Saturday, 13 August 2016

Charles Beaumont: Mind Full of Monsters

I’ve been meaning to write a proper thing about Charles Beaumont ever since we looked at “Queen of the Nile.” And since I’m tirelessly putting off the recap of Patterns, I figured this might be a good time to get it done.

Charles Beaumont in The Intruder

When Charles Beaumont died, he was thirty-eight years old. But, according to all sources, he could have passed for ninety.

Doctors at UCLA diagnosed him as having Pick’s Disease and early onset Alzheimer’s, accelerated by damage to his system done by a childhood battle with meningitis. It was a cocktail of ailments that rapidly aged him, and stole his wonderful mind for the last few years of his life.

“I guess he went through senescence in whirlwind time,” William Shatner wrote for a collection of Beaumont stories called Perchance to Dream. “It was like a science fiction story he would have written. Charlie Beaumont, wonderful, active, virile, creative writer, dies of old age in his thirties.”

Beaumont was born Charles Leroy Nutt in 1929, the name change inevitable. After all, who wants to read sci-fi stories written by a Nutt? (Other than Philip K. Dick fans. Rimshot!) Hailing from Chicago’s North Side, his mother dressed him in girl’s clothes and used to threaten to kill his dog if he misbehaved. Obviously, with an upbringing like that, he had three choices in life: become a comedian, become a fantasy writer, or become a serial killer. A teenage love affair with the early Golden Age of sci-fi pulp landed him on the second path.

His first major sale turned out to be Playboy’s first purchase of a short story. “Black Country” appeared in the September, 1954 issue and concerned the strange death of a jazz musician named Spoof Collins. It was the beginning of a long and very successful relationship with the magazine.
By this time, he had relocated to Los Angeles and legally changed his last name to Beaumont. He quickly fell in with a group of Southern California-based speculative fiction writers. They called themselves the Green Hand, and the roster included Beaumont’s good friends Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson.

It was Matheson who got Beaumont into TV writing. Or rather, Beaumont and Matheson got each other into TV writing.

“We became friends right away and decided to collaborate on writing scripts for half-hour TV shows,” Matheson said in a 2010 interview, “Because we were both new at it and television was still very new. So we started writing scripts and learning from each other.”

A Scene from Beaumont's HGWT Episode

Early collaborative efforts yielded an episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive called “The Healing Woman.” (It’s the one where the kid gets appendicitis, but his father won’t allow the doctors to help and he tries to cure him with frogs) and one of the finer instalments of Have Gun – Will Travel, “The Lady on the Wall.” Both writers quickly found their feet, and by the time The Twilight Zone was in the picture, they were working independently of one another.

Beaumont’s first episode for the legendary anthology series was called “Perchance to Dream,” like the short story it was based on. In it, a man goes to see a psychiatrist about a peculiar problem he’s been having. He’s been dreaming a nightmare in chapters. Every night, another piece of the story comes to him. From what our poor victim can tell, the ending’s coming up soon, and it isn’t going to be very pleasant.

Next was “Elegy,” a story about a cemetery on an asteroid that has a wonderful feeling of being an old myth, almost Arthurian in nature, despite its futuristic setting. It has definite echoes of Bradbury’s influence in there. Not all that surprising, both were considered the “writer’s writers” of the group, and they would get together once a week to read their work out loud to one another and offer improvements.

It’s Beaumont’s third contribution to TZ, of what would end of being a collection of twenty-two episodes, which stands out the most.

“Long Live Walter Jameson” has every chance of being crowned the very best episode of The Twilight Zone. Kevin McCarthy starred as a history professor whose lessons on the Civil War had a certain personal nostalgia to them that captivated his students. When one of his fellow professors hits on the idea that Walter Jameson’s knowledge of history is first-hand, we’re pulled into an intricate tale of the cost of immortality and the people who are left behind by every kind of vampire.

Immortals, vampires, and victims of unhealthy bargains were regular themes for Beaumont. Writing at a feverish pace, always thinking about the cost and processes of aging, one can’t help but wonder if Beaumont somehow knew his days were numbered, and that old age would claim him in a sudden blaze, just as it did Walter Jameson.

Kevin McCarthy in "Long Live Walter Jameson"

Another among his stand-out episodes was “The Howling Man,” a provocative story with the trappings of a fairy tale, including the quaint village and the intrepid young hero. But things quickly take a turn for the unnatural, when we discover an abbey of secretive monks housing a strange prisoner who screams in the night.

“The Howling Man” best foreshadows the tone of writing Beaumont would use in most of his work in film. In the early 1960’s, he began collaborating with Roger Corman on a film called Premature Burial. One of Corman’s most stylistically successful “Poe” films, and the only one to not star Vincent Price, Premature Burial is an excellent combination of Beaumont’s talent for building dread, and Corman’s early use of small sets and colour. (It’s probably going to get its own post the next time I decide to try to tackle Patterns again.)

Other cinematic endeavours included 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (Tony Randall in yellowface and Medusa drag, it’s weird, you can skip it), The Haunted Palace and Masque of the Red Death with Corman again and both starring Vincent Price, rewrites on The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, and a tangled collaboration with Richard Matheson on Burn, Witch, Burn!

Of particular note was Beaumont and Corman’s 1962 film, The Intruder.

Starring William Shatner and based on one of Beaumont’s rare full-length novels, The Intruder is the story of a man who thinks of himself as a social reformer. In a crisp white suit, he travels to Missouri, smiling at old ladies and being kind to children. His aim is to stop integration at the local schools and position himself as the freshly appointed king of a town rotting from the inside with hatred.

It’s a story without supernatural elements, but a definite eeriness throughout. Released the same year as To Kill a Mockingbird, it takes a much more cynical look at the realities of American racism, and can be an uncomfortable watch in places.

The Intruder was shot on location in East Prairie, Charleston, and Sikeston in Missouri. It was an uncomfortable experience for all involved, especially when the townsfolk learned that it was a Civil Rights picture depicting segregation as backwards and immoral. The cast and crew genuinely feared for their safety.

Beaumont was on-hand both as writer and actor. He appears in the film as the high school principal, Mr. Paton. Surprisingly, unlike most writers who get small cameos, he does a fine job with his role and features in a crucial scene.

Beaumont as Mr. Paton

By 1964, the disease that would kill him had begun to take effect on his brain. Most of his writing assignments from this point on were ghosted by close friends and credited to Beaumont, in order to help cover medical costs and keep his family afloat.

His tragic early death cut short a career that was on the same trajectory as his famous peers, and in fact going a little better than most. Because of this, he never became an elder statesman of horror or weird fiction, he never evened out his themes with the time and experience. He isn’t much discussed these days.

But all of his work contained flashes of brilliance, and so much of what he did remains top tier. The Twilight Zone itself was referred to as the realm of shadow and substance. In many ways, Rod Serling’s politically charged and moralizing writing was the substance, while Beaumont’s dark modern fables and unanswered questions were the shadow. Both combined to create a singular television experience.

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