The Real Consorts with Shadows

Lessons in Speculative Fiction from The Twilight Zone

Anthology horror has crawled back from the dead to haunt your TV screens once again. It’s shifted into shows like American Horror Story and Channel Zero, where the stories are seasonal rather than episodic. It’s creeping back with more familiar programs like Black Mirror, Guillermo Del Toro’s 10 After Midnight, and in Jordan Peele’s upcoming Twilight Zone reboot.

In light of this, I’d like to take you on a journey to place where sights and sounds may astonish you, a place you’ve never been, a dimension of the mind, in the Twilight Zone.

I’ll be rewatching the original series and writing short articles about what makes the episodes work. The goal is to figure out exactly what made the classic show as good as it was and offer advice for other writers (really it’s my advice to myself) on how to make speculative fiction pop.

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S1, E6 “Escape Clause”

“Escape Clause” is the second “deal with the devil” episode of The Twilight Zone, the first being “One for the Angels.” In this one Walter Bedeker (David Wayne), “a hypochondriac,” sells his soul to a devil called Cadwallader (Thomas Gomez) in exchange for indestructibility and a few thousand extra years to live. It’s a mediocre but fun episode, in part because of those names. Try saying them aloud. Bedeker. Cadwallader. A linguist could talk about how the stresses, how hard sounds follow soft ones to please the ear. I’m going to talk about how Rod Serling establishes a sense of wonder though.

It’s an underused technique in speculative fiction. More often, audiences are thrown in headfirst. But great movies—Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Black Panther—and books—Harry Potter, The Power, The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac—make sure to give readers time to appreciate the new worlds in front of them. It can be beautiful or terrifying, but seeing the expansion of reality in a character’s sense of possibility stirs the same emotions in an audience.

In “Escape Clause,” Serling and director Mitchell Leisen start establishing a tone with the names. They’re fun to say, rhythmic. Cadwallader relishes words, stringing together phrases like “In fact, something less than minor. Insignificant. Infinitesimal. Microscopic. Teensy weensy” to describe a soul. Cadwallader is having fun with words, and the audience is being trained to have fun with him.

It continues after Bedeker has signed the contract. He immediately grab the steaming hot radiator. As the steam shoots up, he yells, “Behold the new Walter Bedecker!”

Later on, as he jumps in front of a train as though he’s diving into a pool. All of this is establishing a sense of wonder. He’s experimenting with his new powers, enjoying them, as audiences are learning the range of them.

The deals with cosmic entities always implode. It doesn’t work out so well for Bedeker. He quickly becomes bored being indestructible and decides to jump from the roof of his building. His wife Ethel (Virginia Christine) follows him up to stop him. She falls instead, and Bedeker decides it’s a good opportunity to, “give the electric chair a little whirlie.”

Ethel’s death isn’t particularly funny, and kills the tone of the episode. The wonder is gone as Bedeker flippantly tries to be executed in court, but his lawyer is good enough to get him life in prison instead. With everything fun about the episode gone, it’s a mercy to Walter and the viewer when Cadwallader allows him to exercise his escape clause. So died Walter Bedeker, “Beaten by the devil, his own boredom, and by the scheme of things.”

Review: Along Came the Devil Has a Good Title, Not Much Else

If you took The Exorcist and surgically removed every hint of personality, you would wind up with a movie very similar to Along Came the Devil. It’s not hard to understand why so many filmmakers try to do their own take on The Exorcist. It’s a great film with an easy to copy premise: a child (usually a girl who’s beginning puberty or a young woman who is becoming sexually active) unknowingly invites in a demon. There is havoc and a medical search for answers. Ultimately, only a faith based exorcism can save the possessed and it does at a cost. So many films following that siren song crash on the rocks of complexity.

The Exorcist is good because it has well-rounded, complex characters. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a movie star who doesn’t believe in God (a bigger deal in 1973 than now). She’s remaking Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and going through a messy divorce while trying to raise her daughter. Father Karras (Jason Miller) is an ex-boxer with a Psychiatry MD who blames himself for his mother’s death. He’s struggling with his belief in God. They’re conflicted and they have lives outside of that conflict.

Continue reading at Wicked Horror!

Comic Review: She Could Fly #2 is Even Better Than #1

Back in June, I wrote about how good the first issue of She Could Fly by Christopher Cantwell and Martín Morazzo was. If you slept on it, you missed out. With the second issue finally here, I’m excited tell you that the series has only gotten better.

The scenes (and specifically the splash pages) from the main character Luna’s imagination are spectacular. Last week’s splash was peaceful, and this week Cantwell and Morazzo elected to go in a different direction, and holy shit was that a good choice. The innovations they’re making within the comic medium are something that’s going to be talked about for years to come

Continue reading at Wicked Horror!

Graphic Novel Review: Creepy Archives Vol. 26 Brings Black-and-White Scares

The Comics Code Authority was established in 1954 to stop comic books from melting children’s brains into juvenile delinquency. With its myriad and unclear rules, the CCA did away with the EC Horror comics of the 1950s, as well as many Western and Crime comics. Warren Publishing (who also ran Famous Monsters of Filmland) continued to publish horror comics in black-and-white as “magazines.” Since 2007, New Comic Company LLC and Dark Horse have worked to republish Creepy magazine as The Creepy Archives. The 26th installment collects Creepy #123-127, nearly 300 pages of Creepy comics and it’s a lot of fun.

