Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Book Review: The Best of Richard Matheson

Award-winning author and editor Christopher Conlon returns to the Vortex to share his thoughts on a new career retrospective of Twilight Zone scribe Richard Matheson.

The Best, and the Rest
by Christopher Conlon

The Best of Richard Matheson. Victor LaValle, ed. New York: Penguin Classics, 2017.

Choosing the “best” of a writer—especially a prolific writer—is by its nature problematic. Once editors get past the obvious classics, their choices inevitably become subjective and thus open to criticism, especially from the writer’s most passionate and well-informed fans. In fact, even the inclusion of a writer’s classics can become a bone of contention, as happened two years ago with Penguin’s unfortunate Charles Beaumont volume, Perchance to Dream—an anonymously-edited “Selected Stories” in which the stories were mostly incompetently selected, reprinting numerous dated and unremarkable tales while inexplicably omitting much of Beaumont’s best work, including “The Hunger,” “The Crooked Man,” “Miss Gentilbelle,” and what many Beaumont fans consider his single greatest story, the astonishing “Black Country.” And so when Penguin announced The Best of Richard Matheson, fans couldn’t help but feel some trepidation. Would this volume, like the Beaumont, also be curated by some anonymous hack who clearly possessed little knowledge of the subject at hand?  What would the final result be like?

Happily—and perhaps due in part to the criticism the Beaumont book received—Penguin has chosen another tack with Matheson, whose oeuvre constitutes over sixty years of top-flight work in nearly every genre and whose short stories are considered among his finest accomplishments. As editor Penguin has enlisted the services of that fine fantasist Victor LaValle, perhaps best known for his wonderful short novel The Ballad of Black Tom, a variation on Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook.”

The vast majority of the stories editor LaValle has chosen will certainly be welcomed by any Matheson fan as representing this great writer’s “best.” Matheson’s first published tale, the groundbreaking “Born of Man and Woman,” is here, along with “Prey” (the TV movie version with Karen Black being chased by a Zuni fetish doll is as well-remembered as the story itself), “Duel” (filmed unforgettably by Steven Spielberg at the beginning of his career), and five pieces that were turned into memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone—“Death Ship,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Third from the Sun,” “Long Distance Call,” and “Mute.” “Button, Button” is here too, and “Witch War,” and “Dress of White Silk,” along with over twenty more tales—all wrapped up in a handsome package, with the distinguished Penguin Classics label lifting Matheson’s stories permanently out of the realm of mere pulp fiction and placing them where they have always really belonged, on the shelf marked American Literature. Could a Matheson fan possibly ask for anything more?

Well, as a matter of fact, yes.

To be clear: The Best of Richard Matheson is a fine collection, surely the best one-volume introduction available to Matheson’s stories—and it certainly beats Perchance to Dream by miles in terms of the wisdom and appropriateness of its selections.

And yet…the truth is, this book might have been better. For all his editorial acumen, LaValle has made a mistake by including several of the author’s “rarities”—i.e., trunk stories—that were not published until many decades after their original composition. In each case (“Man With a Club,” “The Prisoner,” “Haircut”) it’s quite obvious why these pieces went unpublished at the time. Simply put, they’re not very good. They certainly have no place in a volume purporting to represent the cream of Matheson’s particular crop, especially when by taking up space they bump other, far superior tales. Of course any editor is limited by a publisher’s maximum word count for a project, but it’s still a little startling to see a book called The Best of Richard Matheson that doesn’t include “The Distributor,” “The Children of Noah,” “Mad House,” or, most egregiously, what is perhaps Matheson’s single most emotionally wrenching story, “The Test.” Cutting the unimpressive “rarities” would have made room for at least one or two more of Matheson’s truly indispensable tales.

The editor’s introduction is also, unfortunately, something of a loss. While LaValle makes some perfectly valid points regarding Matheson’s influence—“He’s in the DNA of too many other writers to count”—a large chunk of the essay is taken up with a lengthy personal narrative about LaValle’s own youth, detailing a series of events which he claims led to his own “Matheson moment” but which in fact (spoiler alert) has absolutely nothing to do with Richard Matheson. This kind of self-indulgent logorrhea should have been removed by the publisher before the book ever went to press—and trimming this tedious, overlong piece might have made sufficient room for one more Matheson masterpiece.  

But whatever this collection’s problems, they are relatively minor in comparison to the riches that await both experienced and novice readers of Richard Matheson in these pages. While it’s not quite all it could have been, The Best of Richard Matheson stands as a worthy tribute to a writer whose importance to the American literary landscape only seems to grow with each passing year.
______________________

The Best of Richard Matheson is available October 10. Get the book. 

Thanks again to Christopher Conlon. Visit Chris’s site. Buy Chris’s books.


The Best of Richard Matheson (Penguin Classics, 432 pages)

Table of Contents (date of story publication):

-Introduction by Victor LaValle
-Born of Man and Woman (1950)
-Prey (1969)
-Witch War (1951)
-Shipshape Home (1952)
-Blood Son (1951)
-Where There’s a Will (with Richard Christian Matheson) (1980)
-Dying Room Only (1953)
-Counterfeit Bills (2004)
-Death Ship (1953)
-Man with a Club (2003)
-Button, Button (1970)
-Duel (1971)
-Day of Reckoning (1960)
-The Prisoner (2001)
-Dress of White Silk (1951)
-Haircut (2006)
-Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (1962)
-The Funeral (1955)
-Third from the Sun (1950)
-The Last Day (1953)
-Long Distance Call (1953)
-Deus ex Machina (1963)
-One for the Books (1955)
-Now Die in It (1958)
-The Conqueror (1954)
-The Holiday Man (1957)
-No Such Thing as a Vampire (1959)
-Big Surprise (1959)
-A Visit to Santa Claus (1957)
-Finger Prints (1962)
-Mute (1962)
-Shock Wave (1963)

Here follows additional notes on select adaptations of the stories for those interested in such things.  –JP

--“Prey” was adapted by Matheson as the third and final segment of the 1975 television film Trilogy of Terror. The film was directed by Dan Curtis and featured Karen Black. Matheson’s friend William F. Nolan wrote a sequel to the story, “He Who Kills,” as a segment of the 1996 television film Trilogy of Terror II, directed by Dan Curtis.

