Oh, the mild disappointment of discovering that a book you thought was amazing when you were 16 isn’t all that groundbreaking after all. This book “blew my mind” when I was a teenager and got me interested in science fiction. I loved the TV show too, but didn’t get to watch it very often because it was always on after midnight.
The stories collected here were all used to create scripts for the 1985 Twilight Zone series. The earliest was written in 1953 and the latest in 1988. In other respects it’s a limited collection because almost all of the authors are white and male. Still, with contributions from the likes of Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon and Richard Matheson, there’s a lot to like here.
Reading it for the second time, I was struck my just how many of the stories are about religion. In Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Star’, a Jesuit priest and astronomer is confronted with the discovery that the star above Bethlehem was created by a supernova that wiped out an entire civilization on another planet. In Joe Haldeman’s ‘I of Newton’ a Mathematician must trick a demon out of taking his soul. Greg Bear’s ‘Dead Run’ follows the adventures of a trucker who runs damned souls to Hell. In ‘Yesterday was Monday’, a man accidently goes behind the scenes of our reality to find that human beings are nothing more than actors in an elaborate play directed by God for the entertainment of unknown parties.
When the stories are not about religion they have a strongly moral bent. Harlan Ellison’s ‘Shatterday’ considers what might happen if a bad man’s conscience became manifest and locked him out of his apartment. The other two Ellison stories in the collection are also morality tales. William F. Wu’s ‘Wong’s Lost and Found Emporium’ is a warning against losing the things that are truly important to us. Meanwhile in ‘Button Button’ Richard Matheson addresses the old question of temptation.
I would say the best stores are Clarke’s ‘The Star’, Sturgeon’s ‘A Saucer of Loneliness’, which is lyrical and mysterious, and Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Burning Man.’ When I was 16 ‘The Burning Man’ terrified me and I’ve never forgotten it. A boy and his aunt take a trip to the beach. They pick up a hitchhiker who frightens them, so they throw him out of the car. On the way back they pick up another hitchhiker, this time a young boy; then their car breaks down and the boy in the backseat starts to repeat the man’s strange talk. I don’t know what it’s about, but it is creepy.
All in all, it’s not as awesome (and much more pulpy) than I remembered, but it’s still a strong collection which won’t be taking a trip to the charity shop anytime soon.