Sunday, June 2, 2024

Charles Beaumont's The Wages of Cynicism (1999).

I think by now most readers of this site have a passing familiarity with a writer named Charles Beaumont.  Not too long ago he was the subject of a documentary devoted to not just to his life, work, and memory a documentary devoted to not just to his life, work, and memory.  It was also about the legacy and thumbprint he was able to leave on pop culture, in terms of the specific kind of stories he managed to tell.  In the strictest sense, I suppose there's nothing intrinsically new or original about the kind of work Beaumont wrote.  He was a fantasist, first, last, and always.  Perhaps the best phrase I can use to describe him as an artist it to claim that Beaumont stands as an all too often overlooked literary inheritor.  His work emerges or steps onto the public stage as the product of a long and venerable tradition of Fantastic fiction the includes influences from all three of the major popular genres.  This is a list that would have to include all the usual suspects: H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, Lewis Carroll, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells.  The biggest influence, however, seems to have belonged to Ray Bradbury.  These seem to have been the determining names that went on to shape the kind of fiction that Beaumont churned out from what turned out to be a surprisingly short run of time, from 1951 all the way up to 1965.  If that time span gives the impression of a promising career brought to an abrupt and sudden halt, that's because it really was.

Perhaps the biggest reason that most people are no longer familiar with the name and writings of Charles Beaumont is because his life was taken way too early by illness.  What's remarkable about his career as an author is just how vast an amount of material he was able to churn out in such a short span of time.  It all reads very much like how both his friends and favorable critics once observed.  Beaumont always seemed to work as if some inner aspect of his personality knew that he was maybe never going to have all that long, so it was best to try and tap into the Imagination for all it was worth, and leave as great a mark on the world of the storytelling arts as he possibly could.  In a way, it's just possible to claim that he's succeeded.  You may no longer know Beaumont's name, though for the most part, you sure as hell can't escape the legacy he's left behind.  It's no mistake to claim Chuck Beaumont as a writer with something of a pioneer status to his work.  While the passage of time has rendered a lot of his writings as either obscure or too familiar sounding to be worth much comment, it helps to keep in mind that back when he was writing, Beaumont and his friends were busy finding what was then nothing less than a new and modern voice for tales of Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy.

The kind of writings Beaumont was famous for are very much as described by author Christopher Conlon.  "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 these particular tales are the work of completely different writers—Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), Charles Beaumont (“The Howling Man”), William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson (Logan’s Run)—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. At its peak this association of creative artists also included, among others, Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Jerry Sohl, Ray Russell, and Harlan Ellison. These outstandingly gifted men were collectively referred to by several names, including “The Southern California School of Writers” and “The Green Hand” (after the Mafia’s “Black Hand”). But they were most commonly called, simply, “The Group.”

“It’s an astonishing story,” says Marc Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion. “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 finished 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.”

“Sometimes, of an evening,” Ray Bradbury has written, “Richard Matheson would toss up there merest dust fleck of a notion, which would bounce off William F. Nolan, knock against George Clayton Johnson, glance off me, and land in [Charles Beaumont’s] lap. ..Sometimes we all loved an idea so much we had to assign it to the writer present who showed the widest grin, the brightest cheeks, the most fiery eyes.”  Direct collaborations between Group members were common. And no wonder. In those early days, most of them—particularly the “inner circle” of Nolan, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson, and novelist John Tomerlin—were men in their twenties who were just beginning their careers. 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.”

"But the closeness of the Group members went beyond the writing. According to Johnson (scriptwriter for Twilight Zone and Star Trek): “We knew each others’ wives, we went to each others’ houses, we shared holidays together, we went to movies and other things together…[We] would go out on the town and zoom around from place to place, stay out all damned hours. We’d just do anything you can think of. We’d go to strip joints to watch the strippers strip and be embarrassed to be there, but nonetheless whistling and whooping it up and trying to act like college kids…We’d go to nice restaurants like Musso and Frank’s or we’d end up at Barney’s Beanery. Or someplace along the beach. It hardly mattered.” The central members were as open to a carnival as they were to an art-house film. More than any particular activity, the joy was in each others’ company.

