The tragic, magic man

 

© Coronet Books

 

Last year, while I was back visiting my family in Scotland, I happened to be hoking around in some boxes of books that belonged to me but that’d ended up gathering dust in a corner of my father’s attic.  Inside one of those boxes I discovered a very old paperback called The Magic Man, a collection of mostly fantasy, horror and science-fiction stories by the late American writer Charles Beaumont originally published in 1965.  Dimly, I recalled buying this for 25p (though the cover-price was a pre-decimalization 3/6) in a second-hand bookshop in the Lincolnshire town of Louth.  I worked in Louth for five months in 1983 as a volunteer classroom assistant and houseparent at a residential school for boys with severe behavioral issues – ‘maladjusted’ boys, as they were called back in those unsympathetic, non-PC days.

 

I knew Beaumont’s name in 1983 because I’d seen it attached to several movies that’d had a big impact on me while I was growing up, such as The Seven Faces of Dr Lao and Masque of the Red Death (both 1964).  But after buying the book, I never got around to opening it and it was stashed away unread among the hundreds, eventually thousands of other books I owned.

 

Anyway, 37 years later – writing this sentence makes me feel absolutely ancient – I’ve finally read the stories in The Magic Man.  The collection kicks off with an introduction by Beaumont’s friend and mentor Ray Bradbury, which while gracious in tone suggests that Bradbury was a hard taskmaster to have as your writing tutor.  He recalls telling the young Beaumont to write and submit one story every week: “He worked, I remember, part time at United Parcel Service, back in the early fifties, so as to spend the rest of his hours finishing that special story that must be sent off in the mail every Saturday.”  Intriguingly, Bradbury also mentions that Beaumont tried, “for years, to convince movie producers to make films out of the Ian Fleming books.”  Obviously, and sadly for Beaumont’s bank balance, someone else managed to convince Cubby Broccoli and Harry R. Saltzman to make films out of them first.

 

With Bradbury as his guru, it’s no surprise that several stories in The Magic Man bear the imprint of Bradbury’s own fanciful, wistful and nostalgic writing.  The title story, about a stage magician who travels a circuit of small American prairie towns doing magic shows and who doesn’t appreciate the importance that his ‘magic’ holds for the prairie townspeople while they go about their otherwise humdrum lives, has echoes of Bradbury’s 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.  It also evokes Charles G. Finney’s novel The Circus of Dr Lao, which coincidentally Beaumont adapted for producer George Pal as the movie The Seven Faces of Dr Lao.  Also with a flavour of Bradbury-esque small-town America is The Hunger, although Beaumont’s tale of a lonely, frustrated spinster who feels a strange affinity for an escaped, murderous lunatic pushes the envelope further than the genteel Bradbury would have done.

 

Bradbury’s introduction notes too that Beaumont had a penchant for driving and “burning up the dirt on the nearest racetrack” and a couple of the stories reflect his love for automobiles.  A Classic Affair, about a worried woman asking a friend to follow her husband, whom she believes is in an adulterous relationship, takes a nice twist when the man discovers just what – as opposed to who – the husband is having an affair with, although a second twist that follows on from that twist isn’t perhaps so surprising.  Meanwhile, the final story, A Death in the Country, convincingly details the desperate life of an aging and failing dirt-track car racer and is one of the collection’s few non-genre stories.

 

If the story Perchance to Dream, the story of a man with a heart condition who’s troubled by a recurrent dream where he’s lured onto a literally heart-stopping rollercoaster, sounds familiar, it’s because Beaumont adapted it into an episode of the classic TV show The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  This was one of 22 episodes of that series that he scripted or co-scripted.  (Beaumont clearly had conflicted feelings about writing for cinema and television.  According to the cult New Wave sci-fi / fantasy author Harlan Ellison, Beaumont once told him that: “Attaining success in Hollywood is like climbing a gigantic mountain of cow flop, in order to pick one perfect rose from the summit.  And you find when you’ve made that hideous climb… you’ve lost the sense of smell.”)

