Hard Lesson

The education of Esther Campbell begins at Karloff University, New England’s most prestigious college of horror.

Hard Lessons
Outside, an October breeze rustled the dead leaves on the grounds of Karloff University, New England’s most prestigious college of horror. No one in the auditorium noticed, most of them being too busy scribbling furiously in their pink-and-black notebooks to pay attention to the weather. Others were absorbed in more personal matters. (Shutterstock)

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“Of course, it’s different for underwear,” the professor said as she hobbled around the desk.

“If you happen to be confronted by your assailant while you are dressed only in your nightclothes — which happens more often than you would think …” and she paused a moment there, a wistful gleam in her eye.

“Anyway, in such circumstances, there are only three possible outcomes, which depend upon your choice of sleepwear:

“Girls wearing bras and panties are considered to be of weak moral character and therefore expendable. Expect the monster to attack you first. You will certainly be slaughtered, so remember your lessons and scream for all you’re worth.”

A shaft of light pierced the darkness of the auditorium. A pair of students strolled in, chatting with each other as they searched for seats. They squirmed and shoved their way across the room, distracting others in turn, their entrance perturbating through the class in a kind of Brownian motion made of people. The instructor paused, not bothering to look behind her, until the room was silent again.

“To continue,” she said, “those found wearing teddies, corsets, or other sundry items are likewise doomed.” There were more than a few nervous titters throughout the audience. “In this case, however, the actual killing is almost secondary to the torture. For reasons we have not yet discovered, these outfits tend to attract sadomasochistic monsters such as serial killers, nightmare incarnations, and their allied species. Expect to be stalked and kidnapped before suffering a horrific fate. Lotion is often involved.”

There was a crash as one of the newcomers knocked her bag to the floor. “Sorry,” she muttered as she rummaged through its contents. She nudged the girl sitting next to her.

“Can I borrow a pencil?” she asked between pops of gum.

“You really should have come more prepared, Esther,” the other said, proffering one.

“And you should really do something else with your makeup,” Esther replied. She ignored the pencil, rooted again in her bag, and produced a digital recorder. She set it on her desk, pressed a button, and crossed her arms. Throughout the exchange Mrs. Plum waited silently, her chalk tapping against the desk.

“If we are quite ready?” she asked. She cleared her throat. “Girls in nightgowns fall into the heroine category. They will be chased, of course. They should count on running through a stream or sprinkler, and their clothing will almost certainly be torn in a revealing manner, perhaps by the claw of the beast himself. In the end, however, they will find some way to triumph. The same rule applies to those wearing T-shirts. But pajamas are considered juvenile, and are not allowed.

“Are there any questions, class?”

“Mrs. Plum?”

“Yes, Jane?”

“What about full or partial nudity?”

Mrs. Plum smiled, then winked conspiratorially. “Well, then it depends on how fast you can dress.”

The class laughed dutifully. Outside, an October breeze rustled the dead leaves on the grounds of Karloff University, New England’s most prestigious college of horror. No one in the auditorium noticed, most of them being too busy scribbling furiously in their pink-and-black notebooks to pay attention to the weather. Others were absorbed in more personal matters.

“Well of course they want me back next season,” Esther said, a momentary silence allowing her voice to sing out across the class. Mrs. Plum gave one of her dreaded “harumphs,” and returned to the chalkboard to write out the night’s assignment.

“We will continue with the fundamentals, of course,” she said as she wrote. “Please read Chapter 3 of Lovecraft, and Chapters 5 and 6 from King’s Theory of Haunting. Also, for examples of today’s lesson …”

A tittering giggle broke her train of thought, and she whirled around, her glare sweeping like a searchlight across the classroom, until it settled inevitably on Esther and her friend.

Esther was oblivious to her, twirling her long blond hair as her bubblegum popped like rifle fire. “… never saw anyone with such natural body linguistics” she said to her companion, a petite brunette who dropped her gaze as she saw Mrs. Plum’s glare.

“If you are quite finished, Esther?” asked Mrs. Plum in glacial tones.

Esther took notice of Mrs. Plum for the first time. She waved her hand dismissively. “Sorry,” she muttered. She attempted to resume her conversation, but her friend ignored her, studiously copying down notes from the chalkboard. With a sigh, Esther settled back down in her seat. “Boring,” she muttered sotto voce, a smile curling the corners of her mouth as she recalled the term from her acting tutorials.

A student in the next row turned to her. “You don’t have to be here, you know. You could go study to be in a romance novel.”

She sniffed her pert nose. “Oh, I like being a horror character. But all this,” she waved her hand vaguely, taking in the classroom, the building, the entire university, “is so … obsolete. It’s the 21st century!” She paused, trying to remember bits of discussions she’d overheard from the upperclassmen. “The possibilities of CGI are so complex. Horror has become such a part of the mainstream artistic discourse, but we talk about underwear?”

Mrs. Plum drew her knitted sweater closer about her, as if in defense. “The basics never change, Ms. Campbell. A good screamer always has work, no matter what the setting.”

