The Group: Bradbury, Matheson, Beaumont, Nolan
Horror at Midcentury
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
In the 1940s and 1950s, a remarkable group of writers, mostly based in California, effected a revolution in supernatural and non-supernatural horror literature as dramatic as that engendered by H. P. Lovecraft and his compatriots a generation earlier. This group—called, blandly enough, “The Group,” and consisting chiefly of Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and William F. Nolan, with other, lesser figures such as George Clayton Johnson and John Tomerlin, several of whom, to our great good fortune, are still with us—all worked seamlessly in the genres of supernatural horror, crime/suspense, science fiction, and fantasy. In some senses this genre-switching and genre-blending was a result of market forces: the demise of the pulp magazines (Weird Tales finally collapsed in 1954 after thirty-one years of existence) and the emergence of the digest-sized science fiction magazines (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy, and many others) created a sudden absence of a market for pure supernaturalism and a need to present weird fiction in the guise of science fiction or psychological suspense. The end result was that these writers, all acquainted with one another and often exchanging ideas dynamically, fostered a modernisation of the supernatural by appeal to science as well as by an appeal to the mundanities of contemporary life in America, with the result that much of their work features a social criticism of the increasing blandness and conformism of their time.
Chronologically speaking, Ray Bradbury (b. 1920) should probably be regarded as the pioneer in the midcentury shift of supernatural horror from the flamboyant cosmicism of Lovecraft and his colleagues to the mundane social realism that in some ways continues to dominate the field today. Bradbury’s letter to the editor in the November 1939 issue of Weird Tales briefly praises Lovecraft’s “Cool Air,” and he retained a lifelong devotion to the exotic prose-poetry of Clark Ashton Smith’s fantastic tales; but his own work, while being richly prose-poetic in its own way and deftly fusing fantasy, supernatural horror, psychological horror, and a delicate character portrayal not often found in weird fiction, is as different from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos or Smith’s tales of Zothique and Hyberborea as any literature could well be.
And yet, Bradbury’s devotion to the pulps compelled him to publish much of his early weird work in Weird Tales and its rivals, beginning in 1942, and these tales were quickly noticed by August Derleth, who was always on the lookout for promising new work to publish with Arkham House. His identification of Bradbury’s talent is one of his most astute observations, and his publishing of Bradbury’s first volume, Dark Carnival (1947), is a landmark both for its author and for its publisher. That single volume—or, perhaps more accurately, the extensive revision and reordering of that volume in the later collection The October Country (1955)—could be said to have all but single-handedly initiated a new and vibrant trend in weird fiction.
What distinguishes Bradbury’s work from that of many of his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors—aside from the sheer inventiveness of his imagination and his immense gifts of language and story construction—is his uncanny ability to construct weird scenarios that serve as powerful symbols or metaphors for central human concerns. Perhaps the most obvious—but nonetheless effective—instance of this trait is the somewhat later story “The Dwarf” (Fantastic, January—February 1954), which utilises Bradbury’s patented carnival setting. Here the dwarf of the title is obviously a stand-in for Bradbury himself, as he writes pulp detective stories (Bradbury wrote extensively for the detective pulps as well as for the weird and science fiction pulps). Ralph, the operator of the hall of mirrors at the carnival, switches mirrors so that the dwarf looks, not bigger, but even smaller than his actual dimensions: a more transparent symbol could scarcely be sought for Bradbury’s own insecurity as he was transitioning from a pulpsmith to the greater stature he sought as a mainstream writer.
Several other stories deftly probe abnormal psychological states in either a supernatural or non-supernatural manner. Of the former sort is the chilling tale “Skeleton” (Weird Tales, September 1945), in which a man develops a shuddering horror of his own skeleton: “A skeleton. One of those jointed, snowy, hard things, one of those foul, dry, brittle, gouge-eyed, skull-faced, shake-fingered, rattling things that sway from neck-chains in abandoned webbed closets, one of those things found on the desert all long and scattered like dice!” (OC 68). As a result of this bizarre affliction, he loses weight—whereupon he thinks that his skeleton is trying to starve him. The supernatural element here is a bit adventitious—a strange physician, Dr. Munigaut, removes the man’s skeleton, rendering him a jellyfish-like creature—but the psychological analysis remains acute. A purely psychological horror tale is “The Next in Line” (first published in Dark Carnival), in which a woman visiting a remote Mexican town becomes terrified by thoughts of mortality—especially when she learns that the town digs up graves if the survivors do not continue to pay a fee for their maintenance. This story achieves an acme of physical horror at the thought of death and its aftermath.
