The Vast of Night, directed by Andrew Patterson, screenplay by Craig W. Sanger and James Montague, cinematography by Miguel Ioann and Littin Menz, Amazon Studios, release date May 29, 2020 (USA)
I enjoy exploring a broad range of topics but my core niche resides somewhere “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Go back far enough and maybe it’s the same for you. It sure is with this film. It begins with a retro living room scene and an antique television with a flickering image. An announcer refers to a “frequency caught between logic and myth” and introduces Paradox Theatre and that night’s episode, The Vast of Night, which is also the title of this film. As an added bonus for any loyal Twilight Zone fan, the next scene is set in Cayuga, New Mexico. Rod Serling’s prodcution company during TZ was named, Cayuga Productions. So, the bar is set pretty high and it follows through. I simply could not stop once I began.
Fay picks up strange signals.
The camera proceeds to snake its way into that night’s basketball game at Cayuga High School. It’s the 1950s and it feels like it in a glorious way. Everett (Jake Horowitz) is a teenager set on becoming the next Edward R. Murrow. Fay (Sierra McCormick) is a teenager completely enthralled with Everett. They both wander around the high school gym with a tape recorder making the most of the latest technology. Everett is so poised and Fay is so frantic. It seems like anything is possible with an added tension that maybe more is possible than anyone could ever have imagined.
This film makes me think of some of my favorite period pieces, like Back to the Future or The Last Picture Show. What The Vast of Night does so well is completely embrace its time period and manage to give it new life, say something new about it. The viewer enters into a complete and fully realized world. In fact, some of the best moments are when the camera is set loose and, like a snake, slithers about town, taking us on a ground level tour through main street, back to the high school basketball game, and over to the local radio station.
The camera slithers along like a snake.
However, in the end, it’s the dynamic performances by both Horowitz and McCormick that really steal the show: the chemistry between them; and the lonely moments when they’re apart. McCormick is especially engaging as an expert switchboard operator. I don’t know if, in fact, operators could work from home but Fay does in this movie. Fay and that enormous switchboard are quite a sight to behold. And, of course, all of this is leading up to something. These characters can’t be too far from Roswell, New Mexico. And those strange sounds that Fay is picking up must mean something. Overall, this is one of the most charming and engaging movies I’ve seen in a long while. Oddly enough, it fits right in with the strange times we’re all currently living through. This film won’t be out until May so keep an eye out for it.
There is this amazing new graphic novel that tackles, for the first time, the life and work of Rod Serling. It is The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, by Koren Shadmi, published by Humanoids as part of their new imprint, Life Drawn. I have a lot to say about this book, in no small part, due to the fact that I have my own graphic novel that overlaps on some of what’s going on in this book. I’m still in the process of getting my book out but I think it’s actually good to see a book like this out there. This is Koren Shadmi’s Rod Serling and his take on related events. There is definitely room, and interest, for more such books. One perfect example is what appears to be an ever-growing number of graphic novels on Andy Warhol. But I digress a bit.
I am familiar with Koren Shadmi and his work. I had the privilege of interviewing him in 2015 for one of my podcast interviews. In fact, I made a reference to The Twilight Zone and discovered that Koren, in Israel, had not grown up with the original Twilight Zone like so many of us did in the States. I don’t know about you but I’ve always had access to it. As a kid growing up in the seventies, TZ was well into syndication and very well accepted as part of the culture, even better than during its original run from 1959 to 1964. Anyway, Koren is a masterful illustrator on a fast professional track. Is it any wonder then that he was able to create this book in such a relatively short amount of time? I’d peg it at sometime during or after his previous book on Gary Gygax and Dungeons & Dragons which came out in 2017. Koren’s book on Rod Serling is fascinating and goes into as much detail as possible, even daring to cast Serling in less than a favorable light.
Rod Serling, chasing his dream.
