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.”

On Rod Serling’s “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”

“It was Saturday afternoon on Maple Street and the late sun retained some of the warmth of a persistent Indian summer” (136).

The scene is a panorama of a picturesque small-town in America. Lawns are being mowed, cars are being washed, kids are playing hopscotch –“4:40pm. Maple Street in its last calm and reflective moments –before the monsters came.”

Suddenly a flash of light explodes across the sky and blocks out the sun. Was it a meteor? Then the electricity goes out, and the neighbors on Maple Street begin to wonder what happened. A little boy named Tommy suggests it might be aliens from outer space. At first, he is brushed off, but soon people start growing suspicious. Perhaps one of their neighbors is truly an alien. They point the finger at one another, always suspicious, arguments break out, robbery and thieving begins to take hold.

Gradually, the neighborhood goes steadily more chaotic and paranoid until all hell breaks loose and this once safe paragon of American suburbia devolves into “an outdoor asylum for the insane.” Glass is broken, children are trampled, and all is bedlam. Violence ensues.

Then, from a nearby hill overlooking Maple Street, a cohort of aliens stands beside their spaceship and watch the madness unfold. The pattern is always the same: shut off the electronics for a few hours and watch the madness unfold. “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find and it’s themselves. All we need to do is sit back –and watch.” The aliens make plans to take over the United States one Maple Street at a time.

The ending to Mr. Serling’s short story is considerably more violent than I remember the Twilight Zone episode being. Most of the houses are burned. Bodies are strewn about on sidewalks and draped over railings. And then all is still and silent, there is no more life. A new race of creatures moves into Maple Street from their perch on a nearby hill.

Serling, Rod. 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 “Where Is Everybody?”

On Rod Serling’s “Where Is Everybody?”

“The sensation was unrelated to anything he’d ever felt before. He awoke, but had no recollection of ever gone to sleep. And, to mystify him further, he was not in bed. He was walking down a road, a two-lane black macadam with a vivid white stripe running down the center. He stopped, stared up at a blue sky, a hot, mid-morning sun. Then he looked around at a rural landscape, high, full-leafed trees flanking the road. Beyond the trees were fields of wheat, golden and rippling”
(opening lines).

Rod Serling’s short story version of “Where Is Everybody?” sticks pretty close to The Twilight Zone pilot episode of the same name, adding some wonderful color particularly to the ending. An amnesiac is walking down a dirt road with no memory of who he is or how he arrived there. He smokes a cigarette and notices commercial slogans on his cigarette box –he must be in America.

Slowly, as he walks along the road, he pieces together a few facts. He is in his twenties, it is the 1950s, and the season is summer. As in The Twilight Zone episode, he wanders into an empty diner and then through a vacant town filled with dummies and recently active machinery –but shockingly no people.

“Hey! Anybody here? Anybody hear me?”

He sits outside on a curb for an unknown number of hours, wandering in and out of nearby stores and a bank for the fourth time. He hears the jarring sound of church bells down the street, he walks into a store and spots a bit of pulp fiction, The Last Man On Earth (Richard Matheson’s book “I Am Legend” which can also be seen in the corresponding episode).

Night falls and all the lights in the town illuminate. Our unnamed protagonist begins to grow desperate for companionship. He glimpses his own reflection in a window and realizes he is wearing Air Force coveralls! He enters a movie theater and looks at the posters, he thinks he sees another person in a movie theater until he crashes full speed into mirror. Sobbing and hopeless, he stumbles outside and clutches a street lamp pushing the cross-button over and over, begging for help from somebody.

Suddenly, we are transported into a dark control room where Sergeant Mike Ferris is pushing a button from a tiny enclosed space. “Alright, clock him and get him out of there,” says a gruff brigadier general. Sgt. Ferris has just survived 284 hours alone in an enclosed 5×5 metal box, simulating a trip to the moon. This has all been a hallucination. However, of all things the Air Force can simulate, it cannot offer an alternative to human companionship. Sgt. Ferris’s mind has fabricated this whole story as a means of coping with his isolation.

As he is lifted off his stretcher into an ambulance, Sgt. Ferris gazes up at the moon in the night sky. He knows that next time will be the real thing, not a simulation, but for now he is took exhausted. However, in a departure from the ending in The Twilight Zone episode, Sgt. Ferris reaches into his breast pocket where he finds a movie theater ticket from a small movie house in an empty town. Somewhere along the way, the fabric between dream and reality has been torn. He is carted off to the hospital and the short story ends.

Serling, Rod. 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 “Where Is Everybody?”

On Rod Serling’s “The Fever”

Franklin Gibbs is a rather unimpressive malcontent from Elgin, Kansas –he is a bank teller who takes his cues from his local church and Kiwanis club. His wife Flora wins a write-in contest for “Aunt Martha’s Biscuits” which surprisingly lands the couple on a three-day paid vacation to Las Vegas over Memorial Day weekend. Franklin quickly and accidentally develops a penchant for the “one-armed bandit” –in other words, he becomes an overnight gambling addict.

He plays his first game and begins hearing a strange voice emanating from the casino –“Franklin!” He cannot stop himself. He spends all night on a binge of gambling until morning when he appears disheveled, unshaven, loose-tied, and nearly broke. In act, he loses $3,800 –“Franklin Gibb’s life was entirely funneled into the slot machine in front of him” (104).

Later that evening, Franklin is driven mad by the machine and it eventually sends him crashing through the hotel window onto the cold concrete floor beside the pool below. In this way, Rod Serling’s short story closely mirrors the episode. However, in the story there is a brief epilogue in which Flora lives a “silent, patient” life. thereon out except for one moment wherein a one-armed bandit is brought to a Women’s Alliance meeting which sends her into a shrieking terror.

This is another delightful bit of modern folklore from Rod Serling –it is a unique take on the predatory practices unleashed by casinos on good-natured, small-town Americans. It is as amusing as it is cautionary. Nevertheless, Rod Serling’s short story is impossible to divorce from the episode of The Twilight Zone.

Serling, Rod. 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 Twilight Zone episode “The Fever”