notes.
The woman in row four finally got up from her seat. She let the program fall to the floor and followed her impatient husband to the exit.
In the back of the auditorium, the German major emerged from the infirmary looking dazed, nursing one of his hands. Shakily he made his way toward the door, steadying himself on the backs of the wooden church-pew-like theater seats. Uneasily his eyes roamed over the walls, paneled in old dark wood in a strangely forbidding combination of pseudo-gothic and baroque excesses. He seemed to shudder — and made a bee-line for the exit.
Couldn't have been a Gestapo man, Kevin thought as he left the peephole, or that bit with Emile wouldn't even have made him blink.
Kevin took a quick look around. The stage was deserted, only a work light was burning. The company manager was at the box office counting the evening's take, as he did every night, and the performers were in their dressing rooms, trying to get back to being normal.
He made his way to the stairs behind the pin rail that led down to the scenery and property docks under the stage and auditorium, the old chapel crypts.
The stairs leading down were worn and dark, the walls crisscrossed with scrapes by the set pieces carried up and down the narrow stairwell through the years. He turned on the light and started down. As he came to the basement level, he noted that the far end of the set storage area was in darkness. A bulb must have burned out, he thought idly. He peered across the angular shadows cast by the close scenery pieces toward the darkness beyond.
Suddenly his mind was flooded with the memory of the first time he'd gone down the stairs to the vaults below. It had been nine years before. A different, innocent time. Although he'd been sixteen years old, he'd just seen his first Grand Guignol horror play, and he'd clutched his father's arm, terrified at the forbidding place. Then, as now, the far bulb had been out. Then, as now, the looming, morguelike set pieces had stood leaning against one another at crazy angles, casting their jumble of sharp, jagged shadows across the docks like huge black knife blades.
What if, he thought. What if ...?
It was a mental game he played with himself. What if Poe's Tell-Tale Heart had never been written? Would the Grand Guignol be the Grand Guignol? Would it have survived as a theater at all? Or would it now be a bakery? Or a maison de rendezvous? ...
What if Corporal Adolf Hitler had been killed in World War I on a messenger run? Would there have been a Nazi party? A Third Reich? A World War II? ...
And now, as he stood staring into the gloom of the cellar storeroom, he thought: What if my father had not volunteered for the army in the First World War? Would I now be an actor at the Theatre du Grand Guignol? Would I even have been born? What if my father had not been a doughboy in World War I? What if ...?
But, he had....
Michael Alistair Lavette was a minor league actor in Greenwich Village theaters in New York City when the United States entered the war in 1917. He was sent to France with the American Expeditionary Force under General "Black Jack" Pershing; fought at Chateau-Thierry; lost his left arm just below the elbow at the second battle of the Marne; and fell in love with a Parisian girl named Genevieve Lescault, whom he married in 1918 as soon as the armistice was signed.
Kevin was born the next year.
Mike stayed in France, and the first few years of Kevin's education took place in Paris before Mike decided to return to the States with his French wife and little son. And while Mike appeared in off-Broadway plays, his parts severely limited by his handicap, Kevin continued his education in New York.
But when Kevin was in his first year of high school, Mike and Genevieve were called back to Paris, where the parents of Genevieve lay dying after a disastrous accident in the Paris Metro. Kevin went with them.
It took much longer than anticipated to clear up the estate of Genevieve's parents, and Kevin entered the American School in Paris to finish his education.
Mike, looking for work, found out about the Theatre du Grand Guignol, and his acting experience and "special endowment" quickly earned him a firm place in the permanent company of actors.
The year was 1935. The Saarland was incorporated into Germany, and the Luftwaffe was formed. Two years later, Kevin's mother succumbed to double pneumonia, and Kevin — having graduated from school — joined his father at the theater as a prop boy. He gradually advanced to assistant stage manager, stage manager, and to acting in bit parts. Because of his natural acting abilities, these minor parts soon turned into principal roles, and father and son often acted together, as in the revivals of The Lighthouse Keepers, the gruesome play in which a hydrophobic son tears his father apart before being strangled to death by him. Both Mike and Kevin loved the histrionics of it all. And no two performances ever seemed to be quite the same. Michael loved to ad-lib, both in words and action, anything that came into his mind. Kevin was often awed, if not a little put out, at his father's sometimes overenthusiastic impulsiveness. Though imaginative and possessed of a vigorously logical mind, Kevin tended to be more premeditative, more analytical, and less improvisational than his father. Somehow their different temperaments meshed perfectly, both on and off stage.
