Mark Gottlieb is a composer and a lucky person to have been a lifelong friend of screenwriter George Clayton Johnson. This friendship led to a collaboration between Gottlieb and Johnson on “Zola,” a compelling musical that features the Dreyfus affair, a scandal that rocked France at the end of the 19th century and reverberates to this very day. There are a number of things to unpack and discuss here. We begin with an overview of what the infamous Dreyfus affair was all about and go from there, with plenty of recollections about the great ole storyteller, the timeless, George Clayton Johnson.
The Dreyfus affair focuses upon a wrongly accused man who made the perfect scapegoat for the time. Considering how Rod Serling was such a steadfast advocate for human rights, it is quite fitting to find George Clayton Johnson, one of Serling’s fellow writers on The Twilight Zone, as co-creator of this musical. Johnson was always a person to side with the nonconformist. So, it was natural when Gottlieb, in search of a libretto, came calling on George. The two entered upon a partnership and worked, off and on, on the Zola musical for many years. Since the death of George Clayton Johnson in 2015, the impetus has been to get the musical out into the world. To that end, Gottlieb is contacting like-minded souls such as myself to help spread the word. As someone who also got to enjoy a special connection with George, it is my pleasure to present to you this conversation I had with Mark Gottlieb recently.
Now, a little history: The Dreyfus affair occurred during France’s Third Republic. It was sparked by the wrongful imprisonment of French army captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894. The matter would officially drag on until 1906. Dreyfus was convicted of treason for allegedly selling military secrets to the Germans in December 1894. At first the public supported the conviction; it was willing to believe in the guilt of Dreyfus, who was Jewish. Much of the early publicity surrounding the case came from anti-Semitic groups (especially the newspaper La Libre Parole, edited by Édouard Drumont), to whom Dreyfus symbolized the supposed disloyalty of French Jews.
The effort to reverse the sentence was at first limited to members of the Dreyfus family, but, as evidence pointing to the guilt of another French officer, Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, came to light from 1896, the pro-Dreyfus side slowly gained adherents (among them journalists Joseph Reinach and Georges Clemenceau—the future World War I premier—and a senator, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner). The accusations against Esterhazy resulted in a court-martial that acquitted him of treason (January 1898). To protest against the verdict, the novelist Émile Zola wrote a letter titled “J’accuse,” published in Clemenceau’s newspaper L’Aurore. In it he attacked the army for covering up its mistaken conviction of Dreyfus, an action for which Zola was found guilty of libel.
What follows is my interview with Mark Gottlieb. Here we begin with the Dreyfus affair and quickly dig deeper into the issues involved. Then we steadily see how Gottlieb and Johnson joined together as a creative team. In the process, we get a unique inside view into the world of George Clayton Johnson, a unique voice in storytelling. He is best known for iconic episodes of The Twilight Zone like “Kick the Can,” and “Nothing in the Dark.” Among his work, he is also known for writing “Man Trap,” the first episode broadcast of Star Trek, as well as being the co-writer, with William F. Nolan, of the landmark science fiction novel, “Logan’s Run.” Lastly, I have to say, I believe this interview will really hook you in. The proper warm up and set up is done and off we go:
Wren McDonald is a cartoonist and illustrator. His illustrations appear in The New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ, The Washington Post, The Hollywood Reporter, and many other places. His first full-length graphic novel, a quirky cyberpunk thriller, “SP4RX,” was recently published by Nobrow Press.
If you are in the New York City metro area this weekend, you can see Wren at Comic Arts Brooklyn. CAB is taking place this weekend with the main event this Saturday, November 5th, at Mt. Carmel Gymnasium, 12 Havemeyer Street, from 11am to 7pm, in beautiful Brooklyn! You can find Wren at CAB, downstairs at Table D31.
Wren McDonald has shot like a rocket since graduating from Ringling College of Art and Design in 2013. Wren has a refreshing take on both comics and illustrations: a rare set of skills, talent, passion, and drive. So, without further ado, here is my interview with Wren McDonald, recorded this Wednesday, as he prepares for Comic Arts Brooklyn.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Wren, if we were to do a virtual tour of your studio, what would we find there?
WREN McDONALD: Well, my studio is my bedroom. So, here’s my bed and here’s my desk. That’s my studio! (Laughter)
That’s the set of circumstances for a lot of cartoonists and illustrators, isn’t it?
Yeah, especially living in New York. It just doesn’t make much financial sense to have a separate studio. But I have plenty of room here. It’s pretty spacious. I can spread out and get my work done. I have a super big desk and an iMac. And I actually have (laughs) the extended studio in the living room! There I have a Lasergraph copier where I print out my mini-comics and zines.
That’s for serious cartoonists.
“Did Trump and Clinton Get a Pass on Education?” illustration for The New Yorker by Wren McDonald
I direct folks who are new to your work to go to your website, wrenmcdonald.com. There you will find a cornucopia of stuff. I’m focusing on one of your current illustrations of Trump and Clinton and they are both sitting in a classroom. These two are hyperreal, larger-than-life, cartoonish. You can’t make them up. Could you give us a window into how you created that illustration?
That illustration was funny because I got the assignment the day before it was due, which was also the day before I was traveling to MICE Expo in Boston, a comics show that I was just at this last weekend. That was like a super rush job which was really intense. The art director at The New Yorker, Rina Kushnir, who is super great, I work with her a lot, she emailed me the article. She said it was last minute but she asked if I could do it. And I said, yes, of course.
Rina needed sketches in the morning and then the final that evening, around 5pm or 6pm. So, that morning, I sent in like four sketches. They were sort of goofy and funny. Like you say, these candidates are already cartoony so it’s easy to characterize them. Rina chose the one she liked. That was at noon. From that point, I got to work on the final and sent it over in the evening.
Those jobs are always pretty stressful but I enjoy doing them a lot because I feel that I work really hard and get a real day’s work in and have something to show for it.
It’s a beautiful illustration.
I wanted to ask you about your evolving into the illustrator you are today. Your work is appearing everywhere. Only a few years ago you were in Florida just starting out. Could you give us the cook’s tour of how you got where you are today.
Sure, I graduated from Ringling College of Art and Design, which is in Sarasota, Florida, in 2013. When I was in school, I had a website and was posting things on social media, like Tumblr, and I think that helped me get my feet off the ground in terms of people seeing my work.
From that point, I started going to comics shows like TCAF in Toronto, Comic Arts Brooklyn, and MoCCA. I tabled at TCAF and other shows I would just go to. I’d have mini-comics to give out to help make people aware of me. It’s two different paths, comics and illustration, so I’ll talk about them separately.
The illustration stuff is, like I say, social media and tracking down email contacts and networking. And a lot of promotional stuff. You want to create a portfolio that really looks like editorial illustration. Editorial work has a snowball effect. You start to get jobs and you’re seen as a professional.
CYBER REALM by Wren McDonald
The comics stuff is going to shows and socializing. I was approached by Peow! Studio, based in Sweden, about publishing one of my short stories in of one of their anthologies, “Time Capsule.” I thought that was super cool since I was familiar with their work. I was super excited. I think that was the first comics story that I had published out in the world besides my own stuff online, on Tumblr. Soon after that, I talked to Nobrow about doing a short story (CYBER REALM) for their 17×23 series which is a platform to try out new talent. That’s a small format, just 24 pages. We did that and enjoyed working together. So, Nobrow said they wanted to try something longer. That’s what I wanted to do so it worked out that way.
It’s amazing how quickly things came together. Did you already have an idea of what SP4RX was going to be like while you were working on CYBER REALM or did one work just follow the other?
I didn’t have one story cocked and loaded beforehand. I always hear other cartoonists, or writers, when they talk about their work, saying they had this story they’d been working on since they were 10 years-old and it’s part of an epic world they’ve created. I’m not one of those people. When I sit down to write a story it’s about brainstorming and anything that peaks my interest.
For SP4RX, I’ve always been interested in the cyberpunk genre, especially movies and comics. I wanted to work in that genre. I was already creating work dealing with technology, robots, and dystopian settings. I think it just made a lot of sense to me.
