Burn the Negative

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Arriving in L.A. to visit the set of a new streaming horror series, journalist Laura Warren witnesses a man jumping from a bridge, landing right behind her car. Here we go, she thinks. It’s started. Because the series she’s reporting on is a remake of a ’90s horror flick. A cursed ’90s horror flick, which she starred in as a child – and has been running from her whole life. In The Guesthouse, Laura played the little girl with the terrifying gift to tell people how the Needle Man would kill them. When eight of the cast and crew died in ways that eerily mirrored the movie’s on-screen deaths, the film became a cult classic – and ruined her life. Leaving it behind, Laura changed her name and her accent, dyed her hair, and moved across the Atlantic. But some scripts don’t want to stay buried. Now, as the body count rises again, Laura finds herself on the run with her aspiring actress sister and a jaded psychic, hoping to end the curse once and for all – and to stay out of the Needle Man’s


"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

—Maxwell Scott,
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Internet meme circa 2019, creator unknown


By the time Laura Warren realized she was fucked, she was already halfway across the Atlantic Ocean.

The plane was full and she'd popped a sleeping pill thirty minutes ago, washed it down with a plastic cup of red wine. It dulled the drone of the engine and made the shapes of her fellow passengers pleasantly hazy. She could almost pretend they weren't there.

Travel was one of the few remaining perks of being a journalist. Her job had taken her all over the world: Tokyo, New York, Sofia. That last, an article about the city's booming film industry, earned her a lethal-looking award two years ago that ended up buried in the cupboard she called an office, along with a small forest's worth of Zeppelin magazine back issues. Awards weren't her thing. She just wanted to write words that mattered.

Los Angeles, though.

That made her want to take more sleeping pills.

The digital flight chart on the seat back in front of her showed a plane edging closer to California no matter how badly Laura willed it to turn around, and the pill wasn't working fast enough to numb the anxiety that razored her lungs. She wished the steward would circle back with the wine. He could leave the bottle if he liked.

Her neighbor grunted in his sleep, his knee pressing into hers.

Laura grimaced and shifted over. She wasn't a nervous traveler, had never been freaked out by the altitude or baby food, but she found planes to be a lot. The lack of space made her feel enormous. Like she was taking up more room than anybody else. More air.

She had caught the look from her neighbor when he sat down. Annoyance that his ability to manspread would be inhibited all the way from London to L.A. She could tell him to go to hell, of course. That she wanted to be there as little as he did.

Instead, she made a joke about how cozy the next eleven hours would be and, when he merely nodded, swallowed her frustration and opened her first mini-pack of pretzels.

Thirty-seven years old and she still filled every awkward silence with a joke.

Taking a breath, she resolved to keep her mind occupied until she passed out. She tapped the iPad propped on the tray table, opening the press release she'd started to read but neglected to finish in the lead-up to the trip. Everything was always so last-minute these days, and press documents gave her a headache. Their robotic enthusiasm was exhausting.

Begrudgingly, she scanned the first couple of pages, then scrolled to the "About the Production" section on page three. She read the first line—

Streaming mini-series It Feeds is a modern reinterpretation of '90s horror movie The Guesthouse.

—and every nerve in her body snapped.

Hair prickled on the back of her neck as if charged with electricity.

With numb hands, she dragged the iPad closer, convinced she was seeing things. She willed the sentence to change, to rearrange itself, but no matter how many times she read it, the words remained the same.

The Guesthouse.


The goddamn motherfucking Guesthouse.

Her body suddenly felt distant, a concept rather than a physical object, as her mind went into overdrive. It buzzed with a single question like a wasp trapped in a glass.

How the hell did Mike find out about her past?

It was the only explanation for why her editor at Zeppelin magazine had signed her up for the gig. She'd refused more than a dozen times, but she might as well have been screaming into a hurricane. Mike was adamant that she take the job. He said again and again that she was the perfect writer for it.

