The Zone premiered in 1959 as the brainchild of TV wunderkind Rodman Edmund Serling. After half a decade of having to fight for his scripts to get an airing in the censorious world of 50s network television, Serling's idea for an anthology series centered around the horrific and fantastic was a spark of inspiration that provided just the platform that could solve his woes. Serling found that network a lot of network executives were squeamish if you wanted to put on a dramatization of subject matter like the death of Emmet Till. However, if you couched you're messages in the generic forms and formulas of Sci-Fi or Horror, then you were given sort of a free pass.
The reason why Serling was given liberty to say whatever he wanted with the Zone is very simple when you realize that that popular genre fiction was never regarded as something that mature people were meant to take seriously. All that sort of thing was little more than juvenile trash. Who could possibly care for any of it? It's even less than a deck of cards. The curious part is that a lot of viewers still remember and re-watch the Twilight Zone long after it's original critics have been shuffled out the door. I think a lot of great names should be so lucky.
One of those names belongs to a part of the of crew that Serling gathered around him to help create his fabled 5th Dimension. I'm not at all sure whether it's true to say that the Zone had anything like an actual writer's room, with a fixed staple of creative talent waiting in the wings and on-call whenever a new idea had to be brainstormed for next week, and the one after that. It at least sounds like standard operating procedure as far as most contemporary television goes. However, I still don't know if that's how Serling ran his operation.
What I do know is that Rod would employ a continuous, returning roster of talent to pen some of the most well-known and remembered episodes during the entire series run. Richard Matheson, who wrote such classics as The Howling Man and Nightmare at 30,000 Feet, is probably the closest author anyone can recall in connection with the show. However that unofficial roster included quite a few other names as well. George Clayton Johnson was responsible for the Robert Redford episode Nothing in the Dark, Kick the Can, and what I still consider his best effort of the series, A Game of Pool. There was a third name in that roster, however.
The Search for a Biography.
There is a sort of irony in the way we study the lives of certain historical figures. There are individuals out there whose works wind up speaking louder than their actual day to day existences. The best example of this phenomena are the classical Greek philosophers. We know just a handful of facts about the lives of Plato and Aristotle, while often confusing the Socrates presented in both their writings with the real life thinker. We known even less about the life of Heraclitus, while his aphorisms and sayings still adorn self-help refrigerator magnets. These are the incomplete legacies left to us by a lot of great names.
The same thing happens to a lot of other figures as well. They can leave behind a great deal of their work, while leaving us none the wiser about who they were as actual people. This has been the sort of fate of Charles Beaumont. When it comes to tracking down all the needed details that would fill in the life of the artist's mind, it seems like both amateur and professional biographers are faced with the challenge and problem of scarce information. In Beaumont's case, all I've been able to find are bits and pieces of a life cobbled together out of information passed along by word of mouth, or snippets of information summarized in an incomplete and perfunctory matter in the works of other scholars. It's a tragic, yet commonplace fate of a lot of talents that their ability to maintain a respectable amount of privacy means that the legacy of their work often gets left behind when a critic is unable to get at the facts. What little I've been able to discover about Beaumont comes down to just a handful of bits and pieces.
For starters, Charles Beaumont doesn't exist. At least, he didn't exist at first. His birth name was Charles Leroy Nutt. His date of birth is given as January 2nd, 1929. His parents were Charles hiram Nutt (whose occupation is listed as "an auditor of freight accounts for a railroad (web) and Violet Letitia "Letty" (Phillips) Nutt.
"In 1954," according to Marc Scott Zicree's Twilight Zone Companion, "(Beaumont) wrote of his childhood, "Football, baseball and dimestore cookie thefts filled my early world, to the exclusion of Aesop, the Brothers Grimm, Dr. Doolittle, and even Bullfinch. The installation by my parents of 'library wallpaper' in the house ('a roomfull of books for only seventy cents a yard!') convinced me that literature was on the way out anyway, so I lived in illiterate contentment until laid low by spinal meningitis. This forced me to less strenuous forms of entertainment. I discovered Oz; then Burroughs; then Poe - and the jig was up (75)".
