The Twilight Zone reboot hits the ground running by finding a way back into what made the original series work and trying to avoid adding and tweaking more to it and messing up a good thing. Just one more thing tacked on can be like playing a game of Jenga where you tear down an otherwise neatly put together structure. Without spoiling anything, if there is one criticism to the show, it is that it needs to keep to this golden rule. For the most part, it does that and that bodes well for what it shaping up to being a lively and compelling return to a classic. This series comes to you from CBS All Access and is hosted by Jordan Peele.
What would Rod Serling think of viewing Twilight Zone on a phone?
I will fast forward to the second episode as it is an example of how this series is finding its feet. We immediately start with a fresh look at something not directly referencing an iconic episode as is done in the first episode. We’re at a comedy club, which is an ideal Twilight Zone setting if ever there was one: in the darkness, the audience as well as the performer are looking for some catharsis. Our main character, comedian Samir (Kumail Nanjiani), is stuck on speaking truth to power but he’s not connecting with his audience. Then he has a talk with a veteran comedian J.C. (Tracy Morgan). The main bit of advice: Don’t try to make points; Go for the laughs by keeping it personal–but beware that once you take from your life, it’s out there and you can’t get it back. Samir goes against his better judgement and makes a detour that gets him the laughs.
Jordan Peele channeling Rod Serling
“The Comedian” is not a direct reference to any particular TZ episode, not like Richard Matheson’s monumental airplane nightmare. But it is a sly tip of the hat to Rod Serling nonetheless, just a sweet little Easter Egg (there are others, as in names used for some characters) as it refers back to one of Serling’s landmark teleplays prior to TZ. It is that sort of deep dive that will send a nice chill of recognition for diehard fans. The scirpt’s writer, Alex Rubins, would certainly be aware of that. So, we’ve got a character in crisis: Samir has made some devil’s bargain. All is set up for the chilling fun and it is delivered. In this case, a little editing somewhere in the middle to tighten things up would have been ideal. As for the end, it is spot on.
Twilight Zone on CBS All Access
I think the challenge for this reboot is satisfying an audience that is happy to take things further, like a kid in a candy store who risks a stomach ache. The first episode, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” makes that mistake by pushing a bit beyond what would have been a perfect ending. And the second episode makes that mistake by packing it bit more background that drags an otherwise excellent story. There’s a very good reason that Serling and the rest of his writers concluded that the sweet spot for the show was the original half hour format. With streaming, the restrictions are lifted and so the creative team (a producing team that includes Glen Morgan, Greg Yaitanes, Simon Kinberg, and Jordan Peele) needs to be mindful of being disciplined storytellers. That said, my guess is that you can expect this reboot to indulge in providing viewers with a deluxe director’s cut excess. That could be very good news for some fans. Then again, who knows, maybe adjustments will be made and we’ll get this reboot refined to perfection.
As someone who is putting together a graphic novel that is directly related to The Twilight Zone, I am particularly intrigued by this reboot. I see the minor blemishes too. But, overall, this is a series that has its ducks in a row and I feel confident that Rod Serling, given a chance to process where we are today, would grin and give the show his blessing.
While Jordan Peele has downplayed any grand subtext to his latest film, I think Us may have an even grander subtext than Get Out. It comes down to privilege. The inspiration for Us comes from “Mirror Image,” an original Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling. In that story, pod people are replacing humans and they are assumed to be the superior versions. Peele reverses that and has his pod people as inferior to humans and seeking revenge as they attempt to replace them. A very scary prospect indeed: your less fortunate doppelganger, in a rage of resentment, is bent upon destroying you.
“If it wasn’t for you, I would never have danced at all.” That is the best line in the movie and speaks volumes to the super eerie tension between the humans and the subhumans, or as they’re called in the movie, “the shadow people.” Or call them whatever you like: the ugly, the misfits, the forgotten and the dispossessed. Or how about, “the silent majority” who find themselves thrust out into the open ready to wreak havoc and to “disrupt.” You see where I’m going with this? Well, it’s veiled social commentary in the best spirit of a good ole Twilight Zone episode. You don’t have to spell it all out for audiences. But, if there’s any doubt, all the shadow people wear red.
