George's Run: A Writer's Journey through the Twilight Zone 9781978834231

George Clayton Johnson was an up-and-coming short story writer who broke into Hollywood in a big way when he co-wrote th

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George's Run: A Writer's Journey through the Twilight Zone
 9781978834231

Table of contents :
CONTENTS
Preface: A Touch of Strange
A Historical Portal by Paul Buhle
Author’s Note
George’s Run
A Remembrance by Craig Frank
The Final Interview
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Citation preview

GEORGE’S RUN

A W R I T E R ’S J O U R N EY T H R O U G H T H E T W I L I G H T ZO N E HENRY CHAMBERLAIN

Rutge r s Unive r si t y P r ess New Brun swick, C amde n , a nd Newark, New Jersey; Lo n do n a n d Oxfo rd, UK

Rutgers University Press is a department of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, one of the leading public research universities in the nation. By publishing worldwide, it furthers the University’s mission of dedication to excellence in teaching, scholarship, research, and clinical care. 978-1-9788-3420-0 pbk 978-1-9788-3421-7 hc 978-1-9788-3422-4 epub 978-1-9788-3423-1 epdf LCCN: 2023930345 A British Cataloging-in-Publication record for this book is available from the British Library. Copyright © 2023 by Henry Chamberlain All rights reserved No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. Please contact Rutgers University Press, 106 Somerset Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. The only exception to this prohibition is “fair use” as defined by U.S. copyright law. References to internet websites (URLs) were accurate at the time of writing. Neither the author nor Rutgers University Press is responsible for URLs that may have expired or changed since the manuscript was prepared. The paper used in this publication meets the requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1992. rutgersuniversitypress.org

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CONTENTS Preface: A Touch of Strange

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A Historical Portal by Paul Buhle

xiii

Author’s Note

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George’s Run

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A Remembrance by Craig Frank

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The Final Interview

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PREFACE A TOUCH OF STRANGE

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his is the story of George Clayton Johnson and some of the greatest writers in the world, all seeking “a touch of strange.” That’s all you really need to know going in. Whatever else is said will all make sense as you take this journey, a trip that made a big difference in my life. I first met George Clayton Johnson at the Richard Alf Memorial Celebration in 2012 at the Grant Hotel in San Diego. It was this event that would lead to the annual Comics Fest, a more intimate get-together for people interested in the roots of Comic-Con. The meeting was brief, but George welcomed further discussion. That led to my podcast interviews with him, chatting on the phone and eventually meeting in person. George, you see, is what you could call a storyteller wizard. We need a storyteller wizard in our lives. I share with you my experience with one of the greatest storyteller wizards! My approach is in the very best spirit of the comics medium: a playful use of words and images, concise and crisp as well as disjointed and experimental. ix

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Some people like to bandy about the term “disjointed” as a pejorative dismissal, but we’re talking about comics here and the great potential of storytelling. So buckle up. This is a nonlinear tale, and I invite you to just dive in. This book is a fun, offbeat story about storytellers, the ones who worked on the original Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and beyond. This is a certain group of writers who blossomed in the 1950s and 1960s in and around Hollywood and redefined science fiction and dark fantasy. Our story is told mainly through the journey of one writer, George Clayton Johnson. Among the many works of art and pop culture that influenced George and his friends was the curious phrase “a touch of strange.” In that one phrase, a whole world is revealed. What does “a touch of strange” mean? Like so many of our favorite words and phrases, it is packed with information and encourages adding on new layers. It originates in the 1898 Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw. This classic ghost story was a perfect inspiration for a bunch of writers motivated by the macabre. Basically, the phrase suggests things not being quite right, a sense of dread. Among the group of writers that George worked and hung out with was Theodore Sturgeon, known for the classic novel More Than Human. Sturgeon admired the phrase so much that he named a short story “A Touch of Strange.” x

P reface

George found the phrase to be the perfect answer when people would ask for an explanation as to what he and his fellow writers were writing for The Twilight Zone. The answer was simple. It was writing that was spiked with “a touch of strange.” And, once the party was over and The Twilight Zone closed up shop, a handful of writers took that phrase with them. George led this splinter group and made the pitch to ABC for a new version of The Twilight Zone. This time around, it would be called A Touch of Strange. It made clear how invested these writers were in their particular vision of dark fantasy. So, with that phrase alone, I give you a quick thumbnail look at the life and times of George Clayton Johnson. All you really need to know is that this is the story of a bunch of very determined writers who had one thing in common. They were all in search of “a touch of strange.” HENRY CHAMBERL AIN

