INTRODUCTION: CHRISTOPHER CONLON’S TWILIGHT ZONE
If you’ve read a good deal of weird fiction, then you’ve no doubt noticed that the best of writers are able to convey a strong sense of place. This is true of any type of fiction, whether it be contemporary, historical, genre or mainstream. Any writer will focus on character or plot to drive the story, a good writer will use both, a great writer will also incorporate such a firm sense of place as to make the setting as alive and vibrant as the characters. Can one imagine the novels of Cormac McCarthy without visualizing West Texas and New Mexico? Can you discuss the works of H.P. Lovecraft without picturing the old decaying towns of New England? Could you envision the work of Lovecraft’s main disciple, August W. Derleth, without feeling the chill of a Wisconsin winter? Most importantly to the issue at hand, can you imagine the works of Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, or George Clayton Johnson without picturing Southern California? Of course not. These writers all incorporated a sense of place so strong that it imbued their work with a verisimilitude that made even the most fantastic stories take on a feeling of reality. That the California group worked on Rod Serling’s classic series The Twilight Zone is one of the factors that made the series deserve the title of “classic.”
Had he been born some decades earlier, there is no doubt in my mind that Christopher Conlon, a California native, would have been among their number. Certainly he’s written authoritatively on the subject of that unique feel of the weird fiction authored by this group in general and on several of these authors in particular. It’s perhaps impossible to study a subject so closely that it doesn’t begin to shade one’s own work. Despite having relocated to the eastern part of the country, that peculiar feel of Southern California and The Twilight Zone is definitely present in his work, and I mean this as a high compliment. There’s a reason that Rod Serling’s dark visions of the weird intruding into our mundane lives are still re-run to an appreciative audience some fifty years after their creation. The reason is simple: due to a deft blending of plot and character the stories of The Twilight Zone spoke to us on that deep level that only the best of fiction reaches. This is why I say that had he been born decades earlier, Chris Conlon would likely have written for The Twilight Zone. His novels and stories reach us on that deeper, fundamental level that only the best of fiction touches.
It’s unusual to encounter a writer who has mastered so many forms. There’s a far different Christopher Conlon on display in the collection of surreal and comedic vignettes, Herding Ravens, than the master of the long form you meet in this volume. Both versions are more than worthy of your attention. The two novellas contained herein are his latest, and I feel among his best work. Both represent what he calls “re-imaginings” of classic texts—“The Tell-Tale Soul” expands and revises Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” while “Beyond the Silver Horizon” is a fantasy riff on Eugene O’Neill’s tragic drama Beyond the Horizon. That he comes from a background in poetry is obvious, and that he’s had considerable success in the literary “little magazines” should surprise no one. Conlon comes at the genre from a far different place than the crowd that thinks Stephen King invented horror fiction and that for a book to be “horror” it must have a black, die-cut cover. I suppose that I feel a certain kinship with Chris as my own career in the genre followed an odd trajectory, as has his. Those of you who are familiar with my work saw me start as a publisher, become an award-winning editor and, finally, a professional writer. Chris placed one story in a genre magazine back in 1986 (the year I started); from that point his work was to be found in the literary journals but not in any genre publications until 1999 when his essay “Southern California Sorcerers” appeared in the popular anthology California Sorcery, followed in short order by the introduction to George Clayton Johnson’s All of Us Are Dying.
An informative introduction to William F. Nolan’s Dark Universe followed, and then two much-needed collections of the scripts and short fiction of Jerry Sohl—including his scripts for The Twilight Zone. Then in 2006 Christopher Conlon really put himself on the map with his own slim collection Thundershowers at Dusk: Gothic Stories and the landmark anthology Poe’s Lighthouse from Cemetery Dance Publications, featuring posthumous collaborations by modern masters with the great Poe. Conlon called on a wide variety of writers, including the California greats William F. Nolan, George Clayton Johnson, and Richard A. Lupoff; science fiction greats such as Mike Resnick, Kage Baker, and Rudy Rucker; as well as newer voices in the genre such as Tim Lebbon and Nick Mamatas. A remarkable book to be sure; gathering nearly two dozen different takes all starting with the same Poe fragment is a remarkable editorial achievement and, while well-received, surprisingly the book did not garner any of the field’s major awards.
One major name had been missing from Conlon’s fine work on the Southern California authors: Richard Matheson. Conlon made up for this in fine form with the 2009 tribute anthology, He is Legend. Not only was the book an excellent aggregate of new stories, but as a bonus it included the script for Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, written by Matheson and the late, great Charles Beaumont. The anthology went through multiple editions and received the award for Superior Achievement in an Anthology from the Horror Writers Association. If people had failed to take notice the preceding year when Conlon’s debut novel Midnight on Mourn Street was released by Earthling Publications, they took notice now. For those that follow the trivia of such things, this is the only time that any individual has been nominated for Superior Achievement in a First Novel and Superior Achievement in an Anthology in back-to-back years. And Christopher Conlon’s been on a roll ever since …
There have been three very different and very disturbing novels, A Matrix of Angels (Stoker Award finalist), Lullaby for the Rain Girl, and Savaging the Dark, along with a powerful collection, The Oblivion Room: Stories of Violation. Collectors haven’t discovered Conlon in such numbers as to have driven the prices of his books through the stratosphere. There’s still time to get in on the ground floor, as it were. So far Christopher Conlon has compiled a small but very distinguished body of work and, having started at a level that many writers merely aspire to, he’s not only maintained that level, but has grown and improved as these two novellas will attest. If you’re just now discovering the work of Christopher Conlon, you’re in for a treat. If you’ve been following all along, then you know that you’re in for a trip to very strange and very dark places, a segment of the Twilight Zone that Chris Conlon has made all his own.
Gallup, New Mexico