 

Another story that ended up as the basis for a TV episode is The New People, which became an instalment in the British anthology series Journey to the Unknown (1968-69), made by horror specialists Hammer Films in conjunction with 20th Century Fox.  Beaumont’s story features a group of successful professionals and their families living in a well-to-do American neighbourhood who, beneath their respectable surfaces and like the characters in Richard Yates’s novel Revolution Road (1961), are bored out of their wits with their situations.   But while Yates’s characters try to solve the problem of their ennui by contemplating a move to Paris, Beaumont’s characters decide to enliven things by participating in some dark activities indeed.  In the Journey to the Unknown episode, this sinister community is moved to the affluent Home Counties of England and, with an excellent cast including Robert Reed, Adrienne Corri, Melissa Stribling, Milo O’Shea and a splendidly saturnine Patrick Allen, it’s fairly effective.  But the episode leaves out an important plot element about the main characters’ sex lives (or lack of them) that gives the original story a satisfying and, with hindsight, logical twist ending.

 

The Magic Man has a couple of weaker entries, which tend to be science fictional.  The Last Caper suffers because it attempts to graft a Raymond Chandler / Philip Marlowe-type private-detective story onto a space-age setting, with characters speaking a futuristic version of Chandler’s famously hardboiled 1940s patois.  (“Don’t push it, rocket-jockey…”).  This sounds awfully dated now.  Similarly, The Monster Show has its characters speaking like futuristic beatniks and doesn’t fare any better.  (“It’s pictures that count.  Flap?”  “Nothing can go wrong.  Nothing-o.”)  It makes me wonder how dated the achingly hip and cutting-edge ‘cyberpunk’ sci-fi novels of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s will seem in a few decades’ time, if they don’t seem dated already.

 

That said, The Crooked Man, set in a future where homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuals are a persecuted minority, is a fine example of a science-fiction story that highlights a contemporary injustice by pitching its readers into a world where the tables have been turned.  It was pretty bold of Playboy magazine to publish the story when it did, back in 1955.

 

A little too varied in quality, and with some stories that show their influences a little too much – for example, the 1955 story The Murderers pinches the premise of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and the 1929 play by John Hamilton on which it was based – The Magic Man isn’t wholly satisfying.  But it still contains lots of entertaining and impressive work and makes one wonder what spectacular things Beaumont might have gone on to write if he hadn’t died at the wastefully young age of 38.  Yes, Charles Beaumont was born, grew up, established himself as a writer and died in almost the same period of time that elapsed between my buying The Magic Man and my reading it.

 

The manner of his passing was grim.  He succumbed to a mystery illness, which his agent Forest J. Ackerman theorized was a combination of Alzheimer’s and Pick’s disease, whereby he suffered from headaches, reduced concentration, slurred speech, erratic behavior, weight loss and premature aging.  At the time of his death, one of Beaumont’s sons recalled, he “looked 95 and was, in fact, 95 by every calendar except the one on your watch.”

 

So, while the main character of the title story in this collection styles himself as the Magic Man, I can’t help but think of the collection’s author as the Tragic Man.

 

From twilightzone.fandom.com/wiki

 

Richard Matheson: 1926 – 2013

 

The blockbuster movie World War Z is currently on summer release, filling cinema screens across the globe with images of Brad Pitt and his family being pursued by zombie hordes through the streets of Glasgow… sorry, Philadelphia.  It seems a sad coincidence that Richard Matheson, author of the 1954 novel I am Legend from which World War Z and a million other zombie-apocalypse movies get their DNA, died last week at the age of 87.

 

In I am Legend the monsters are vampires, not zombies.  However, the novel’s premise – thanks to a contagion, the world has suddenly and nightmarishly turned upside down and a small number of uninfected human beings find themselves menaced by those who’ve been infected and turned into predatory monsters, including their own loved ones – was one that a young George Romero appropriated for his seminal 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead.  In doing so, Romero made it the blueprint for 80% of the zombie movies that have lurched across cinema and TV screens ever since.  (Like Romero, Alex Garland, who scripted 2004’s 28 Days Later, has openly confessed his debt to Matheson.)