Other stories continue the exploration of abnormal psychology. “The Wind” (Collier’s, 5 August 1950) tells of a man who thinks the wind is after him: he is under the impression that it absorbs the intelligence of those it kills, thereby growing increasingly more powerful and dangerous. In a clever supernatural twist, the man hears the laughter of a friend outside—but no friend is there… . Also effective is “The Night” (Weird Tales, July 1946), in which a boy’s terror of a ravine at night metamorphoses into a general terror of human loneliness. (It becomes evident that August Derleth borrowed heavily from this tale in “The Lonesome Place.”) “Fever Dream” (Weird Tales, September 1948) also seems on the surface a tale of psychological horror—a boy suffering from scarlet fever thinks that his hands have been taken over by the fever, to such a degree that at one point he tries to choke himself—but features a clever supernatural twist at the end.
Bradbury quickly developed a remarkable insight into human character and motivation, and also the skill to adopt weird quasi-supernatural scenarios to express it. Consider “The Jar” (Weird Tales, November 1944), an unforgettable etching of the dreary hopelessness of rustic life. A man named Charly buys from a carny a jar containing what appears to be some strange entity preserved in formaldehyde. He becomes the talk of his wretched community with the possession of this grisly object, even though the carny later admits to his wife that the object is a fake. Refusing to believe it, Charly kills his wife and places her head in the jar. There is an unparalleled poignancy in Bradbury’s depiction of a man who has nothing in his life except the attraction of what might or might not be in a jar. “The Lake” (Weird Tales, May 1944) is also extraordinary poignant in depicting a man’s remembrance of his adolescent relationship with a twelve-year-old girl who had drowned. Does she come back from the dead to finish a sand castle the two of them had begun decades ago? We never learn the answer to that question, but the portrayal of bittersweet young love has never been bettered.
Bradbury’s later work has perhaps justly been criticised as at times maudlin and sentimental, but early in his career he could produce tales of remarkable grimness, even of bitter cynicism. Probably the chief among them is “The Small Assassin” (Dime Mystery, November 1946), which was, incredibly, actually submitted to Good Housekeeping but was rejected because the editors rightly maintained that it would prove offensive to young mothers! This immortal tale of a young couple who come to believe that their own new-born baby is trying to murder them is a flawless instance of the kind of “mundane horror”—horror emerging from the seemingly bland events of ordinary life—that Bradbury and other members of The Group championed. As David Leiber, the father of the child, states to a physician:
“But suppose one child in a billion is—strange? Born perfectly aware, able to think, instinctively. Wouldn’t it be a perfect setup, a perfect blind for anything the baby might want to do? He could pretend to be ordinary, weak, crying, ignorant. With just a little expenditure of energy he could drawl about a darkened house, listening. And how easy to place obstacles at the top of stairs. How easy to cry all night and tire a mother into pneumonia. How easy, right at birth, to be so close to the mother that a few deft maneuvers might cause peritonitis!” (OC 141)
The story progresses with enormous skill from psychological horror—at the outset we are led to believe that the baby’s mother is merely a victim of post-partum depression—to actual supernaturalism.
Just as grim in a different way is “The Crowd” (Weird Tales, May 1943), in which a man comes to realise that the crowwd that gathers at car accidents and other disasters consists, in many cases, of the same people—and the crowning horror is his awareness that they are in fact dead. Bradbury is somewhat less successful at humorous treatments of the supernatural, as in “There Was an Old Woman” (Weird Tales, July 1944), in which a woman refuses to believe that she is a ghost. “The Man Upstairs” (Harper’s, March 1947) is a half-comic vampire tale of no great distinction.
