Christopher Conlon is one of our favorite writers here in the Vortex. He has done as much as anyone to illuminate the writers behind The Twilight Zone in various books and essays. Chris edited the 2009 Bram Stoker Award winning book He Is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson, which included the first publication of the screenplay for Burn, Witch, Burn! (A.K.A. Night of the Eagle) a 1962 film based on Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife (1943) and adapted in collaboration by Twilight Zone writers Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson.*
Chris also compiled two volumes of the work of Twilight Zone ghostwriter Jerry Sohl: Filet of Sohl (2003), a volume which includes two unproduced Twilight Zone scripts, and The Twilight Zone Scripts of Jerry Sohl (2004). Chris edited the 2006 anthology Poe’s Lighthouse: All New Collaborations with Edgar Allan Poe, which included new work from Twilight Zone writers George Clayton Johnson and Earl Hamner.
Chris has been one of the chief chroniclers of the Southern California Group of writers, a close-knit group of like-minded, creative individuals drawn to one another in the Los Angeles area in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Members included Twilight Zone writers Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, Jerry Sohl, and John Tomerlin, as well as such accomplished writers as Chad Oliver, William F. Nolan, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, and Harlan Ellison. We highly recommend you read Chris's definitive account of the Group. Chris also wrote the essay “Buried Treasures: The Twilight Zone’s Unseen Episodes” for Dark Discoveries #14 (Summer, 2009).
Chris is an accomplished fiction writer whose work has strong appeal for fans of The Twilight Zone. He was a Bram Stoker Award finalist for A Matrix of Angels and Midnight on Mourn Street. Booklist calls Chris “One of the pre-eminent names in contemporary literary horror,” and Twilight Zone writer George Clayton Johnson said “Conlon is a consummate literary artist.” Learn more about Chris’s writings here. Be sure also to follow the link to Chris's blog and read his moving remembrance of the late Twilight Zone writer George Clayton Johnson.
Chris became a friend of George Clayton Johnson in the ‘90s and worked on Johnson’s 1999 retrospective All of Us are Dying and Other Stories, writing an introduction and conducting a long and informative interview with Johnson as sectional interludes in the book. As the George Clayton Johnson scripted episode “A Game of Pool” is the next episode we will be covering as well as a personal favorite here in the Vortex, we reached out to Chris to get his thoughts on Johnson, the Southern California Group, The Twilight Zone, and how it all influenced his own writing. Chris was kind enough to take time out to answer a few of our questions.
*The screenplay is available only in the hardcover first edition from Gauntlet Press and is not included in the paperback edition.
Vortex: What first led you to the Southern California Group of writers and how have they affected your own work as a writer?
Conlon: Well, I was aware of several of them individually from a very early age thanks to Twilight Zone. By the time I was twelve the names Beaumont, Matheson, and Johnson were very familiar to me, since I was an inveterate credits-reader. But it wasn’t until I read Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion when it first came out in the early ’80s that I became aware of the Group. I was fascinated, because I so desperately wanted to be a writer myself—I was about 19 at that point—and this became an ideal for me of how writers could interact. Growing up I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t even know any kids who wanted to be writers. My family thought I was some kind of freak. The whole idea of a group of deeply-bonded creative types meeting, workshopping, collaborating, driving around, going to late-night restaurants, talking about stories, talking about life, was inspiring to me. Much of what I’ve written owes a clear debt to those men, including their mentors Bradbury and Serling.
Vortex: A lot of the Group's best work, especially their work on The Twilight Zone, seems ageless, still able to resonate with a modern reader or viewer. What is it about the work that you feel lends it this quality?
Conlon: I believe that Twilight Zone endures for the same reason that the great film noirs endure, and the great Hitchcocks. In the end, they’re about the central preoccupation of our time—anxiety. So many of the great musicals, great comedies, great Westerns and such have faded into obscurity, of interest only to film buffs or historians; but Twilight Zone just goes on and on, because each new generation struggles with its own anxieties. Some are specific to the time—the arms race, Communism, terrorism, whatever—but others are eternal, existential. Questions of mortality, identity, the nature of reality. Twilight Zone dealt so powerfully with those that the stories still speak to us over a half-century later. It’s pop surrealism; Kafka for the masses. The black-and-white image is vital, too—black-and-white gives a heightened quality with its super-contrasted, super-dramatic chiaroscuro effects. Twilight Zone wouldn’t have been the same in color, any more than great noirs like Kiss Me Deadly or Detour or great Hitchcocks like Psycho. One classic series that partook of some of these elements I’m talking about, The Fugitive, went to color in its final season, and it was a disaster. The stories were all right, but that heightened feeling of dread that the show generated was gone—lost in a wash of colorful blah that took away the shadows and contrasts and pools of threatening darkness and just made everything look cheap and shoddy and as bright as a cartoon.