If you want to see Rod Serling cast in an unfavorable light, look back fifty years ago. It was on November 8, 1969 that a TV movie was broadcast on NBC starring Joan Crawford, directed by Steven Spielberg, and written by Rod Serling. It was to be the pilot for the ill-fated anthology series, Night Gallery. It was pitched as something like Twilight Zone but turned out to be lackluster. Shadmi spends a good bit of time showing us the Rod Serling after The Twilight Zone and it’s not a pretty picture that he paints. Instead of wrapping up his graphic novel on an upbeat note, Shadmi has no qualms over depicting Serling as falling from grace, a little desperate and seeking approval in all the wrong places. We see Serling doing very un-Serling things: appearing in commercials, hosting a game show, and giving up all creative control all for the sake of being back in the game with Night Gallery. And, the coup de grâce for any Serling fan: Shadmi makes a reference to Serling engaging in an extramarital affair. I can only chalk it up to Shadmi compelled to show the man warts and all. But, if you want to see Serling at his best, well, there is plenty of that, enough to overlook a man’s weaknesses.
A good part of the book going in covers Serling as a brash young man eager to see combat during World War II. And that he does. While considered too short to be a paratrooper, Serling’s persistence wears down his company commander. Serling, cut from the same cloth as Hemingway, pushes himself to his limits, working as hard on his writing as his proving his manhood. Repeatedly, he pursues physical thrills and danger in the boxing ring and on the battlefield. He leaves the army permanently shell-shocked, experiencing nightmares for the rest of his life. It is such a uniquely talented and driven man who finds his way to writing for radio and later for television in New York City during the dawn of the golden age of television. And, on the strength of his landmark work on Playhouse 90, Serling ultimately finds himself on top of the world as one of television’s original show runners for The Twilight Zone. All of this and more, Shadmi faithfully brings to life on the page. It is more than enough to forgive him for daring to show the great man when he was down.
The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television is a 180-page trade paperback in duotone, published by Humanoids.
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.
It is an honor and a pleasure to share with you, The Furnace, the new book by Prentis Rollins, a veteran in the comics industry (Marvel and DC), published by Tor Books. I will jump in with a quick way to hook into this book and say outright that this work does indeed compare favorably with the best of the original Twilight Zone. That’s a tall order but this is an exceptionally unique work. I don’t take such comparisons lightly and I have no problem striking down false claims that occur quite often. So, yes, this is the real deal with its finely modulated pace and attention to detail. It delivers that ethereal sensation that leaves you in a deliciously questioning mood. And, with its sophisticated flair, it will have strong appeal to adult readers while still appropriate for any age.
Much like an excellent episode of The Twilight Zone, every detail is accounted for right down to the title, The Furnace. What sort of furnace could this be? Well, as in any existential tale such as this, there’s a good deal of nihilism. This furnace first comes into view as a parent tries to explain to a child a highly complex (and compromised) adult endeavor. The explanation takes on grand metaphysical proportions while also clearly playing the role of an augury of sinister things to come. Just what is this parent trying to tell this child? A machine that keeps cookies locked away?
Witness the worry in the mesmerizing patterns in the sky.
We take so much for granted when it comes to comics. I digest quite a lot of comics, coming from a myriad of genres, publishers, and niches. A work like this is the Holy Grail of comics, to try to put it as plainly as possible. With a work like this, you are experiencing comics, both in art and in writing, at an extraordinary level. I’m sorry but work at this level is not for hobbyists. And I strongly believe that work at this level needs to be acknowledged as often as possible. It’s not only that Mr. Rollins can draw at an exquisite level. That alone will get you only so far. And the same can be said for nicely-paced prose. What stands out is a level of dedication and professionalism that results in astonishingly honest work. You view an episode of Twilight Zone running on all four cylinders and you see exactly what I mean. No one who just happens to love comics is going to crank this out overnight. No, sir. It doesn’t work that way. Here is someone who wrote and drew and colored a significant and highly-polished graphic novel all by himself. It happens–but not quite as often as you might think. And not nearly as good as this book!