Bradbury quickly achieved enormous celebrity as a science fiction writer with the publication, in rapid succession, of The Martian Chronicles (1950), The Illustrated Man (1951), and Fahrenheit 451 (1953). A number of the stories of this period powerfully fuse horror and science fiction. Perhaps the best of them is “The Fog Horn” (Saturday Evening Post, 23 June 1951), the basis for the film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). This story of a lighthouse keeper who comes upon the last surviving prehistoric creature who thinks that the lighthouse’s foghorn may be the call of its long-lost mate is inexpressibly touching:
“All year long, Johnny, that poor monster there lying far out, a thousand miles at sea, and twenty miles deep maybe, biding its time, perhaps it’s a million years old, this one creature. Think of it, waiting a million years; could you wait that long? Maybe it’s the last of its kind. I sort of think that’s true. Anyway, here come men on land and build this lighthouse, five years ago. And set up their Fog Horn and sound it and sound it, out toward the place where you bury yourself in sleep and sea memories of a world where there were thousands like yourself, but now you’re alone, all alone in a world not made for you, a world where you have to hide.” (Stories 269)
“The Veldt” (Saturday Evening Post, 23 September 1950; in The Illustrated Man) is powerful but somewhat less successful. The story broaches the notion of virtual reality: in the future, homes are now equipped with walls featuring moving images that display landscapes triggered by the thoughts of the children occupying them. In this case, the children repeatedly think of an African veldt with dangerous lions in the background. Later, the children lock their parents into the room, where they are killed—not by the lions coming to life, but by the parents somehow entering the image of the veldt on the wall. Ingenious as this idea is, the plausibility of the conception leaves something to be desired; and the general symbolism of the tale—a satire on permissive parents and unruly children—seems a trifle mundane. More purely science fictional, but perhaps among the most chilling stories in Bradbury’s entire oeuvre, is the brief and celebrated “There Will Come Soft Rains” (Collier’s, 6 May 1950), an imperishable depiction of a house that continues to operate automatically after what appears to have been a nuclear holocaust.
Of Bradbury’s novels, only Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) needs to be considered here. In a sense it is a successor to Dandelion Wine (1958), a fix-up novel that somewhat clumsily stitched together a number of Bradbury’s short stories into an affecting depiction of the nostalgia of summer as seen through the eyes of a small-town boy. Bradbury, whose understanding of the psychology of adolescent boyhood is perhaps unmatched in literature, and whose ability to evoke the aching nostalgia of long-lost childhood is also second to none, brings both qualities to the fore in a novel of genuine terror. Something Wicked takes place in Green Town, a transparent metaphor for the town of Waukegan, Illinois, where Bradbury spent his own boyhood.
Somethiung Wicked focuses on two teenage boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, the latter born on Halloween and the former the day before Halloween. In the week before their birthdays, a carnival—Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium shadow Show—comes to town. One senses at once that something is awry: carnivals never come to the town after Labor Day; the carnival arrives on a train at 3 A.M.; as it progresses, a calliope is playing—but no player is visible. Further bizarre manifestations occur, the most notable of which is the remarkable power of the merry-go-round or carousel to increase or decrease one’s age depending on whether it goes forward or backward. (This idea was derived from the earlier short story “The Black Ferris” [Weird Tales, May 1948].) Mr. Cooger rides the carousel eighty or ninety times, with the result that he is hideously aged:
The eyes were mummified shut. The nose was collapsed upon gristle. The mouth was a ruined white flower, the petals twisted into a thin wax sheath over the clenched teeth through which faint bubblings sighed. The man was small inside his clothes, small as a child, but tall, strung out, and old, so old, very old, not ninety, not one hundred, no, not one hundred and ten, but one hundred and twenty or one hundred and thirty impossible years old. (75—76)
But these horrific scenes are only the surface phenomena of the much deeper purpose of the carnival. As Will’s father explains:
“All the meannesses we harbor, they borrow in redoubled spades. They’re a billion times itchier for pain, sorrow, and sickness than the average man. We salt our lives with other people’s sins. Our flesh to us tastes sweet. But the carnival doesn’t care if it stinks by moonlight instead of sun, so long as it gorges on fear and pain. That’s the fuel, the vapor that spins the carousel, the raw stuffs of terror, the excruciating agony of guilt, the scream from ral or imagined wounds. The carnival sucks that gas, ignites it, and chugs along its way.” (148—49)
What Something Wicked This Way Comes is really about is the ability to resist those desires that we know to be impossible (such as the desire of Miss Foley, the teacher, to regain her lost youth) or self-destructive. It is also about boyhood, the bonds of young friendship (“Oh, Jim, Jim … we’ll be pals forever” , Will says at the end), and the developing relations between father and son. It is at once the culmination of Bradbury’s utilisation of the carnival motif—a motif that fuses light-hearted play, secretive darkness, fantasy and illusion, magic and trickery—and of his evocation of nostalgia and adolescence. It is written in perhaps an excesively self-conscious prose-poetic idiom, but its elements of terror and wistfulness have rendered it immensely influential on subsequent weird writing.
