Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Book Review: Perchance to Dream: Selected Stories, by Charles Beaumont

Cover illustration by William Sweeney

Perchance to Dream: Selected Stories
by Charles Beaumont
Edited by Sam Raim
Penguin Classics, 2015

Last October, Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont was introduced into the hallowed ranks of the Penguin Classics book series with a selection of his short stories titled Perchance to Dream. The release was one of three books (along with Beaumont colleague Ray Russell’s 1962 novel The Case Against Satan and an omnibus of Thomas Ligotti’s first two short fiction collections, Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1985) and Grimscribe (1991)) that signaled a relatively recent open-mindedness toward horror and dark fantasy fiction from the esteemed book publisher (in 2013, Penguin Classics launched the six book series Penguin Horror, publishing the likes of Shirley Jackson, Ray Russell, and H.P. Lovecraft under the direction of editors Guillermo del Toro and S.T. Joshi). The book’s title is taken from of one of Beaumont’s better known short stories, a 1958 story originally published in Playboy which he later adapted into an excellent first season episode of The Twilight Zone, starring Richard Conte and John Larch, and directed by Robert Florey.

Beaumont’s inclusion in this revered series of books, which Penguin began in 1946, should not be underestimated, especially considering Beaumont is a writer largely relegated to aficionados of speculative fiction. Beaumont’s early death (age 38) and his relatively small body of work would likely be further mired in obscurity had it not been for his involvement with an enduring property like The Twilight Zone. Perchance to Dream includes a foreword by Beaumont’s literary mentor Ray Bradbury, “Beaumont Remembered,” which originally appeared in the 1982 retrospective Best of Beaumont from Bantam Books; the second such book, after 1965’s The Magic Man and Other Science-Fantasy Stories, to which Bradbury lends an essay in an effort to expose Beaumont to a wider audience. Perchance to Dream also includes an afterword by William Shatner, the star of director Roger Corman’s 1962 adaptation of Beaumont’s 1959 novel The Intruder, a film in which Beaumont played a central role and also featured appearances from Beaumont’s friends George Clayton Johnson, William F. Nolan, and OCee Ritch, two of whom (Johnson and Ritch) would write for The Twilight Zone.  

The book’s highly appealing cover is the work of commercial artist and designer William Sweeney. Sweeney’s colorful and surrealistic illustration of a frightened couple driving a vintage automobile through a hellish landscape was an attempt to capture the atmosphere of Beaumont’s work, described by Sweeney as having “a garish, comic book-like quality,” rather than illustrating any one particular story, though Sweeney did also consider using an image created from Beaumont’s story “The Jungle” of a man looking out from a balcony over a futuristic city. Sweeney, along with Art Director Colin Webber and Creative Director Paul Buckley, ultimately decided that this image “didn’t pack the punch of the ghost-train type journey through a land populated by various monsters from the stories.” Sweeney’s creative model was the work of prolific commercial illustrator Virgil Finley, who provided much of his finest work during the height of the pulp era in the 1930s and 1940s for magazines such as Famous Fantastic Mysteries and Weird Tales. Finley’s influence can be seen in the imaginative design of the monstrous beings and in the evocation of the pulp era.  

The content within the book is perhaps the most puzzling and frustrating aspect of this wonderful opportunity to expose Beaumont’s work to a wider readership. The story selection is presumably an attempt to cover the widest possible range of Beaumont’s fiction, which is not necessarily a poor approach to take on such a project if the book is not intended, as Perchance to Dream clearly is, to be a collection representative of Beaumont’s finest work (if this is in fact not the intention, one wonders why an editor would not choose an author's best work for inclusion in a "classics" line). Due to this approach, Perchance to Dream includes much of Beaumont’s quality work and nearly as much Beaumont work that is not of the same high quality. The most frustrating aspect of the selection is that several of Beaumont’s finest short stories are left out in favor of lesser works. Meaning that, unless this is volume one in a proposed series of Beaumont collections, readers will have to search elsewhere for such acknowledged Beaumont masterpieces as “Miss Gentilbelle” (Beaumont’s harrowing autobiographical story of the child abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother), “The Hunger,” “Black Country” (perhaps Beaumont’s defining masterpiece), and “Mourning Song,” an ironic dark fantasy published late in Beaumont’s career which would have made a supremely weird episode of The Twilight Zone. Due primarily to the exclusion of these stories, Roger Anker’s 1988 retrospective, Charles Beaumont: Selected Stories (Dark Harvest; reprinted in paperback by Tor Books as The Howling Man), remains the definitive Beaumont collection. Anker’s book also includes essays from several of Beaumont’s colleagues as well as Anker’s own introductory essay, which remains the most detailed Beaumont biography currently available. Instead of the stories listed above, Penguin decided to include such underwhelming fare as “Sorcerer’s Moon,” “Father, Dear Father,” “Blood Brother,” “The Monster Show,” “The Music of the Yellow Brass,” and “The New Sound.”

