Ironically, in my quest to discover other horror writers besides Stephen King, (I adore King’s work but at that time, I was reading him exclusively), it was King himself who helped lead the way. Somewhere in the middle of that quest I finally, for the first time, read his non-fiction treatise on the horror genre, Danse Macabre (which you should all do, right now).
Not only is it a wonderfully insightful and nostalgic look at the development of the horror genre (especially from the fifties onward) it’s a treasure trove of horror icons. Macabre pointed me toward James Herbert, (subject of a future installment); the thriller and chiller radio shows of the fifties, like Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Dimension X and Quiet, Please (we’ll cover those, also); Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco (we’ll get there, presently); and must-read one-time forays into the horror genre, like Anne River-Siddons’ The House Next Door (oh yes, we’ll definitely talk about that one!). In fact, it took me much longer than normal to finish Macabre, because every time King introduced a book I hadn’t read, I stopped Macabre, bought said book and read it myself, before reading King’s analysis.
One of King’s recommendations, which has had a huge impact on me, is Jack Finney’s short story collection, The Third Level. King discusses it in Danse Macabre as he analyzes the overall impact and significance of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (and yeah, of course I’m going to talk about that eventually, too!).
Believe it or not, King turns out to be pretty lukewarm on the overall quality of The Twilight Zone. While he certainly identified several episodes as iconic and powerful, and the series’ premise highly engaging, he felt the Zone too often relied on heavy-handed narratives driven home with less subtly than he preferred.
In summation, he directed readers to Third Level, by Jack Finney, saying:
“In many ways, Finney’s ‘third level’ satisfies all the definitions of Serling’s Twilight Zone, and in many ways it was Finney’s concept that made Serling’s concept possible…I urge you to find a copy of Finney’s The Third Level, which will show you what The Twilight Zone could’ve been.” – King, Danse Macabre
So of course, like a good little student, I heeded Sai King’s advice and hunted up The Third Level on Amazon. Now, I disagree a bit with King’s assessment of The Twilight Zone and it’s place in the development of the horror genre (as I’ll discuss in a future installment), but regarding his assessment of The Third Level? Absolutely. Spot. On.
I’ve read The Third Level several times over the past few years, and the stories in this collection have become just as influential on me as Charlie Grant’s, or even King’s. What makes The Third Level a must-read for speculative writers in general are its great stories about odd little occurrences which occur out of the corner of your eye, subtler even than the most subtle Twilight Zone episodes (I do agree with King on this point). Slips in time, dimension-bending, fortune-telling, and other “odd” events which take place in the obscure corners of life.
Imagine Ray Bradbury, but told straight, without some of the heavy-handed lyricism and wide-eyed wonder. Like “Second Chances,” a story of a young man who’s a misfit in his generation. A man “out of time” because he loves old cars, who lovingly spends hours restoring an old car—a Jordan Playboy—a relic none of his peers like, not even the gals. When his date refuses to be seen in such an “old fogey car,” he rejects her and modernity and goes driving alone on an old side-road itself over a hundred years old. In the middle of this finely-tuned confluence, (which is a hallmark of Finney’s stories in this collection) he finds himself almost thirty or forty years in the past. “Second Chances” also handles the concept of a benevolent universe offering a “second chance” in a much subtler way than either Bradbury or Serling would.
This is what makes The Third Level so powerful. Finney very gently ushers each story from a normal, mundane world, over an invisible threshold into the odd, bizarre, and strange. Some of the stories deal with time travel and alternate dimensions, but because they focus more on things like fate, predestination, “what ifs” and social climate change rather than method, I say it’s the perfect read for any lover of speculative fiction.
Several stories read like “flip-side” tales of the weirdness we encounter every day in the news. So there’s a newspaper story about an odd corpse found in an alley, wearing out-of-date clothing, ancient currency lining its pockets? Well, here’s a theory about how that happened in “I’m Scared,” as a man considers what holds the fabric of time together…and what could happen if, for some reason, that fabric starts to unravel.
“Of Missing Persons” definitely has a science fiction bent, but it’s more about a man who simply can’t bring himself to believe in the amazing gift he’s being offered…and how, because of his unbelief, he’s destined to live a unremarkable life of drudgery (a much finer-tuned version of The Twilight Zone’s “The Big Tall Wish”).
“Behind the News” is a lighter version of The Twilight Zone’s “Printer’s Devil” (I still shiver, though, when I think of Burgess Meredith’s lecherous devil in that episode!), in which a beleaguered newsman realizes that perhaps having the ability to make news stories come true brings too high a cost. The collection’s title story, “The Third Level,” bears an eerie resemblance to The Twilight Zone’s “A Stop at Willoughby” (keep in mind, however, that The Third Level was published years before The Twilight Zone).
Perhaps the most powerful story in the whole collection is “There is a Tide.” In this story, the past and the present intermingle, as a salesman struggling with a matter of integrity and conscience finds himself crossing paths with a reflection of another man of business, who used to live in his apartment, struggling with a very similar conflict of ethics. The confluence of emotions from across generations results in disastrous events tinged with the definite hum of low-wattage horror, and is a very unique kind of “ghost story” or “haunting.”
I highly recommend these stories for not only their imaginative nature, but because of Finney’s light touch. These stories ease into their realms of weirdness almost without the reader even realizing. And there’s wonderful synchronicity in his work. In other words, when you sit back and consider how he ushered you into weirdness, it very often makes sense, and that’s perhaps the must haunting thought of all.
The Third Level, by Jack Finney, is out-of-print, and hard to find. There are few decently affordable copies available, so I’d grab those sooner than later, hunt it up in your local library, or—when we’re allowed to go outside again!—be on the lookout for it in out-of-the-way used bookstores in the middle of nowhere…which, of course, is the perfect set-up for a Jack Finney story…
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, and his most recent short story collection, Things You Need, was released September, 2018. He’s currently working on his first novel. For free monthly fiction, book reviews, YouTube commentaries, and three free ebooks, visit www.kevinlucia.blogspot.com and sign up for his monthly email newsletter.