Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Howling Man By Charles Beaumont

The Howling Man
By Charles Beaumont
Copyright 1992

Introduction by Roger Anker
Editor Roger Anker provides a brief biography of the short but prolific life of Charles Beaumont. Born Charles Nutt, he changed his name because of people making fun of him. He overcame a stunted education to become a prolific writer of screenplays, novels, short stories and teleplays. He was part of the “California School” of writers that included Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, and William F. Nolan. His life was cut tragically short when he developed Alzheimer’s Disease in his late 30s. He died in 1967.

Miss Gentibelle
(introduced by Ray Bradbury)
Young Robert is raised by his harsh and demanding mother to believe he is a girl. He is enraged when he learns the truth about his gender from the gardener. The gardener leaves, promising to return with the authorities. Robert, however, has to take matters into his own hands.

This story is quite simple. The main character – the boy with mommy issues – is used over and over again in horror fiction. The plot is simple and straight forward. But, what makes the reading worthwhile is not always the tale itself, but the teller and how he tells it and Beaumont tells this trite little tale quite wonderfully.

The Vanishing Man

Mr. Minchell, an accounting clerk at a big city agency, notices that nobody notices him. He is invisible. Store clerks don’t notice him and neither does his family. At first, he laments this development. But then, he decides to fulfill a childhood ambition.

Beaumont relies on an often employed subtext of the 1950s – that of the diminished stature of the working person – mostly male clerical workers. As the postwar boom raged and companies became larger and larger, the worker began to feel smaller and smaller. This was the subtext behind Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man. Here, the emphasis is more on age than social standing as the man approaches 50 with his dreams unfulfilled. It was an ok story that mimicked the writing style of Franz Kafka.

A Place of Meeting

A group of people gather in a clearing and report on their search efforts. One by one, each report the area of the earth they were assigned to search is dead – with no life of any kind left. The group then resolves to return to the ground and wait for the next evolution of man to emerge again and take part in society.

The premise, in my reading experience, was original. I knew the story was a short one and was wondering where it was headed right up until the next to last paragraph. Great idea well executed.

The Devil You Say (introduced by Howard Browne)
A former reporter and newspaper publisher tells his fellow reporters of his experience of owning a small town newspaper where his business partner was Satan himself. Satan broke the most amazing stories.

This was Beaumont’s first sold story and it is wonderful. The camp is exceptional. The narrative well paced, and the end is suitably sad. Fans of the Twilight Zone will recognize this story as the basis for the episode The Printer’s Devil.

Free Dirt (Introduced by Dennis Etchison)
A man obsessed with getting things for free, learns of free dirt being given away by a cemetery. He is determined to take advantage and hauls it all home to create a garden in his back yard to get free vegetables. His vegetables grow and he devours them in one meal with unlikely results.

This one didn’t have much appeal to me. It has the flavor of a Twilight Zone script, but the twist at the end was flat and not well delivered.

Song for a Lady
A newlywed couple decides to book passage for their honeymoon cruise aboard the Lady Anne – a dilapidated old steamer making its last transatlantic voyage. When they board, they are met with hostility by the passengers who are all old. Eventually, the passengers warm to the young couple, but surprise them at the end of their voyage.

Knowing the nature of Beaumont’s writing from repeated viewings of the Twilight Zone, where this story was headed would not have been a surprise even had I not seen the Twilight Zone episode he penned based on this story. Nonetheless, it was a well told story with a romantic ending of sorts. I wish I could have read it before seeing the Twilight Zone adaptation.

Last Rites (Introduced by Richard Matheson)
A priest rushes to the house of his friend who is bedridden and clearly dying. The priest urgently wants to call a doctor. His friend will not hear of it. His friend asks the priest: Can an artificial man who has felt joy, sorrow, pain and pleasure, have a soul? If so, will the priest administer last rites to that artificial man?

