An autobiographical exploration of how my desire to write and my love for literature was born in the Twilight Zone.
I was just a 13-year-old kid the day I found myself being irresistibly drawn into a world of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas when I first crossed over into that classic black-and-white television show, the Twilight Zone.
At that time, my younger siblings and I usually watched cartoons and kid’s shows on the large color TV set in the living room whenever we watched TV in the daytime, which wasn’t very often because there were so many things to do outside; from riding our bicycles in the sand pit at the end of one of the trails through the woods surrounding our yard, to rowing our boat into the lake just behind our house. But one warm summer afternoon I felt like watching something on TV and I didn’t want to watch what my little brother had on in the living room. I wanted to watch something a little more interesting.
We had a 13″ B&W TV set on a small, rectangular table in our kitchen. So I sat at that table and pulled the little TV right in front of me to see what I could find to watch on it. It was about 4PM. It was warm out; not hot or humid, just comfortable. The kitchen door, which was also the front door of the house, was open. The screened porch blocked insects so the kitchen door was sometimes left open in the summertime. Fresh forest-scented air flowed into the kitchen from the open door. There was a very quiet, relaxed, almost sleepy atmosphere to that lazy afternoon.
I was perusing the UHF channels and playing with the little round antenna on the back of the TV to reduce the snow on the screen. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I cleared the video reception for the channel I had stumbled upon, the program on that channel would captivate my imagination and carry me away with a magic that would elevate that program to a lifetime favorite. I had heard of the Twilight Zone and was familiar with the famous theme music, but up to that point, I never really watched a whole episode. The experience on that day was my first expedition into the dimension of imagination — an area which they called the Twilight Zone.
The episode that aired that day was entitled, “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim.” The protagonist of the story is Christian Horn, the leader of a wagon train heading west towards California. The year is 1847, the place is the territory of New Mexico, the problem is that the group is running low on food and water and can’t find any more. Horn’s own young son is suffering with a prolonged fever. Most of the group wants to turn back. But Horn warns them that if they try that they will all surely die. The only thing to do is to forge ahead. Horn tells everyone to stay put as he goes off alone over the rim of a nearby range of hills to scout for signs of water or game they could hunt. As he mounts the crest of the hill, he is confronted with things he’s never seen before: High -tension power line towers, telephone poles, and the hard, blacktop surface of a modern road. He turns and calls out to the wagons, but they have mysteriously disappeared.
He walks down to the road and kneels down to touch the mysterious, smooth black surface of the street when a truck approaches. As the truck passes by, it frightens Horn into leaping face first into the shoulder, which causes his gun to accidentally discharge injuring his arm. Wandering down the road a bit he ends up at “Joe’s Airflite Cafe.” He’s not sure what to make of things he sees at Joe’s Cafe either, from the strange gas pumps outside to the electric lights and jukebox inside. Joe and his wife, Mary Lou, want to help Horn, but he is very odd to them and they are not sure what kind of help they can offer, other than to patch his arm up and give him some penicillin tablets to ward off infection. The conversation between them is strained. They are clearly puzzled with each other. Then Horn spots the calendar on the wall that reveals to him that he has been projected more than a hundred years into the future. It shocks and confuses him. His frightened reaction stuns Joe and Mary Lou.
Chris Horn eventually makes it back to his wagon train with the bottle of remaining penicillin capsules he gives to his sick son. Although the plot is intriguing, the more prominent element for me that day was the atmosphere of the episode. The background music expresses the perplexed reactions of the characters to the strange situation they face, and draws the viewer into the story line. Close up camera shots of the character’s faces brings the viewer closer to the characters, makes them more personal, and creates more empathy for the emotions they are portraying.
I was also alone and undisturbed in the kitchen while watching that show. My arms were folded and resting on the table in front of me. My chin settled on my arms as I leaned towards that little TV that was just a few inches from my face, and I became completely absorbed into the story. The experience was like being in a hypnotic trance. I believe I remained motionless throughout the program. The spell wasn’t even broken during commercial breaks. My body wasn’t numb; my limbs just had no sensation at all. When I got up to leave the kitchen after the program ended, it was the movement that seemed to suddenly bring my body parts back into existence. The temporary sensation of fuzziness and gumminess in parts of my body suggested a very deep, whole-body relaxation that went all the way down to the tendons and joints of my bones. It was a very profound and wonderfully pleasant experience. I enjoyed the experience so much; I not only wanted more, I also became fascinated with the elements and techniques that made such stories so captivating.