We’re always hearing about the digital versus the physical. I direct people to the comic you did for The Comics Journal. How did that come about?
I’m not sure if Nobrow contacted The Comics Journal, or the other way around, but The Comics Journal approached me about doing one of their A Cartoonist Diary columns. I was all for it since I have the attitude of wanting to try something out and make it work. I had not done diary comics before so I had to think about how to do this. Mine is not a traditional diary comic since it has these fantastical elements to it. Despite it being involved with things I was experiencing, the more apt title to it turned out to be “Not A Cartoonist Diary.” That was a fun project.
Over the years, illustration is deemed dead and then it comes right back. It all runs in cycles. You’re firmly in both the world of comics and illustrations. Some cartoonists, I know, have never printed mini-comics nor done the comic fest circuit. But you love that.
Right! I love making comics, reading comics, and telling stories. I am passionate about my comics work because I am able to draw what I want to draw. Illustration is a fun back and forth since it involves work that I would not necessarily choose to draw: it’s more like a puzzle. Okay, how do I use these images to convey a specific idea, very concisely, to pair with the article? It’s a fun back and forth. Maybe I’ve been working on comics for two weeks straight, and then I get an editorial assignment. That’s great, I can take a break from comics and do an illustration, take a break from having my face too close to the page and switch my train of thought–and vice versa.
SP4RX by Wren McDonald
If we were just chatting, we’d end up talking about books and movies, especially science fiction and cyberpunk. I imagine that “Videodrome” must be a favorite for you.
I do love “Videodrome.” David Cronenberg is amazing but I don’t think that “Videodrome” had a specific influence on SP4RX. Instead, concerning SP4RX, I had just read William Gibson’s “Neuromancer,” which I thought was like the coolest book ever. It is considered “cool.” I wanted to make something “super cool” like that! I’d always been into “Akira” by Katsuhiro Otomo. And “Ghost in the Shell” by Masamune Shirow and his Appleseed series. And movies like Paul Verhoeven’s “Total Recall” or “Robocop.” Or James Cameron’s “Terminator II.” “The Matrix.” “Aliens.” Stuff like that. I wanted to do something in the vein of that genre.
Let’s focus back on SP4RX: a super hacker going up against corporate enslavement. How close are we today to corporate enslavement?
There’s a lot of parallels that I was drawing from. Basic stuff that I’d see on the news. Even just going about my day-to-day, going shopping or whatever, that would end up in SP4RX. It’s a world with hover cars and sci-fi elements but there are plenty of parallels to our real world throughout. For example, I’d be watching some crazy video on YouTube with one newscaster harassing another newscaster and I would basically copy and paste that into the book. Within a sci-fi setting, you can focus on the human element. You don’t get caught up in a specific nation or political agenda. It’s just people in this science fiction world.
Everyone may not get a hover car but we’ve got plenty of the weird and nefarious stuff already. What do you think about Edward Snowden and us being monitored? The future is here.
Yeah, it makes me think that the cyberpunk genre and movement is more relevant than ever. When the internet was first coming about, that genre seemed so cheesy. It’s fun to laugh about it but there’s so much of it that’s relevant. Like you say, that NSA stuff is really happening. It’s important to pay attention to that and be aware.
Panel excerpt from SP4RX
Is there anything you’d like folks to know about that you are currently doing?
It depends upon when you think this post will go up. There’s Comic Arts Brooklyn this weekend.
I can push things up and get this out by Friday. I’d love to go to CAB. I have my own book I’m working on that is very much science fiction oriented. It’s about the science fiction writer George Clayton Johnson. His career and life’s journey has a very intriguing arc. He began with writing the story for the Rat Pack classic, “Ocean’s Eleven” and crescendoed with co-writing the novel that was the basis for the cult classic, “Logan’s Run.”
Oh, yeah, that movie has a nice sci-fi cheesy quality.
Well, the thing with George was that he kept to his set of values and the integrity of his storytelling. “Logan’s Run” is an example of a big studio having its own ideas on what the story should be. It’s totally fun though and I think a remake would be great. The original novel is very different. I think you’d enjoy it.
I will check it out.
Comic Arts Brooklyn
But getting back to CAB.
Yes, I will be at Comic Arts Brooklyn this Saturday, November 5th. You can find me downstairs at Table D31. So, come by and say hello! And I have a new mini-comic that will debut at CAB and then be available on my site which is called, “Dirt Dart,” a 12-page story about a soldier lost on another planet.
Well, it’s been fun talking with you, Wren. I know that you’re having the time of your life.
Yes, staying busy!
Thanks so much, Wren.
Thank you, Henry. When you’re in New York, stop by and we can have a drink.
You can listen to the interview by clicking the link below. I did not make any edits so you’ll pick up on some slight differences from the transcription which is a smoother read. One thing to mention here is that I was not aware of the title, SP4RX, being pronounced “Sparks.” I must have been firmly in the mindset of George Lucas and his 1971 classic, THX 1138:
SP4RX is out now. Find it at Nobrow Press right here. Visit Wren McDonald right here. And, if you are in the New York City metro area, be sure to visit Comic Arts Brooklyn this weekend. Visit CAB right here.
A Dennis Etchison femme fatale. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.
A femme fatale in a Dennis Etchison story is “twenty-nine going on forty, and pretty, too, but not really very.” She is the sort who would visit a Beverly Hills beauty salon. She is the sort who would have a C-note handy in her pocketbook.
“Got to Kill Them All & Other Stories,” an e-book collection you can find through Bowery Books, is a great mix of classic short stories. The first two stories alone are priceless as you have the earliest published Etchison short story, 1966’s “Sitting in the Corner, Whimpering Quietly,” followed by 1976’s “The Walking Man.” From these, I make my assertion on Etchison femme fatales.
Etchison deliberately takes the same description for his 1966 female character (twenty-nine going on forty with a C-note in her purse) and attaches it to his 1976 female character. It’s a grand little inside joke since he is certainly not at a loss for words. Doing that adds another eerie layer of alienation. It’s a brilliant move, especially for a writer who enjoys playing with disconnection.
Having recently posted a review of a collection of work by George Clayton Johnson, it is fitting to follow up with a review of one of the great Johnson protégés, a masterful writer in his own right, Dennis Etchison. We can even begin with a comparison of work between Johnson and Etchison. Both wrote stories with the freeway as a looming background character. In Johnson’s short story, the freeway is much like one big car bowling alley. You simply let the cars be towed along by the grid. If you happen to lose your way and pull over, you are lost.
In Etchison’s story, also set in the future, the freeway is also a vast wasteland but one that results in carnage at a much higher rate. In fact, the system in place demands it. Welcome to the world of Dennis Etchison where the edges can be sharp but that does not take away from the storytelling craft at play. I became aware of Dennis Etchison through my friendship with writer George Clayton Johnson. It was in 2014, during our last conversation in person, that George went over some writers I needed to visit or revisit if I hadn’t. Robert Sheckley for my sense of humor. Theodore Sturgeon for my soul-searching questions. And Dennis Etchison for my dark side. I did just that. In fact, I’ve posted about Sheckley here and Sturgeon here. And, now, Mr. Etchison.
“Got to Kill Them All and Other Stories” by Dennis Etchison
Nightmare logic is at play here in a big way. Do you remember any of your best nightmares? Wasn’t there some lyrical quality about them that got under your skin? Think of the placement of seemingly random things that you know, down in your bones, actually belong together. Here it is, special delivery just for you: a transmission from the deepest recesses of your subconscious. It’s as if someone, or something, is trying to pass on an urgent message that never gets through during the daylight hours. The pounding at the door. There’s a reason for it. Well, I’m getting a bit carried away here. Chalk that up to my writer sense becoming all tingly just now. The point is that here we have this writer, Dennis Etchison, who masterfully crafts stories with the special edge of a nightmare. Consider, “The Scar.” I swear, that is one long nightmare narrative. That’s it! I really think I struck on something. We follow these characters in mid-flight. They are literally fleeing and it looks like they do a lot of that. The background, the landscape, it’s all a blur. For all we know, it’s an post-apocalyptic setting–or it just feels like that for this man and woman on the run with a child. The man and woman are unfit for normal society, total nihilist trash. Then things get really violent. Everyone falls down. Our characters get up and start running again. Truly a nightmare masterpiece!
