Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Stories from the Twilight Zone by Rod Serling

Suspense never goes out of style
This collection contains six short stories from the classic early-1960s television series The Twilight Zone. Each tale is a prose adaptation written by Rod Serling—the show’s creator, head writer, and host—based upon a script he originally wrote for the show. The book also includes very brief introductions to the stories by his daughter Anne Serling which give a few details about the production of each episode. I was never a religious watcher of the show, but as a teenager in the ‘80s I subscribed to Twilight Zone Magazine, an excellent pulp anthology that featured horror, fantasy, and all-around weird stories by authors both classic and contemporary, including Twilight Zone scripts by Serling. When I stumbled upon this inexpensive ebook, I hoped it would bring back some of the excitement I felt when a new issue arrived on my doorstep.

Unfortunately, the first two stories did little to reinforce my hopes. “The Mighty Casey” and “Escape Clause” are both humorous tales. The former is about a miraculous pitcher who saves the Brooklyn Dodgers from a dismal season. The latter is the nth variation on the sold-his-soul-to-the-devil chestnut. In both cases, the humor has not held up well over the last half century. The dialog definitely reads like it was written for a soundstage, and is riddled with antiquated slang that doesn’t even score points as nostalgia or kitsch. These were surely clever stories for their day, but today’s reader will find them mildly amusing at best.

Where the funny stories fail, however, the serious and scary stories succeed. “Walking Distance” is an absolute masterpiece. A depressed New York City ad exec longs for the comfort and simplicity of his boyhood summers. Through the magic of the Twilight Zone, he finds you literally can go home again. It’s a very touching and poignant piece that keenly captures the regret of lost youth. Any reader over 30 will find it quite moving. Another excellent classic is “Where Is Everybody?”, which was the very first episode of the show. It’s about a young man who wakes up in the middle of a road with no memory of who he is or where he’s from. He wanders into a small town only to find it bereft of inhabitants, as if everyone had just abandoned the place moments earlier. In this disturbing tale, Serling brilliantly evokes the insanity that can be generated by isolation.

Two other solid selections round out the collection: “The Fever” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Both start out a little hokey and contrived, but Serling skillfully ramps up the intensity until the narratives snowball into higher and higher levels of shock and awe. What might have been mediocre stories are saved by stunning, over-the-top endings. I’m not familiar with these particular episodes, but these dark tales contain violent scenes that surely must have been tuned down for television.

Serling is undoubtedly one of the greatest writers in the history of television. Each week on The Twilight Zone, he put a whole new fictional universe on the small screen and continually pushed the envelope of what the medium was capable of. The fact that the show is firmly ensconced in a cycle of perpetual reruns is a testament to his great talent and creativity. This book is a testament to how well his work has held up over the past 50 years. The best of these stories transcend pulp fiction to qualify as genuine literature.

Stories in this collection
The Mighty Casey 
Escape Clause 
Walking Distance 
The Fever
Where Is Everybody? 
The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street 

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