Our psyches are so tender, so innocently open, when we’re children that stories enchant us in primal ways they rarely can again. As a kid, I was a story addict—devouring everything from comic books (didn’t matter if it was Richie Rich, Archie, Superman or Spider-Man. I adored them all) to the legends of King Arthur (I was fixated on a knight named Sir Tristram, who, I decided, was so much cooler than that overrated bum, Sir Lancelot); John R. Tunis baseball novels (interesting, considering I was in no way a sports enthusiast) to history (I was obsessed with Remember the Alamo! by Robert Penn Warren. What boy in the 60’s, raised on TV Westerns, could resist Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie fighting, and dying, side by side?). And then there was the singular genius of Dr. Seuss: I have a clear memory of clutching my parents hands as we walked to Brooklyn’s Avenue J Library; then sitting, transfixed, in the children’s section, discovering Theodor Geisel’s absurd, illuminating universe for the first time.
All of those wonderful books impacted and influenced me (and, in the case of comic books, launched me on my career path), but some of the stories that left the deepest echoes in my young soul were stories that, for the most part, I first encountered on television:
There was The Wizard of Oz, played once a year, every year. (Can a child today, able to watch the film ad infinitum on DVD, possibly imagine the thrill of pulling a chair up close to the TV and waiting, with almost desperate anticipation, for that MGM lion to roar?) A Christmas Carol, which, every Christmas Eve in New York, would be played at least three times (on The Late Show, The Late, Late Show, and The Late, Late, Late Show. Two runs for the absolutely perfect 1951 version with Alistair Sim, with the 1938 Reginald Owen interpretation sandwiched in between. My mother would eventually shuffle off to sleep, but my father and sister always stayed up with me to watch them all). I adore Disney’s Peter Pan (the scene of Peter and the children flying over London is one of the most thrilling in screen history), but it was the Mary Martin version—which appeared on television with less frequency than Oz and so, in some ways, was even more of a special event—that first captured me. Especially the ending: The eternally-young Peter returns to London, not realizing that decades have passed, and is horrified to find Wendy ”ever so much more than twenty.” I was horrified, too—and deeply moved, in ways my young mind couldn’t really fathom, by the strange, sad tricks of Time.
Then of course there was the King of the Modern Imagination—a man who remains one of my heroes—Walt Disney: feeding me his dreams through the movie houses, certainly (the first movie I remember seeing was a re-release of Disney’s Cinderella, when I was two or three: sitting on my mother’s lap, watching those birds and mice caper across a mind-bogglingly huge screen), but far more intimately through weekly doses of Walt Disney Presents—which later became The Wonderful World of Color (made no difference to me, since we had a black and white television). The Disney story that impacted me more than any other was Pinocchio. I’m pretty sure I saw the movie—the Citizen Kane of animated films—when I was a kid, but what I remember most was a record I owned (yes, a record. Those large, disc-shaped objects that existed before CDs) which featured Jiminy Cricket himself narrating Pinoke’s story, with music and dialogue from the film. I would listen to that recording again and again and again; lost, in terror and amazement, in the belly of the great whale, Monstro.
When I finally got around to actually reading those childhood classics, my respect for the tales deepened even more. Okay, so I never actually finished Collodi’s Pinocchio—the Disney version is so perfect that it pretty much ruined me for any other interpretation—but Barrie, Dickens and Baum quickly became friends; Dickens and Baum two of the greatest friends I’ve ever had. I could write essays about all of these extraordinary tales—and, with time and luck, I will—but there’s another television-borne story I’d like to focus on here; actually a series of stories that permeated the deeps of my child-mind in wonderful—and wonderfully chilling—ways:
The Twilight Zone.
Unquestionably my favorite television show ever (the original Star Trek is a close second; but, sorry Captain Kirk, not close enough). I don’t know how many times I’ve started writing a new story and then suddenly realized that, in some way, it was done before, and better, on The Twilight Zone. Go to the movies, turn on your television, and you’ll see Rod Serling’s fingerprints everywhere. (And let’s give credit to Serling’s brilliant collaborators, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and George Clayton Johnson—as well as to the man who influenced all of them, the literary god who looms so large on my altar, Ray Bradbury.)
