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California Sorcery
edited by William F. Nolan and William Schafer
Ace Books, 273 pages

California Sorcery
The Writers
Names like Beaumont, Bloch, Bradbury, Ellison, Matheson... names that conjure up the best of American science fiction and fantasy of the last half century. And they were just a few of the talented young writers who, in the California of the early 50s, gravitated around Charles Beaumont and formed a writers' group variously termed "The Southern California School of Writers," "The Green Hand," or simply "The Group." Along with "inner circle" members George Clayton Johnson, William F. Nolan, and John Tomerlin, other members at one time or another included Charles E. Fritch, Bill Idelson, Chad Oliver, OCee Ritch, Frank M. Robinson, Rod Serling, and Jerry Sohl. These men wrote in a wide range of fields, including science fiction, fantasy, horror, westerns, crime, car racing and automotive reviews, men's magazines (e.g., Playboy), and screen- and tele-plays, amongst others. They wrote everything from children's comic book dialogues, Twilight Zone screenplays, to controversial novels of racial integration. When Beaumont died tragically at 34 of the early onset of Alzheimer's, "The Group" had lost the hub of its wheel and the members drifted apart, but a little bit of the "Twilight Zone sensibility" that had characterized many of their fictional works lived on in each of them.
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

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With a line-up with the likes of Beaumont, Bloch, Bradbury, Ellison, and Matheson the editors, including William F. Nolan, one of the original inner circle members of "The Group," would have been hard-pressed to present a poor book. Nine of the stories are original to California Sorcery (including a previously unpublished Charles Beaumont tale), three are reprints, and all carry a spark of what made this group of authors so influential in modern American imaginative fiction.

California Sorcery includes an introductory "biography" of the group by Christopher Conlon which complements much of the similar material presented in recent titles like Charles Beaumont: Selected Stories [a.k.a. The Howling Man (1992)], A Touch of the Creature and All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories. Along with this, each contributing author is introduced by William F. Nolan.

A number of the better tales have a distinctively Twilight Zone ambience and resolution to them, imaginative fiction with a twist and an underlying message. The first tale, "Always Before Your Voice," a piece which Richard Matheson wrote in 1954 but never sold, is a touching but nicely understated piece about frustrated desire. Charles E. Fritch's "Different" is a new story along the lines of the classic second season Twilight Zone episode "The Eye of the Beholder," just with a bit nastier ending. Still, its message would have fit in well with the veiled social commentary Serling was attempting through the Twilight Zone after his teleplays of the 50s were met with such persistent censorship. George Clayton Johnson's story of memory theft by an aspiring author, "The Man Who Was Slugger Malone," captures somewhat more the whimsical side of the Twilight Zone. Even, Chad Oliver's excellent reprinted anthropological science-fiction tale "The Wind Blows Free," my personal favourite of the collection, has a final twist which a Rod Serling walk-on would fit very nicely.

Some other tales, like the bawdy "The Way of a Man With a Maid" by Ray Russell (fiction editor for Playboy before he joined the group) and the Dime Detective "C.O.D. -- Corpse On Delivery" by Robert Bloch, are more distinctive and don't seem to carry the group influence, the former perhaps because Russell was already well established before joining the group, the latter perhaps because it was published in the 40s, some years before Bloch was involved in the group. Harlan Ellison's "The Function of Dream Sleep," a weird tale on overcoming grief, certainly fits in better in the collection. Ray Bradbury's "Pilgrimage" begins to approach the "Group" style, though the fact that his success predated the group and that he served as mentor to Beaumont, leaves him his wonderfully distinctive voice. In contrast, even newly written stories by the "inner circle" members Nolan and Tomerlin, show the same aesthetic and storytelling as were evident in the group's early works. William F. Nolan's humorous sci-fi western "Lone Star Traveller" and John Tomerlin's rite of passage tale "People of the Blue-Green Water," while not standout stories, certainly capture the best elements of the group's writing.

Two stories in California Sorcery do fall a bit short. One is a weak Star Trek-like tale of a carnivorous planet, "Hungry Alice" by Jerry Sohl. What is more unfortunate, however, is that Charles Beaumont is represented by "The Wages of Cynicism," a fairly weak and conventional night-in-the-cemetery-on-a-bet story, very much unlike the best of his work. Admittedly, it is a previously unpublished story, but as hub of the group wheel, perhaps reprinting one of Beaumont's classic tales would have been more appropriate. Notwithstanding this, California Sorcery is a book for anyone with an interest in the origins of recent American imaginative fiction, and a collection of excellent stories from the high wizards of "The Group."

Contents (alphabetically)

Charles Beaumont, "The Wages of Cynicism"
Robert Bloch, "C.O.D. -- Corpse On Delivery"
Ray Bradbury, "Pilgrimage"
Christopher Conlon, "Introduction: California Sorcerers"
Harlan Ellison, "The Function of Dream Sleep"
Charles E. Fritch, "Different"
George Clayton Johnson, "The Man Who Was Slugger Malone"
Richard Matheson, "Always Before Your Voice"
William F. Nolan, "Remembering 'The Group'" and "Lone Star Traveller"
Chad Oliver, "The Wind Blows Free"
Ray Russell, "The Way of a Man with a Maid"
Jerry Sohl, "Hungry Alice"
John Tomerlin, "People of the Blue-Green Water"

Copyright © 2001 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.


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