The Edge: by Charles Beaumont





Charles Beaumont's name is fairly well-known amongst weird fiction and horror fans, perhaps because his books are irritatingly hard to track down and so remain on some infernal, unfulfilled wish-list. He was a chief writer on the original Twilight Zone series and penned the low-budget William Shatner film The Intruder, as well as a number of short stories which appeared in a variety of pulp magazines and were later collected in volumes like The Howling Man and The Edge.

The New People takes the well-worn theme of jaded suburbia and adds a reasonable (for the time) twist, but not a twist that could be used now. And perhaps not even then - because the story trades one suburban myth for another in a very effective way. Hank and Anne Prentice, and their adopted son Davey, take possession of their new home - rather uneasily, as the previous resident committed suicide. But they settle into a neighbourhood that appears otherwise respectable and modest. In fact, they themselves appear to be the only oddities: "He wondered what it would be like to sleep with her. Probably it would be very nice." She is, of course, his wife. Because Hank is impotent and Ann is a virgin. Here you can locate the twist in the story, the point being that suburbanites have a way of finding the one fatal weakness/strength in a stranger, usually to diabolical ends...

I'm sure The Howling Man has been anthologised by Pan or Fontana at some point. I have encountered it outside of the pages of The Edge, somewhere. Or maybe it's just that the atmosphere of the story is so immediately a classic that it provides its own afterlife. An American student, touring Europe before he takes a job with his family's legal practice, falls ill with pneumonia and wakes to find he has been nursed back to health by an order of monks in a timeless abbey. But the student is not their only guest - there is also the mysterious howling man of the title, of whom the monks decry all knowledge, refusing not only to hear his cries, but also to acknowledge his existence. The student resolves to help the man escape...  The Howling Man makes effective use of the New World meets Old World setup; its descriptions of the German landscape are almost medieval, treating Europe as an ancient forest that requires regime change.

Of the remainder, there is some energy and verve in Mother's Day, the story of an Irishman forced to mate with a stick-like Martian; The New Sound is the engaging story of the world's first (and last) practicing necroaudiophile; Song For a Lady is an atypical deathship story (depressingly this story reminded me that I'm one of the vanishingly small number of human beings who can put a face to the name C. Aubrey Smith); and in The Magic Man, a travelling magician in the Old West gives a little too much of his act away to strangers...

For the most part Beaumont's stories are very well-developed. They go where they need to go with minimum fuss and maximum gain. There is a good deal of attention to detail, and he has a talent for an apt phrase. As an author he makes no attempt to outsmart his reader; his conceits are such that we are delighted in short order, and spend the remainder of the story co-writing their conclusions. Sadly, Beaumont suffered a fairly odd and premature death in his late 30s from something called pre-senile dementia; perhaps he believed his own stories, which now resemble the grisly output of a cantankerous O'Henry gone impeccably to seed.

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