May 14, 2016

PERCHANCE TO DREAM:

Selected Stories by Charles Beaumont
304 pages, Penguin Classics

Review by Pat Black

Charles Beaumont is best known for writing at least 20 episodes of the original Twilight Zone TV series. Many of these stemmed from his short stories, which are collected here for the first time in more than a decade.

With the words Twilight Zone you know what you’re getting with Beaumont – pre-hippy era Americana, rock n’ roll (but only just), fast cars, outrageously big suits, a spot of jazz, Jimmy Dean haircuts and, most importantly, shocks.

The author was a contemporary of Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson, and Bradbury penned the introduction to this volume not long before his own death in 2012. He paints a picture of an excitable young man, brimming with ideas and desperate to set them down. The teenage Beaumont followed the older writers around like a faithful puppy before his own career blossomed. While Bradbury hints that the younger man may not have been the most talented writer in the celebrated Los Angeles circle, he was certainly among the most warmly regarded.

He also had no problems selling his work. Beaumont’s “Black Country” was the very first short story ever published by Playboy, which must have been fantastic news for millions of men who said they only ever bought it for the writing. Later, his work in TV and films became familiar to millions (The Masque of the Red Death was among his writing credits for Roger Corman), before his potential was cruelly snuffed out.

Perchance To Dream is mainly weird fiction, with more than a few shock endings; you can count the band off for the Twilight Zone theme at any point.

The title story opens the book, and it sets the tone with a riff on the paradoxical superstition which holds that if we die in our dreams, we’ll die in real life. Except, how would anyone know? 

“The Jungle” takes place in Bradbury country, with the world struck down by a malaria-like virus which causes decomposition before people actually die. This story’s narrator watches his wife succumb from within the super-city he designed over the top of jungles and mountains. The indigenous people who had to make way for the steel, glass and chrome monstrosity have supposedly cursed the place; so the architect seeks the tribe out, following the beat of their drums one night. This one was actually turned into a Twilight Zone episode, but I thought its final pay-off was a cheap betrayal of an interesting idea.

“Sorcerer’s Moon” looks at the last two warlocks on Earth battling for supremacy, an intriguing contest with double-and-triple-crosses galore.

“You Can’t Have Them All” was a little Roald Dahl in form and execution, as a lothario computes exactly how he can go about sleeping with every example of the type of woman he is attracted to on the planet. The story is a bit of a relic, with a predatory view of women as conquests to be picked up and discarded summarily, but it’s an engaging tale nonetheless.

Along with the comedic “Blood Brother”, where a man who claims to be a vampire complains to a shrink about his plight, “You Can’t Have Them All” was another example of a two-hander set in a therapist’s office. It seems such a sign of the times, to me, with neurotic Americans lying back on a leather couch and watching the money roll out of their pockets. Do people still do this, or is it confined to stories like this and old Woody Allen movies?

“Fritzchen” was the weirdest story in the book, examining a child’s obsession with an odd creature they find on a beach one day. The inevitable twist wasn’t a big surprise, but the creature in the title invoked an oddly familiar sense of disgust, like when you consider where the fly circling your ceiling might have come from.

“Father, Dear Father” looks at another well-worn premise: what if you could travel back in time, and killed your own father? Arthur C Clarke once postulated that all of humanity is so closely linked genetically that, in terms of the progress of millennia, the risks associated with killing anyone at all in your time travels could be catastrophic for the whole of human progress - so it’s best to leave your shooter at home. But despite the hardback premise, this story signed off with a finale worthy of a dimestore paperback.

“The Howling Man” is one of Beaumont’s best-known tales, and looks at a young American travelling through a gothic-themed pre-war Germany. He discovers some monks have imprisoned a man who they claim is the devil. Reason and logic tells the American that he is dealing with the case of a man being locked up without proper due process, for no good reason. Is it right to keep another human being caged like that?

“A Classic Affair” was breezy fun, looking at a man who has fallen in love with an automobile in a used car lot. Perhaps imagining the same things as the reader, his best friend is incredulous, but eventually sees an opportunity – as he, in turn, has fallen in love with his friend’s wife. Hey – why doesn’t he buy the car, and they can arrange a trade..?

“Place of Meeting” was another end-of-the-world story which I didn’t really care for, a Bradbury-style parable which wasn’t worth consideration here. “Song For A Lady” was much better, following a pair of newlyweds as they take a berth on a boat from the States to the UK. All the other passengers are elderly, and there’s a sense that the couple have crashed a party they weren’t invited to…

“In His Image” was a curious tale looking at a man who returns to his hometown with his wife-to-be, only to find that no-one he meets can remember him. There is a sci-fi reason behind the loss of identity, but the story splits off into a weird split-personality tale with a good sharp jab right at the end.

