Submitted for your Abhorrence
I believe that Carol Serling once remarked that her illustrious husband Rod was a great fan of H.P. Lovecraft and Weird Tales. But if that is the case, there is precious little sign of it in The Twilight Zone. As a young boy I feared the show, scampering off into my bedroom when the theme music began on my parents’ TV. Soon after, as still today, I came to love The Twilight Zone, and even episodes I have seen many, many times, manage to give me a chill. Just last night, I watched Richard Matheson’s “Night Call” (first aired February 7, 1964). There was a gap of many years, however, when I was not watching the reruns, and when I did again see this favorite (which had once made it hard for little Bob to sleep), I was surprised at the ending! To remind you (not that you need it, of course), the story concerns an elderly lady who is tormented by calls at all hours from someone insistent on talking to her but who seems to have little to say but eerie moaning, finally forming itself into a plaintive “Hellooooo?” At length the phone company tells her she cannot have been receiving such calls because they have traced them (how, if there weren’t any?) back to a fallen wire — at the cemetery! She visits it, only to find that the still-unrepaired phone cable touches down on the grave of her old fiancé, whose death she had caused by insisting on driving, then losing control of the car. She realizes the decomposing stiff has been taking advantage of the storm damage to rekindle their old acquaintance. She had snapped at the caller to leave her alone, but now she is eager to talk to her long-lost love. Home again, she picks up the receiver and tentatively speaks into it, hoping her dead boyfriend will reply. He does, but he reminds her that she had told him to drop deader, and that’s that. Ulp. Well, all those intervening years, I had “remembered” the story as ending up in the cemetery with the sight of the phone line dangling at the grave plot. I guess I was subconsciously editing it! That, I still believe, is a more powerful ending. But I digress.
As near as I can see, the only even mildly Lovecraftian element in any Twilight Zone episode occurs in “Long Live Walter Jameson” (written by Charles Beaumont, first aired March 18, 1960). In it we meet the eponymous history professor who seems to know his subject rather too well, as if he had been there at the time. He’s basically Vandal Savage, or Mr. Flint (Leonardo Da Vinci) on Star Trek (Jerome Bixby, “Requiem for Methuselah,” aired February 14, 1969). The idea’s not that unheard of. But it does make him a bit reminiscent of Joseph Curwen in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. But that’s about it, and, as I say, the idea’s not essentially Lovecraftian.
In the 1980’s revival of The Twilight Zone we had a couple of Lovecraftian episodes, but these had nothing to do with the sainted Serling. One was Harlan Ellison’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “Gramma” (aired February 14, 1986), but it was more Mythos than Lovecraft, not that I’m complaining. Not much, anyway. The other was Mary Sheldon’s “Need to Know,” which I find quintessentially Lovecraftian. In this episode (aired March 21, 1986), Sheldon (daughter of novelist Sidney Sheldon) depicts a spreading plague of sudden insanity. The cause? A resident archaeologist has discovered an inscription which distills the hideous truth about the meaning of existence into a brief sentence. It is so terrible that anyone who hears it at once loses all his sanity points! But, again, not Serling. (Equally Lovecraftian is the premise of the Star Trek episode “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” written by Jean Lisette Aroeste, aired October 18, 1968.)
Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone does not smack of the dusty pulp pages of Weird Tales, at least not the work of its major writers. It has always seemed to me closer in spirit to Unknown, where editor John W. Campbell offered stories that, though fantastic, had to feature strict logical development and a scientific, or scientifictional basis. L. Sprague de Camp was, of course, one of Unknown’s prominent writers. To me it seemed like horror and fantasy written by the mundane. Not too much imagination, please! The same sort of reaction my Secular Humanist friends have to Harry Potter: too mythological for the kiddies! They’d rather have them reading Richard Dawkins. Somehow this approach was not serious about horror and fantasy, unlike the folks over at Weird Tales, Strange Tales, and Strange Stories. Believe it or not, I mean no criticism. As Honest Abe once said (in a quote worthy of Yogi Berra), “For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like.” And I like a lot of it, too. I certainly like The Twilight Zone, after all.
It makes an interesting contrast with Thriller, which Stephen King, hallucinating, called the greatest horror series on TV. Much of this series seems to have been boring murder mysteries (like the worst Alfred Hitchcock episodes), while even the adaptations of stories by Weird Tales luminaries suffered terribly by the artificial prolongation of the hour length of the show. Talk about murder: they beat good stories to death. At least The Twilight Zone didn’t do that.
I regard (as I guess everybody else does) Serling’s Night Gallery as a bit of a disappointment after The Twilight Zone, but there were two Lovecraft adaptations, “Cool Air” (adapted by Rod Serling, December 8, 1971), and “Pickman’s Model” (adapted by Alvin Sapinsley, December 10, 1971), plus the gag “Professor Peabody’s Last Lecture” (by Jack Laird, November 10, 1971). Too little too late? But then I’m not suggesting that the Zone should have had more Lovecraft, only that, given Rod Serling’s ostensible appreciation of HPL, it is surprising it didn’t. Rest assured, I love it as is (though I would have cut that sitcom episode where the Maytag Repairman plays Clarence to Carol Burnett’s George Bailey (Serling’s “Cavender Is Coming,” May 25, 1962).
In fact, if that cigarette-smoking genie from the episode “The Man in the Bottle” (October 7, 1960) were to grant me a wish, after the trillion dollars and having Lovecraft still alive like Joseph Curwen, my wish would be to produce a new Twilight Zone series that would conspicuously not update the show. I would set the episodes in the early 1960s, just like Mad Men does. It would be in black and white. And most of the scripts would be adaptations of more stories (there are plenty left!) by Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Henry Kuttner, and others, plus stuff in the same vein by Frank Belknap Long, Robert Bloch, Carl Jacobi, and others.
