Watch Rod Serling’s exciting series THE TWILIGHT ZONE each week on the CBS television network.
So, one of my OTHER projects this summer was to watch or re-watch all five seasons of The Twilight Zone, a series that has loomed large in my life since the age of five (“kids don’t remember their best day of television“? FILTHY LIES!)
Sadly, my quest to make it through all 156 episodes by Labor Day went uncompleted, but I did watch the entire first season, which in 1960 was followed by this paperback featuring short story adaptations of six Serling-penned scripts. And luckily for the readers fifty-six years later it includes both some of the best and the worst the series has to offer!
“The Mighty Casey” is an odd choice to open the volume, being both the rare comedy episode, as well as one generally regarded as candidate for the worst episodes of the entire series.
Set during the Dodgers’ final, dismal season in Brooklyn, (“a crowd was considered to be any ticket-buying group of more than 86 customers”; “one win is considered a streak”) when during spring try-outs, coach “Mouth” McGarry receives a suspiciously German-accented call inquiring if he would try-out a new left-handed pitcher. Only after the candidate, Casey, blows away the competition does Dr. Stillman reveal that Casey is a robot of his own creation.
The Dodgers experience a reversal of fortune, and are soon well on their way to the National League pennant, until Casey gets beaned on the head and the team doctor discovers their new star is suspiciously lacking in a pulse or heartbeat.
The Baseball Commissioner is incensed at the Dodgers’ ruse:
“Article six, section two, the Baseball Code,” he said pontifically. “I quote, ‘A team should consist of nine men’ end of quote. Men, understand, McGarry? Nine men. Not robots. He is not human!”
“How human do you want him? He’s got arms, legs, a face…”
Eventually the Commissioner rules that without a heart, Casey is off the team, but Herr Doctor steps up and offers to provide him with one.
Unfortunately, when Casey returns in time for the Big Game, he has too much “heart” and can’t bear the thought of striking out the opposing team, leaving the Dodgers worse off than they were before, and Casey contemplating a future in social work (???)
Dreams of coaching a winning team smashed forever, McGarry resigns himself to the fact that the team will move to California, walking off alone into the night,
“a broken-nosed man with sagging shoulders who thought he heard the rustle of pennants in the night air, and then realized it was three shirts on a clothes line that stretched across two of the adjoining buildings.”
This is the first of several stories that are a major departure in tone and content from the televised episode, starting with the fact that the TV shows substitutes the fictional “Hoboken Zephyrs” for the Dodgers, and has a completely different ending, in which McGarry has a brainstorm to make an entire robot-team to take to the west coast and embarks on a legendary winning streak.
Who wore it better? The short story benefits from the lack of constant Comedy Slide Whistle.
“Escape Clause” as a TV episode is never quite clear if it is supposed to be a funny or not (no slide-whistle to cue us here), the short story is more explicitly comic.
Hypochondriac Walter Bedeker has quit his job and taken to his bed for the fifth time in the past 12 months, when the jovial Mr. Cadwallader appears in his room with a proposition: immortality in exchange for his immortal soul. Cadwallader even sweetens the deal with an escape clause: if he ever gets tired of living, he can invoke the clause: “At which point I shall see to it you are given a rapid and uncomplicated… departure.”
The already unpleasant Walter then goes on a thrill-seeking spree of defying death and insurance fraud while his long-suffering wife can only stand by and watch helplessly. When she tries to prevent her husband from throwing himself down the airshaft of their apartment building, she accidentally falls to her own death, giving Walter idea to confess to her murder and experience the electric chair upon his conviction.
Unfortunately, Walter’s attorney is more competent than he intended, gaining his client a life sentence instead of the death penalty. Horrified at the idea of spending a literally eternity in prison, Walter invokes the escape clause, and Cadwallader speedily grants him a fatal heart attack.
Who wore it better? Walter Bedeker (played by David Wayne in the TV episode) is so unpleasant that it makes the whole thing pretty unlikable, but the short story does give the reader some well-placed dark humor in his death-defying, as when Walter is crushed by an I-beam at a construction site:
The foreman on the job first had been violently ill, then had walked very slowly toward the spot on the sidewalk where the horror was waiting for him. He covered his eyes because of a normal reluctance to view mangled bodies. He had also peeked between two fingers, because of the equally normal trait of being fascinated by the horrible.
“Walking Distance” and now for a wild tonal swing, as we move from the comic to the almost unbearably sad, as well as one of the best-loved episodes of the series.
36 year old ad exec Martin Sloan has been at an existential crisis point for time, when in the middle of the night he flees his Park Avenue apartment and heads for his upstate hometown of Homewood, which he had left after his father’s death 20 years earlier.
Leaving his overheated sports car at a garage outside of Binghamton (Serling’s own hometown), Martin walks the remaining mile and a half to Homewood, which he finds remarkably unchanged from his childhood.
After a few odd encounters, he realizes that he has managed to travel back in time 25 years. But his presence alarms and upsets his parents, who refuse to believe him, and when he catches up with his 11 year old self, he scares the boy badly, causing him to fall off a carousel and break his leg, an injury that the adult Martin feels as it happens.