I have a clear and powerful memory of the first Zone episode I ever saw (I was five years old, staying up late at my Aunt’s house on a Friday night): it was called “Time Enough At Last” and if you’re a TZ aficionado you probably know that it’s the episode featuring Burgess Meredith as a bespectacled bookworm who inadvertently survives a nuclear attack and becomes the last man on Earth (or at least in New York). Meredith’s character, Mr. Henry Bemis, is miserable, lonely, despairing. On the verge of suicide he stumbles through the ruins, looks up—and sees a library: a massive, glorious library that wouldn’t look out of place in Emerald City. In the next scene, Bemis has got books, miles of books, spread out across the library steps. He’s happier than he’s ever been. “Time enough at last,” he says, ready to begin the feast. And then his glasses slip from his sweaty face, fall—and shatter. An absolutely heartbreaking ending (so much so that my daughter, who, thanks to her cultured father, has received an in-depth TZ education, refuses to watch it. Oh, she knows what the ending is, she made me tell her. But just hearing about it made her cry).
Despite the tragic ending, despite the haunting—and, at the time of broadcast, frighteningly relevant—images of post-nuclear devastation (the episode never addresses the fact that Bemis will undoubtedly die of radiation poisoning; or perhaps the broken glasses themselves are the metaphor), the image that mesmerized me was the library. Equally significant was Mr. Bemis’s extraordinary solitude. I’ve always been someone who enjoyed the universes inside his own head as much as—sometimes more than—the alleged Real World, so, even at that young age, the idea of one man absolutely alone with all the books he could ever want was tantalizing. Magical.
In a strange way I grew up to become a kind of Mr. Bemis, spending decades alone in a room with stories as my only companions. Okay, so I’m writing them, and Bemis was reading them; but, in both cases, it’s about immersing your consciousness in alternate worlds; in preferring those worlds to the bogus reality being fed to us daily by the maya-weavers at CNN. And I have to wonder: Did my impressionable young mind respond so powerfully to that episode because it was in my nature to? Or did “Time Enough At Last” somehow dictate what that nature would be? Who I would become as I grew older?
Even more significant, I think, is the world view that those collective TZ episodes created. Serling, Matheson and the rest birthed a vision of a universe that moved and had purpose. A universe that was alive: conscious and interactive. Looking back, the vision could be cynical on occasion, cruel and unfair (the fate of poor Mr. Bemis being a prime example)—but, at its best (“Walking Distance,” “A Stop At Willoughby,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “The After Hours” come immediately to mind), the Zone universe was one that responded to our deepest wishes and our soul’s needs. It offered up opportunities for redemption (often to people society viewed as beyond saving) or, when necessary, a swift, cosmic kick in the pants. Years of spiritual search have convinced me that Serling and his collaborators were right: the universe is very much alive and interactive; is in fact a reflection of our own minds and hearts and truest, deepest Selves. Every day of our lives is a journey through “a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.”
And again I wonder: Did the Zone somehow prepare me for the spiritual search that gripped my soul at a young age, perhaps even inspire it in some way? Or did I respond to those stories because, in my heart, I understood that The Twilight Zone reflected the truth of our lives far better than stories that claimed to be, excuse the expression, “realistic”? I tend to think the latter is true: When our souls are set aflame by an idea, a philosophy, a story, it’s because we’re responding to eternal truths that we already know and believe—even if they might seem (to our conscious minds) blazingly, brilliantly, new. Our deepest wisdom, our deepest joy, is already there, like a long-buried memory, inside us, just waiting to be reawakened.
At five years old, up past my bedtime, bathing in the television’s blue glow, Rod Serling’s universe wasn’t alien to me: I recognized it. I was home. So you could say I was born a citizen of The Twilight Zone. For that matter, I was born a citizen of Oz and Neverland, Dickens’s London and The Magic Kingdom. All these stories continue to echo through my consciousness and influence my work, and my life, in strange, miraculous ways I still don’t completely understand.
©copyright 2015 J.M. DeMatteis