--“Dying Room Only” was adapted by Matheson into a 1973 television film directed by Philip Leacock and featuring Twilight Zone actors Ross Martin and Cloris Leachman.

--“Death Ship” was adapted by Matheson as the 108th episode of The Twilight Zone, the 6th episode of the fourth season. The hour-long episode was directed by Don Medford and featured Jack Klugman and Ross Martin.

--“Button, Button” was adapted as a segment of episode 20 of the first season of The Twilight Zone revival television series. Matheson adapted his short story but, dissatisfied with changes made to his teleplay, placed his pseudonym “Logan Swanson” on the work instead. The segment was directed by Peter Medak and featured Mare Winningham. The short story was also the basis of a 2009 film, The Box, written and directed by Richard Kelly and featuring James Marsden, Cameron Diaz, and Frank Langella.

--“Duel” was adapted by Matheson for a 1971 television film directed by Steven Spielberg and featuring Twilight Zone actor Dennis Weaver.

--“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was adapted by Matheson as episode 123 of The Twilight Zone, episode 3 of the fifth season. It was directed by Richard Donner and featured William Shatner. Matheson also adapted his story for the 1983 film Twilight Zone: The Movie. The segment was directed by George Miller and featured John Lithgow.

--“The Funeral” was adapted by Matheson as a segment of episode 15 of the second season of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. The segment was directed by John Meredyth Lucas.

--“Third from the Sun” was adapted by Rod Serling as episode 14 of the first season of The Twilight Zone. It was directed by Richard L. Bare and featured Fritz Weaver and Edward Andrews.

--“Long Distance Call” was adapted by Matheson as “Night Call,” episode 139 of The Twilight Zone, episode 19 of the fifth season. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur and featured Gladys Cooper.

--“One for the Books” was adapted by Matheson for episode 23 of the first season of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories television series. The episode was directed by Lesli Linka Glatter and featured Leo Penn and Joyce Van Patten.

--“Now Die in It” was expanded into a 1959 novel titled Ride the Nightmare. This novel was adapted by Matheson for the first season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. It was directed by Bernard Girard and featured Hugh O’Brian, Gena Rowlands, and Twilight Zone actor John Anderson. The novel was also the basis for a loose adaptation as the 1970 film Cold Sweat, directed by Terence Young and starring Charles Bronson.

--“No Such Thing as a Vampire” was adapted by Hugh Leonard as an episode of the anthology series Late Night Horror. It was directed by Paddy Russell. Matheson adapted the story as a segment of the 1977 television film Dead of Night, directed by Dan Curtis.

--“Big Surprise” was adapted by Matheson as a segment of episode 8 of the second season of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. The segment was directed by Jeannot Szwarc and featured John Carradine.

--“Mute” was adapted by Matheson as episode 107 of The Twilight Zone, episode 5 of the fifth season. It was directed by Stuart Rosenberg and featured Frank Overton, Barbara Baxley, and Oscar Beregi, Jr.

--One final note: Both “Finger Prints” and “Mute” originally appeared in the 1962 anthology The Fiend in You, edited by Matheson’s close friend and fellow Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Reading Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, part 4

In which we take a closer look at each issue of the magazine. For our capsule history, go here. 

Volume 1, Number 4 (July, 1981)

Editor: T.E.D. Klein
Cover Art: Linda Lippa, illustrating Robert Silverberg’s “A Thousand Paces Along the Via Dolorosa”
*Leon Garry assumes role as Publisher and Co-Executive Vice President

TZ Publications, Inc.
President & Chairman: S. Edward Orenstein
Secretary/Treasurer: Sidney Z. Gellman
Executive Vice Presidents: Leon Garry & Eric Protter
Executive Publisher: S. Edward Orenstein
Publisher: Leon Garry
Associate Publisher/Consulting Editor: Carol Serling
Editorial Director: Eric Protter
Editor: T.E.D. Klein
Managing Editor: Jane Bayer
Contributing Editors: Gahan Wilson & Theodore Sturgeon
Design Director: Derek Burton
Art and Studio Production: Georg the Design Group
Production Director: Edward Ernest
Controller: Thomas Schiff
Administrative Assistant: Eve Grammatas
Public Relations Manager: Melissa Blanck-Grammatas
Public Relations Asst: Jeffrey Nickora
Accounting Manager: Chris Grossman
Circulation Director: Denise Kelly
Circulation Assistant: Karen Wiss
Circulation Marketing: Jerry Alexander
Western Newstand Consultant: Harry Sommer
V.P. Advertising Director: Martin Lassman
N.Y. Advertising Manager: Louis J. Scott
Advertising Production Manager: Rachel Britapaja
Advertising Assistant: Marina Despotakis

Contents:

-In The Twilight Zone by T.E.D. Klein
-Other Dimensions: Screen by Gahan Wilson
-Other Dimensions: Books by Theodore Sturgeon
-“Camouflage” by Stanley Schmidt
-“Smiley” by Steve Rosse
-“Corn Dolly” by Eileen Roy
-“Papa Gumbo” by Ron Goulart
-“Silver” by Charles L. Grant
-“Luna” by G.W. Perriwils
-TZ Profile: Richard Donner by Robert Martin
-TZ Profile: Donner as Filmmaker by Robert Martin
-“A Thousand Paces Along the Via Dolorosa” by Robert Silverberg
-“The Dump” by Joe Lansdale
-“Escape” by John Keefauver
-“The Swamp” by Robert Sheckley
-“Summer Heat” by Carmen C. Carter
-“The Rules of the Game” by Jack Ritchie
-Show-by-Show Guide: TV’s Twilight Zone, Part Four by Marc Scott Zicree
-“The Eye of the Beholder” by Rod Serling (TZ Classic Teleplay)*
-Looking Ahead: In the August TZ

*This episode aired under the title "Eye of the Beholder" but is reprinted here under the title "The Eye of the Beholder." The titles seem to be used interchangeably. The episode also aired under the alternate title "The Private World of Darkness." 