What do you think?
Robert M. Price is an American theologian and writer. He teaches philosophy and religion at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary, is professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute, and the author of a number of books on theology and the historicity of Jesus, including Deconstructing Jesus (2000), The Reason Driven Life (2006), Jesus is Dead (2007), Inerrant the Wind: The Evangelical Crisis in Biblical Authority (2009), The Case Against the Case for Christ (2010), and The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul (2012).
A former Baptist minister, he was the editor of the Journal of Higher Criticism from 1994 until it ceased publication in 2003, and has written extensively about the Cthulhu Mythos, a “shared universe” created by the writer H. P. Lovecraft.
Browse Dr. Price’s books at Amazon.
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During the fifties early sixties genre fiction was still held in low esteem among the literary New York circles Serling came from. Ray Bradbury had an early falling out with Serling, which he didn’t discuss much, but he did suggest that in L.A. Serling treated his science fiction circle of writers as equals, but in New York among other literary writers he dismissed them as hacks. So until the Lovecraft revival of the later sixties Serling was probably too afraid or embarrassed to admit he loved Lovecraft’s stories
I’m afraid to see anything I loved in my youth remade…after that horrid Kolchak TV remake I gave up all hope. My sanity shattered, I find myself contented grumbling and enjoying watching the originals.
So I start reading, because I love HPL. Then you mention Serling and The Zone, another love – you have my attention. Then I have to stop reading because you mention Night Call and I want to go watch it before I read anymore. So – – – thanks – – – I guess. I’ll have to come back tomorrow to finish reading. Netflix does not have NIGHT CALL, BTW. I had to dig it out of my collection.
Always loved the Twilight Zone. One-half hour plot lines were perfect. No dragging out with filler, as in “Outer Limits” or the pedestrian “Thriller”, regardless of Stephen King’s opinion. And I would love to see more adaptations of Richard Matheson’s stories. One of my guilty pleasures is ” What Dreams May Come”. And , of course, anything by the old masters Long and Bloch,etc., is truly worth waiting for!
It has been my experience that horror works far less well unless written specifically for the screen. Adaptation is exactly what it says…bits moved, retooled, revisioned, cuts, additions, and the disappointment of seeing one’s own vision wiped away by an actor’s face and “method.” Sigh.
Twilight Zone, to me, was much more about the long set-up leading to the quick twist ending, the “gotcha!” HPL’s stuff always struck me by its pacing, the long slow descent, yet with enough creepiness and incongruency on the way that you knew the destination was not a place one wished to arrive at.
Btw, it is good to see Matheson and Beaumont’s names here, as they are two of my favorites for creepy short fiction.
Whatever incantation….whatever form….whatever decade, this show has managed to intrigue and defy logic with its use of imaginary story lines and ideas, mixing a palate of intrigue and genius to allow the common viewer to become engrossed in the weirdest television has to offer. While the original series was cheesy at some points, this show was always different, always something to look forward to in regards to the eeriness it created. Rod Serling helped usher in a generation of paranoia and science fiction thanks to this groundbreaking show!!
but if a new batch would be done…….i don’t think it would have the same feel or emotion!!!
of course….that being said…..(and i’m sorry for the tangent here)most remakes seam to try and grab a complete different audience….i mean most remakes this days(movies or tv)have sometimes only the title in common to the source!!!
so as a fan of Twilight Zone,i prefer they leave it alone!!!
I only vaguely remember watching Twilight Zone a few times in my youth, but you surely rekindled my interest in the series with this article. Even with the lack of Lovecraftian themes. Nice reading!
As much as I would welcome a renewal of the Twlight Zone series, all of its future incarnations and similar series have proven one thing: it’s not merely the content that made Twilight Zone what it was, it was the unique staff and visionaries such as Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson &c. Serling in particular gave it a unique personality that ranged between nostalgia for the past, commentary on the present, and imaginings of the future. The themes could be duplicated but the voice would never be the same.
I’d say Night Gallery did a great job of paying tribute to WT. There were episodes based on stories by Lovecraft, Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, Robert Bloch, to name a few that come more immediately to mind.
If such an undertaking as you have suggested should come to pass, and even if the 1960s atmosphere was recreated, I expect it would be The Twlight Zone in name only and be closer in tone to Night Gallery. Even so, I would welcome such a show with tremendous enthusiasm.
I really enjoy your essays, Mr. Price, and this one in particular. Thank you very much! 😀
Great article! I agree – Twilight Zone was a terrific series, but not really that Lovecraftian. Although, the weirdness alone gives the impression that it was Lovecraft adjacent.
Retro, vintage, authentic, old school… it’s becoming the new trend, and that’s a very good thing. Years ago, entertainment just seemed better.
It certainly conjures the feel of Lovecraft! I remember watching the Twilight Zone series for the first time, well before I had heard of the Night Gallery. I wished for a good HPL adaptation. Although there were none, the acknowledgement of HPL in Night Gallery reconciled for me that Serling had indeed known of him. And it meant more to me, then, to know that Serling had read and admired Lovecraft, than that he actually adapted a story for the Twlight Zone.
I remember a similar feeling when reading Johnson and Boswell’s tour of Scotland. I knew that Lovecraft had admired Johnson, and I wished so much that he had read their tour, because of the wonderful descriptions of the old ways and castles and crumbled derelict roads. And then one day, I can’t remember if I read it referenced in a letter, or saw in Joshi’s “Lovecraft’s Library” catalogue, that HPL did know of and read that book. And I felt very glad just knowing that. It’s like that feeling you get when you see something and you think of a friend that would have enjoyed the same thing as much as you, and find that they were already acquainted with it. Such are the ways that kinship travels, even through space and time!