Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories; or, my reading material as a child probably explains how weird I am today.

Growing up, browsing the family bookshelf for new reading material was not exactly my favorite activity. After all, it meant that I had exhausted my usual supply of books and was taking a gamble on the contents of the eclectic collection we kept in the living room. The Book of Questions and Imponderables were favorites from a young age, the one being very easy and occasionally thought-provoking and the other stimulating my mind in unusual ways. The New York Public Library Desk Reference was another favorite, holding an extremely varied assortment of facts that I, as an aspiring scholar, sopped up in the hopes of taking a short cut to scholarship. There were other books, too. A collection of great vampire stories and Murder for Christmas, both of which looked interesting but contained material either too dense or too frightening for a young girl, a book on military survival which I absorbed during a phase when I fancied myself an adventurer, business law, a book on card games, self-help and home improvement, an Idiot's Guide to Planning the Perfect Vacation, a book on the history of the world and one on the civil war, the first two Hitchhiker's Guide books and a few volumes of boys' adventure stories from the turn of the century. I would come back to these and others over and over throughout the years, gleaning a little more knowledge each time. But there were two books that I have come to love better than all the others, two books that I grew up with, that I read more and more of as my tastes expanded. What were these magical volumes? The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories and Rod Serling's Twilight Zone.

Rod Serling's Twilight Zone is the one I favor less of the two, though it's still very good, holding such gripping tales as "The Tiger God," "The 16-Millimeter Shrine," and "The Purple Testament." But The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories holds the stories that have stayed with me, even haunted me. And it's these stories that I want to talk about.

We start off with "One for the Angels," a beautiful story about Lou Bookman, a small-time salesman who's not ready to die, not until he's made a big sales pitch, a pitch for the angels. However, when Death shows up, the stakes will be higher than Lou ever imagined. While the story itself is a bit predictable, the charm in this opening story is in the telling.

"Perchance to Dream" is more what you think of when you think of the Twilight Zone, a chilling mindscrew. Phillip Hall is unable to sleep because death awaits when he does. This story's horrifying because, when you think about it, what do you do when your dreams become deadly and there's nothing you can do to avoid eventually dropping off into sleep?

In a funny little coincidence, the next story, "Disappearing Act, was written by Richard Matheson, who also wrote a novel called Perchance to Dream, the name of the previous story. But that's tangential. "Disappearing Act" is another chiller about the inevitable, this time about a man whose very existance is disappearing around him.

"Time Enough at Last" should be in the same vein as the previous two stories, except that this one is well known enough that it's even been parodied. When the world ends, Henry Bemis finally has time to read a book, only he's broken his glasses.

"What You Need" was an early favorite of mine, with more complexity to its characters and plot than the shorter stories that preceeded it. I think what I like about it is how it slowly unwinds itself to its conclusion that you don't even expect until you read it.

"Third from the Sun" is another story that is probably familiar to most people. It's got a bleak feel to it, as the family covertly prepares to leave behind the only life they've ever known. And the twist to the story is skillfully kept until the reveal at the end.

"Elegy" is straight up creepy, in a sort of uncanny valley way. It seems innocent enough, and that just makes the final revelation all the more horrifying. Really, a lot of these stories are Fridge Horror, to invoke the trope. You read them, are mildly chilled, and then you're up thinking all night about all of the truly horrific implications.

"Brothers Beyond the Void" features a theme seen a fair amount in sci-fi. "People are alike all over," huh? It's really very depressing.

The next story, "The Howling Man," is one that I haven't fully read yet. As I said, I've slowly come to read and enjoy more and more of these stories over the years, so it's not surprising to me that I still haven't read a couple all the way through.

I cannot believe that more people haven't heard of "It's a Good Life." It is one of my favorite Twilight Zone stories to reference, but no one gets it! And this isn't even fridge horror, it's horror all the way through, despite the veneer of happiness that the characters put up. Because you can't say the wrong thing around Anthony or he might make everything worse. Think Haruhi Suzumiya as a child. Yeah.

"The Valley was Still" is a Civil War story incorporating witchcraft and a Faustian bargain. Not a favorite of mine, but certainly a good entry in this collection.

"The Jungle" is a story I only read once. It's dark and different, and perhaps I'll like it better after reading it again.

"To Serve Man." Oh, come on, everyone knows this one. It's still interesting to read how the story plays out, though, even if you know the ending. Spoilers: Soylent Green is people.

"Little Girl Lost." Good grief, it's only in writing this that I realize just how many Twilight Zone spoofs The Simpsons have done. The little girl gets trapped in another dimension after crawling under the couch. Not especially terrifying, more intellectually interesting.

"Four O'Clock" is on the surface rather a funny little story. It's one of the shortest in the book, and it sets up its premise with skill. The twist at the end is almost expected. It's another case when you're going to be more disturbed when you think back to the story later, rather than right when you read it for the first time.