What I really enjoy about The Furnace is that Mr. Rollins seems to not give a fig about all the time and effort required to tell his tale. He just does it–and he makes it look so easy. As a cartoonist who both writes and draws, I can tell you that this is quite labor-intensive stuff, especially if you do it all by hand, the old-fashioned way. Based upon the endnotes, where Mr. Rollins shares his process, he did indeed do it all by hand. And here’s the irony. While it is devilishly hard work, if you stop and think about it too much, it can be a very satisfactory activity. You reach a point, towards the end of such a project, when your skills are at a well-oiled level, that you simply don’t want to stop. You actually want to do more and so, if you’re fortunate, you simply jump on to the next project.
“I’m having a ball!”
Each character in this book is quite palpable, a true living and breathing entity. The key bone of contention is between two ambitious young men who find themselves at the precipice of a watershed moment with staggering consequences. Marc holds the key to what comes next and also has the power to stop it, if he were so inclined. Walton, while very capable in his own right, is stuck with being in Marc’s shadow. Walton is the guy that a genius goes to for some assistance, not for collaboration. Our story is told in various pieces looking back from the perspective of a middle-aged, and bitter, Walton. He tells this tale to himself and, oddly enough, in a sanitized form, to Clara, his six-year-old daughter. To add to the tension, Clara’s face and demeanor often resemble a much older girl or woman. It doesn’t help that Clara keeps pushing the envelope for her age. For example, she insists upon calling her father by his first name. Walton’s wife sees no problem with this as she declares, matter-of-factly, that Clara simply doesn’t see Walton as her father.
You reach a point in a work when you either ease up a bit or you dive deeper. Mr. Rollins takes each dive and goes deeper. Thankfully, he is a writer who relishes in well-placed, finely-articulated dialogue and action. And, as happens deep in the process of making a work of comics such as this, the level of writing somehow blends and interlaces with the artwork. Your characters might be pensive or caught in the throes of a crisis and, akin to the background in a painting, character and environment meld together. The skies take on an eerie neurotic energy which is accomplished with crosshatching and patterning above and beyond what would satisfy a typical panel or page. And, thus, a remarkable moment is experienced…followed by another and another.
The best rendered ears in the business!
I sort of want to skirt around the issue of the actual plot because I don’t want to give too much away. In some respects, this is as much a character-driven narrative as anything else. It has a lot to do with the great distance we can create between our fellow humans, a recurring theme on The Twilight Zone. And the storytelling has a lot to do with evoking a certain state of mind, an ongoing concern, for sure, on The Twilight Zone. The Rollins touch is there in every way possible, right down to arguably the best rendered ears in the business! Yep, that little sample above of a finely-rendered Rollins ear speaks volumes. I honestly believe that the complexity and beauty of this work ranks up there with such landmark work as Watchmen, albeit on a smaller scale.
A utopian scene
It was indeed a pleasure for me to review another work by Prentis Rollins a while back. This was his magnificent guide to drawing comics, How to Draw Sci-Fi Utopias and Dystopias: Create the Futuristic Humans, Aliens, Robots, Vehicles, and Cities of Your Dreams and Nightmares, published by Monacelli Studio. In fact, the image above is a working drawing related to The Furnace. This particular image did not make it into the book but I thought it might make a nice treat to include here. Obviously, this book is a visual delight–and, without a doubt, a literary delight.
The Furnace is a 208-page full color trade paperback, available as of July 10, 2018. For more details, visit Tor Books right here. And be sure to visit Prentis Rollins at his website right here.
File this book under “Awesome Titles Near Level with Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.”
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:
Dan Dougherty is an award-winning author and illustrator. He is known for his humor comic strip, BEARDO, as well as various genre comic books. TOUCHING EVIL is an ongoing supernatural thriller series. It has an otherworldly quality about it that will compel you to keep reading. Dougherty has recently collected the first seven issues into one volume. Here is a taste of what you can expect in the following review. I also got a chance to chat with Dan for a bit at Emerald City Comicon and we did a quick video interview that you can check out at the end.
Panel excerpt from TOUCHING EVIL
Getting back to TOUCHING EVIL, there is much to say. First off, Dougherty has an uncanny way, both with his writing and his drawing, of calibrating a moment. Let me set this up. Our main character, Ada, is a beautiful and vibrant woman in the prime of life. She has a promising career as an attorney. She has a teenage son. And then, one day, she is assigned a task that results in a tragic outcome of supernatural proportions. When this happens, it seems oddly inevitable.
