BOOK REVIEW: More Tales from the Twilight Zone

More Tales from the Twilight Zone, Bantam, 1961

by Rod Serling

You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind… a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination—your next stop, the Twilight Zone!

—Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone, Introduction

 

Rod Serling began his career in radio broadcasting, but began writing for television during his college years in the early 1950s. He believed that radio drama never reached its full potential, and he wasn’t going to let television suffer the same fate. After a number of successful scripts for network television, Serling, sick of the sponsor censorship depleting his scripts of political commentary and ethnic representation, decided to create his own show.

Serling was known in Hollywood as the “angry young man.” Mid-20th century America appeared to be whole and wholesome, except to a few visionaries who surveyed the social landscape and noticed the cracks. He was dedicated to telling the stories of the people who inhabited these fault lines. Serling and his Twilight Zone television program offered more than just tales of suspense and conjecture. These are adult fairy tales–if the supernatural entities in question are aliens, mutants, atomic power, social inequality, technological advances, and vast government conspiracies. Serling all but mythologizes mid-twentieth century fears and anxieties through serial tales that are often (like their folk tale ancestors) accessible and moralistic. The Twilight Zone made possible many later phenomena that embrace the new 20th century pop culture mythologies, such as the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That said, because I’m reading these well into the second decade of the 21st century, I will put a 21st century spin on these reviews.

rodserling

First, take a look at this cover. Definitely a piece of art from “The Odyssey of Flight 33”: Several gears surround the silhouette of an airplane over a toy dinosaur in a model of a Jurassic forest. It goes from graphically mediocre to table-top-model-in-your-dad’s-garage silly the further down your eye travels. B-movie effects fans, this one’s for you (me, that is–this one’s for me). I’m almost sad I don’t have a son who can inherit this from me.

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“Is that my flight? Wait. No, it’s not. I’m a dinosaur.”

That last bit was uncomfortable. Let’s get to the reviews.

 

thelonely

“Can you learn to love a man convicted and sentenced for a violent crime?”    “Not really.”

I started out loving the beginning of “The Lonely.” Serling has always been a maestro of the outsider and of the fear, frustration, anger, and loneliness that isolation breeds. The descriptions of the main character’s isolation and the imminent breakdown of his psyche mirrored in the masterful descriptions of the rotting truck and shack and his surroundings. His desperation for companionship and the brief moments–only minutes, really–when the supply ships visit are palpable. But then the captain leaves an unauthorized package, a gift, for the prisoner. And that’s where this story goes south…and fast. I have a distinct, 21st century, 4th wave feminist reading of everything. EVERYTHING. It’s who I am. It’s what I bring to the table when I engage with books. This story is a product of its time. But so am I. And I wanted to feel compassion for the prisoner and his cruel and unusual fate, but his violence and objectification towards Alicia for simply existing shut off all compassion and relatability. That said, I do have to thank Serling for including a story that makes me, as a reader, aware of my own status as outsider to this story. “The Lonely” aired as episode 7 in the first season of the original series, airing on November 13, 1959.

 

 

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Daniel Day-Lewis in his most electrifying role, as both alien heads.

“Mr. Dingle The Strong” is humorous tale of absurdity but with traces of paranoia about unseen, unknowable forces that guide our lives. That we may be but the experiments of strange masters without our knowledge. Or simply a silly tale of “what if” a beleaguered man of weak will and physicality were suddenly granted the gift of superhuman strength. “Mr. Dingle The Strong” appeared as episode 55 in season 2 of the original series, airing on March 3, 1961.

 

 

 

 

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I can sort of see why an electric razor would attack a man in an ascot with that mirror.

Mr. Finchley in “A Thing About Machines” is an academic elite who disdains the presence of outsiders. The outsiders in this case, are the repairmen, his secretary, and the police officer: people who tend to do blue-collar work. He is rude while using his vast vocabulary as both weapon and shield. He would prefer the solitude of his own home. Except the machines hate him as well. His clock goes off at all hours; his television talks to him even when shut off; his secretary’s electric typewriter types the same sentence over and over: “Get out of here, Finchley.” And the car. But let’s not talk about the car.