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A HISTORICAL PORTAL

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eader, the comic before you captures a lost world, a memory hiding somewhere in the back of the minds of people over seventy, not only in the United States but also far abroad, a memory of a more open and interesting time and the creative figures who helped make it possible. Science fiction dreams: these dreams are at the heart of Henry Chamberlain’s remarkable work in comics journalism, George’s Run, while also the most important story of the century behind us and the century to come. Science fiction, as a means of exploring a terrifying future as well as projecting the possibility of a better society, on planet Earth or far away, dates to nineteenthcentury popular literature and philosophy. By the 1850s, authors seeking to make a living had begun imagining beings on Mars and other planets practicing something like free love and gender equality, using science to relieve the tedium and dangers of ordinary human daily life. Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish philosopher and favorite of the Crown nearly a century earlier, had already begun to describe his contact with such beings, how they xiii

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communicated with him, how they looked, and how they acted in their daily lives. The advance of fantasy followed an advance in popular literature and life. Spiritualism, a contact with the world “beyond,” found a new audience, a kind of journalism, the creation of academies, and even a politics in the US, from the 1840s to the 1870s. Victoria Woodhull, president of the American Spiritualist Society and simultaneously the first woman to run for president (in 1872, following personal meetings with President U. S. Grant), proclaimed that a new era had been entered in which all beings, alive and formerly alive, could now be in contact. Hopes for the telegraph key as a means to bring the two worlds together collapsed with the advance of technology. Scientific developments in communication and access to consumer goods proved more popular than contacts with the spirit world. But the yen for science fiction, a way to explore the future, continued. By the first decade of the twentieth century, the literary presentiment of catastrophe spread. “Progress” might lead to catastrophe, and why not? The weapons of destruction race ahead with technology, as the race for colonies in the Global South brought revolt and accelerated slaughter. War between empires was easy to predict and accurate in predicting unprecedented destruction of “white” communities as well as the inhabitants of the supposed backward regions of the planet. xiv

A H istorical P ortal

Here we find the kernel to the genius that emerged generations later in the minds of Rod Serling and his staff of writers. Serling lived through another war, more frightening than its predecessor because of the deployment of advanced technologies. He found his way to television through postwar radio work and to The Twilight Zone through years of less-than-creative scriptwriting. Network television had been producing science fiction shows from the very early 1950s onward, years before technology allowed people in the middle of the country to watch and the networks to charge vast fees to advertisers. At least one of the most inventive and humane shows, Science Fiction Theater, was syndicated, probably to be seen at odd times or as a fill-in. Meanwhile, as comic book production wound down and faced congressional hearings warning against the encouragement of juvenile delinquency, some of the most brilliant comics ever appeared, under the EC label (think Mad Comics and Mad magazine), as adventures in outer space, where racism could be criticized, or right on Earth after an atomic war. These social criticisms also mirrored the ongoing paperback revolution, with left-leaning science fiction writers and editors turning out warnings of repressive future civilizations where, for instance, breakfast cereal companies had taken over public schools or where corporations had invaded even the most private thoughts. xv

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Toward the middle and later 1950s, science fiction enjoyed a network television boom. Prestigious hourlong anthologies, like Alcoa Presents, looked to robots becoming human or proposed that still unanswered questions about human nature might be resolved in outer space. This was the boom time for Rod Serling and his associates to sell The Twilight Zone to CBS. So much has been written about The Twilight Zone and its many episodes. But only specialized fans are likely to know anything about the writers. They were an odd crew, but as you will see, George Clayton Johnson was one of the oddest. Most of the others were sophisticates, from one coast or the other or both. They arrived into television thanks to connections. Some of the more rebellious ones had barely escaped the blacklist, nabbing suspected subversives, by writing under pseudonyms or by having the good luck of being too young or too cautious to have signed civil rights or civil liberties petitions during the 1940s. George, by contrast, seemed to come straight out of nowhere—as you will see. He brought with him remarkable writing talents, among the best in the history of television. He found a friend in our artist-writer, Henry Chamberlain. So, dear reader, dig in. PAU L B UHLE Retired senior lecturer at Brown University, author or editor of thirtyfive volumes on radicalism, popular culture, and nonfiction comic art

