Speaking With SerlingScience Fiction Grandmaster James Gunn Discusses His Unfinished Interview with the Creator of The Twilight Zoneby Christopher Conloncopyright © 2017 by Christopher ConlonJames Gunn’s celebrated career in science fiction began in 1949 with his first professional story sale (“Paradox” in Thrilling Wonder Stories), and continues on to this day. In 2017 alone he brought out two new books: Transformation, the final novel in an SF trilogy published by Tor, and his memoir Star-Begotten: A Life Lived in Science Fiction, from McFarland. In between there have been novels (Star Bridge with Jack Williamson, This Fortress World, The Listeners), nonfiction books (including a Hugo Award-winning study of Isaac Asimov), a TV series (The Immortal), and the Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. In the late 1960s Dr. Gunn initiated a series of filmed interviews with well-known science fiction writers at the University of Kansas, where he served as a professor. One of his interview subjects was Rod Serling.Q. How did your interview with Rod Serling come about?A. Student Union Activities at that time was sponsoring annual events, speakers and performers, and Serling was scheduled to speak in Hoch Auditorium. Maybe because of Serling’s Twilight Zone and my own reputation as a science-fiction writer and scholar, and maybe because my wife and I volunteered to host a reception after his talk, I found myself driving him around the campus the day of his arrival. We seemed to get along and I asked him if he would be willing to do a film interview that afternoon if we could make arrangements. I had already completed the eleven films of what later became known as “The Literature of Science Fiction film series” with the indispensable help of Alex Lazzarino, director of a section of Continuing Education called Extramural Independent Studies. Alex was a dynamic and dominating director, who found the financing and the personnel to make the filming possible, and he got a cameraman and sound recorder together within an hour. We did the interview in a room on campus set up for the purpose where we had previously recorded the other films in the series (except for the Damon Knight film, which was recorded in the Lazzarinos’ living room; the majority were done on site).Q. What do you remember about conducting the interview itself? What were your impressions of Serling as a person? A. We hadn’t planned anything or discussed what we might talk about—except that it would concern his experience with Twilight Zone, so everything on the film was off the cuff, like a normal conversation. Serling was remarkably at ease and easy to interview, no doubt from long experience. He didn’t display any Hollywood pretensions or literary fame. It was a pleasant occasion. I thought it was remarkable then, and still do, that he agreed to something from a stranger that was so unexpected.Q. Why was the interview never finished?A. Alex left Continuing Education not too long afterwards to join the Menninger Clinic as a fundraiser and project manager, and personnel for editing the films (I had others uncompleted and still do) was more complicated in those days when the sound and film had to be synchronized. I had original plans to produce 18 films that would cover a broad range of science-fiction topics and be useful in the classroom at a time when teaching science-fiction was still in its early days. I wanted to get film topics featuring Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury, for instance, but was never able to make arrangements. I didn’t finish the Serling film, however, because I felt the film wouldn’t be complete without clips from Twilight Zone to illustrate Serling’s anecdotes, and we were unable to get permission to use them—or, at least, we didn’t have the right personnel and resources to obtain permission. I also would have filmed an introduction that would have placed Serling’s film and literary career into perspective. Q. How did the raw footage from the interview end up on YouTube? A. The film footage languished until ten years after Serling’s death when a Kansas City public television station asked for permission to show it as part of a memorial program, and that seemed like a good use. It was also borrowed for the use of parts of Serling’s comments on a national TV program about his life and work. More recently it showed up on YouTube. I don’t know how that happened.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=588fV4vg4ckQ. Serling has an unusual place in SF; his is a famous name associated with it, but he was never really “of” the field. He didn’t come up through the magazines or fandom, and was already very famous when he created Twilight Zone. What are your thoughts regarding Serling’s place in the history of science fiction? A. Serling put an important face on science fiction. He was one of the major influences in bringing it into the mainstream of popular acceptance, which began after World War II and progressed through the efforts of authors such as Robert Heinlein to broaden its appeal into slick magazines, juveniles, and film. In addition, and perhaps as important, he respected the field by translating stories into television with faithfulness to their source, unlike most visual media adaptations (like, for instance, the adaptation of my own The Immortal). And he did this with a modesty about his own contributions and over difficulties that he recounted in the interview.As a postscript, my wife got the flu the day Serling arrived and wasn’t up to hosting the reception. The Lazzarinos volunteered to be the hosts and saved the day (and we called Jane’s illness “the Rod Serling flu”). She never got to meet him. And that was my only contact with him as well. Many thanks to Dr. Gunn for taking the time for this interview.#
