Back in the Zone

In general I’m a fan of reading the book before seeing the movie.  In some cases, however, the written version comes later.  A few months back I started to have a hankering for stories written by Rod Serling.  I’m aware that he mainly wrote scripts, but I also know he had a rare talent for doing so and most of the books I’d collected as a child were collections connected to Serling but not written by him.  He had, during his lifetime, “novelized” three volumes of Twilight Zone scripts into books of short stories.  The second of those books, More Stories from the Twilight Zone, is one I’d not read before.  I remembered some of tales from episodes I’d watched while others were new to me.  All that they have in common is that something isn’t as it “should be.”

This “oughtness” is an illusion, as we’ve learned over the past four years.  Each day has an incredible sameness even as everything changes radically, almost daily.  To me that’s one of the comforting aspects of the Twilight Zone in these days.  Not only does it take me back to my childhood, but it also prepares me for the unexpected.  Rod Serling was a great metaphorical writer.  Quite often on this blog I try my hand at it, writing posts that are apparently about one thing but that are really about something else.  I think most of us tend to be literalists when we read (thus the crisis literalism has wrought when it comes to the Good Book).  Unless we know to shift our focus we take things at face value.  These stories try to teach us otherwise.

Some of these stories anticipate Stephen King.  Others reflect Ray Bradbury.  They are eclectic but unified by a voice that was able to see that the world could actually stand some improvement.  People could treat each other better.  Without being preachy, they are often like morality plays.  Of course that is my experience of reading them.  Readers differ in their responses.  The Twilight Zone was an influential series in a world open to new experiences.  If the twentieth century has taught us nothing else it has shown us that we can take nothing for granted.  To go deeper than the surface, that’s as it should be.  What are the stories really about?  A large part of it will depend upon what the reader takes away from them.  All of this is very helpful, at least to this reader, in times like these.

In the Zone

Since it lies somewhere between waking and sleeping, between youth and old age, the Twilight Zone is often where I find myself.  I’m hard pressed to say why the show made such an impression on a young and otherwise religious mind.  Maybe it was because religion itself deals with the Twilight Zone of human experience.  In any case, reading Rod Serling’s Stories from the Twilight Zone, as I continue to make my way through the books of my childhood, was a trip down memory lane.  While living in coronapocalypse, these short stories, novelized from Serling’s teleplays, take you back to a different time.  The late fifties and early sixties seem so very different from where we are now.  And reading about them, I’m not sure why some people want to go back there.

At the same time, reading the physical book takes me back.  My edition was printed in 1964.  It smells like an old book.  It has that unmistakable feel of pulp fiction.  Reading a book is so much more than scanning the words with your eyes.  It’s the lying on your back on a lumpy couch on a hot, humid summer day after being at work for endless hours.  It’s the foxing of the pages and the almost laughable cover design.  But more than that, it’s a signpost back to childhood.  This is a book I first held before leaving home.  It was a refuge from a tense life never knowing what might happen in a day.  Believing that escape was possible could save a soul from a ton of grief.  At the same time, those characters who do escape often learn why that isn’t the best option after all.

Some of these stories I remembered from the shows I watched, while others seemed unfamiliar.  There really are no surprises here.  You see, the Twilight Zone was long ago and the stories have entered our national consciousness.  Some have been borrowed, adapted, and parodied by others.  Others, such as “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” were even part of anthologies we read and discussed in school.  Why are human beings so distrustful of others?  I remember us talking about that in class.  Serling’s version has a more grim ending, it seems, that the one I recollect as a youth.  Sitting here in coronapocalypse, however, I see it playing out around me every day.  We don’t know who might be infected.  And suddenly reading about the Twilight Zone seems like a most sensible thing to do in the circumstances.

Layers of Brick

If, like me, you can’t see a neighbor’s brickwork without thinking of “A Cask of Amontillado,” then I need not explain why I watch horror films.  I know that as of late some literary scholars have challenged the idea that Edgar Allan Poe wrote horror.  There is now, and always has been, a bias against the genre.  In fact, many would point out that Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone wasn’t really horror, no matter how creepy some of the episodes were.  Some would cast Ray Bradbury into that lot as well, and others would not.  I spend a lot of time pondering this because those of us who enjoy some of what’s called horror are often cast as misfits.  And misfits have a lot in common with monsters.

