This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Charles Beaumont (1929 – 1967) was a prolific American author who established himself as a script writer in Hollywood and died of a brain disorder at the tragically young age of thirty-eight. In addition to his macabre short stories, he wrote several Twilight Zone episodes, but also penned the screenplays for cult films like 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, The Intruder, and The Masque of the Red Death. The classic story reprinted in The Weird, “The Howling Man” (1959), was adapted as a screenplay for Twilight Zone. In the episode, a reference to a cross was changed to “staff of truth,” out of fear of a backlash from Christian preachers. In its approach, the story oddly evokes Decadent-era writing and spotlights Beaumont’s stylistic prowess. And, as argued by our newest 101 Weird Writers contributor, Kat Clay, “The Howling Man” provides a provocative look at the nature of evil.
– Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”
Forget shagging backpackers and pot smoking fogies, the Abbey of St. Wulfran’s is quite possibly the worst literary hostel in the world. Set in a picturesque German valley, the Abbey boasts dirty floors, straw beds and eccentric monks who refuse to answer your most basic questions. Stay for long enough and you might hear the howls of the Abbey’s longest residing guest…
In Charles Beaumont’s “The Howling Man”, a Bostonian named David Ellington bicycles his way across Europe during the inter-war period. In Germany he falls ill and is taken to a monastery where a “howling man” is locked in a prison. While the monks tell him not to release the man because he is the Devil, the man cries that it is only because of his sexual transgressions that he has been imprisoned. The young man is faced with a crisis of conscience; does he release him or do nothing, which would surely mean the man’s death?
“The Howling Man” is an effort to come to terms with the individual’s role in releasing evil into the world, using weird elements to explain the rise of Hitler in Europe. Beaumont, an existential Christian, plots a thinly veiled allegory of the Christian account of creation, where sin enters the world due to the temptation of man by the devil. Ellington’s desire for the knowledge of good and evil is his downfall; in doing a perceived good he brings evil into the world. It is a perfect illustration of the adage that the “road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
Beaumont sets up the allegory by establishing pre-war Germany as Eden. His casual account of bicycling through Belgium and Germany draws the reader in like a travelogue. It’s almost pleasant: “The Germany of that time was a land of valleys and mountains and swift dark rivers, a green and fertile land where everything grew tall and straight out of the earth.”
The story is permeated by a sense of nostalgia for the pre-World War Two Germany. Beaumont begins the story by referring to “The Germany of that time,” and he later writes, “I feel it’s quite important to remember how completely Paradisical [sic] the land was then.” Beaumont equates pre-war Germany with a fairy tale paradise; he refers to his crossing of the Belgium-German border as moving through an “invisible door, into a kingdom of winds and light”. Yet post-war Germany will never return to that beauty; like Eden, the garden has been spoiled by sin.
Why did Beaumont choose historical Germany for his setting and not a futuristic world like many of his other stories? Was it to make a very clear point about his opinions on World War Two? It’s difficult to speculate where Beaumont developed his pacifist ideals. During the war years Beaumont was a bedridden teenager with spinal meningitis and he spent this time discovering science fiction. Despite having a clearly anti-war agenda in his stories, he enlisted in the army in 1947, but was discharged after three months for medical reasons. Science-fiction and war became inseparable for Beaumont. “The Beautiful People” opens with a young woman watching television in a waiting room:
Mary sat quietly and watched the handsome man’s legs blown off; watched further as the great ship began to crumple and break into small pieces in the middle of the blazing night. She fidgeted slightly as the men and the parts of the men came floating dreamily through the wreckage out into the awful silence. And when the meteorite shower came upon the men, gouging holes through everything, tearing flesh and ripping bones, Mary closed her eyes.
In “Elegy,” a group of desperate spacemen seeks refuge in a galactic cemetery, only to be refused by the groundskeeper on the basis of their violence and prejudice.
When from the moment of your departure you had wars of your own, and killed, and hurled mocking prejudice against a race of people not like you, a race who rejected and cast you out into space again!
It’s not surprising then that Beaumont’s twist is that the released “man” becomes Hitler.
When the pictures of the carpenter from Braunau-am-Inn began to appear in all the papers, I grew uneasy; for I felt I’d seen this man before. When the carpenter invaded Poland, I was sure. And when the world was plunged into war and cities had their entrails blown asunder and that pleasant land I’d visited became a place of hate and death, I dreamed each night.
Hitler is the embodiment of the Devil, the serpent that tempts David Ellington to release him into the world.
“The Howling Man” is not the only weird story to attribute the Nazis’ power to supernatural forces; more recent incarnations include Raiders of the Lost Ark and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics. It would be easier to blame Hitler’s actions on a supernatural, demonic power, because explanations of his behavior would then be beyond human comprehension. Sadly, Hitler was but a man, indicative of the extreme depths of human perversion, the horrors that only man is capable of.
While there are no women in the story, except for the reminiscences of the Abbot, sexual transgression becomes a metaphor for Eve. Although the original Creation story does not explicitly reference sex as a temptation, countless historical reinterpretations have associated Eve with the femme fatale and temptress archetypes.