Originally published in Filmfax 97, June/July 2003...Group DynamicsJohn Tomerlin Talks About Charles Beaumont, the Southern California Group, and Writing for The Twilight Zone Article and Interview by Christopher Conlon Copyright © 2003 by Christopher Conlon John Tomerlin has enjoyed a richly varied career in books and television. An original member of the “Southern California Group,” Tomerlin collaborated several times with the Group’s leader, Charles Beaumont, and broke into TV writing at the same time as Beaumont and other Group members, including Richard Matheson and George Clayton Johnson. His credits include scripts for The Twilight Zone, Lawman, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and Thriller. An avid pilot and sports car enthusiast, Tomerlin has penned numerous novels touching on these topics (The Sky Clowns, The Magnificent Jalopy, and Challenge the Wind, most notably), as well as nonfiction for magazines such as Road & Track and Car & Driver. Tomerlin recently reminisced with Filmfax about the Group and his television writing career. FAX: You were one of the original members of the so-called Southern California Group, those emerging writers of the 1950s such as William F. Nolan, George Clayton Johnson, and Richard Matheson, who centered around the great fantasist Charles Beaumont. What are your early memories of Beaumont, and what was it like being part of the Group? TOMERLIN: In addition to great natural writing ability and an off-beat imagination, Chuck had the kind of energy that attracted people to him. We first met in 1949, and in subsequent years he drew William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson into the core of what was later termed The Group. Richard Matheson became a good friend, as did Jerry Sohl, and we had close associations with writers like Harlan Ellison, OCee Ritch, Bill Idleson, and Rod Serling. The interactions between such people are by nature stimulating, and I think everyone benefitted from them creatively. I know I did. There was, of course, no such thing as The Group in the beginning. We were just a few guys trying to find out how to be in the world. It was Chuck’s wife Helen who first used the term—not always admiringly—in connection with our get-togethers, which tended to be boisterous and run late. Later, when children needed to sleep, we moved our meetings to all-night diners or car trips to the beach. Chuck loved to compete, and we had inter-Group “championships” at everything from pool to miniature golf. Chuck and I raced sports cars for a while, and after going broke at that, moved to the Long Beach Pike Amusement Park to stage races in bumper cars. Bill Nolan proved accomplished at avoiding drunken sailors and teenagers, and emerged as “King of the Bump’ums” (his term). Later, someone bought a board game called “Grand Prix,” which we expanded with a hand-drafted playing board that covered an entire dining room table, leaf included. We played one night—all night—while my wife was in the hospital giving birth to our first child. The story became “The Great Kitchen Table Grand Prix,” published in Road & Track magazine. In fact, I ended up writing about most of the wilder scenes inspired by my association with The Group. Trips to Paris and Monte Carlo for the Monaco Grand Prix, to New Providence Island for Nassau Speed Week, to Tijuana for the bull fights, and several driving tours of the country, all accomplished on little or no money. There were women along the way, of course, but these we will save for another time. FAX: You collaborated with Beaumont more than once, perhaps most notably on the novel Run from the Hunter, published under the pseudonym “Keith Grantland.” How did that come about? And why was the name “Keith Grantland” used? TOMERLIN: In 1950 I started working in radio, first at a station near Riverside, California, later at an NBC affiliate in Bakersfield. Chuck began writing short stories about the same time and, over the next few years, sold them to markets like Esquire and Playboy. About 1956, the station I worked for turned to playing Top-20 rock and roll, and I decided to look for other enjoyment. I knew Chuck had started a crime novel and put it aside for some reason, and I asked him if I could try finishing it. He agreed, and after doing the final polish, he got his agent to put it on the market. We wanted a pseudonym, I don’t remember why. Extreme modesty, perhaps. We decided on the middle names of our two sons, Christopher Keith Beaumont and William Grantland Tomerlin. It sold to Gold Medal Books as Run from the Hunter. They paid a fortune ($2500 I believe it was). I promptly wrote another book under my own name, and when it sold, I was hooked. FAX: How did you become involved in television writing? Did you consider it an artistic endeavor, or was it more for the money? TOMERLIN: You have to understand, I was in radio. I loved radio. I had wanted to work in radio at least from the time I was in high school, and when television took over, all the best shows—ones I might have worked on or even written for—were gone. It was as disappointing as it was disorienting. So, I have a love/hate relationship with TV: Love writing it, hate the business. In 1958, at a car show in Beverly Hills, I met the president of the Mercedes-Benz club, a man named John Robinson, who also was story editor of the Steve McQueen series, Wanted: Dead or Alive. He asked me what I was doing, and when I said I was starting a new novel, a Western, he invited me to come in and talk story. John was a good man, a rarity in the business (he ended up in a mental institution, after the 1960 strike), and I wrote four segments for him before the series ended. The pay was good, and