Serling’s Re-Zoning Efforts: “And When The Sky Was Opened”
Improve on Richard Matheson? Yeah — right, pal. Who do you think you are, Rod Serling?
You are? Well. Carry on, then.
Kidding aside, that’s what Serling did when he bought the rights to Matheson’s short story “Disappearing Act” and adapted it into The Twilight Zone episode “And When The Sky Was Opened.”
Perhaps “improve” isn’t exactly the right word. The short story works fine as a short story (duh, it’s Richard Freaking Matheson), but as a TV episode, well … something else was needed. And few writers were ever better equipped to supply that “something else” than Rod Serling.
As you may have seen in my previous “Re-Zoning Efforts” post (on “The Four of Us Are Dying“), Serling wasn’t one to simply take a story “as is” and put it on screen. It wasn’t unusual for him to start with the basic idea and completely recast it.
“Disappearing Act,” which first appeared in the March 1953 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, definitely falls into this category. You’ll find no trio of astronauts vanishing one by one. There’s only a single protagonist, and he’s no test pilot. He’s an ordinary man named Bob, arguing with his wife about money problems, making things worse through bouts of infidelity … and noticing some strange things.
People and places that he knows are vanishing. One day they’re here, the next they’re gone, and everyone who hears Bob insist that yes, he DID talk to that person the day before, or yes, he DID visit that place the other day … thinks he’s off his rocker. Bob, who doesn’t know what’s going on any more than WE do, can’t swear they’re wrong.
Matheson frames the story in an interesting way: It’s told first-person, through Bob’s eyes, and it begins with this intriguing introduction:
These entries are from a school notebook which was found two weeks ago in a Brooklyn candy store. Next to it on the counter was a half-finished cup of coffee. The owner of the store said no one had been there for three hours prior to the time he first noticed the book.
Even better is the ending. The protagonist is talking to us about how everything around him is vanishing … and it ends mid-sentence. Nice.
Serling, however, had something else in mind. We couldn’t have one protagonist on TV — at least not without a voice-over, which is rarely the best way to go, and certainly not the most cinematic. So he made it a cast of three (ratcheting up the tension), who can discuss — okay, often yell about — the strange things that are happening.
“I felt that there was no rationale there,” Serling said during the Q&A of a 1975 college lecture. “When Dick Matheson first wrote the story, it had nothing to do with astronauts. At least if I’m dealing with outer space, I can say something, someone [caused the disappearances], and I’ve got a little bit more going on.”
Matheson’s story is ideal to read. Serling’s version is ideal to watch. Each is perfectly suited to its chosen medium.
For all their differences, though, each version of the story contains the same element of horror. That word usually conjures images of crumbling, spooky mansions and dark, stormy nights, but think about it. Can such time-honored elements, however effective, compare to being simply blinked out of existence by a nameless, faceless power? To being erased so thoroughly that no one even remembers you? For my money, that’s one hell of a frightening thought.
“And When The Sky Was Opened” came early in Season 1. Soon Matheson was contributing his own scripts, many of which became fan favorites. But if you’re in the mood for some top-notch TZ, it’s hard to beat this Matheson-Serling classic.
You can find “Disappearing Act” in “The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories” and other Matheson anthologies, both in and out of print.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!