--In The Twilight Zone by T.E.D. Klein
Subtitle: “Extraordinary circumstances . . .”

-This column serves as the monthly editorial from Klein, who generally uses the space to introduce the issue’s contributors. A baffling aspect of this issue is that several of the thumbnail images of the contributors are erroneously attributed. The image of Jack Ritchie is attributed to Ron Goulart and Goulart’s image to Ritchie. Charles L. Grant’s image is attributed to Marc Zicree. The other two images which I can personally identify, Joe Lansdale and Marc Zicree, are also misattributed.

--Other Dimensions: Screen by Gahan Wilson
-Wilson examines Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981) and generally liked it, praising the filmmaker’s awareness of the cultural history of the werewolf film and saying that “this is 1981, and we have moved on from stop-motion jerkiness and silly little hang-ups about how much hair we should have on our face.”

-Wilson looks at the film in the context of older films of transformation (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Wolf Man, etc.) and notices a change not only in the social and political messages behind the new style of horror film of the 1980’s but also in the radical and innovative improvements in special effects makeup. The special makeup effects for The Howling were initially handled by Rick Baker who left the production in the early stages of filming due to a prior commitment to provide the makeup effects for John Landis’s similar film An American Werewolf in London. Baker won an Academy Award (the first of many) for his work on Landis’s film. The effects for The Howling were taken over by Baker’s protégé Rob Bottin and were stunningly visceral and original. Wilson notes the opportunity for horror films to say something more profound about the culture in which they were made beyond the tepid fantasies of the 1930s and 1940s. The Howling was followed by seven sequels, the most recent of which, The Howling: Reborn, was released in 2011.

--Other Dimensions: Books by Theodore Sturgeon
-After spending the previous two book review columns trying to cram as many brief reviews in as he could, Sturgeon settles back to take a deeper look at a smaller selection of books.

-Sturgeon reviews the following:

-The Techno/Peasant Survival Manual by Colette Dowling (Bantam).
-Sturgeon says: “There has never been anything quite like this, and it isn’t easy to present its nature and impact without strapping you to a board and reading you the whole thing.” Sturgeon heaps praise upon the book, which is an attempt to explain in layman terms the emerging technologies of the time which affect the lives of the everyman.

-A Storm Upon Ulster by Kenneth C. Flint (Bantam)
-Sturgeon says it is “splendidly structured and paced, full of brilliant scenes, smells, sounds, conflicts, adventure, magic; and is recommended most highly.” It is the “retelling of the myth of the mighty Irish hero Cuculain, the warrior from Ulster who, single-handed, held back all the armies of the southern kingdoms for the better part of the week.”

-The Changing Land by Roger Zelazny (Ballantine)
-“Here are all kinds of magic, here anything can happen and a good deal of anything does.”

-Under the City of Angels by Jerry Earl Brown (Bantam)
-A “full package of fascinations – so full, in fact, that it overflows.”

-The Steel of Raithskar by Randall Garrett and Vicki Ann Heydron (Bantam)
-“For all its derivatives, however, the book is entertaining and well-paced.”

-Sturgeon briefly notes two anthologies and an author collection:

-Dream’s Edge edited by Terry Carr (Sierra Club)
-What If? by Richard Lupoff, a collection of short stories (Pocket Books)
-Terra SF: The Year’s Best European SF edited by Richard D. Nolane (DAW Books)

-Sturgeon concludes the review column by sharing a bit of graffiti he found written on the wall of a men’s room while he was on his way to the podium at a convention: “The meek shall inherit the earth. The rest of us will go out to space.”

--“Camouflage” by Stanley Schmidt

Illustration by Bob Gale
“The battleship, the battle, the commander – surely they were figments of a nightmare.”

-A college student wanders into a secret section of a school building and discovers an alien plot to take over the Earth. Grade: D

-The gimmick in Schmidt’s story is that the alien threat is masquerading as nightmares so that people will dismiss what they see as belonging to a dream. The story ends with the main character awakening fully to the threat. The story is slight and rather ludicrous and includes such elements as an alien leader as a talking rat. Schmidt was the editor of Analog: Science Fiction, Science Fact at the time this story was published. He began editing that magazine in 1978 and continued until March, 2013. Schmidt is also a novelist, short story writer, and anthology editor. Schmidt continues to publish fiction, mostly in the pages of Analog.

--“Smiley” by Steve Rosse
Illustration by E.T. Steadman
“He was just a harmless little man with a harmless little hobby. So why was the woman so frightened?”

-A Jewish deli owner relates the story of a mute man named Smiley who frequents his deli and whose hobby is taking pictures of beautiful women he meets on the street. Smiley become infatuated with a young married woman taking up residency above the deli. It is suggested that Smiley is an incubus who visits the sleeping woman as in a dream and impregnates her. Grade: F

-This story is about three times as long as necessary to expound its basic narrative aspects. The build-up to the story is neither unsettling nor suspenseful and the ending is anti-climactic as it is related second hand. Needless to say, the story certainly doesn’t capture any of the feeling of The Twilight Zone nor is it a successful work of speculative fiction on its own. The editorial by T.E.D. Klein states that the story is highly autobiographical which may go some measure to explain why it is not successful. A recounting of a memory does not a story make. Rosse is described as the production stage manager for Theater Memphis, the largest community theater in the country. “Smiley” is his sole contribution to the world of speculative fiction. 