This question is one often pondered by science fiction writers. Isaac Asimov did it with Bicentennial Man and Brian Aldiss with Super Toys Last all Summer Long. This story does not riff on the trope in any original manner. But it was well written and does ask deeply spiritual questions. An okay story, but not one of Beaumont’s best.

The Howling Man (introduced by Harlan Ellison)
A young American backpacks across rural Germany when he falls ill. In a state of delirium, he is taken into a monastery by a group of reclusive monks. As he recovers, he hears a constant wailing of a man nearby which the monks will not acknowledge exists. He finally makes his way to where a man is being held in a cell. The monks claim he is the devil. The man claims the monks are insane.

An absolutely brilliant story told in an old, gothic style of first person narrative. I used to eat this stuff up as a kid and the joy hasn’t gone out of the experience in my later years. Fans of the Twilight Zone will recognize this story as one Beaumont adapted for the small screen and made it one of the best episodes of that stellar series.

The Dark Music
A puritanical teacher who is fighting a winning battle to keep sex education out of her school, is enchanted by mysterious music she hears one day while on a field trip in the woods. As she leads her puritanical life fights for her puritanical values, she is drawn to that woods again and again full of lustful heat.

This story didn’t work for me. I got the allegory. But I just didn’t care about the main character. She wasn’t sympathetic or tragic. The end was unsatisfying.

The Magic Man (introduced by Charles E. Fritch)
A magician and peddler of patent medicines arrives in his favorite town to do his show. The residents of the town love him and look forward to seeing his performance. As he tells his tales of adventure and performs his feats of wonder, the audience begs to know how it is done. Since he knows he’s dying and this may well be his last performance, he reveals his secrets. Instead of loving him for it, the audience leaves disappointed.

How much I like a story teller’s mainstream stories is a true gauge of how much I like a story teller. I don’t like mainstream short fiction. I do love this story. No tricks with the language. No lofty prose. Just a man telling a good story about an interesting character and conveying a subtext that contains a lesson we all learn as children: knowing how a trick is done ruins them magic.

Fair Lady (introduced by George Clayton Johnson)
A doughty, older school teacher lives out her loveless existence in a boarding house room. One day, she boards a bus and is immediately attracted to the bus driver. Over a period of three years, she rides the bus daily and falls in love with him – all while having just the briefest of daily conversations with him. Then one day, she boards and he is not there.

This is a mainstream love story with feints at literary prose. The story is solid. Beaumont is able to tap the reader’s emotions by making the emotions of the character familiar to them. This story is not to my taste. But I can see why Johnson liked it.

A Point of Honor
A young man is about to be initiated into a street gang. To complete the initiation, he must murder the manager of a local theater. He contemplates the importance of the gang in his life, his personal honor, and his fear as he waits for his victim.

To this point, I have sounded very much like a Charles Beaumont fanboy. He has been worthy of the praise I have heaped upon him so far. In this story, it’s a swing and a miss. It’s a character study that left me saying, so what?

The Hunger (introduced by Richard Christian Anderson)
A woman lives with her two widowed sisters in a small town. They all live in fear – and a little excitement – of a serial rapist and killer who is stalking the area. The woman becomes convinced that if she can meet him and seduce him, she can change him.

This story had great character development and the split narrative worked wonderfully. It had a great climax but a not so thrilling ending.

Black Country (introduced by Ray Russell)
A black jazz musician takes on a white female singer and a white male saxophone player. He eventually takes the woman as a lover and the sax player as an apprentice trumpet player. When cancer ravages his body and he can no longer play, he kills himself. But he’s passed something along – something very important to him – to his apprentice.

It’s easy to ascertain from this story that Beaumont was a fan of jazz and blues. Ray Russell points out that this story was almost musical in its composition. It did have a rhythm in its prose. While it’s a better entry into the bewitched jazz musician subgenre than Richard Matheson’s entry, it is dated.

Gentlemen, Please Sit (introduced by Frank M. Robinson)
A drone is invited to a private club by his boss. The club, located in a desolate part of town, is a comedy club dedicated to preserving old humor that is considered racist or offensive in today’s society. The man does not find it too terribly funny. The next day, he regrets his reaction.

