On Rod Serling’s “The Lonely”

“It was like the surface of a giant stove –this desert that stretched in a broiling yellow mat to the scrubby line of mountains on one side and the shimmering salt flats on the other. Occasional dunes and gullies punctuated the yellow sameness with thin, dark purple streaks. But for the most part it looked endless and unchanging; a barren mass of sand that beckoned the heat rays and then soaked them unto itself” (opening lines).

Meet James W. Corry (played in The Twilight Zone episode by Jack Warden), a forty-year-old prisoner who has been sentenced to solitary confinement on a remote asteroid some five years prior. His home is a shack made of corrugated metal and he is granted a 1943 sedan to drive around the barren asteroid. Otherwise, he is entirely alone day after day, trapped on a foreign rock hurting through the space.  

In Rod Serling’s short story, we are given more color to Corry’s backstory than in the Twilight Zone episode (for example, it takes place in the 1990s whereas the episode takes place in the 2040s) –Corry’s wife was struck by a drunk driver. He tragically watched the whole event unfold from an upper-floor apartment and then immediately ran down to confront the offender and wound up strangling him to death. The extenuating circumstances of his brief trial dictated that Corry be “banished” to a thirty-five-year sentence of solitary confinement rather than simply granting him “release pills” which long ago replaced the gas chambers, gallows, and electric chairs of the past.

Now undergoing his sentence, his only engagement with fellow humans occurs four times per year when a supply ship arrives for twelve brief minutes. Corry yearns for these brief moments, particularly the arrival of one good man named Allenby who initially gave Corry the car. Corry wonders if he himself will become like the car, an inanimate object against the endless desert with nowhere to go. We also learn that Corry was once been a retiring man, uneasy around people, but now he paints pictures and fantasizes himself around huge crowds of people.

“There was a ritual even to loneliness, he thought” (3).

Three days pass and Captain Walter Allenby, an eighteen-year veteran of the space force, arrives on Corry’s asteroid with two others, Jensen and Adams. Corry’s is the last in a string of four asteroids where convicts are serving out their sentences. While Adams is somewhat rude to Corry, Allenby brings a unique gift –a robot built to resemble a woman named Alicia. Before he leaves in his spaceship, Allenby wonders if he brought either “salvation” or a mere “illusion” to Corry. At first, Corry rejects the companionship of a robot, but once he sees that she can cry and feel pain, he pities her and slowly begins to fall in love. Now, the loneliness begins to fade away as they embrace each day and night, watching the beauty of the stars, taking in the expansive desert.

Suddenly, one day about eleven months later, Allenby’s ship returns for an unscheduled stop on Corry’s asteroid. He comes to announce that Corry has been pardoned and the asteroid “banishment” program is being discontinued. However, they need to leave in no more than 21 minutes with meteor showers and limited fuel to keep in mind, as well as three other passengers –and they can only carry fifteen pounds worth of Corry’s items. Suddenly, it dawns on Corry that he cannot bring his beloved Alicia. He rushes to her in the desert but with time running out, and Corry refusing to leave without his woman, Allenby pus out a gun and shoots Alicia exposing a mess of wires as her voice trails off like a broken turntable “Corry… Corry… Corry” and the she is silent. Corry is reminded of what Alicia truly is. He slowly turns to leave with Captain Allenby while sand gathers around Alicia lifeless mechanical body.

“All you’re leaving behind you, Corry, is loneliness(31).

While The Twilight Zone episode is one of my all-time favorites in the series, I thought Rod Serling’s short story was even better. It offers a more intimate character portrait, as we learn more about James Corry and also Captain Allenby, their particular motivations ad sympathies, as well as Corry’s unique relationship with machines. He once imagined himself rusting like a broken down car on his asteroid, and that is exactly the fate which befalls Alicia. The themes of loneliness and artificial intelligence remain as prescient as they did when it was written in the 1950s.   

“Down below on a microscopic piece of sand that floated through space was a fragment of a man’s life. Left to rust were the place he’d lived in and the machines he’s used. Without use they would disintegrate from the wind and the sand and the years that acted upon them. All of Mr. Corry’s machines… including the one made in his image and kept alive by love. It lay mutilated in the sand. It had become obsolete” (32, closing paragraph).

Serling, Rod. More Stories From The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling Books: 1960 (republished in 1990 by the Serling family), Paperback Edition.

Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.

Click here to read my review of the The Twilight Zone episode “The Lonely.”

1 thought on “On Rod Serling’s “The Lonely”

  1. Trying to understand that all Corey was leaving behind was loneliness was a little hard to take in, given all his genuinely nice memories of Alicia. But all in all, it is in all fairness a proper ending.

    Liked by 2 people

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