One of the best parts, oddly, is the ads. There are pages dedicated to selling masks, and my favorite, an ad that runs twice selling “Genuine Soil from Dracula’s Castle.” I’m tempted to clip out the form and send my $9.95 plus $2 for shipping. It’s impossible not to have fun as you flip through the ads and think about what you would do with a vial full of Dracula’s finest dirt.

Continue reading at Wicked Horror!

S1, E5 “Walking Distance”

There’s more than one way to introduce supernatural or otherwise fictional elements into a story. Frequently, The Twilight Zone parcels clues across the episode about what exactly separates the dimension the characters are in from the viewer’s reality. In the fifth episode of season one, “Walking Distance,” Rod Serling does just that.

The episode starts with Martin Sloan, an ad man from the big city, roaring into a small town’s gas station and laying on the horn to get the attendant’s attention. Sloan says he’s in no hurry after all of that, because he is human garbage—Don Draper without the swagger. The Twilight Zone gets away with having characters like Sloan—one- or two-dimensional instead of three, and imminently hateable—because viewers know that a punishment is coming in the next twenty minutes.

Sloan walks to the nearby town while his car is serviced and when he steps into the pharmacy, Serling gives us the first clue that things aren’t as they appear. Sloan recognizes the man behind the soda counter, who tells him, “I’ve got that kind of face.” It’s a great detail because there’s no reason for Sloan to recognize the man, but everyone falsely recognizes a stranger once in a while. Then Sloan waxes poetic about old Mr. Wilson, who used to sleep in the backroom before a heart attack killed him.

When Sloan walks out, the clerk who served him goes to the back room and tells Mr. Wilson, the man who died in Sloan’s story, that they need more chocolate syrup.

There are more obvious clues that Serling gives us as well. Sloan tells the clerk that, “It’s just as if I left yesterday.” Like in “Where is Everybody?,” (also directed by Robert Stevens) the character is saying exactly what’s happening. The other evidence is building a case that he’s right.

The next clue comes when Sloan starts questioning children about how they play marbles now on the street. It’s odd, and would surely get him arrested today. When he tells that little boy his name, the boy tells Sloan, “I know Martin Sloan and you’re not him.” Serling is hammering it home, stressing what’s happening so viewers will believe it.

Two minutes later, Sloan is telling a random woman about how he carved his name into the side of the bandstand. When he wistfully gazes at the bandstand he sees a boy carving a name into the bandstand and runs over. It turns out that the boy is carving, “Martin Sloan.” He’s found himself, twenty or thirty years younger.

If everything in the episode had been normal up to that point, it would be the kind of moment that bounced viewers out of the story. Most readers won’t go from 0 to 60 with magical elements. There needs to be some runway. The clues are so clear in “Walking Distance,” that when the older Sloan approaches his younger self, the audience already knows the older Sloan has slipped into the past. They’ve known since they saw Mr. Wilson sleeping in his chair in the back of the pharmacy, if not earlier.

If you’re telling a story with supernatural elements in a realistic world, your goal should be to parcel out information before the reveal so that the viewer knows enough about what’s coming that they aren’t thrown out of the story by the reveal. The hard part, and what makes The Twilight Zone so good, is having enough ramp while maintaining the surprise.

Graphic Novel Review: Minky Woodcock Beautifully Renders a New Theory About Houdini’s Death

Harry Houdini escaped death, slipping into the collective imagination of popular culture. Like Robert Johnson, Annie Oakley and Agatha Christie (who also appears in Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Kidnapped Houdini), he keeps living new lives in different stories, sometimes as a main characters, and others as a cameo.The best escape artist in the world dying from a botched trick is an incredible story in itself. It’s the one that Cynthia Von Buhler examines in Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Kidnapped Houdini.

Von Buhler’s collected the evidence at minkywoodcock.com, and she retells the story in the graphic novel. The telling is an homage to the pulp comic and crime story boom, named for the pulpy paper on which it was printed. Like those stories, this one is full of lurid scenes—a naked seance, bondage play, and pin-up models. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, another historical figure that Von Buhler worked into the story, warns the narrator, “If you are offended by nudity, please do not enter.” It’s a good warning for any potential reader too; there’s a lot of nudity.

Continue reading at Wicked Horror!

Graphic Novel Review: The Most Disturbing Part of Alisik Is Its Sexualization of Teenage Girls

The first volume of Alisik opens with the lead character, a teenage girl, asking the reader, “Do you believe in love at first sight?” She says, but, “There’s one problem. I’m dead” (8). A pretty big problem considering that her love, Ruben, is alive. The catch is, he doesn’t know that she’s dead. He takes frequent short cuts through the graveyard she’s buried in since his accident left him blind. Other humans can’t see or hear Alisik or her undead companions, but Ruben can.

While Alisik frames the wrong side of the tracks love story as the center of the story by opening and closing the first volume with it, the world is what’s really remarkable. There are five other “post mortals” waiting with Alisik—Ottie, General, Frings, Hothead, and Pointy Head. They try to explain to Alisik what’s going on, but all they know is, “We’re no longer living, but haven’t made our final journey yet” (41). There’ll eventually be a judgement on whether each of them belongs in the good place or the bad place. Much of this volume is dedicated to establishing the rules that Alisik and the others must follow, which they break frequently.

Continue reading at Wicked Horror!