Essentially, Ada has the power of life or death over anyone with dark intentions. She touches them. They die. Meanwhile, her son has taken to wearing these black leather gloves with skeleton fingers. All this leads up to a pivotal moment: in order to secure she doesn’t accidently kill her own troubled son, Ada manages to slip on her son’s gloves before she hugs him. This is one of those masterful Dougherty moments: a sorrowful mother, her skeletal hands resting on the back of her son.
Page excerpt from TOUCHING EVIL
This is some wild story, if I haven’t made that clear yet. It gets under your skin, burrows its way in. Think The Twilight Zone meets Breaking Bad. It’s a certain vibe that hooks you in. Dougherty revels in well-placed details that later on elaborately blow up. A key aspect to the curse that Ada inherits is that anyone who she ends up executing by touch is a new soul who inhabits her mind. The death count mounts, as you may expect, and it gets crowded in Ada’s head. There’s a play within a play going on. Or you can think of it as a horror version of “Being John Malkovich.” Parts horror, cerebral, and offbeat humor, this is a highly engaging graphic novel.
Page excerpt from TOUCHING EVIL
And I get back to how Dougherty draws. His style is clean and crisp. Dougherty can make you believe you’re in a scary penitentiary and you’re walking down to its scariest section, The Ghost Room. He will make you believe in ghosts, demons, and being trapped in hell. And, without a doubt, you’ll get wrapped up in Ada’s plight.
Page excerpt from TOUCHING EVIL
Dan Dougherty is one of those talents in comics who is doing everything right. Well, that’s certainly an understatement. Whatever Dougherty does, it is going to continue to work out well. Maybe he’ll just follow a Jeff Smith model and keep building up what’s he doing on his own. He is an exciting talent and I highly recommend that you seek out this very intriguing work.
TOUCHING EVIL by Dan Dougherty
TOUCHING EVIL VOL. 1: THE CURSE ESCAPES is a full color 240-page graphic novel written and illustrated by Dan Dougherty.
Colors: Kanila Tripp and Wesley Wong
Cover art: Tom Kelly, with interior covers by Stephen Bryant
Additional inks: Monica Ras
This limited edition 240-page hardcover collects issues 1-7, as well as a never-before-seen bonus story, pinup gallery with art from Ryan Browne, Andrew Dimitt, Tom Kelly, and Doug Klauba! Read “season one” of Touching Evil in its most beautiful presentation!
“I started writing when I was eleven. I didn’t start writing at age eleven because I thought I was going to become a movie director. I did it because I enjoyed it. I fed off the movies I was watching and the comic books I was reading.”
–Spencer F. Lee, writer/director of FROM THE BRIDGE
FROM THE BRIDGE is a documentary that looks at the career of Kerry O’Quinn, one of the leading figures in fandom, and explores in depth the rich and exciting world of science fiction, comic books, and horror–and the fans who love it. At this point, those fans include a vast number. But it wasn’t always that evident. With this new documentary, due out in 2017, writer/director Spencer F. Lee shares with you his childhood passion that has blossomed into a deep understanding of some of today’s leading forms of entertainment.
FROM THE BRIDGE, directed and written by Spencer F. Lee, executive producers George Noe and Spencer F. Lee, produced by Philip Nelson, and hosted on-screen by George Takei, is a feature film documentary that tells the story of how fans worldwide have “come out of geekdom’s closet” in the last 40 years, largely nurtured and encouraged by Kerry O’Quinn. Having the opportunity to interview both Spencer F. Lee as well as Kerry O’Quinn, I’ve come away with a great appreciation for what this film will mean to an audience. The film features interviews with Stan Lee, Bryan Singer, Gene Simmons, Joe Dante, Nichelle Nichols, Tom DeSanto, Bryan Fuller, Rod Roddenberry, Howard Roffman and many more.
The full podcast interview with Spencer F. Lee is right below. Just click the link:
Up next is my interview with Kerry O’Quinn, co-founder of such landmark magazines as Starlog and Fangoria.
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.