For a quarter century, Dennis Hamilton's reign as Emperor of the Theatre has been secure. The romantic hero of the musical, A Private Empire, he has garnered fame, awards, and wealth. But when the time comes to hang up the cape and saber of the Emperor Frederick and step into the role of producer/director, Dennis learns that the throne is not so easily abdicated. For it seems to be the Emperor who lurks in the halls, cellars, and catwalks of the Venetian Theatre, threatening Dennis's friends, family, and associates.
Are the violent and terrible acts caused by a deranged fan or by Dennis himself, driven mad by the pressures of his career? Or could it be something far worse, born of the strength of Dennis's performance and the mob's cathartic response? Whatever the answer, Dennis must stop the Emperor before it turns his reign of glory into a reign of blood, and steals his friends, his lover, and even his soul.
Reign is a wonderfully original novel written with the insight that only a life in the theater could provide. Nominated for the Bram Stoker Award, praised in Publisher's Weekly and other trade periodicals, this is one of those books you likely have not read, and absolutely should. – David Niall Wilson
"One of the best I've read in a long, long time. Darkly brilliant."–Joe R. Lansdale
"Horror, wonder, death, salvation -- Reign is Chet Williamson's most challenging, most ambitious novel -- and his best so far."–F. Paul Wilson
"You'll be enthralled, moved, and terrified. Reign will take you into the world of theatre as no horror novel has since The Phantom of the Opera."–Gary Braunbeck in Time Tunnel
"Honest, uncompromising, and emotionally charged in a way that is too uncommon in works of horror fiction...a supernatural thriller that will keep the reader transfixed."–Gauntlet
"Believable, elegant...Williamson's inventive resolution is sure to satisfy."–Publisher's Weekly
Watch, Dennis. Watch.
Dennis Hamilton watched. He had no choice. He was once more a captive of his dream, a slave of the very emperor he had himself been for the last quarter of a century, the character he had created. And now that character came to life before his eyes, stood there grinning as nakedly as if the skin of the face were transparent, revealing the skull beneath.
Who, Dennis wondered, would the Emperor kill tonight? Which of the people he loved? His wife? His son? John, his manager, or Marvella, his costumer, or Curt, his stage manager? Night after night, he had taken them all in dreams, killed them all by grasping their necks in his left hand, which seemed as huge and monstrous as the necks seemed thin and frail, and shaking them until those pencil-necks snapped with the sound of cracking twigs, and the bodies had fallen like empty sacks, and the grin had widened until it threatened to raven the world, and Dennis would awake with tears in his eyes, and turn and clutch Robin's warmth, waking her to comfort him.
Who tonight? Who? He saw her then, dimly at first, as through a fog, or a gray-tinted window, but he recognized her immediately. Though twenty-five years had passed, he knew her, for he had never forgotten, never stopped feeling what he had felt when he was so young, when emotions had been taut as wires, sensitive as exposed flesh in winter.
She was older, but still as lovely as he remembered. Her honey-blonde hair was shorter than it had been, but still long, falling to her shoulders like a veil. She wore a dress — or was it a gown? — of white. She seemed, Dennis thought at first, dressed for a wedding.
But when the Emperor stepped into the frame of his sight, he knew instead that she was dressed for a sacrifice.
Ann's neck did not change, did not diminish and thin as the others had. And the Emperor's hand, when he grasped her, no longer grew in size. A hand it remained, though one with great strength. It squeezed, and Dennis saw Ann's face go white with pain, though there was no fear in her eyes. She looked, not at her attacker, but at him, and in her gaze was mingled a plea and a longing, both emotions mirrored in his own thoughts.
He moved toward her as he had with all the others, to save and to protect. But unlike before, when the thick and fluid bonds of dream held him back, now he flew forward with a dazzling speed that blinded him, and when he could see again, he knew that it was his hand that was clutching Ann's throat, his eyes that were blazing into hers, those green spheres clouded with approaching death.
He gasped, and tried to release his grip, loosen the fingers that dug into the flesh so deeply that the tips were hidden.
He could not. The fingers, his but not his, pressed harder. The eyes refused to obey his demand to close, the mouth, rebel to his will, grinned with teeth he could not see, and Ann faded away as she had on that day long ago, from his sight, from his love, from his life …
Dennis Hamilton awoke weeping. His body was slick with sweat, and he felt hot and cold at once.
"Dennis?" Robin's voice, full of love and concern, echoed in the darkness. "What's the matter? What's wrong?"
He grasped at her, and when he felt her arms go around him, he let himself go completely, let the sobs shake his body.
"The dream?" she asked. "The same dream again?"
"Yes," he said. "The same." It had come at irregular intervals, unpredictably and unexpectedly, for nearly a year.
"Who this time?"
He didn't answer right away, and he could sense her curiosity in the dark. To give him time to decide what to say, he reached up and turned on the dim reading light over his side of the bed.
"You're sweating," Robin said. "Do you feel all right?"
He nodded. "It was you," he told her. "I dreamed that he was hurting you … choking you."
She looked so young in the rose-colored light. Her dark hair cupped her face like a pair of gentle hands, and the edge of the sheet was draped over her waist, exposing her full, round breasts. Dennis felt desire trying softly to usurp his previous apprehension.
"It's just a dream," she said, reaching out and smoothing the damp hair back from his forehead. "Dreams can't hurt you."
"But it frightens me," he said, taking her hand and pressing it to his cheek. "It seems so real, and I worry about … about what it might mean."