The connection with religion is a palpable, yet intangible one.  It does seem that religion has its origins in fear and as it branched out it came to have different emphases.  Jesus, for example, apparently stressed love, at least according to the gospel of John.  That religion of love came, eventually, back around to fear.  Calvinism, especially, is suffused with it.  There’s a reason that it is the religion expressed in particularly effective horror.  Apparently they meet similar needs, but psychology is not an exact science, and our tastes in it differ.  Even our interpretations do so.  As the bricklayer puts down row after row of masonry, the thoughts get walled up in days where work prevents serious consideration of the deeper questions.

It’s been years since I’ve read “A Cask of Amontillado.”  The story has stayed with me, however, whether it’s horror or not.  Stories about imprisonment are like that.  The other day a police car stopped outside our house.  We live in a working-class, but descent neighborhood.  From the bits and pieces glimpses out the window revealed, there was a problem with a car that had been parked on the street for quite a while, and that didn’t belong to any of the local residents.  The natural response to seeing that car just outside was fear.  We fear criminals and we fear the police.  We fear what Covid-19 is doing to us, even to those of us who’ve managed not to contract it.  Traditional religion would tell us punishment comes from the Almighty.  These things are all related.  And across the way the bricklayer keeps up his work, row after row.

WWW

With a few exceptions I think we’ve lived beyond the time when a single name could spawn an industry.  I used to watch re-runs (itself an arcane concept) of The Twilight Zone when I was a kid.  These weird stories drew me in, and, it seems clear, not only me.  Rod Serling’s brainchild led to an industry and “twilight zone” became a household concept.  Lots of little books were written bearing Serling’s name in some way.  One of those paperbacks was Rod Serling’s Triple W: Witches, Warlocks and Werewolves.  I can’t remember where I picked it up, but it was a used book and it had Rod Serling’s name right there on the cover.  Going over my books to find unread gems, I picked up Triple W and sat down to find out what it was like.

None of the stories are by Serling himself.  He’s listed as the editor and he wrote a very nice little introduction.  The tales here reflect, as the subtitle indicates, witches, warlocks, and werewolves.  Some are old stories and some are fairly recent for a book published early in the 1960s.  Descriptive writing does tend to evoke a scene, but I’m often amazed at just how dated it can make a story seem.  What struck writers from the 1940s and ’50s as huge sums of money are likely less than we pay for our monthly internet bill.  Men all try to act tough and the ladies prepare dinner.  Stereotypes.  That’s somehow appropriate for this collection since most of the stories have to do with witches.  Serling was well aware of the tragedies of history, and these tales are told mostly for fun.  The scariest characters are the witch hunters (generally men).

Serling’s famed conscience shows in the choice of the final piece.  Not a story, not even fiction, Charles Mackay’s “Witch Trials and the Law” is an essay about the horrors of witch hunting.  It’s a rather sober piece with which to end a book of speculative fiction, but then Serling was always known for his impatience with injustice.  Also included is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” which I’ve been wanting to read for some time.  Given his shame at the Salem trials and his own ancestor’s part in them, it was mildly surprising that Hawthorne’s story seems to presuppose the reality of witches.  Of course, it condemns the respectable folk who, in reality, all participate in the ills of the society in which they find themselves.  In all, this collection made me think.  Not bad for an impulse purchase on what was probably a rainy afternoon. 

Not Sterling

Only indirectly has the coronavirus pandemic influenced my decision to read books of short stories.  Indirectly because bookstores are closed and I have several such volumes gathered here at home.  This particular collection includes a book “especially written for young people” called Chilling Stories from Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.  This is a book I had as a young person, discarded, and then regretted discarding.  I have to say that most books I discard I eventually regret.  When you’re young and moving from apartment to apartment, though, you can’t keep all your books.  Anyway, I re-acquired it several years back.  The book doesn’t list an author.  Instead, the title page says “Adapted by Walter B. Gibson.”  Gibson was best known for writing The Shadow series.  The end result is that I don’t know who wrote the stories in this book.  They have the ideas of Rod Serling, but the writing isn’t in his style.

