The Writing Man
In the field of science fiction and fantasy, few writers cast a larger shadow than that of Charles Beaumont. Only Rod Serling himself penned more episodes of The Twilight Zone, and Beaumont created many other memorable tales in books, short stories and movies.
How memorable? Had he not died so young, “he would be equal to me,” Ray Bradbury says. “People would know him all over the world.”
I learned that, and many other things, from “Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man,” a feature-length documentary by Jason Brock. If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the unique mind behind such Zone classics as “Long Live Walter Jameson,” “The Howling Man,” “Perchance to Dream” and “Shadow Play,” I encourage you to check it out.
The film is packed with stories and remembrances, told by those who knew Beaumont best: Bradbury, Richard Matheson, John Tomerlin, William Nolan, Harlan Ellison and many others, including Beaumont’s son Christopher. They explain how his wild flights of imagination and tenacious spirit helped reshape their corner of the fiction world in profound ways.
For one thing, the film gives the fan of this genre some valuable context. As biographer Roger Anker notes of The Group, “What they did collectively changed the direction of science fiction and fantasy.” They were doing something different from what earlier writers had done, and wound up paving the way for authors such as Stephen King, Peter Straub and Dean Koontz.
I didn’t list George Clayton Johnson above, largely because he deserves his own paragraph. Like the others who are interviewed, the author of “Kick the Can,” “Nothing in the Dark” and several other great Zone episodes, offers his views of Beaumont and his work. But he’s so appealingly eccentric (and I use that term in the most positive sense), and his observations so lyrical, that he could almost carry the film by himself.
Listening to these gentlemen in their heyday must have been a real experience.
Beaumont is known primarily for his writing, and justifiably so. He was also a piano player who loved classical music, a racer who took a great interest in classic cars, and an artist who created some remarkable illustrations. He even acted, taking a key role in Roger Corman’s production of his anti-Jim Crow novel, “The Intruder.” (So did other members of The Group.)
He comes off almost as a force of nature, a magnetic personality who would pull his friends into wild outings at the drop of a hat: “Let’s go to Nassau for a week,” or “We’ll head to Monte Carlo tomorrow; Ian Fleming will be with us.” Not surprisingly, he upset his friends’ wives. According to Mrs. Tomerlin, he was “too dominant … in our husbands’ lives.” John agrees — joining Beaumont on his whirlwind adventures “was an insane thing to do, but it was a divine insanity.”
Beaumont was truly determined to become a writer. At one point, before he became successful, his electricity was being turned off and his car repossessed. But he kept typing away, convinced that God meant for him to be a writer. Judging from his work, it’s hard to disagree. How fortunate that God’s plan led to so much pleasure for his legions of fans.
It’s true, as other reviewers have noted, that the film has a couple of technical drawbacks; the audio quality is spotty in places, and the video is a bit too “arty” here and there. Hearing Harlan Ellison call Rod Serling a “journeyman writer” who “wasn’t fit to carry Beaumont’s pencil case” was another low point. (I suppose I can’t like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, right, Harlan? Give me a break.) If Beaumont had written a story about Ellison, it might be called “The Hyperbolic Man.”
But these are minor demerits, far outweighed by all the absorbing insights and personal reminiscences about a world-class writer.
It all culminates, alas, in Beaumont’s perplexing and untimely death. He was felled by some terrible neurological disorder — a rare form of Alzheimer’s, Pick’s disease, or pre-senile dementia, depending on who you talk to — and it silenced his unique voice at only 38. Like Serling, he left us far too early.
But as with Serling, the best thing we can do is enjoy the work he left behind, and be grateful for the way it helped enlarge the world of fantasy and science fiction. Thanks to “Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man,” we can better appreciate the work — and the man.
Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!
Posted on 09/05/2011, in Twilight Zone and tagged Charles Beaumont, Long Live Walter Jameson, Perchance to Dream, Person or Persons Unknown, Queen of the Nile, Shadow Play, The Howling Man, Twilight Zone. Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.