by this time Chuck and Rich Matheson were writing for television too, so I just kept on at it. All of us were under the curious delusion that the quality of programming would get better in time. That may seem naïve now, but back then there were still some fine dramatic series coming out of New York—Playhouse 90 and Studio One, The Defenders, I think—and we believed sooner or later we could start doing that kind of work. What we didn’t understand was that television (and most motion pictures, for that matter) is about business, not drama, or art of any kind. The industry is run by businessmen who are good at what they do, which is only incidentally what my friends and I do, or hoped to do. The reason writing is held in low esteem by most Hollywood producers, and it is—the joke about the starlet so dumb she slept with the writer is classic—is because although they know that a writer is necessary, they have no idea what he’s doing or how he does it. It’s the reason for all the multiple credits you see these days: producers aren’t sure what they want, but hope to recognize it when they see it. They don’t, as is obvious from the number of bad films and television shows. FAX: Perhaps your best-remembered program is the Twilight Zone episode “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” which is credited onscreen as having been written “by Charles Beaumont and John Tomerlin.” Beaumont’s health problems were certainly getting in the way of his writing by this point. How did this collaboration work? TOMERLIN: Chuck and I collaborated a number of times, on television shows, articles, and a couple of short stories, plus the novel you mentioned. “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” wasn’t a collaboration. I wrote the script based on his short story “The Beautiful People.” Somehow the credits got changed while I was out of the country. I’ve never known why. They should have read: “by John Tomerlin, Based on a Short Story by Charles Beaumont.” Neither do I know why the name of Chuck’s original story was changed, but the fact that it was illustrates my point about producers. Consider: Few viewers would have paid attention to the title of the episode anyway; Chuck’s original story had been bought by the producers for adaptation to TV; and someone sat at his desk and thought, “I like my title better than the author’s, so I’ll just change it.” And this at a company reputed to be more respectful of its writers than most. Chuck and I went to New York, in the summer of 1964, to begin collaboration on a new novel. He was unable to work when we got there—extremely unusual for him—and finally returned to L.A. A week or two later, he phoned to say he had an assignment to turn “The Beautiful People” into a Twilight Zone, and asked if I’d be willing to write it. I now believe his Alzheimer’s had reached the point where he couldn’t work, but I didn’t know that at the time. I changed the focus of the story slightly, thinking it would play better for TV. FAX: You mentioned that you had never watched the episode until recently. Why did you avoid it for so long? TOMERLIN: I’ve always thought the reason I didn’t particularly want to watch the episode was because I didn’t want to see what had been done to my script (if, in fact, anything had). I now think the reasons are more complicated. By the time I returned home, Chuck was far advanced in his illness. His home life was a shambles and his wife, Helen, had become an emotional invalid. My wife, Wilma, took charge of some of their family responsibilities, and we took their newborn, Gregory, into our home for a while until Helen began to recover. I spent most afternoons with Chuck at a restaurant in the Valley called The Tail of the Cock, drinking Tanqueray martinis (only two or three, which was all either of us could handle), trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with him. FAX: We sent you a tape of the show—what did you think of it, nearly 40 years after the fact? TOMERLIN: It wasn’t a painful experience. I was reminded that pacing was of less concern back then. This story was “talky” by its nature, and I wish I’d written in a little more action; but the production was true to my script as well as to Chuck’s original ideas, with one added dimension: the use of the same cast members to play different roles. I think that worked. One element I missed was having the Head Man (played by Richard Long, with his face partly in shadow) remain invisible until the end of the scene, and then revealed as normal, i.e. untransformed. I wanted to imply that the transformation was a scam to keep the public in subjugation, and was not indulged in by the true leaders. I still like the notion, but it would have been hard to shoot, and the point was too subtle to play well. The director was right to drop it. In sum, the production was better than I’d expected, if less than I’d hoped for—which is to say, a considerable improvement on many of my experiences in TV. FAX: Though Twilight Zone is probably your best-known TV credit, you did your largest body of work for the 1958-’62 Western series Lawman, starring John Russell and Peter Brown. How did you get involved with that series? TOMERLIN: Richard Matheson had written an episode, and recommended me to the producer. I ended up doing a dozen originals and a couple of re-writes. Westerns were fun because you could write about virtually any subject—capital punishment, racial prejudice, political corruption—and people wouldn’t object because they didn’t recognize what you were doing. All they saw were white hats and black hats. You had to be careful about some content, though; this was just after the McCarthy affair, and story editors were still asking, “Are you now or have you ever been….?” “Payola” was