Monday, October 11, 2010

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 12: A Movement of Dark Shapes

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Charles Beaumont was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease when he was in his late 30s. He died in 1967 at the age of 38, looking a good deal older than that. As his legacy, he left one novel called The Intruder (later filmed by Roger Corman), scores of television scripts, including several classic episodes of The Twilight Zone (some of which were based on his own fiction), screenplays he either wrote solo or in collaboration, often with his close friend Richard Matheson, for films like The Masque of the Red Death, The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao and Burn, Witch, Burn, and dozens of short stories, the best of which (supposedly, though I haven’t read outside of this collection to judge for myself) were collected in 1988 by Roger Anker, for a book called The Howling Man (surely you remember that Twilight Zone episode, right?).
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Though I can’t remember for sure, it’s almost certain that I first heard about Beaumont through Harlan Ellison, or Stephen King, or some other genre writer with a formidable grasp of the history of their fields, who frequently, and with excellent reason, bemoans the good or great writers lost to time, either through neglect or, as I suspect is more likely the case with Beaumont, due to an early death that prevented a larger body of work from being produced, and more easily remembered. Whatever the case, I did, fortunately, learn about Beaumont, and even more fortunately snagged a copy of The Howling Man from a library sale many years ago. I’ve read from it sporadically since then, starting, of course, with “The Howling Man”, and moving on to “Miss Gentilbelle” and “Free Dirt” and “The Vanishing American” and “The Crooked Man”. Intriguingly, this last story highlights a certain fearlessness Beaumont had towards writing about certain social issues, in this case homosexuality. That’s not the intriguing part, though – what struck me is that the angle from which Beaumont approaches the issue is the exact same one used by Martin Amis in his story "Straight Fiction", published some 40-plus years later. By no means am I suggesting Amis lifted anything from Beaumont, because I sincerely doubt he’s ever read a word of Beaumont’s fiction. It’s just that some forgotten writers were doing things a long time ago that modern writers are being saluted for (well, maybe not saluted, in Amis’s case, because for a while now a new Amis book gets met with unsheathed knives, but you see my point).
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Beaumont wrote more than just horror fiction, so I approached today's reading by simply trying to eliminate the stories from The Howling Man that seemed to not belong to that genre, and settle on two that did. I ended up with "The Hunger" and "Black Country". I'll begin with the latter, which is one of Beaumont's most anthologized pieces, and, so it follows, one of his best known, outside of stories that were adapted to the big or small screens. And it's not really so much a horror story, to be honest, though it is about the supernatural. It's the story of a black jazz musician named Spoof Collins, a trumpet player and leader of his own band. A mercurial sort, as so many brilliant musicians are, Spoof Collins is introduced to the reader by way of his death:
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Spoof Collins blew his brains out, all right -- right on through the top of his head. But I don't mean with a gun. I mean with a horn. Every night: slow and easy, eight to one. And that's how he died. Climbing, with that horn, climbing up high. For what? "Hey, man, Spoof -- listen, you picked the tree, now come on down!" But he couldn't come down, he didn't know how. He just kept climbing, higher and higher. And then he fell. Or jumped. Anyhow, that's the way he died.
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The bullet didn't kill anything.
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"Black Country" is narrated by Hushup Paige, Spoof's drummer, and as a result the story is filled with 1950s jazz slang, such as:
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Once a cat full of tea tried to put the snatch on Spoof's horn, for laughs: when Spoof caught up with him, that cat gave up laughing for life.
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Elsewhere, Spoof's playing is described as being so powerful that it could "make a chicken cry". Much of this language is sharp and can carry you along with it -- even when it's a bit on the obscure side, it's still engaging. In any case, the story is told by a guy named Hushup Paige, so how should he talk?
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The basic plot revolves around Sonny Holmes, a young, nerdy white guy who wants to slide into the open alto sax position in Spoof's band. Initially, Spoof tells Sonny to "broom off", but once he hears what Sonny's capable of, he's happily accepted into the fold. As is Ruth-Ann Hughes, a black jazz singer who develops a thing for Spoof, and for whom Sonny develops his own thing. The interracial angle of this love triangle isn't hammered on by Beaumont, although it might do to remember that the story was written in 1954. Either way, the main point is that Spoof is something of a Miles Davis figure, in that he's kind of an asshole (though Davis's real life in this regard quite trumps Spoof's), but he remains magnetic throughout his life, even after his suicide. Which was inspired, for lack of a better word, by the fact that Spoof secretly knew that he was dying of cancer.