“Got to Kill Them All & Other Stories” is certainly a title that will get your attention. It’s a delicate balancing act going on here between the brash and the subtle. There’s a lot of groundwork involved. Consider the title story, we begin with a classic Etchison main character, a hardened Los Angeles native: jaded, wired, and angry. I’ve been devouring Etchison short stories to the point where I feel I have a good handle on his dark vision. His characters are usually doomed and susceptible to entering into delusions and false hope. This is noir, extra-dark. With a writer of the caliber of Etchison, this can be quite a ride. So, regarding the title story, you have one very angry dude making all the wrong choices. The last thing he needs is a partner in crime. Ultimately, this leads to deadly disaster–with a grace note of macabre humor.
“Got to Kill Them All and Other Stories” by Dennis Etchison
I’ll leave you with one more. This one involves another sad sack Everyman. Our poor anti-hero is literally just padding about his apartment when he gets a call that will seal his doom. Poor soul, he even lets his message machine pick up so he can monitor the call. But, it’s no use, the pull of fate is too great. The call is so compelling. It’s the voice of a little girl in panic. She is pleading for help. She mentions some landmarks before the line cuts out. The man has no choice, really, but to rescue the little girl. Which is actually the last thing he should be doing.
“Got to Kill Them All & Other Stories” is an excellent introduction to Dennis Etchison. There are numerous titles to choose from. I would definitely seek out more like “The Dark Country” and “Red Dreams.” You can find both of these titles at Crossroads Press. You really can’t go wrong with any Dennis Etchison title.
George Clayton Johnson and Charles Beaumont, circa 1960. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain
Editor’s Note: If you are heading out to Comic-Con, and you wish to learn more about what we covered in this interview, go to a special panel, “Star Trek 50th Anniversary and George Clayton Johnson Tribute,” on Thursday, July 21st, 9:00 – 10:30 PM. Room: 9 upstairs inside San Diego Convention Center. Having written the first aired Star Trek episode, “The Man Trap,” George has secured his place within Star Trek as much as Twilight Zone.
Jason V Brock is a filmmaker, writer, editor, and artist. For this interview, I draw from Jason’s extensive knowledge of golden age television and pop culture. Among his work in film, he is known for his documentary on the writer Charles Beaumont (1929-1967), which is a rich source for our talk. At the same time, Brock’s academic work is just as compelling. I consider Jason a friend in the entertainment industry: we both share a certain sensibility. I hope you enjoy this concise version our geeking out on George Clayton Johnson and related things. We were both en route to a special tribute for screenwriter George Clayton Johnson that took place this February. So, it all makes sense.
In this interview, we’re chatting about that golden time in television that was “The Twilight Zone.” This is digging deeper into the background of the show and its key talent. For this talk, we’re focusing on George Clayton Johnson along with other members of what became known as “The Group,” which met from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. Within that gathering of writers, the leader was Charles Beaumont. Some writers from The Group went on to write for The Twilight Zone.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Jason, talk about Charles Beaumont, who remains something of a mystery: a great writer on the rise, dead at age 38. And then let’s shift to George, who also remains a mystery.
JASON V BROCK: There’s an interview with Charles Beaumont that was conducted by George Clayton Johnson. It was for a show called, “The Author and the Story.” And Beaumont recites from “My Fair Lady.” We include some of that in the documentary. If you can find that interview, it is well worth seeking out. Beaumont’s illness is a mystery. It does seem to come down to two possibilities: Alzheimer’s disease or Pick’s disease. I tend to think it was Pick’s disease as it fits in with what we know about Beaumont’s activity as he declined: slow and halting speech; a greater amount of impulsivity. What Beaumont’s friends believed was the main cause of Beaumont’s premature death was his routine use of Bromo-Seltzer, which had aluminum, a cause of dementia.
During this time that Beaumont was declining in health, he and George had a falling out. George was trying to figure out a new project. And they had a sort of disagreement. But, after a while, they mended fences. It was during that time that George discovered what was happening to Beaumont. Keep in mind that these were still young guys. The dementia started for Beaumont at around age 33.
Now, George will always remain a mystery. He was an enigmatic individual to be sure. A lot of people don’t know this but he was an underwear model for a time. He did whatever to make ends meet. He was, as he liked to say, “a dog without a collar.” He wanted to do things his way and succeed on his own terms. He was punk rock before that became a thing, and I admire that about him. He was a very intelligent person. He only had an eighth grade education. He was born in a barn in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He went through many phases. He was a beatnik and then became enthralled with hippiedom, and that aspect never left. He was a vegetarian. And he was involved with supporting the legalization of marijuana. Politically, he had more of a Libertarian ideal. He was also mercurial, open to new ideas, never crystallized in his mindset.
Ray Bradbury asked, “Who can explain the mystery of personality?” And I think George fits that perfectly. You could ask him one thing and he would answer back with the most unexpected things.
There was that aspect of overcoming the odds for George and his feeling a need to prove himself.
I look at The Group and think of it as the atom with Charles Beaumont as the nucleus. They’re all in different shells around Beaumont. The atom blew apart once the nucleus was gone. Everyone went in different directions. In the hierarchy, Beaumont was at the top. But, beyond that, in relation to success, was Richard Matheson in a role as mentor. Then there was Ackerman and Bradbury who were relatively older. What’s interesting is that Nolan and Johnson told me that they felt they were lowest on the totem pole in relation to the group. However, Nolan and Tomerlin were, in fact, closest to Beaumont. And then George was next to them.
George was more responsible. The three others did as they pleased. They would go to Monaco and crash a dinner for Princess Grace. They loved Grand Prix racing. They would run off and do all these things at the drop of a hat. Go hang out with Ian Fleming. George stayed home with his family. Richard Matheson stayed home with his family. George was one of the few who bought his house. He bought it early on and lived the rest of his life there. He hungered for that stability and security.
Considering those four core members, tell us more about John Tomerlin.
What’s interesting about him is that he was a catalyst for a number of things. He started in radio and that was his big love. He wasn’t really interested in television or film. The rest of the group dragged him into that. He was interested in competing and conquering. He was feisty. He became a bridge champion, and pilot. He was mostly in love with the Norman Corwin school of writing for radio. That’s like saying today that you’d like to write like the original Twilight Zone when we’re in the midst of Kardashian cult TV. It ain’t gonna happen!
Share with us more about other members of The Group. They seem to fade into the background and yet they’re all interesting in their own ways. There’s Chad Oliver, for instance, he seems pretty obscure but I come to find that he had his cult following.
Well, Chad Oliver really did enjoy science fiction. I don’t think that was where Beaumont’s heart was. It’s weird that Johnson and Nolan would think they were lowest on the totem pole since that was not true. After you move past the core, there are the top ten. Altogether, you could say there were thirty writers associated with The Group. If you’re thinking conceptually, outside of Bradbury, Beaumont was most influential closely followed by Richard Matheson. And then, after that, Nolan.
After that, it depends, as you give merit on a story by story basis. Stylistically, Beaumont was at the top. Followed by Nolan, and then Johnson. I would place Matheson at the bottom, as a stylist. His writing was very direct; he was not an atmospheric writer. His ideas and his characterizations are his strengths, and his novel way of looking at the universe. While Beaumont’s writing was more rich, a lot more substance to his delivery. Bill Nolan was a lot like that too, especially early in his career. Later in his career, his writing is more like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler or Hemingway. He started in the style of Bradbury, as did Beaumont. George also emulated Bradbury. And then they moved on. Bill did a lot of television with Dan Curtis. Mathewson wrote a tremendous amount for television and film, beginning with Roger Corman. His writing lent himself to screenplays. He wrote about a hundred short stories and then switched to novels.