making headlines too, so on some shows you had to be careful what you asked for in the way of props. You could call for a telephone, but not a colored phone or a “Princess,” as that would be construed as advertising. There were fewer constraints of this type in Westerns. FAX: You also wrote an episode of Boris Karloff’s series Thriller. What do you recall about it? TOMERLIN: Nothing good. A key concept of fantasy is suspension of disbelief. Every competent fantasy writer knows what it is and how to do it. The task is more difficult in film and TV because less is left to the imagination. You have to be subtle. I wrote an original story, “Dark Legacy,” about a magician who dies and leaves a book containing the secrets of his illusions to another magician. The secret is, they aren’t illusions; he’s been conjuring up a demon to assist him. Now, it’s absolutely crucial not to see the demon—at least not before the final scene—because the minute you see it, it ceases to be magic and becomes just another monster. Without consulting me, the director (John Brahm) decided to have the demon appear halfway through the show, after which the story had no further suspense and became rather silly. Those interested in this sort of thing should see a film called Night of the Demon (a.k.a. Curse of the Demon, 1957) with Dana Andrews, based on M.R. James’s “Casting the Runes.” When the demon finally appears in the last scene, it’s superimposed on the vapor rising from a locomotive, and only barely glimpsed until…Well, I won’t spoil the ending. I know too well how that feels. FAX: You also worked with Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis. TOMERLIN: Curtis is amazing. An extraordinarily versatile and, in my opinion, under-rated filmmaker. His production of Dracula, written by Richard Matheson and starring Jack Palance, is the best of all versions of the Bram Stoker classic. And his production of Herman Wouk’s Winds of War is one of the finest World War Two stories ever done for television. He also did a fine job with Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, from a script by William F. Nolan. I was fortunate enough to get the assignment for a three-hour adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray (which appeared in two parts on the ABC Circle Theater), and I was set to do Jane Eyre when the series was discontinued. I regret this, not only because I enjoyed working for Dan (a writer himself, and understanding of the writer’s task) but because I had hopes of setting the record straight on the correct pronunciation of “Eyre.” There is internal evidence in the Charlotte Brontë novel that Jane’s name is pronounced “Ire,” not “Air.” Now, the world will never know. FAX: Another of your credits is Genesis II, for Gene Roddenberry. Tell us about that. TOMERLIN: Okay, you’ve got me. Having criticized people in TV production, I must admit that here was someone else I liked and admired. Gene was a writer, which may have made the difference. I did one of the pilot episodes for a new series he had planned, called Genesis II. The concept was evocative of Star Trek in that it was a “journey” series: in a post-apocalyptic world, a future-tech subway system is found to have survived. The cast travels to an unlimited number of “new beginnings”—mini-societies founded on every variation of human (or mutant) behavior imaginable. I loved the idea, but the network couldn’t quite visualize it. FAX: When did you leave television, and why? TOMERLIN: “Why” should be fairly apparent. “When” was the spring of 1964. Lawman had ended, I’d done a couple of re-writes for other Warner Brothers shows, and was given scripts to read for several hour-long series. Reading them crystallized a thought that had been growing in my mind for some time, that with the passing of the pure dramatic series and anthologies, there was nothing left I really wanted to do in television. And because I’d started by writing books, and hoped to write more of them, I decided I’d better get on with that. FAX: But you had some credits after 1964. You wrote for S*W*A*T, the memorably violent 1970s series. TOMERLIN: Well, I considered my break with TV in 1964 to be permanent, and stopped seeking further work. But opportunities came along after I returned to California in the late ’60s, and I accepted several of them. I’m glad I did, or I would have missed the opportunity to work for Dan Curtis, for instance. FAX: How is it that you have worked so successfully in so many different fields? What accounts for your fantastically wide range as a writer? TOMERLIN: The tough answer to that question is that I wasn’t talented enough or dedicated enough to be a major success in any one field. A gentler assessment might be that I’ve had a variety of interests in life, but never one that’s obsessed me. I wanted to race cars, and had some success at the amateur level, but was not tempted to turn professional. I learned to fly, and enjoyed owning my own plane for a while, but never thought of making it a career.Similarly, I discovered I could write short fiction and nonfiction; novels for younger readers as well as on adult themes; scripts for a wide variety of TV shows, and even a screenplay. A lot of this work followed my personal interests (“Live it up, and write it down,” Hemingway is reputed to have said), so that I’ve written about racing, flying, travel, and all the rest. Or nearly all the rest; I may have a few books still to go. FAX: What are you most proud of in your writing career? What would you like to be remembered for? TOMERLIN: The obvious answer is: the next book. But of my work to date, I’d probably choose the series of articles I wrote on highway safety, published in Road & Track magazine in the 1970s and ’80s. Based on a