With Get Out and now Us, Peele continues to refashion the art house horror film, all too often exclusively made up of white actors, by replacing them with a predominantly African American cast. This act of replacement is subtext within subtext. Sure, it’s sad that such a movie should be a novelty on racial terms but that’s where we are today. It’s a scary movie for scary times.
There are a number of creepy coincidences in the movie that help to set the tone. But, in the end, truth is stranger than fiction. On the very date of this film’s release, March 22, 2019, Special Counsel Robert Mueller delivered his report on the Russia probe to the Justice Department. For starters, it’s scary to think of all the misinformation that lies ahead from the White House response to the report. That said, Peele’s movie is not so much political as psychological at its core, at least on the face of it. You won’t find any explicit message, per se. As a fine artist, Peele paints his canvas having brought in various elements to work with. We live in an era spiked with uncertainty and that creepy feeling makes it way into all our senses. Part of what Peele does is take that creepy feeling and give it a good tweak.
Twilight Zone. Star Trek. Logan’s Run. George Clayton Johnson was a big part of it all. This is his story. Welcome to GEORGE’S RUN, my tribute to the legendary storyteller.
I created a graphic novel all about George, his work, and his times. There was no clear destination in mind other than it needed to be done. I foresee a printed book in one form or another at some point. For now, I roll out a webcomic. A work of alternative comics such as this can definitely benefit from going through the webcomic process even if it receives little obvious fanfare in that state. This is a rather strange and quirky tale as much a story as a story about stories. These pages will further reward upon a second and third contextual reading, I believe, what with the observational bits, factoids, and unexpected detours. All the more reason to see this inevitably in a proper book format.
For those familiar with what I’ve been up to here at Comics Grinder, you’ll appreciate that this announcement is a pretty big deal. That graphic novel project I’ve been referring to all of you is finally making its way into the world as a webcomic. I have loaded up some pages to kick things off and will continue to update accordingly. I will do my best to keep to a weekly schedule. The plan is to update the site every Wednesday. You can find updates here at Comics Grinder as well as enjoy the distinctive webcomic experience at the George’s Run website right here.
It all began with my podcast interviews. You can check out some of my conversations with George over here and over here. I concluded that George’s life story had to be turned into a graphic novel and I’m just the guy to do it!
George Clayton Johnson
If you are a fan of pop culture in any form, this is for you. If you enjoy a fun and quirky tale, this is for you. The best thing is that no prior knowledge is required. You don’t have to know anything about science fiction or the golden age of television or how writers sometimes work together to spin tales like magical little elves.
Prepare to embark upon a journey with a wizard storyteller into the mysterious past and onward into the marvelous future.
George keeps on running!
Okay, that’s my pitch. I know many of you out there are cheering me on. Do drop by and visit the George’s Run webcomic and just say hello. As always, I will keep you posted on the progress of this very special project as it evolves as a webcomic and ultimately finds its way into print. You know, this is something of an open letter to anyone interested in seeing where we can go with a book. Any literary agent or publisher is welcome to contact me. That said, self-publishing has evolved to such great prominence and tangible clout. The bottom line is that, like a film, a novel, a poem, whatever it is, there’s something about being able to take in a work as a whole so I’m excited about seeing this through and ultimately having a book version. Thanks for your support and I’ll continue to do my best.
Planet of the Apes: Visionaries cover by Paolo Rivera
I have things I want to tell you and share with you–I’m that sort of guy. I value the time and effort involved in putting together any post that is more than just posting a press release–but sometimes you really can’t help yourself and you want to share a press release, especially one you may have missed. Any nerd worth their weight in gold can easily attest to the fact that Rod Serling was originally picked to write the screenplay for “Planet of the Apes.” But then, Hollywood being Hollywood, an opportunity at something deliciously original was pissed on. Well, they kept his idea of the Statue of Liberty sunk neck-deep on a beach. Fast forward, gulp, fifty frickin’ years and now we can enjoy a graphic novel adaptation of what Rod Serling would have done, had he been given the green light. Thanks to the bright minds at Boom! Studios, we will finally get what we should have gotten well-nigh a lifetime ago! Seek it out this August. Press release, as promised, follows:
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:
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.
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.
Charles Beaumont on the set of “The Howling Man.” Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.
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.”
“Perchance to Dream” 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.