Have you read this book?
Garage sale season is almost ready to start up again and don’t kid yourself — we all know that’s a great place to find overlooked and nearly forgotten Spec Fiction! Yes, I’ve made acquaintance with such Stellar talents as Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake, L. Sprague De Camp, and many other Classic writers through my thrift-shop, garage sale prowling.
Here’s a book you should keep a quarter handy and an eye out for: Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, a creative and energetic showcase of television’s First Hyphenate’s considerable talent for prose.
Serling, as everybody knows, Created, Scripted, and Produced one of TV’s most beloved SF offerings, The Twilight Zone. What some may not know is that Serling was a respectable writer of prose, though nasty allegations of plagiarism followed him from his beginning (as a radio script writer) to the very end of his career in 1975 when the veteran SF stylist died during open heart surgery at the age of fifty.
Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, published four years before his death, represents Serling’s prose at its peak, though the Night Gallery television show signaled Serling’s eventual swan-song from the top of the Neilson ratings. This collection of short stories is highly readable and contains one of the most beautifully articulated stories of nostalgia ever penned.
The collection begins with a shipwreck story, “The Sole Survivor”, which is pure Twilight Zone all the way from its eerie, foggy opening scenes, to a twist at the end that will ensure you read through the rest of the collection. Serling opens with a surefire winner and earns the reader’s trust and envy with his precision-swift style.
The next two stories: “Make Me Laugh”, about a down and out comedian who gets his wish to be hilarious, only to discover laughs can worse than tears, and “Pamela’s Voice” a misogynistic ghost-tale about a nagging wife, are somewhat dated, though “Make Me Laugh” is highly emotive and will linger in your mind. “Pamela’s Voice” is the weakest story in the collection, but will make you grin anyway. Both stories are written with a stylistic competence I wish more writers would work to attain.
“Does the Name Grimsby Do Anything to You?” is a clever piece that squeezes some unexpected life out of the “First Man on the Moon” concept. Here Serling continues the theme of “Make Me Laugh”, braiding humor and pain into inseparable strands. You’ll laugh at Commander Evans whose mind seems to be breaking apart and yet you’ll feel a chill of madness on your own skin as you thumb the last page. Serling forwarded a wickedly dark vision of Space, one that might frighten Spengler, a noticeably anti-romantic point of view and this separated him from the pack back in those early, My Favorite Martian days.
Next tale, “Clean Kill and Other Trophies” is a twist-on-Hemingway concerning a White Hunter whose son is too cowardly to kill. Or is he? This one’s rather a let down. It’s important to remember: Serling was as much a businessman as a writer and “Clean Kill” is definitely one of his competent-but-not-really-dynamite offerings.
The final and longest story, “They’re Tearing Down Tim O’ Reilly’s Bar” is an unqualified masterpiece. This novella was an Emmy Award nominee (as a screenplay), and should have prizes heaped on it yet. It’s the story of a Willie Loman-esque salesman, Randy Lane, who has arrived at the Twenty-Five year service mark at the Pritkin Plastics Factory and is the shape you’d expect him to be as consequence. He’s a widower, a chronic late-luncher, too-heavy drinker who’s about to be edged out by a young Turk at the office and be left alone and penniless with only memories of his glory days.
Randy Lane’s bizarre experiences with his old favorite pub, Tim O’ Reilly’s Bar, begin when he learns that the place is to be demolished. From this set-up, with much lyrical grace, and enough narrative intensity to bring tears to even the most cynical eyes, Serling crafts an unforgettable story about the perils of living in the past, and the sweet seduction of nostalgia. A truly remarkable tale, notable for turning a theme and plot that in most hands would end as a miserable helping of sappiness and cliche.
Serling supposedly flashed on the concept for The Twilight Zone while he was a combat soldier (paratrooper) in the South pacific during WW2. The story goes that he and a buddy had become lost in the jungle and ran perilously low on supplies. After some time wandering, an American pilot spotted them and dropped a heavy box of rations.The box landed on Serling’s buddy, instantly killing him.
There’s no doubt that Rod Serling was an opportunist, an operator, and exceedingly ambitious. Both the Twilight Zone and Night Gallery are perennial late-night T.V. faves, and I think it’s a shame that collections of his writing like Night Gallery are relegated to the Good Will shadows. His prose, now past it’s own twenty-five year mark of service, still shines with the brilliance of a troubled man who fused humor and tragedy, paradox and certainty, and — best of all — commercialism with honest creative expression.
If you like your SF of the Classic variety, or even if you just want to find out whether or not you do, this is a collection you’ll want to dig out from under all those worn out copies of Fear Of Flying on the 25 cent table this summer. Highly recommended.