Talk more about the dynamics of what was going on behind the scenes of The Twilight Zone: Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury.
The Group would not have happened if not for Rod Serling. It was Serling who was the big shot in television. Ray Bradbury wanted to do that too. Serling came from the East Coast and steeped in great television, like Paddy Chayefsky. Bradbury has his side of the story of what caused the great rift between them–and we cover that in our documentary. I can see that it was jealously at play: Bradbury wanted what Serling had. But, The Twilight Zone, in fact, was always on precarious ground. Then there’s Night Gallery which left Serling without creative control which he regretted very much. Writers from The Twilight Zone went on to write for Star Trek and for Night Gallery. Nolan and Johnson both wrote a number of scripts for consideration on Star Trek. And, it was Johnson who wrote the first Star Trek episode aired, “The Man Trap.”
I can understand how Ray Bradbury would have felt that he could have done a better job than Rod Serling, even if that was not the case.
Bradbury would have directly said that. Serling got to the point too describing Bradbury’s style as best for the page and not the screen. Bradbury is more in line with Edgar Alan Poe. And that is more of an internal mode of writing. It is very difficult to transfer that onto a script. On the other hand, you can say Serling’s writing can be very talky. The modern equivalent to Serling would be Aaron Sorkin. Your mind is just snapping and crackling to that kind of writing. Serling was very much like that on his work for Playhouse 90.
Clusters of writers do crop up. You think of The Lost Generation Expats in Paris, The Lovecraft Circle, The Beats, The Group. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to form this bond online. You need that human connection.
Rod Serling is quite fascinating. And he did know what he was doing even if he had not been known for science fiction and fantasy prior to The Twilight Zone.
Yes, he had always been reading in the field. He had always been interested in science fiction and fantasy, reading it since he was a boy. He just didn’t have an outlet for it yet. He wasn’t a prose writer, that wasn’t his form of writing. He started in radio, just like John Tomerlin. Serling started writing from his direct experience in the war. He was in the Pacific during World War II. I recommend a memoir by Anne Serling, “As I Knew Him,” about her father. It is very well written. She describes how her dad wrote initially in a diary form to help him overcome PTSD. This would lead him to radio and, with his clipped style of talking, he was a natural for it. Later, he wins a writing contest for television. The writer who came in second was Earl Hamner Jr., who would go on to write a number of Twilight Zone episodes.
Indulge me and go even further into the background of the writing for The Twilight Zone. For one thing, everyone involved was hip to Weird Fiction.
If you break it down, story by story, what these writers were most interested in was Magical Realism. They didn’t really call it that back then in the United States. Bradbury had that aspect. Serling definitely had it. When you start looking at other writers from The Group, John Tomerlin and Jerry Sohl were much more interested in serious and realistic stories. So, it comes down to Nolan, Matheson, Beaumont, and Johnson.
They all loved F. Scott Fitzgerald. They all loved Hemingway. They could not help but admire Hemingway as he was the big force in writing at the time. Hemingway had that succinct style that fit right in with their interest in noir. They tapped into the Magical Realism in Faulkner. They all loved Poe. And they all loved Bradbury and wanted to follow in his footsteps and write for the pulps. Beaumont loved Lovecraft. He loved Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun.” Had Beaumont lived, he would have pursued more work with social commentary similar to Rod Serling. It’s very interesting as to how it all came together as it did. It is something I’d like to write about in the future.
Thank you, Jason. As always, a pleasure. I look forward to our next conversation.
Same here, Henry.
Keep up with Jason V Brock by visiting his website for his work and that of his wife, Sunni K Brock, right here.
“Maybe she is right. Maybe nobody is interested in another science fiction story about the paradoxical nature of time or the mystery of existence. Maybe all they want is a simple love story with a happy ending.
Fantasy and science fiction doesn’t really exist unless it has a reader.
He has come to believe he will have a reader, so he has always tried to make his behavior justifiable, and as a consequence he spends a large part of his time explaining himself to an invisible judge he calls, “Your Honor,” becoming verbally adept at defending himself.”
— George Clayton Johnson, from “Every Other War”
I am really thrilled to own this book. It is a book that you, dear reader, will likely never own. It is hard to come by. Originally published by Subterranean Press in 1999, it has long since gone out of print. But prove me wrong. Seek it out! In fact, I do hope that will change some day. I strongly recommend that Subterranean Press or some other publisher, say Penguin Random House, create a new version of this 450-page collection.
Keep in mind that the author of this collection, “All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories,” is George Clayton Johnson who wrote the first episode broadcast of the original Star Trek series. “The Man Trap” first aired on 8 September 1966. That first broadcast is what marks the 50th anniversary of what has become one of the most iconic television series in history. What was it about George Clayton Johnson that earned him that distinction? This was someone born into abject poverty at the start of the Great Depression, an 8th grade dropout, forced to leave home at age 15, and yet he would go on to great heights.
For those of you who faithfully keep up with my writing, you know that quite often the source of my various tangents goes back to my first meeting George Clayton Johnson some years back. When I found out about all the pop culture franchises he was a significant part of, then found out about his life, and then found myself charmed my the sheer decency of the man himself, I started seriously considering creating some sort of book about him. I was able to tell him about it as well as show him some of it before he passed away. He gave me his blessing. I told him, at the time, that I was still figuring out how to best present the issue of cannabis, as that was very important to him. He listened. He talked. He said to follow my passion. The meeting with him, in his home, in December of 2014, would be the last time I’d get to see him. I had gone to see him again, in December of 2015. I’d been invited and he still sounded hearty and joyful. But it was too late. He had been moved to hospice by then.
“I told you the other night how I’d re-read ‘All of Us Are Dying’ and how much I enjoyed it. When I came to the end of this story and read the last lines, I got goose flesh on my neck. What greater tribute can I offer you? Thanks for the neck bumps.”
George hung on until Christmas. George died on Christmas Day. His great mentor, Rod Serling, was born on Christmas Day. There certainly seemed to be some cosmic and poetic thing going on. And then you add George’s favorite subject, Mr. Death, the defying of death, the taunting of death. George, no doubt, left this world on his own terms. And here I am telling you yet again about what has become quite a subject for me: George and all things related to George. Yes, this is how creative people such as myself think. And, dear God, there will be a final resolution as I do intend to put the book out as soon as possible. It will be in a graphic novel format with plenty of room for the art and plenty of room for the text. They will need to trade places from time to time. Anyway, all this leads to my getting my hands on this particular book. I dare say, it is something of a Holy Grail for some geeks such as myself. My copy is a Publisher’s Copy and was from the library of writer Stanley Wiater. Stanley, if you wondered what became of your book, I’ve got it now, mate.
George Clayton Johnson with Robert Redford on the set of “Nothing in the Dark”
Each story in this book will tug at you. Take the story of two boys, George and Abraham. They just figured they’d make great friends, with great prospects, considering they each had the best of presidential first names. This was during the Great Depression when these two reveled in each other’s company. Neither of them had a cent between them. Then one day, they thought about how much they’d love to own a bicycle. If only they had a bike, the roads would be free for them to explore at will. They decide upon buying a beauty in flaming red enamel that they spot in a shop in town. The price of twenty-two dollars and ninety-five cents seems out of reach. But they find various odd jobs and their goal becomes attainable. They while away the time by mostly doing things that don’t cost them anything like listening to the radio perched on the windowsill of Abraham’s bedroom. George would be at that very same windowsill as he sits in vigil for his friend dying from scarlet fever. And so the friendship, the bicycle, that time and place make up this short story, “A Bicycle Like a Flame.” This is just one of the many gems to be found in “All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories” by George Clayton Johnson.