All quality fiction, no matter what form — print, radio drama, TV show, or movie — when presented properly, creates a condition in the audience called the ’suspension of disbelief.’ The characters and the plot have to remain believable within the context of the story. In fantasy–with events or circumstances that are not possible in reality–the story has to build and remain true to its own reality. It generally must also remain confined to the established limits of any popular mythical realms it deals with. A vampire, for instance, cannot be running around in broad daylight unless the writer has skillfully convinced the audience that this particular vampire is very different from the ’standard’ nocturnal vampire. The more ‘out there’ the fantasy is, the more sophisticated the literary engineering needs to be to allow the audience to keep buying it. If feasibility or consistency is mishandled, it awakens the critics in the audience. Criticism can lead to dismissal of the plot and disinterest in the rest of the story. But if handled skillfully enough, the story can successfully maintain a very important element of audience capture — identification.
Crafting elements into a story that people can identify with is essential for creating and maintaining the suspension of disbelief. Certainly, common motivations can drive plots and subplots. Commonplace difficulties and troubles can enhance believability and sympathy for characters. But another very effective technique for creating audience identification is the creative and accurate description or portrayal of average, everyday scenes and settings. Details of ordinary and plain situations and settings make it easy for people to picture themselves there. They may remember being in a scene just like it. That draws the reader or viewer into a story, who will then become involved in it rather than just being an outside observer. Then when something fantastic happens in the story that would otherwise be unbelievable or unlikely, the reader is already involved, already identifying with one of the characters, already pictures himself there, and already in a state of belief. With disbelief suspended, the unlikely event just makes the story more interesting and exciting and the audience then wants answers. When that happens, the reader or viewer is hooked right to the end of the story.
There is an even more magical spell that can occur at that point. It is what I call the suspension of self-awareness. You can get so caught up in a story that, in your immediate stream of consciousness, you are no longer you. You are one of the characters in the story. You get so carried away with a story that you are no longer there–you are in the story. The story’s scenery and setting is what surrounds you, not what’s really there. For the duration of this condition, the conflict in the story is your only problem, not any of the problems in your real life. When you achieve that state, you have fallen into the suspension of self-awareness.
During that first Twilight Zone viewing, I became Christian Horn — the out-of-place oddball who didn’t really belong in the time and place he found himself in. While watching the show, I seemed to have been projecting the atmosphere of the story onto my surroundings. There didn’t seem to be a lake and woods outside of my house anymore. There was just a long stretch of highway cutting through the desert sand in New Mexico; just like the sand in our driveway and yard. The kitchen became Joe’s Cafe. The clock in Joe’s Cafe looked just like our kitchen clock. I felt like I could simply reach over and spin one of the swivel seats lined up along the counter at Joe’s. I was visualizing our kitchen in black and white, and it would have seemed perfectly natural to see the actors who played in that episode right in the kitchen with me if I looked up. It was truly a magical spell.
I initially thought it was the first time I had ever been plunged into such a state, but that was only because of its intensity. It wasn’t long before I realized I had occasionally experienced similar symptoms while watching other TV shows, when listening to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater on my little radio at night, and often when reading. Before then I wrote those symptoms off as just the results of being over tired, being a little lazy, or just spacing out. After that first Twilight Zone experience, I realized there was more to it than that. I recognized it as the symptoms of a unique psychological state that I became more aware of and actively pursued. It was a condition that was crafted out of the magic of skillful storytelling. I went back to that little TV in the kitchen many times in order to re-enter the Twilight Zone.
There were several things that enhanced the Twilight Zone experience for me. It started with the relaxed and peaceful settings and conditions of my childhood home, and the relaxed atmosphere of that day. Those were the perfect conditions for full immersion into the experience. In the program itself, the background music enhanced the atmosphere of the story and expressed the emotions of the characters in it. There was also the use of ‘Film Noir’ techniques such as scenes with enhanced shadows and silhouettes – for black and white film, and the use of Dutch Angles in which the camera angle is tilted to impress the suggestion that something is a little off with the scene. Many classic B&W TV programs employed Film Noir techniques, such as the Outer Limits, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
But the bedrock of it all was the fantastically imaginative stories. With the help of my little magic box on the kitchen table of my childhood home, I was mesmerized by the plight of Gart Williams in “A Stop at Willoughby.” Williams is a burned-out business executive whose unsympathetic wife insists that he had better stay on the fast track to success at the agency. He keeps having a funny dream when falling asleep on his train ride home from work. He dreams he’s on a very different train that has stopped at a place called Willoughby, an imagined town in the year 1888. The train conductor tells him, “It’s a lovely little village, peaceful, restful; a place where a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure. You ought to try it some time.” Then he is jolted back awake on the modern commuter train he was actually on.