As a story, this entry was rather pedestrian. However, it does provide some commentary that is still relevant today about political correctness and how it curbs and reduces comedy.

The Jungle
An urban planner and his dying wife are the last residents of a modern city built in the jungles of Africa. The man confronts a local witch doctor who explains to him the natives’ culture is different, but not inferior and they did not need to be modernized or eradicated by the white man.

This story lacked a real climax. The twist wasn’t all that shocking. It did contain some interesting insights into the importance of indigenous culture as a bonding agent to keep people civilized. Twilight Zone fans will recognize the title. Beaumont incorporated some of the ideas from this story into his script for that episode.

The New People (introduced by Saul David)
A middle-aged professional couple move into a neighborhood inhabited by other middle-aged professional couples. The man is not entirely happy while his wife is giddy with excitement. They invite their new neighbors over. One man – a Hollywood screenwriter – tells his new neighbor that he is in danger and that he must move or suffer horrible consequences. He shows him why.

I don’t know if this story predates Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. But it relies on the same trope: there are evil Satanists living in our midst. While Levin’s social commentary was more about the decline of Christianity in the 1960s, Beaumont speaks more to the search for excitement and adventure in middle age.

Perchance to Dream
A man walks into a psychiatrist’s office exhausted and sleep deprived. He tells the psychiatrist that if he goes to sleep, he will die in his dream. He then relates the detail of the dream that will lead up to his death.

Having seen the Twilight Zone episode of the same name, I was not surprised by the twist ending. That does not diminish the quality of the story. The straight forward narrative builds toward the exciting climax at just the right pace.

The Crooked Man

In a dystopian future, gay people are open and outed with their sexuality while heterosexuals are considered deviant and are hunted by vice squads. A man goes to a gay bar hoping to meet the woman whom he loves. When they meet, they are immediately tagged as deviants.

For the time in which this was written, this story was quite progressive. It predates the Stonewall Riots and the start of gay liberation. Today, its progressivism is blunted by its depicture of any kind of consensual sexuality between adults as deviant. As a story, the metaphor is too heavy handed and plot nominal.

Blood Brothers
A vampire goes to a psychiatrist to complain about his state. He is ill-equipped to be a vampire and hates his life. But he has an unlikely tie to the psychiatrist.

This story was a little tongue in cheek and suited for a younger audience. But it was well paced and as hard as I tried to guess the twist, I honestly did not see it coming. Of course, Beaumont cheated just a little by not giving any clues.

A Death in the Country (introduced by William F. Nolan)

This is a story of a 1950s vintage stock car racer who goes from town to town, racing the local and collecting purses to fund his trip to the next town. When he arrives at the fair grounds and pulls into the pit, he meets a nice young man driving a hot new car while he drives an older car in need of an engine rebuild. He’s determined to show at least third to collect some money. Still, he admires the kid’s enthusiasm and the support of his young girlfriend. But, when they hit the tracks, war is war.

This is a character study and I’m not a fan of character studies. However, I like the backdrop of the old stock car scene for the character and I like stock car drivers of that area. Beaumont was an authority on auto racing and brought that expertise to this story to make it work nicely.

The Music of the Yellow Brass
A young, desperate bullfighter finally stands on the precipice of greatness when he is awarded the opportunity to engage a notorious bull in a highly billed contest. He is wined and dined the night before the big show. But the day he is to go out and fight, he learns that his manager sold him out. He goes forward to fight anyway.

This is an oft employed trope of the longshot getting his shot at the bigtime. From Rocky to the Twilight Zone episode, The Big Tall Wish, they are all the same. This one is no different and does not distinguish itself.

Night Ride
A jazz band picks up a new piano player with a gift for translating misery into beautiful and soulful blues. When that young piano player catches the fancy of a young girl, the band leader becomes concerned. He takes drastic action with horrible consequences.

