Sunday, March 27, 2016

Remembering Earl Hamner, Jr. (1923 - 2016)

"Television has the power and the ability to enlighten, to educate, to lift viewers to new levels of experience, but there is also a lot of vulgarity. Too much of what we see seems to be written from the groin. I urge you to write from your heart."  --Earl Hamner, Jr.

Earl Hamner, Jr. brought a style and creative voice to American television that was uniquely his own. He created worlds that were both a reflection of his life and personality and also a welcome escape from an era marked by war and political corruption. He offered the world a warm alternative to cynical comedy shows, gritty police programs, and the increasingly bleak independent film movement of the 1970’s. His vision was a positive one, full of hope and optimism that America would pull out of its slump and move on to happier days. Hamner contributed eight original teleplays to The Twilight Zone and was the last living writer to have penned an episode of the show. He passed away on Thursday, March 24. He was 92.

Hamner holds a unique place on the relatively short list of writers who contributed to The Twilight Zone. He was not part of the close-knit community of fantasy and science fiction writers that Beaumont, Matheson, and Johnson belonged to. He came from a vastly different part of the country (Schuyler, Virginia, an isolated village on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains) and his sensibilities were also very different. While Hamner has several episodes that are imitative of the style and formula that had already been established on the show, he was at his best when he simply wrote what he knew. His best episodes feature simple characters and small-town settings and bear a stronger resemblance to southern folklore than golden-age science fiction stories.

A writer with many skillsets, Hamner jumped from medium to medium writing novels and short fiction and penning scripts for film, television, and radio. He came to write for The Twilight Zone through his friendship with Rod Serling. The two met years before at an award ceremony and had kept in touch through the years (Serling later replaced Hamner when he resigned from radio station WLW in Cincinnati). By the time he sold his first teleplay, “The Hunt,” to the show in 1962 he had already published two novels, Fifty Roads to Town (Random House, 1953) and Spencer’s Mountain (Dial Press, 1961) but was virtually unknown in the television and film industries. The Twilight Zone was the break he needed. In 1970 Random House published The Homecoming which Hamner adapted into a Christmas special for CBS the next year. The special did well and Hamner was approached to adapt it into a television series. So he created The Waltons. It ran for nine years and became one of the most celebrated television programs of all time, winning thirteen Emmy Awards, including two for Hamner. The Waltons offered Hamner every creative outlet he needed. Similar to Serling’s involvement on The Twilight Zone, Hamner acted as executive producer, head writer, and host of the program, providing the opening and closing narration to each episode. The show ended in 1981 but several television specials aired in the subsequent years. After The Waltons, Hamner created Falcon Crest in 1981, a soap-opera style series about the California wine industry starring Jane Wyman. This show was also an enormous success and ran for nine seasons.

While Hamner’s episodes may not have always been the right fit for the show he managed to bring something unique to the table. Characters and places and themes rarely seen on television at that time. The Twilight Zone never apologized for being a uniquely American program. It is a product of its time and its place. Earl Hamner’s scripts for the show shed light on a different America, one largely unfamiliar to most the American television audience. He did not judge his characters and presented them in the only way he knew how. Upon viewing Hamner’s work on The Twilight Zone, one can see an immensely talented writer, still young, working in an unfamiliar medium, trying to find the right outlet to express a voice that was uniquely thoughtful and intelligent. Lucky for all of us, he found it.

Earl Hamner, Jr. (1923 - 2016)

The Twilight Zone:
“The Hunt” Season Three
“A Piano in the House” Season Three
“Jess-belle” Season Four
“Ring-a-Ding Girl” Season Five
“You Drive” Season Five
“Black Leather Jackets” Season Five
“Stopover in a Quiet Town” Season Five
“The Bewitchin' Pool” Season Five

Selected Bibliography:
Fifty Roads to Town (Random House, 1953)
Spencer’s Mountain (Dial Press, 1961)
You Can’t Get There from Here (Dial Press, 1965)
The Homecoming (Random House, 1970)
The Twilight Zone Scripts of Earl Hamner, Jr. (Cumberland House Publishing, 2003)
Twilight Zone: 19 Original Stories on the 50th Anniversary (story “The Art of the Miniature”) (Edited by Carol Serling, Tor, 2009)
Poe’s Lighthouse (story “A Passion for Solitude”) (edited by Christopher Conlon, Cemetery Dance Publications, 2006)
The Bleeding Edge: Dark Barriers, Dark Frontiers (story “The Death and Life of Caesar LaRue”) (edited by William F. Nolan, Jason V. Brock, Cycatrix Press, 2009)
The Devil’s Coattails: More Dispatches from the Dark Frontier (story “The Woods Colt”) (edited by William F. Nolan, Jason V. Brock, Cycatrix Press, 2011)