--“Corn Dolly” by Eileen Roy

Illustration by A.G. Metcalf
“The settlers were wise in the ways of science, but they’d forgotten the oldest wisdom of all – the wisdom of the blood.”

-A pioneering team of interplanetary explorers learns the cost of survival when a young woman must be sacrificed to make the ground fertile to grow life-saving crops. Grade: B

-I really enjoyed this brief, stark exercise in science fiction horror. Roy plays on the old custom of fashioning a straw doll, a Corn Dolly, as part of a harvest custom in early European farming communities. This was a way to give the spirit of the corn a place to reside during the harvest. Roy combines the inherently unsettling nature of this old custom with Ray Bradburyesque touches of the weird and uncanny in interplanetary travel and exploration. Roy published only three short works of speculative fiction in the early 1980s, also making it into Damon Knight’s Orbit 21, though she appeared to have some talent which could have been fashioned into a successful career. At the time of writing, Roy was a graduate student at the University of Connecticut.

--“Papa Gumbo” by Ron Goulart
Illustrated by Steven Gaurnaccia
“Even in the Deep South, a good zombie’s hard to find.”

-The creator of a television sideshow gets a tip on a real life zombie in the Louisiana bayou country and ventures down there to retrieve said zombie with surprising and amusing results. Grade: D

-Like Goulart’s previous effort for the magazine, issue one’s “Groucho,” this tale is a film/television industry comedy with horror fiction overtones, though the story never tips over into actually frightening. It’s played strictly for laughs. Goulart is content to spoof the genre and play his over-the-top characters against each other in overblown dialogue, including an appallingly insensitive and inaccurate portrayal of an African American, along a threadbare plot to a rushed conclusion. As such, the story cannot stand up under its own weight and merely comes off as slight and only marginally diverting or amusing. At least Goulart’s writing style is built for speed, for the story does not drag.  

--“Silver” by Charles L. Grant

Illustrated by Robert Morello
“It’s hard to outrun a memory – especially one with four legs and fangs.”

-A writer is haunted by the vengeful spirits of a young boy and the boy’s large dog whose deaths the writer inadvertently caused. Grade: B

-This is probably the story in the issue which most suits a magazine bearing The Twilight Zone name (it shares the style of Charles Beaumont’s third season episode “The Jungle”). It’s no surprise that it comes from a reliable professional like Charles L. Grant, the ambassador of the “quiet” form of horror story, in which suggestion is favored over explicit violence. Grant’s fiction was none the weaker for this approach and he enjoyed a long and successful career beginning with the horror boom of the late 1970s. He is most well-known as the creator of the novels and stories relating the happenings in the fictional town of Oxrun Station. Grant was hugely prolific, however, writing dozens of novels and short stories over the course of his career. The best of his short fiction was collected in Scream Quietly: The Best of Charles L. Grant in 2012 by P.S. Publishing. Grant was also an accomplished editor with the Shadows series of anthologies and the shared universe series of anthologies exploring the haunted town of Greystone Bay. Grant died in 2006.

-“Silver” is typical of Grant’s style: muted, understated, building inexorably toward a tense and frightening climax. Grant never included “Silver” in any of his collections and the story has not been reprinted. Perhaps he felt it was too generic a ghost story though it is a fine example of its type, with a particularly pitiful protagonist and a suitably frightening ghost. 

--“Luna” by G.W. Perriwils (Georgette Perry and William J. Wilson)

Illustrated by José Reyes
“His muscles knotted with agony, and the chill air seared his heaving lungs like fire.”

-A lunar astronaut falls under the wrath of the moon’s version of Artemis, the goddess of the wild places and of the animals. After his return to Earth, she stalks him through his dreams, in which her hounds ultimately capture and kill him. Grade: C

-The astute viewer of The Twilight Zone will notice that this story bears somewhat of a passing resemblance to Charles Beaumont’s first season episode “Perchance to Dream” with its idea that a recurring dream based on prior experience can prove fatal, and with its setting in modern psychoanalysis. Perry and Wilson take the story in an interesting direction, tying it into mythology and presenting a striking, if rushed, ending. Karl Edward Wagner thought the story was good enough to include it in The Year’s Best Horror Stories X, which I think is a bit generous. Perhaps I’m unduly harsh, though, since T.E.D. Klein also reprinted the story in the Fall, 1985 issue of Night Cry. Perry and Wilson collaborated on a handful of short stories in the 1980s. Both are widely published poets. 

--TZ Profile: Richard Donner by Robert Martin

TZ Alumnus Makes Good

-The first of a two-part profile of the famed director focuses on Donner’s early career, which included a brief acting stint and his emergence as a television director, moving from local television productions to working on some of the biggest shows of the 1960s, including, of course, The Twilight Zone. Donner directed six episodes of the series, all in the fifth and final season of the show. These are: “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “From Agnes – With Love,” “Sounds and Silences,” “The Jeopardy Room,” “The Brain Center at Whipples,” and “Come Wander with Me.” Donner speaks about each episode with the exception of “Sounds and Silences.” Donner’s entry into television, and later film, direction is largely presented as a charmed set of circumstances in which Donner found himself in the right place at the right time with several quality projects landing in his lap. Donner speaks at length about working on “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which was a challenging production due to the technical aspects of the production, as well as my own personal favorite among his Zone episodes, “The Jeopardy Room.”