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Sonny takes over the band at that point, but Spoof takes over Sonny. Because "Black Country" is a story of spiritual, if not demonic, possession, and Sonny, the scrawny white kid, withdraws from everyone, including Ruth-Ann, but when he gets on stage and begins to play, getting into trumpet solos (he even takes over Spoof's instrument) that last seven, eight minutes, or more, and has the kind of effect that Hushup describes like this:
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The melody got lost, first off. Everything got lost, then, while that horn flew. It wasn't only jazz; it was the heart of jazz, and the insides, pulled out with the roots and held up for everybody to see; it was blues that told the story of all the lonely cats and all the ugly whores who ever lived, blues that spoke up for the loser lamping sunshine out of iron-gray bars and every hophead hooked and gone, for the bindlestiffs and the city slicers, for the country boys in Georgia shacks and the High Yellow hipsters in Chicago slums and the bootblacks on the corners and the fruits in New Orleans, a blues that spoke for all the lonely, sad and anxious downers who could never speak themselves...
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By which he means black people, the ones who created jazz and for whom jazz was theirs, in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. And this bald white guy's the one playing it. All of this is sort of Beaumont's point, and as I think you can tell above, he writes it with great style and ferocity. I'm not sure that there's anything in that paragraph quoted above that wouldn't have been praised and remembered today if it had come from the pen of one of the Beat writers. Still, if I have a beef with "Black Country", it's not with anything that's actually in the story, or left out of it. It's because I didn't read it first -- instead, I read "The Hunger" first, and for me, "The Hunger" is a masterpiece.
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There's a sex killer on the loose in the small town of Burlington, population 3,000. His name is Robert Oaks, and he was locked up in a mental institution for raping and killing his cousin. He's escaped, and has done the same to three women in town. As the story opens, a woman named Julia, in her late 30s, is rushing home through the fast-approaching night, afraid that she will be targeted by Oaks. But she makes it home, where she lives with her two sisters, Louise and Maud. These sisters are widows, and terrible gossips, who've been swept up by the thrill of the nightmare that walks around the edges of Burlington, waiting to strike:
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"Wasn't it awful about poor Eva Schillings?"
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No, Julia had thought: from her sister's point of view it was not awful at all. It was wonderful. It was priceless.
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It was news.
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Beaumont alternates between Julia's point of view and that of Oaks, who lays low and keeps quiet and hopes that his urges will keep clear for a while. They don't, however, and it's plain to see that he and Julia will meet up at some point.
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What's almost breathtaking about this story, though, is Julia. Both Louise and Maud have been married, but both speak of Oaks as though they believe -- in fact, they outright say this -- that he is merely carrying through with the dark desires that all men have. This angers Julia, who has never been married, who has never been with a man, because here her sisters are, who loved their husbands and were loved in return, speaking of men in such low terms, as though they could take such affection for granted. As one who has never known it, Julia finds this appalling. She also wonders about the errands she was running at the story's open, and how little things kept her from getting home before nightfall. How conscious was she of letting herself be delayed? What did she want to happen? Who did she want to meet?
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There's something in "The Hunger" of the conclusion to Catherine Breillat's film Fat Girl -- not in the sudden, random, gut-twisting violence, but in the title character's delusional aftermath. Julia is willing to risk, or even accept, a certain fate in order to experience, for once, a little physical desire directed her way. If it's the furthest thing from love, maybe she can convince herself otherwise. "The Hunger" has an absolutely devastating final line, and taken as a whole I was amazed, perhaps because I'm naive or easily swayed by received wisdom, that this story found a home in 1955. Granted, that home was a bit more permissive than most, in that it was Playboy (which also published "Black Country" and many other Beaumont stories), but the implications of "The Hunger" are so ghastly and heartbreaking that I would have thought anyone even on the fringe of the mainstream at that time would reject it. I'm fully aware that much more extreme fiction, such as Burroughs' Naked Lunch, appeared that same decade, but we're talking about a story written for the pulps, if not published there, a genre piece that struck more directly to the heart of our individual nightmares than almost anything else from that period I can think of.
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But okay, the fact that "The Hunger" was published should probably not be so surprising. What should be surprising is that it's virtually been forgotten. A story like "Black Country" can cling to life through anthology reprints not because it's so well written (though it is) but because it has a social consciousness running through it, and that gets noticed earlier and for longer. "The Hunger" is only about loneliness and desperation and death. That's all.
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So track down The Howling Man. It's a testament to the immense talents of Charles Beaumont, a writer who we forget to our own detriment.
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7 comments:

Will Errickson said...

Yep, just as you say, I can't recall if it was King or Ellison who got me to read Beaumont. I've got a couple vintage copies of his collections that I've read gingerly over the years. Used to see that Tor edition in used bookstores a lot before the internets but for some reason never bought it. Now it goes for collectors' prices. He's definitely an essential read for people who want to broaden their knowledge of the horror/fantasy/what have you genres.

bill r. said...

I think it goes without saying, or repeating, that if you have "The Hunger" in any of your Beaumont collections, I think you should read it.

Greg said...

I had no idea Beaumont died so young. That's awful. I watched The Howling Man episode of The Twilight Zone a few months back (you may or may not recall a status update I did on it) and it's just so good. I love Beaumont and Matheson's episodes of the show so much. Again, I'm unfamiliar with his written work for the book market but this is one collection I'd pick up based on his name alone.

bill r. said...

I do remember that status update, and also talking about that episode with you, and others, over at C-Styles (as I call it, privately, to myself). That's one of the seminal episodes, no question.

His ending was very sad. It all happened rather suddenly, from what I can tell, and I still can't get over the idea that he developed Alzheimer's in his 30s. I've never heard of that happening before. In THE HOWLING MAN (the book), there's a brief but very touching foreward by Beaumont's son Christopher, who was fairly young when his father passed away, but relates a strong memory of being a kid and falling asleep every night to the sound of his dad pounding away on his typewriter.

The most striking thing about Beaumont is how timeless the prose is. Even the best of his peers, like Matheson and Bloch and so on, have a tinge of datedness to their stories -- I don't even mean that in a bad way, because for me that's part of the charm of that era of genre fiction. But Beaumont's stuff didn't reall have that. It was just pure -- he was a born writer, that guy.

otherbill said...

I have nothing insightful to add except "amen". I'm lucky enough to have stumbled across a copy of that same edition at a library sale years ago. I've passed it around to alot of friends in the years since.

I've always been fascinated by that California School of Ellison, Matheson, Beaumont, Nolan, etc. Something about banging out great little horror stories in between scripts for Serling and Corman with the Pacific crashing home in the background struck me as the best of all possible worlds for a writer.

Word Verification: milfic. No comment.

Neil Sarver said...

I think I discovered Beaumont through his work with Roger Corman, although possibly from "The Twilight Zone". I've been a fan for a long time. Nice write up.

bill r. said...

Otherbill - I've always been fascinated by the pulp era, which all the guys you list would have been a part of, at least at the tail end. The idea of writing fiction as a 9-5 job, and writing horror, SF, Westerns, mysteries, romance (even porn, sometimes) at a penny to a few cents a word, every day, and that was your job...that's just crazy to me, and really admirable. I'd love for someone to put together a massive oral history of that era.

Neil - Thanks. The first Beaumont work I was ever conscious of, in that I saw it and noted his name, was BURN, WITCH, BURN, which is a really great adaptation of Leiber's CONJURE WIFE that he co-wrote with Matheson.

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