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AUTHOR’S NOTE George Clayton Johnson never lost his sense of wonder. He was born into poverty, with no advantages, but he worked with some of the great writers of his time. He was part of what I like to call “The Rat Pack of Science Fiction,” a group of writers mostly around Hollywood who included Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, William F. Nolan, and Richard Matheson. I got to know George. I got to know about his amazing life and the great writers whom he called his friends. What I learned from George will stay with me forever. The goal of this graphic novel is to share with you this sense of wonder.

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A uthor ’ s N ote

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A REMEMBRANCE

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uring my youth in the 1960s, The Twilight Zone and Star Trek had a lot of screen time on our Zenith television. The words of Rod Serling, “. . . whose boundaries are that of the imagination,” were mimicked frequently, and the hypnotic spiral animation was imitated and memorable. While the intro of Star Trek played, my brothers and I, on our hands and knees, would point on the TV screen and guess which star becomes the USS Enterprise as it mysteriously appears in the galaxy from a distance and shoots toward the camera. In our household, we all knew that those two series were heavy on good storytelling; they were the meat and potatoes of our TV watching, which went beyond another dimension and challenged our imagination. Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry are commonly known as masterminds behind those series, but they had help from a group of writers, a group of talented artists who fought and sweat over stories that gave meaning, stories with unforgettable moments, and stories with social commentary that built gravitas. George Clayton Johnson was one of those writers; he was 195

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a rough diamond from the barren state of Wyoming, an eighth-grade dropout. With the sheer force of will and determination, he pushed his way into this close-knit bunch of talented sci-fi writers and journeyed beyond The Twilight Zone and Star Trek. To be in the presence of George is to be a part of a special time, to be a guest in a Hollywood group during a golden age, an era that was between light and shadow, a wondrous time during the early ’60s and turbulent in the latter part of the decade. George is generous in his portrayal of the part he played. You realize that he was a large contributor, and you get the sense that he felt lucky to be a member of that talented group. As a reader, you feel lucky to hear his story; you feel a part of it, and it’s a warm and heartfelt feeling. Now, just imagine: You get to sit next to George in his own home. You get to hear his wonderful stories. You get to share his peace pipe. Well, Henry Chamberlain is that person who had the chance to meet a legend. Henry was able to tap into a pure source from this exceptional time; he met a man who was there in the middle of this golden era of sci-fi writing. Henry embarks on a journey that follows George’s life. Hair rises from my arms to be able to be behind that curtain and feel like a friendly observer in the presence of such a fine group of writers. George’s Run becomes a good companion. The smell of sweet leaf 196

A R emembrance

and the fascination of storytelling is all encapsulated in Henry’s naïve style of drawing, where we truly feel a touch of the strange. CR AIG FR ANK Author of the graphic novel Cool Valley

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THE FINAL INTERVIEW The final interview with George Clayton Johnson took place December 5, 2014. The following transcript is based on my contemporaneous notes.

We sat at a long wooden dining table overlooking a garden, where a number of cats held sway. My goal for this inperson interview was to keep it conversational and casual. I wanted to avoid triggering much in the way of stock answers. I’m sure George wanted to provide whatever he thought I needed. I aimed to keep it simple and bring up one subject at a time without any expectations. George, your upbringing was in Wyoming. Could you share with us how Wyoming influenced your work, how it made its way into your work? They all want to know about Wyoming! It is in the work but not explicitly. I wonder about the stories behind the various writers you worked with, especially the lesser-known ones, like John Tomerlin. 199

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There was a bunch of us. Early, in getting to know each other, we’d study each other, regard each other, the body language. And we’d spill our guts out to each other! You were close to William F. Nolan, right? You two went on to write Logan’s Run. William F. is a scholar and a writer. He is an expert on Max Brand. If you should interview him, make sure to ask him about Max Brand. Share with us about the writers in your life or whatever you valued among writers. Theodore Sturgeon is at the top. [He points up in the air.] Have you read More Than Human? Actually, I am a bit familiar with Sturgeon, but I have not read that one. You would really enjoy that. That title, I place at the top. I sense that one is significant. I’m sorry I’m not familiar with it. I will definitely read it. Are there other writers that come to mind that you think I’d enjoy? I like the offbeat and stories that raise questions. I think you’d enjoy Robert Sheckley. He has a very good sense of humor. For something dark, I would recommend Dennis Etchison.

