Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
The phrase “twilight zone” has likely become iconic in American culture. Episodes from the television series contained elements of drama, suspense or horror, and aspects of the macabre. Gauntlet Press has published collections of original “The Twilight Zone” scripts, some with Rod Serlings’s hand-written edits. A former student of mine once called the fantasy tropes “creepy.”
And perhaps so—”creepy.”
A man falls asleep nightly several years after the end of World War II. He has a recurring dream in which temporally he’s back at Pearl Harbor and attempting to warn people of the Japanese attack.
There’s more to this famous plot, of course, but the elements are fundamental to that phrase “twilight zone.” Having said that, my sense is that if T. D. Johnston’s short stories were adapted or transmuted into teleplay scripts, with little tinkering, they would nicely fit that “twilight zone” motif. And like that television series, such plots, allegories, fables, or parables, they also reflect the moral and philosophical choices of the characters.
Johnston’s collection opens with a story titled “The Errand.” Thirty-year old Robert Canton is sent on an errand by his fiancée: go to the store and pick up some wine and a bridal magazine. It’s innocuous enough. In other words, the place is here and the time is now but what’s about to happen will become an expression of uneasiness.
Robert stares at the store’s collection of magazines which has six bride’s magazines. She wouldn’t like it one bit if he brought back the wrong one. His perplexed reverie is interrupted by someone calling his name; it’s one of his old teachers, Mr. Burris, weathered Mr. Burris. There’s a bit of shadow play between these two characters. Robert thinks Mr. Burris may be a bit senile, but the exchange between the two is more embarrassing for Robert than for Mr. Burris, who simply calls him “Bobby.”
On scale, the story is a lighter-quality twilight zone motif. No one disappears into thin air, nor does the ventriloquist’s dummy come to life. During the conversation, though, Robert is forced back into his own memory, the evening’s forthcoming dinner, his forthcoming marriage to a girl whose name he doesn’t mention. Rather, he tells Mr. Burris that she “works at First National.”
Robert’s mind goes in and out of reverie, noting his fiancée’s desire that he leave teaching and become a stock broker. His time then with old Mr. Burris is becoming awkward, or is it? The shadow play is with his compassion for Mr. Burris, and what looms ahead. The past, after all, is a tricky thing, but no more or no less than the future.
“Friday Afternoon” is the second story in the collection and the title story. To say that Bryce Stanford is “high-powered” is to introduce the reader to a character more than unlikable. Details erupt during his hurry to get back to the city for his father-in-law’s birthday party. There’s anxiety, of course, as he speeds along a North Carolina two-lane highway. The anxiety is compounded by road-rage when he comes upon a slow moving pick-up.
The result is calamitous and of course he’s culpable. When leaving the scene of this accident, Stanford drives into the “twilight zone” with all its edges and twists. Johnston’s observational powers here, however, serve both a dramatic as well as a moral function. And the reader, of course, is required to debate what he’s read. If Stanford had humbled himself, for example, he may have saved himself from the “diabolism” that carries him away and into the darkness.
It’s a fine story that owns a few modest blemishes. There’s a fine storytelling sense by the omniscient narrator that founders when the narrator personalizes and interprets or drops objectivity. Interjections such as “stuck in a two-lane nightmare behind Jed frigging Clampett” are better served in dialogue or a change in perspective, to first-person point of view. Then, too, the narrator diminishes the story with italicized interjections which are little different: “Catching his breath in deep sucks, he pondered turning around. The man might have his own party to get to. Or a broken neck. Turn around.”
One can imagine, however, Stanford bound up in his nastiness,
but the omniscient narrator has assumed a character function of his own—Stanford’s unofficial conscience complimented, one assumes, by Stanford’s official conscience printed in italics.
There are twelve stories in the volume; they demonstrate Johnston’s imaginative range and narrative ability. “A Game of Chess,” for example, the fifth story in the collection, is told through diary entries. “The First Key” and “Marco Polo” are additional stories told as dramatic monologues and interior monologues respectively.
“The Interruption of Thomas Darrow,” on the other hand, is as close to Rod Serling twilight zone material as one could wish for. The story is set in July of 1865, the day in which four convicted Lincoln co-conspirators are set to hang, including the innocent Mary Surratt. On the wall above the prison yard and facing the gallows is Thomas Darrow, a Union soldier who is also secretly a Confederate spy. He’s complicit in Lincoln’s assassination and knows Surratt is innocent. To spare her life, however, he must stop the hanging and, in effect, take her place.
Such a plot summary does the story only a little justice. The tension and irony are invoked in what one might call the “time stamp.” The condemned enter, mount the scaffold, are bound and prepared. Mary Surratt is oddly sheltered by an umbrella. The other “time stamp,” however, is the pounding pondering inside the mind of Thomas Darrow. And, as it should be, it’s emotionally draining as the minutes drag by. He’s not a mere whimpering character but his guilt quakes. He’s guilty and he could stop the madness. “It would take twenty seconds to confess. Another twenty to waive a trial. Twenty seconds. The four condemned were positioned, nooses tightened atop the long trap door. Twenty seconds. That’s all it would take. And just two, even one, to stop this madness.”
The story is in the “zone,” and it would not take much to imagine it as a teleplay with the sound of a clock ticking, growing slowly louder, the camera following Darrow’s gaze out into the prison yard, and then his anguished face and equally anguished interior monologue.
The details in these stories are highly original but generally within the motifs one would find in the “Twilight Zone,” its edges and twists. The effect is a dark and hostile world which makes insecurity one of the norms of life. Characters reel around in confusion, groping for their bearings only to find those bearings elusive.
Nerves are frayed, especially the reader’s.