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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Charles Beaumont: An Introduction

True story telling involves more than simply arranging words in some kind of intelligible order. It is much more than stringing together thoughts to paint a picture. The essence of true story telling is visceral. It is the ability to pierce the surface of the reader, to be welcomed into another person’s mind through either sight or sound, and then be able to probe, caress and yank, at the psyche or sometimes an internal organ or two.

But mere shock value is not enough. Shock lasts about as long as a stale bag of soggy, greasy potato chips sucked clean of their salt. It’s purged from the bag fairly quickly and down the gullet usually in one frenzied unhealthy sitting and so shock is purged from the reader’s mind just as quickly, like an inconvenient interruption. Any writer can stoop to concocting shocking scenes, and today the popular majority do just that, which is why a generation hence they will be forgotten. No, true story telling is more subtle and impactful, leaving an after taste yes, but an aftertaste that is not akin to poor digestion but a deep hunger for more.

For a child whose formative years were filled with large helpings of Poe and Bierce, Godzilla, Chiller Theater and Famous Monsters Magazine, there appeared a collection of morality plays flickering out of a large bulky box in our living room; a large glass and wooden portal to a vast wasteland that ultimately became as addictive as forbidden fruit.

“That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the Twilight Zone”.

The original ‘Twilight Zone’: not those watered-down, yawn-fests acted out by attractive cardboard cut-outs and written by stilted wannabes, but the original black and white, Rod Serling in a skinny tie with an even skinnier ribbon of smoke floating up from his cigarette ‘Twilight Zone’. The true ‘Twilight Zone’. Hearing Rod Serling say those words with the music rising, such was my dog whistle. I knew then, as a child, that I wanted to tell stories too.

This was literary television: Ray Bradbury, Damon Knight, George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Earl Hamner, Jr., Manley Wade Wellman, Henry Slesar, Rod Serling and the man whose ideas were the largest chunk of this library, Charles Beaumont.

To his contemporaries Charles Beaumont, born Charles Leroy Nutt, was exceptionally talented. His speculative fiction, from horror to science fiction, explored human fears – fears borne of the depths of the human psyche and played out against a backdrop of horrifying circumstances.

When his fiction delved into political and social commentary Beaumont relied on themes of human vanity – beauty, greed or fame – to unleash an individual’s or group’s propensity for evil. His principal characters were generally loners, losers, or some type of outcast. He explored their humanity and fears from their point of view, rather than the established societal perspective.

His first two published stories, “The Devil You Say?” from ‘Amazing Stories’ in 1951 and “The Beautiful People” from ‘If’ in 1952, clearly established defined this style and keen perspective on human nature. In “The Devil You Say?” a publisher bent on suicide ultimately makes a pact with, and later attempts to outsmart the Devil. His vanity is fame and success. A year later, “The Beautiful People” tackles the emotional fears, misgivings and hopes of a woman undergoing several facial reconstructions to correct her congenital ugliness. The upshot is that the established definition of beauty is simply conformity itself. A more philosophic version of this tale is his teleplay ,“Number 12 Looks Just Like You.”

Beaumont’s stories, while personal to the principal character, tend to be very spiritual, initially drawing the reader in on an emotional level. A prime example is “Howling Man”. Here the reader becomes so engaged with empathy that he supports the misguided compassion that unleashes Satan back upon the world. It is a tale that should stand as a warning to any do-gooder naïve to the ways of the world.

Charles Beaumont died at age 38, following several years of poor health. But however short his life, he was a prolific writer. In addition to some ninety plus short stories, his credits include twenty two ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes, various ‘Outer Limits’ and ‘Route 66’ episodes, some fourteen films, two novels and two books of non-fiction, as well as a Mickey Mouse comic.

To do Charles Beaumont justice many more pages are needed. I have only highlighted a thimbleful of his prose and realize I have made a mistake in doing so. To do Charles Beaumont justice would be to read him again, or for the first time; to watch his episodes from that oasis in the vast wasteland; to look into the eyes of ‘Talky Tina’, to walk with ‘The Crooked Man’, and to sip ‘The Infernal Bouillabaisse’.

His stories are still in print, both used and new. So go find a ‘Fair Lady’ and take ‘The Train’ to an ‘Open House’ or a ‘Place of Meeting’ and sit by ‘The Pool’ ‘With The Family’, and give your imagination a ‘Perchance to Dream’.

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