S1, E1 “Where is Everybody?”

Let’s all ignore the metatextuality of thinking about what makes a first good episode in the first post of a new blog and talk about what makes the first episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where is Everybody?” such a good opener. The episode starts with Mike (Earl Holliman) walking into a quintessential, unnamed American town. It would be idyllic, except Mike can’t find anyone else. It’s great place to start The Twilight Zone because it does so many of the things the show would become famous for. It pulls back the veil of the American dream to let viewers see the darker nightmare underneath. It preys on the primordial fears of being alone and being watched.  It builds tension incrementally by having Mike find signs of other people closer and closer—a boiling kettle, then a smoldering cigar, and finally the projector of a movie theater turns on while he’s in the auditorium. For now, I’ll focus on what The Twilight Zone is still famous for: the twist.

As Mike has a climactic breakdown, the story backs up and shows us that Mike was right. He was being watched, and by a room of high-ranking military generals no less. It turns out that Mike is an astronaut, preparing for the isolation of a mission to the moon and that after 484 hours alone, his brain had constructed this fantasy world to escape into. The twist, penned by series creator Rod Serling and directed by Robert Stevens, has as much in common with Kishōtenketsu as it does with American storytelling, and it works well for two reasons.

The first, and the simpler one, is that for the first twenty minutes or so, the story was solidly in Mike’s point of view. The audience couldn’t know that he was in a sensory deprivation chamber because he didn’t it. The point of view changes when Mike becomes too overwhelmed. His story ends as  his emotions overcome his ability to think, ejecting the audience into a new point of view. To pull off any storytelling surprise, a writer needs absolute control of what audiences perceive, and telling stories in a close-third or a first person point of view allows that parcelling of information to feel more natural.

The second reason it works is because on multiple occasions, the show literally tells us what’s coming. Visually, Mike is wearing a jumper. It’s clear that he’s not a mechanic, so who he could be and what he could do is fairly limited. And then, Mike repeatedly tells himself that it’s a dream. There’s nothing withheld. Mike verbatim says that he’s dreaming, and somehow it’s still shocking when it turns out that he is. A good twist is one that an audience can predict but doesn’t. That’s why if you watch “Where is Everybody?” twice, it feels so different the second time. The episode doesn’t change, but you know where to look now.

The success of that twist is what makes this episode so good to start the show. When ordering stories for a collection or an anthology, you want to lead with the strongest story that captures what the flavor of the whole collection. In “Where is Everybody?” The Twilight Zone does just that.

New Short Story, “Anytime,” Available at The Literary Hatchet

My short story “Anytime” is now available in issue #20 of The Literary Hatchet. You can purchase a print copy here or get a free download here.

This story had a long journey. It was originally accepted by Strangelet in 2016, but they closed before publishing it. It took me two years to place it again, but I’m glad I did.

Review: Cold November Will Warm Your Heart

Since this is Wicked Horror, let me start by saying that Cold November isn’t a horror movie. There’s a dream of a dead cousin that’s debatably a ghostly visit in the first third of the movie and two graphic scenes of deer gutting, but none of it is played for scares. Rather, Cold November is a tender coming of age story, following Florence (Bijou Abas) on her first family hunting trip. That said: It’s quite good.

What first-time director and writer Karl Jacob does best is capture the awkwardness of adolescence. Florence doesn’t know whether she’s an adult or a child. The adults in her family don’t either. She swears in front of her mother for the first time, and the moment feels so true-to-life. Her mother Amanda (Anna Klemp) replies, “I’ve never heard you say, ‘Shit,’ before.” It’s awkward, and Klemp’s performance underlines that she doesn’t know if she should punish Florence. Amanda settles for warning Florence not to do it in front of her grandmother, Georgia (Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding). It’s one of the more subtle indications that Florence is entering into adulthood.

Continue reading at Wicked Horror!

 

Beyond the Cabin in the Woods: The Twilight Zone Movie

I was lucky enough to get invited onto Beyond the Cabin in the Woods: A Good Ghoul’s Guide to Horror. It’s a podcast where horror experts initiate new viewers into the genre. I love the show, regardless of whether they invited me to be their guest or not.

We chatted for quite a while about The Twilight Zone movie. You can listen to it here.

I’m also excited to announce that I’m starting a biweekly feature on this site called “The Real Consorts with Shadows” that looks at the story-telling craft between episodes of The Twilight Zone TV show. The first one will be up next Wednesday, so make sure to check back here!

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.

Review: Island Zero Proves Not All that Starts Well Ends Well

Island Zero starts well. First time director Josh Gerritsen does good work making viewers afraid of a monster without showing them what it is from the start. The film opens with a very drunk man singing to his dog on their boat. Yacht Man (Paul Hodgson) leaves his dog on deck as he goes under to fix himself another martini. The dog passes by two open windows before it disappears behind a third closed one. It’s a great moment because Gerritsen manages to tip viewers off that whatever happened to the dog on the other side of that window wasn’t good.

That dread of knowing something is wrong but not being able to nail down exactly what it is really works in Island Zero. The fish have disappeared off the coast of an island off Maine. Sam (Adam Wade McLaughlin), a biologist chasing a previously undiscovered apex predator, explains, “The pattern is always the same. The sudden disappearance of fish. Local economic devastation. Then the fisherman start to die.”

Continue reading at Wicked Horror!

Review: Altered Perceptions? This Movie Doesn’t

In Altered Perceptions, three couples have a drug that is repeatedly compared to hallucinogens injected into a gland behind their eyes. The drug’s stated purpose is to give clarity, and according to one of the people administering it, it has the potential to resolve, “geopolitical conflicts around the world.” The couples—two straight, one lesbian—are on the rocks. For them, the drug is an opportunity to save their relationships.

The whole film is framed by a panel questioning the experimenters. Within two minutes, Walter (Mark Burnham), shouts, “Someone was murdered. Where does your unacceptable range begin?” From there the panel screens footage of the drug trial, with Walter interjecting as the film’s angry conscience. The test subjects have cameras set up in their homes and are required to post daily video diaries as well. Director Kate Rees Davies thankfully takes some liberty with her cameras. The scenes may all begin on a fixed camera, but once they start Davies let’s the cameras go to. It’s a good balance, reminding viewers of the found footage genre but giving herself the freedom to frame shots and to move with the characters.

Read more at Wicked Horror!