 

In Matheson’s novel, the number of uninfected humans is small indeed: just one, Richard Neville, who is alone in the world during the daytime and then under siege in his fortified house at night, by vampires, which is what everybody else has turned into.  I am Legend is actually science fiction rather than horror or fantasy because Neville, researching the plague, gradually stumbles on scientific explanations for the vampire-like symptoms of its victims – why they drink blood, why they can only be killed by stakes through the heart, and why they have an aversion to sunlight, garlic and crucifixes.  I am Legend also has an unnerving psychological twist at the end.  Neville, who’s spent his days roaming the surrounding city and staking the slumbering vampires, realises that the vampires are now the normal ones and he has become the monster of everyone’s nightmares, the deadly legend of the title.

 

It’s a pity that although I am Legend was filmed on several occasions, and although Matheson lived to a venerable age, he never got to see a satisfactory celluloid version of it.  The novel received its first film treatment in Italy, where Rome unconvincingly stood in for Los Angeles, with the cheaply and incompetently made L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra (The Last Man on Earth).  Neville was played by Vincent Price, whom Matheson admired as an actor but thought was completely wrong for the role.  L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra was at least fairly faithful to the book, unlike the subsequent film versions, 1970’s The Omega Man and 2007’s I am Legend, which starred Charlton Heston and Will Smith respectively.  In The Omega Man the vampires have become a group of demented albino mutants called, with unsubtle hippy-era irony, The Family.  In the Smith version of I am Legend they’re even less impressive.  They’re no more than a bunch of bald, hyperactive zombies, animated by some shoddy CGI.

 

Both of the later movie versions lack the courage to portray Neville as being totally alone and eventually they have him encounter other, as yet uninfected survivors.  They also lack the courage to include Matheson’s game-changing ending.  Instead, they close with Heston and Smith depicted as Christ-like figures who nobly sacrifice themselves for the good of what’s left of humanity.  Neville was a more interesting character when he realised he’d turned into a bogeyman.  (Disappointing though all three film versions are, there’s at least a good graphic-novel adaptation of I am Legend available: http://blogcritics.org/book-review-graphic-novel-adaptation-of/).

 

(c) IDW Publishing

 

Matheson’s other big – though ‘big’ is perhaps not the most appropriate adjective – novel of the 1950s was The Shrinking Man (1956).  Its hero, an archetypal middle-class American male called Scott Carey, is exposed to a radioactive cloud that causes his body to shrink at the rate of a seventh of an inch every day.  Thereafter, Carey’s world turns nightmarishly upside down too, though at a more gradual rate than Richard Neville’s.  First, he experiences psychological and sexual humiliation as he finds himself increasingly dwarfed by his normal-sized wife.  Following an assault by the family cat – no longer a loveable moggie but a carnivorous monster – the now-tiny Carey loses all contact with humanity and finds himself trapped in his house’s basement where the dangers facing him become formidable indeed.  A common spider, for instance, takes on the proportions of an elephant.  And Carey’s shrinking doesn’t stop, let alone get reversed.  At the book’s close, he muses, “If nature existed on endless planes, so also might intelligence.”  Presumably, afterwards, he dwindles into infinity.

 

A year after its publication, the novel was filmed as The Incredible Shrinking Man, directed by Jack Arnold and with Matheson providing the script.  Matheson was unhappy with how Arnold structured the film – he told the story in linear fashion, whereas Matheson wanted it to begin with the shrunken Carey in the basement, reliving what had happened to him via a series of flashbacks – but it’s still one of the best science fiction movies of the 1950s.  Crucially, it retains the novel’s bleakly philosophical ending.  No miracle cure arrives at the last minute to restore Carey and he keeps on shrinking – I can remember seeing the film on TV as a kid and being genuinely upset when the ending defied my expectations that things would finish on an upbeat note.  The Incredible Shrinking Man was, incidentally, listed by J.G. Ballard as one of his ten favourite sci-fi movies: http://www.cityofsound.com/blog/2005/05/jg_ballards_top.html.