The way Zicree sees it, however, is that "(the) light tone of this statement belies the truth of Beaumont's childhood...In reality, it was almost certainly one of oppressive peculiarity and morbidity (Beaumont once described it as being "one big Charles Addams cartoon"). On one occasion, Beaumont confided to William F. Nolan that his classic short story, "Miss Gentillbelle" - in which a deranged woman dresses her eight-year old boy as a little girl and sadistically murders all his pets - was more than mere fancy: his mother had dressed him as a little girl and, at least once, had killed one of his pets as a punishment (75)".
However, there is a certain element of contradictory evidence in this story. This tale is mentioned at least one other time, however the details are changed. In this scenario, Letty only "threatens" to harm her son's pet dog as punishment (ibid). Aside from Zicree's book and the wiki article, I've never been able to find any other reliable source for this family anecdote. Maybe I am being too skeptical. However, unless I or anyone else can produce a more definitive proof of this incident, I'm afraid I'll have to just label this as one of those false yarns that a writer's ever so often like to make up to add color to what is, more often than not, a rather outwardly pedestrian and conventional life.
Looked at from this perspective, Beaumont's life story seems more like that of a typical middle American boy whose otherwise normal trajectory was forever sidetracked by a case of severe illness. When this happened, the world of literature was forced on him, and pretty soon it appears, for all intents and purposes, to have sent his imagination into overdrive. This appears to be the main tipping point of Beaumont's early life. Before he got his illness his life was more that of an average, work-force focused individual. The boy who emerged from this illness was a budding individual talent in an already long family tree of literary traditions, authors, and writings.
The timeline provided by Lee Prosser's Running from the Hunter is useful from here on helping us chart out Beaumont's movements. At some point during his illness, Charles must have become a fan of the popular genre subscriptions, because in 1942 he "spends much of the year bed-ridden, reading voraciously, and writing "critical" letters to the science fiction pulp magazines. He becomes a dedicated SF fan (5)". By 1943, "(more) of his letters are printed in the pulps, where he is now signing himself Charles "McNutt (ibid)". "Charles attends Everett High School" in 1944, "specializing in drama. He also acts on a local radio station, and declares his goal of becoming a professional writer in a school booklet, "My Vocation (ibid)".
In 1945, Charles first hits upon "Beaumont" as a pseudonym in place of his family name, Nutt. The reasons for the choice of a pen name are glaringly obvious for both professional and personal reasons. Beaumont looks better on a byline, and it spared Chuck the awkwardness of being identified as a Nutt in at least two senses of the word. However, it was Beaumont's ability to establish contact with writer, editor and publisher Uncle Forry Ackerman that proves to be his gateway entry into the world of professional publication (5). After a very picturesque series of life experiences, Beaumont found himself in Hollywood, where he was employed in various jobs, such as an acting career that produced nothing on celluloid (at least not at first), and an inker for MGM's animation department (6). With Forry as his agent, 1951 proves to be the year that "Beaumont's first professional story, "The Devil, You Say," is published in Amazing Stories (January) (7)". From there, his career seems to have arrived, and he becomes the figure who is the subject of Brock's documentary.
California Sorcery: The Group.
It was at or near this time, possibly in the mid-50s, though it could have been earlier near the late 40s, that numbers of similar minded authors began to show up on Beaumont's literal doorstep. This is where Brock's film comes in handy in trying to suss out all the details. While the viewer is never given as clear a timeline as many would have liked for all the events recounted, the director's interview subjects are more than forthcoming in their recollections of events, which are still amazingly clear after the passage of so many years.
The first like-mind Beaumont met was Frank Robinson, a fellow native of Chicago like himself. When Beaumont made the transition to Los Angeles, Robinson went along with Charles and his wife Helen. The next name to travel into Chuck's orbit was John Tomerlin, an artist who is so obscure that you have to IMDB him in order to discover his credentials as a screenwriter for television. From there, as Tomerlin recounts it in the film, "It was a year or two later, after Chuck started writing, that he ran into Bill Nolan, I believe, at a Science Fiction convention, or a writer's convention. And Bill showed up one night. I recall Chuck and I had been out doing something. Maybe it was it was seeing a movie, going out to restaurant or something. We came back to Chuck and Helen's apartment. I have no idea why, but Bill was there, and he found the door open. He'd come in, sat down in the front room, and reminded Chuck of who he was. And Chuck was charmed by that. So Bill became a very close friend of Chuck (and) myself.