Laura hadn't understood. It was just a routine visit to the set of It Feeds, a generic-sounding horror series and the kind of gig Laura had long outgrown after nearly two decades of journalism. Any graduate with a Dictaphone and a notepad could interview the cast, watch some filming, and write a "making of" to run prior to the series' debut.

But Mike had been immovable.

He'd wanted Laura for this assignment, practically put her on the plane himself, and she couldn't say no. She had already reassigned five articles to freelancers in the past two months, all of which she was supposed to write herself, and Mike wasn't happy. He'd begun questioning her dedication to Zeppelin. Even though he didn't state it outright, Laura knew the L.A. gig was a test. A chance for her to prove she wasn't getting picky about what she wrote. She was reliable. Enthusiastic. L.A., baby! Sign me up!

Of course, their past was an added complication. Even though Laura had dated Mike for only eleven months, had broken up with him by the time he became her boss, things were still weird between them. The professional line was forever blurred.

They both knew she was the reason it fell apart. Mike would've had to be an idiot not to notice the night terrors and the blackouts, or the nights Laura couldn't sleep at all. She lost count of the times he found her huddled on the sofa, wrapped in a throw blanket with Heathers or Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael playing on the TV. And every time he brought it up, often over breakfast the next morning, giving her that half smile that said, I care, please talk to me, nocturnal creature, she found a way to shut him down. Keep that part of herself locked tight.

Now, somehow, he knew exactly what she'd kept from him. The splinter in their relationship that she'd refused to dig out was laid bare.

Wine burned the back of Laura's throat.

Did he know The Guesthouse was the reason for the nightmares?

No, Mike would have to be a psychopath to make that connection and still send her to L.A.

But how the hell had he figured it out? She'd spent the past thirty years eradicating any trace of her former life. She'd changed her name. Lost the American accent, developed a safely unspecific British one. She'd put on weight and her hair was wavy now, shoulder-length brown. She never wore yellow.

She looked nothing like the kid from the movie anymore.

Polly Tremaine, child actor, was as good as dead.

Yet here she was on a plane to L.A. with no choice but to see the job through.

"Shit," she whispered. "Shit shit shit."

She wished she hadn't booked the window seat. She wanted to get out. Move around the aisle. Escape the words on the tablet. But the guy next to her was already asleep and, besides, she couldn't feel her legs. Whether it was the pill or the shock, she couldn't tell.

She reached for her phone, then remembered she was on a plane. She reached for her wine, but only a trickle remained. The steward was a few rows ahead, a bottle in each hand, taking his sweet time as he poured and flirted with passengers. Laura couldn't wait. She hit the call button above her head and chewed her bottom lip as the steward came over.

"Hey, hi, fill her up?" Laura said, holding out her cup.

"Oh, I was just getting to this row." He nailed sounding simultaneously friendly and annoyed.

Laura didn't lower the hand. It trembled. "Sorry, I'm sort of a nervous flier." She tried for twitchy contrition. "Our little secret?"

The steward must've seen the anxiety written on her face, because he softened. He filled her cup to the brim and winked. "Don't worry, your secret's safe with me."

Laura managed a weak smile, waited for him to leave, then drained half the drink. The burn was immediate. She wasn't a drink-all-night journalist, rarely went to flashy events unless she was interviewing somebody, so the wine seared her throat like gasoline, then quickly smoothed the edges of her mind. She took a breath and her gaze found the press release again.

All she saw was that first line.

Streaming mini-series It Feeds is a modern reinterpretation of '90s horror movie The Guesthouse.

She should have seen it coming. Hollywood was all about rebooting. Remaking. Regurgitating. It was only a matter of time before somebody rediscovered that particular movie curio and gave it a fresh coat of paint.

She remembered the smell of dust burning as it hit the lighting equipment, the soft rustle of the paper fortune-teller in her hands. A single piece of paper folded into four conical points that you opened and closed with your fingers to predict the future.

She rarely permitted her mind to go there, pretended the memories had long since disintegrated like wind-parched leaves, but they were just waiting. Biding their time.