"And, most especially, the joy was in the company of one man—a lanky, charismatic young author of screenplays (The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao) and teleplays (Twilight Zone) as well as essays, short stories, and novels, who is described by Nolan as having been “the hub of the wheel,” the Group’s “electric center”: the vibrant, brilliant, and tragic Charles Beaumont (Conlon, California Sorcery, 1-3)".  A lot of this will be familiar to older readers of the Club.  For those who are new, however, a handy general guide to Beaumont and his life's work can be found here, at this link.  I'd urge novice readers to start out with the article contained in the link above, and then come back here for further exploration when and if you feel like it.  For those veteran readers who are already familiar with the material of Beaumont's life and writings, I kind of owe you a bit of gratitude.  For whatever reason, my previous article on the obscure California Sorcerer has wound up becoming one of the most popular pages on this blog.  For that reason, I think a bit of a reward is in order.  That's why I've decided to revisit this particular well.  Today, we'll take a look at one of the short stories Beaumont seems to have written yet never published within his lifetime.  It's an unknown piece with the simple title of "The Wages of Cynicism".

The Plot.

Opening Intro: "You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead - your next stop, the Twilight Zone (web)"!

Submitted for your approval, the moving snapshot of a perennial institution.  A group of men bound in the bonds of fellowship, gathered together over a convivial glass in order to share the latest news, catch up on each other's lives, and to help pass the time.  Pay extra close attention to the one member of the group who currently has the collective spotlight trained on him.  The gentleman holding forth at the moment is one Jeremy Dodge.  A self-made individual who likes to make sure both feet are always planted in the firm soil of reality.  In a minute, a wager will be raised, and accepted.  In doing so, Mr. Dodge is going to discover that the column of his cherished reality has a hole in it, and he's about to tumble headlong inside.  And it will all come about by agreeing to spend just one The Twilight Zone. 

Conclusion: A Familiar Yet Decent Introduction to Start With.

The most common question writers get asked is, "Where do you get your ideas"?  In some ways, I guess you could say it's like most of us have no real choice except to wonder about where our favorite stories come from.  When a tale is told well, and it works to as near perfection as any of us can get, then the whole thing just seems so larger than life that its always kind of hard to square the fact that a concept like Middle Earth came from this one simple book worm teaching up at Oxford University.  The implication here being that there's this kind of gap between the story as it is, and the mundanity of its human source.  Most of the writers who've penned the great adventure stories are the type you can never expect to last five minutes on a field of battle, never mind any kind of Road of Trials.  The only explanation I've got for such a phenomena is to claim that maybe the truth of the matter is there has always been something a bit larger than life about humanity.  The punchline being if that's the case, then this quality is so submerged in our Collective Unconscious, that its almost unreachable except by the road of dreams, and the myths and fables that emerge from the depths on the odd occasion now and then.  Sometimes, however, it is possible to know where some writers get their ideas from.

The only real answer to where do the stories come from is pretty simple.  They're all just creative ideas tossed up by the Imagination.  However, sometimes, if you examine a story carefully, it can be possible to explain more or less exactly the kind of idea that served as the inspiration for a writer's story.  That's the case with "The Wages of Cynicism".  It's the kind of narrative that the attentive reader walks into not knowing what to expect, only to reach the final page and think to themselves, "Hey, I've seen this story before"!  At least that's what happened to me, in this case, anyway.  When I finished with the short story it was clear to me that all Beaumont had done was to take his inspiration from a popular entry from the realm of urban legend.  At the core of his narrative stands an old folkloric trope known as The Graveyard Wager.  It's one of those shared literary ideas that all of us seem to learn about, in one form or another.  Like a lot of most memorable urban legends, this story seems to hinge on a rather simple conceit, and yet its execution and payoff have left us talking about its possible meaning for years.