Bradbury’s ability to use weird motifs as metaphors for profound human concerns allowed him to shift easily from the pulp market to slicks like Collier’s and Saturday Evening Post, while his hugely popular works of science fiction helped to raise that genre in critical esteem and to elevate his own work to the level of an American classic. It is a bit sad to note that the best of his work had largely been written, with rare exceptions (like Something Wicked), by the late 1950s. Bradbury, more than most authors, has written far too much and has also in some senses believed his own press and become a self-consciously literary author. Little that he has written since the 1960s is of any account, but his early work has made an imperishable impression on the fields of science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural horror, and his undoubted talents will establish him as a writer close to the stature of a Lovecraft or a Poe.
Richard Matheson (b. 1926) is as different a writer as two Californians working in the same genre(s) could possibly be. Deliberately eschewing the prose-poetry of Bradbury, Matheson developed a flat, mundane, Hemingwayesque style that is frequently effective in conveying the subtle incursion of the bizarre into the ordinary lives of ordinary Americans; but on occasion this excessive spareness renders his conceptions difficult to swallow. Although Matheson did publish two stories in Weird Tales, they are not among his most distinguished, and he did his best work in the weird/supernatural vein in stories published chiefly in the burgeoning digest-size science fiction magazines of the period. Matheson also wrote a considerable amount of non-supernatural or psychological suspense work, some of which borders on the weird.
Matheson’s work offers definitive proof, as if it were needed by now, that the heritage of both supernatural literature and horror film was casting a pronounced influence upon the literature of this and subsequent periods. Several of his earlier stories are conscious riffs on prior work in the field. “Blood Son” (1951), about a boy who wants to be a vampire, contains patent references to both the novel and the film Dracula. “Lover When You’re Near Me” (1952) is a science fiction story based on the premise of Robert Hichens’s “How Love Came to Professor Guildea.” Even the late story “Button, Button” (1970) is a variant of “The Monkey’s Paw,” and one wonders whether Matheson is even aware of the borrowing.
In other stories, Matheson fashions deliberate take-offs of well-known supernatural motifs, as in the well-known “Witch War” (1951), where the poltergeist abilities of young girls are harnessed to fight wars. His two Weird Tales stories may be of this sort: “Slaughter House” (July 1953) is a rather tiresome account of a revenant, written in a poor “Victorian” style (as Matheson himself has labelled it [CS 2.48]) that is ill-suited to his talents; “Wet Straw” (January 1953) is a routine story of supernatural revenge.
Several of Matheson’s best stories are interesting fusions of psychological and supernatural horror, at times lapsing into science fiction. One of the most powerful of his early tales is “Mad House” (1953), in which a man, Chris Neal, seems constantly enraged at life and feels that the inanimate objects in his house are conspiring against him. A physician, influenced by Charles Fort, believes that Chris’s anger is itself causing these bizarre events and that it may kill him without the presence of his wife, Sally, who is “acting as an abortive factor” (CS 1.194). When she leaves, the objects in the house become actually animate and induce Chris to kill himself with a razor. Somewhat similar, but resolving itself non-supernaturally, is “Legion of Plotters” (1953), in which a man believes there is a conspiracy on the part of the rest of humanity to drive him insane by constantly irritating him, to the point that he finally snaps and stabs a man on a bus who had been sniffing loudly.
Matheson is at his most effective in establishing mundane scenarios that veer off into the bizarre. Consider “The Curious Child” (1954), in which a man finds that he does not know where he lives or works, and finally ends by not even remembering his own name. An unconvincing science fiction conclusion dealing with time travel does not mar the nightmarishly unnerving quality of the overall narrative. Similar is “The Edge” (1958), where a man named Arthur Nolan recognises Don Marshall as an old friend, although Don does not know who he is; Arthur then goes home and finds that his own wife fails to recognise him. In stories of this type Matheson is again able to present effective non-supernatural variants: “The Children of Noah” (1957) deals with a traveller stopped for speeding in a small town in Maine and, after repeated humiliations that lead him to be kept in jail overnight, discovers that the townspeople are going to eat him. In “The Distributor” (1958) a man moves into a placid suburban neighbourhood and by simple acts sows discord among his neighbours. Matheson wrote in a note on the story that “that’s what true evil would be like. It’s not monsters and devils and all that. It’s what happens every day in your own neighborhood” (CS 2.444). “Prey” (1969) is another nightmarish story of a Zuni fetish doll that comes to life in a woman’s apartment.