mountain of research, I established the true relationships between speed and safety, and advanced the only practical solution to the problem of drinking and driving ever developed (but not yet implemented). These pieces generated interest around the world, and two were read into the Congressional Record. Considering only television work, I think my adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray and the scripts for Wanted: Dead or Alive gave me the most pleasure. FAX: What projects are you working on now? TOMERLIN: In addition to a second book for serialization, I’m working on a novel about board-track racing in the 1920s. I’m calling it The Wooden Road. I’m also collecting notes for a memoir covering the years of my association with Charles Beaumont and The Group. FAX: One of your more recent publications is a wonderful short story, “The People of the Blue-Green Water,” in the anthology California Sorcery: A Group Celebration. How did this story come about? It seems rather Hemingwayesque. TOMERLIN: I can think of no greater compliment. This is an illustration of what I was just talking about. When asked to contribute to the anthology, my first thought was to give them a story published some years ago in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Then, because I hadn’t written a short story in several years, and was in the mood to do one, I decided to try an original. Inasmuch as I have rafted down the Grand Canyon, and hiked one of its tributaries, Havasu Canyon, I thought it would be fun to do a story based on these experiences. There’s a young boy who wanders away from camp and ends up learning something about growing up. The editors liked the story and accepted it for publication. Now, a month or two later, I’m flying home from a legal conference (I should mention that I’m also an “expert witness” in highway safety-related matters), and I find myself sitting next to the publisher of serialized books for young readers. So, “The People of the Blue Green Water,” with the addition of a Havasupai girl, a mountain lion, and quite a bit of incident, has become an 18-part novel, The Valley of No Return, appearing in 50 newspapers around the country. Now, if only Disney would like a turn-of-the-century adventure featuring Native Americans…. And so it goes. In memory of John Tomerlin, 1930-2014
I'm happy to announce that Cemetery Dance Select: Christopher Conlon is now available for Kindle from Amazon.com! As the title indicates, this new ebook-only collection is part of the "Cemetery Dance Select" series, which includes many estimable writers in the fields of horror and suspense--Michael Marshall Smith, John R. Little, Lisa Morton, Jeff Strand...lots more. The idea of the series is to have writers "spotlight a sampling of their own short fiction: award winners, stories they consider their best or that had the most impact on their career, or neglected favorites they feel deserve a second look." To that end, the stories I've selected are:
"Darkness, and She Was Alone" (from Poe's Lighthouse)
"On Tuesday the Stars All Fell From the Sky" (from The Oblivion Room)
"The Girl That Nobody Liked" (originally in Dark Discoveries, later folded into Lullaby for the Rain Girl)
"The Unfinished Music" (from Thundershowers at Dusk)
The collection also includes an Afterword by me, original to this ebook. All this for the LOW, LOW PRICE of $2.99! Find the collection here:
This morning, while digging through some old boxes in the basement looking for papers (which I never found), I discovered something quite delightful to me: “A Blossom,” a story I wrote in the eighties which had completely vanished from my mind. Unlike the earlier blasts from the past I’ve posted on this blog, this one was actually written as a school assignment, but it worked out well enough that I believe I actually submitted it to magazines at least a couple of times. It was never published, though.
The odd thing about this story—semi-story, semi-memoir—is that while I’d totally forgotten about it, I did still have a memory of some of the comments the professor, Karen Carlton, wrote about it. But my memory had tricked me: I thought those comments were written for quite another story, one that eventually saw print. But no, here they are, in faded ink on the last page of this story.
The piece was written in the spring of 1987 for my Adolescent Literature class at Humboldt State University. Looking at it today, I’m startled to find echoes of material that would appear in The Unspoken, the novel I began writing slightly later in that period (and which wouldn’t be published until 2015 as The Unspoken: The Lost Novel). The treatment of the material here is closer to autobiographical, though there is still some fiction present. Whatever my reservations about the story now, as a gesture of respect to the 24-year-old who wrote it, I’ve reproduced “A Blossom” exactly as it appears on the crumpled and browning original pages—the only copy in existence, until now.
The main point of memory for me, however, is the final comment written by Dr. Carlton on the last page of the manuscript. It shows me that I must have talked to her about my career path a good deal (which also surprises me, since my actual memory of Dr. Carlton, to be honest, is rather vague). Anyway, it was one of the key validations I ever received for my writing, and I never forgot it:
“Chris, this is a beautiful story. It is incredibly polished—I trust you will send this out for publication soon. I found this a joy to read. Stick with writing. Forget teaching. Hang on. –Karen.”
Well, Dr. Carlton, I never forsook teaching, but I did stick with writing, and your comment was part of what kept me going in that long, grim period nearly thirty years ago. For that I thank you.