“And how are we to affect a change in the zeitgeist if we continue only to honor its outmoded traditions?” she asked.

Another student said, “That sounds like Professor Chambers —” until Esther waved her off.

“They didn’t ask me about screaming when I was doing my internship —”

Another girl sniggered. “No, they asked if you would do nude scenes.”

“Did that even make it to DVD?” someone asked.

“It’s still more work than any of you have ever done. Even her —” Esther pointed to Mrs. Plum.

Mrs. Plum broke in, “Without a proper theoretical grounding —”

“Theory,” Esther said in a singsong rhyme. “Theory doesn’t work in the real world. I should know!”

“Experience without the education to ground it is nothing more than a mechanical exercise,” Mrs. Plum said.

Jane giggled. “She got plenty of that on the casting —”

But Esther wasn’t listening. “My cousin was saying the other day —”

“Ms. Campbell!” Mrs. Plum said. “We are all very aware by now of your family connections. And how do you think your cousin achieved his success? By applying himself to the lessons you are learning here! Greatness does not grow in a vacuum.”

Esther rose. “What would you know? You’re old, like everything else here! Sitting there and trying to teach us this worthless —”

With a slap of her hand upon the desk, Mrs. Plum silenced Esther. She rose then, and a ferocity came upon her which made her seem much younger than her 60-odd years.

“What would I know? What would I know, you silly girl? In my day, Ms. Campbell, I worked with the greatest monsters ever known in the field. I have been chased by the Wolfman, by Frankenstein, by Dracula himself! And we didn’t fritter our time away with computers or androids, either; no, it was girl versus monster, as it should be. Why, Lon Chaney himself refused to work with any other victim …”

The bell rang then, breaking the spell. Mrs. Plum shrunk back into herself, becoming nothing more a tired teacher.

“Anyway,” she murmured, “that was all a long time ago. I’ll see you on Wednesday.”

Esther left the classroom with two of her comrades, chattering as they strolled down the hallway.

“Dracula?” she sneered to them. “That’s so 1950s. I’m a modern girl! I don’t want to get stuck in some hokey old horror novel about werewolves!”

“Tell us again about the zit-geist?” her friend asked.

“Just two more years,” Esther said, “and I’ll be out of this dump and doing some real work.”

“If Mrs. Plum doesn’t flunk you first.”

“I’m going to be the greatest ever. She wouldn’t dare. Only the great have the ability to rise against the pleban hors d’oeuvres …” That didn’t sound right. She tried to remember what her acting coach had told her, in those brief moments before he’d turned down the lights. Thebian? Something like that. She opened her mouth again, but her friend cut her off.

“Oh well, we can’t do anything about it. We gotta do what they say if we wanna graduate. Hey, you guys wanna go get something to eat?”

“You two go ahead,” said Esther. “I’ve got Theory of Mummies lab next.” Waving them off, she went into a bathroom to primp.

Visions of fame danced through her head as she touched up her makeup, at least until she noticed her face dissolving. Her hands flew to her cheeks, but found them still soft and firm with youthful vigor. She whirled around and saw that the walls of the room had become shrouded in blackness. She tried to run, but she was rooted to the spot.

She turned back to the mirror. Her reflection had warped and twisted until it became the face of Mrs. Plum, but unlike Esther had ever seen her. Leering and maniacal, her eyes were full of an evil that chilled the soul.

“Hello again, Ms. Campbell,” spoke the mirror.

“Mrs. Plum, How did you …”

She cackled. “One can’t remain a victim forever, you know. Once the looks go, you’ve had it in our business. So I took a few courses in Black Magic, and, shall we say … diversified my career portfolio?”

The reflection moved back until Esther could see all of Mrs. Plum standing in the mirror. She was holding a large and wicked looking knife.

Esther shrieked. “What?! How?!”

“Because in the end, Ms. Campbell, the monster is often the thing we least expect. And because I am very upset with you.”

And then Esther’s face was back in the mirror, and she could see Mrs. Plum standing behind her. The old woman took a small step forward, and Esther felt the professor’s cool, dry hand grasp her chin, heard Mrs. Plum whisper, “I don’t think you’re going to make it to Advanced Screaming,” and then the knife touched her throat and there was red everywhere for a while, and then only black.

Afterwards, Mrs. Plum smoothed her sweater and walked on to her office. The janitors would clean the mess; they were paid highly to deal with the occasional university accident.

She walked past the Intermediate Stalking seminar, a much smaller room than her own. The few chairs were occupied by a nightmare bestiary of furred, fanged, and clawed monstrosities, as well as ichor-dripping undead and what appeared to be one very crazed young man holding a gleaming axe. Formless shadows pooled and blinked in the corners, suggesting menaces more horrific than the eye could comprehend. In the first row, a scaly demonic creature loomed over the professor, who adjusted his bifocals and calmly continued his lecture.

“Of course,” Prof. Larry Talbot said, “it is very different if your victim is clad only in underwear …”

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