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Serling1

Still More Serling!

Posted on 2011.07.31 at 00:07
Current Mood: creative
Current Music: Twilight Zone - Golden Earring
A few years ago, I wrote about my lifelong affection for the work of Rod Serling. It has recently been my pleasure to discover a book of his with which I was unfamiliar. It now becomes incumbent upon me to spread the word.

It’s called The Season to be Wary. Originally published in hardcover in 1967, it came out as a Bantam paperback a year later. I recently picked up an old copy for about $10 on Amazon.com, and it was $10 well spent (note: the original cover price was 75¢. Eep!).

Serling published several volumes of short stories, most of which he’d adapted from his own Twilight Zone teleplays. The Season to be Wary differs in several respects. First of all, rather than short stories, the book consists of 3 novellas. Second, all were initially written as novellas rather than being adapted from teleplays, though 2 of the 3 were later adapted for television. And that is the hook that pulled me into buying the yellowed copy that now reposes next to this keyboard.

Serling is best remembered for the TV series The Twilight Zone (aka TZ), which ran from 1959 to 1964 on CBS. But many of us also have fond memories of his series Night Gallery (aka NG), which ran from 1970 to 1973 on NBC. It’s true that NG was no TZ, but it still had its charms, and it was must-see TV at our house in its day. Before NG premiered as a series, there was a pilot that aired in the fall of 1969. And that is where we pick up our connection to The Season to be Wary.

The NG pilot included dramatizations of 2 of the 3 novellas from The Season to be Wary. One was Escape Route, which tells the story of a former Nazi death camp boss, living a desperate existence in South America, who finds a possible escape from his miseries by being transported into a painting in an art museum. The other was Eyes, the story of a rich old woman, blind from birth, who blackmails a doctor into stealing the eyes from another person and transplanting them into her. Eyes is also noteworthy because it represents one of the last screen appearances by Joan Crawford, as well as one of the first directing credits for a young man named Steven Spielberg!

[Sidebar: During filming of the pilot, Shirley Eder of the Detroit Free Press interviewed Joan Crawford on the set. Crawford pointed Eder toward Spielberg and said, “Go interview that kid, because he’s going to be the biggest director of all time!”]

The other novella in The Season to be Wary – the one not dramatized for television – is titled Color Scheme. Serling offers an intriguing paragraph of introduction:

“Color Scheme was Sammy Davis Jr.’s original idea. He told it to me one night over a beer. It stayed with me for five years… haunting, intrusive and preoccupying. Television wouldn’t touch it. I hope I’ve done it justice – giving birth to Sammy’s baby on the following printed pages.”

Color Scheme tells the story of a man who makes his living by giving rabble-rousing racist speeches to white southern audiences in the 1960s. One night, after inciting a crowd to an act of mob violence against a local black family, the rabble-rouser receives a supernatural comeuppance. Today – yes, you could put it on TV, but Serling was entirely correct about its commercial prospects in the 1960s.

Also, the mental image of Rod Serling and Sammy Davis Jr. having a beer together strikes me as the set-up to a surrealistic one-act play.

I want to talk about the overall style of The Season to be Wary, because this is to me the most interesting part of the story. It is largely forgotten nowadays that Rod Serling was a famous, celebrated TV dramatist BEFORE TZ went on the air. He was, for example, the author of the TV drama (and theatrical film) Requiem for a Heavyweight, which made Jack Palance a star. Serling’s work during that period was essentially devoid of supernatural or sci-fi elements. The entire reason Serling went to that style of writing was that he felt so constrained by network people rejecting or rewriting his scripts and insisting on watering down any political or philosophical concepts. Serling found, however, that if he put his ideas into a fantastical setting, he was given much more freedom to say the things he wanted to say.

I bring this up because one of the striking features of the stories in The Season to be Wary is how little Serling concerns himself with their fantastical elements. It’s true that 2 of the 3 stories depend upon supernatural moments for their resolutions. Eyes has no overt supernatural component at all, though it does utilize a type of transplant surgery that didn’t exist at the time Serling wrote it, and it depends upon one remarkable coincidence of timing that could be seen as providential, but it is otherwise grounded in a plausible, recognizable world.

The common thematic thread across all three stories has to do with evil people getting their just desserts. The common stylistic thread is that all three stories, more than anything else, are character studies. For long stretches of prose, nothing of great import actually happens, but we are taken on a journey through the minds of various characters, both good guys and bad guys, as they consider their past and present fortunes. In the hands of a lesser writer, one might become restless reading such explorations, but Serling is so good at it that we happily get on board and travel the course he has set for us.

In this way, The Season to be Wary seems a hybrid sort of work. Freed from the stylistic demands of TZ, Serling has gone back to his most basic impulses – the drawing of characters and the meditation of humanity and morality – but he has not forgotten the lessons of his early television writing, so he has included supernatural effects as well.

But in another sense, Serling hasn’t changed at all here. This book reminds us that the key element that always made TZ so compelling was that it wasn’t just another exercise in the macabre, and we sensed that even as children. It had a recognizable moral center to it that wasn’t consistently present in, say, The Outer Limits or One Step Beyond. Another element that aided TZ’s consistency was that the majority of its scripts were actually written by Serling, who enjoyed a level of freedom in that show’s production rarely enjoyed by a series writer. As a result, the experience of reading The Season to be Wary is one of reacquaintance with a familiar voice; re-engagement with a familiar mind; a new set of tales from an old storyteller.

Rod Serling did not write a huge number of short stories, but I have long considered him as a master of the form. He died in 1975 at the mere age of 50, from a heart attack suffered during open heart surgery. The loss to American culture was a substantial one – we were robbed of the decades that might have given birth to new stories and screenplays, no doubt reflecting the ongoing injustices on our evolving landscape, and reflecting the ongoing artistic evolution of one of our most distinctive voices.

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