When I buy a book (I got this one used on the internet, back when it was young) I like to know the author.  WorldCat lists Serling as the author, but the book was published pre-ISBN days, back when publishers could be a bit less than transparent about such things.  Other websites put Gibson first under authors, followed by Serling.  The publisher, Tempo Books, was an imprint of Grosset & Dunlap, which eventually came under the Random House/Penguin umbrella.  Originally publishing primarily children’s books, Tempo lists this book for young readers, although as an adult reader I wonder if it could appeal to young people today.  There’s no sex and any violence is really implied rather than explicit, but there’s some adult-level subtlety going on.  Books for young readers are much different these days.

Just recently my daughter introduced me to the increasing sophistication of levels of book genres.  Like most readers and writers I’m encouraged at how young adult books have taken off.  A future generation of readers is cause for hope.  There are now “new adult books.”  These are targeted at those college aged or just over.  Unlike young adult titles they’ll have sex and adult language.  My Twilight Zone book lacks these, and it also lacks the sparkle of Serling’s teleplays.  Serling was a playwright and screenwriter.  These stories clearly contain his ideas but not his ability.  I didn’t know that as a child.  I do know that I never finished the book before now.  One of the reasons, I expect, is that it didn’t really seem like I was reading Serling, even to my young self.  Still, ghost stories during a pandemic have their own appropriate place, and who doesn’t want to be young at heart?

The Tube

I’m sitting in a medical facility waiting room.  I’m not afraid of dying, but medical stuff terrifies me.  To calm me down, inane daytime television is on.  I may be one of the very few who brings a book to such places, but I can’t read with the insipid chatter going on.  This time, since I’m waiting for someone else, I brought my laptop.  Nevertheless, I can’t help but think of Ray Bradbury at times like this.  Many people think Fahrenheit 451 is about burning books.  Bradbury did write about burning books in his short stories, and it does happen in Fahrenheit 451, but that’s not what the book is about.  In interviews he said that he intended, as is pretty obvious from a straightforward reading of the text, to warn about the invasive nature of television.  It was, metaphorically, burning books.

Waiting rooms always bring that to mind.  Not only that, but it’s Valentine’s Day and all the talk shows are going on about how it’s “the day of love” (every day should be).  It’s not a day off work; I had to cash in a sick day to be here.  The word “holiday” keeps cropping up on the television, to which I have my back. Ever since leaving Nashotah House I haven’t watched television.  On our recent move to Pennsylvania our cable company didn’t offer a non-television option.  It was unthinkable.  We pay for something we don’t use.  Burning books.  I don’t have time for television.  I see shows that have proven their worth via DVD well after they’re off the air.  And that only when I can read or write no more in a day.  I guess I’m a Bradbury disciple.

Like any disciple, I have changed certain teachings of my leader.  Bradburyism is a religion objecting to ubiquitous television.  At the same time, I grew up watching the tube, and to this day I’ll stop just about anything to watch DVDs of The Twilight Zone.  Rod Serling, however, selected stories and teleplays that were well written.  This was a literate show.  Besides, my daily life often feels like the Twilight Zone.  Like Valentine’s Day in a waiting room.  The book beside me remains unopened.  It’s the same when I take the car to the garage, or go in for an oil change.  You can’t escape it, even though everyone else is paying attention to their phones.  How long until we learn to switch off?  Of course, medical waiting rooms are the places where I may need brainless distraction the most.

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

Religion, He Wrote

A friend recently sent me the New York Times obituary for Carol Serling, the wife of one of my heroes, Rod Serling.  Perhaps it’s a personal weakness, but I often wonder about the religion of my favorite writers.  More often than not I discover that they’re affiliated with tolerant faiths, sometimes unattached to any specific tradition.  Rod Serling grew up Jewish but became a Unitarian-Universalist by marriage, and—it doesn’t stretch the imagination—remained one by conviction.  I’ve read a bit about the UU tradition, and it is based primarily on values rather than beliefs.  In fact, the idea that religion is a matter of what you believe is only one way of defining it.  Historically one’s religion was a matter of what one did, not necessarily what she or he believed.

