Friday, August 20, 2010

Rod Serling

I've just finished reading two collections of Rod Serling's short stories, The Season to Be Wary and The Twilight Zone: Complete Stories.  As you might expect, nearly all of these are from the 1958-64 television series.  I grew up watching these.  I am pretty sure that I only saw Twilight Zone in re-runs--since in 1964, I was barely old enough to really understand the complexity of the ideas in most of these shows.  Still, by 1966 and 1967, I was thoroughly hooked!

My wife's M.A. is in Literature, and she thinks Serling is one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century--and a writer who never thought he was very good.  Reading through these stories you are reminded that these are all adaptations of screenplays--and it is a reminder of how the need to fit something into 30 minutes (minus several minutes of commercials) forces you to master the skill of storytelling.  At times it may require a bit of compression or oversimplification of a character--but all the more reason that you need to be very, very good at doing so.  Keep the story moving--so you don't notice the unlikeliness that the people of Elm Street would so rapidly turn to violence over a little thing like a power failure.

I have long maintained that there are great writers and great storytellers.  A great writer is extraordinarily skilled at his use of language and dialog to convey a feeling, or express an idea in a very subtle and yet unmistakable way.  A great storyteller may not have such a spectacular ability to write--but the stories that he tells are so compelling that you are prepared to overlook that. 

Many of those regarded by literary critics as great writers may not tell particularly compelling stories.  I don't think that either Larry Niven or Jerry Pournelle are great writers--but they tell great stories--and on those few occasions when they have written novels together, the results are clearly far better than either alone.  Some novelists who start out as great writers and great storytellers don't stay that way.  James Clavell's King Rat was far superior to later works, such as Shogun, and sticking all the way to the end Whirlwind was a bit of a chore.

Serling, however, is both a great storyteller and a great writer.  He comes up with great ideas, inspired by the trauma of his times: McCarthyism; totalitarianism; the Holocaust; the civil rights movement.  And his writing is also impressively evocative--especially when he does what every writer is told to do: write what you know.  "The Big, Tall Wish" tells you the story of a prizefighter at the end of career--and tells it powerfully well because Serling had been a boxer in his youth.  "A Stop at Willoughby" captures a sensitive young man working in the soul-destroying business of a big Madison Avenue advertising agency--and you can tell that if Serling didn't feel this need to get off the train in such a final way for this reason, he certainly knew people who did.

Part of what I find so powerful about Serling's stories, and The Twilight Zone, was how it was something of the last call for traditional American liberalism--before liberalism morphed into something almost the exact opposite of what it was in 1960.  Serling's worldview wasn't particularly religious--but it recognized that religion was a powerful solace for the suffering and a moral restraint on those who needed something to keep them in check.  My guess is that Serling would have much agreed with this letter that Ben Franklin apparently wrote to Tom Paine, upon receiving Paine's Age of Reason:
At present I shall only give you my opinion, that though your reasonings are subtle, and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject, and the consequence of printing this piece will be, a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits against the wind, spits in his own face. But were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it ? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life without the assistance afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantages of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a portion of rhankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security.... 

I would advise you therefore not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person, whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification from the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it?
It is difficult to read Serling's stories, or watch the series that is so indelibly associated with him, without coming away with a somewhat similar view of both men: people who had some rather abstract notion of God, but recognized that there was something there--and who shuddered at what mankind might "without it." 

"The Night of the Meek" must have been originally presented on Christmas Eve.  Like many Twlight Zone episodes, it is set in a world of "what if"--but a "what if" where decency and the supernatural can redeem an alcoholic, and make even a New York City ghetto just a little nicer of a place.  It is a world where for all man's deficiencies and sins, there is hope, and the possibility that we can muddle through, exceeding our natural sinful desires, to something just a bit better.

I guess that this is what I find most disheartening about how rapidly the Western world has collapsed in just two generations.  There was sin and depravity aplenty in 1960.  But we didn't celebrate it.  ""Hypocrisy is a compliment which vice pays to virtue."  A world in which depravity and evil were embarrassing was a world in which at least many children did not have their noses rubbed in the gutter prematurely.  Is it so much to ask that children wait a few years before they are forced to confront what a dirty, depraved, and evil world this is?  Is it so hard to ask that a society celebrate honesty, integrity, and decency, instead of treating greed, dishonesty, and the abuse of others as being equivalent?


  1. Agree on Pournelle and Niven, good writers who together are great. Mote in God's Eye is one of the best I have ever read.

    Clavelle just seems to have gotten lazy. King Rat is a great book. Shogun has some great threads running through it. The rest of the series is unreadable trash. That, and he just loves cliches about Asians.

  2. Clayton,
    I'm so glad to see your blog again. I believe I was going into a depression of sorts. Of the millions of websites out there, your blog is one of about 7 sites I go to.
    Loved this take on Serling, too. I'll have to come back and peruse when I'm not so sleepy. Thanks again! Mark

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  5. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it?

    Not much different, IMO. The idea that morality derives from revealed religion is pretty much of an Abrahamic thing.

    It's not a factor in East Asian or South Asian cultures.

    It certainly wasn't a factor in classical Europe. The Greco-Roman deities were not lawgivers; indeed they were noted for personal licentiousness.

    Yet morality existed in all these cultures.

  6. I never realized that Serling had done short stories based on the TV shows, will have to check them out. Serling went to Walnut Hills high school here in Cincinnati, and later Antioch College in Yellow Springs, OH. I visited a coffee shop near the college once, where the owner pointed out the table where he said Serling used to sit for hours writing in his notebook. I hope it's true!

  7. You didn't mention "Requiem for a Heavyweight", one of my favortie movies. It was done at a time when the story was everything. Be sure to see the movie starring Anthony Quinn, and not the made for TV movie.

    "But think how great a portion of [m]ankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women ..."

    Yet another example of the founders using "Man" to mean both genders. Yet I still hear some say that "all men are created equal" deliberately excludes women.

  8. Hi Clayton,

    I'm so glad to see you blogging again. It is posts such as this one that made your blog a favorite of mine!

    Your friend,
    Mark T.