Folklore expert Vito Carrassi is the one to give perhaps the best scholarly rundown of the tale, and its meaning.  It's something he discusses in the course of his essay, The Cemetery and the Fear of the Dead.  "Cemeteries are places “to be avoided if possible”, according to Linda Dégh. But what if one does not believe or is not frightened by beliefs and narratives describing them as fearsome places inhabited by fearsome beings? This is exactly the starting point of a folk narrative based on the wager of an individual entering a cemetery at night and then dying of fright because of an unfortunate accident...Ernest W. Baughman (1966: 373) supplies a more detailed description of this same motif: 'Person goes to cemetery on a dare: he is to plant a stake in a grave or stick a knife or fork or sword or nail into a grave (or coffin). The knife is driven through the person’s loose cuff, or the nail is driven through part of the sleeve, or the stake is driven through the person’s long coat tail.'

"Moreover, Jan H. Brunvand, in the section “Horrors” of his urban legends collection, has a paragraph specifically devoted to the “Graveyard Wager”, about which he writes: “Variations on the basic theme have been recorded since the Middle Ages in Europe and have migrated to much of the world”. Then he expounds on the variants of this migratory legend (Brunvand 1989: 80): 'In some versions, a soldier bets that he has the courage to remain overnight in a cemetery, but he dies from fright after plunging his sword through his long cloak. In others, a drunken man drives his dagger through the hem of his overcoat. Sometimes the person visiting the grave is told to drive a nail into a wooden cross, and the nail goes through part of his garment. In a few versions the graveyard visitor suffers just a good scare and a cold night in the cemetery, rather than death' (158-9)".  What I was most surprised to learn from this essay was that the folktale, or "Type" as the author refers to it, had a bit of a somewhat respectable shelf life within the realm of actual, legitimate Literature.  Like most of us, I always thought that such a perennial campfire story was the sole narrative province of the Folk, and not anything much else.

According to Carrassi, however, "This type also features in literary works. The earliest literary record, to my knowledge, is a novella by Giovanni Sagredo, included in his seventeenth century’s work L’Arcadia in Brenta. Here the protagonist is a priest who bets with a young woman to enter a cemetery at night and to stick her fan into the ground. Of course, he inadvertently sticks the fan into his long frock; he does not die of fright, but is “almost dead just like the dead of the cemetery […] found pale and half-living by people summoned by his screams” (Sagredo 1693: 260-261).  Nonetheless", Carrassi continues, "as pointed out by Brunvand, the type...has migrated all around the world, as proved by the material collected by European and North American folklorists throughout the twentieth century. All the stories fundamentally follow the plot we already know. They can differ in some features, but they all deal with some key contents, such as bravery, wager, disbelief, fear of the dead, scare, death (159)".  All of this amounts to a very impressive yet accurate summation of the contents of Beaumont's short story.  All the writer has done here is to take this folkloric "Type", and give it his own spin.

In fact, a good way to describe the protagonist of the former Twilight Zone scriptwriter's winter fireside yarn is that of a Gothic hero with a literal thousand faces.  This time, the main lead in the story of The Graveyard Wager is named Jeremey Dodge, and his occupation is a bit more well-to-do, where as in other versions he's either just some Joe or Jill Schmo of about high school age.  A James Dean wannabe looking to demonstrate how tough he is to the world at large, even if he has to spit in the face of death in order to prove it.  This time, the character has been spared any problems regarding the rites of passage into manhood.  It's implied that this version of the Wager Maker is successful enough to the point where he never has to worry about where his next meal comes from, and he's held in a high enough level of respect to the point where his friends are embarrassed to admit their shared belief in the Supernatural in front of him.  The motivation of the Gothic Hero thus takes on a bit of modification.  Rather than the setup of someone who is essentially still a child looking to prove they are more mature than they think, here it's a grown man who wants to coax others out of what he sees as a childish mindset.  Jerry Dodge is one of life's hard-headed types, and laughs the the idea of a spirit realm.

There's nothing in any of this that sets Beaumont's riff on the folktale apart from its other versions all that much.  It's just possible that the author runs the risk of not bringing anything exciting to the table.  That we're just going to be reading an uninspired rehash of a familiar urban legend.  The good news is that Beaumont does bring one final twist to the "Type", allowing the Wager Maker to have a chance at confronting the Supernatural head on.  Here's the part where its best not to go into spoiler territory, except to say that I can't help thinking this ending would go over well in an era where all the creativity of the Horror genre as a whole seems to be focusing in at the moment on the modern folktale format of the Creepypasta.  If it's a question of bringing anything new to the table, then perhaps it's to Beaumont's credit that he is able to uncover one novel idea to this more than twice-told-tale.  By the time his riff on the Graveyard Wager comes to a close, the writer has managed to dig up one final twist to an otherwise familiar urban legend.  Long before the final paragraph comes around, the intrepid Mr. Dodge has in fact met up with a ghost, and he is left with a very different change of outlook from where he started.

