Call it the “Mad Men Era” of science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Starting in 1949–50, fantastika underwent a revolutionary transition from the Golden Age paradigm fostered by John W. Campbell and his Astounding magazine. Two new magazines born at that time, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy, stole the torch from Campbell and redefined what cutting-edge, well-written, stylish, and topical science fiction was all about.
But momentum ran out toward the end of the ’50s, sometime after the spectacular achievements of that archetypical Eisenhower-era writer Alfred Bester, culminating with The Stars My Destination in 1956. By no means were the subsequent years precisely a period of exhaustion or despair: Great work continued to be published. But rather it was an era of consolidation and pause, with many writers apparently looking around for the next big step. That wouldn’t take place until around 1964, with the first stirrings of the New Wave, typified by the works of J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Thomas Disch, Norman Spinrad, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delany, et al.
And so there was a period, roughly from 1957 to 1964, when science fiction was busy consolidating its gains and treading water, to some degree. In Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, John Clute dubs it the era of “The Established Genre,” with all the stodginess that implies. A certain complacency and self-satisfaction and business-as-usual mood prevailed. Horizons and ambitions narrowed a tad, with an establishment, follow-the-well-worn-grooves vibe.
There is almost an exact parallel with the history of rock ‘n’ roll. After the initial revolution of Chuck Berry and Elvis and Little Richard, we got Dion and Frankie Valli. Then, eventually, came the Beatles.
With the publication of the Library of America’s American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953–56 and American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956–58, the lineaments of this period are becoming clearer than ever. But the years 1959–64 remain relatively unexamined. Those would be the Mad Men years — or, the “New Frontier” years, to borrow JFK’s famous tag, nicely repurposed by Darwyn Cooke’s great graphic novel about the same period in superhero myths.
Two venues are essential touchstones for fantastika during this era. The television show The Twilight Zone, whose first season launched in 1959. And Playboy magazine, founded by science fiction fanboy Hugh Hefner in 1953 but reaching its peak in the New Frontier years. The types of stories featured in both places were ineluctably bound to this period. Cautionary, allegorical, cosmopolitan, mordant, playing with well-defined tropes, and somehow quintessentially American. It’s not coincidental that Philip K. Dick laid down the foundations of his peculiar vision during this time as well, as an outlier of the mode.
The fiction writer Ray Russell was an executive editor at Playboy. His good friend Charles Beaumont was one of the earliest writers to grace the magazine’s pages, with “Black Country” in the issue for September 1954. Both men worked for Hollywood and lived in California (Dick’s homeland too), where other peers such as Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, William Nolan, and Rod “Mr. Twilight Zone” Serling himself foregathered — an essential shift from the New York–centric days of John Campbell.
Four new books — one by Russell and three by Beaumont — allow contemporary readers to get a better feel for what this overlooked era was all about.
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Published as a paperback original in 1962, Russell’s The Case Against Satan exhibits all the virtues of the best pulp goods from that democratic marketplace — think John D. MacDonald, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford. Swift, sensational, succinct, the book also displays a complexity and depth of philosophy, theology, and moral ambiguity that academics have been trained to detect only in more lofty tomes.
The book opens with a vintage Angry Young Man screed against the conformist, soulless modern way of living, a blast Henry Miller might have hurled in a book like The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. This theme resonates throughout. We are in the urban parish of St. Michael’s, depicted with the ashcan realism associated with noir films. Newcomer priest Father Gregory Sargent is taking over the post from Father Halloran. It seems an easy enough shepherdship until teenage Susan Garth arrives with her sullen, stumblebum father. Susan has been exhibiting strange, heretical symptoms of late. Before you can say, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Father Sargent and his visiting superior, Bishop Crimmings, have Susan under their ministrations, strapped down to an iron bed frame and undergoing an exorcism, complete with curses and projectile vomiting, à la the classic Blatty novel, which would come only years later. The ordeal will reveal hidden murder, incest, avarice, and betrayal while also testing the faith of Sargent, a liberal priest who believes equally in science and psychiatry as in the tenets of the Church.
With only a couple of other characters than those I’ve named, Russell’s book preserves a stage-like quality that allows for an intense examination of character, contrasting the bishop and his protégé as avatars of old-school and newfangled religion. It manages to be both lurid and thoughtful, featuring kinky images such as the quasi-BDSM treatment of Susan, and deep theological arguments between the priests. The book becomes the ultimate hybrid of a guilty pleasure that simultaneously makes one feel — surprise! — intellectually stimulated.
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Charles Beaumont (1929–67) might on first glance be thought of as the second-string Ray Bradbury for his similar storytelling tactics, tropes, and themes and their shared era of prominence — were he not so much ultimately his own man, with a very distinctive voice. Passionate, inventive, prolific, he wrote over twenty episodes of The Twilight Zone, as well as many stories, some film scripts, and a couple of novels, all before dying prematurely of what has been described as a combination of progeria and Alzheimer’s. I recall discussing him once with Harlan Ellison, who was a good friend of Beaumont’s, and Ellison sadly but wryly saying, “It was a very science-fictional disease.” And while Beaumont’s star has been eclipsed since his death by generational waves of newer writers, a potential groundswell of fresh interest can be seen with the arrival of three new editions of his work.
