My First Fright featuring Christopher Golden

I can’t tell you how many speculative fiction writers I’ve interacted with over the years who have expressed a deep respect for, if not a rabid obsession with, The Twilight Zone. It’s basically reached “sacred cow” status amongst genre writers, whether or not it’s had a direct influence on their writing (I know a few authors who pitch their books at cons as being “like The Twilight Zone,” myself included). In fact, the only author I can think of who I’ve ever seen express a somewhat-negative view of the show was Stephen King in his 1981 nonfiction book Danse Macabre. We’ll let this one pass, Mr. King.

So it’s been a surprise to me that not one author has suggested the show as their “first fright” yet. Maybe it seems too obvious a choice, maybe it’s not scary enough, or maybe it’s just so ingrained in the public consciousness that it was never a consideration. (“Who wasn’t freaked out by The Twilight Zone as a kid?”) But finally, author Christopher Golden gave me an opportunity to discuss this iconic television program and, as a giant fan of the series, I couldn’t have been happier.

Christopher Golden is the New York Times bestselling author of such novels as Ararat, Snowblind, Tin Men, The Myth Hunters, Wildwood Road, The Boys Are Back in Town, The Ferryman, Strangewood, and Of Saints and Shadows. He has also written books for teens and young adults, including Poison Ink, Soulless, and the thriller series Body of Evidence, honored by the New York Public Library and chosen as one of YALSA’s Best Books for Young Readers.

(Interview conducted by John Brhel)

CEMETERY DANCE: How old were you when you first watched The Twilight Zone?

CHRISTOPHER GOLDEN: I honestly don’t remember. I’m sure I’d seen episodes before this, but the first one I remember seeing — strangely enough — was the last episode ever aired. “The Bewitchin’ Pool” was first broadcast three years before I was born, but I guess I must have been nine or ten when I watched it.

What is it about the show that struck a chord with you?

It’s filled with such humanity that it really emphasized for me the things that horror and the supernatural could accomplish in a story. There are so many episodes filled with a bittersweet wistfulness and a sad, loving wisdom about life, about good and evil, about kindness and cruelty. I always liked weird stories, but The Twilight Zone quickly became the core of what I wanted to do. Rod Serling’s moral compass set the example.

What are your favorite episodes?

I have so many, it’s hard to choose. I love the Jack Klugman episodes. All three of them are brilliant, but it’s hard to choose between “A Passage for Trumpet” and “In Praise of Pip.” “A Game of Pool” is great. There are all the classics that people love, like “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “Time Enough at Last.” Such amazing episodes. I’m a sentimentalist, so I also love things like “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville” and “Walking Distance” and “One for the Angels.” “Living Doll” too…creepy as hell. “The Howling Man” might be my favorite of all. There are so many that I love.

Those are some of my absolute favorites as well. I also enjoy the more sentimental ones. Have you read the Beaumont short story for “The Howling Man”? It’s a little different from the episode.

I have, but not for years. I think the TV version is so burned into my brain that it’s eclipsed the original story. As a prose writer I hate to say that, but it’s true.

Image from “The Howling Man” episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE.

What do you find spooky/scary about the show? Why does this stand out among other shows you watched when you were younger?

Not all episodes were spooky or scary, but what stood out for me was the human connection. What Serling’s writing, and his tastes when choosing other writers, taught me was that it’s so much more frightening or unsettling when you can connect your audience to your characters, make the audience identify with them. You establish a closeness, even intimacy and understanding, and then you introduce a dark, disturbing catalyst, and suddenly the audience is invested in fear in a way they would never otherwise have been.

Do you think you’ve taken that same ethos and applied it to your own writing?

Definitely. Sometimes on purpose and sometimes unaware of it. One of the best examples is my novel The Boys are Back in Town. The Serling influence there is inescapable.

Can you elaborate on that?

There’s a time travel core to the story that’s rife with humanity and nostalgia, which is fundamental to a lot of my favorite episodes.

How do you feel about the show as an adult? Has your perspective on it changed since you were little?

Its lessons are still valid and valuable today, and many of those episodes are just as chilling as they once were. Of course some of them have makeup and other effects that seem silly, but you have to look past that, and the chills remain. I actually appreciate it even more as I get older.

What do you think about the upcoming reboot? Are you interested in watching it?

I’m more interested in the way Jordan Peele may approach it than the fact that it’s a reboot in general. Previous attempts have had some great episodes, but also some real weaknesses, so we shall see. The 1980s version had an adaptation of Robert McCammon’s “Nightcrawlers” and one of Harlan Ellison’s “Shatterday” that I thought were particularly effective.

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