--TZ Profile: Donner as Filmmaker by Robert Martin
A Flair for the Larger-than-Life

-The second part of Martin’s profile of Donner focuses on Donner’s Hollywood career, beginning with his first feature film, X-15 (1961), featuring David McLean, Charles Bronson, and Mary Tyler Moore, and moving through his now-classic work on such films as The Omen (1976), Superman (1978), and concluding with his departure from Superman II (1980) after completing 80 percent of the filming. Superman II was the last film Donner was involved in at the time of the article. 

--“A Thousand Paces Along the Via Dolorosa” by Robert Silverberg

Illustrated by José Reyes
“You can spend a lifetime running after God – but what will you do when you find him?”

-UCLA psychology professor on sabbatical in Jerusalem learns of an ancient sect who consume a psychoactive mushroom which supposedly brings one closer to God. With the help of a local professor, he gains access to the sect’s village but loses his courage before trying the mushroom. During the Easter celebration in the city, he is swept along by the large crowds down the path of Jesus Christ’s conviction and execution (hence the story’s title) and experiences a powerful moment of ecstasy. Grade: B

-Silverberg’s second contribution to the magazine is remarkably like his first contribution. Both concern scholarly Americans in ancient foreign places who are confronted with a strange local custom which changes their worldview. This story is markedly more successful than the first, principally due to the fact that the climax is not underwhelming. Silverberg manages to sketch out the telling details of both character and setting in his typical clear and direct style. Judging from his two stories in the magazine, Silverberg appears to have been very interested in the way Americans view other countries and the ways in which these Americans can be changed by a foreign experience. “A Thousand Paces Along the Via Dolorosa” was collected in Silverberg’s 1984 collection, The Conglomeroid Cocktail Party, which also contains his previous story for the magazine, “How They Pass the Time in Pelpel.” The story was also reprinted in the Winter, 1985 issue of Night Cry.

-Silverberg’s 1963 short story, “To See the Invisible Man,” was adapted as a segment of episode 16 of the first season of The Twilight Zone revival series. It was adapted by Steven Barnes and directed by Noel Black. It originally aired on January 31, 1986.

--“The Dump” by Joe R. Lansdale
Illustrated by Randy Jones
“Living in a garbage dump, you see some pretty odd things. Just make sure the things don’t see you first.”

-The caretaker/resident of a local garbage dump recounts a tale of how he and his friend Pearly discovered a strange creature born out of the composting refuse. Grade: B

-This is a slight and humorous story from the prolific Lansdale who was near the beginning of his career at this point but who has since established himself as one of the finest novelists of dark suspense and historical suspense of his generation. The story has some memorably grotesque imagery and a neat twist ending. In his introduction to the story in the volume, Bumper Crop (Golden Gryphon Press, 2004) Lansdale stated that “The Dump” was “a simple little Fred Brown/Robert Bloch sort of story” and that when he finished it he “thought it was, to put it mildly, dumb. I didn’t even make a copy. I folded it immediately, put it in an envelope, so I wouldn’t change my mind, went back to bed, and next day mailed it off to the then new Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine, a magazine I badly wanted to appear in.” Later, Lansdale writes, “Ted Klein, then editor of Twilight Zone Magazine, phoned to say he loved it and wanted to buy it for the magazine. Later it appeared in Best of Twilight Zone, a magazine anthology. I suddenly began to like it better.”

-The anthology Lansdale refers to is Great Stories from Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine (1982), which is a magazine style anthology of Klein’s picks of the best stories to appear in the magazine’s first year of publication. The story was reprinted in the Spring, 1990 issue of Cemetery Dance Magazine, and has been collected across a number of Lansdale collections, including Stories by Mama Lansdale’s Youngest Boy (1991), Bestsellers Guaranteed (1993), and the aforementioned Bumper Crop (2004). 

--“Escape” by John Keefauver

Illustrated by Bob Neubecker
“For the tourist, Hong Kong was just too close to home. He wanted a ticket to Dreamland.”

-An American businessman meets a strange Chinese man in a bar who offers to take him to a place of escape called Dreamland. When they arrive they are greeted with song, dance, and revelry. The businessman trades his money for escape money, which will buy him one day, or one month, or one year of escape. When he awakens he finds himself sitting against a meter and feeling terribly sleepy. He is surrounded by others like him. The Chinese man he met in the bar is now the meter guard and demands escape money from him. The businessman pays, then goes back to sleep, having achieved his “escape.” Grade: D

-Yet another American in a foreign place gets his comeuppance story (Klein must have loved this type of story). It’s difficult to ascertain what was being attempted with this story but if it was to achieve a dreamlike, surreal atmosphere, it was reasonably well attained. The final fate of the businessman is clearly meant to be a sort of punishment though the character hardly seems to have deserved it. Keefauver sketches out a very Rod Serlingesque character, a tired business executive who seeks reprieve from his demanding life by falling into an escape fantasy. In Keefauver’s hands, however, this seems to be a desire punishable by a narcoleptic existence in limbo. Klein describes Keefauver as “a former newspaper man now living in Carmel, California” and “a prolific writer whose fiction and humorous sketches have appeared in Playboy, Omni, the New York Times, and various Hitchcock anthologies.” Keefauver wrote a number of short horror and fantasy stories beginning in the mid-1960s and appeared in several prominent anthologies including several volumes of The Pan Book of Horror Stories, Charles L. Grants Shadows anthology, J.N. Williamson’s Masques III, and Joe R. Lansdale’s Dark at Heart. 

--“The Swamp” by Robert Sheckley

Illustrated by Thomas Angell
“To play so close to quicksand, a boy had to be stupid – or worse.”

