Corpus Earthling by Louis Charbonneau
As revealed in David J. Schow and Jeffrey Frentzen’s essential reference book The Outer Limits: The Official Companion (1986), that TV series’ producer and co-creator, Joseph Stefano, was laboring with some pretty serious concerns before the airing of Season 1’s ninth episode, “Corpus Earthling.” To quote from the book: “’When “Corpus Earthling” was finished and the music added, I sat there wishing I could say don’t air this,’ said Joseph Stefano. ‘I had never thought it could be that scary, and I was horrified. It hit me in a disturbing way I never wanted our shows to hit people; it was frightening as opposed to scary.’” And this, from the man who had scripted Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho! But Stefano, of course, was absolutely right: “Corpus Earthling,” which premiered four days before the JFK assassination, is assuredly one of the most frightening hours that The Outer Limits – a program with no dearth of nerve-racking episodes – ever gave us. It remains this viewer’s personal favorite episode to this day, and I have long wanted to experience the novel upon which it is based, Louis Charbonneau’s Corpus Earthling. I had heard that the TV version was a rather loose adaptation of the original, and now that I have finally had a chance to read Charbonneau’s book, I am more than a little surprised at how dissimilar the two works are. More on that in a moment.
Corpus Earthling was initially released as a 35-cent paperback from Zenith Books in March 1960. It was the author’s second sci-fi novel out of an eventual nine, following 1958’s dystopian No Place on Earth. Its next English-language incarnation would come three years later, in 1963, when the British publisher Digit Books came out with its own edition. And then, the novel would go OOPs (out of prints) for 48 years, until the fine folks at Armchair Fiction elected to resurrect it in 2011, and with the same cover that had graced the Digit Books volume. So the bottom line is that today, Corpus Earthling should be a breeze for any prospective reader to acquire … a very fortunate state of affairs, as my recent perusal of the novel has revealed it to be an absolutely smashing and wholly remarkable sci-fi wringer that is easily just as harrowing as the TV filmization.
As for Charbonneau himself, allow me to briefly state that he was born in Detroit in 1924, and was thus 36 at the time of his second sci-fi novel’s release. Besides those nine science fiction novels alluded to above, he was also the creator of numerous Westerns and thrillers, and worked as a journalist for the L.A. Times from 1952 – ’71. (He is not to be confused with the Louis Charbonneau who is the current U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.) The author happily lived to a ripe old age, passing away in 2017 at age 93.
Now, regarding his second sci-fi novel itself, the book is narrated to us by Paul Cameron, a 27-year-old English instructor at an L.A. university in the futuristic year of, uh, 1990. As his story begins, Cameron is a very worried young man. For the past year or so, he’d been hearing voices in his head, and matters have only grown worse over the last month, with horrible dreams urging him to suicide by drowning. And then one day, in a nearly empty diner near his campus, Paul overhears two voices discussing the appropriation of human bodies, and of Martian invaders soon to be arriving on Earth. But perhaps “overhears” is not quite the correct word to use here, as the voices that Cameron seems to detect are silent ones, discernible by him alone! As Paul has long suspected since a childhood incident, he is a latent telepath, and the voices that he picks up can be heard by him alone … and, of course, by the Martian sender and receiver. The voices provide no clue as to the gender of their owners, and so Paul can only wonder who, of the six other people in the diner, they can belong to. Could it be Lois, the beautiful blonde waitress? The unseen man sitting in a rear booth? Or one of the four students occupying a front booth: Mike Boyle, the husky, prospective All-American football player; his pretty brunette girlfriend, physics major Helen Darrow; Laurie Hendricks, the redheaded sexpot in Cameron’s English class; or her boyfriend, the crewcutted Bob Jenkins? But as Paul nervously sits at the counter of the diner and ponders, he suddenly realizes that the telepathic aliens, whoever they might be, are now aware of his mental eavesdropping, even as one of them receives instructions to do away with Paul … and make it look like an accident!