Selected Screenplays:
Palms Springs Weekend (1963)
Charlotte’s Web (1973)
Where the Lilies Bloom (1974)

Selected Television Credits:
The Kate Smith Hour "The Hound of Heaven" (an earlier, shorter version of Hamner's first Twilight Zone episode, "The Hunt," which featured John Carradine as Hyder Simpson and a very young James Dean as the Messenger) (Jan. 15, 1953; CBS) 
Wagon Train "The Wanda Snow Story" (original teleplay) (Jan. 17, 1965; ABC)
ABC Stage 67 "The People Trap" (teleplay by Hamner based on the story by Robert Sheckley) (Nov. 9, 1966; in 1971 Hamner adapted this into a feature length film for ABC called The Last Generation)
The Invaders "The Watchers" (teleplay by Hamner and Jerry Sohl, story by Michael Adams) (Sept. 19, 1967; ABC)
Heidi (teleplay by Hamner based on the novel by Johanna Spyri) (1968, NBC)
The Waltons (series creator, writer, host) (1972 – 1981)
Apple’s Way (series creator, writer) (1974 – 1975)
Falcon Crest (series creator, writer) (1981 – 1990)
Night Visions (anthology series which aired first on Fox then on the Sci Fi channel, segment “The Doghouse,” original teleplay) (2001)

Friday, March 18, 2016

An Interview With Author Christopher Conlon

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.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"The Passersby"

Lavinia (Joanne Linville) listens to a ballad sung by
a confederate sergeant (James Gregory)

“The Passersby”
Season Three, Episode 69
Original Air Date: October 6, 1961

The Sergeant: James Gregory
Lavinia: Joanne Linville
Charlie: Rex Holman
The Lieutenant: David Garcia
Jud: Warren Kimberling
Abraham Lincoln: Austin Green
Wounded Soldier: Bob McCord

Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Elliot Silverstein
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Phil Barber
Set Decoration: H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: Darrell Hallenbeck
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: Fred Steiner

“And Now, Mr. Serling:”
“Next week we move back in time to April, 1865, the aftermath of the Civil War, at a strange, dusty road that leads to a most unbelievable adventure. On our show next week: ‘The Passerby.’ This one is for the Civil War buffs, the mystics among you…or any and all who would want a brief vacation…in the Twilight Zone.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“This road is the afterwards of the Civil War. It began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and ended at a place called Appomattox. It’s littered with the residue of broken battles and shattered dreams. [Enter the Sergeant who stumbles upon the home of Lavinia and sees her sitting on the porch in a rocking chair.] In just a moment, you will enter a strange province that knows neither North nor South, a place we call…the Twilight Zone.”

            April, 1865. The Civil War is over. An endless line of soldiers trudge down a long, arduous road. On this road is a Confederate Sergeant. He leg is wounded and he walks with a crutch. He carries with him a worn out guitar. Tired, he stops at the home of a young woman named Lavinia and asks her for a drink of water. She obliges and they began to talk. She tells the Sergeant that her husband, a Confederate Captain, was killed. He rests under the shade of a tree and plays his guitar awhile.
            Lavinia spots a soldier she knows on the road. She runs to him and throws her arms around him. She tells him that there were reports that he had been killed. He appears unfazed by this and continues walking. Later on, a Union Lieutenant arrives at the house. He asks for a drink of water. The Sergeant chats with him a moment and Lavinia disappears into the house. The Sergeant then recognizes the Lieutenant as the man that saved his life. Lavinia appears on the porch with a shotgun in her hand and announces that she is going to kill the Lieutenant. The Sergeant informs her that this man saved his life and pleads with her to spare his. After a struggle for the gun she fires at the Lieutenant at point blank range but does not hit him. The Sergeant then recalls an incident where he thought the Lieutenant was killed when an artillery shell exploded near him. Puzzled, the Sergeant holds a lantern up to the Lieutenant and finds that his face is horribly mangled. The Union officer thanks Lavinia for the water and rides away.
            The next day another soldier stops by the house. It’s Lavinia’s husband, Jud, whom she believed dead. She runs to him and collapses in his arms, crying. Jud tells her that he is not staying. He is to continue on the road. She begs him to stay but he insists on leaving. He tells her he believes the road will take them to the afterlife. Lavinia finally realizes what everyone else seems to know already: that she and Jud, and the Sergeant, are all dead. After Jud leaves, the Sergeant informs her that he is also leaving. Not wanting to accept her fate, she begs him to stay. She does not want to be alone. But the Sergeant bids his farewell. She is then greeted by President Abraham Lincoln, the last casualty of the Civil War, who informs her that he is the last man on the road. Not wanting to be left behind, she runs after Jud as the late president trails quietly behind her.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
            “Incident on a dirt road during the month of April, the year 1865. As we’ve already pointed out, it’s a road that won’t be found on a map. But it’s one of many that lead in and out…of the Twilight Zone.”

