Richard Matheson's The Twilight Zone Scripts, Volume Two
(Edge, $16.95, 406 pages, paperback, 2002.)
"That Richard Matheson is one of our most gifted fantasy writers is a given. It is wonderful to discover that his scripts engage with nearly the same intensity as do his novels and short stories. He visualizes his stories in the mind of a creative artist and then puts them to paper with the blended skills of an award-winning novelist and screenwriter. And that's why readers of fantasy stories, as well as fans of The Twilight Zone television series, will enjoy this book."
I wrote those words last year in my infinity plus review of Richard Matheson's The Twilight Zone Scripts Volume One, and they certainly hold true for Volume Two, also. I feel no shame in using them again here, since the book's editor, Stanley Wiater, and its publisher, Gauntlet Press, felt no shame in using Volume One's prologue, epilogue, appendix, and quotes praising The Twilight Zone in general, as well as Richard Matheson in particular -- twenty-one pages in all -- in Volume Two. In addition, my inclusion of that quote in this review serves as a favour to Wiater and the publisher, since they used it as a promo quote on the back cover of Volume Two without specifying which of the books I was referring to when I wrote it. Since it now appears in both reviews, that little bit of sloppiness on their part has been rendered irrelevant. (It's OK, fellas, I'm just glad I could help out.)
Unfortunately, other inexcusable sloppiness, neither caused by Matheson nor correctable by a helpful reviewer, is fraught throughout this volume. I'll get into that later.
First, let's talk about Matheson's scripts, the real reason for considering this book.
In all, there were fourteen that became TZ episodes. Twelve were written as half-hour presentations and two were for the fourth season's hour-long format. Wiater has chosen to present them in chronological order, the first three seasons' work -- eight scripts in all -- comprising Volume One. The remaining six contained here in Volume Two include the two double-length scripts. As a result, the books are almost equal in length.
Volume Two begins with Matheson's first "long" script for the fourth season, the controversial "Mute". This is followed by "Death Ship", Matheson's second season-four entry, and then the four scripts written for the series-concluding fifth season (when the show returned to its more successful half-hour format), including the classic, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet". Though collectively not as strong as the first volume's assemblage, the scripts in Volume Two contain the same reader appeal as the author's absorbing short stories. And, while we learn that Matheson had adapted several of these scripts from stories he had previously written, the author changed certain elements in the stories for the teleplays, sometimes for no discernible reason.
Take the aforementioned "Mute", for example. While the main character in the teleplay is a little girl, we are told in the introductory material that, in the author's novelette, the telepathic child described by the one-word title is a boy. Matheson doesn't remember why he changed the character's gender in the script, other than because, possibly, he had agreed to a network executive's suggestion. It doesn't matter. This is one of the few cases where the tightly written original story noticeably outshines the slightly padded, cumbersome script, even as the script outshines the actual television production for which it was written.
On the other hand, "Death Ship", the other hour-long script, reads remarkably well. It, too, was based on a Matheson novelette, this one published for the first time in 1953. This story of three astronauts who must come to terms with the possibility that they may have perished when their ship crashed will remind TZ aficionados of two first-season episodes, "And When the Sky Was Opened" and "Elegy", the first of which was based on yet another Matheson short story. The script for "Death Ship" is a wonderful character study of how each of the men comes to grips (or not!) with his demise.
As for the four remaining half-hour episodes, "Steel", the story of a boxing manager in a future world where robots are the pugilists, is a traditional sf story that eschews the twist ending for which TZ became renowned. "Night Call" is a story that might best be described as "terror noir". In it, an elderly lady continually receives telephone calls from her long-dead fiancé. What could easily have been a gruesome story more suited to a Tales from the Crypt-type format becomes, instead, a crescendo of horror reminiscent of Val Lewton's movies of the forties for what it doesn't show. (In fact, the episode was directed by Jacques Tournier, who also helmed Lewton's Cat People in 1942.) "Spur of the Moment", while an ordinary episode about a woman's "path not taken", is still an attention-holding read -- a tribute to Matheson's writing skills.
And then, there's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet".