 

It is apparent from the beginning that the reader is not intended to like Finchley. On a basic, moralistic reading, we are to believe that in the end, Finchley got what he deserved. However, I think more is at play here. The beginning scene plays out as a television repairman attempts to get at the truth of why he has to repeatedly come to Mr. Finchley’s home to fix his set. He wonders aloud that the reason that Finchley’s television set doesn’t work properly is because he doesn’t treat it properly. This sentiment is echoed by Finchley’s secretary when she quits her job: that Finchley should treat people properly. At the start of the story, Finchley has problems both with people and with machines. Though we are led to speculate that Finchley’s problems with machines stems from his problems with people, my personal interpretation is that perhaps Finchley’s curtness with people stems from this chronic affliction with machine that leaves hims isolated. People only have so much energy that they can devote to external things. Dealing with people can be exhausting in and of itself, and it can be downright detrimental when simultaneously dealing with a chronic, “internal” problem. I’ve had my share of hairy, nearly abusive customer service interactions when rounding out hour 70 of a migraine.

Serling’s mission was to write about human feeling and the human condition. I believe it to be impossible that he would abandon Finchley to a fate as simple as a self-righteous-ass-who-deserves-what-he-gets, and I reject that moralistic interpretation. “A Thing About Machines” appeared as episode 40 in season 2.

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Um…joke?

Speaking of the human condition, “The Big, Tall Wish” is one of the best examples of Serling writing on this theme. An older black boxing champion is matched against a younger white fighter. He takes a beating throughout the fight, then hits the mat in the fourth round. The ref counts him out. Then, suddenly, declares him the winner. He goes back to his neighborhood amid adulation. He encounters his youngest fan, a boy who promised to make “the big, tall wish” for him to win his fight. He forces the boy to face that the world is tough and magic isn’t real. Suddenly, he’s back on the mat, knocked out. 

Serling’s ability to paint a picture out of his own experiences as a boxer are on full display in this story. The boxing scenario is intensely macho, but the story is extremely emotional. Societal issues are folded into the details: the black main character from the ghetto who is desperately invested in his athletic success, but who is reluctant to hope. In his eyes, miracles don’t happen to people like him. He fears that a young boy needs to be more realistic, that imagination appears to be more of a danger than the inherent violence of his profession. It takes a literal miracle to open his eyes to hope in the end. And even that hope is tenuous. “The Big, Tall Wish” appeared as episode 27 in the first season, airing on April 8, 1960. 

 

twilight-zone-a-stop-at-willoughby

Williams reaches the Tired Dad level of his career.

“A Stop at Willoughby” is what I think of when I think of The Twilight Zone. An advertising man, Gart Williams is disillusioned with the direction of his life. He has no desire to be a part of the aggressively ambitious world. On a train ride home, there’s a mysterious stop at a town called Willoughby where it is always a slow summer and “where man can life a full life.” He becomes obsessed with this stop which is mysteriously askew with time and space. Eventually, he leaves the train for Willoughby where he is welcomed warmly. I won’t reveal what Willoughby truly is.

 

A criticism of modern city life that is both light and heavy. The main character’s profession as an advertising man is important as the illusion of one way of life falls away from his eyes, and the spell of another takes its place. In advertising, it’s important to make the target audience feel like they need whatever product is being sold. It’s important that the main character feels this need for a new way of life so dearly that he is willing to leave everything behind.

Serling almost predicts the contemporary displeasure and paranoia that comes with fast-paced crowded city life of the modern age. “A Stop at Willoughby” appeared as episode 30 in season 2, airing on May 6, 1960

 

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Can I take back what I said about the book cover?

In “The Odyssey of Flight 33” Passenger transatlantic flight 33 slips into a timestream and travels back and forth through time, never stopping. I had the same issues with this as with “The Lonely”: Serling is a maestro except when men and women have to interact. I was so distracted by the awful sexualization of the stewardess to truly enjoy this story. “The Odyssey of Flight 33” appeared as episode 54 in Season 2 of the original series, airing on February 24, 1961.

 

 

 

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Not a bag of pubes.

My favorite thing about short story collections is that one (possibly more) story that sneaks under the radar and bends the tone of the overall collection. “Dust” is the most “literary” of the stories. It brings to mind the first story “The Lonely” in description of the landscape. It covers themes of grief and loss, racism, superstition, and mysticism.

 

 

 

“The village and its people shared an infection. It was the germ of misery, of hopelessness, of loss of faith. And for the faithless…the hopeless…the misery-laden…there is time–ample-time–to engage in one of the other pursuits of men. They begin to destroy themselves.”

It’s a story of a miracle saving a man’s life, but a compassionless, joyless miracle. One that could be possibly be said to be more lucky coincidence than miracle.  Leaving you to question: where do they go from here? “Dust” appeared as episode 48 in season 2, airing on January 6, 1961.

I found this collection for a dollar at Front Street Books in Alpine, Texas. You can’t get much better than that.

 

Happy reading!

-jan

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