Sipping more wine, she attempted to build a mental wall, but the memories came regardless.

She was seven years old when she filmed The Guesthouse at Universal Studios. She was born Polly Tremaine and raised in L.A., and the first half decade of her life played out like a showbiz kid cliché. She was just six months old when her mom took her to an audition for Sparkleshine washing detergent. Everybody said Polly was the prettiest baby. The Sparkleshine people agreed. Within a month, Polly's chubby face and gap-toothed grin was on every carton of Sparkleshine. It was on every highway billboard, TV commercial, and cut-out-'n'-keep coupon. She was a household item a whole year before she took her first step.

The jobs kept coming after that. In L.A., success was a virus. As soon as one person caught your bug, everybody wanted it. Polly worked nonstop. Guest spot in a McDonald's commercial, a role in a Bon Jovi music video, two years as the sweet blond kid in the TV sitcom All My Daughters.

By the time she landed The Guesthouse, Polly had grown accustomed to smiling and nodding along with her mother. She agreed with everything the casting directors said, because it was what her mother wanted. She bit her tongue and pretended to listen, hypersensitive to her mother's heavy, watchful gaze.

One day, she dreamed, her mom would look at her the way the moms in the commercials did. The fake moms who smiled and brushed the bangs out of her eyes. The ones who laughed and pinched her cheeks and hugged her so tightly she held on even after the director yelled cut. She didn't want them to let go. She needed the closeness. The contact. The smiles.

Because nothing Polly did ever made her mother smile.

Polly had been living the Hollywood dream.

The only problem was that the dream wasn't hers.

"Nervous flier, hey?" the guy beside her asked. He had woken up and was looking at her, his eyes shaded by a baseball cap. Laura set her wine on the tray, confused for a second.

"Oh, that? The steward was too slow."

He laughed. Even his laugh sounded American. "I like your style. Cute accent, too. London, right?"

Oh God no.

He stretched and flexed his arms, which were thick with muscle. "Sorry about earlier, air travel makes me grouchy. So, what do you have planned for L.A.?"

"Just work."

"Oh yeah? What sort of business are you in?"

Laura tried not to engage. Tried to suggest with a look that just because she had the ability to speak didn't mean she wanted to speak to him. She noticed that the seat on his other side was empty. The third member of their row must be in the bathroom.

"I'm a journalist," she said.

The guy's eyebrows disappeared into his ball cap. "No shit. What kind?"

"Entertainment. TV shows, movies—"

"You know any famous people?" His gaze was too bright. "Do you know Emilia Clarke? I'm so into her."


"Oh yeah, we're best pals," Laura said, reaching for her wine.

"Seriously? You've met her? Man, that British accent is such a turn—"

Laura knocked the wine over. Red liquid splashed up her neighbor's thigh and into his lap, soaking into the stonewashed denim. Laura feigned surprise.

"Oh God, I'm so sorry," she said, trying to hide her satisfaction as he yelled and bucked in his seat, held in place by the belt. "Here, let me get some napkins."

She slipped her iPad into the footwell, pushed up the tray, and forced her way past him, half knocking his legs into the aisle as she went.

"I'll be right back, promise."

You overfriendly douchebag.

In the bathroom, she closed the folding door and hit the lock.

The mirror showed her frazzled reflection. Heart-shaped face, mouth turned down at the corners, brown hair falling in uncombed curls to the shoulders of her khaki jacket. The only thing she liked about her appearance nowadays was her eyes, bottle green and too big for her face, which she felt made her look interested. Observant.

Now that she was alone in the cramped airplane bathroom, the reality of the situation solidified around her. It became a roaring in her ears.

She was on her way to L.A.

"Jesus," she whispered, seeing fear and anger on her own face.

When she was seven and got the Guesthouse gig, she was so anxious that she threw up on her dress. Her baby sister laughed like it was the funniest thing she'd ever seen, because Amy had a sick sense of humor, even when she was four. Her mom made her strip and scrubbed her angrily in the tub.

The unease filled her body like TV static.

