Keep It Short

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I’ve been watching the first disc of the newly released DVD of Night Gallery, Rod Serling’s follow-up series to The Twilight Zone.

Night Gallery premiered in 1970 and ran for three or four years, giving audiences horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction stories. If that sounds like The Twilight Zone, well, as far as I can tell, Night Gallery is a lot like Twilight Zone.

A key difference, besides being shot in color, is that The Twilight Zone was a half-hour, whereas Night Gallery was an hour.

And Night Gallery, it seems, just wasn’t as good as The Twilight Zone.

Of course there a many reasons for this (if it is, in fact, true. I haven’t seen as much of the later show as I have of the earlier). But the two shows got me thinking about horror fiction and Edgar Allen Poe.

Poe, in his famous review of Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales, laid out his theories about the short story and what made for its success.

The short story was (outside of the long poem) the ideal literary form, Poe argued, because it allowed the author to achieve “a certain unique or single effect” which could not be achieved in a longer work. The long work is less effective, Poe said, because it

cannot be read at one sitting, it deprives itself, of course, of the immense force derivable from totality. Worldly interests intervening during the pauses of perusal, modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book. But simple cessation in reading would, of itself, be sufficient to destroy the true unity.

Poe’s ideas are obviously useful in creating successful works of horror. After all, anything that reminds the viewer or reader that what they’re engaged in is only a movie or a book, and of no real threat to them, can only serve to lessen the work’s impact.

Poe specifically says in the essay that novels are inferior works because they are too broad, too prone to interruption. The shorter work, he argues, can be superior because it contains “no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.”

To put it another way: The best stories are those that say what they have to say and get off the stage.

It seems to me that this is part of what makes some horror good and some bad – a narrow focus on effect and goals.

That’s the difference between The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. The Twilight Zone was one story each episode, Night Gallery was two or three, with introductions between. The Twilight Zone, with its narrow focus on each story, was a more effective show.

This dynamic works across media.

Even 50 years after their publication, some of the stories in the venerable EC Comics horror series like Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror maintain their ability to shock and surprise. Even with the intervening years in which you’d expect these influential stories to have been copied, they still read as if they’re brand new. You won’t find an EC horror story that’s longer than eight pages – and most of these stories are better than the 6-issue horror miniseries you’ll find on the racks today.

Poe’s thoughts are true in fiction, too. I first read Poe’s essay when I was ten or eleven, so it may be that this was formative in my thinking about the novel, but I haven’t been satisfied by a horror novel in years (the last truly satisfying one I read was House of Leaves). This is largely due to the novel not being well-suited to the creation of a single, focused effect. To my way of thinking, the horror novel just has too much padding, too much fat to be effective, frightening, or anything other than disappointing on a regular basis.

In the interest of taking my own advice, I’m going to wrap up. But I’ll leave with with this question: Is the more exciting achievement short work or the novel?

I know where I stand.

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