In terms of anything like an actual thematic meaning to the events of the narrative, I think Beaumont has clued us in to that with the title he chose for his story.  According to Carrassi, "the story about the graveyard wager should be considered a cautionary tale, intended to warn (young) individuals to respect and not to defy the traditional beliefs shared by their community about the dead and the supernatural; accordingly, they are warned not to overestimate their own bravery and underestimate commonly accepted norms and fears. In other words: in the daytime living people are allowed to stay with the dead in a cemetery and interact with them; in the night-time, cemetery becomes the exclusive kingdom of the dead, hence living people must stay outside it, in order to avoid dangerous encounters.

"On the other hand, especially for a young person – half of the protagonists of the previously examined stories are young people – such an act of bravery can be regarded as a rite of passage – and cemetery is probably the main destination of the so called “legend tripping” – from boyhood to adulthood. Nevertheless, this kind of wager is a violation of a sacred space, an infringement of the respectful distance the living must keep from the dead. In addition, the act of driving a nail or another item into a gravestone is a physical, impious trespass of an even more sacred and intimate border between the living and the dead (163)".  What's interesting to note about this is how the typical denouement of the urban legend leads Carrassi to make the following critical proclamation.  "In this light, what makes the type...more significant and effective is that there are no actual dead or supernatural beings scaring or attacking a living person. Their presence is only imagined, as a consequence of a trivial accident (a long clothing nailed to a gravestone), and is inferred on the basis of a belief in ghosts dwelling in the cemeteries; this belief, supported by darkness, silence and solitude (namely by the absence of signs of life), triggers a frightened reaction in the protagonists, leading them to a sudden death. As written by Simon Bronner (1988: 260):

Rather than a tale about ghosts, this story shifts attention to the believers. In my observations, it sometimes was offered as a commentary when discussions of ghosts come up, or as a follow-up to a tale dwelling on the reality of ghosts.  "To sum up: some people (allegedly the majority, in a folklore context) believe in ghosts and, for good measure, stay away from those space-times (like a cemetery at night) where they might be present; someone else, instead, doubts their presence, and there is even someone ready to bet on their absence, just to discover – too late, indeed – to be a believer or, at least, a fear-bearer like the others (ibid)".  And yet it is precisely here, at the point where the nature of the Horror of the story is concerned, that Beaumont is able to rummage around in the contents of the familiar urban legend, and pull out a new resolution.  This is one that sort of upends the assumptions of Carrassi and Bronner while at the same time still honoring the original meaning of the folktale itself.

With this in mind, the meaning of the legend of Graveyard Wager seems to boil down to two tropes as far as the Twilight Zone scriptwriter is concerned.  The first can be summed up in a maxim.  "The Column of Reality has a Hole in It (880)".  Those aren't my words, by the way.  I first ran across that notion in the Author's Notes to Stephen King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes.  It's a thematic concept the creator Castle Rock put to good use during the course of his own short story, "The Night Flyer".  In retrospect, it's possible to say that King's later effort bears a lot in common with Beaumont's attempt at retelling an urban legend.  Each of these stories revolve around protagonists who might be described as closed minded.  Each thinks they have a clear grasp of reality and is willing to belittle those who think otherwise.  Granted, the main lead of King's story is much more of what we'd now call the classic toxic personality, and it's very much in line with the author's intent of commenting on the dark side of our supposedly open society.  Beaumont seems to be reaching for much smaller fish, by comparison.  However, what his confident businessman and the tabloid "news" journalist have in common with one another is that they both spring from the same archetype.  Each of them is an Over-reacher.