They wanted her to play Tammy Manners. The star of the movie. The little girl who told people how they'd die.

If she'd known then how things would pan out, how the rest of her life would continue to pivot on that one moment, how her parents would uproot the family from L.A. and flee to London when she was eight years old, she'd have fought harder to ditch the Guesthouse gig.

But she couldn't have known. Nobody could have.

They called it "the most haunted film in Hollywood history."

So many people involved in The Guesthouse were dead or behind bars. Their lives ruined beyond repair. The last, in 1998, was Christopher Rosenthal, her onetime director. He was forty-six, found hanged in his home. No note. No history of mental illness. Just a noose and a staircase.

The Guesthouse: a synonym for fucked-up.

Somehow, Laura had evaded the tragedies that befell her '90s colleagues. She was the eye of the storm. The heart of the knot. She'd made a life for herself away from the spotlight and the speculation. Nobody aside from her family knew about her past and she intended to keep it that way. There was no alternative.

Hunching over the sink, Laura turned on the faucet and ran cold water over her wrists. She scooped it into her face, and the shock of it made her gasp. The cold brought her out of the past, back into her body.

She was going to be okay.

The past was in the past.

Not screaming toward her at five hundred miles per hour.

She frowned as her reflection juddered. The mirror was moving. The bathroom shook, looking as flimsy as a movie set, and the floor vibrated under her boots. The lights switched off and on, causing her pupils to dilate.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we're experiencing a little turbulence," a voice said as a seat belt sign pinged on above the mirror. "Please return to your seats and make sure your seat belts are securely fastened."

Laura ignored the voice. She grabbed a handful of paper towels and blotted her face as the bathroom trembled. The turbulence was oddly soothing. Maybe the plane would nose-dive before they reached L.A.

You should be so lucky.

After a second, she lowered the towels and stared at her reflection in the mirror. She almost screamed.

A shape stood behind her.

A figure in a black coat, its face bandaged beneath a black hat, clawed fingers raised to her shoulder, the blades glinting in the overhead lights.

A wheezing breath caressed her cheek.

With a cry, Laura spun on the spot, driving her elbow into the towel dispenser, then crashing against the back wall. She turned twice more, her heart racing, then finally stopped, grabbing hold of the sink, panting and feeling ridiculous.

She was alone.

Of course she was alone.

She was jumping at her own shadow.

"Get a grip," she told her reflection. She stood braced against the sink for a moment longer, wishing her heart would stop jackknifing in her chest, but it knew what she was thinking, no matter how hard she tried not to think it.

One way or another, this trip is going to kill me.

Excerpt from web article titled "Films That Should Never Ever Get a Sequel . . . But Probably Will Someday Anyway"


Are you ready to be scared?"

Sitting in the back of the transit vehicle, Laura shifted her gaze to the woman beaming at her from the front seat. Madeleine looked more like a yoga instructor than an entertainment publicist—as polished and smooth as the iPhone that never left her hands. Sun-kissed, midtwenties, and with her blond hair tied up from her face, she was one hundred percent Hollywood. Just looking at her made Laura feel ancient.

The car window showed her weary face. After she had failed to sleep on the flight, her eyes looked wild and her skin itched. She felt bloated and full of plane snacks, disoriented by the L.A. sun that flashed through the windshield.


Her first time here in almost thirty years.

A homecoming she never wanted.

Everything was moving too fast. Cars shot by either side of them, and their driver—a woman in a suit who remained professionally silent as she drove—wasn't exactly going easy on the accelerator.

"Do you like being scared?" Madeleine asked, still smiling.

Laura's jaw tensed and she heard herself say, "Nothing scarier than a bad remake, right?"

A single line creased the woman's forehead and Laura knew she had pushed too hard, too fast.

"Sorry, British humor, long flight."