"It was another two or three years before, maybe just another year (time tends to spread out), probably a year or less. When at a Science Fiction convention, Chuck and Bill met George (Clayton Johnson), I guess. That's the way that worked. And then they introduced me to George, and that kind of became the core. That was the core of what ultimately became known as the Group".
Roger Anker, Beaumont's official biographer, sums up the nature of this writer's collective as follows: "I would say that the main core of the group was Beaumont, Tomerlin, and Nolan. That was your main core, right there. I think everything revolved around Beaumont. And then you have OCee Ritch. You have a lot of guys filtering in and out of the Group...The history of the group, by the way, is that they were actually called The Group. And that's something that Helen (Beaumont's wife) came up with. She had read a Mary McCarthy novel which was published, called The Group".
While it's difficult to form an exact head count, it seems like the exact makeup of this Group was comprised of the following names: Charles Beaumont, William F. Nolan, Rod Serling, George Clayton Johnson, John Tomerlin, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Jerry Sohl, and Harlan Ellison (web).
They knew themselves as The Group, and yet I think Christopher Conlan who has come up with a more fitting name for this writer's collective. He referred to them as the California Sorcerers. In terms of the writing content of the Group as a whole, Conlan wrote that "They have the power of fables: simple, direct, allegorical, they pull you in and hold you - but they teach you something too. They're the kind of stories SF master Theodore Sturgeon called "wisdom fiction". And while the particular tales are the work of completely different writers...they almost seem as if they might all have been hatched from a single brilliant, fantastically inventive imagination.
"This is no accident. For these men were, from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, part of a close-knit brotherhood of writers centered in the Los Angeles area that came to dominate not only printed SF and fantasy, but movies and TV as well - scripting between them many of the period's best-known films (including most of the Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe movies), along with classic segments of Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond, and virtually every episode of The Twilight Zone...
"It's an astonishing story," says Marc Zicree..."Many of these writers would not have been nearly as creative without each other. It was genuinely a gestalt that made these people deeper, better - made them stretch to places they never would have gotten to without each other." Group member William F. Nolan, whose film credits include Burnt Offerings and Trilogy of Terror, explains: "We'd talk plot, read stories we'd finish for opinions, talk about markets and what was selling and who was buying, discuss character development and structure, and, yes, we'd argue, but in a constructive way. We all helped each other...and inter-connected on projects (web)".
"Direct collaborations between Group members were common. And no wonder...They found strength, encouragement, and a sense of solidarity in the company of other struggling young writers. Because of the Group, says Nolan, "We were not alone; we had each other to fire us creatively, to bounce ideas around, to solve plot problems. It was the best kind of writing class that could ever be imagined (ibid)".
This is an element to Beaumont's story that also serves as a shared trait. An interesting phenomenon of the creative life is that sometimes it is possible to pinpoint moments in history where separate and individual artists will find themselves clustering or coalescing together to form something like an informal group or artistic collective. Certain historical precedents include the group of playwrights, poets, and authors who congregated around the Mermaid Tavern in Renaissance England. A few decades later the same country witnessed the birth of the Romantic Movement, and the names of all the poets who corresponded and critiqued one another's work. Among that list were the likes of Blake, Coleridge, Keats, and Wordsworth. The phenomenon seems to have struck again in the life of Charles Beaumont. He seems to have been one of those personalities that are able to draw similar talents together in an artistic enterprise. In Beaumont's case the result can be looked at as yet another artistic movement with defining qualities for the creative works it produced.
Another shared trait is that Beaumont and his friend's did seem to be guided by at least something in the way of an underlying ideal. For the Renaissance playwright, part of it was the re-introduction of Classical Philosophy and Myth into British culture at large. The Romantics were all in a reaction against the de-humanizing growth of the Industrial Age. In the Group's case it was less an openly stated system of philosophy, though there might have been a set of canonical texts involved. Instead, the guiding inspiration for the California Sorcerer's came in the form of one man.
