Players in Purgatory takes place across the bridge on the road to nowhere. When I was trying to make sense of the world when I was three or four years old I wondered if the people I met outside my own family and neighborhood were the same people with morphed faces. One day I finally realized: “Oh, I guess that’s not true.” That wasn’t going to stop me years later from writing a creepy story with that same scenario of a small group of people who are in reality a morphed versions of other people. Just a group of players in purgatory. These people are trying to force others into Gerstein’s Funeral Home where they will become part of the living dead. That is one hell of a creepy thought. From 1968 we have the movie the Night of the Living Dead.
I didn’t use the Night of the Living Dead as a template. What happened to me was real. After my cousin’s death I had to pick up some paperwork at the funeral home. I drove into the lot and thought I would simply walk in. This place had always given me the creeps because members of my family and relatives had passed through on the way out! I rang the bell. It was loud enough to wake the dead. (Sorry) The front door was locked. Why would it be open if… if nobody was there? Or were they?
I remembered what the funeral director had told me. I could always enter through the side door, walk into the parlor and pick up the paperwork he had left on the hall table. This sounded simple enough. But as I opened the door I thought of the great horror actor Vincent Price, who might have said: “I’ve got your paperwork.” Followed by a maniacal laugh.
Mr. Price was not available. I, Robert P. Fitton, had stepped into the embalming room. Oh-My-God! I did not want to be in the room where everyone had been prepared for the crypt. I was also a Dark Shadows fan and thoughts of Barnabas Collins’s shenanigans crept down my back like a cold scoop of ice cream in a cold freezer.
And the equipment was right there hanging from the walls and on the corpse tables. I walked slowly as not to awaken the spirits. That wouldn’t work because the spirits must have already known I was there. Step by step I left the embalming area, knowing I would have to return or perhaps I could slip out the front door.
How did I feel? Like Moe, Larry and Curly in this undated photo. I turned and… and…there was the folder with the paperwork on the glossy mahogany table. The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany’s Alabama Song by Kurt Weil should have been playing on the Funeral Home speakers. Not by the Doors or Audra McDonald, both versions which I like. The original freaky version from 1930 is sung by Lotte Lenya. And it is so weird I can’t even classify it as creepy. And here it is from 91 years ago for all you aficionados of the sublime:
I shuffled to the hall table and gingerly lifted the manila folder. I checked inside. I had the paperwork and began a march to the front door. I don’t know how but the door was locked with me inside the funeral home.
Now come on Fitton. This is crazy, I turned and passed the table and entered the hall to the embalming room. I supposed I could have started whistling the Alabama Song. All those tubes and tools. No way could I be an undertaker. Or even an official mourner. I leaped outside as if I were emerging from the silty underwater of a swamp.I thought as if I were Woody Allen and was delusional daydreaming about a scenario where the SUV wouldn’t start and I would get pulled back inside the funeral home be unseen forces. I have never been back to that funeral home
The idea for the Players in Purgatory story floated around in my head for a long long time. Finally, I wrote it and recorded the audio. When the pugnacious Ralph Norman approaches the drawbridge manned by a strange gatekeeper, he is about to enter warped reality. He had never seen this bridge and the sky becomes darker. Norman crosses the bridge and the gatekeeper vanishes. He is met by a crazed little man named Smeltzer who warns him about the players. Thirteen of them. They want everyone to become like them. It is from the back room of Gerstein’s Funeral Home that transformations take place where they absorb people into their being. Norman’s car is now missing. Smeltzer keeps following him, warning him of a high-pitched sound when they’re nearby. Then Smeltzer steals Norman’s 50-yard line football tickets and runs away. Smeltzer is hit by a car but survives because he doesn’t want to go to Gerstein’s.
Smeltzer breaks away with the tickets. An odd bus driver and suspicious cabbie add to the creepy feeling. Norman finds Smelter in a side pew at a church, parishioners singing Near of my God to thee. When the cabbie shows up Smeltzer calls him a player. “I know the 13. They morph their faces. Make you think they’re different people.”
Norman finally sees the Victorian Gerstein’s Funeral home. The Gerstein undertakers, rigid and pasty take up positions in the street. Later he’s at the football game and Smeltzer shows up. “They morph their faces, Brother.” Smeltzer has been running from the players for three weeks. “A force central to all being!” Norman berates Smeltzer- it’s all in his head. The players don’t exist.”
Back in the city Norman stares at the glowing hurricane lamp in the Gerstein’s window. Inside the red floral wallpapers are evident. Smeltzer was inside, forced into a high back chair. And then Norman is pulled into Gerstein’s. Smeltzer’s name is on the parlor marquee. Formaldehyde is in the air. He is trapped inside the funeral home as Smeltzer walks from the embalming room. Norman fights his way into the garage and drives a hearse back into town… He is now taking Smeltzer’s role and warning others with Smeltzer’s words.