Matheson is also clever at incorporating humanity’s inveterate fear and unease at new technologies. In this sense, “Long Distance Call” (1953) is a prototypical story. An elderly woman, Elva Keene, finds that her phone is constantly ringing, but no one responds when she answers. In later calls, a man does respond, but he evidently cannot hear Miss Keene’s increasingly frantic words. The story contains a clever double twist: it is not merely that, as the operator discovers, the phone calls are coming from the cemetery; it is that, in the final call that concludes the story, the man states ominously, “Hello, Miss Elva. I’ll be right over” (CS 1.399). The celebrated “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (1962) should be discussed in this context. This well-known story of a man on a plane who believes—rightly, as it happens—that a gremlin is seeking to bring the plane down is really a parable about the advance of technology beyond the powers of human beings to absorb it, and the concomitant feelings of helplessness it engenders.
Several of Matheson’s stories, however, suffer from his mundane prose and from implausible scenarios. In “Disappearing Act” (1953) the tokens of a man’s identity disappear one by one, but the narrative is unconvincing. “Old Haunts” (1957) could have been a poignant story about a man who revisits his college and comes upon younger versions of himself; but Matheson’s mechanical prose fails to engender the nostalgia inherent in the plot—something that Bradbury or even Rod Serling could and did engender in analogous tales. “Crickets” (1960) tells of a man who thinks that crickets are sending out messages from the dead, but the story is marred by insufficient development.
A number of Matheson’s later tales show his increasing interest in the occult. Several deal with second sight or precognition. In “The Holiday Man” (1957) a man is able to predict how many people are going to die on a given holiday. Similarly, “Girl of My Dreams” (1963) tells of a woman who is a “sensitive” and has visions of the future. Her husband uses her skills as blackmail, until she takes pity on a woman whose son is going to die and warns her, whereupon her husband kills her. This story is yet another victim of the determinism paradox, something we shall find in a more celebrated work of weird fiction written several decades later: If the woman had seen the vision of the boy’s dying, no act on her or anyone else’s part could have deflected that result—or, rather, all actions seeking to deflect that result would have led inexorably to it; if, as a result of anyone’s actions, the boy did not in fact die, the woman could not have seen the vision in the first place. In “Mute” (1962), a boy is raised by a family that does not teach him to speak, as the parents are conducting an experiment to see if he develops telepathic powers—which he does. After the parents die, his foster-parents do teach him to speak; he loses his powers but gains the familial love that has been missing from his life.
We have seen that Matheson frequently fuses supernatural and science fiction scenarios; in his tales he is not always successful, but in one novel, at least, he has produced a noteworthy contribution: I Am Legend (1954). The plot of this work—about Robert Neville, who fears that he may be the last man on earth who has not turned into a vampire—need not be rehearsed. The critical issue is the manner in which Matheson renders this conception plausibly. We are evidently to understand that a virus carried by dust storms has rendered everyone but Neville a vampire; he alone is “immune to their infection” (53), because he was once bitten by a vampire bat and derived some kind of immunity in that fashion (132—33). How convincing this is can be a matter of debate; at any rate, in classic science fiction fashion, Neville spends much time at the Los Angeles Public Library looking for a “rational answer to the problem” (66) and even learning enough chemistry to identify the bacterium in a vampire’s blood.