It can be argued that it doesn't make much sense to talk about another artist when the subject of your post is someone else. However the key to remember here is that Beaumont is best understood as an individual talent in a long line of artistic development. Like a lot of other talents, Beaumont was far from sui generis and was never hesitant to wear his influences on his sleeve. When it comes to source hunting for the writers and texts that acted as Beaumont's inspiration, one name seems to stand above all the others.
It is hard to tell just when Beaumont read his first copy of a story by Ray Bradbury. There is not enough biographical information left behind to make an exact pinpoint. Maybe it was an issue of Amazing Stories, or it could also have been any number of other candidates. What is certain is that by the time Beaumont first started on his creative efforts, he was already familiar enough with Bradbury's writing to use them as a standard by which to measure his own work. This self-imposed artistic criterion does make any discussion of Bradbury's fiction in relation to Beaumont's output something of a necessity, at the very least.
The trouble is it's difficult to know just where to start. Bradbury is one those names who manage to make their impact all-encompassing enough to leave multiple avenues of critical approach open. Perhaps the best place to begin is to consider just what kind of impact the author had on the fantastic genres as a whole. This perspective has the advantage of allowing the reader to notice that Bradbury was something of a transitional figure in all of the three major genres: Sci-Fi, Horror, and Fantasy. Up till then, most of the content of the stories in all three classes were still in something of a hold-over phase from the 19th century. All three major genres got their first modern stamp during both the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Both The Castle of Otranto and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein have often been cited as the first examples of modern Horror and Science Fiction. Fantasy is the one genre that pre-dated each of the others, to the extent that people had both created and passed on various myths, legends and folktales all the way back to antiquity.
What you get when you look at the development of these three main types of mythic narrative during the 1800s is something like a sculpture taking shape one slow slow carving at a time. The writings of that era, even in the work of authors who were able to help define the Horror genre's identity (such as Poe and Bram Stoker), often find themselves tethered back to a lingering sense of historical medievalism. Most of the settings take place in centuries old blasted heaths, or rotting decrepit castles and Renaissance manor houses that have seen better days. It was H.P. Lovecraft and the Weird Circle writers like Clark Ashton Smith who successfully found ways of making a modern, 20th century setting a useful part of their narratives. However, even here, the mundane often exists to be cast aside in favor of more fantastic settings, like an undersea kingdom, or a post-apocalyptic earth. In this regard, perhaps the work of Robert E. Howard is a good example of the overall trend of the Weird Circle story. Elements like this betray the genre's origins in the cauldron of myth from which it seems all of the differing types of story eventually emerged.
Bradbury was the writer who seems to have become most famous as the one to successfully bring the horrors, fantasy, and futuristic dreams into not just a modern but a contemporary suburban setting. Rather than locating his frights somewhere on the Plains of Leng, Bradbury would simply introduce a lodger into an average neighborhood boarding house who may be some form of vampire. It kind of makes a bit more sense then to view Bradbury's writing as something of a transitional phase. The irony is that Bradbury himself sort of gave a perfect description of his artistic achievements in an unremarked passage of The Halloween Tree. "The unemployed of all midnight Europe shivered in their stone sleep and came awake. Which is to say that all the old beasts, all the old tales, all the old nightmares, all the old unused demons-put-by, and witches left in the lurch, quaked at the call, reared at the whistle, trembled at the summons...Which is to say that all the dead statues and idols and semigods and demigods of Europe lying like a dreadful snow all about, abandoned, in ruin, gave a blink and start and came as salamanders on the road, or bats in the skies (97)". "All the...old dreams, all the old nightmares, all the old ideas with nothing to do, out of work, we gave them work. We called them here (100)"!
