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Spooky Sci-Fi

In 1959, nearly at the peak of the golden age of sci-fi, Rod Serling began producing a weekly science fiction television series called The Twilight Zone. The short, 30-minute teleplays were perfect visual venues for the sci-fi short stories being published in the pulp magazines. Although Serling wrote most of the 156 episodes himself, he also adapted many stories from other authors.

If you’ve ever seen some of these old TV programs (and who hasn’t?) their format will be familiar. Typically, they are “soft sci-fi” stories that begin in some ordinary, comfortable setting like an old farmhouse or a passenger airplane, but then turn weird and scary. And, of course, there was usually a twist at the end of the program.

After each episode had concluded, Serling himself would break the fourth wall to offer some philosophical words of wisdom to the viewer. I always loved these epilogues because they made me think beyond the story itself, beyond the entertainment aspect. Great sci-fi is not just about telling a story — it’s about making a point, a deeper observation about human (or alien) existence.

Here are two great stories by sci-fi authors that were first published in one of the periodicals and later became an episode of that iconic TV series, The Twilight Zone. Mr. Serling’s original epilogues are quoted after each.

Damon Knight’s To Serve Man — 1950 Galaxy Science Fiction, ep. #89

The recollections of one Michael Chambers, with appropriate flashbacks and soliloquy. Or, more simply stated, the evolution of man. The cycle of going from dust to dessert. The metamorphosis from being the ruler of a planet to an ingredient in someone’s soup. It’s tonight’s bill of fare from the Twilight Zone.

Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge — 1890 San Francisco Examiner, ep. #142

An occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge — in two forms, as it was dreamed, and as it was lived and died. This is the stuff of fantasy, the thread of imagination… the ingredients of the Twilight Zone.

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Hard to beat William Shatner in “Nightmare at 20,000 feet.” The creature is dated looking at it now, but it does little to dilute the terror of the moment. When it’s on the wing, it was so good.

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