“All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories” by George Clayton Johnson
Fans of the original television show, The Twilight Zone, will readily come to see which of these short stories in this collection would have made for another great teleplay by Johnson. But, as this book makes abundantly clear, you don’t need any prior Twilight Zone knowledge to enjoy Johnson’s work. How about “The Hornet,” a story of man versus insect with the insect seeking justice? Or perhaps “Dealer’s Choice,” a story about soldiers endlessly playing cards in order to avoid death? Or “The Freeway,” a story set in the future when cars mostly drive themselves and contribute to much less alert humans. Johnson wrote some of the most memorable Twilight Zone episodes thanks to the show’s creator and main contributor, Rod Serling, taking a chance on him. Johnson’s first accepted story submission was “All of Us Are Dying.” Serling bought it and did the necessary reworking to have it better fit his vision, including changing the title to, “The Four of Us Are Dying.” Johnson always maintained that it was a great lesson in how to write for Serling. But, in the end, he liked his version best and thus the title to this collection. In both versions, it is essentially a shape-shifter story: a man who can change his face. In Serling’s version, there’s this specificity about the man attempting to exploit his gift. In Johnson’s version, the man is all the more vulnerable, not in control, and all the more universal.
As this book demonstrates, Johnson’s overriding plan was simply to create the best work. In later years, he went on to create more inventive work with the same care and precision as when he first started out. There’s the short story “Thorndyke,” for example. A couple argue at a party. It is a male and female. The female has been badgering the male all night. She wants to know why he won’t sleep with any of the other females. Thorndyke insists that he isn’t interested. Finally, at his wife’s insistence, he goes to see a psychiatrist about his disorder. It is determined that Thorndyke has a severe case of manogomy. And, as it turns out, these characters are actually rabbits. Thorndyke is the rebel seeking to remain faithful to his wife.
Check out the amazing cover art by Burt Shonberg, 1957.
Wow, what do you think of the book’s cover art? That’s by Burt Shonberg, 1957. George would have been around 28 years-old when that portrait of Frankenstein playing a saxophone was first created. George and Burt and Doug Myres (the Gateway Singers) together ran a little shack of a cafe on Laguna Beach called Café Frankenstein from 1958–59. Burt created various Frankenstein art for the cafe. Apparently, he always favored a Frankenstein motif and, in his own way, so did George.
The most unusual work in this collection is “The Edge of the World,” a screenplay commissioned by Sid and Marty Croft for quite a quirky movie. It is an ambitious and colorful romp of a tale with Christopher Columbus transported to modern day New York City. What a movie this could have been! It’s fun to read such a sprawling and loose work. Johnson manages to get Columbus down into the bowels of the NYC subway system where he makes friends with a tough motorcyclist named, Cheyenne. The two get along and share a joint. This is significant subtext as it brings in references to Johnson’s home state and his lifelong support for cannabis. It also cues the reader to the building conflict, and irony, of Columbus interacting with Native Americans.
Like a rocket, Johnson’s career blasted off with his co-writing the novel that was the basis for the Rat Pack classic movie, “Ocean’s Eleven.” Johnson was only 30 years-old in 1959, when he became part of the TZ writing team. By the mid-1970s, he had written for the original Star Trek TV series and co-written the novel, “Logan’s Run,” the basis of the blockbuster 1976 movie, the most lavish sci-fi film of its day, only to be surpassed the following year by “Star Wars.” Johnson kept on writing. He even created a show ahead of its time, “A Man’s World,” where women are in charge and maintain a male figurehead for appearance’s sake. While Johnson’s show was rejected, a similar show would subsequently get the green light, “Charlie’s Angels.”
“George Clayton Johnson continues to write what he believes in regardless of the marketplace. He is the real deal. He is what other writers mean when they point to someone and say that he is a writer. He is a fellow traveler in search of the Greater Truth, of a kind of unified field theory for the human condition. For this is the true subject of his writing and the abiding core that gives it such weight and strength.
–From the Afterword by Dennis Etchison
The case of George Clayton Johnson is unique in that this was a writer who was most concerned with quality and originality. His worst enemy, Johnson was prone to say, was a meddling producer eager to copy the latest hit show. Johnson was attracted to a challenge, something unusual. A perfect example is his flash forward narrative for an episode of “Kung Fu.” Instead of a conventional flash back, the main character to this story is dependent upon something happening in his future. It is this desire to strive for the most inventive, and most immersive, storytelling that is a hallmark of Johnson’s work. This brings me back to the above quote. For those who knew George Clayton Johnson, they know he was quite a jovial and energetic defender of his work, and deservedly so.
Reading “All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories”
You can always look up video of Johnson’s work for Star Trek, Ocean’s Eleven, Logan’s Run, and, of course, The Twilight Zone. Here is a quote from “Kick the Can,” one of the most iconic TZ episodes and one of the four that was later to be showcased in 1983’s “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” directed by Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Joe Dante, and George Miller.
“Maybe, the fountain of youth isn’t a fountain at all. Maybe, it’s a way of looking at things – a way of thinking.”
–From “Kick the Can” (Episode aired 9 February 1962)
As Johnson describes in his short autobiographical novel, “Every Other War,” he had been struggling to sell short stories he knew in his heart would find a buyer–and yet did not. That includes the above mentioned, “A Bicycle Like a Flame.” Things looked very bleak at the time. “Kick the Can” was still in its early drafts. It would prove to be one of Johnson’s best works.
What I want to leave you with, the goal of my own book on George, is to celebrate an individual who fought for the integrity of his work and went the extra mile to be insightful, poetic, and heroic. Take a look at his teleplay for Route 66 and you see an unusual story of playing the game of life. Take a look at his teleplay for The Law and Mr. Jones and you find an offbeat path to seeking justice.
Boil it all down, and George’s favorite among his work is his Twilight Zone teleplay, “Nothing in the Dark.” And his favorite lines are delivered by Robert Redford with all the grace one could ever hope for.
“You see. No shock. No engulfment. No tearing asunder. What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper. What you thought was the end is the beginning.”
–From “Nothing in the Dark” (Episode aired 5 January 1962)
George was definitely attracted to the theme of death. It was H.P. Lovecraft who famously said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Death is the ultimate unknown. Lights out. What now? It’s the only game in life where, in the end, you’re guaranteed not to come out alive. It’s just a question of what you do while you’re around. George lived his life to the fullest. He won.
Fasten your seat belts, you can expect a wild ride starting this September and rolling on to the following September as Star Trek fans celebrate the 50th anniversary of the launch of the original “Star Trek” television series. The first episode broadcast was on September 8, 1966. It was “The Man Trap,” written by George Clayton Johnson, known for his iconic episodes on “The Twilight Zone.” If you are looking for a true guidebook not only to the Star Trek phenomena, but also to a deeper understanding of the dynamics to the show, then you’ll want to seek out “Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Original Cast Adventures,” published by Rowman & Littlefield, edited by Douglas Brode and Shea T. Brode.
“Wagon Train,” first aired in 1957, became such a hit on TV that it symbolized the popular Western of the small screen. By 1962, NBC, sensitive to new trends, cancelled the show, still number one in the Nielsen ratings. Gene Roddenberry, a promising new writer, pitched the future to NBC: “Star Trek, a Wagon Train to the stars!” Old frontier meets new frontier! Space cowboys! The Final Frontier! It was the space age ahead: JFK’s promise of a man on the moon before the end of the decade! And so NBC could hardly resist, although Star Trek would endure a bumpy existence during its three season run.
Only in retrospect, would Star Trek gain the recognition it richly deserved. Douglas Brode kicks off the recurring themes in the book in the introduction. Brode dissects the creative connective tissue running throughout Star Trek: 1956’s sci-fi classic movie, “Forbidden Planet” and its connection to The Twilight Zone and so on. Star Trek is forever appealing because of its idealism and optimism. That is clearly demonstrated in this insightful collection of essays. The Wild West gives way to the Space Age while, at the same time, the old frontier is consistently subverted, deconstructed, and used as metaphor.
“Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Original Cast Adventures,” published by Rowman & Littlefield, edited by Douglas Brode and Shea T. Brode
In H. Bruce Fanklin’s essay, “Of Television in the 1960s,” we follow the evolution of Star Trek’s reaction to the Vietnam War. In two episodes, there are stories that suggest the war could be a necessary evil. However, once the war proves futile, there are two episodes that suggest the fatal consequences of a quagmire. An emboldened anti-war sentiment is clear in the episode, “The Omega Glory” (March 1, 1968). Kirk and his crew observe a planet that has been ravaged by war between the Kohms and the Yangs. Closer observation reveals that the Yangs, now reduced to savages, are actually Yanks, from a parallel Earth, losers in a war with no victors.
In John Wills’s essay, “Wagon Trains to the Stars,” we focus on the fantasy of the Hollywood Western in contrast to reality. In the episode, “Spectre of the Gun” (October 25, 1968), Kirk and his crew will only survive a reenactment of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral once they accept it is artifice. In the episode, “The Paradise Syndrome” (October 4, 1968), we see the problems with stereotypes inherent in the standard Western fantasy. All things considered, one has to wonder if NBC would have gone along with the more ambitious and unconventional content on the show had it known that when the first pitch was made that Star Trek was to be a “Wagon Train to the stars.”
As I say, Star Trek is hitting the Big 5-0. You can expect more about Star Trek coming to you from various directions. CBS is launching a totally new Star Trek television series in January 2017! There will be numerous seminars and celebrations in 2016 and 2017. For example, CBS Consumer Products announced a global Star Trek speaker series in celebration of the franchise’s 50th anniversary, Trek Talks. Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle has an exhibit, “Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds,” on the Star Trek phenomenon, its enduring impact on our culture, and how Star Trek has inspired people to imagine, explore, and create.
“Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Original Cast Adventures,” is a 236-page hardcover published by Rowman & Littlefield. For more details, go here.
As many of you out there know, I am currently working on a graphic novel about the life and times of science fiction writer George Clayton Johnson. I am also working on some other projects that are just as important. They all share something in common as they use the graphic novel format. I invite you to take a moment to complete a quick survey that will prove quite useful. For the first ten respondents, if you choose, I will send you a free copy of the first issue of George’s Run. Just reach me by email, which you can find in CONTACT right on the navigation bar, and let me know that you completed the survey. Thank you to all my loyal followers. You can go to the survey right here.
I found myself in Los Angeles these last few days of February for a number of reasons. Let me put it to you this way, I was there as much to enjoy a day long visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as I was for anything else. And, of course, I devoted a chunk of time to the Oscars. Here is the key to a lot in life: keep an open mind. Now, when it comes to entertainment, the more flexible you are, the better. I keep things to a broad spectrum, from the intellectual to the spectacle. That said, I’ll share with you some observations from this last visit. In the end, we can explore the idea of what it is to be entertained.
The Gumbo Pot in the Farmers Market, Los Angeles
Seattle is my home base. It is in this relatively small, yet bustling, city that various forms of entertainment are created by some very talented individuals in music, film, fiction, comics, and so on. And then there are just as many, perhaps even more, individuals involved in commenting on all this creative work. That’s something I am very sensitive to as I am both a creator and a commentator. Let’s just say I appreciate when the air has gotten too thick. Sometimes, you just want some frog legs at The Gumbo Pot in the Farmers Market, which I definitely enjoyed. And, to be sure, the level of discourse at tables was quick, smart, and unpretentious. If I say I am going to talk to you about the true meaning of fiction or entertainment, it’s in the spirit of an open discussion without the pretense. Please, we have too much of that.
Chris Burden’s “Urban Light,” at LACMA
It’s all about going from the specific to the general. Take the time to give one particular subject its due, focus on that, consider its merits, and then reap the rewards of entertainment and insight. I will compare for you two events in Hollywood that are closely related: a tribute to screenwriter George Clayton Johnson at the American Cinematheque this last Friday; and then some observations on the Oscars this last Sunday. I really wasn’t planning on doing this. I want to keep it light but offer you a few ideas. The best thing I can do is jump right in with some observations beginning with the tribute. Here, I want to make clear that much depends upon your understanding and knowledge.
George Clayton Johnson tribute at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood
If such things as the literary background of The Twilight Zone are new to you, then perhaps this will spark interest. I know a great deal about this subject, particularly the writers known as, The Group, from which much of this springs from. George Clayton Johnson was a key member of The Group. He had within his power the ability to write some of the most compelling magical realism. That’s important because, despite the many disadvantages he had in life, he was a writer with not only a vision but a determination. George went on to create some of the most iconic and beloved episodes of The Twilight Zone which is the gold standard for what can be done when melding the art forms of fiction and television. Don’t let yourself think that Masterpiece Theater holds the key. That is too obvious a venue. Actually, it is within The Twilight Zone, at its best, that you will find much that is stimulating and intriguing with great literary merit.
George Clayton Johnson tribute at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood
So, here you have this very special individual, George Clayton Johnson, who understood better than most, the fundamental inner workings of fiction. He took his insight, skill, and hard work and did what he did with it. He primarily wrote for television. All of his work on The Twilight Zone is remarkable. This led to him writing the first episode of Star Trek to be broadcast. Among other TV work, he wrote an exceptional episode of Kung Fu where the main character experiences a flashforward, as opposed to a flashback, to help him save his life. And, to cap it all off, George and William F. Nolan wrote the classic dystopian novel, Logan’s Run. Beyond those achievements, it is George’s life story that is inspiring. He was close friends with such greats as Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon. George was simply a man who loved to keep it simple: write what you believe in, give back to the community, love thy neighbor. The outpouring of love and admiration for George at this tribute was very moving. I had the opportunity to get to know George. I can fully understand how bright his light shines.
Chris Rock tells it like it is at the Oscars.
A couple of nights later, lo and behold, it’s the Oscars. Now, mind you, I did not have any set plans. How I wish my Comics Grinder credentials would have gotten me a press pass. Perhaps they would had I pursued it. I’ll tell you something, I am a keen observer and a friendly interviewer. I can easily adapt to any situation. This segues to what I did for Oscars night. Due to a few things going on that night, I found myself outside the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Let me back track a bit, a buddy of mine suggested that as a great spot to maybe see something going on. In fact, the plan was to meet up with him. I show up and, yes, it is a great spot, right on the corner of Orange and Hollywood overlooking that whole block of Madame Tussauds, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and the Dolby Theatre.
25 Degrees at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel
Well, on that corner are a bunch of onlookers, of course. Shades of “The Day of the Locust.” I mingled for a bit. No one knows exactly what to expect, if anything. I then made my way into the Hollywood Roosevelt and 25 Degrees, one of the hotel’s seven bars. 25 Degrees is known for its gourmet burgers and onion rings, which I fell in love with. I patiently waited for a cozy table overlooking the bar and two big screen TVs broadcasting the Oscars. Chris Rock was doing his monologue. I saw any number of what appeared to be otherwise jaded industry folk carefully listening and giving way to outbursts of laughter. Just as I was assured by my hostess that I could have the table, this one lady sat down at that very same table. The hostess explained to her that I had already been given that table but I said it was alright. Sure, it’s the Oscars, I’ll share the table. Well, it was definitely for the best. The lady turned out to be an executive with a Mexican network. We ended up chatting about the decline of culture in general and the disturbing rise of Donald Trump.
Behind the scenes at the Oscars
It always comes down to the coveted issues of time and space. That table had a fixed value of one hour. You could not stay at that table beyond an hour. I sweet talked my hostess into letting me begin a new hour given that I had to share it. In the meantime, my new friend, the Mexican TV executive, had hoped that I could hold on to the table as she had wanted to return after a while. Well, there must have been a lot of discussion in the back. At first, yes, I could keep the table if I ordered more food. After having the delicious Patty Melt, and a half jug of Pinot Noir, I opted to start with a Dark and Stormy. Later, the supervisor negotiates with me. It turns out that the table really needs to be relinquished. If I am alright with moving to the bar, he will treat me to another drink. Well, that’s fine with me. And, well appreciated too!
