Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Perchance to Dream: The Short Fiction of Charles Beaumont

Another writer sadly lost to time, Charles Beaumont helped cement one of the most distinctive pop-culture totems of the 20th century, TV's The Twilight Zone, helping speculative fiction, whether horror, fantasy, or science fiction, become mainstream. He wrote around two dozen of that show's episodes, third only to Richard Matheson and creator Rod Serling himself. He also wrote screenplays for Roger Corman, The Masque of the Red Death and The Haunted Palace, Poe and Lovecraft adaptations, respectively.

Beaumont's one of those "writer's writers" who are so fondly recalled as a major influence by the likes of Matheson, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Dan Simmons, Dean Koontz, John Shirley, et. al., but little-read among genre fans today. He died tragically young and there are no widely-available, mass-produced editions of any of his works readily available.

I found these editions of Night Ride (1960) and The Hunger (1959) on eBay recently, and was fortunate enough to get them cheap, maybe $5 apiece and in very good shape for paperbacks five decades old. Haven't read nearly all the stories contained as there are three dozen between the two collections; many were originally published in Playboy or Esquire and some Beaumont adapted himself for Twilight Zone episodes, classics like "Perchance to Dream," "Shadow Play," and "The Howling Man." The last story is one of his most famous; the Tor collection The Howling Man from 1992 is very highly sought after these days... would that I had picked it up when I used to see it on used bookstore shelves in the mid 1990s.

His technical skill and humanity, conciseness and clever imagination shine forth in the handful I have read, reminding me a bit of Bradbury's works from the same era. But Beaumont has a cool sophistication too; not for nothing did many of his tales appear in Playboy - particularly the stunning story of love and jazz "The Black Country," as well as "The Crooked Man," a positive depiction of homosexuality - in the '50s. Beaumont's influence on the horror genre is undeniable; although the tales might not quite be the "violent entertainments" that The Hunger promises - a charming conceit back then, now rather tame today - and they might not really appeal to many modern horror fiction readers, their concerns and conflicts, and of course twist climaxes, are still effective and surprising. Charles Beaumont is simply a must-read writer for the true horror fiction fan.

4 comments:

venoms5 said...

I've not read any of his books, but I am definitely a fan of his TZ episodes. They rank among some of my favorites.

lazlo azavaar said...

"Perchance to Dream" really creeped the crap out of me when I saw it on the Twilight Zone.

rhuneke said...

This guy knew how to write. His work was very engaging. I have one of his books of short stories called "Yonder". From what I heard he had a very sad demise. I think he got Alzheimer's disease or something. He was a middle aged guy, but they say by the end he looked like he was eighty and he couldn't write (or hardly think) anymore. Very sad. If people made movies and TV the way this guy wrote, Hollywood would have no problems. Of course we all remember the TZ's rendition of "The Howling Man" and other great TZ episodes like "The New Exhibit" (which was really freaky with Martin Balsam as the obsessed caretaker of Murderer's Row wax figures. In my opinion, Twilight Zone was the pinnacle of quality writing in the areas of Sci-fi, Fantasy, and even Horror. The show was creepy. It didn't resort to tricks to scare you, it was really creepily written and shot...and THAT'S what scared you!

bluerosekiller said...

Wow, that's quite sad about Beaumont's demise.
THAT'S actually a horror story in & of itself in my eyes. Poor guy.
Losing my cognitive abilities is actually one of my biggest fears. Right up there with blindness & death.
But, in a rather twisted choice, I persued a pro boxing career for over a decade & enganged in 22 such contests. All whilst being somewhat ( much ) less than a defensive wizard in the ring. So, I took a lot of shots in my day.
I got out before things became noncompetive though back in 1990 & I'm doing fine now ( other than having been diagnosed with a mild brain stem injury that had occurred sometime in the past, but went unnoticed until a recent MRI for an old orbital fracture that's been causing headaches occasionally & was dismissed as just "residual pain" ), but I worry about my later years though...
Not too much however, I've got a very hard head & as rediculous as that may sound, it's a saving grace in my experience. I was never KO'd or even knocked down despite the punishment I took & I know similar ex-fighters who had many more fights than I did over a longer period of time & for the most part they're clear as a bell.
It's the guys that have been KO'd over & over again that suffer later on.