If you were to ask exactly how this was done in life size terms, then the simplest answer is that it was all down to a combination of fan enthusiasm combined with a great amount of imaginative ingenuity. It's to Bradbury's credit that he was able to recognize that even in a Modernist society there was still a place for a lot of the folklore, both fantastic and horrific, of ages past. In this sense it is possible to wonder if Bradbury could look at a figure like the Greek Olympian Helios in his chariot, along with the quintessential martian in a flying saucer, and realize that both images, to an extent, were one and the same, with only the surface appearances receiving a new coat of paint to please the tastes of the day. Looked at from this perspective, it does seems as though an unrecognized achievement of Bradbury's writings is that there is perhaps a kind of implied recognition that there is always a bit of old in the new. Or conversely that there is a bit truth in the motto: "Everything Old is New again". It does appear that the same thing can be said of the work of Charles Beaumont.
"Ray Bradbury," according to Brock's documentary, "was actually the person that Beaumont wanted to be. He was unquestionably the biggest influence on Beaumont's writing career". The result is that whenever you talk about Beaumont or the California Sorcerers, in way you are inevitably talking the writings of Bradbury and the effect he had on an entire generation of fantasists he inspired, and who followed in his wake. Roger Anker goes so far as to say that "you could say (Bradbury) was part of the Group, but he wasn't really part of the Group. He was the mentor. He was the guy everybody looked up to. He was the high water mark that everybody shot for". It is this blend of old mythic characters and tropes in a modern setting, combined with a certain humanism of theme that is the most immediate, definable trait of Bradbury's work. What's impressive is how others were able to borrow from this same author while also managing to find their own paths. In addition, however, a lot of the meaning and tone of the Sorcerer's works often betray their debt to RB. Ever since then, whenever an author writes about horror in a small town, or similar ideas, they are consciously or otherwise riffing on notes that were struck a long time ago by an old dreamer from Waukeghan, Illinois.
Conclsion: A Forgotten Legacy and Inheritance.
There is a lot going in Jason Brock's documentary to recommend it to both aficionados and casual genre fans. For starters, you get to meet a lot of interesting people. Most of them fit the category of legends you've never heard of, such as Clayton Johnson and Bill Nolan. Others, like Harlan Ellison may still have a kind of background recognition to them. Besides this you will learn about a forgotten name who was as much a pioneer in the fantastic genre as more famous writers like Lovecraft or E.A Poe.
In this regard Brock has to be congratulated on making a useful and informative film. What few criticisms I can have for it are minor. Though I would argue that there are moments when the film's take on it's subject could use a few more bits of clarification. The critic S.T. Joshi, for instance, states the nature of Beaumont's achievement in the following terms: "I don't know exactly how well-read Beaumont was in the literature prior to him. I'm sure he must have read Lovecraft. I'm certain he read Poe, and Bierce, and some of the other great classics. But Beaumont emerged at a very interesting time in the history of Supernatural Horror. In fact, he emerged at a time when, as they say, the field was rather in a low state. Precisely because the magazine Weird Tales had collapsed in 1954. There were no markets. Every now and then you had a Horror story in a place like Playboy, or maybe The Saturday Evening Post. But you had to be a pretty eminent writer to get there. I think Beaumont understood that writing pure, Supernatural Horror was not going to make a career for him. So he dipped into the fields of Science Fiction, into Suspense fiction, Crime, fiction, but infused it with a sense of Horror, chiefly from the psychological perspective. He turned inward. He wanted to draw out the horrors of the human mind. I think that was one of his most powerful contributions".
It's an idea I'm willing to agree with so far as it goes. It is true that Beaumont brought a level of psychological sophistication to the Horror genre. In this regard he seems to be running on the same track as authors like Shirley Jackson. Both writers are often capable of finding ways of riffing on both the internal, as well as external, aspects of the horror in their stories. The mistake Joshi makes, however, is in his belief that Beaumont's achievement rests solely on the level of the psychological. It's a mistake because on more than one occasion Beaumont is just as capable of bringing a monster, ghost, or other frightening creature shambling out of the shadows if the narrative demands it. Also, like Bradbury and Jackson, Beaumont has a way of making his horrors feel contemporary. He is able to sell the audience on the make-believe of his stories.