Vortex: George Clayton Johnson's output for Twilight Zone was relatively small but of exceedingly high quality. What are your general impressions of his work on the series and on “A Game of Pool” specifically?
Conlon: George came into his own as a writer on Twilight Zone. In episodes like “Nothing in the Dark” and “Kick the Can” he displayed a poetic lyricism that was reminiscent of Bradbury, but his scripts were far more effective because George’s dialogue, unlike Bradbury’s, was diamond-sharp, natural, real—Serlingesque, in fact. “A Game of Pool” is a perfect example, and nearly a perfect episode. The ending, which was not George’s, was tacked-on by Serling and Co. in a rare moment of bad judgment, and George hated it. Still, for most of its length it’s as good as any episode of Twilight Zone. You know, I suspect that only other writers really understand how good George Clayton Johnson was. Some kinds of writing—Bradbury’s short stories come to mind—display styles that allow anyone who is even semi-literate to look and say, “Well, now, that’s great writing.” George was more subtle than that. But if you think what he did was easy, well, you just sit down and try to write a twenty-two minute teleplay that contains exactly two characters in one scene on one tiny set—and make it so gripping that it’s unforgettable. When you can do that, you’ll understand just how good George really was.
Vortex: Jerry Sohl was a ghostwriter on several Twilight Zone episodes credited solely to Charles Beaumont. You've edited volumes of Sohl's short stories and television scripts. Tell us how these books came about and what is your estimation of Sohl's contributions to The Twilight Zone?
Conlon: Jerry Sohl is truly the “ghost” writer of Twilight Zone. Like most of his novels, his three scripts for the show weren’t terribly original, but his sheer professionalism and storytelling ability made them memorable—“Living Doll” is based on an idea that was old hat even in 1963, but Sohl’s story construction and characters and dialogue turned it into a classic anyway. As for the two books, Filet of Sohl and Twilight Zone Scripts of Jerry Sohl, I got in touch with Jerry a few years before he died and interviewed him for “Southern California Sorcerers.” I’d always been curious about his two unproduced scripts, “Who Am I?” and “Pattern for Doomsday,” which were mentioned in Twilight Zone Companion—they’d been accepted for production in the last season but were killed by William Froug. After Jerry died I asked the family about those scripts. One thing led to another, and eventually they were published in Filet of Sohl. One delightful thing for me was the fact that after the book was published I met Carl Amari, producer of The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, and acted as a kind of friendly agent for the Sohls in selling him the audio rights to those two scripts. He produced both of them—Henry Rollins starred in one ("Pattern for Doomsday"), Sean Astin in the other ("Who Am I?"). So those old forgotten scripts that had been gathering dust in Jerry’s files for forty years were finally done, under his own name—and on The Twilight Zone, no less! I was so happy to have played a role in that.
Vortex: Your essay “Southern California Sorcerers” is the most definitive history of the Group to date. What did the research entail? Were you able to speak directly to writers from the Group?
Conlon: I interviewed several people by phone and by letter, yes. George and William F. Nolan were my primary sources. I corresponded with Sohl, as I’ve mentioned, and talked with Matheson and Ellison as well. The rest of the job was finding printed sources with relevant material—easier said than done in that pre-Internet era, or at least before I was online myself.
Vortex: Do you have a favorite episode of the Twilight Zone and, if so, why is it your favorite?
Conlon: “Walking Distance” is my favorite episode. Always has been, always will be. It represents all its major contributors—Rod Serling, Robert Stevens, Gig Young, Bernard Herrmann—working at the absolute peak of their powers on a story that’s beautiful and profound and universal.
Vortex: Besides the two Sohl collections and your Richard Matheson tribute anthology He Is Legend, which of your books do you think Twilight Zone fans might be most interested in and why?
Conlon: The obvious choice would be Poe’s Lighthouse, which I conceived and edited—it contains original stories by something like two dozen writers, including Earl Hamner and George Clayton Johnson—in fact, I think George’s story may have been the last one he had published in his lifetime. As for my own writing, the Twilight Zone fan might be well-served by my newest collection, The Tell-Tale Soul: Two Novellas, a pair of long stories on the dark side—one a kind of literary thriller and tribute to Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” the other a gentle rural fantasy about an alternate early 20th century with robots. The author of the book’s introduction, John Pelan, actually titled his piece “Christopher Conlon’s Twilight Zone,” so the connections would seem to be pretty clear. I’m glad about that.
Chris mentioned that "Walking Distance" is his favorite episode of the series and he wrote a fantastic article on the episode which you can read here. We want to again thank Chris for taking time to answer our questions and we hope to do this again soon.