Monday, February 24, 2014

Charles Beaumont's Yonder

Insofar as he is remembered at all Charles Beaumont (1929-1967) is remembered mostly as a writer for film and television. He wrote many episodes of the original Twilight Zone series (including quite a few that are generally considered to be among the best ever episodes of that series) as well as contributing to most of the other suspense/horror anthology series of that time such as Thriller, One Step Beyond and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also wrote some excellent film scripts, his credits including horror classics like Night of the Eagle, The Premature Burial, The Haunted Palace, The 7 Faces of Dr Lao and Masque of the Red Death. His very promising career was cut short by his death from Alzheimer’s Disease at the age of 38.

He wrote a couple of novels and during his lifetime he published three short story collections. The second of these was Yonder which appeared in 1958.

The impressive quality of his movie and television writing would lead one to expect that his short fiction would be equally worthwhile. In fact, while his short stories are undeniably interesting, they are not always entirely successful.

Writing for movies and television requires a degree of discipline, or at least it did in the 50s and 60s. There were certain constraints. Some were technical - there was only so much you could do on television given the budgets and technology of the time. Others were more to do with the audience. The Twilight Zone audience would accept a considerable but not unlimited amount of weirdness. This discipline seems to have been good for Beaumont. 

When writing short stories there are by contrast very few constraints and at times Beaumont’s writing gets a little out of hand. He had a taste for very black humour, for outrageousness and for a kind of twisted whimsicality. On occasion he gives perhaps too much free rein to these tastes. A little whimsicality goes a long way.

Having said all that, it must be admitted that Beaumont had an extraordinary imagination and his ideas are often excellent. The most successful stories in Yonder, stories like The Beautiful People, Traumerei and The New Sound, are startling and disturbing. 

Other stories like Mother’s Day and The Monster Show collapse under their own weight and edge very close to the perilous line that divides the startlingly imaginative from the merely silly.

Several stories could be described as monster stories, albeit with unusually strange monsters (even by the standards of weird fiction). Fritzchen is such a story, but it seems to be bizarre merely for the sake of being bizarre. 

Last Rites is a robot story, no 1950s short story collection being complete without a robot story. It’s a story that confronts a popular theme in such stories, with robots that have disturbingly human aspirations. In His Image is another robot story but this one left me cold. A World of Differents deals with aliens but here Beaumont gets a little too experimental for my tastes with a story that doesn’t come off. Anthem suffers from similar problems, veering into the world of avant-garde fiction and showing Beaumont trying too hard. Being experimental is fine but can come across as coldly calculated cleverness lacking in any emotional resonance.

Hair of the Dog allows Beaumont to indulge his taste for black comedy, with reasonable success.

Unfortunately Beaumont’s three original short story collections went out of print years ago although The Hunger and Other Stories has recently been re-issued by Valancourt Books. Used copies of Yonder can be found without too much difficulty. In recent years there have been several posthumous  collections. 

Yonder is a wildly uneven collection but if you enjoy your science fiction horror as outré as possible then you might find it worth checking out. I can’t honestly recommend this collection - it’s not really to my taste but those with more tolerance for literary experimentation might enjoy it more than I did.

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