Authors that I read often deal with religious issues.  It’s important to confess that I don’t select fiction based on its having religious themes.  Anyone who’s read more than one or two of my posts will know my reading is eclectic and many of the books represented here have shown up because of wildly different circumstances.  Reading challenges, friends’ recommendations, and preparations for educational presentations are often driving forces.  In the fictional realm I’m drawn to the speculative, but also often to the catch-all category called “literary.”  Stories that feel authentic in either category have an element of religion in them.  Life portrayed without it doesn’t seem believable.  I’ve been re-reading some Ray Bradbury.  There’s often suggestive material there.

Raised a Baptist, Bradbury is often also claimed as a Unitarian-Universalist.  Apparently he didn’t like the label, but his behavior was more a selection of tenets that he found compelling from various religions.  All of this may sound strange in a context where “religion” is increasingly a dirty word.  (To be honest, it has been doing much to earn such a reputation.)  Still, it is a very deep part of being human.  Rod Serling’s stories advocated fair treatment of all people and often his sense of justice landed him in trouble with advertisers for The Twilight Zone.  Religions comfortable with maintaining prejudice, or turning a blind eye to lawbreaking in the name of false virtue would certainly not understand refusing to take money from questionable sources.  I suppose there’s a reason I enjoy the stories from the days when America still had a conscience.  The legacies of such writers, it is to be hoped, will outlast what passes for religion these days. 

Any other gods before me…

Significant Places

Upstate New York may not get the attention that the state’s largest city does, but it is a place of wonder.  One of those sources of significance is the unique blend of individuals who’ve impacted both American culture, and, in turn, my life, that called this region home.  It’s difficult to describe what I’m feeling as I’m standing next to Rod Serling’s grave.  This is a man who held a profound influence over my outlook by letting his imagination go where it would.  It’s more than the Twilight Zone—although its theme is one of the ringtones on my phone—it’s the sense that I somehow knew this man I never met.  It’s also the sense that his gravesite is so humble, in a rural area outside a small town, the kind that often featured in the stories he wrote and presented.  It’s the sense of connection.

As I young person I practiced writing short stories based on the mood set by the Twilight Zone, with a dash of Ray Bradbury thrown in.  From a small town myself, imagination was my means of enlarging my world.  We didn’t have the money to go many places but the magic box in our living room could take me to weird places alive with transcendence.  The results were beyond price and there was something deep and liberating here, even for a kid whose religion said it was all nonsense.  Even religion requires escaping sometimes.  I know the publishing world has moved beyond what was fashionable in the sixties and seventies, but that can’t dislodge the shard in my chest right now.  If there are spirits in cemeteries, they are here.

Some time ago I began, as I had time, uploading my photos of famous writers’ graves (along with those of other recognized names) on Pinterest.  On the way to Interlaken, I wondered aloud why nobody seemed to show an interest.  I find cemeteries peaceful places, and sacred spaces are those where people significant to us have been, in some form, at some time.  I know Rod Serling loved upstate New York.  It was his escape from the busy life of a writer whose cachet was marketable back in the days when anything seemed possible.  Retreats are those places we go to restore ourselves when work simply won’t allow creative people to have unstructured time.  I wasn’t expecting a huge mausoleum or towering monument here.  Others have found their way to this place nevertheless.  I am in a sacred place and the quiet here is kind of a prayer.

Belonging

You never know where you might find yourself, but wherever it is it’ll cost you some money.  Well, at least in this instance it did.  Nashotah House sent me packing just as we were thinking about college for our daughter.  It took several years to find any kind of full-time position again, and when university time began I had had a full salaried job for a total of one year of the last seven.  Not ideal, of course.  I remember sitting (again) in the financial aid office, explaining the situation and, as it often goes in higher education, receiving no mercy.  As much as I remember the conversation, I don’t recall a photographer in the room.   There must’ve been, though, since I recently showed up on the Binghamton University website.

I had, of course, applied for a job or two there.  When out of state tuition is riding on such a deal, however, I doubt there’s any way to get considered.  I actually like Binghamton University quite a lot.  I appreciate the fact that it doesn’t pour its money into a football team and that it has the reputation of being a “Public Ivy” school.  I even like the campus removed from city bounds—just like Nashotah House.  I did end up paying them quite a bit of lucre through the years, even as my own alma maters were asking alms.  Higher education is a funny world.  Standing somewhere between a money-making venture and a site of education for its own sake.  Many professors don’t realize just how privileged they are to have jobs like that.