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T he F inal I nterview

What was the biggest challenge you ran into during your career? Producers interfering with me as I was attempting to create original work for them. The networks always were looking for something similar to their competitors’ big hits. You formed The Green Hand with Jerry Sohl and Richard Matheson. That must have brought a satisfying sense of control. We gave it a try. We did our best with that, although we never got a project from that collaborative group. George, I had chatted with you on the phone about my interest in creating a book about your life and times. I envision a graphic novel. A picture book? Well, that would be interesting. You’re a writer and an artist. Yes, my partner is also a writer and artist. Her name is Jennifer Daydreamer. Oh, that’s a perfect name for an artist! I did a graphic novel that featured “Alice in Wonderland.” The magic of Alice! And the magic of The Wizard of Oz! There’s science fiction there. I marveled, as a child, over the moving pathway to Oz.

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I want to make sure to include in my book the fact that you and William F. Nolan split the rights to Logan’s Run right down the middle. You have as much right to it as he does. Absolutely. Make sure to include that in your book. And, on the phone, you had said that any book about you would need to include cannabis, as you’ve been a lifelong supporter of cannabis. Yes! I have fond memories of the very first time I lit up as a youth. Wow. Captain Ed. Jack Herrer. I was part of that scene. What was that scene like? All of a sudden, all my friends started wearing purple. We had entered a new age. That’s when I started wearing the vests and the Panama hat. It became part of my brand. You need a brand as an artist or writer. A brand can mean many things. It can say that you want to stand out. Or it can say that you want to blend in. I’m not sure just yet how to approach cannabis in the book. I don’t want it to come off as too brash, but, then again, perhaps the best thing is to just present the subject honestly. Sometimes you need to appeal to your enemies. Other times, you just let it out and damn the consequences. [There were a couple of glass pipes on the table. I motioned to them.] 202

T he F inal I nterview

George, if you were so inclined, I’d be happy to join you in a smoke. Sure, we can do that. [We packed a bit of cannabis into each pipe and took a few drags.] I hope to do honor to your work with this graphic novel that I plan to do. Follow your passion. What else should I include in the book? [George points to a scrap of paper near him.] The stories that mattered most. It’s all here in this list. [On the list were four of George’s contributions to The Twilight Zone: “All of Us Are Dying,” “A Game of Pool,” “Kick the Can,” and “Nothing in the Dark.”] I just saw Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey. It is science fiction. It was quite an experience seeing it late at night at Grauman’s Chinese Theater—a very awesome and intimate setting for this kind of science fiction—the best kind, I think, as it is character driven. There is so much going on regarding time travel, but in the end, it is a poignant story about a father and daughter. It is all about a human connection. That is the best kind of science fiction. You will surely enjoy reading more Theodore Sturgeon and especially More Than Human. 203

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I will read it once I get back to Seattle. Thank you for your time, George. I look forward to keeping in touch. Yes, that would be fine. Thank you, Henry.

* * * And that, in a concise form, was the actual content or our informal talk. It was satisfying, and it lasted as long as it needed to. I had simply assumed that there would be opportunities for more conversation over the phone and perhaps another visit to show George the work I had done on the graphic novel. In fact, we did get to talk on the phone, and we both agreed to meet up again the following year. I was in Los Angeles and assumed that I’d be meeting with George when his son, Paul, told me that George was in hospice. It was too late. There would be no more interviews, no more questions. I was now on my own, alone to complete what I had started.

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What a fun ride!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR The artist and writer Henry Chamberlain is dedicated to creating compelling content whether it’s through paintings, comics, illustration, novels, or any form of visual storytelling. Find him at comicsgrinder.com and henrychamberlain.com.