-A man attempts to help one of a group of boys who has fallen into a quagmire only to discover to his horror that the entire life-threatening situation was staged in order to lure him to his death as part of an initiation ritual. Grade: B

-Robert Sheckley returns to the magazine with another short-short (he provided three such tales for the first issue of the magazine) and this one is a sharp, vicious shocker which is perfectly paced and executed. Were it not so slight I might have graded it an A. Sheckley was a prolific writer remembered chiefly for his sardonic and often chilling science fiction stories, the most famous of which is probably “The Seventh Victim,” memorably adapted for the X Minus One radio program. The story is not to be confused with the 1943 Val Lewton film of the same name. Sheckley died in 2005. 

--“Summer Heat” by Carmen C. Carter

Illustrated by Robert Morello
“A crime – like a child’s cry – can echo for eternity.”

-A woman moves into an apartment building and, during the height of summer heat, begins hearing a woman yelling at her misbehaving child. The yelling culminates in a perceived act of violence and then abruptly goes silent. When the police are called and the building’s residents gather on the sidewalk it becomes apparent that the sounds they heard were the spiritual echo of a long ago crime. Grade: B

-Carter’s story is essentially a mood piece but a highly effective one at that. The nature of the “haunting” is quite unique but the strength of the story lies in the nicely handled character perspective of living in a crowded apartment building in Brooklyn during a record hot summer. The story also briefly explores the strained relationships which can develop between rushed, stressed parents and their bored, misbehaving children, often with dire results. Carter also notes the casual way by which some people react to domestic violence. 

--“The Rules of the Game” by Jack Ritchie

Illustrated by Oliver Williams
“What is it that you wish for, when a wish is guaranteed to come out wrong?”

-A man walking in the park hears a cry for help and rescues another man from drowning. The rescued man reveals himself able to grant his rescuer three wishes. After casually wasting his first two wishes on trivial matters, the rescuer, a lonely businessman, decides to withhold his final wish due to a fear that it will turn out wrong. Since the rescued man must remain with the businessman until he makes his third and final wish they become great friends. Grade: C

-Ritchie here attempts to provide a new spin on a very, very old tale with only marginally successful results. The sentimental ending, although different, simply doesn’t work. Ritchie was a hugely prolific writer of short stories dating back to the 1950s. Though Ritchie is remembered for his mystery and suspense fiction, he wrote a fair number of speculative stories as well. His most famous mystery story, “The Absence of Emily,” won an Edgar Award and has been filmed twice. He wrote only a single novel, Tiger Island, published in 1987. Ritchie appeared in virtually every periodical and book anthology of crime and mystery fiction in his time, including such hardboiled magazines as Manhunt and placing more than 120 stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine alone. An episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, “What Frightened You, Fred?” was adapted from a Ritchie story, as were two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Several of Ritchie’s stories were also adapted for Roald Dahl’s anthology series, Tales of the Unexpected. Ritchie died in 1983.

-The fiction in this issue swelled to an even dozen and even with the increased story selection nothing stood out as truly excellent. The magazine did publish some outstanding and now-classic fiction in its run but not every issue is going to contain one of those tales. An interesting aspect of the lack of above average fiction in this issue, and in other issues, is that the magazine paid high professional rates which dwarfed the rates offered by magazines such as Asimov’s or Analog or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, to say nothing of the small press magazines like The Horror Show or 2 A.M. Only Omni and Playboy, the latter of which had largely stopped publishing speculative fiction of any kind, offered rates comparable to The Twilight Zone Magazine. 

--Show-by-Show Guide: TV’s The Twilight Zone, Part Four
By Marc Scott Zicree

-Zicree begins his examination of the second season in this issue with a look at an uneven set of episodes, which includes some drab material, including a couple of videotaped episodes, along with some of the best work done on the entire series. The episodes covered include: “King Nine Will Not Return,” “The Man in the Bottle,” “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room,” “A Thing About Machines,” “The Howling Man,” “The Eye of the Beholder,” “Nick of Time,” “The Lateness of the Hour,” “The Trouble with Templeton,” “A Most Unusual Camera,” and “Night of the Meek.” Three of these episodes, “The Howling Man,” “The Eye of the Beholder,” and “Nick of Time,” were rated an A+ when we reviewed them.

--TZ Classic Teleplay: “The Eye of the Beholder” by Rod Serling

-This episode first aired on November 11, 1960 and is without doubt one of the finest achievements of the series and perhaps Rod Serling’s finest original teleplay. His vision of a dystopian society which demands conformity to the point of shunning those deemed “ugly” or “different” to segregated outlying communities is still a powerful warning today. William Tuttle’s pig-like makeup designs remain some of the most indelible images from the series. You can read our full review of the episode here.

-The most interesting aspect of the episode is, of course, that none of the principal actors are revealed until the final five minutes or so. Serling makes this note at the beginning of the teleplay: “Production note: throughout the play until otherwise indicated, all characters with the exception of Janet are played either in the shadows or the camera is on their back, but never are actually seen face first.”

--Looking Ahead: In the August TZ

-Next time we have the usual features along with an interview with famed zombie filmmaker George Romero (who recently passed away), as well as George Clayton Johnson’s essential essay “Writing for The Twilight Zone,” and the first installment of “Dr. Van Helsing’s Handy Guide to Ghost Stories” by editor T.E.D. Klein (hiding behind the pseudonym Kurt Van Helsing). Also featured are stories by Lisa Tuttle, David Morrell, and James Patrick Kelly, alongside several lesser known talents. Marc Scott Zicree continues his episode guide to the second season and another Rod Serling teleplay is offered, this time it’s the time travel nightmare, “The Odyssey of Flight 33.” See you back soon!