The smile returned. "Oh, you'll just love It Feeds. It's going to make for a great article. Actually, FYI, we changed the title from The Guesthouse 'cause technically a 'guesthouse' in the U.S. is a private accommodation rather than a bed-and-breakfast. You know, British guesthouses are like hotels, right? I kind of like It Feeds, though. It—" Madeleine looked down at her phone. It hadn't stopped buzzing since they'd left the airport. She dismissed it, seemed unable to recall what she had been talking about, and continued regardless. "Trust me, this show is going to blow up. Do you think you'll want to interview the psychic?"

Laura wasn't sure she'd heard correctly. "The psychic?"

Madeleine grinned. "They hired one to keep an eye on the production. You know, in case anything spooky happens."

Laura managed to nod. She tried to look interested rather than appalled and said, "Okay."

"Did they say when your luggage would show up?"

Laura grimaced. "The guy on the desk said it'd take between twenty-four and forty-eight hours."

Of course the airline had lost her luggage, and of course it wouldn't arrive until she was due to leave. She was in L.A. for only two nights and she'd checked her suitcase after a plea from the airline to free up space in the overhead bins, an act of charity she knew she'd come to regret. "It happens," the man at LAX had said after the computer located her suitcase in Madrid. "A mix-up at Heathrow."

Laura couldn't help thinking this whole trip was a mix-up, something she should never have agreed to in the first place.

A fresh wave of anger almost overcame her. She had tried to call Mike the moment she landed, wanted nothing more than to force-feed him a big piece of her mind. But he hadn't answered. She'd redialed, but then customs was hell, and there was the missing luggage, and then Madeleine appeared, chattering like an excitable teenager with barely a pause for breath. Mike would have to wait.

Maybe she'd quit Zeppelin, go freelance. She'd made a name for herself in the industry and her friends all said freelancing was the future.

Mike had acted like her friend even after the breakup.

"Just because we didn't work out as a couple doesn't mean I stopped caring about you."

Laura shuddered. He had a funny way of showing it.

"We could stop by a clothing store on the way to the studio," Madeleine suggested, tapping on her phone. "Or we could check into the hotel? Give you a chance to freshen up?"

"That's okay, I'll live," Laura said, even though her body ached with the need to shower off the plane residue. She just wanted to get their first visit to the set over with, and then maybe she could relax, hush up the demons in her mind.

She was grateful for the emergency underwear she'd packed in her hand luggage. Along with the Dictaphone and sleeping pills, they were all she needed to survive forty-eight hours in La La Land.

A good journalist is always prepared.

"You saw the original, right?" Madeleine asked, lowering her phone. "The Guesthouse?"

Christ, there was a question.

Technically, Laura hadn't seen it until she was fifteen. Her dad said it was too intense for a kid, even though Laura had snuck a copy of the full script and knew it backward and forward in time for the shoot.

She finally watched the film at a sleepover with her sister, Amy, years after they'd moved to the UK. She'd had no choice but to go along with the majority vote on that evening's scary movie, and as she withdrew into her sleeping bag, she couldn't get over how dated it looked. How fake. All the fuss people made and it was just a schlocky '90s horror movie about a cursed hotel.

Afterward, when their friends were asleep, Amy snuck into Laura's sleeping bag to ask if she was all right. She was three years younger than Laura but smart. Perceptive. Maybe that was what happened when your family plucked you from your home and dumped you in a new country. You got good at spotting when things were off.

Their father was British, had immigrated to the United States in his twenties, which made moving to the UK straightforward enough. But England hadn't been home to the girls or their mother, and the change affected them all.

Amy and Laura never spoke about The Guesthouse, and Laura hadn't wanted to talk about it that night at the sleepover. They both knew it was the reason their parents fled L.A. Amy had almost no memory of America, but she knew The Guesthouse was the reason their lives were upended.

Remade, Laura thought.

It was better to pretend the film didn't exist.

"Yep," Laura told Madeleine. "Love it."

"Right? There's something about it that still slays." Madeleine rested the phone in her lap. "So many horror movies feel safe, like you can see they put a filter on it. But The Guesthouse is bitchin' even now."

On Sale
Jul 11, 2023
Page Count
368 pages