Macabre Driver

Along with its consumers, American popular culture in the 1950s became both besotted with the abundant possibilities set loose by the Second World War and discomfited by the looming prospect that this bounty, along with all of humanity, could at any moment become devastated by nuclear oblivion. The postwar mood swings of “Oh, wow!” and “Uh-oh!” were absorbed, often with cheeky abandon and heedless ingenuity, by movies, television series, and paperbacks using otherworldly scenarios to probe for malignancies beneath the chrome-plated dreams of Better Tomorrows. The state of dreaming—mostly while sleeping, but also the wide-awake kind—preoccupied one of the era’s paradigmatic gothic talents, Charles Beaumont, whose enduring (if relatively cult-like) reverence among generations of American fantasy writers and readers owes as much to his star-crossed life story as it does to the implacable timbres of his storytelling.

Born Charles Nutt in Chicago in 1929, he moved with his family to the Pacific Northwest as a child afflicted with spinal meningitis. Like many bedridden children, Charles found comfort, joy, and a lifelong calling in reading books and spinning his own imaginative renderings from shadows and light. Had he been born twenty or thirty years later, he might have made an immediate transition to movies, but his aspirations drifted from acting to drawing and finally to writing, just in time to take advantage of a peaking market for short fiction in 1950s “slick” magazines, in whose pages the “Charles Beaumont” byline he’d adopted became a trademark for the kind of jolting macabre fantasy deeply rooted in twentieth-century America’s myths and mores in the manner of such contemporaries (and, in many cases, collegial friends) as Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Kurt Vonnegut, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, Robert Bloch, and Richard Matheson, who worked with Beaumont as a regular scriptwriter for Rod Serling’s CBS TV series The Twilight Zone in its hallowed black-and-white 1959–64 incarnation.

In a glowing, affectionate foreword to Perchance to Dream, the most recent published exhibition of Beaumont’s sleek, if also saw-toothed, phantasmagoria, Bradbury conjures an image of Beaumont as an intense, exuberant dispenser of “what-if” notions that, with the obligatory diligence of the full-time freelance writer, he could tease into lively contraptions of wit and menace. At one point, Bradbury describes with envy-arousing ardor a gathering of genre masters during which one (Matheson) “would toss up the merest dustfleck of notion,” which would bounce among two or three others before “land[ing] in Chuck’s lap. Before anyone could grab or knock it again, Chuck would outline the rest of the tale, sketch in the characters, butter and cut the sandwich, beginning, meat-middle, and end. Voila! Applause.”

The anecdote suggests a kind of literary equivalent of a jam session. Indeed, the first short story Playboy magazine published, in 1954, was Beaumont’s “Black Country,” a syncopated suspense yarn about a demonically possessed jazz musician whose rhetorical flow and sultry imagery hint at a Beat poet nestling somewhere in Beaumont’s craftsman soul. His second Playboy story, “The Crooked Man,” appeared a year later and was perceived at the time as a “shocker” for its depiction of a dystopian society where heterosexuality is as stigmatized—and illegal—as homosexuality was as recently as the Eisenhower years. Neither of these groundbreakers is among the twenty-three stories in Perchance to Dream, and they are missed; though there are many selections where Beaumont’s swinging prose and mordant social observation come into full view, even when their primary purpose is to serve a story’s plot. “The Monster Show,” for instance, is a whimsical tale of planetary conquest foretelling our still-evolving submission to mass entertainment. The dialogue, even with its anachronistic echoes of ’40s-era dance-party banter, is every bit as crafty as anything Anthony Burgess came up with for his “droogs” in A Clockwork Orange:

“I ask you, Mr. Average World Family, at night when you’re all blasted out and ready for the old air-matt do you like to get spooned a lot of maloop you have got to think about, or do you like to get round?” . . .

“And what is the roundest? Something long and complex and all drawn out? Nay. Variety: that’s what is the roundest. So we give you a variety show. Starting things off with a kronch, we have a half-hour trained dog act. Then right into fifteen minutes of old Western movie footage, with the middle reel of a British mystery for the capper. Then a full hour of wrestling, male and female. Ears?”


“A mere starteroo, B.P.”