--JP

Monday, September 25, 2017

"The Trade-Ins"

Joseph Schildkraut and Alma Platt as Mr. and Mrs. John Holt
“The Trade-Ins”
Season Three, Episode 96
Original Air Date: April 20, 1962

Cast:
John Holt: Joseph Schildkraut
Mr. Vance: Noah Keen
Marie Holt: Alma Platt
Mr. Farraday: Theodore (Ted) Marcuse
Young John Holt: Edson Stroll
Gambler #1: Terrence deMarney
Gambler #2: Billy Vincent
Receptionist: Mary McMahon
Surgeon: David Armstrong

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Elliot Silverstein
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Merrill Pye
Set Decoration: Keogh Gleason
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Robert Walker
Special Makeup: William Tuttle
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: stock
Optical FX: Pacific Title
Rod Serling’s Wardrobe: Eagle Clothes
Filmed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“We have a return visit next week from a most eminent performer, Joseph Schildkraut, and his vehicle is called ‘The Trade-Ins.’ It’s a story of a future society in which new bodies may be traded for old. It’s my own personal feeling that of all the various story areas we’ve tackled on The Twilight Zone, this has the most import and carries with it the most poignance. I hope you’ll be able to be with us next week.


"Here, in one cigarette, a Chesterfield, is all the flavor and taste of twenty-one of the world’s finest tobaccos, aged mild and then blended mild. The end result: tobacco too mild to filter, pleasure too good to miss. Smoke for pleasure. Smoke Chesterfield.” 

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:

“Mr. and Mrs. John Holt, aging people who slowly and with trembling fingers turn the last pages of a book of life and hope against logic and the preordained that some magic printing press will add to this book another limited edition. But these two senior citizens happen to live in a time of the future where nothing is impossible, even the trading of old bodies for new. Mr. and Mrs. John Holt, in their twilight years, who are about to find that there happens to be a zone with the same name.” 

Summary:
            At an unspecified time in the future, Mr. and Mrs. John Holt, an elderly couple, arrive at the New Life Corporation, which specializes in designing young, state of the art bodies into which one’s consciousness can be placed in order to alleviate illness and extend life. After establishing that the Holts are still very much in love and that John is in near constant pain, they are given the grand tour by Mr. Vance, a salesman with the company, who shows them the many human models which they can inhabit. When the issue of cost comes up, the Holts realize they have a problem. They have only enough money to purchase one New Life body. Restricted by law and unable to extend the Holts any credit, Mr. Vance apologizes profusely but explains that there is no way both of the Holts can receive New Life bodies unless the additional money is presented at the time of purchase. Dejected, the Holts leave.
            John decides to take their life savings and attempt to double it in order to buy New Life bodies. He happens upon a poker game in the back room a bar owned by a prominent criminal, Mr. Farraday. It becomes apparent to Farraday that Holt is desperate for something and coaxes the truth out of the older man. When Farraday realizes that he is about to win the final hand of the game that will clean Holt out of all his money, he folds so that Holt can win the hand and leave with exactly the amount he brought to the game.

            The Holts return to the New Life Corporation having decided that John must go through with the operation to alleviate his terrible pain. He comes out of the operation in the body of a handsome younger man. John is ecstatic with his new body until he realizes that Marie will remain old and will be unable to share in his newfound youth and happiness. John decides to return to his old body and together, hand-in-hand, the Holts leave the New Life Corporation, determined to make the most out of their remaining time together.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“From Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet: ‘Love gives naught but itself and takes naught from itself, love possess not nor would it be possessed: For love is sufficient unto love.’ Not a lesson, just a reminder from all the sentimentalists in The Twilight Zone.” 

Commentary:

