Monday, November 21, 2016

Entering The Twilight Zone on Public Radio's Selected Shorts

Robert Sean Leonard
             The Twilight Zone recently made an appearance on Selected Shorts, the public radio program which features live readings of short fiction presented by well-known performers. The program is part of Public Radio International and comes recommended due to the high quality of the performances and the unique aspect that accompanies a live audience. The program is, with some exceptions, recorded live on Broadway at Symphony Space in New York City and later broadcast on public radio stations on Friday evenings.

            The Twilight Zone program was hosted by actor Robert Sean Leonard with three short stories that formed the basis of three episodes of the series. This was presumably done in an effort to offer something outré during the Halloween season. The selections were eclectic and unusual. The three stories featured were “Four O’clock” by Price Day, “Perchance to Dream” by Charles Beaumont, and “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” by Henry Slesar. Though Selected Shorts typically devotes an entire one-hour episode to a single short story, the program decided to select very short stories from The Twilight Zone in order to fit more than one story into an episode. Oddly enough, Rod Serling is only directly connected to one of the stories, other than as creator of the series, of course, as he adapted Price Day’s “Four O’clock” for the series. It would have been nice to see the program devote an entire episode to one of Rod Serling’s many story adaptations from one of the three Bantam paperbacks he wrote in the early 1960s, and perhaps the program will do so in the future. Alas, the Serling stories proved too long for current consideration and Selected Shorts opted instead for shorter material connected with the show.

            The three Twilight Zone stories were spread out over two programs. The original broadcasts were as follows: On Friday, October 28, Selected Shorts featured “Four O’clock” by Price Day, read by Zachary Quinto, “Perchance to Dream” by Charles Beaumont, read by Zach Grenier, and “The Landlady” by Roald Dahl, read by Sam Underwood. On Friday, November 18, Selected Shorts featured “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” by Henry Slesar, read by Robert Sean Leonard, “Head Over Knees” by Eric Schlich, read by Robert Sean Leonard, and “Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose” by Helen Oyeyemi, read by Colby Minifie. These episodes can currently be downloaded free on iTunes or another podcatcher but those interested should hurry as Selected Shorts only features the last dozen or so episodes available for download at any given time. The October 28 episode can be found under the title “Entering the Twilight Zone” and the November 18 episode under the title “Fateful Encounters.”

            The readings offered an opportunity to revisit the source material in comparison to the finished product on the series. Zachary Quinto’s reading of Price Day’s “Four O’clock” is serviceable. The actor, best known for his role as Spock in the current Star Trek films, chooses to read the very short story in a subdued, almost monotone, fashion. Though this method produces an overly long build-up, it works well when delivering the story’s memorable final line. “Four O’clock” was originally published in the April, 1958 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Incidentally, we will soon see that this Selected Shorts program had as much to do with Alfred Hitchcock as it did with The Twilight Zone, beginning with Price Day’s story, illustrating the vast common ground shared by Hitchcock's and Serling's programs as well as the permanence of Hitchcock on literary culture then and now.  

              “Four O’clock” was adapted by Rod Serling and directed by Lamont Johnson for the third season of The Twilight Zone. The story is very short and it is interesting to see how much Serling added when crafting his adaptation. A lot of what he added was necessary as Serling painted the main character, Oliver Crangle, as a much viler person than in Day’s story. In the story, Day only hints at Crangle’s true nature in an effort to keep the shock ending unexpected, although a reader is left wondering if Crangle truly deserved his awful fate. Serling leaves no doubt of this by clearly displaying Crangle’s warped sense of justice.

               The standout reading of the program is Zach Grenier’s performance of Charles Beaumont’s “Perchance to Dream,” which received raucous applause from the audience once the devastating final line of the story was delivered. The manic story of a sleep deprived man’s attempt to explain his plight to a sympathetic psychologist is perfect for an energetic reading and that is exactly what Grenier delivers. One forgets how terrifying a story it is, especially the scenes in which Phillip Hall, the afflicted man, is the victim of a recurring nightmare in which he steadily climbs a high wooden roller coaster. “Perchance to Dream” was first published in the October, 1958 issue of Playboy, the magazine to which Beaumont would contribute a large amount of his published work. The story was the first Beaumont’s first contribution to The Twilight Zone, produced for the first season from Beaumont’s own adaptation under the direction of Robert Florey. Beaumont changes little in his adaptation, allowing Florey free reign to display his excellent, German expressionist-inspired, directing style. “Perchance to Dream” remains one of the most nightmarish and frightening episodes of the entire series. Florey was an accomplished French director who is primarily remembered by horror fans for developing an adaptation of Frankenstein in 1930 for Universal Studios with Bela Lugosi in the role of the Monster before the project was scrapped by the studio. Universal quickly hired director James Whale to develop the project instead. Whale “discovered” Boris Karloff for the role of the Monster and the resultant film is a classic. The compensation prize for Florey and Lugosi was the 1932 shocker Murders in the Rue Morgue.

            The first program also featured an inspired reading of Roald Dahl’s “The Landlady” by Sam Underwood. The reading was recorded at a comedy club and Underwood relishes and heightens the humorous aspects of Dahl’s story to a great degree. “The Landlady” was adapted for the sixth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and boast one of the finest pedigrees of any episode of that series, as it was adapted from the Dahl story by Robert Bloch and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Dahl later presented the story for the first season of his 1970s era television series Tales of the Unexpected. 
           Robert Sean Leonard, host of the program, reads the final Twilight Zone story, Henry Slesar’s “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross.” Leonard’s reading is fine and even, not given to the broad melodrama presented in Jerry McNeely’s adaptation of the story for the fifth season of The Twilight Zone. Revisiting the Slesar story greatly illustrated the failings of the adaptation. In the original story, Salvadore Ross is a pitiable figure nowhere near the selfish villain of the adaptation, which makes the surprise ending that much more shocking. In the adaptation, Ross is presented as a cruel bully of a man and his relationship with Leah is borderline abusive. This turns the story into a one-dimensional twist ending tale which unfortunately became very common by the fifth season of the series. Slesar’s story was first published in the May, 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Slesar was a frequent contributor to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, so much so that in 1989 appeared a volume dedicated solely to Slesar’s contributions to Hitchcock’s show titled Death on Television: The Best of Henry Slesar’s Alfred Hitchcock Stories.

                In all, it was a delight to see Selected Shorts feature Twilight Zone stories on their program. It stands as proof of the high literary quality of the series. Here’s hoping the program continues to feature not only material from The Twilight Zone but other crowd-pleasing genre material from that Golden Age of the 1950s-1970s.

-Jordan P.     

                                                    Selected Shorts from PRI


  1. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I will go download these shows now.

    1. Sure thing. I was very surprised to see the Zone featured on this program. It is always nice to see that the show's influence remains a wide-ranging one.

  2. My wife and I just listened to "Salvadore Ross" in the car and we both thought it was great.

    1. You know I listened to that reading and enjoyed it so much I rushed to watch the episode again, and it was an episode I hadn't watched in a long time, and was immensely disappointed in the adaptation. I think changing Ross from a pitiable loser to an abusive bully affects the entire tone of the tale, and not in a good way. I wish Serling would have done the adaptation of that story.