"We've talked about this before," she said with a sigh, "and you're not angry at me, darling. You're not angry at any of the people you've seen hurt in your dreams, even if you are the one who's doing the hurting."
"I'm not the one," he said. "It's the Emperor, I told you that. It's him every time, not me."
She touched his cheek. "After tomorrow there won't be any emperor anymore, will there? You can replace him with another dream — a dream you've had for so long. One that's going to come true."
He smiled at her, remembering. "Yes," he said finally. "I guess it will."
"Can you sleep now?" she said. "It's going to be a big day. A very big day. Shall I call Sid? Have him fix some warm milk to help you sleep?"
"No. No thanks. It's all right." He turned off the light and put his head on the pillow. Robin leaned over and kissed him.
"Sleep well," she said. "Sweet dreams now. Or no dreams at all. I love you."
"And I love you," he said, meaning it. But he went back to sleep remembering Ann.
Morning came, and then the night. The last performance was glorious.
He sat before the mirror, gazing at the man within. The face was older now. Nearly twenty-five years had passed since he first saw the Emperor inside him, twenty-five years since that first night, that night in 1966 that set the pattern of his life as firmly as heredity.
Had the audience dozed, had the critics been unkind, had he been in poor voice, or nervous, or forgetful, his life would have been very different. But those things had not happened, and he had been crowned Emperor of the Theatre, and had remained so for a quarter of a century, longer than many real emperors, or kings, or popes. Until tonight. Until this warm April night, on which they roared out their acclaim for a voice still young, still as strong as ever, roared for the full, rich, velvet baritone with which he had enthralled audiences across the country, around the world. His world. His circumscribed and loving world, girdled with his talent, governed by his persona, ruled by the Emperor.
Still, Dennis Hamilton thought, looking into the mirror, it was not the voice that really mattered, was it? It could have been aged and withered, made harsh by the nicotine he never inhaled, pickled by the alcohol he seldom touched, constricted and parched by the cocaine that floated all around the New York theatre scene like a gritty cloud but which he had never even tried. No, it was not the voice, but the presence.
He still had the presence. He could go on. His friends begged him to go on; his fans, who made up much of the civilized world, begged him to go on. To them he was the Emperor, and always would be.
The stance was enough to tell anyone that. The stance at the beginning of Act I, Scene 6, when the change came. The hands locked commandingly behind the back, the thrust of the jaw, lengthened by the beard, that long Ruritanian beard that he had never shaved off, dashed now with specks of gray not yet visible from the audience. He could have dyed it, but that would have been vanity. Besides, they all knew he was no longer twenty, and it would not have diminished their love. No. The world knew that he had based his life on artifice, and the world had made him a rich man because of it.
He heard them outside his dressing room door now. It was late. The show itself ran, as always, three hours with the intermission, and tonight's curtain calls had lasted another half hour. They could have lasted longer, he thought. They could have lasted until morning.
But no, it was good that Curt had brought the curtain down and the house lights up when he did. Always leave them wanting more — the theatre's golden rule.
Dennis smiled at the memory of the applause continuing long after the curtain had come down for the final time and the auditorium was fully lit. Five years ago, three, even six months ago he might have interpreted Curt's ending the curtain call as insolence, and given him a tongue-lashing for it. But tonight he felt not even mild aggravation. Leaving the Emperor behind was indeed, he thought, a consummation devoutly to be wished.
There was a knock on his door, and he heard Robin's voice calling, "Dennis? Dennis, the party?"
"I'll be there," he called back. He had not yet removed his costume or his makeup, and the Emperor still stared at him from the mirror. The medals flashed, the gold braid gleamed like chorus girls' hair. The lines in his face were invisible beneath the makeup and the powder. It was, if not a young man's face, then the face of a man whom the years had touched but lightly. He knew that he could not stay there forever, that people and the rest of his life were waiting for him. The thought made him smile, and he spoke to his image in the glass, encompassed by soft, naked bulbs, "Well, your majesty, it's time to leave you. Leave you for good." He shook his head. "I can't stay here forever."
It was as if the image told him that he could. The carmined lips did not open, but he heard the voice inside his head.
You can, it said.
"What …" he whispered so quietly that an ear next to his mouth would not have heard.
You can, it said again, then became silent.
Dennis Hamilton shivered, and the conceit that he had considered, the intention to leave on his costume and makeup, to remain the Emperor for one final night, suddenly oppressed him. He pulled the uniform jacket open so quickly that the snaps seemed to pop simultaneously, and yanked the garment from his body as though it were lined with barbs. Then he reached for the jar of cold cream as a drowning man reaches for a spar, and slathered it over his face, rubbing it in and wiping it away with handfuls of tissue, desperate to escape the Emperor.
And when he looked in the mirror again, the Emperor was gone. In his place, dressed crisply in a dinner jacket, was Dennis Hamilton. The beard, reddish-brown and trimmed to perfection, was the only thing that remained, for the eyes, the brow, the mouth were all gentle, with not a trace of imperiousness in their slants, their turns, their attitudes.
Dennis sighed in relief, walked to the door, grasped the knob, and looked back at the mirror, expecting for a moment to see an image still framed within. But the glass only reflected the silken curtains, the red brocade wallpaper of his dressing room. He looked again, as if some mistake had been made, then turned and opened the door upon the crowd, upon the world. Hands reached out for him, kind words assailed him, and the door closed upon the mirror.
It sat there, blank. And, in a while, an image returned.