Upstate New York, although I’ve never lived there, is one of my ancestral homes.  My grandfather and his family had lived in the area at least as far back as the 1770s.  I tried to convey that sense of connection in my application, many years ago now.  Academia doesn’t put much stock in the idea of belonging, I guess.  It has become far too businesslike for that.  Binghamton was also the town in which Rod Serling, one of my childhood heroes, grew up.  There seemed to be so many reasons to be in that area.  Eventually I settled for life in my own native Pennsylvania.  People sense, although academics less than others apparently, that they belong in a place.  And if you can’t actually be there, you can still spend your money in any location.  I’ve now got a picture to prove it.

The Zone

My youth—who am I kidding?—my life has been a search for father figures.  Since I grew up with television, many of them came from the tube.  The professor from Gilligan’s Island, Mr. Rogers, Barnabas Collins, and Rod Serling.  Serling was like the father I couldn’t remember in that he was always smoking.  But unlike my father, Serling had an imagination in sync with mine.  The Twilight Zone was in reruns by the time I caught up, but it gave me an odd kind of happiness.  The sort that you had as a kid after the bath was over and you were wrapped up snuggly and warm in a bathrobe, and you got to watch one of your favorite shows before going to bed.  I discovered Serling as a writer when I was in Junior High School.  He was right up there next to Ray Bradbury, in my book.

I have to admit to feeling anxious as I read Anne Serling’s As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling.  You see, she actually was his child and I’m afraid of learning too much about those I put on my personal pedestals.  Her book, however, didn’t disappoint.  Serling lived a writer’s life, something I’ve coveted since I was a kid.  If I couldn’t have a father, at least I could write about life as I saw it.  I still write fiction inspired by, among others, Rod Serling.  Spending much of my time in Binghamton and Ithaca for my own family reasons, I was only obliquely aware of how much I was traversing the region Serling considered home.  As I read his daughter’s autobiography—or is it a biography?  Who can tell the difference?—I was inexorably drawn in.  Fathers and daughters can be the best of friends.

Sometimes I wonder if those who know writers the best are their true fans.  I don’t mean groupies or the like, but rather those whose lives have been transformed by their words.  I’m reminded of Evermore, written by a relative of Edgar Allan Poe.  Family, it is true, see a side of a person that the reader does not.  But who are we, really?  Those of us who write may be saying more in our fiction than we care to admit even to those who know us well.  Rod Serling recognized dimensions well, I suspect.  A writer’s life requires sacrifice and keeping things hidden.  Anne Serling’s book is a gift to those who write, even if it is about someone else’s father.

On a Jet Plane

So I’m heading to England.  Not for pleasure—this is a business trip.  Long ago, back when I worked for Routledge, I discovered that I dislike business travel.  Unlike vacation planning where the possibilities spread out beautifully before you—for this is free time and you decide—business travel is, like Peter was told, “thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.”  Indeed.  Business travel is at the whim of the man, and you can’t really look forward to the sights, the relaxation, or even being given the choice of where to go.  You’re on assignment.  Or consignment, I can’t recall which.  The carefully honed routine with which you hold back the chaos of the world is blown apart.  It begins with the red eye.

You see, companies don’t like you to make your own travel plans.  You might chose a flight that’s pennies more expensive than some itinerary that routes you through Albuquerque at four a.m.  It’s not like you’ve got anything better to do, right?  And since you’re exempt, we’ll take your Sunday, gratis.  Where’s your team spirit?  As I’ve grown older, I’ve become a creature of habit.  The hour of the typical red eye is when I get up to write.  That can’t be done in an airport, or on a plane, where everyone can see you.  No, this is a private thing.  Everyone else must be asleep.  Most of them, preferably, in another house.  So I’m flying to London and catch a late-night bus to Oxford.