Behind the scenes at the Oscars
We always hear the long-running jokes about the Oscars being too long. The crowd that night enjoyed every minute of it and would have been happy to see more. The high points were the Chris Rock monologue, the announcement for Best Actor to Leonardo DiCaprio, and the announcement for Best Picture to “Spotlight.” In between, and throughout, careful attention was given to each category. I ended up chatting a bit with other patrons at the bar. The consensus seemed to be that this was one of the best Oscars. I certainly found myself in a perfect setting. The bar, with its old-school charm, was impeccable.
Here I am in front of the American Cinematheque in Hollywood.
One Oscar tradition never fails to move me. That’s when a tribute is given to notable members of the Academy who had passed away in the previous year. I was certain that George Clayton Johnson would receive a mention. While he wrote primarily for television, he also co-wrote the story that was the basis for “Ocean’s Eleven” and he also co-wrote an Academy Award nominated animated feature with Ray Bradbury, “Icarus Montgolfier Wright.” But he did not get his mention. That left a sad note hanging in the air. But it was still grand to be at the Hollywood Roosevelt on Oscar night. I can tell you, I can share with you, the fact that both nights, the tribute to George and Oscar night, were both magical. George is still remembered and people will enjoy his work whether they realize he wrote it or not. George will always be part of that magic that people seek out whether they know it or not.
Great fiction comes from all over: horror, dark fantasy, mystery, and so on. William F. Nolan writes in various genres. You may know him from his work with Dan Curtis, such as the classic horror film, “Burnt Offerings.” Or perhaps you know him from co-writing, with George Clayton Johnson, the classic dystopian novel, “Logan’s Run.” Mr. Nolan has gained great recognition and won numerous awards and honors. Just last year he was named the Grand Master at the World Horror Convention in Atlanta. In this interview, we spend a good time chatting about horror as well as fiction in general. And we definitely visit the subject of the Southern California Sorcerers, otherwise known simply as The Group.
“Burnt Offerings” from 1976
During our conversation, Bill shared a very special moment regarding his friend and fellow writer, George Clayton Johnson, who passed away this last Christmas. He offers up for us a picture of a fresh-faced, and beaming, young George bursting upon the scene, circa 1957. He has shown up at a meeting of The Group and asks if he may join in with the illustrious and ambitious writers. Someone asks George what he has to show for himself. And, George, just having received his box of author copies, proudly shows the men what he’s been up to. “Hey guys,” George says, “I co-wrote this really cool thing called, ‘Ocean’s Eleven!'” And the rest is history!
This interview was conducted Monday, February 22nd. William F. Nolan is going strong, just shy of his 88th birthday on March 6th. If you love a good story, or if you are an aspiring writer yourself, or if you’d like to know something about the Sixties zeitgeist, then this interview is for you. In the span of about twenty minutes we cover a lifetime of observations and insight.
Henry Chamberlain: Thank you for getting together with me, Bill. I wanted to cover the writer’s life with you in this interview. First off, a good horror story has been compared to placing a frog in gradually boiling water. What can you tell us about the boiled frog method of storytelling?
William F. Nolan: Allow me to veer off a bit from the boiled frog to tell you how I approach telling a story. Really, how I tell a story is like the other night when I was in bed, half asleep and half awake, a state where I get all of my ideas. I was thinking of these deadly flowers. They had the power to stop the human heart. They were alive and, if you didn’t treat them right, they could turn against and stop your heart. There’s this couple who decide to rent this place on the beach. It looks like a great place. The owner lets them know that they have to take care of these special flowers but the couple ignore him, they don’t do it. And they end up being killed by the flowers. Their dead bodies are found on the beach. That’s how I form an idea for a story. I get an opening in my head for the concept and then I get the ending. Finally, I fill in the middle. That’s how I write a horror story, or any other kind of story.
Discoveries Best of Horror and Dark Fantasy edited by James R. Beach and Jason V Brock
HC: There’s a story of yours, “Stabbed by Rob,” in the recently published collection of dark fantasy from Dark Discoveries, edited by James R Beach and Jason V Brock. That story is a perfect example of that boiled frog method. There are a number of touches of humor, including your mentioning a glow-in-the-dark statue of Jesus. And the story keeps turning up the heat to the very last sentence.
WFN: Well, I believe you really can’t get away without some humor in a horror story. Horror is too stark, raw, and unflinching. You need to be able to live in it. You’ve got to lighten it with some humor. All my horror stories have elements of humor. You need to let the reader breathe. You can’t go from the first page to the last and do straight horror. That’s the problem with H. P. Lovecraft for me. Lovecraft has no sense of humor. He was a brilliant writer. He was a brilliant innovator. But no sense of humor. By the time you finish “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” you’re exhausted. I want my readers to relax a little, to breathe, and have a good chuckle while they’re being frightened. That’s my method of writing horror.
HC: I’m glad that you mention Lovecraft because I’ve had difficulty with him too. Your adaptation with Dan Curtis of Robert Marasco’s 1973 novel, “Burnt Offerings,” has just the right touches of humor at the start, and they give way to a more sinister mood. There’s a balance.
WFN: Yes, that was adapted from the Marasco novel which had no humor whatsoever. I told Dan Curtis, who directed, and produced the film with me, that we were going to need to lighten up the material because it was too stark. I’m glad that you appreciate the humorous elements in the film. As I say, I just don’t think you can do horror without lightening it up a little bit.
HC: Then there’s Ray Russell’s work. Perhaps more of a touch of elegance than humor. I love the way Ray Russell masterfully brings up a lot of pretty grim stuff in his work. He knows what to leave in and what to mostly imply. I’m thinking of “Sardonicus,” “Sagittarius,” and “Sanguinarius.”
WFN: Ray Russell was one of my closest friends for years. We would talk about how to write in terms of horror. And we both agreed on the same thing that you’ve got to put some humor into it in order to lighten the whole thing. I love Ray’s work. He passed on some years back. He would be happy to hear that you enjoy his work.
Just Part of The Group: Charles Fritch, Chad Oliver, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and William F. Nolan, circa 1954.
HC: There were all of these amazing writers that you got to be close with in social settings and in work sessions. All of you together were the Southern California Writer’s Group.
WFN: There were eleven of us. We didn’t think of ourselves as anything special. We were all trying to make a living, pay the rent, pay the mortgage, stay afloat. We wrote science fiction and fantasy in a modern vein. We took it away from the Lovecraftian type of fiction and wrote a modern type. It was sort of pioneered by Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury who were part of our group. We all worked from the same principle: you can do modern horror but it has got to be something that people can believe in. It has to be realistic. It should happen today, in somebody’s kitchen. It could happen in a kitchen. You don’t have to go to a haunted castle, back in Transylvania, to have horror. Horror can happen on your doorstep. Horror can be a terrorist with a submachine gun that sprays lead over you while you’re eating in a restaurant. That’s horror. Horror takes many forms. We all tried to work within that scope.
Yeah, eleven of us. Matheson, Bradbury, myself…Charles Beaumont was sort of the hub of the thing. We had Jerry Sohl. We had Robert Bloch, known for “Psycho.” We’d all gather together at each other’s houses, at all-night coffeeshops and talk shop, editors, and markets. We were quite a group. All these years later, people look back on us as pioneers in the field. And that’s nice but, at the time, we were just trying to make a buck, just trying to make a living.
HC: Well, sure, you guys were so close to it all. You would need to stand back to see it clearly. What you guys did was take gothic literature and give it a modern cool. That’s essentially it.
I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson
WFN: Yeah. I still think that you can credit Richard Matheson for a lot of that. Stephen King said that he was influenced more by Richard Matheson, than any other author, because he took horror out of the castle and brought it into the kitchen. And I agree with him. We all tried to do that. We all felt that was the way to go. We weren’t interested in something ancient. We wanted something real, something of today.
HC: You list eleven members of The Group. Was there any time that all eleven of you met under one roof?