I have to stress the make-believe unreality of Beaumont's creations because I'm convinced Sci-Fi author John Shirley makes another critical error when tries to make a case for Beaumont's so-called realism. "Charles Beaumont was part of a School of writing that I sort of feel that I'm still in that School. I stole moves from all those writers; Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, to some extent Ray Bradbury. I think Beaumont was the purest exponent, in a way. To me it was about short-stories that were an expression of life as they knew it. But they were kind of naturalistic as opposed to some the, you know, very atmospheric, heavy-handed, fantastic fiction of people like Lovecraft of Weird Tales writers. They were much more naturalistic. Even if there was a twist in it that was surreal or a fantasy-based twist, somehow it was relevant to real life. And sometimes they would write about real life, especially Beaumont. There would not be a fantastic element. It would just be simply a peculiar story about a strange twist that might happen in real life. It was quite believable...".
The trouble with this line of thought is that it is trying to apply a natural believeability to fictional and imaginative impossibilities. It is not the logic of real life, but rather that of cast-off and discarded folklores that drives the engine of Beaumont's literary output. It is this folk wisdom approach which seems to be the main driving force for all the fantastic genres. Even Sci-Fi, I would argue has never been entirely able to free itself from this basic background element if the popularity of franchises like Star Wars are anything to go by. In fact, Group member Robert Bloch pretty much resurrected the shade of Jack the Ripper for a Star Trek episode long before Alan Moore was inspired to write From Hell. What unites each of these scenarios is that they have taken the real and given it a fantastical twist, thereby rendering it unreal. Because of this it makes a lot more sense to view the fiction of Charles Beaumont and the California Sorcerers as having a fundamental anti-naturalist bent as its basic building block.
Another misgiving I have about Joshi and Shirley's line of thinking is more subtle. I call it subtle because I do wonder just how much of their insistence on Realism is grounded in a kind of typical lack of self-confidence that popular genre authors and critics can fall prey to as a result of all negative trouncings Sci-Fi, Horror, and Fantasy have received over the years. For the longest time it was considered a standard of measurement to view the fantastic as a lower form of art with a capitol A. From roughly the end of the First World War till the end of the 70s, any fiction that could be considered real or relevant was held up as the high water mark that all "serious" writing should aspire to. The problem is that's only one half of much more complex history. The truth seems to be that the real has always shaded into the phantasmagorical at one point or another. It just seems to be the natural bent of the human mind. The trouble with literary realism is its failure to take account of the fact that the first natural product of the imagination was myths. This is a phenomena that happened at a time when people already knew a fair deal about life and nature. However, that historical fact never seems to have occurred to a lot of 20th century critics. Then again, even that refusal to acknowledge the fantastic bent of the human mind took its final bow once the 80s came to a start. The trouble with Shirley and Joshi's talking points is that they sound like men who still believe they are caught up having to fight the same battle and tilt at the same windmills long after most of their original critics have gone, and the playing field is, for the moment, theirs. These are just minor critical notes, however.
The real value of Brock's film, however, is that it helps fill a somewhat forgotten gap in the history of the fantastic genres. It does this by establishing what amounts to a kind of genealogy of terror. What I mean is that Brock is able to establish a connecting thread between disparate authors. It serves as a sort informal link or bridge that roughly spans the entire 20th century and most of the biggest names associated with the fantastic genres. In particular, I think it's important to stress the value that Brock's film has for a greater understanding of the evolution of the Horror genre. If it's not entirely true that we tend to think of any of the major names associated with that kind of style of writing as one-off occurrences, then most criticism today is sort of guilty of believing most people can understand all there is to know about guys like Robert McCammon or Dan Simmons by taking them in a false sense of critical isolation that disregards or overlooks a lot of important material that would help gain a more nuanced understanding of books like The Shining or films like Halloween. What Brock has done is to lay out a timeline of names, and how they have shaped and influenced the genre as the all the years have gone by. "It matters," as Roger Anker observes, "because what (the California Sorcerers) did, collectively, changed the direction of Science Fiction and Fantasy. They were doing things that East Coast writers, Southern writers, Gothic writers, were not doing. They paved the way for the Stephen Kings and Peter Straubs and Dean Koontzs of the world today without question. Bradbury, what he was doing with the Science Fiction and Fantasy stuff, the Mathesons and the Beaumonts took it to a normal, everyday existence".