This is a story, character, plot, and overall topos that seems to reach as far back into the ancient Greco-Roman period, and perhaps even further than that.  This particular type revolves around just one singular idea.  It always concerns a protagonist or set of characters consumed by the bad habit of believing they can bend the very nature of reality to their will.  Or else they are so convinced of their own invulnerability that they are willing to fly in the face of danger just to prove how preeminent they are.  In other words, the myth of the Overreacher is the narrative of anyone who can be said to be a slave or junkie to their own superiority complex.  This has been an archetype with a very active shelf life over the years.  Often it's had it's greatest dramatic showings in the form of Literature and Cinema's greatest villains.  A moment's thought is probably all it takes in order to see why this should be the case.  It seems the more we advance as a species, the greater our self-awareness of those kind of behaviors that can be classified as clinically toxic.  It's easy to see how this kind of mindset lends itself to the depiction of someone like Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the Wicked Queen from Snow White, or else the easily corrupted politician Willie Stark from All the King's Men.  The worst part is that this is an archetype that refuses to stay on the page.  Another way to put it might go something like this.  In a post-Truth era, we now know more about the Overreacher than any of us want to.

It is just possible that this particular Myth is the wellspring from which both history and literature has found its greatest rogues gallery.  The curious thing is that there is something of an ongoing riff within this archetype.  In addition to the more villainous manifestation of the Overreacher, a secondary form of characterization that this type has been known to put on display is that of the Fool who Flies too High.  If the Villain Overreacher is concerned with various forms of total and therefore immoral domination, then this other version of the type is centered perhaps less in villainy, then in an overwhelming and unwarranted sense of pride and misplaced confidence.  The most famous example of this expression of the archetype can be found in the myth of Icarus.  The story of the boy who flew too close to the Sun is perhaps the second most famous use of the Overreacher in world culture.  And it is this iteration of the archetype that seems to be powering the engine of Beaumont's story.  Like the careless flyer of ancient myth, the main character of Jeremey Dodge is a man who prides himself on knowing all the angles of reality.  It isn't until the very end of the story that he discovers one other aspect of the macrocosm that he inhabits, and this leaves him with a greater change in outlook than he ever expected.

In this way Beaumont's story can be said to bear a great deal in common with the Icarus myth.  In fact, I almost want to posit the theory that maybe the Graveyard Wager, rather than being just another riff on the Overreacher archetype, is also quite possibly something of a natural evolution of Icarus's own story.  Except that this time, in a somewhat ironical reversal, the means of the character's tragedy comes from the roots of the very Earth itself, rather than the sky.  What if Beaumont's luckless Wage Maker is the same ill-fated Flyer from mythology, in other words?  It may be pure speculation, yet the bookworm in me can't help wondering if maybe there's a larger grain of truth to this surmise than might seem plausible at first glance.  Whatever the case, there's still a lot to enjoy here.  If I had to give any final summation of this story it's that it's very much a Twilight Zone episode in embryo.  If the basic premise sounds unoriginal, it helps to remember that a lot episodes on that TV series started out as riffs and variations of urban legends themselves.  If anything, Rod Serling returned the favor by taking the trope of the Graveyard Wager and turning it into a full Zone entry, with Lee Marvin playing the lead role.

Aside from this, there's the fact that the real power of any story is its ability to endure over time.  This seems to be true of the great urban legends, based on the sheer fact they still manage to get passed around among kids to this very day.  This evergreen quality is something that Beaumont appears to have picked up on.  It's what allows him to take what could have been a hoary old trope, and find new forms of life within it.  The result is very much in the vein of today's Creepypasta style.  In that sense, Beaumont appears to have anticipated the turn that the Horror genre has taken.  As of this writing, all of the major developments in the American Gothic seem to be finding their biggest expression either in online No Sleep style, digital campfire tales, or else in the novels produced by just a handful of old, and up and coming names.  The general trends suggests a genre that is slowly going back to its roots as tales told around a hearth for its inspiration.  "The Wages of Cynicism" appears to have been an interesting precursor to this new-old direction taken by the field of Horror fiction.  It's a cautionary tale about how the hidden aspects of our beliefs can sometime work toward tragic consequences, even if we think we're protecting ourselves from such outcomes.  For all of these reason's, I'd have to give the final results a pretty decent recommendation.  It's good place to start with the fiction of Charles Beaumont. 

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