 

(c) Universal

 

As well as novels, Matheson was a prolific writer of short stories, many of which were collected in four books called the Shock series.  (Shock 1-4 were published in Britain in the 1970s by Sphere Books, who decorated the covers with lurid and gory images, including one of a man with an axe bloodily embedded in his forehead.  These covers were the antithesis of the unsensational, non-violent and thoughtful works inside.)  Among those stories I remember reading are Long Distance Call, about a woman plagued by mysterious phone calls that, she discovers, emanate from a local cemetery into which the telephone wire has blown down; The Children of Noah, about a motorist who finds himself in a Kafkaesque predicament when he breaks the 15-miles-per-hour speed limit of a tiny American town called Zachary (population 67); and the brilliant The Splendid Source, in which a man embarks on a quest to find out where dirty jokes really come from.  You can read that last one here: http://kanyak.com/matheson_the_splendid_source.html.

 

(c) Sphere

 

Long Distance Call was one of several Matheson stories that were turned into episodes of the celebrated TV anthology series The Twilight Zone, which ran from 1959 to 1964.  The best of these, adapted by Matheson himself, was of course Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, in which William Shatner essayed his second-most-famous role – that of a just-released psychiatric patient who’s on board a plane and, looking out of the window, sees a gremlin dismantling one of the engines on the wing.  Whenever he tries to alert the crew and fellow passengers, the beastie inconveniently disappears from view.  Needless to say, whenever I’m on a plane myself and find myself in a seat overlooking the wing, that episode is always the first thing I think of – particularly the moment when the traumatised Shatner dares to peek through the window again and discovers the gremlin pressing its face, which resembles that of a hare-lipped teddy bear, against the outside of the glass and staring in at him.  The episode was remade as a segment of the movie version of The Twilight Zone in 1983, directed by Australia’s George Miller and starring John Lithgow in the Shatner role; and it’s been endlessly parodied and referenced in popular culture since.  In 1993 it received the ultimate accolade – it was spoofed in a Treehouse of Horror edition of The Simpsons, with Bart Simpson the only passenger on the school bus able to see a gremlin sabotaging its engine.  This version was called Nightmare at 5½ Feet.

 

Other episodes that Matheson penned for The Twilight Zone were also influential.  A World of Difference (which I think was an original script) is about a businessman who makes the mind-blowing discovery that he’s a fictional character and his life is actually a movie.  Furthermore, the movie has just had its production halted, meaning he’ll have to live in the ‘real’ world as the declining, drunken movie star who’s been playing him.  This obviously informs Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show.  Meanwhile, Little Girl Lost, based on a story Matheson wrote in 1953, tells the tale of a child who one night falls from her bed and into another dimension, a mysterious, misty void from which she can hear her parents’ concerned voices but seemingly can’t escape.  Clearly, a young Steven Spielberg saw and remembered this one, because the same idea drives the main plot strand in 1982’s Spielberg-produced Poltergeist, though this time the little girl is sucked into the other dimension through the household TV set.  (And yes, The Simpsons spoofed it too in Treehouse of Horror.)

 

Steven Spielberg has much to thank Matheson for, in fact.  Matheson’s short story Duel, based on an experience he had on November 22nd, 1963 – of driving home depressed at the news of Kennedy’s assassination and being harassed by a large, tailgating truck – was filmed as a TV movie in 1971 by Spielberg and it gave the young director his first big critical success.  Again, Matheson wrote the script.  Duel-the-movie provides some memorable images while motorist Dennis Weaver and the psychopathic driver of a 1955 Peterbilt 281 truck get into a deadly game of cat and mouse around the roads and highways of rural California.   We never see the truck driver himself, just his immense, bellowing, dinosaur-like vehicle.  Duel is the archetypal man-versus-machine story and, again, has been influential.  Stephen King basically rewrote it (but, typically, upped the ante by adding lots of malevolent vehicles) with his short story Trucks, which itself was filmed as Maximum Overdrive.