Beaumont was, most of the time, far cooler and more unruffled with his prose. (He often sounds as straightforward as an oncologist breaking the bad news to you, with only as much cushioning as his professional deportment will allow: “They took the prisoner to the precipice, lingered a moment to give him a view of the dizziness and the sucking things far below.”) But Beaumont’s narrative composure, as with that of storytellers with similar tendencies toward disquieting irony such as Roald Dahl and John Collier, came from a sensibility more attuned to tactics and timing than to style. In Beaumont’s venues, a story’s premise was only as good as its follow-up and resolution. And the elemental pleasures offered by such storytelling remind readers of what made them fall in love with fiction in the first place, whether their satisfactions are best delivered by H. G. Wells or Faulkner, Nabokov or Stephen King—or all of the above (preferably).

Still from The Twilight Zone, 1959–64. Season 5, episode 23, “Queen of the Nile.”
Still from The Twilight Zone, 1959–64. Season 5, episode 23, “Queen of the Nile.” CBS

Thus the inner thoughts of the time-traveling protagonist of “Father, Dear Father” likely overlap with those of his creator: “He was not excited over the prospect of visiting past ages. Nor was he unduly concerned with the fame that would surely come to the first man to pierce the time barrier. The Future? It was a bore. Mr. Pollet wanted little. Only the answer to the question. What would happen . . . ?

So if by some fluke you find yourselves wondering what vampires do when the world comes to an end (“Place of Meeting”); or how love for one’s car can distend a romantic triangle (“A Classic Affair”); or whether it’s possible to resist any story that dares call itself “Free Dirt,” then Beaumont is the writer for you. I don’t want to overstate the point. Anyone who wrote and published so prodigiously, and in as brief a lifetime as Beaumont’s, isn’t going to be immune from overwrought or underthought sentences. Yet for every clinker such as “Warm perspiration coursed across his body, turning his suit dark-wet, staining his jacket” (I mean, where to begin?), there are at least a dozen far more felicitous and acerbically effective sentences that move each plot to its distressing outcome. Even the most “realistic” of these stories, a stock-car-racing vignette titled “A Death in the Country,” is an exemplar of storytelling dynamics: The title prepares you for Something Bad to happen, but you’re never certain, while reading it, to whom it happens, or even how it does, till the end.

As noted earlier, it was dreaming that most readily triggered Beaumont’s muse, whether he was crafting the slowly evolving waking nightmare of “The New People,” which is set in a not-at-all-what-it-seems suburban neighborhood, or the bucolic backdrop of “Fritzchen,” whose first sentence is “It had once been a place for dreaming” and whose closing line goes like so: “They were the cries of a lost infant for its mother.” (With stories such as these, there’s only so much one can disclose in advance.)

There are also cases, not infrequent in Beaumont’s fiction, of haunted men venting their fears to doctors and other strangers, as in the collection’s title story, in which, once again, one finds a protagonist who seems, when you consider Beaumont’s youthful and undying passion for comics and other pop-culture artifacts, to be speaking not just to a psychiatrist but through the pages for his author—and anybody else who ever wondered “what would happen”:

“They say dreams last only a couple of seconds. . . . I don’t know whether that’s true or not. It doesn’t matter. They seem to last longer. Sometimes I’ve dreamed a whole lifetime; sometimes generations have passed. Once in a while, time stops completely; it’s a frozen moment, lasting forever. When I was a kid I saw the Flash Gordon serials; you remember? I loved them, and when the last episode was over, I went home and started dreaming more. Each night, another episode. They were vivid, too, and I remembered them when I woke up. I even wrote them down, to make sure I wouldn’t forget. Crazy?”

“Perchance to Dream,” the story, inspired the first of Beaumont’s Twilight Zone scripts. The last of those scripts credited to him, “Queen of the Nile,” aired in March 1964 as part of the show’s final season, climaxes with its thirty-something protagonist quickly, gruesomely aging until he ends up as nothing but a pile of ashes spilling out of an empty suit. This characteristically ghoulish denouement was all too redolent of what was actually happening at the time to Beaumont, who by his early thirties was afflicted with what in the 1960s seemed a confounding malady of premature aging but would now likely be diagnosed as a form of early-onset Alzheimer’s. He was only thirty-eight years old when he died in 1967. As William Shatner, a friend of “Charlie’s” who starred in the Beaumont-scripted anti-racist thriller The Intruder, writes in the afterword of this collection: “It was like a science fiction story he would have written.”

Gene Seymour last wrote for Bookforum about Margo Jefferson’s Negroland and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. He has written about film and music for various publications and is at work on a collection of essays.