It is obvious that Beaumont was fascinated by jazz and blues and the venues that featured that music in the 1950s and 60s. Not being fascinated with that music, I find these stories rather dull. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this story. It’s just not to my taste.

The Intruder, Chapter 10 (introduced by Roger Corman)
A rabble rouser arrives in a small southern town to preach against integration of schools. The man builds toward a fever pitch, then disappears just as a black family drives through town. Stirred up and angry, the mob confronts the family, destroys the car, and comes close to killing them before the law arrives. A local lawyer tries to get the sheriff to make an arrest. But the sheriff isn’t interested.

This is a chapter from Beaumont’s novel that he adapted for a screenplay to be directed by Roger Corman. The movie got made on a shoestring budget. It received critical acclaim, but did not do well at the box office. Most consider it Corman’s finest work.

Mourning Song
(introduced by Jerry Sohl)
In an unnamed town in an undefined time, the residents fear when old Solomon comes to town. He is an elderly man with a bird on his shoulder and no eyes. He carries with him a guitar. When he stops and plays in front of your home, death is coming for you or your loved ones. One young boy refuses to believe that Solomon has any special powers. He goes in believing that into adulthood.

The writing in this story reminded me so much of John Wyndham in Chrysalids. Obviously, the stories are quite different. But the narrative voice and the main character bear a striking resemblance to each other. This was a beautifully told story that came up just a bit abrupt.

To Hell with Claude (introduced by Chad Oliver)
Claude is king of the world and master of the universe. He is vexed to find out the perfect world he created combining European feudalism with southern plantation culture has been infected with literature – the root of all subversion. He travels to Miskatonic University posing as a freshman student and enrolls to go undercover and find the purveyors of the befouling words.

This story was rather silly. I’ve seen several authors take great literature and figures from literature and incorporate them into stories to make statements about the importance of stories. The point is usually made, but the stories aren’t particularly enjoyable.

Appointment with Eddie

The world’s most famous entertainer wants an appointment with a hole in the wall barber in New York City. He’s desperate for that appointment and acts as if it’s a life or death matter. His agent tries to get him that appointment with Eddie the Barber who charges one dollar for a haircut. Despite his shop being empty, Eddie says he doesn’t have an opening and doesn’t know when he’ll have an opening. The entertainer is distraught to the point of suicide. His agent learns from other entertainers that you’re not really a success until Eddie agrees to cut your hair.

This was a well told story with a strong narrative voice. But the subtext is important here and Beaumont, being an entertainer of sorts, knows what he is talking about. Stephen King once said he knew he’d made it when Playboy published him. Beaumont, a charter member of Playboy’s distinguished stable of writers, may have been writing about the affirmation he got from Playboy or some other publication.

The Crime of Willie Washington

Willie Washington is a black man who works on a railroad in an undetermined time in the past. One night, Willie stabs a man in a fit of anger and worries he has killed him. When the man lives and Willie is not arrested, he figures he’s got away with a crime. Later, he is arrested and tried for the rape and murder of a white woman of which he is innocent. He relies on his faith as the state tries three times to execute him. When he is eventually set free, his faith is tested by tough circumstances.

On the surface, one might expect this to be an examination of racism in the criminal justice system. It is not. Although Willie is black, the story is more about faith and how it is tested and how it can remain strong or waiver in even the strongest believers.

The Man with the Crooked Nose
A bookseller has an employee who shuffles about silently, attending to his duties. He does not speak since he does not know English, but sings beautifully. One day, a portly man with a crooked nose walks in and destroys the silent man’s demeanor.

This story has one of those nebulous endings that drive me crazy. I guess if an author leaves you wanting more, he’s written a well told story.

The Carnival
A young boy is paralyzed in a car vs. bike accident. For three years, he sits and mopes in his wheel chair. His father takes him to a carnival to stimulate his imagination. He sees the boy born without arms and legs and his imagination is stimulated.

This was a really weak note to end an otherwise stellar collection of short stories. Lots of imagery, very little substance.

No comments:

Post a Comment