A good part of the early sections of the novel, depicting a world that is devastated and all but deserted as a result of the curious virus, reads like M. P. Shiel’s novel The Purple Cloud (1901/1929), and I would not be surprised if Matheson were consciously influenced by it: it had been reprinted in paperback in 1946 and had appeared in an abridged version in the June 1949 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries. But the novel develops both originality and poignancy by the appearance, first, of a living dog, whom Neville spends weeks trying to catch and domesticate before it finally dies, and then of a woman named Ruth, who appears to be uninfected, although she reacts poorly to garlic. The complex interplay between the two is the emotional centre of the novel: Neville, by this time so unused to human interaction that he occasionally lapses into boorishness or even cruelty, desperately hopes that Ruth is who she says she is, and even envisions reconstituting the human race in the manner of Adam and Eve. But she is in fact a member of a small band of infected humans who have learned to survive in daylight for short periods of time, and it is this group that will establish a new society. Neville is caught, and Ruth urges him to take pills and commit suicide before he is executed. He does so, and his concluding reflections on being the last true human being on earth reach a level of poignancy and majesty that is rare in Matheson’s work.
Matheson’s interest in the occult is exhibited in the later novel A Stir of Echoes (1958), in which a man’s psychic powers reveal the dark secrets lurking behind the lives of his seemingly normal neighbours, and in the very poor Hell House (1971), an unwitting caricature of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959). By this time Matheson had virtually abandoned the writing of short stories, and his later work tends to be almost exclusively in the realms of fantasy or science fiction.
Another work that cleverly melds supernatural and science fiction motifs is The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney (1911—1995), first published serially in Collier’s (26 November—24 December 1954) before appearing in book form in 1955. Set in the imaginary town of Santa Mira, California (the revised version of 1978 is set in the actual town of Mill Valley), the novel revolves around Dr. Miles Bennell, who finds that a number of his patients have come to believe that intimate members of their family are in some vague way impostors. It turns out that these individuals are in fact impostors—aliens who have come through space as pods and are able to replicate both the physical and the mental aspects of the inhabitants of whatever planet they come upon; this happens when the original inhabitants are asleep, whereupon they are reduced to a grey dust.
It has often been believed that the novel is an exhibition of Cold War paranoia and the dangers of communist spies lurking in the midst of ordinary American life; but there is very little sociopolitical commentary or implication in the novel that would lend support to such an interpretation, and it is more likely that the work is merely a rumination on the nature of humanity. The aliens lack emotions, and they cannot reproduce, so that they will be dead in five years. It is this that Miles emphasises to one of the aliens, remarking that “There’s no real joy, fear, hope, or excitement in you, not any more. You live in the same kind of grayness as the filthy stuff that formed you” (183).
The popularity of both I Am Legend and The Body Snatchers is indicated by the numerous film adaptations of both: the first has been adapted three times (1964, 1971, 2007), the latter four times (1956, 1978, 1993, 2007).
Matheson and Charles Beaumont (1929—1967) were two of the most prolific writers of teleplays for Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” but he also wrote a substantial amount of short fiction as well as the non-weird novel The Intruder (1959), about race relations in Missouri. Beaumont’s work is characterised by highly penetrating analyses of character, a prose style of muted lyricism, and some powerful weird conceptions that simultaneously draw upon the heritage of supernatural literature and shine a pungent light on the social and psychological angst of the period. During his tragically shortened lifetime—he was afflicted, apparently, with a radical form of early-onset Alzheimer’s, the evident result of consuming immense quantities of Bromo-Seltzer to relieve his crippling headaches—he produced a bountiful array of literary work, including screenplays and teleplays; but his stories were gathered in only three original collections, The Hunger and Other Stories (1958), Yonder (1958), and Night Ride and Other Journeys (1960), of which the second is almost entirely devoted to science fiction.
Relatively little of Beaumont’s work is overtly supernatural, but one of these, “The Vanishing American” (1955), may be his most striking and socially relevant narrative. This plangent tale of an average office worker who gradually disappears from view is perfectly emblematic of the intellectually and aesthetically stultifying life engendered by the corporate America of the 1950s. The fact that the protagonist, Mr. Minchell, cannot see himself in a mirror evokes the similar invisibility of vampires in mirrors, but to a very different purpose. The tale ends happily, however, when Minchell throws off his staid conventionality by riding one of the stone lions guarding the New York Public Library—an act of imaginative independence that allows him to be seen by others once again.
Beaumont’s other notable supernatural tale is “The Howling Man” (1960), in which a traveller, taking refuge in a German monastery, hears the appalling cries of a howling man in a cell and is soberly informed by the abbot that it is the devil. The traveller refuses to believe the abbot and sets the man free. He of course turns out to be the devil. As a tale contrasting ancient belief and modern scepticism, the tale is moderately successful, but the general implausibility of the overall narrative weakens its effect; and a happy ending—the devil is, in some unexplained fashion, once more caught at the end of the story—doesn’t help.
