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All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories
George Clayton Johnson
Subterranean Press, 447 pages

All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories
George Clayton Johnson
George Clayton Johnson (1929- ) was born and brought up in rural Wyoming during the Depression. From a poor family, his mother an alcoholic, he spent much of his youth in an orphanage and fairly little in school -- but he loved to read. His reading interests ranged from Shakespeare to pulp magazines, and it was there that he discovered Ray Bradbury. After some years as a drifter he went to California in 1950. After marrying his wife Lola, he fell in with Charles Beaumont's group of writer friends that included Roger Anker, Ray Bradbury, Charles Fritch, Richard Matheson, William F. Nolan (with whom he co-wrote Logan's Run), Chad Oliver, OCee Ritch, Frank Robinson, Ray Russell, Rod Serling, Jerry Sohl, and John Tomerlin. Mentored by Ray Bradbury, Johnson, with the help of Beaumont sold his story "All of Us Are Dying" to The Twilight Zone. It was the first of four stories Johnson would be credited for on Serling's classic show. Johnson has also written for several other TV shows including Star Trek, Kung Fu and The Law and Mr. Jones.

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Subterranean Press

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Some authors just don't get the breaks or the fame. They write excellent material, but 30 or 40 years after their prime they are largely forgotten, relegated to the one or two-hit-wonder graveyard. This is particularly true for writers whose work has been mainly screenplays, ghost-writing, or writing unacknowledged for venues such as comic-books or radio serials. As Dennis Etchison points out in his "Afterword," this is the case of George Clayton Johnson: the fact that he has not been published extensively makes him no less of a writer. Even his close friend Charles Beaumont (1929-1967), who did publish 4 major anthologies of short stories in his lifetime, was somewhat forgotten until a collection of his tales introduced by his many friends (see Johnson's bio), Charles Beaumont: Selected Stories (Dark Harvest, 1988; a.k.a. The Howling Man, TOR, 1992), won the Bram Stoker Award. All Of Us Are Dying... is an attempt to correct this situation in George Clayton Johnson's case.

All Of Us Are Dying contains several short-stories (new and old), story outlines, screenplays, commentary and interviews with the author. At over 450 pages, this book certainly represents a hearty sampling of a lifetime of work, and something for everyone's tastes. Clayton was certainly one of the best of the American imaginative/horror fiction writers to emerge from the post-war 50s, including Beaumont, Matheson, and Serling. In some ways his writing is a bit difficult to approach for a reader of standard short-stories and novels, since his writing is succinct, has a paucity of descriptions of characters, and they often speak in the colloquial English of their time. This is something I would attribute to him writing extensively in the form of screenplays and plot summaries. To say that Johnson's writing is dated might be going too far, but most of the work in this collection has a certain mood that ranges from the 50s America of Twilight Zone and Father Knows Best to the 60s irreverence of Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Show. Not that I'm suggesting this is bad, but the cultural context of many of the pieces and colloquial expressions of the time are known to many of today's readers either through having lived then or through the many TV and film reruns. I, for example, am much more likely to identify a story set in the Disco-era 70s as dated, than I might a story set in the context of 20s New Orleans jazz. Because much of the writing of Johnson had to be geared for TV or film, it has many of the cultural and thematic limitations inherent in getting a story past the network/studio censors, and pleasing the sponsors; something that undoubtedly enhances its datedness.

One example of the 50s mood is the screenplay "The Boy Who Said No" from the TV show The Law and Mr. Jones, where an 11-year old boy questions American revisionist history of General Custer as hero. Lincoln Jones, lawyer-extraordinaire, fights for Tommy's right to free speech, assuming the role of Tommy's father (he'd be hauled off for kidnapping nowadays). A healthy dose of Mom and apple pie, along with a social message, something that was to get authors like Serling into so much trouble with the network censors. This isn't to say that some pieces written at nearly the same time, like "Nothing in the Dark" and "Kick the Can" from The Twilight Zone, aren't timeless classics. In the 60s vein is "The Gulfs of Space," a long screenplay about what happens when Christopher Columbus goes off the edge of the world and, along with some sailors, ends up in a 60s hippie version of New York City, complete with the brutal pigs, pushers, hop-heads, Jesus freaks, and nasty corrupt tycoons living in ivory towers. If you didn't live the 60s, or didn't, like me, vicariously live them through older cousins, this piece, like a re-run of Laugh-In will leave you wondering why anyone could have thought it amusing.

Though there are many excellent well-known short stories and screenplays, among the best pieces in the book are Johnson's reminiscences and commentaries on the life of a writer, some of which are from interviews with Christopher Conlon, who writes the introduction to the book. The first story, "Your Three Minutes Are Up," is a wonderful nostalgic piece where Johnson receives a phone call from Charles Beaumont, resident of the afterlife, asking Johnson to get the old group back together again. Johnson's unproduced script for Star Trek, "Rock-a-Bye Baby -- Or Die," is an interesting story of a newborn interstellar entity coming to life, aging and dying within the Enterprise computer and circuitry. One of the more interesting pieces is the story outline of "Lovecraft: A Movie Proposal." Johnson paints a pretty scathing picture of Lovecraft as a maladjusted prissy boy, who gets reeled in by his wife Sonia. The story centres around Lovecraft's death bed and who will get their hands on his literary rights. There are flashbacks to Lovecraft meeting Sonia during his involvement with the United Amateur Press Association (one of the first fan associations). It was wonderful in some ways to see Lovecraft, not deified through the eyes of his adoring disciples, but in a cold, objective manner.

The best, and most heartfelt piece in the entire book is the auto-biographical novella "Every Other War" about some of his time as a near penniless drifter in the American south. While it is generally upbeat, it has much of the dark realism of the noir writers like Cornell Woolrich and Jim Thompson. It is extremely similar, in many ways, to portions of Jim Thompson's autobiographical Bad Boy (1953), except that the young Johnson is more the innocent nice guy down-on-his-luck than the hardened grifter/small time criminal that was Thompson. It seems that Johnson's stories are that much better when they have not been written under the constraints of TV and film.

So if you want to experience the Renaissance of American imaginative fiction of the 50s and early 60s, pick up a copy of Johnson's All of Us Are Dying..., Beaumont's The Howling Man, Richard Matheson's Born of Man and Woman a.k.a. Third From the Sun (1955), and maybe some of Rod Serling's stories from The Twilight Zone, and see what the best of the era was like. Don't let the format or the societal context put you off because you'd be missing some of the best American horror and fantasy of the time -- no -- of all time!

Copyright © 1999 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.

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