Wherever you are, this early story is now dedicated to you.
by Christopher Conlon
copyright © 1987, 2016 by Christopher Conlon
for Dr. Karen Carlton
At that age, at seven, I could hardly have created out of my imagination a wilder or more wonderful companion than my Uncle Tom. He was a very old man—probably the oldest I’d ever seen—and quite stocky, heavily built, with a voice as raspy and cranky as an old tractor motor. He had a huge red scar down his chest and a smaller, coffee-brown one on his throat, both the results of recent surgeries. He made no attempt to hide them; instead he displayed them proudly, like badges of honor. More than once I saw him strike up conversations with strangers which led quickly to the question: “Wanna see my chest?”
When I mother and I came to visit—once every few months, maybe, we lived over a hundred miles away—she and my aunt Billie would steal off to another room to drink and smoke and gossip. As soon as they were out of sight Uncle Tom would give me a an entire box, a big box, of See’s Candies, telling me they would help me grow, and as we sat in his shuttered, semi-dark room he would tell me stories. He had been, so he said, a riverboat captain; a brain surgeon at Harvard; a star of silent movies; an oil billionaire who’d lost everything in the stock market crash; a bank robber, once Public Enemy #2 (#1 at the time was John Dillinger, who learned everything he knew from my uncle); an FBI spy in Moscow; an Arctic explorer; the designer of the Apollo rockets; Ernest Hemingway; and so many other things that it was really quite breathtaking. Even more exotic to my seven-year-old sensibilities was his room—all filled with the most fantastic thingamabobs and doodads. A Japanese samurai sword (“Got it off a Jap I took prisoner in the war,” he said). A Nazi helmet with a real bullet hole right through the side. Kaleidoscope viewers from China. Perfectly preserved labels from the very first Campbell’s soup cans ever produced. Indian herbs and medicines in clay jars. An authentic Confederate flag. And in a box at the top of the closet, a huge stack of Action Comics—the very first Superman stories—that he let me read whenever I wanted. It was only years later that I realized how many thousands of dollars that stack must have been worth.
But best of all were his paperweights. He had twenty-five or so, in all different sizes, delicate glass balls with flat bottoms that contained within them the most beautiful things: an autumn leaf, a tiny snow-covered house, a white rose. My own favorite was the smallest one, just the size of my palm. In it was a small pink and white cherry blossom, like the ones on our own tree back home.
“Get ’em from all over the world,” he told me. “Little shops here and there. Junk shops, mostly. Ain’t worth nothin’.”
“What do you do with them?” I asked, the first time he showed them to me. I looked closely at the cherry blossom, like a little, peaceful world of its own in my hand.
“Do with ’em?” he said gruffly. “Don’t do nothin’ with ’em. Don’t always gotta do somethin’ with somethin’. Jus’ junk, anyway.”
There was a river behind my uncle’s house and on good days we would swim there, stark naked. We were surrounded by mountains and when we shouted it would echo back to us. I used to imagine there being little gremlins hidden up there, shouting back at us—making us think it was an echo. Uncle Tom would play along; when I turned my back he would suddenly say, “There’s one! Look!...Aw, you missed it!”
It got so that I would tell him anything. I had no secrets: I hated school; I missed my dad; my mother was becoming stranger and stranger. I would tell him these things not because he had any answers, he didn’t, but he would listen, he would try to understand. I would sit in the shallow water by the bank and he would float there, a few feet from me, on his back, his big red chest scar shining in the afternoon light. He would ask questions; he would tell jokes to cheer me up. Mostly, though, he would be silent as I talked on and on.
Slowly, though, something began to happen. Over the course of perhaps a year’s visits, he told me progressively fewer stories and fewer jokes and spent less time with me and began to seem more interested in staying inside to drink with the women. And drink they did. In light of my mother’s later history, it all seems rather ghoulish; but at the time I chalked it up to the vagaries of grown-ups, their unknowable motives….
One visit we stayed quite late, into the night, and the three of them became very happily drunk, hooting and hollering and carrying on. I wasn’t enjoying myself. Especially not when my mother, shortly before passing out on the sofa, said: “Oh yes, I forgot to tell you—my little boy’s in love!”
I blushed all the way down to the ends of my toes.
It was true, though. I was head-over-heels, madly, obsessively, all-encompassingly in love. Sonya! Even today the name conjures up a vision of white and gold, a brilliant sun, an Angel of Light: blonde hair that reached to her waist, deep lavender eyes, soft peach-blushed skin…No doubt the reality was rather more terrestrial than these memory-images; still, there was a sort of mystery about her. She had only just come to our school from some never-heard-of place; she said little to anyone (except—O Lord!—a little bit, to me); inevitably wore full white dresses rather than the usual skirts or blue jeans; and she got higher grades than anyone in the class, including me.
In short, she was a goddess on earth.