Seven stories are included which were later adapted by Beaumont (and in one instance by Beaumont’s friend John Tomerlin) for The Twilight Zone. These are: “The Howling Man,” “The Jungle,” “Perchance to Dream,” “In His Image,” “The Beautiful People” (adapted by Tomerlin as “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You”), “Song for a Lady” (adapted as “Passage on the Lady Anne”), and “Traumerei (adapted as “Shadow Play”). It is unfortunate that the book does not also include the Beaumont stories “The Devil, You Say?” (Beaumont’s first professionally published story, adapted for The Twilight Zone as “Printer’s Devil”), “Elegy” (adapted for the first season of the series), and “Gentlemen, Be Seated” (adapted for The Twilight Zone by Beaumont but scrapped by fifth season producer William Froug), if only to include all of Beaumont’s Twilight Zone material under one cover, to say nothing of the quality of the three missing stories.

Other exceptional stories included in Perchance to Dream are: “Place of Meeting” (a short-short story with a wonderful twist ending), “Free Dirt” (a bizarre horror story of supernatural justice), “Last Rites” (an ambitious science fiction story about religion), “The New People” (a prescient shocker about domestic terrorists in a middle-class neighborhood), and “A Death in the Country” (a pitch-dark thriller concerning one of Beaumont’s favorite pastimes, auto racing).

It is wonderful and refreshing to find Charles Beaumont in the Penguin Classics series, and though the book is somewhat flawed due to the uneven selection of stories, it is hoped that intrepid readers will use Perchance to Dream as a signpost to Beaumont’s other written works, many of which are being brought back into print in handsome paperback editions by the Richmond, Virginia based Valancourt Books, a publisher with a vested interest in resurrecting obscure or neglected works of horror and the supernatural.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover, A Visual Celebration of Penguin Classics edited by Paul Buckley, Creative Director of Penguin Classics (Penguin Random House, 2016) for information and quotes on William Sweeney’s cover illustration for Perchance to Dream. I highly recommend this visual journey through the trend-setting book design of the Penguin Classics series. The book focuses on the last decade of the Penguin Classics series when Creative Director Paul Buckley greatly widened the scope of design on the prestigious line of books. The book includes many image details and rough drafts of the book covers (including two rough drafts for William Sweeney’s illustration for Perchance to Dream) as well as essays and observations from the artists themselves, many of which divulge the creative process of creating the book cover. It is a book lover’s delight.

-JP 

2 comments:

  1. I got excited for this book but after reading your review I think I'll pass.

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  2. Sorry it was a discouraging review, Jack. I can recommend it to someone that has had little exposure to Beaumont or to someone who is trying to get some hard to find stories from Beaumont. The problem is, as I said in the review, those hard to find stories have no business being included in a Penguin Classics edition of Beaumont's work, especially at the expense of excluding some flat-out classic Beaumont material like "The Hunger" and "Black Country." It is, however, certainly nice to have Beaumont as part of such a widely available book series.

    I also understand that the names Bradbury and Shatner on the book cover are likely to sell more copies but I would have rather seen a new introduction from someone like Roger Anker or S.T. Joshi, the latter of whom has worked for years with Penguin to prepare volumes of supernatural fiction. I would also have enjoyed notes on the texts and story notes, a common feature of Penguin Classics which is curiously absent here. Because of the absence of these extra features, I can't recommend this book as better than the Beaumont books already out there, especially The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories (which includes all of Beaumont's short stories adapted into episodes (with the exception of "Gentlemen, Be Seated) and the Roger Anker edited Selected Stories.

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