April 10, 2015

The Projectionist Behind “The Projectionist”: a guest post by Jason Heller

Hex Publishers, a new Denver-based publishing house, will release its first anthology, Nightmares Unhinged, in September 2015. The book will feature eighteen tales of dark and twisted fiction written by a roster of award-winning and bestselling authors that reads like a who’s who of dark and speculative fiction, a broad literary genre encompassing fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements – most often horror. 

Contributors include Mario Acevedo, bestselling author of the Felix Gomez vampire series; Nebula Award winner Edward Bryant; New York Times bestseller Keith Ferrell; Jeanne C. Stein, bestselling author of The Anna Strong Vampire Chronicles; Bram Stoker Award winner Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem, yet another Bram Stoker Award winner. New York Times bestseller Steve Alten will write the book’s foreword.

Another of the anthology's contributing authors, Hugo Award winner Jason Heller, was generous enough to offer a guest post about his story and how it came to be. Enjoy!

The Projectionist Behind “The Projectionist”
By Jason Heller

Every writer worth their weight in words didn’t just grow up around books—they grew up around movies. I got luckier than most. My grandmother managed a movie theater.

Movie theaters were different things in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when I was a kid going to my grandma’s theater. Multiplexes had not yet taken over. Lots of little, twin-screen cinemas still dotted the American suburbscape, refuges for bored kids and cheap dates and parents who snuck out on their kids (or snuck out on each other). They were dusty, and the candy was stale, and the 35mm film sometimes tilted off the screen, and they were about as architecturally evocative as a shoebox.

They were also magic as fuck.

If I sound slightly romantic about the blemished bronze age of cinema, you don’t know the half of it. I huffed that dust and devoured that stale candy and felt my bones stretch inside that shoebox. My grandmother’s first theater was in the little Gulf Coast town of Englewood, Florida. It was there that I saw Star Wars, in 1977, right when it came out. I was five years old. I had no idea what was going on or what anything meant. But it made me want to know, and thus was born my love of science fiction, fantasy, and mythology.

My grandmother’s next theater was just a few miles up I-75 from Englewood, in the slightly larger town of Venice (population circa today: 20,000 souls—although it was certainly lower than that in 1980). In that twin-screen, stripmall cinema wedged between a Radio Shack and a McDonald’s, I saw almost every major movie that was released from 1980 to 1985, when my mom uprooted us to Colorado. Flash Gordon. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Conan the Barbarian. Blade Runner. The Road Warrior. Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Last Starfighter. The Thing. Poltergeist. Tron. Not to mention, of course, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Seeing as how my grandma couldn’t keep track of me and my little brother at all times while she was busy managing the theater, we were able to sneak into the R-rated movies without breaking a sweat.

But I didn’t just watch all those movies. They watched me. They crept under my skin, slithered through my hair, bored into my eyes, displaced my internal organs. They taught me about the nature of truth and lies. At a young age, every single week, I was vividly shown an irrefutable rebuttal to the lesson that honesty was the best policy. Lies were better. And if you could make those lies gigantic, you were an artist.

Lies surrounded my family. That didn’t make us different than any other family, but it was still painful and confusing and surreal. Whenever possible, I chose the lies on the screen. To me, the bigger lies were the more honest ones.

I wrote a short story titled “The Projectionist” for Hex Publishers’ debut horror anthology, Nightmares Unhinged. It’s about theaters, and it’s about lies. It’s drawn from my experiences as a kid who wandered a movie theater as if it were his own personal wonderland, but it’s also drawn from the movies that I saw then. It’s also influenced by movies I wouldn’t see until I was slightly older: particularly those directed by David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, and others who knew that reality and truth were as infinitely malleable as consciousness and, at times, even flesh itself.

As much freedom as I was given at my grandma’s theater, there was one place I was rarely allowed: the projectionist’s booth. In her first theater in Englewood, a rickety spiral staircase led to a hole in the ceiling; that was where the projectionist sat and unspooled his visions. In her second theater in Venice, it wasn’t quite so gothic, but it was just as forbidden. Logically, I knew why I wasn’t allowed up there: Kids break shit. But another part of me—the part that had been nurtured and fed secrets and fertilized by the liquid darkness of spilled soda and melted licorice and the musty drapery of velvet—dreamed of the mysteries that the projectionist’s booth held.

From time to time, through a half-open door, I caught a glimpse of the camera. It looked more like an animal than a machine. It was elaborate, elegant, elephantine. I couldn’t imagine how one could conceivably operate such an apparatus. Did you strap yourself into it? Was it an exoskeleton? Could it transform itself into other, eldritch objects, the way it transformed the flat, blank slate of the movie screen into a gaping hole torn in the universe? And the film itself! Were those threads of celluloid some kind of tendons? Was the spinning of the reels part of a vast metabolic process? What would ever happen if I did go into the booth when no one else was around?

That, and maybe a few other things, is what “The Projectionist” is about.

I’m nowhere near the first writer to set a horror story in a movie theater. I certainly won’t be the last. That’s because theaters can be so many things to so many people. A sanctuary. A monastery. A museum. A cathedral. A dungeon. A brothel. A spaceship. A telescope. An escape pod. A mouth. A stomach. A womb. It can be more than a single thing at once, in the same way that images are open to interpretation and words can have different meanings and truths can be distorted to fit the screen they’re being shown upon.

Even if that screen is a person.

Even if that screen is a child.

I was lucky to have grown up in a movie theater. It was one of the few lucky breaks I caught. “The Projectionist” is not autobiographical, goddess forbid. But I did try to pour as much liquid darkness into it that I could. The liquid darkness that I was steeped in for so many years, growing up in those theaters. The liquid darkness that I learned to breathe. And the liquid darkness that I still breathe, even when I wish I didn’t have to.

Jason Heller is the author of the alt-history novel Taft 2012 (Quirk Books) and a Senior Writer for The Onion's pop-culture website, The A.V. Club. He's also a former nonfiction editor of Clarkesworld; as part of the magazine's 2012 editorial team, he received a Hugo Award. His short fiction has been published by Apex MagazineSybil's GarageFarrago's Wainscot, and others, and his reviews and essays have appeared in Weird TalesEntertainment WeeklyNPR.orgTor.com, and Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Time Traveler's Almanac (Tor Books). Additionally, he wrote an official Pirates of the Caribbean tie-in book, The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook (Quirk). He lives in Denver with this wife Angela amid a dearth of things that aren't books

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