by Charles Bey
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”
By Hemingway’s memorable definition, Rod Serling was an extraordinary writer. If readers are looking for truth in their literature, they want it in sharper focus than real life provides. There is something meaningful to contemplate in the clause “truer than if they had really happened.” When we read, we aren’t looking for what we can see out the window or on the street; we’re seeking color and clarity that furnish a realism beyond reality. In this sense, writing is like photography. When we take a picture, we’re hoping to capture more than we see through the lens. This is why when writing attains a certain level of excellence, it has the capability of being—to borrow Mr. Serling’s story title—a most unusual camera. It captures more than everything.
Why have audiences continued to enjoy and respect Shakespeare so many centuries beyond his life? Isn’t it because under all the elevated language and flamboyant plot designs we see ourselves? Whether the stage is populated by Hamlet or Helena, Romeo or Rosalind, we’re engaged because we recognize elements of the human nature that we possess. And these characters allow us to study these elements from a safe distance.
In literature classes, it’s often called universality—the trait that gives the reader something with which he or she can identify. We crave snapshots of life, but not the life we see every day. We need the added touches, the special tints and hues, the literary magic that delivers something truer than truth. As Shakespeare gave us this in abundance, so did Serling.
The only difference between the two is that the Bard studied life from the perspective of the Renaissance, that period following the restrictive Middle Ages. Serling depicted life in the post-atomic Twentieth Century, that era succeeding the innocence of big band music floating on the cool air of summer nights. Just as Shakespeare had done, Serling showed us the hopes and anxieties, the wistfulness of the human heart. He sharpened the focus to allow his contemporaries to see themselves and their time with a unique clarity, and in doing so he built a frame of reference by which subsequent generations can see themselves, a perspective for all times. “For civilization to continue, the human race has to remain civilized.” Such observations are not bound by any calendar or historical marker.
From Patterns through Night Gallery, Rod Serling insightfully chronicled the key points of the human condition. But we need only use his most famous creation, The Twilight Zone, to show the brilliant universality of his writing. A common declaration of this age is “There’s an app for that,” meaning that there is presumed to be an app for just about everything. But it’s even truer to say that there’s a Twilight Zone episode for that, no matter the subject.
Death is eloquently explored in “One for the Angels,” in which Serling-regular Ed Wynn plays a salesman who must talk his way out of nirvana. Although “The Monsters are due on Maple Street” is a textbook study of human nature, we are faced with ourselves just as starkly in “People are alike all over” and “The Shelter.”
Each of these tales depicts the thinness of the wall separating order from chaos, tolerance from bigotry. The longing for a more gentle past is the heart of “Walking Distance,” introducing us to one Martin Sloan, a successful New York ad man who wants to go back though all the summer of his life to find the one in which he was eleven.
The Westward expansion is paid tribute in “One Hundred Yards over the Rim” when a pioneer family actually reaps a benefit from the world their bravery made possible. “A World of his Own” is a seminar on writing as playwright Gregory West creates the people around him from scratch. A study of the holocaust might be considered incomplete without a viewing of “Death’s Head Revisited.” Former SS Captain Gunther Lutze has escaped from the allies but fails to evade The Twilight Zone.
Whether the topic is the bomb, Parenting (“It’d as Good Life”), education (“Changing of the Guard”), tyranny (“The Obsolete Man”), space exploration (“The Parallel”), artificial intelligence (In His Image”) , climate change(“The Midnight Sun”) or even Christmas (“Night of the Meek”), there’s a Twilight Zone for that. The same goes for geriatrics (“the Trade-Ins”), retribution (“The Masks”), and espionage (“The Jeopardy Room”).
Of course the Serling canon extends well beyond The Twilight Zone, and always there is the sense of energy, the intensity of the search. Whether speaking into the tape recorder microphone or manning the typewriter keys, Serling consistently captured vivid pictures of the multi-ringed circus we call life. Fulfilling Hemingway’s definition of a writer, Serling did better than capture; his literary pictures interpreted the realities he depicted as well. Superlative writing is indeed a most unusual camera, and Rod Serling was a most unusually gifted photographer.