Yet Kevin was independent and prone to take charge. Someone at the Grand Guignol who was interested in things Oriental had once told him that 1919 — the year Kevin had been born — was the Chinese Year of the Ram. Curious, he had gone to the library and looked up what that meant. He'd learned that, according to Chinese lore, people born in the Year of the Ram tended to look to others for guidance and were followers rather than leaders. He had been determined to prove the Chinese wrong. And he had....
Kevin stood looking into the shadowy realm of make-believe.
It was all the result of his father's enlisting in the army, he thought. All of it. What if ...?
He walked to the far area of the storage room, feeling the gloom enveloping him as with a tangible black cloak. He looked up at the dark bulb.
Dead? Or merely loose? He started to reach up to test it. Suddenly he stiffened in shock as he felt himself grabbed from behind by two powerful arms that held him in a bearhug grip, pinning his arms to his sides.
A hard, pointed object was jabbed into his back and a harsh voice rasped in his ear.
"Ne bougez pas! Ne faites pas un bruit! — Don't move! Do not make a sound!"
The French was spoken with a heavy accent.CHAPTER 2
"You've got the wrong man, dammit!" Kevin protested. He spoke in English. The unseen assailant's accent had been unmistakably British. "My name is Lavette. Kevin Lavette. I'm an actor with the company here."
"Kevin Lavette, is it?" Switching to English, the voice hissed unpleasantly in his ear. "Try again, mate!"
"I don't have to," Kevin snapped angrily. "You heard me!" He tried to wriggle loose, in vain. "Get your damned hands off me!"
But the iron grasp did not let up.
"Look," Kevin growled. "If you don't believe me, touch my face. I just got off the stage. I'm still wearing my damned makeup."
The tight hold did not slacken, but Kevin felt a finger rub hard across his cheek. So, there were two of them, he thought.
"Blimey!" another voice exclaimed. "He's right. He's got bloody goo all over his bloody face."
Kevin felt himself being pushed away roughly. He stumbled against a papier-mâché-stone archway and caught himself. He whirled on his assailants.
There were two of them, one a bear of a man with a fierce moustache. Both were clad in an all too obvious mixture of ill-fitting civilian clothes and parts of the uniforms issued to British airmen. One of them held a double-edged paratrooper dagger dangerously leveled at Kevin's gut.
"They told us to trust nobody," the big man growled, "and we bloody well don't." He watched Kevin warily, the dagger steady in his hand.
Kevin knew the man was right, but he had been taken by surprise. He was angry. "What idiot told you that?" he lashed out at the Britisher.
The airman watched him, narrow-eyed. Instead of answering, he said: "Kevin Lavette, is it?" Suspicion darkened his voice. He glanced quickly at his companion, who was covering Kevin from a spot slightly to his right. "And, Michael Lavette," he said slowly, "who is Michael Lavette?"
The voice boomed through the large basement storage room as a man came striding toward them.
He was a good six feet tall and built like a track-and-field athlete, neither too skinny nor too muscle-bound. In fact, at forty-eight he looked like a younger leading man who'd had to daub his full dark hair with talcum powder and paint makeup lines around his eyes and across his forehead to look old enough for Act Three. The fact that his left arm was missing just below his elbow was not noticeable at all. The prosthesis was perfect, and the way Michael wore it and manipulated it appeared quite normal.
He stopped at the group. He glared at the big airman, still holding the dagger on Kevin.
"I am Michael Lavette," he said steadily. "What the hell do you think you're doing? Put that damned thing away!"
Excerpted from Code Name: Grand Guignol by Ib Melchior. Copyright © 1987 Ib Melchior. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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