“The Monster Show” took a cynical look at television advertising and the box in the corner’s habit of turning people into simple drones. We can never know what Beaumont would have made of the internet, but thanks to this story we can make an educated guess.

“The Beautiful People” is an idea familiar to me from the comic strips of my youth – and for all I know, their creators got it from Beaumont. In the future, a girl is preparing for some brutal cosmetic surgery which will eradicate all her bodily imperfections, seemingly a rite of passage for any teenager in this particular era. Something in her rebels against this sense of aesthetic conformity, though, no matter what the mean girls say. For “TV advertising” in the story above, read “selfie generation” here.

“Free Dirt” was the story of a cheapskate, a person who will not pay for anything if he can help it. He’s a freeloader, a scavenger, and sometimes a downright fraud. When he sees the substance in the title advertised, he can’t contain himself. I wondered where this one was heading, but its shock ending felt well-earned as a result.

And so to the best tale in the book, the haunting “The Magic Man”, where a travelling conjuror in the Old West decides one night to reveal to his paying customers exactly how he performs his on-stage miracles. There’s no magic whatsoever in this story, of course, except that which kindled within our breast when we were excited, wild-eyed youngsters. Recalling that feeling enhances this story’s rich, but melancholic flavour.

“Last Rites” was another story which owed a lot to Uncle Ray, where a priest is called to give unction to a dying friend. Now suppose, just suppose, that there were such things as androids…

“The Music of the Yellow Brass” sees a down-at-heel matador given the opportunity of a lifetime in the bullring. The deal seems too good to be true, but at the party the night before the fight there is wine, music… and a woman, of course. I got the impression Beaumont was playing around with his Ernest Hemingway dolls here, but the ending strikes exactly the note the author was striving for.

Perchance To Dream now heads for a very strong climax, starting with “The New People”. An unsettling examination of modern masculinity, it sees a young couple and their incongruously odd child moving into a new house, and making friends with their well-to-do neighbours. Nothing’s what it seems, of course.

Beaumont was nearly 30 years ahead of David Lynch when it came to examining the pure wickedness which might lie behind whitewashed picket fences, but this tale also foreshadowed Ira Levin’s butterscotch and black magic diaboliques from Rosemary’s Baby. Aside from that, there’s a curious sense of emasculation and (literally) impotence. This story reminded me of those unpleasant moments in life when you it turns out you have invited a total, unapologetic boor into your house, and whatever manners you were raised with gradually give way to something else.

“A Death In The Country” concerns the world of motor racing, but the very fact of its existence was reminiscent of my childhood notion of what a writer’s job entailed. Beaumont must have thought: “Right. Let’s do a story about a hot-rod racer.”

He might have written it to order, for Practical RoadHog or Automotive Assh*le Monthly or whatever, but it’s engaging enough. For me, the story was less intoxicating than the now-fanciful idea that people could write about anything, in any genre, and sell it someplace where it’s welcome.

“Traumerei” sees a slight return to the world of dreams and their possible effect on the physical world, and riffs on the notion that our entire universe might be contained within a single atom in a hyper-universe. What if your whole existence was simply someone else’s dream?

“Night Ride” was another pitch black tale with no supernatural or fantastic element to it, as a bunch of unpleasant men with dark secrets get together to form a jazz supergroup. They’ve been looking for a piano player, and they find him, in a young, na├»ve lad with incredible talent. The manipulative manager who puts the band together is thrilled when they uncover this genius, someone so deeply entrenched in the blues that he could make a holy picture weep. So when there’s a Yoko Ono-style intrusion, the manager decides to take action. This one looked at the dark ingredients which can go into the act of creating art, and the destruction others can cause in the service of a muse.

We close with the deliciously nasty “The New Sound”, where a man starts to collect the sounds of nature after his vinyl music hoard starts to bore him. Once these recordings start to include the sounds of death, a new addiction begins.

This one was far more horrifying than most of the other stories in the book, and hinted at what Beaumont might have created had the fates been kind to him.

There’s a ghastly irony in the manner of Beaumont’s death, at the age of just 38, from the then seldom-seen and barely-understood early-onset Alzheimer’s. For a man who made a career out of plotting mysterious scenarios and uncanny endings, his weird decline seems like an extremely unpleasant joke. What a shame.

An afterword is provided by William Shatner, who starred in Roger Corman’s subversive anti-racism movie The Intruder, which was scripted by Beaumont from his own novel. Feted in its day, the film is now regarded as a cult classic, and you can tell Shatner is proud to have been a part of it.

Like Bradbury, the Shat laments what might have been for Beaumont, a strange, doomed young man who’s now sadly linked to a single time and place.

Art is as close as we get to immortality, and the fact that Penguin has put this collection together for new generations to enjoy is worth celebrating. But aside from all that, if you simply want to read some good old-fashioned late night shockers, Charlie is your darling. 

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