Then there is “Black Country” (1954), an astonishing narrative that, in the manner of a jazz composition, portrays the apparent possession of a white musician’s body by the spirit of his black mentor. Less successful is “Free Dirt” (1955), a predictable tale in which a miser who gets free dirt from a cemetery is later buried in it.
Beaumont’s best work is in the realm of psychological suspense, where his skill at character portrayal and his acuity in the analysis of aberrent mentalities is on display. “Miss Gentilbelle” (1958) tells the seemingly simple narrative of a woman who has had an illegitimate child and, out of shame, forces the boy to think of himself as a girl; in vengeance, he later kills her. But this summary cannot begin to convey the grim effectiveness of Beaumont’s depiction of the crippling effect of the mother’s vicious treatment of her own son. The same could be said for “The Hunger” (1955), in which a woman, out of loneliness, deliberately puts herself in the path of a rapist-murderer.
Some of Beaumont’s stories are less than successful, perhaps because the satire that he wishes to direct at some of his figures is not as subtle as it could be. “Open House” (1957) tells of a man who has just murdered his wife in the bathroom but is forced to receive two friends who have arrived at his doorstep; later he feels compelled to kill them also, whereupon more friends arrive. Then there is the long and intricate narrative “The New People” (1958), in which a couple settling in a house whose previous owner had committed suicide find increasing suggestions that their neighbours are all involved in various criminal or antisocial activities culminating in a black mass. The tale proves to be highly contrived, in that Beaumont must convince us (unsuccessfully) that the young wife of the new couple is still a virgin, simply so that she can then be suitably sacrificed in the neighbours’ black mass. Another story, “The Crooked Man” (1955), is disturbing for a different reason: this science fiction tale about a future society in which heterosexuality is now regarded as aberrant suggests a strain of homophobia on Beaumont’s part.
“Perchance to Dream” (1958) is a remarkable fusion of psychological and supernatural horror and in some senses could be regarded as the pinnacle of Beaumont’s—and The Group’s—blending of genres. A man sees a psychiatrist because, as he maintains, his dreams are taking on a hideous kind of reality. The story culminates in the man’s jumping out the window—but in fact the entire narrative has been a dream, and the man is found dead of a heart attack.
Some note should be taken of the work of William F. Nolan (b. 1928). In some senses his work is less spectacular than that of his friends and colleagues in The Group, and in many ways he is of greatest interest as a critic, biographer, and bibliographer of their work. Nolan compiled the first anthology of essays on Bradbury, the slim Ray Bradbury Review (1952), and he also wrote the later Ray Bradbury Companion (1975); his monograph on Beaumont, The Work of Charles Beaumont (1990), is an important reference work. Although best known for the dystopian science fiction novel Logan’s Run (1967), cowritten with George Clayton Johnson and the basis for a celebrated film, Nolan has himself produced a substantial body of fiction in a wide array of genres, from supernatural horror to science fiction to crime/suspense to westerns.
The supernatural does not bulk large in his work, but some instances of it are of considerable merit. Perhaps the most notable is “The Party” (1967), in which a man who comes to an apartment where a party is going on discovers, perhaps to no one’s surprise, that he has entered hell. But the merit of the story is Nolan’s flawless capturing of the utterly inane and pointless conversation uttered by the various guests (“I knew a policewoman who loved to scrub down whores” ). Then there is “Dead Call” (1976), in which a dead man persuades his friend to commit suicide as he himself had done (“Life is ugly, but death is beautiful” ); his friend does so and thereby continues the cycle. Even the science fiction tale “The Underdweller” (Fantastic Universe, August 1957) has its soupçon of terror: in the future, the last man in Los Angeles (or perhaps the world) lives in tunnels, continually on the run from what appear to be aliens—but in fact he is on the run from children, since the aliens who had invaded the earth years before had killed all adults above the age of six except himself. There is perhaps an influence of Matheson’s I Am Legend on this tale, but it retains its originality because of its clever surprise ending. The retrospective collection William F. Nolan’s Dark Universe (2001) is a worthy testament to the work of a writer whose talent and longevity deserve our deepest respect.