Part of my worry, dear readers, is you.  As this blog approaches its tenth birthday, I’ve been in the habit of posting daily for many years.  Mostly at the same time—weekends and commuting days are exceptions, of course—and when you’re changing time zones you might do well to have Rod Serling with you.  I can’t figure them out.  British hotels, also, do not offer wifi in their rooms unless the boss wants you to pay extra for it.  And considering the mandated flight behavior, that’s best just taken off the table.  So, as I prepare to leave before sunrise on one of the longest days of the year, I don’t know if or when I’ll get to post over the next few days.  I won’t even know what time it is.  Like pay toilets, charging for internet access ought to be criminal these days.  But opportunities to take money are everywhere.  And those of us who travel for business always rely on the kindness of capitalists.

Not-Quite-Normal Religion

I’ve been thinking about categories quite a lot lately.  In a world connected by the internet, it seems that traditional categories don’t stretch far enough.  For example, I recently read The Paranormal and Popular Culture: A Postmodern Religious Landscape, edited by Darryl Caterine and John W. Morehead.  Published by Routledge, this is an academic study.  It contains some things, however, that many academics would find challenging.  I can’t summarize the entire book here since there are twenty very different essays included, but I can say this is a book that makes you think about categories.  Even the word “paranormal” means different things to different people.  To my way of thinking it has to tip the hat to Rod Serling and that place where fiction and fact begin to overlap.

That’s appropriate for this book: there are articles about what people perceive as factual encounters with all kinds of creatures and events, as well as studies of the decidedly fictional beings like Batman and zombies.  Our categories, in the modern world, tend to be inviolable.  Even scientists who handle Heisenberg know, however, that we are now in the postmodern world (as the subtitle indicates) and true objectivity is beyond the reach of all.  None of us stands outside the box looking in.  We’re all in the middle of it, and we look around ourselves trying to figure out what is real.  Another problematic category that, reality.  We don’t even understand what consciousness is yet, and how can we hope to know what is really real?  We all have dreams and some take them more seriously than others.

Reading books like this with an open mind is a truly po-mo experience.  After finishing more than one piece I found myself having to put the book down for a while at least so I’d have a hand free to scratch my head.  You see, we’ve been taught to laugh at those who believe in the paranormal.  It has been the only acceptable way that rationalists can deal with that which flies in the face of the system.  The internet, however, has put those isolated, ridiculed individuals into a community and the advent of reality TV (and what can be more real than what we see on the tube?) erodes the laughter factor little by little.  Plumbers can find ghosts but scientists can’t.  The average person relates more to the plumber, I think.  It all comes down to categories.  Making sense of them can, and will, impact our views of reality.

Bookish Dreams

Driving into upstate New York via interstate 81 you’ll find a remarkable rest stop.  To put this into context, I should say that my wife and I have driven from Maine to Washington (not on a single trip) and from Wisconsin to Louisiana and South Carolina.  We’ve laid down considerable mileage together, and never have we encountered such a nice rest stop.  Clean, modern, and featuring local goods for sale, it’s a loving homage to the southern tier, the New York outside the city.  One of the features of this unusual facility is a terrazzo floor fresco highlighting the various points of interest within a couple hours’ drive.  Mostly when we stop here we look toward Binghamton and Ithaca, the cities we most frequently visit.  We stop to use the restroom and then drive on.

When we stopped over the holidays, however, we lingered a little bit.  There’s a display on Mark Twain—he lived in Elmira, New York for a time—and there’s an in-ground plaque outside to Rod Serling.  I spent some time looking over the points of interest in the floor map when my wife pointed out a site listed as Hobart Book Village of the Catskills.  I couldn’t believe that I’d been in this building dozens of times but had never bothered to look that far east.  Curious, I did a web search once we reached out destination.  There is, it turns out, a village in upstate known for its main street of book stores.  What perhaps impressed me even more was that it was considered significant enough to be given a kind of “Hollywood star” treatment in what is an often overlooked part of the state.

Now I can’t say what my impressions of Hobart are.  I’ve never been there, having just learned of it on a recent roadtrip.  What I can say is that my world suddenly began to feel just a bit more friendly knowing that such a place exists.  We live in a country that could indeed use a bit more positive influence.  Some of my happiest memories involve bookstores.  Back in my teaching days we made regular autumnal literary weekend trips, visiting sites haunted by writers.  Often we’d find an independent bookstore near such sacred places.  To many, I realize, this would smack of nonsense, but to those ensconced in literary dreams, it created pleasant memories.  You feel something in the air as you stand near the house or grave of an author.  Places are made sacred by what transpires within them.  The writing of books shapes the very space-time around them.  At least it does for those who even find inspiration in an interstate rest stop.