Uncle Tom found this terrifically amusing. “Ha-ha! So our little Junior G-Man’s got himself somethin’ on the side! Boy, how old are you? You sure don’t waste time!”
I giggled nervously, my face hot with embarrassment. I felt like boring myself a hold in the ground, a nice deep one. Maybe all the way to China.
“Don’t make fun of the boy, Tom,” my Aunt Billie said. She was a black-haired lady with an emphysemic voice.
“Fun? I’m proud,” he laughed, pouring some whiskey into his glass. “Shit, he’d make his daddy right proud, wouldn’t he?”
I looked at my mother. She was out like a light.
“Gettin’ some pussy, are you?” he said, stepping close to me.
I didn’t look at him. I didn’t know what he meant. I shrugged.
“Well, you know what pussy is, don’t you?”
I shook my head.
“Well,” he said loudly, announcing it, “you go ask your girlfriend, that’s what you do!” He drained his glass quickly. “Yep, you go ask your girlfriend ’bout that. She’ll tell you!”
Aunt Billie laughed in a sort of embarrassed way. “Tom, you rascal!” she said.
“C’mere, baby!” he shouted, holding out his arms. She staggered into them and they disappeared down the hall to their bedroom.
I looked at my mother, there on the sofa like a collapsed mannequin. After a while I shut off the lights.
But one bad night wasn’t enough to shake my faith in Uncle Tom, not really, and after a couple of days I found myself nearly forgetting the evening entirely, remembering instead the chocolates, the gremlins in the mountains, the cherry blossom.
Except for one thing. That word he’d used, the one he and Aunt Billie had laughed over. I’d heard it before. It was an adult word. As such it seemed emblematic of an entire array of frustrating myself there seemed to be more and more of every day: veiled things, secret inferences, shadowy suggestions of things I would know “someday.” The dictionary was no help. I certainly couldn’t ask my mother; adult subjects were strictly off-limits between us.
Well, after a week of wondering, becoming nearly obsessed with the subject, I decided to follow my uncle’s advice and ask Sonya about it.
My judgment in matters concerning women, by the way, has hardly improved since.
It was without a doubt the biggest catastrophe of my seven-year-old life. Sonya, alas, knew what the word meant, and took it that I was making a rude joke—which she abhorred, which offended her, which she finally burst into tears over.
It may sound funny now. It wasn’t then. Her reaction terrified me. I ran home right in the middle of the school day and exploded through our front door, screaming and crying and carrying on. It must have taken my mother, who was still sober at this time of day, a good ten minutes to calm me down to the point that she could get a coherent sentence out of me.
“What, honey? Who told you to ask her that?”
“Uncle Tom!” I cried.
Well, after she had me calmed down, she got on the phone and gave my uncle a going-over that probably still has the telephone lines quaking. He was a monster! A beast! A bastard! How dare he say something like that to her son! Didn’t he know anything? Was he a complete idiot? He should see the state I was in. He should see….
At this point there is a long blank in my memory. A couple of months must have gone by; no, even more, for summer came and went and I was in school again; finally, on an unseasonably warm day in early fall, we again made the long trek to Uncle Tom’s house. I hadn’t forgotten the whole thing. Sonya still, after all this time, treated me with a cool distance; and I had resigned myself to having lost her and being alone—probably forever, maybe even longer. But the anger had long since dissipated, and it was with a bored resignation that I re-entered the house.
For a long while all four of us stayed in the kitchen talking together. Or rather, my mother and Aunt Billie talked. I sat there with my hands in my lap and Uncle Tom stared out the window blankly. He looked much older than I remembered him: he had lost weight, his eyes were milky and dull, the skin seemed to hang like old burlap off his face and arms. He’d had another heart operation, and another throat one, too. As a result he could hardly talk—his voice was a harsh whisper.
Finally, though, the women went off somewhere and Uncle Tom and I sat there listening to their laughter in another room. He didn’t look at me for a long time. Finally he stood, slowly and wearily.
“C’mere,” he whispered.
He led me back to his room, walking unsteadily, pressing his hand against the wall for support. I stood in the doorway as he rummaged around for something. Finally he found it and, holding up the cherry blossom, he tossed it to me.
“Give that to your girlfriend,” he whispered.
I had nearly forgotten about it. But as I looked closely I knew that I liked it as much, even more than I ever had: staring into that tiny ball of glass was like looking into a whole new world, a perfect, crystalline world, one without troubles or scary things. No strange shadows, no feelings of rushing headlong into something dark and unknown. Just silence.
I looked up at him again, finally. A moment passed.
“Jus’ junk,” he muttered.
He was standing at his shuttered window, his back to me. I could hear his shallow, uneven breathing. The rest of the house was oddly quiet.