His father seeks him out and reassures him that his younger self will be fine, but ordering the adult Martin to return to his own time:
“You have to leave here. There’s no room for you. And there’s no place. Do you understand?”
“I see that now. But I don’t understand. Why not?”
[His father] smiled “I guess because we only get one chance. Maybe there’s only one summer to a customer.”
Martin returns to the present day, now with a limp from his childhood accident, and trying to work up the resolve to look ahead instead of back.
Who wore it better? Doesn’t matter either way I have something in my EYEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!
“The Fever” is possibly the most unintentionally funny episode of the series’ run, for reasons that we will go into momentarily.
Puritanical Kansas native Franklin Gibbs is annoyed when his long-suffering wife wins an advertising-slogan contest of a weekend trip to Las Vegas and insists upon taking it. Franklin is convinced to go with her, although he steadfastly refuses to have any fun; his moralizing on the subject is both caustic and funny:
It was the opening paragraph to a tailor-made speech that Franklin delivered at least once a month. It was when he branched off into a new tack, alleging that he felt unclean in this kind of room with semi-clad girls and dice throwers, that he realized that Flora was no longer listening to him.
Franklin gets a lucky pull on a slot machine after a drunk forces him to put a silver dollar in the slot; he intends to take his $10 in winnings home to Kansas, until late that night he hears the slot machine calling to him.
And this is where the episode jumps the rails: we actually hear the slot machine beckoning to him, which sounds like a robot throwing up nickels.
Soon Franklin has been standing at the machine for more than 24 hours, gambling away his bank account. When he’s down to his last dollar, the machine sticks and he has a breakdown. The hotel doctor sedates him and puts him to bed, but he still sees the machine pursuing him through his dreams, at which point he jumps out of the window to his death.
Who wore it better? The possessed slot machine has to be heard to be believed; the episode also has a really fine performance by Everett Sloane (who had starred in Serling’s teleplay and subsequent theatrical film Patterns) as Franklin.
Meanwhile, the story adds a coda some months later, revealing the ongoing effect the experience has had on Flora:
Only once did anything unusual happen and that was a year later. The church had a bazaar and someone brought in an old one-armed bandit. It had taken three of her friends from the Women’s Alliance to stop her screaming and get her back home to bed. It had cast rather a pall over the evening.
“Where is Everybody?” is stuck in the middle of the collection, which is an odd choice since it was the pilot episode for the series.
An amnesiac in a flight suit wakes up outside the small town of Carsville, which he finds to be strangely deserted, as if all of its citizens had been raptured in the middle of a busy Saturday morning. At the same time, he has the creeping feeling that he’s being watched, as he explores the town, searching for any other human being at the local diner, police station, movie theater. He finds evidence of the town’s inhabitants everywhere: cigars still smoking in ashtrays, shaving brushes still lathered on sinks… but no people.
By nightfall he has worked himself up into a breakdown, finally repeatedly hitting the “walk” button at a stop light while screaming the titular question.
REVEAL! Sgt. Mike Ferris has been participating in an isolation experiment to simulate a space mission: after 284 hours he finally cracked, hitting the panic button. His lonely wanderings have been a hallucination.
Who wore it better? BUT WAIT! The short story gives us a DOUBLE TWIST, as Ferris is carried out of the isolation chamber on a stretcher he reaches into his pocket and finds a ticket stub from Carsville’s movie theater!
“The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” is one of the best known episodes of the series (and has staying power: it was referenced in Netflix’s series “Stranger Things”), and is probably the most Twilight Zone-y episode anthologized here. It’s got aliens! It’s got red-scare metaphors! It has a bleak outlook on human nature! It’s got a twist ending!
The short story moves quite a bit faster than the teleplay, as a supposed meteor shower seems to disrupt the power and utilities on the idyllic Maple Street. Confusion turns to panic, when a young sci-fi fan suggests that aliens might be involved and, worse yet, may have sent an advance party disguised as regular human Americans to infiltrate the suburbs.
Under the sway of loud-mouth Charlie Farnsworth, “fat and dumpy, in a loud Hawaiian sport shirt that featured hula girls with pineapple baskets on their heads”, neighbor quickly turns on neighbor in an effort to ferret out the “monster”, leading to a shooting and general rioting, which is way more brutal on the page:
Charlie Farnswoth went down on his knees as a piece of brick plowed a two-inch hole in the back of his skull. Mrs. Sharp lay on her back screaming, and felt the tearing jab of a woman’s high heel in her mouth as someone stepped on her, racing across the street.
Of course it is aliens responsible for the chaos, as the stoically watch from outside of town, dryly commenting on the fact that all they have to do in terms of invading is manipulate the earthlings power sources, and in the resulting paranoia and violence they’ll destroy themselves.
Who wore it better? Once again, a coda is added to the story, in which we see Maple Street the following morning, mostly burned to the ground and most of the residents dead. A week later, we are informed that:
A new set of residents had moved into Maple Street. They were a handsome race of people. Their faces showed great character. Great character indeed. Great character and excellently shaped heads. Excellently shaped heads- two to each new resident.