The first place to start is the nicely curated, generous selection of his best work contained in Perchance to Dream. Nearly two dozen stories manifest not a subpar tale among them, although some are slighter than others, just deft jests or contes cruels. The stories all typify the kind of narrative constructions that once dominated the genre, and showed up in The Twilight Zone, among other places. They are full of traps and hooks and frank gimmicks, “biters bitten” and old myths (vampires) played for laughs. But they also display acute psychological insights and keen-edged sociopolitical assessments. They are what might be dubbed “modern fantastika,” midway between Poe and postmodern authors like Laird Barron or Lucius Shepard. Beaumont loved the catchy opener, the emotionally gripping premise, and the tricky ending, which, if not O. Henry rigid, still lent his stories a certain foreshadowed explosive burst at their climaxes.
Here are a few highlights.
”The Jungle” prefigures the invader-aboriginal clashes of Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest and Cameron’s Avatar. A futuristic city imposed on the wilderness is stricken by a shaman’s curse. “Suddenly it was there. On foxfeet, invisibly, it had crept, past all the fences and traps he had laid . . . ”
A strange omnivorous beast is discovered by the freakish son of a pet store owner and comes to wreak havoc when brought into their establishment in “Fritzchen.” “In the moment before the rustling sound grew huge; before the windows shattered and the great nightmarish shadow came into the shop, Mr. Peldo understood the meaning of Fritzchen’s inconsolable cries.”
“The Howling Man” postulates that a hidden band of monks holds the well-being of the whole planet in their hands, while “Song for a Lady” gives us a kind of ship-of-fools scenario, but with a blackly romantic twist.
Frankensteinian riffs are explored in “In His Image.” “She smelled of hospital corridors, pressed ferns, dust: age had devoured her.” “The Beautiful People” considers Orwellian issues of conformity and status. “Mary sat quietly and watched the handsome man’s legs blown off, watched on further as the great ship began to crumple and break into small pieces in the middle of the blazing night.” The air of Clifford Simak’s robot stories pervades “Last Rites” as a priest ministers to a strange fellow. And if you combined Shirley Jackson with J. G. Ballard, you might approach the suburban kinks of “The New People.”
But surely the quintessential Beaumont story here is “The Magic Man,” a parable about the nature of artistry in the form of the last days of a medicine show huckster. Its opener encapsulates Beaumont’s ability to conjure up lyrical enigmas and enticements.
In the clear September moonlight now the prairie lay silent and cool and the color of lakes. Dust coated it like rich fur, and there was only the night wind sliding and sighing across the tabled land, and the wolves — always the wolves — screaming loneliness at the skies: otherwise, silence, as immense as the end of things. Dr. Silk thought about this as he tried to pull sleep into his head. It had been a long day, full of miles and sweat and blasting sun, and he should be sleeping, like Obadiah, resting for tomorrow, the Lord knew. Why else had the night been created? Yet, here he was, wide awake. Thinking. With his knife-sharp brittle thigh, the old man sought some supporting softness in the thin straw mattress. Then, at last, feeling the covers slip to the floor, he snorted, swung his feet over the side of the pallet, and sat for a while, rubbing the back of his neck.
This essential gateway volume belongs on the shelf of any lover of fantastika. And it leads the eager reader in search of more Beaumont directly to A Touch of the Creature, a recent posthumous assemblage of Beaumont tales supplemented by a very informative and touching biographical essay by Roger Anker, who zeroes in on the significance of these kind of Mad Men–era fictions when he labels them “a bridge between pre–World War II and modern styles of story-telling.”
As a change of pace, Creature features many of Beaumont’s purely mimetic tales, which show a kind of Theodore Sturgeon sensitivity and slant. “A Long Way from Capri” and “The Rival” are representative, dramas of misunderstandings between men and women. Midcentury types such as the traveling salesman get a workout (“The Junemoon Spoon”). And then there are the effective occult pieces such as “The Pool” and “The Indian Piper.” From the latter: “First the heat took his courage. It went into his body not as it had gone into the ash bricks and the soiled cement, but as a chill along his spine . . . ”
As a supplement to the Penguin omnibus, this volume extends our appreciation and understanding of Beaumont’s wide-ranging talents.
Finally, we come to the new edition of his second novel. The Afterword to Perchance to Dream is by the actor William Shatner, recalling his acquaintance with Beaumont as they turned Beaumont’s novel The Intruder into a film. And thanks to Valancourt Books, also the publisher of A Touch of the Creature, you can now read this naturalistic novel about racism in the 1950s, complete with a new introduction by director Roger Corman himself.
The story of sociopathic rabble-rouser Adam Cramer in the small southern town of Caxton, which is manfully struggling with school integrations issues, this novel has touches both of Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell. But befitting Beaumont’s Hollywood experience, the net effect is closer to those of several films of the period. A Face in the Crowd, The Night of the Hunter, Sweet Smell of Success. A probing dramatization of hatred, civic duty, and individual tragic flaws, the book spares no one in its crosshairs. And considering the villain, Cramer, is given the same childhood biography as Beaumont himself, the author’s implicit culpability in the burden of our common original sin is remarkably broad-shouldered.
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The work of Russell, Beaumont, and their peers represents a time when fantastika was abandoning its knee pants for adult garb but had not yet succumbed to a certain despairing nihilism that today has produced an unending stream of dystopias. As such, it not only invokes nostalgia but points us towards a possible reclamation of hope and New Frontier idealism.