Later we went down to the river. He wasn’t really able to swim anymore but he stripped down and got in anyway, sitting on the bank in the shallow water. I paddled around and floated on my back for a time—I’d become a much better swimmer over the summer, since I’d last been here. We didn’t say much. We didn’t need to, I guess. Once I let out a shout and listened for the echo; but it never came. I looked at my uncle, pale and sickly in the failing afternoon light. The magnificent liar! Not entirely a liar—there was some shred of truth in many of his stories, I now think—but something had happened over the summer. I somehow knew him better. Understood him. Or thought I did. It seemed funny, all of a sudden. I started to laugh. He looked at me, momentarily puzzled, then emitted a hoarse, whispered chuckle.
“Jesus!” he finally rasped, in a tone of wonder, “one day you’ll know everything. Don’t you doubt it. Everything in the world.”
I watched him.
“Hell,” he added, “one day I’ll know everything, too!”
We laughed again. It was the last time I saw him. Two months later he died.
And the rest of them?
My mother died many years ago. My Aunt Billie has married and divorced and remarried; I’ve lost track of her whereabouts. And Sonya? I had a letter from her recently. She now lives in West Virginia with her husband, an architect, and she has just given birth to a healthy daughter. She mentions that, just out of curiosity, she recently had the cherry blossom appraised. Its value, so she was told, is just under two thousand dollars.
Today I'm happy to announce my ongoing collaboration with painter Joe Bucciano! The Bucciano/Conlon Project
features my brand-new stories that respond to Joe's wonderful art as well as his brand-new paintings responding to my writing. It's all available absolutely free on Joe's website, right here: http://joebucciano.com/bucciano-conlon-project.htm
If you like what you see at the Project, please check back from time to time--we'll be putting up new stories and new paintings just as soon as they're ready!
"Balconies" by Joe Bucciano. My story based on this painting is available at the Bucciano/Conlon Project!
George Clayton Johnson, who died on Christmas Day, was my friend.If his name doesn’t register, most likely you’re not particularly a fan of science fiction or vintage television. If you were, you’d know that George was the co-author of the novel Logan’s Run (with William F. Nolan), that he wrote the first broadcast episode of the original Star Trek, and that he created several of the most memorable segments of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. He also co-wrote the original story for Ocean’s 11, which became a Sinatra Rat Pack classic that has since been remade by Brad Pitt and Co.—with two sequels to boot.George, who I first met through correspondence in the late ’90s and then in person in Los Angeles in 2002, was unlike any writer I’ve ever encountered. But then, he was unlike any person I’ve ever encountered. Warm, witty, and completely without the kind of ego one might expect of someone so celebrated, he was utterly down-to-earth—even as his high-flown philosophical musings could seem at times to have been beamed in from some other galaxy. Part sage and part crackpot—sometimes both in the same sentence!—he never failed to beguile me, whether in multi-hour telephone conversations or on the single unforgettable afternoon I spent interviewing him in his little house in Pacoima, where he had bright Christmas lights blinking everywhere inside in the middle of August. I was proud to be chosen to introduce him as the keynote speaker at the Twilight Zone Convention in 2002, prouder still to have been given the opportunity to write the introduction to his wonderful collection All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories, and perhaps proudest of all to have gotten this marvelously talented man—who wrote little in his last years—to pen an original short story for my anthology Poe’s Lighthouse. George was never prolific, which partly accounts for his not being as famous as some of his contemporaries such as Ray Bradbury or Richard Matheson. But make no mistake: at his best he was fully their equal. If you doubt me, look up his classic Twilight Zone episodes “Nothing in the Dark,” starring a very young Robert Redford as Mr. Death, or “Kick the Can,” a beautifully evocative story of old age written when George was in his early thirties. When Steven Spielberg decided to remake one episode of the series for the ’80s Twilight Zone: The Movie, he had 156 to choose from. The one he chose was George’s “Kick the Can.” That’s how good George Clayton Johnson was.In later years, regrettably, George and I mostly fell out of touch. The last time I heard from him was a telephone call around 2008 in which he told me he wouldn’t be able to contribute to my Richard Matheson tribute anthology He Is Legend. I didn’t ask him about it; he was nearly eighty by then, and I didn’t want to pry. We chatted for a while, just everyday things, and that was it. Over the next few years I thought of picking up the phone to call him now and then, or dropping him a letter, but I didn’t. I heard through mutual friends that his health was failing, which made me sad—but also that at conventions he attended he had been praising my collection Thundershowers at Dusk: Gothic Stories, which made me feel roughly ten feet tall.
And then came the news, on Christmas Day. George Clayton Johnson was one of my heroes. He always will be.#