“The Howling Man” was written for Rogue, and many of Beaumont’s short stories were published in men’s magazines such as Playboy and Esquire. His short stories often contain underlying sexual themes. Yet Beaumont seems to be advocating Christian morals in a pornographic magazine. Is Beaumont preaching? Or was he simply approaching the available markets at the time for science fiction and horror?
In “The Howling Man” the narrator dreams of bagnios filled with Islamic virgins (houris). It’s not clear which definition of bagnio Beaumont meant; it could either be a bathhouse, prison or brothel, but either way it sounds like an exotic fantasy.
It is Ellington’s erotic desires that lead him to Paris and straight to the red light district of the Rue Pigalle. He only lasts a month before his health wanes and he decides that the celibate solitude of riding a bicycle across Europe is the antidote for any sexually (or otherwise) induced illnesses.
Sexual transgressions are the reason that the locked up man gives for his imprisonment:
I was in the village, lying with my woman, when their crazy Abbot burst into the house and hit me with his heavy cross… I have sinned but who has not? With my woman, quietly, alone with my woman, my love.
It is his own experiences with sex that make Ellington empathize with the imprisoned man and not the monks. The Abbot is aware of Ellington’s beliefs and elaborates on what outsiders often think of the clergy. “Monks are misfits, neurotics, sexual frustrates and aberrants. They retreat from the world because they cannot cope with the world.”
Ellington remains suspicious of the Abbot, simply because a man cannot possibly be normal if he is celibate. Yet the monk’s argument for containing the “Howling Man” is that their village was turned into “a resort for the sinful” after World War One, associating sexual impropriety with war. “Forsaken, fornicators paraded the streets,” and “The orgies were too wild, the drunkards much too drunk.” The Abbot attributes this change not to man but the very presence of the Devil. This echoes the Biblical post-sin world, where God sent a flood to destroy the corruption on Earth, indicating that this release and recapturing of the Devil goes in cycles.
In an effort to exorcise the Devil from the village, the Abbot was tempted by a woman in a passage rife with sexual innuendo:
He said his wife was dying and begged me to give her Extreme Unction… A woman lay upon a bed, her body nude. “It is a different Extreme Unction that I have in mind,” he [the Devil] whispered, laughing. “It’s the only kind, dear Father, that she understands. No other will have her! Pity! Pity on the poor soul lying there in all her suffering. Give her your Sceptre!” And the woman’s arms came snaking, supplicating toward me, round and sensuous and hot…
Of course, the principle of Occam’s Razor applies; if caught between a man claiming he was locked up unfairly for sex outside of marriage and an Abbot claiming he’s captured the Devil incarnate… it’s no wonder Ellington decides to release the Devil.
Brother Christophorus represents Christ, and the story takes on the tone of a morality tale when Ellington’s refusal to believe results in the Devil entering the world. Brother Christophorus, like Christ, is forgiving of Ellington’s mistakes.
After Ellington realizes the consequences of his choices, Brother Christophorus says, “My son, don’t blame yourself. Your weakness was his lever. Doubt unlocked the door.”
The young man’s weakness? Sympathy, induced by mutual understanding and empathy for sexual transgressions.
Michel Foucault in the History of Sexuality argues that sexuality, while not the most important factor in power, is the most flexible. It is “useful for the greatest number of manoeuvres and capable of serving as a point of support, as a lynchpin, for the most varied strategies.” And such is the Devil’s nature, to use any sort of power to strategize his escape. Sexuality is a “dense transfer point for relations of power,” particularly between priests and their laity. The priest is able to resist sexual temptations, making him a morally superior person, but as David Ellington is not a particularly religious man, the Abbot has no power over him.
Despite writing prolifically, Beaumont’s books are now out of print and only a few short stories are available on e-readers. His Twilight Zone scripts remain in various formats; from 1960 The Twilight Zone won three consecutive Hugos for Best Dramatic Presentation. In these years Beaumont contributed at least 15 scripts. Although Beaumont did not write the script, “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” was based on “The Beautiful People”. Sadly, Beaumont contracted either early-onset Alzheimer’s disease or Pick’s disease in his thirties, rapidly decreasing his mental faculties. Many of his friends ghostwrote his later credited Twilight Zone scripts to help him meet his commitments.
Due to his untimely death at the age of 38, Charles Beaumont does not receive the same recognition as his contemporaries Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury. Bradbury commented that because Beaumont died before the moon landing, he wasn’t able to promote himself in the way that other science fiction writers did (p19, Prosser).
Charles Beaumont’s ideas were well ahead of his time; his other stories included progressive ideas on homosexuality, gay marriage and racism. His stories are often about people standing up for what they believe in, but with the consequences of their integrity being negative. While somewhat neglected as a writer, his stories are important in the timeline of weird fiction, for their progressive content and their significant role in contributing to The Twilight Zone.
“The Howling Man” is a warning that one man’s good intentions can wreak havoc on the world. But if all we aspire is to be good without heeding the advice of others, we cannot help but release the devil.
Running from the Hunter: The life and works of Charles Beaumont by Harold Lee Prosser
The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction Michel Foucault, Vintage Books.