WFN: Three or four of us were into auto racing. Richard Matheson, Jerry Sohl, and Robert Bloch didn’t care at all about that. But Charles Beaumont, John Tomerlin, and myself were heavily into Grand Prix sports car racing both here and in Europe. We actually flew to Monte Carlo one year for the Grand Prix. And we went to Sebring Raceway in Florida for the races there. The Beaumont kitchen in North Hollywood, his upstairs kitchen, is where most of us would meet. George Clayton Johnson was part of that group too. We would meet there. But there was never a meeting of all eleven of us at one time. It was three or four of us at at time at different places. We’d go to movies together. We’d meet in coffeeshops.
Musso and Frank Grill
HC: I imagine that you guys enjoyed Musso and Frank Grill.
WFN: We loved Musso and Frank Grill. It has all that history: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner. The murals never changed. The seats are the same. When you’re sitting there, it’s like you’ve gone back in a time machine. We loved it. I still love it. I love to go whenever I’m in L.A.
HC: You touched upon George. I have to say that I can imagine that he loved the fact that he got to pass away on Christmas Day. Such a magical thing. Such an act of will.
WFN: That was no accident. He was ill. He was in hospice care for about a week before that happened.
HC: Oh, yeah.
WFN: The doctors were saying that he could go at any minute but George, subconsciously, since he couldn’t verbalize it at that stage, was saying that the doctors couldn’t tell him when he was going to die. He was always an independent guy. He was saying: “I want to die on Christmas Day since that was the birthday of Rod Serling, who made me famous for my writing for The Twilight Zone.” He was able to die three days past when he was expected to die. He was able to fool all the doctors. That was no accident.
George Clayton Johnson and William F. Nolan, circa 1957, illustration by Henry Chamberlain
HC: Yes, that’s what I meant. I was honored to interview George a number of times and got to meet him in person. Would you share with us a little more of the flavor of the era and a picture of George at one of these bull sessions at The Group that may come to mind?
WFN: Four or five of us were sitting in the living room of the upstairs apartment of Charles Beaumont one night. There was a knock at the door. This is around 1957. The Group was around from the ’50s to ’60s. So, there’s a knock at the door. We open the door and there’s George Clayton Johnson with a package under his arm. He said, “I’m George Clayton Johnson. I want to join you guys. I want to be with you. I’ve heard about you and I want to join you.” Someone asked, “Are you a writer?” He said, “Yes, I am,” and he held up the package, “It’s called, ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ and I just sold it to Frank Sinatra!” That’s what got him started with The Group.
HC: That’s beautiful. I wanted to ask you about the literary tradition that The Group worked from. I’m sure that Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary Shelly, all the gothic writers, were subjects of conversations for all of you.
WFN: You can’t write out of a vacuum. We’re all influenced by other people. Ray Bradbury was influenced by Herman Melville, William Shakespeare, and George Bernard Shaw. We were influenced more by such horror writers as Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. I started out reading H.G. Wells’s “The Time Machine” and “War of the Worlds” when I was a boy growing up in Kansas City, Missouri. And then I discovered Bradbury and Weird Tales. Ray Bradbury and I became close friends and that lasted 50 years. We’re all standing on the shoulders of other people. We all read Hawthorne and Robert Louis Stevenson. We were influenced by them but we wanted to take our fiction into a modern setting and move it forward and I believe we succeeded.
Photo by Ralph Morris, Hollywood Blvd. 1960
HC: I wanted to close out by asking if you could give us a little more of a flavor of Los Angeles in the ’50s and ’60s. I can just imagine: you had the ghost of Raymond Chandler; old Hollywood giving way to new Hollywood; Forey Ackerman and the rise of geek culture. L.A. in the Sixties, it doesn’t get much better than that.
WFN: I read Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, the hard-boiled school, James M. Cain. I’ve read books on Chandler and Hammett. I’m a big hard-boiled fan. Los Angeles was a hard-boiled city in those days. Dashiell Hammett glorified San Francisco. But Los Angeles was also part of that era where corruption ruled in high places. It was a violent and colorful era captured beautifully by Raymond Chandler. If you read the work of Raymond Chandler, you’re learning a lot about Los Angeles as he experienced it.
I can tell you that there was a lot of smog. I used to live in Burbank, right against the mountains. The smog was terrible. I did move around different parts of Los Angeles. It changed quite a lot during the many years I was there. It’s not the same city that it used to be.
HC: I love Los Angeles and love looking for signs of yesteryear. They’re around if you know where to look for them.
WFN: If you go to Pasadena, there’s the old bridge that Raymond Chandler wrote about in one of his novels. The bridge that Philip Marlowe drove over at night. It’s still standing there. I wrote a piece entitled, “Marlowe in Los Angeles.” I toured all the places he used to go to, including Musso and Frank Grill. Chandler was an insatiable researcher, always moving around, and usually within the greater Los Angeles area. He grew to know it beautifully. Hammett made San Francisco famous with “The Maltese Falcon.” Chandler did the same for Los Angeles with “The Big Sleep.”
HC: I wish you a great year ahead, Bill. Any projects we can look forward to soon?
WFN: I had a collection of my poetry come out last year. This year we’ll have a new collection of my essays. I’m working on a new collection of short stories. I just wrote three new stories this month. So, even though I’ll be turning 88, I feel like I’m still 28.
HC: I can feel the energy. Thanks again, Bill.
WFN: I really enjoyed this. Thank you.
You can listen to the podcast interview by just clicking the link below:
Keep up with William F. Nolan at his website right here.
“Schrödinger’s Cat” illustration by Henry Chamberlain
Schrödinger’s Cat makes some notable appearances in Jason V Brock‘s collection of short stories and poems entitled, “Simulacrum and Other Possible Realities,” published by Hippocampus Press. Whether dead or alive, or somewhere in between (a zombie cat?) the famous cat from the 1935 thought experiment has its place among a number of thought-provoking items to be found here. Now, the idea behind Schrödinger’s Cat is that a reality is not pinned down until the very act of it being observed. So, before it is observed, the famous cat in the box could be existing in more than one reality. It is the Observer Effect, once the box is opened, that locks in a reality. Or so it would seem.
Jason V Brock is a lover and writer of strange tales that incorporate Gothic lit, sci-fi, and horror. There are a number of very useful labels, including weird fiction and dark fantasy. Or as a dear mutual friend, writer George Clayton Johnson, simply called it, this is work with “a touch of strange.” What you will find in this collection is an ambitious vision that harks back to any number of writers: Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, George Clayton Johnson, William F. Nolan, and John Collier, to name a few.
Consider the title story, “Simulacrum.” What I find appealing about this story is how well it fits in with work from the writers I’ve just mentioned and carries its own distinctive voice. Brock has a sensual vibe to his style that makes his characters all the more palpable. He takes the time to linger on key details to create a credible interior life. For a story so invested in matters of identity and questions on reality, Brock lays the essential groundwork to make us believe in our main character, Misty. We have gotten inside her head during an opening scene and we discover that we have only begun to delve into layers of mental terrain both real and imagined. Expect a visit by Schrödinger’s Cat. It is quite a story. In fact, I would not be surprised to see Brock develop it into a full length novel at some point.
“Simulacrum and Other Possible Realities” by Jason V Brock
Another story that greatly appeals to me is “Where Everything That Is Lost Goes.” Here too, Schrödinger’s Cat has a role to play. Again, we are confronted with matters of who we are and what our true purpose is. This story I could see remaining a short work in the spirit of the classic short stories by John Collier. If you’re not familiar with Collier, he is one of the masters of the fanciful story with a perfect twist at the end. What happens in Brock’s tale is a matter of a man confronting his past, present, and future, as embodied in a chance meeting with a friend he had lost touch with some forty years ago. The meeting takes place in an old restaurant. The main character looks across the room and sees his old friend, except his old friend has not aged a day since they last met, forty years ago. If that sounds like a story out of The Twilight Zone, rest assured that is not lost on Brock. The main character, after all, is named Rod, no doubt a nod to The Twilight Zone’s creator, Rod Serling. Yes, indeed, if there should be another revival of the classic television show, this story would fit right in.
“Simulacrum and Other Possible Realities” is a 248-page trade paperback published by Hippocampus Press. For more information, and to purchase, visit our friends at Hippocampus Press right here.