How do you describe the distinctive character of the landmark television series, The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)? Well, it has everything to do with its unique literary quality. And how to best speak to that? Charles Beaumont (1929-1967), one of its celebrated writers, is a perfect example. Let’s look at a new collection of his work, published by Penguin Classics, “Perchance to Dream: Selected Stories by Charles Beaumont.”
What a treat this book is for any Twilight Zone fan since here you have some of the original stories by Beaumont that went on to become classic episodes. And you also get them in the context of his work for various magazines of the era, a total of 23 stories in this collection. Consider the title piece, “Perchance to Dream,” first published in Playboy, October 1958, and then turned into a TZ script and broadcast November 27, 1959. A distraught man enters a psychiatrist’s office in fear that he will die if he falls asleep. He is certain this will happen since he sees things that tell him so. For instance, if he stares long enough at a painting, the figures will move around and talk to him. Here, perhaps Beaumont borrows a little from “The Golgotha Dancers,” by Manly Wade Wellman, first published in Weird Tales, October 1937. It’s just enough to fuel another strain in the tradition of weird fiction dating back to Gothic literature. In this case, we have a man in a contemporary setting who has been reduced to a quivering heap as his only solace, to dream, has been denied him.
Rod Serling was a writer on the rise, already with a reputation for first-rate work like “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” when he decided to try something new. It was to be an anthology series of science fiction and fantasy, the best possible route for him to continue to pursue his social commentary. When Serling approached Ray Bradbury for advice, Bradbury presented him with four books by authors he should know: Ray Bradbury, John Collier, Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont. Dark fantasy is what Serling was seeking. Beaumont seemed to be dark fantasy incarnate. He was a brash young aspiring writer when Bradbury took him under his wing. In a year’s time, Beaumont was well on his way. In 1950, at 21, he sold his first story to Amazing Stories. And, in 1954, Playboy magazine selected his story “Black Country” to be the first work of short fiction to appear in its pages. His astonishing trajectory would end by a mysterious condition that would cut his life short, at 38, in 1967. A fascinating documentary by Jason V Brock provides great insight into this unique life and career.
Browsing through the titles, you’ll find a wealth of creativity spanning many genres, all of them embracing a sense of the macabre. The opening lines to “The New People” (1958) lure you in with the misgivings of Hank Prentice over buying his first home, that embodiment of the American Dream. Instinctively, he fears for his wife and son: “Too late for what? It’s a good house, well built, well kept up, roomy. Except for that blood stain, cheerful.” And so commences a fine piece of horror with a fine bite of social commentary. Conformity has brought each member of the neighborhood together. However, in order to cope with and stave off boredom, we discover this group gives new, and bloody, meaning to the quaint notion of “community.” In the same spirt as Richard Matheson, Beaumont conjures up a fable that questions our so-called dreams and aspirations.
Charles Beaumont’s work has a distinctive style and it is far from formulaic. What he did was follow a certain way of revealing a greater truth. Beaumont confronted that clean wall of 1950s conformity. He looked closer to see the stress cracks forming. He responded with fiction that helped to tear that wall down.
“Perchance to Dream: Selected Stories by Charles Beaumont” is published by Penguin Classics. For more details, visit our friends at Penguin Random House right here.