Thus, over the course of the next few days, Paul is compelled by those infernal voices to attempt suicide three times: once by walking into traffic, another time by wrecking his speeding car, and a third time – in fulfillment of his nightmares – by drowning. One of the students, under the mental control of the aliens, attacks and tries to kill Cameron as he lays asleep in his trailer one night. Meanwhile, our hero prosecutes his own investigations, researching into the lives of each of those four college kids, all the while wondering if the voices and suicidal compulsions in his head are coming from outside or – hideous thought – if he might possibly be going mad. When that waitress, Lois, is murdered soon after, however, Paul is more certain than ever of his own sanity. But a talk with the campus’ renowned geophysicist, Dr. Jonas Temple, plunges him right back into uncertainty. And adding to Paul’s befuddlement is the woman, Erika, who lives in the trailer next to his own, and who always seems to be there when he gets into trouble … including with the suspicious cops. Yes, Paul Cameron surely has a lot to contend with here, as his showdowns with the two aliens, hidden in their human corpuses, draw ever closer…
By now, most of my fellow Outer Limits fans will have discerned that Charbonneau’s source novel and screenwriter Orin Borsten’s teleplay have very few points of commonality. In the TV film, Paul Cameron is a married doctor who’s able to overhear the aliens’ thoughts due to a metal plate in his head; in the book, Paul is single, a teacher, and a self-confessed antisocial loner with powers of clairvoyance. The OL aliens are shown to be rubbery-looking, quivering rocks, whose provenance is never divulged; in Charbonneau’s story, they are not revealed in their natural form till the very end, although their home planet, Mars, is made known at the very beginning. The OL version has a small cast of characters – just three leads, plus two supporting players – while Charbonneau’s novel has quite a large roster. The TV program wraps up in Tijuana, whereas the book confines its action to the L.A. area. And the novel’s three attempts to compel Paul to suicide are limited to one attempted defenestration in the teleplay. No characters make it from the novel to the screen other than the altered Paul Cameron and Prof. Temple, the latter being the only personage to survive the transition from page to film fairly intact. The bottom line, I suppose, is that Corpus Earthling the book and “Corpus Earthling” the TV episode are two unique and fairly discrete experiences. Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges, thus. Borsten did a commendable job in taking the book’s central conceit of a man overhearing alien voices and adapting it into a remarkably effective entertainment. Abetted by wonderful performances by Robert Culp (as Paul), Salome Jens (as his wife) and Barry Atwater (as Prof. Temple), and combined with Gerd Oswald’s rock-solid (see what I did there?) direction, Dominic Frontiere’s alternately lovely and ubercreepy musical cues, and Conrad Hall’s incredible and noirish cinematography, the episode is a genuine stunner … though again, hardly the book.
Another point of variance between novel and film is the former’s decidedly futuristic setting, wholly absent in the teleplay. Thus, in the book, the women wear “spun plastisheen” in lieu of stockings; synthetic participation sports can be indulged in from the comfort of one’s home (similar to the online fitness video games of today); the common cold is rare, cancer has been cured, and there is no more polio or MS; automatic freeways do away with the necessity of hands-on driving, with speeds of up to 150 mph being common; the seemingly inevitable visiscreens in the home, as well as giant telescreens on the street, are ubiquitous; monorails have replaced trains; televisions are all 3-D; and the world is an overpopulated mess, with L.A. alone supporting some 16 million people, most of whom live in tiny trailers, as does Paul. It is a nice bit of futuristic world building by the author; recognizable and wholly credible.
For the rest of it, Charbonneau’s book is fairly unputdownable, with well-drawn characters, that convincing setting, and finely rendered dialogue. The author’s style is an immensely readable one, and his story line is at once suspenseful, fast moving and continually surprising. It is the type of book that gallops breathlessly from one impressive set piece to the next, some of the highlights surely being those suicide and homicide attempts; the very strange interlude at the Temple of the Western Sun, to which Paul is taken by the folks who rescue him from his car wreck, and where he meets the Swami Fallaninda; the borderline psychedelic sequence in which Paul takes a pharmaceutical known as K7U, to bring to the fore any latent psychosis he may or may not have; and, of course, the showdowns he has with the two aliens near the book’s conclusion. And it is in the first of these battles that we are allowed to see the alien in its natural form … a truly startling sequence, let me tell you! Paul is forced to undergo a lot of physical abuse in the novel, including a lacerated arm, a concussion, two brutal fistfights, a near drowning, and a blowtorched hand (in the OL version, he was “merely” caught in an oven explosion, beaten up once, and shot in the shoulder), although his ultimate lot is a far happier one than Paul’s on TV, who is tragically forced to kill his own wife. Similar to the TV adaptation, the novel is an excellent exercise in paranoia, as Cameron wonders whether or not he is going mad, who the aliens are, and when another attempt on his life will pop up. The book, curiously enough, even throws in some racy dollops of sex, including Paul’s accidentally seeing the topless Erika through her trailer window, and his quite steamy early dalliance with Laurie. It occurs to me that Charbonneau’s novel might be ripe material for a big-screen adaptation today, with a screenplay that this time adheres to the original. Despite Borsten’s assertion that he “found the book uninteresting dramatically,” I think it might work very well, indeed, what with its irresistible story line. Corpus Earthling might also have benefited from a follow-up sequel from Charbonneau, but unfortunately, that never came to pass.
I actually have very few complaints to lodge against the author’s very fine sophomore effort here. Sure, the matter of those missing bodies at the book’s conclusion (sorry, but I really shouldn’t say whose) will prove difficult for Paul to explain. And this reader could have used some more information regarding … let’s call it Paul’s and Erika’s backgrounds. And then there’s the matter of the second manned mission to Mars, which will most likely be bringing back to Earth – wholly unwittingly – more of the Martian menaces, as the first had done … unless Paul is able to convince the authorities of their danger, which seems improbable. As I say, a sequel to Corpus Earthling would surely have been an interesting one. Still, we are left with this novel, and it is an exciting, imaginative piece of sci-fi on which all fans of the genre – and especially all fans of The Outer Limits – should pounce. As for me, I now find myself looking forward to reading another of those nine sci-fi books from Louis Charbonneau. His fourth novel, for example, 1965’s Psychedelic-40, sounds particularly interesting. I’d have to have rocks in my head to ignore it…
I always remind myself that the screen adaptation is NOT the book and will never be the book. Usually I’m successful, with occasional lapses.
COMMENT Still, some adaptations seem to follow their source material more closely than others….