 

(c) Universal

 

The made-for-television movies that filled American TV schedules in the 1970s kept Matheson busy.  As well as Duel he scripted The Night Stalker, about a reporter called Carl Kolchak (played by Darren McGavin) who investigates a series of killings in modern-day Los Angeles and discovers that the perpetrator is a vampire.  The Night Stalker was successful enough to eventually spawn a TV show called Kolchak: The Night Stalker, also starring McGavin, in which Kolchak investigates other cases involving monsters and supernatural phenomena.  Though short-lived, the show was a major inspiration for Chris Carter, whose similarly themed The X-Files became one of the biggest series on American television in the 1990s.  Carter acknowledged his debt to Kolchak by having Darren McGavin guest-star in two X-Files episodes.

 

Meanwhile, the TV anthology movie Trilogy of Terror, from 1975, was based on three of Matheson’s short stories.  The first two segments, adapted by Matheson’s friend William F. Nolan, are unmemorable, but the third one, which Matheson himself scripted from his story Prey, is great.  It stars Karen Black as an insecure woman – early on, we hear her engaged in a painful telephone conversation with her mother, who is obviously a manipulative old bag – who tries to shore up her relationship with her boyfriend, a lecturer in social anthropology, by buying him an antique ‘Zuma fetish doll’ as a birthday present.  The doll is a hideous-looking thing and sports a many-fanged grin that resembles a Venus flytrap.  Needless to say, before she can give the doll to its intended recipient, it comes to violent, gibbering and freaky life and she spends the evening fighting it off in the confines of her apartment.  Black’s plight is the inverse of the shrinking man’s – she’s normal-sized and the threat she faces is tiny, but terrifying.  (This created the template for Joe Dante’s movie Gremlins in 1984.  In particular, the scene in Gremlins where Frances Lee McCain fights off a horde of the sneering, reptilian mini-monsters in her kitchen, employing a blender and a microwave oven as weapons, is similar to what Black’s character goes through in Trilogy of Terror.)

 

(c) AIP

 

When he wasn’t writing novels, short stories and television scripts, the ever-industrious Matheson was writing for the cinema.  In the early 1960s, he scripted several of the movies based on works by Edgar Allan Poe that were made by American International Pictures and directed by Roger Corman: The House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror and The Raven.  All told, Matheson did a good job of preserving some of the original stories’ gloomy, clammy spirit, whilst meeting the commercial demands of a studio and a director who were already famous for their exploitation movies, and keeping engaged a star – Vincent Price – whose performances tended to slip into the knowingly hammy when he became bored with his material.  The movies aren’t the most faithful adaptations of Poe, but they’re certainly the most fondly remembered ones.

 

Matheson also worked on British movies.  For AIP’s trans-Atlantic rival, Hammer Films, he scripted The Devil Rides Out in 1968 and managed to turn Dennis Wheatley’s bloated, reactionary novel about upstanding Anglo-Saxon aristocrats fighting the forces of darkness (as orchestrated by a bunch of ghastly Satan-worshipping foreigners) into something rather good.  And in 1973, he adapted his haunted-house novel Hell House for the screen.  The result was The Legend of Hell House, directed by John Hough and starring Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Pamela Franklin and Gayle Hunicutt as psychic investigators trying to get to the bottom of terrifying supernatural manifestations in the titular mansion.  The movie’s ending, which has the surviving investigators finding a hidden sanctum where the psychic forces are emanating from an embalmed body, played by a very un-embalmed-looking Michael Gough, is pretty stupid – which Matheson himself admitted – but John Hough directs the film’s scary set-pieces with vigour and there’s an unsettling electronic score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson.  You can hear sampled dialogue from the movie, incidentally, in the Orbital song I don’t Know you People.

 

A modest soul – in interviews he usually seemed puzzled that so many people could be so inspired by his work – Matheson might have ended up a very rich man if he’d bothered to sue every filmmaker and writer who’d ripped off his ideas.  Mind you, he might have ended up too spending all his time in court.  I’m glad he turned the other cheek and devoted that time instead to writing more, marvellous stories.