Devolving Apes

It would be difficult to overestimate the effect the movie Planet of the Apes had on me as a child. Raised a biblical literalist, evolution was, naturally enough, anathema to me. And yet here was a movie based on the idea that evolution had taken a different course. It was a transgressive film, but the screenplay had been written by Rod Serling, so well known for his trusted work on The Twilight Zone. I was utterly fascinated by it. Until the most recent iteration, I’d seen every sequel, spinoff, and reboot ever made. So important was this story line that as a child I found a copy of the book, in English, of course. Pierre Boulle told the story somewhat differently. Spying the book on my shelf after some four decades of my own evolution, I decided to read it again.

We all evolve. I noticed the improbabilities more this time through. The fact that, unlike the movie, humans wore no clothes at all must’ve scandalized my young eyes. I would’ve agreed, however, with Ulysse Mérou’s sentiments that humans were created in the image of God, not apes. In fact, there is an undercurrent of a somewhat conservative theological outlook here. Humans may experiment on animals, but when it’s reversed, it’s evil. In many ways, the cinematic version improves the story, but Boulle’s telling grows in intensity as the novel unfolds. Mérou develops a moral sense that includes the apes as well as human beings. The story, of course, is largely about prejudice and its evils. In that respect, it’s timeless.

As a child I realized that we lose something if we accept the fact of evolution. We lose that special feeling of having been intentionally created by a deity that made us God-shaped. Ironically, I also came to realize that those who rejected evolution often treated their fellow humans like animals. They held onto prejudices against other “races.” They castigated the poor for being lazy. They wish to remove healthcare from those made in the image of God. The contradictions and cruelties simply don’t comport with the Good Book they adore and ignore. Evolution, with the realities of nature impinging on our security, is far less dangerous than what biblical literalism has evolved to be. I can’t say why this book and its cinematic renditions became so deeply embedded in my young mind. But having read the book again, it’s pretty clear that the ideas have remained there, even as they have modified, with descent, over time.

A Kind of Contact

I find myself in Ithaca, New York. Places have a resonance with people, and this is one of those places I feel like I belong. The feeling may not be mutual, but that makes it no less real. At least on my part. Dominated by the presence of Cornell University, this town of waterfalls and free spirits represents everything I value. Education, creativity, and an easy familiarity with nature all have a place here. And Carl Sagan. No doubt astrophysics is far more sexy than religious studies. I didn’t watch Cosmos when it aired, but I knew of Sagan as its driving force. Before being daunted by the math, I had considered astronomy as a career; Denied tenure at Harvard, Sagan came to be associated with Cornell, to Ithaca’s enduring benefit. His house above Ithaca Falls is still pointed out by the locals.

Star status for academics, so I’m informed, is a mixed blessing. Accusations of being a popularizer are flung somewhat liberally at those who know how to explain things to non-specialists. Part of the ivory tower mystique is to remain inaccessible and impenetrable. Teaching, at the same time, is expected to open lost worlds to the curious. Sagan, like Bill Nye—another Cornell star—wasn’t afraid to take his knowledge to the streets. And such receptive streets there are in Ithaca. It’s a place a child of the sixties can feel at home. Looking for fossils in the many gorges, I’m reminded that the old and new are not so different in a universe billions of years old.

The sense of place, while scientifically dubious, is nevertheless real. Part of my ancestral heritage lies in upstate New York. My grandfather, while not a college man, took a couple of courses at what was then Cornell College to launch his teaching career. Following in grand-dad’s footsteps, my own teaching career (which, however, never included Cornell) didn’t last long. Yet somehow we both ended up passing through Ithaca. People on the street. Waiting to be enlightened by stars that shine brighter than my own. Life is a series of places. All, it turns out, are temporary. Rod Serling once said, ”Everyone has to have a hometown, Binghamton’s mine.” He left the nearby town, but he has remained there ever since. Places are that way. I’m in Ithaca right now, but the stark reality of New Jersey awaits at the end of the day.