He tells his wife about his dream and describes Willoughby as a town with such serenity that it could be straight out of a Currier & Ives painting. His wife, unmoved, tells him his problem is that he was born too late because he’s just the type of guy who could be satisfied with such a place. “So it’s my miserable, tragic error,” she says, “to marry a man whose big dream in life is to be Huckleberry Finn!” A few days later, the stress at his job overwhelms him and he snaps. He calls his wife to tell her he’s had it and can’t take it anymore, and he wants her to stay there and help him. But she makes it clear that if he quits his job, she won’t be there when he gets home, then she hangs up on him. On his train ride home, he again drifts off to sleep and soon hears the old conductor’s voice announcing, “Willoughby, next stop is Willoughby!” This time he gets off the train. As he steps off of the platform into the town, everyone there seems to know him and they go out of their way to welcome him as he wanders off into the town. Then it is revealed, with a shock, where Willoughby really is. I released an astonished “Whoa!” It was bellowed out loud with raised eyebrows the first time I saw the end of that episode.
I was equally carried away with the story of Arthur Curtis in “A World of Difference.” Curtis is an average businessman living a simple but happy life. He has a successful career, a loving and attentive wife, and a young daughter. He’s looking forward to a long awaited vacation with his family as he wraps things up at the office before departure. He tries to make a call with the phone at his desk, but finds that the line is dead. So he gets up to find his secretary to ask her if she knows about the phone problem. As he does so, he hears a voice shout, “cut!” When he turns toward that voice, he discovers he’s not in an office, he’s on the soundstage of a movie set, and the director and a full production crew are all focused on him. The director then says, “Come on Jerry! Is it so hard to make a phone call?” From that point, everyone he sees tries to convince him that he is not the man he thinks he is. They are convinced he is Jerry Raigan, an actor with a reputation for drinking and blowing acting parts. The agency he is contracted through may not give him many more chances. A woman who says she is his wife is very hostile towards him. She wants a divorce and promises to bleed him dry. He can’t seem to convince her or anyone else that he is really Arthur Curtis, who happens to be the character he’s playing in the movie!
In “A Game of Pool,” Jesse Cardiff wants to be recognized as the best pool player ever. All his friends recognize how good he is but they can’t seem to forget the deceased pool legend, Fats Brown. “Oh you’re good Jesse, real good,” they say. “But Fats was better; Fats was the best!” While alone one evening in his favorite pool hall, he lets that opinion get to him after making a pretty spectacular shot. Convinced that he could beat Fats, he wishes out loud that he could get the chance. “I’d give anything, anything for just one lousy game,” he shouts. Then suddenly, Fats Brown appears in the pool hall to give him that chance. After Jesse gets over the shock, they begin to discuss the stakes for the game.
The dialogue positively sparkles in the verbal sparing match between these men throughout the episode. While negotiating the stakes of the game, Fats reminds Jesse that he said he’d give anything for this chance, and insists that the stakes be life or death. If he wins he lives and becomes champ, but if he loses he dies! Jesse hesitates and Fats questions his resolve. “It’s interesting to see how much faith you have in yourself,” he says. “You know it takes more than skill to be a champion,” Fats continues. “It takes equal parts of talent, luck, work, and nerve; a quality you sadly lack.” “Nerve,” Jesse exclaims. “You mean insanity – risk my life on a game of pool!” “You know something, for my money you don’t want to be the best bad enough boy,” Fats says. But Jesse argues, “You’re wrong, boy are you wrong! You know how many hours, how many years, how much of myself I put into this game? I haven’t been to the movies in years; I haven’t dated a girl, read a book, because it would take time away from the game.” “Still talk and nothing else,” Fats responds. “I’m good, mister,” Jesse shouts. “I’m good… But am I that good,” Jesse wonders out loud. “Well you’ll never really know until you’re ready to risk everything,” Fats answers. Then he tells Jesse about a champion racecar driver and a bullfighter. “Both men faced death daily, both are legends. You never make the great at anything by playing it safe.” Jesse finally agrees to the terms and the game commences.
Although there are some great shots in this episode, the pool game is just the setting. The story is really about self-image; the struggle between doubt and confidence; the desire to be recognized for one’s skills and passion, and what it takes to be the best. Addressing such universal themes can make a story timeless and meaningful to people of any generation.
Out of the 156 episodes of the original Twilight Zone anthology series, there are a few duds, but the excellence of the majority more than make up for it. That excellence comes from the quality of the stories and the magical elements that can carry viewers away from themselves and into the realm of imagination. It is a magic I experienced in the state of suspended self awareness. But this magic did not remain exclusive to the Twilight Zone for me. Later, I became aware of it with certain other TV shows, radio dramas, and especially when reading novels, short stories, and even poetry.
Short stories and novels became portals into other worlds with conflicts in different settings, environments, and time periods. I did most of my reading by the light of a small reading lamp on the headboard of my bed. I remember treacherous journeys on dog-driven sleds along the snowy trails of the Alaskan Klondike with the ever present, life threatening bitter bite of extreme subzero temperatures depicted in several short stories by Jack London. I actually felt the constriction of muscles responding to freezing air and wind, and felt restricted under bundles of heavy winter clothing while enjoying those stories in loose clothes, and in the warm comfort of my bedroom. Since I read those stories in the winter, shortly after I had come in from ice skating on our lake, or playing in the snow, it simply enhanced the experience.
