My first encounter with Charles Beaumont came in the form of worn-out 90s VHS tapes. I was ten and about to enter another dimension, one narrated by Rod Serling. As with Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, both Twilight Zone writers, Beaumont became a childhood influence without a name – after all, what girl stops to read the credits on a VHS tape?
Perchance to Dream is a new collection by Penguin Classics of Charles Beaumont’s work. Veering between horror, science fiction, dark fantasy and the weird, Beaumont’s stories examine grand themes of death, humanity and sex, all with a sinister and malevolent echo through 1950s America.
With an introduction by Ray Bradbury and afterward by William Shatner, it’s clear that Charles Beaumont bounded enthusiastically towards fiction, taking small ideas and spinning them into stories with sharp endings. He was a remarkably prescient writer, forecasting everything from internet dating to curved televisions in homes to wearable devices. The importance of the collection is not to be understated; Beaumont died tragically in his 30s from what is thought to be early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Before this collection, it was difficult to find many of his stories in print or online.
There’s a quote on the back of the book from Dean Koontz which rings true, that the stories “provide a clear window into the fears and hopes of his time.” No more is this evident in the preoccupation with status and legacy, evident in the desire to memorialise a city in The Jungle, or the obsession with a beautiful car in A Classic Affair, and the fear of nuclear destruction in Place of Meeting.
The fears strike closer to the male psyche in the recurring themes of sexual performance, masculinity and impotence, the driving force in one of the stand out stories, The New People, where an impotent man, his virginal wife and strange son move into a new neighbourhood. In this story, suburban boredom is the impetus for deviant behaviour, which escalates to horrific proportions, forecasting Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby to be published nine years later. The other stand out is In His Image, the disorienting story of a man who takes his fiancé back to his home town, only to find out that no one remembers him.
His stories are overtly sexual, and focus on the transgressive nature of sex in the 50s, with direct discussion of orgies, virginity, sex outside of marriage and even a brief (albeit unhappy) queer character in Night Ride. The Howling Man, featured in The Weird and this collection, ties sexual transgressions to the release of the devil (for a more detailed analysis, read my essay in the 101 Weird Writers series on Charles Beaumont).
Then there are the flat out weird stories, with the bizarre hybrid monster of Fritzchen reminiscent of China Mieville’s recent short story Sacken. Or the deliciously disturbing necroaudiophile Mr Goodhew in The New Sound. And the deftly written Mr Aorta in Free Dirt, a character familiar to readers everywhere as the man who won’t pay for anything.
It is in these short, almost flash fiction stories, where Beaumont’s concision in creating a world and a mythology shines. Familiar elements anchor the reader in the formula that works: set up the situation, the protagonist reminisces how he got there, and punch out the reversal. And where the reversal style of story from the 50s and 60s can often come out cheesy in contemporary analysis (We were on earth the whole time? NOOOOOOO!), there were moments where I gasped in delightful surprise when a twist caught me off guard. But to tell you which stories they were would spoil it.
Beaumont also demonstrated a humorous side, with his time-travelling tale Father, Dear Father, psychologically frustrated vampire in Blood Brother, or the prescient The Monster Show. While not all of the stories in the collection are supernatural (The Music of the Yellow Brass, Night Ride and A Death in the Country), they all discuss facing death in different ways. Like a toreador flagging a bull, driving violently towards it or falling towards despondency.
My favourites from this collection are those that deal with the obsession with self-image and representation, most well known in The Beautiful People. In a dystopian future, a young woman refuses to have a transformation from her current, ‘ugly’ body to a beautiful body like everyone else, after filling her head with notions from books (heaven forbid those books full of dangerous ideas!). In this society, beauty is associated with peace, and is enforced by constant videos of war, colonialization and politics. Like Bradbury’s famous Fahrenheit 451, Beaumont’s story echoes the sentiment that books are essential to an open and free society, where TV is a tool of enforcement and control.
This story turned into an episode of The Twilight Zone as Number 12 Looks Just Like You. Scott Westerfield acknowledges this episode as a childhood influence over his bestselling YA series Uglies, where teenagers are forcibly transformed into “Pretties”.
However Beaumont’s representation of women is directly contrasted in You Can’t Have Them All. A ladies man uses a super-calculator to meet his ideal woman. Unfortunately there’s 563 of them. To ensure his conquest of each woman, he uses a love potion of “herbal tea” to make them sleep with him. This story has major issues with consent, made even more shocking by the protagonist’s frivolous attitude towards the women in the story.
Given the ongoing discussions of representation across speculative fiction, two of the more problematic stories in the collection – The Jungle and The Magic Man – deal with racial issues. While The Jungle has the best intentions to decry colonialism and invasive development, the tribe in the story is made up of one-dimensional Kenyans, who beat drums in their village, fighting off developers with “guns and spears and arrows and darts” (p 16), and use magic to eventually scare off the obsessive designer. The Magic Man is the weakest story in the collection, partly for its unlikeable protagonist, who tells tales of cannibals from the Sandwich Islands, which distracts from the story’s conclusion.
Despite my issues with the stories above, this is a worthwhile and important collection, preserving an author’s work for a new generation of readers. Read them. Get angry. Be shocked. Laugh. Charles Beaumont’s work will certainly provoke your imagination.