If the name “Charles Beaumont” strikes a familiar chord with you, it is likely because you have seen that name in the opening or end credits of any number of popular entertainments. Beaumont was the screenwriter for the 1958 sci-fi shlock classic Queen of Outer Space, The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, and the Roger Corman films The Premature Burial, The Intruder (featuring William Shatner’s finest performance ever, sez me), The Haunted Palace and The Masque of the Red Death. More likely, however, you have seen his name at the ending of various episodes of the classic television program The Twilight Zone; Beaumont contributed 22 screenplays to the series, more than his buddies Richard Matheson (15) and (the very recently departed) George Clayton Johnson (5), but of course far, far fewer than series host Rod Serling’s almost superhuman tally of 88 of the program’s 151 shows. Fewer people, perhaps, know that Beaumont was also an author, with dozens of short stories and two novels to his credit. The new collection from Penguin Classics, however, may help bring Beaumont’s skills as an author to a wider audience. Entitled Perchance to Dream, the collection brings 23 stories together in one 300+-page collection, from the 10-year period 1952 – ’61.
As it turns out, this is a very wide-ranging collection, with stories in many genres. Most impressively, Beaumont changes his style of writing, seemingly effortlessly, to match any one particular story. Some of the tales are simply written, while others feature lush, almost poetical turns of phrase. Some of the tales are humorous; others quite grim. Many feature surprising plot twists; others are more straightforward. All, however, are supremely well-written little gems; there’s nary a clinker in the bunch, although some are of course more successful and memorable than others. The collection also includes seven stories (although the book’s back cover says five) that Beaumont later transformed into TZ episodes, and that fact alone should make this new volume a must-purchase for all fans of that legendary series.
As for the stories themselves, they can be divided into perhaps five discrete categories. First up, we have the straightforward Science Fiction tale, such as “Father, Dear Father,” in which a man invents a time machine to see what will happen if he should kill his own Dad before he is conceived; “In His Image” (turned into a one-hour episode of TZ seven years later), in which a man visits his hometown, only to find that nobody remembers him; “The Monster Show,” dealing with a futuristic TV program that turns out to be… well, perhaps I’d better say no more; “The Beautiful People,” in which a homely 18-year-old girl shocks society in general by refusing to undergo state-mandated plastic surgery (recast by Beaumont 12 years later as the TZ ep “Number 12 Looks Just Like You”); and “Last Rites,” in which a mechanical man asks a priest to confer Extreme Unction on his dying robotic body.
And then there is the type of tale in which Science Fiction is combined with a decided leavening of Horror. Examples of this hybrid tale here are “The Jungle” (transformed considerably into a TZ episode seven years later), where the builder of a futuristic city in the wilds of Kenya is terrorized by the local natives; “Fritzchen,” a truly bizarre (and bizarrely written) tale of a very strange pet; and “Place of Meeting,” where we find the last residents of a devastated Earth, and learn something of their macabre background.
The collection also offers up a half dozen tales that are most assuredly out-and-out Horror. To this bunch belong the title story, “Perchance to Dream” (transformed into a TZ ep one year later), in which a man is convinced that he will soon be killed by a woman in his daily nightmares (a somewhat confusing denouement mars this one for me, a bit); “The Howling Man” (turned into a popular TZ ep a year later), in which an ailing American is tended to in a German monastery and hears the cries of a very peculiar prisoner (a beautifully written tale that is far superior to its TV incarnation); “Blood Brother,” in which a vampire tells his daily woes to a (seemingly) sympathetic shrink; “Free Dirt,” suggested by Beaumont’s buddy Ray Bradbury, in which one of the world’s most parsimonious men, Mr. Aorta, makes a big mistake in carting home some gratis cemetery soil; “The New People,” in which the friendly neighbors of a newly arrived young couple turn out to be hiding a dreadful secret (one of the grisliest stories in the collection, and one of my favorites); and “The New Sound,” which tells of the decidedly peculiar hobby of one Mr. Goodhew: a “necroaudiophile.” Don’t ask!
Charles Beaumont also wrote stories that smack of pure Fantasy. Examples of this genre to be found in the collection are “Sorcerer’s Moon,” which tells of a modern-day war being waged between two wizards; and “Traumerei” (recast, seven years later, as the TZ ep “Shadow Play”), in which a man who has been condemned to death in the electric chair is convinced that the world will end when he does.
Finally, this wonderful collection gives us seven more tales that must be termed Unclassifiable: tales that belong to no particular genre, but that are all wonderfully interesting pieces of short literature. First up we have “You Can’t Have Them All,” in which a young man uses various computers to find and select all the most beautiful women in the world, and then goes about the task of bedding all 563 of them! (Granted, perhaps this story might be more appropriately labeled a Fantasy piece!) This is a genuinely amusing tale that turns a bit uncomfortably icky, with our protagonist using herbal concoctions to, in essence, “date rape” each of his conquests. I just knew this tale had to have first appeared in Playboy (Beaumont’s 1954 piece Black Country, not included in this collection, was the first short story to appear in the magazine), and as it turns out, it was, indeed; in the August ’56 issue.
Other, equally Unclassifiable tales in this volume are “A Classic Affair,” in which a husband falls in love with, and has an affair of sorts with… a vintage Duesenburg automobile; “Song for a Lady,” a remarkably lovely story in which a young couple honeymoons aboard an old ship’s final transatlantic voyage (transformed by Beaumont, three years later, into the one-hour TZ ep “Passage on the Lady Anne”); “The Magic Man,” a Western of sorts but told in a Bradbury-like manner, in which a magician and his elderly black assistant visit a small town in Kansas in the 1800s; “The Music of the Yellow Brass,” the story of a young, would-be matador in modern-day Mexico that comes off almost like a Hemingway piece; “A Death in the Country,” a tale of modern-day stock-car racing, and a surprisingly suspenseful and gripping affair, even for those (like me) who couldn’t care less about the sport (we know, by the title, that a death will be coming, but just whose death it is might surprise you); and finally, “Night Ride,” a story concerning a 1950s jazz combo and the strange secret of its success, told using a remarkable amount of hepcat slang.
So there you have it… 23 wonderful pieces from an author whose life was tragically cut short in its prime. (Beaumont, sadly, passed away in 1967, at age 38, of what is today believed to have been early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.) This new Penguin collection, with a foreword by Bradbury and an afterword by Shatner, and featuring beautiful artwork on the front cover by Will Sweeney, provides us with a marvelous opportunity to get acquainted — or reacquainted — with this overlooked author. It comes more than highly recommended by yours truly…