            It has been said before, most often by author Marc Scott Zicree (in his book, The Twilight Zone Companion), but it bears repeating that the writers on The Twilight Zone, all of whom were in their early to middle thirties at the time of the series, frequently wrote about aging and dying from a sympathetic and often heartbreaking perspective.
It is interesting to consider that these men, all in the prime of life, dwelt so frequently on the subject of aging and dying that each of the core writers for the series approached the material at least once. Here, Rod Serling presents perhaps his finest rumination on the subject, but he also covered similar ground in “One for the Angels” and “The Changing of the Guard.” Charles Beaumont wrote such powerful episodes on the subject as “Long Live Walter Jameson” and “Passage on the Lady Anne.” George Clayton Johnson wrote perhaps the two finest examinations of the theme in “Nothing in the Dark” and “Kick the Can,” along with providing the story for the underrated fifth season episode “Ninety Years Without Slumbering.” Richard Matheson gave us “Night Call” and Earl Hamner, Jr. gave us “The Hunt” along the same lines. As evidenced from the titles listed above, the subject and theme of aging and dying resulted in some of the most haunting, beautiful, and well-regarded episodes of the series.
Perhaps it is the idea that the passage beyond life into the vast unknown is the ultimate embodiment of The Twilight Zone and the writers on the series found pliable material in the theme. Whatever the case, Rod Serling was certainly in the mood to tackle the subject head on at the end of the third season, as “The Trade-Ins” is followed closely by “The Changing of the Guard,” which closes out the season. Serling thought highly of the message behind “The Trade-Ins,” as evidenced in his preview narration, and he was clearly attempting to create the feeling of a fable or fairy tale with the episode, a futuristic story which nevertheless examined the timelessness of love and companionship. He generally succeeded in this regard though the episode comes close to becoming too sentimental at times and the reliance upon a simplistic style of story leaves some logical holes in the plot construction.
“The Trade-Ins” presents an achingly romantic and optimistic view of everything from marriage, the future, and humanity in general. An interesting aspect of Serling’s characterizations is that he wrote two of the supporting characters against type. Noah Keene, here playing the salesman Mr. Vance and last seen in the third season opener “The Arrival,” could easily have been written as an unsympathetic, pushy salesman. Serling opts to write him in a near saintly manner as a man who takes an immediate and personal interest in his clients. Vance’s role in the corporation remains unclear even by the end of the episode as it is difficult to determine if he is only a salesman or if he perhaps owns the company when considering Vance is seen as part of the operating team later in the episode.
Another supporting character who is written strongly against type is Mr. Farraday, played by Theodore Marcuse, last seen in the earlier third season episode “To Serve Man.” Farraday is clearly a criminal but is portrayed as curious, caring, and ultimately willing to make a sacrifice for the interest of the aging John Holt. Everyone in the episode seems to be on the side of the Holts and all character interaction serves to underline the idea that people are generally kind and good. Serling has occasionally been accused to having too bleak a view of humanity in such episodes as “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “The Shelter,” but Serling understood the basic dichotomy of human nature, that the most outwardly sinister of us may in fact be a decent human being, and those seeming kind and warm may hide a darker nature. 
The character of the sick and dying John Holt is brought wonderfully and sympathetically to life by veteran actor Joseph Schildkraut, last seen in an equally powerful performance in the earlier third season episode “Deaths-Head Revisited.” Here, aged by William Tuttle’s makeup, Schildkraut provides the episode with a strikingly believable portrayal of a man not only suffering from immense chronic pain but also one terrified of facing a future without his loving wife. Unfortunately, Schildkraut’s performance was informed by the fact that he lost his wife to illness after the first day of filming “The Trade-Ins.” Schildkraut, a consummate professional from a proud acting family, insisted on finishing the episode before allowing himself to properly grieve. It is clear, however, that Schildkraut’s grief made it into his performance and rendered it that much more powerful.
Schildkraut is matched by his on-screen wife played by Alma Platt, who is largely responsible for the two most emotionally wrenching moments of the episode, the first being her chant of “yes, yes, yes,” urging Schildkraut’s character to commit to the operation in order to alleviate his pain and suffering. The second moment, of course, is when both she and Schildkraut’s character, now inhabiting the young body of actor Edson Stroll, come to the dawning realization that youth and age will forever separate them. Though Platt never appeared in another Twilight Zone she did appear in an episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery titled “Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay,” based on A.E. van Vogt’s 1943 story “The Witch.”
“The Trade-Ins” is directed by Elliot Silverstein and he brings a highly artistic style of the episode. Silverstein directed three additional episodes of the series and always managed to convey a dream-like (or nightmare-like) quality in the episodes he directed. “The Trade-Ins” is visually defined by the stark contrast of light and shadow, as well as by the cavernous set design, particularly in the case of the showroom floor at the New Life Corporation. In this way, the episode resembles Silverstein’s earlier effort, “The Obsolete Man,” especially in the contrast of a large Act One set with a smaller, more intimate Act Two set. In the case of “The Trade-Ins,” Silverstein contrasts the large showroom floor with the close interior setting of Farraday’s poker game. Furthermore, the two sets offer a contrast of a different nature, this being the difference between a clean, futuristic setting and that of a traditional noir design, the latter represented by the back room poker game. This sort of contrast would soon become fashionable, seeing perhaps its most effective merging just a few years later in Godard’s 1965 film Alphaville.
 The shortcomings of the episode are generally two-fold. Continuing on from the future noir look of the episode, the story does not feel as though it is set far enough into the future, considering the type of operation offered by the New Life Corporation. We’ve talked before about how the series, though often considered science fiction, was really a fantasy series which occasionally used familiar concepts from the science fiction genre. Serling is doing this here and wisely leaves any details about how the New Life Corporation achieves its miraculous trading of bodies shrouded in ambiguity and broad dialogue.
The more egregious shortcoming which most viewers will notice is the fundamental flaw of the ending. John is given a New Life body because he is in terrible and constant pain. He needs the body or he will die very soon. It is intimated that his wife, Marie, is not in as desperate a need for a new body. At one point in the episode John suggests to Mr. Vance that he would be young enough to work again and pay for the second New Life body in installments. Why, then, cannot John continue on in his young body until he can work enough to save up the five thousand dollars required to get his wife a New Life body? As it stands, this relatively minor problem with the story hardly detracts from the effectiveness of the episode.
A final mention should be made about the excellent adaptation of “The Trade-Ins” on The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas. In the title roles are H.M. Wynant as John Holt and Peggy Weber as Marie Holt. Wynant is one of the most memorable faces from the original series of The Twilight Zone as he portrayed the stranded traveler, David Ellington, who frees the Devil in the second season episode “The Howling Man.” Peggy Weber did not appear on the original series but did appear in two episodes of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, “I’ll Never Leave You – Ever” and “The Different Ones,” the latter of which was written by Serling. Both Wynant and Weber are excellent in this story which one might believe is best suited to a visual medium, but radio drama has the appealing aspect of allowing the listener to visually build the story in their own minds. This one comes recommended.  
“The Trade-Ins” is Rod Serling’s love letter to love and marriage and to the ultimate optimistic view of fundamental human decency. Though it doesn’t quite strike the high notes of Serling’s finest episodes, it remains a moving, effective, and uplifting episode with memorable direction and outstanding performances.

Grade: B

Notes:
--Elliot Silverstein also directed “The Obsolete Man,” “The Passersby,” and “Spur of the Moment.”
--Joseph Schildkraut also appeared in the season three episode “Deaths-head Revisited.”
--Noah Keen also appeared in the season three episode “The Arrival.”
--Alma Platt also appeared in an episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, “Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay.”
--Theodore Marcuse also appeared in the season three episode “To Serve Man.”
--Edson Stroll also appeared in the season two episode “Eye of the Beholder.”
--David Armstrong appeared uncredited in the episodes “To Serve Man,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
--“The Trade-Ins” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring H.M. Wynant and Peggy Webber.
--Serling misquotes Gibran in his closing narration. The line should read: “Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.”

-JP