The next story is, like "One for the Angels," more of a fairy tale than a horror story. "I Sing the Body Electric!" is a fanciful story by Ray Bradbury about a family of three children and their widowed father who purchase a wonderfully fantastic robotic grandmother. It's touching and heartfelt, and I'm sure I cried while reading it. There's no twist ending, no darkness lurking at the edges. This is just a sweet story about love and family and growing up. It was a favorite of mine from the first time I read it, and it continues to hold a very special place in my heart.

If the previous story features a warm grandmother, "The Changing of the Guard" has the grandfatherly figure of Professor Fowler, an old teacher at a boys' school. As with "I Sing the Body Electric," there's a bit of the supernatural, but rather than acting as an alienating force, it instead reaffirms the innate humanity of the professor and all of the students whose lives he touched.

"In His Image" goes right back to the mindscrewing. I would say that this story most reminds me of Diana Wynne Jones' novel Hexwood because both require several readings before you have even an inkling of what just occurred. I could try to say more about it, but instead I'll just tell you that it confuses and invigorates the mind, puzzles and horrifies, and the resolution is fitting if not completely satisfactory, but in a good way.

"Mute" is one of the stories in this anthology that I had trouble reading until fairly recently. A bit confusing, not a lot of action. It's less supernatural than some of the other stories, with more of a focus on humans and their innate abilities.

I don't think I've ever gotten through, or even attempted, "Death Ship" yet.

For all that "The Devil, You Say?" involves Faustian bargains, it's actually really a fun story. When a man sells his soul in order to be able to have a successful small town paper and then passes the burden on to his son, the son has to scramble to outwit Satan and return his life to normal, all while pursuing the girl of his dreams.

"Blind Alley" presents a much bleaker take on a deal with the devil, wherein the perils of greed are outlined much more starkly and with a chilling sense of futility. I don't have much else to say, as this is one of the stories that I've only read once.

I've never read "Song for a Lady" yet either.

"Steel." A boy and his robot. Only Kelly and Pole are not boys, they're down on their luck robot fighters, and the robots are fighting machines, and the story is basically just a lot of bleak build-up to the inevitable finish. Very little sci-fi, very depressing story.

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." Look, if you don't know this story already, shame on you. Go absorb some pop culture!

"The Old Man" is a post-apocalyptic story about human nature and mob rule. It's short and plot-driven, and the twist at the end is really the only remarkable thing about it.

"The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross" brings to mind the earlier story "What You Need." Salvadore Ross learns that he can barter the intangible and the seemingly unchangeable in order to better himself and win the heart of the girl he loves. However, this wouldn't be a Twilight Zone story if there weren't a catch.

Here we are. We've reached the story that I find the most chilling of everything in this entire collection. Charles Beaumont's "The Beautiful People." The terrifying thing about this story, to me, is losing yourself and being helpless to stop it. I've had quite a few surgeries in my time, and something about the sinister possibilities of hospitals and surgical procedures just chills me to the bone. You know what book this story reminds me of? Well, yes, Scott Westerfeld's Uglies, sort of, but more than that it reminds me of Unwind by Neal Shusterman. I mean, this story is definitely a good one, but it's also personally one of the most chilling, haunting things I've read.

The next story, in contrast, has left pretty much no impression on me. I know that I've read "Long Distance Call" before, but I had to flip through it to read the end before I remembered much about it. It's like something out of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, that childhood standby of tame tales and grotesque pictures.

The anthology ends with a classic story by Ambrose Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." This is another famous one where the twist ending is well known. I don't have much of an impression of it because I never read it after the first time.

Overall, some of these stories are really wonderful and have enriched my imagination. I'll say that my favorites would be "One for the Angels," "What You Need," "Elegy," "I Sing the Body Electric!," "In His Image," and "The Beautiful People," with "It's a Good Life" and "The Changing of the Guard" getting honourable mentions.

Well! I hope that this post intrigued you and made you want to read these stories. There wasn't too much summarizing, more my impressions, really, but I hope this was still interesting to read. I'll do my best to post more updates.


Matthew Bradley said...

For the record, the novel by Matheson (who co-edited THE ORIGINAL STORIES, many of which he also wrote) that I believe you're thinking of is not PERCHANCE TO DREAM but WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, another line from HAMLET. It was made into a film with Robin Williams. For further information on both the film and THE TWILIGHT ZONE, see my forthcoming book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN.

Amy Lynn said...

D'oh, shows me to post without proofreading. Thanks for the correction, and I'll keep an eye out for your book. Seems like something I'd enjoy reading.

Matthew Bradley said...

FYI, the book is now tentatively set to be published in early October. Of course, you can always pre-order it. :-)