            “The Passersby” is the second in a handful of episodes concerning the American Civil War. Serling, who saw extensive combat as a paratrooper during World War II, had deep-seated anxieties of war and the destruction that human beings were capable of bestowing upon one another. As a fantasy program, The Twilight Zone has an unusually large number of episodes with war-time settings, most of which were penned by Serling. He had already explored the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in the Season Two episode, “Back There,” and he would continue to examine the Civil War in Season Three’s “Still Valley,” his adaptation of Manly Wade Wellman’s story “The Valley Was Still.” During Season Five the show aired a French adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s famous Civil War story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” directed by Robert Enrico.
            “The Passersby” is loosely recycled from a script Serling penned for NBC’s Matinee Theatre in 1958 entitled “The Cause.” In this earlier script, set in the months after the Confederacy’s surrender in the Spring of 1865, a guitar-wielding soldier named Jud meets and falls in love with a woman from the opposing side of the war. They agree to leave the past in the past and focus on building a new life together. The woman’s loyalty is tested when a family member expresses disapproval over her relationship. In “The Passersby” Serling restructured this story, keeping the time period, setting, and various character names and combined it with a theme he had already explored several times on The Twilight Zone and would continue to do so time and time again: mistaken self-identity. In this episode the Sergeant and Lavinia are unable to grasp the fact that they are both dead even though death is literally marching in front of them. This episode shares an unmistakable likeness to “The Hitch-Hiker” and “Judgement Night” (both from Season One and both penned by Serling although the former is an adaptation). But the theme of mistaken self-identity is not limited to episodes where the protagonist is unaware the he or she is already dead. “The After Hours,” “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” and “The Lateness of the Hour” all feature characters, usually the main character, that are unaware of or unwilling to accept their identity. It’s an effective device and one that can lend itself to a wide range of stories, both light and dark. Charles Beaumont’s episode “A Nice Place to Visit” also explores this theme as does Richard Matheson’s “A World of Difference” and his Season Four masterpiece “Death Ship.”          

         While the twist at the end of this episode isn’t really much of a surprise to anyone, except maybe Lavinia, Serling and director Elliot Silverstein focus instead on the relationship of these two strangers and the haunting imagery around them. Through well-crafted dialogue Serling explores the psychological scars of war and loss. He also touches upon the dangers of isolation and prejudice. He does this by painting a beautiful dynamic between two very broken people. A story that begins as two strangers casually getting to know one another becomes something much more compelling.
Likely realizing that the audience would foresee the ending Silverstein chooses to use this to the episode’s advantage leaving it obvious that the endless procession of soldiers marching in front of Lavinia’s home are headed to the afterlife. Excluding the Sergeant, the soldiers appear disoriented and disconnected from the world around them. They walk with an almost mindless lethargy not unlike the living dead in many zombie films. The set design, saturated in the southern gothic tradition, also suggests an afterlife setting of some kind. It is this over indulgence of haunting imagery, framing the tender relationship between Lavinia and the Sergeant, which gives this episode such an unusual atmosphere.
Serling’s major blunder in this episode is the highly unnecessary appearance of Abraham Lincoln in the final scene. By the time the late president arrives the twist has been revealed to the audience (several times) and his presence does not accomplish anything. It feels forced and gimmicky and kind of offsets the earlier discourse between the two main characters.
The lead actors take center stage in this episode and they both turn in compelling performances. James Gregory makes his second appearance on the show. His first was a brief role in the pilot episode, “Where is Everybody?” The problem with his role in “The Passersby” is a mistake in either casting or script editing. At one point in the episode Gregory implies that he was young man, a teenager perhaps, when he first left for the war only a few years before. Gregory was fifty at the time of this episode. This is a minor error but one that could easily have been avoided by omitting just one line. Joanne Linville was already a seasoned television actress, appearing mostly in smaller roles. She is convincing and authentic here as Lavinia. She presents a vulnerability that makes Lavinia’s flaws forgivable and makes her a sympathetic and even a likeable character.
While this episode is an enjoyable one, with intelligent dialogue and fine acting and direction, I find it is not one that requires more than a viewing or two. The dynamic between the two main characters is interesting and believable but there are too many gimmicks (the Union Lieutenant, Jud, Lincoln) that remove the audience from the heart of the story. Still, if you have not seen it, it is definitely worth a viewing, but it probably won’t be one that stays with you for years to come.

Grade: C

--As mentioned, James Gregory also appeared in the pilot episode, “Where is Everybody?” He also appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "Stop Killing Me."
--Elliott Silverstein also directed “The Obsolete Man,” “The Trade Ins,” and “Spur of the Moment.”
--The Passersby was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Morgan Brittany.

--Brian Durant