I became a fan of the American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Not only did I get caught up in his stories of ancient, primordial forces and creatures invading the modern world; but also in the writer’s incredible descriptive skills that painted vivid, detailed portraits of landscapes and architectural structures. In the summer of 1983, I took my family and a friend, who is also a Lovecraft fan, on a trip through the New England states. We, of course, had to stop at Salem Massachusetts to see a re-enactment of the 1692 witchcraft trials, but one of the main targets of that journey was Providence, Rhode Island, to see Lovecraft’s grave and the town he lived in. We cruised through the old section of Providence as the shadows of dusk overtook the landscape. And I’m sure my friend, Chris, remembers the sights of that place the way I do — through Lovecraft’s eyes. Rows of buildings constructed in that old, peculiar architectural style described so well by Lovecraft seemed tilted in Dutch Angle landscapes because they were built into steep hills and along the sharp inclines of the shadowy, cobblestone streets. Dusk shadowed windows seemed to harbor dark secrets and, perhaps, pairs of non-human eyes that watched as we passed by. It was easy to see how that environment helped to inspire Lovecraft’s literary visions. The singular atmosphere and strange architectural surroundings of that place seemed so familiar to us because we had been there before. Our imaginations were transported there through the incantations of Lovecraft’s literary magic long before we actually visited Providence in the flesh.
One of the greatest of American horror writers is Edgar Allan Poe. His horror stories take us into the mania of extremely disturbed minds. Actor Vincent Price became the perfect selection for many film adaptations of Poe’s horror stories. But Poe is also credited with inventing the detective story, and Poe also introduced me to the beauty of poetry. Along with a tradition of reading true ghost stories in October, Poe’s poem, “The Raven,” became an additional favorite Halloween selection for me. But there were also love poems. I was moved by the sad beauty of a love that transcends death in his poem, “Annabel Lee.” After reading that one about 10 times, words became musical, with a potential for lyrical qualities that sound pretty while melodically sparking the imagination and touching the heart. I would go on from there to be enchanted by certain works by several other poets such as Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson.
Throughout my explorations of novels, short stories, and poems, I experienced many ‘wow’ moments; the kinds that make you hold your breath in amazement. And I often told myself that I only wish I could write like that. There are many stories and poems that are so dear to me, so captured my imagination, and seemed to become such a part of me that I really wish I was the one who originally wrote them. All I could do was to try to create my own stories and poetic verses with at least a touch of the literary magic I first became aware of, years before, in the Twilight Zone.
As it turned out, I discovered much more than a cool TV show when I went into the kitchen that personally historic day to watch something else; I discovered the magical effects of an art form when the final presentations are skillfully crafted. The desire to re-experience the magic of those altered states of consciousness made me more aware of them, and the techniques and skills it took to create them. It sent me on a journey to discover the magic elsewhere. And it ultimately compelled me to try my hand at composing my own works with the same magic.
I never really start to write a story or poem with a specific audience in mind. It starts with a need to express something inside of myself. Writing it out is my way of documenting and legitimizing that part of me. I am, first and foremost, trying to impress myself. Only after I begin to flesh it out and give it its own voice do I realize how it may resonate with other people. But throughout the whole process, I am searching for that magical combination of words that accurately, and beautifully, express what I’m trying to say. I like to play with the lyrical beauty of the English language to vividly describe the images in some scenery or the sense experiences of a setting. I enjoy constructing unique perspectives to sharpen the focus on common emotions or sentiments that are sometimes hidden or buried. I attempt to use words and sentences the way a musician uses rhythms and melodies in order to pluck the strings of the heart and the imagination. When I am under the spell of composure, I’m trying to mix together a potion that can captivate attention, widen eyes, and open a mouth to draw in a breath of awe. It is an attempt to recreate the magical responses I experienced so many times with several different literary venues. Those experiences were most powerful when I strongly identified with the plight of a character or a situation in a story; or the emotional sentiment of a poem.
If you read something that I have written, and you are also a part of the targeted audience for pieces with specifically selected experiences, I’m pushing for a bit more of a response than “that was really interesting,” or “that was very good.” I’m trying to touch your soul with an experience we may share. I’m trying to get you to feel that what you just read, or a part of what you read, expresses a part of you. We all share a core of common experiences that have been played out and expressed in an almost infinite number of ways. We are all connected in a complex weave of common threads that are often best illustrated through artistic expressions that plumb the depths of our imaginations. When you read something I have written, I’m trying to take you on a journey into the vast regions of your own imagination. I’m trying to take you to a place that is best described by one of the Twilight Zone’s most familiar opening intros:
There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man.
It is a dimension as vast as space and timeless as infinity.
It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition,
and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.
This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.