There are so many notable aspects of Charles Beaumont’s(1929-67) life and work, it’s hard to know where to being in naming them. He was a gifted writer of short stories and novels, one who showed easy mastery of various genres including horror, sci-fi, dark comedy, and socially conscious literary fiction. He was the first writer to have a short story published in Playboy. He often worked with two of the more influential pioneers of filmed media – B-movie king Roger Corman and TV’s leading light Rod Serling. He is probably best known for his work on Serling’s show The Twilight Zone. He penned 22 episodes of that groundbreaking program, including some of the more memorable installments. And then there’s the matter of Beaumont’s bizarre and saddening life story. He died at age 38 from a degenerative brain disease that couldn’t be diagnosed at the time and that had him looking, according to his son, like he was 95 when he passed away.
This collection of Beaumont’s writings could make an excellent introduction to his work for someone new to his writing. There are 23 stories which, taken together, show him to have been a master of the short fiction form, and one who had no trouble jumping around from one genre to another. Fans of The Twilight Zone will be pleased to see the short story versions of some of Beaumont’s tales that became the foundations of episodes of the show. There are three such selections in the book that are particularly memorable: the title story, in which a psychologically desperate man tells his psychiatrist that he cannot allow himself to sleep, because he knows that when he does he will return to an ongoing dream in which he will eventually die; “The Howling Man,” which concerns a haggard American tramping through Europe, who wanders into a dwelling in which a man (or is he a man?) who might be Satan is being held captive; and “The Beautiful People,” which became the Twilight Zone episode “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” about a young woman who fights against her society’s practice of forcing people who reach the age of 19 to undergo an operation in which they are physically changed to look just like one of a handful of antiseptically attractive models.
Every story in the collection is worth reading but there are a handful, apart from those mentioned above, that stand out. Within this group, a wide spectrum of Beaumont’s varied talents and inclinations are revealed. “Free Dirt” is a darkly comic tale about a man who is obsessed with getting salable goods without having to pay for them. In “Last Rites,” a holy man is forced to face the question of whether he would give those rites to a person who seems human but is actually a robot. “The New People” is a progressively intense story about a couple who moves to a new neighborhood and discovers that some of the people living around them are getting up to sinister activities through the wee hours. The most noir story in the collection, “A Death in the Country,” follows the thoughts and actions of a small-time race car driver as he preps for, engages in, and then exits a contest. In “Traumeiri,” a man who is about to be executed as punishment for a murder he committed, warns the people around him that if they kill him they will all die, because they are only a part of a dream he’s having. Any of these stories could have been the basis of an excellent Twilight Zone episode. All of them are products of a talented and imaginative writer working in a feverish vein. Beaumont’s stories sometimes induce laughter and other times fear, but they almost always engage the reader’s imagination and they often challenge how we think about metaphysical matters.
The introduction to this book is a reprint of a 1981 essay by Ray Bradbury, who helped Beaumont break in as a writer, and who knew him well; Bradbury’s piece shares his reminiscences of Beaumont the man while reflecting on the work of Beaumont the writer. William Shatner’s afterword focuses on his memories of the daringly controversial 1962 movie The Intruder, which was written by Beaumont and directed by Corman, and in which Shatner plays the lead role.
As Bradbury states in his essay, we can only wonder what Charles Beaumont might have been able to accomplish as a writer if he had lived a few decades longer than his short 38 years. What these 23 stories reveal, though, is that he certainly made good use of the time that he had.
Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in over 20 publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction and film have been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Crimeculture,Paperback Parade, Mulholland Books, and Stark House Press. He is a regular contributor to The Life Sentence crime fiction web site, and Shindig! music magazine. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina. He can be found on Twitter @brianjoebrain.