Arguably the most popular of Matheson's TZ episodes, it is the best read in both volumes. The story is a twist in itself; that of a salesman and family man recently released from a mental institution after recovering from a nervous breakdown, making his first airline flight. When he spots a gremlin on the wing outside his window, he begins to question whether he has, in fact, recovered from his psychosis at all. Outside of "The Invaders" in Volume One, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" seemed at first perusal to contain the least amount of dialogue and the most stage direction of any remaining Matheson script. After looking back through the previous scripts, I realized that my impression was wrong; that the descriptions in "Nightmare" were so powerful I had confused impact with abundance. Take, for example, the scene in which the main character, Bob Wilson, comes face to face with the gremlin for the first time:
CAMERA CIRCLES him SLOWLY until the window, with its curtain drawn, is seen next to his face. Bob stares at it a while, tension building, then finally, on an impulse, reaches up and pushes the curtain aside. Instantly, he stiffens, his face distorted by shock. Inches away, separated from him by only the thickness of the window, is the man's face staring in at him.
It is a hideously malignant face, a face not human. Its skin is grimy, its lips misshapen, cracked, forced apart by teeth of a grotesque size and crookedness, its eyes small and recessed, unblinking. All framed by a shaggy, tangled hair which sprouts, also, in furry tufts from the man's ears and nose, in birdlike down across his cheeks. Wilson sits riven to his seat, incapable of response, he cannot so much as blink. Dull-eyed, hard breathing, he returns to the creatures [sic] vacant stare.
Absent apostrophe aside, this is vintage Matheson. His description of the gremlin is so godawfully vivid there can be no doubt in the reader's mind that it is actually there, that Wilson, in spite of his self-doubt, is not imagining it. From here on in, we the audience will side with Wilson, no matter how disbelieving and humouring the other characters, including his wife, act toward him. And for those who have seen this episode, it is impossible while reading the script not to recall William Shatner's tortured, borderline over-the-top portrayal of Wilson; so much so that it is easy to forget that Matheson didn't write the role with Shatner specifically in mind, such is this perfect meld of actor to character.
So much for the scripts themselves, the strength of Volume Two and the reason to buy the book. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the numerous editing flaws and questionable-at-best punctuation usage, an unfortunate distraction to an otherwise enjoyable read.
As I sat back to devour the first script, I was hit with this, the first sentence in Wiater's introductory comments:
"Mute" would the first of two compelling scripts that Matheson would write in a one-hour format for the fourth season of the series's run.
Okay, he left out the third word of his sentence. (Am I wrong, or should there be a "be" there?) An amateur's mistake to be sure, but if it was the only one in the book, I would be more than willing to overlook it.
And in the introduction to "Steel" I scratched my head over this sentence:
Matheson also had the rare advantage of sitting on the readings with the actors and director hired for that particular episode.
Either Wiater omitted another word or the members of the production company engaged in what must have been an anatomically uncomfortable though quite unforgettable activity.
I was greeted by this little bit of carelessness in the first sentence of the "Night Call" intro:
This melancholy tale of a unrequited love...
Alas, there were other distractions.
The dash phrases. Oh, those dash phrases! We all learned in Creative Writing 101 not to rely too heavily on such devices. (Also semicolons, italics, parentheses or any device used to isolate and highlight phrases, rather than to incorporate them as part of an entire thought.) Used sparingly, they can be quite effective, but they become at first a distraction, then an annoyance, when overused.
Wiater must have been paid by the dash.
In his introductory comments to "Death Ship" he warms us up with a dash in the first paragraph and then attacks us with two dash phrases in the second. One more dash in the third paragraph to keep our attention riveted to them and a dash and a dash phrase in the fourth. He backs off for the rest of the piece until the seventh and next-to-last paragraph, when he hits us with another dash phrase. As a result of these two pages, I was now programmed to notice every gonfalon dash in the rest of the book. And, trust me, there were many. (Maybe the most distracting were the three in the three-sentence first paragraph of the intro to "Nightmare".)
But the editing mistake that actually made me angry was the misspelling of actor Lee Marvin's name. Here we have an Oscar winner, an actor of great esteem; yet, in the cast list for "Steel" his name is spelled "Marven". This sort of editorial sloppiness is as inexcusable as it is insulting to the memory of a fine actor.
I once asked the great Julius Schwartz how many editing errors are permissible in a professional publication. "Zero," he told me. "None. There can be no acceptable explanation for allowing a publication to reach the reader uncorrected."
I agree with Schwartz. While this collection deserves to be read for the brilliance of Richard Matheson's writing, it should never have been allowed to hit the bookstores until the numerous flaws in the text had been corrected. For that, Stanley Wiater and Gauntlet Press should hang their heads for the disservice they've done to a great author. As for the scripts themselves, the editorial neglect in Wiater's contribution shouldn't deter you from enjoying them. After all, they are why you should be considering this book in the first place.
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© Randy M Dannenfelser 23 November 2002