Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Charles Beaumont is one of many “great authors you’ve probably never heard of” who deserves more publicity than he got. He wrote a large and excellent body of short stories, penned 22 episodes of The Twilight Zone, wrote screenplays for science fiction films, even a couple of novels. Had he lived longer, he may have been remembered alongside contemporaries Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson as a master of horror, science fiction, and suspense. Alas, Beaumont passed away at the age of 38 of an undiagnosed brain illness, now thought to be either Pick’s disease or early-onset Alzheimer’s. There has been a recent resurgence in his work, with Penguin Classics collecting some of his short stories as Perchance to Dream, and Valancourt Books re-releasing collections A Touch of the Creature and The Hunger and Other Stories along with his compelling novel The Intruder.

Valancourt Books – 2015 – a homage to the original hardcover’s art.

Caxton is one of many sleepy small Southern towns; not much happens here to rock the boat, and not much has changed over the decades. Except for integration, with the high school set to desegregate by court order next week. That’s when Adam Cramer steps off the bus into the sunny streets of Caxton, a smooth-talker from California. His past is mysterious. His motives are not: within hours, he’s begun to organize the town charter of SNAP (the Society of National American Patriots). Their mission is to stall or end integration—by any means necessary. Adam Cramer has lit a match under a powder-keg of racial tensions, and as the violence escalates he may not be able to keep control.

But who is Cramer? What is his sinister agenda? Those driving questions lead to an explosive conclusion. A token few stand against him: black high schooler Joey just trying to graduate high school without any trouble, and town newspaperman Tom who’s repelled by Cramer and comes to realize he can’t justify his hate. In fact, very few in town can justify their bigotry, standing against integration because “Well, it’s wrong,” blind recitations of prejudice ingrained in their minds. But as Cramer instigates the Klan to action, the town may be swept up in a mob mentality…

Pan Giant X86 – 1961 – artist uncredited.

A white man riding into town, rising to a position of power using populism, jingoism, and patriotism to inflame racial tensions—hrrm, where have I heard that one recently? It’s too easy for white Americans (especially outside of the South) to think of racism and Jim Crow as days long gone, before our time and out of our control. It’s somewhat shocking to realize that Ruby Bridges is only in her sixties, that Emmett Till’s murder and the Bus Boycott were just over a half-century ago. Beaumont provides a visceral depiction of the racism underlying Southern society at the time—more to the point, he offers multiple views from the townsfolk, showing how pervasive and ingrained bigotry can be. These range from otherwise decent people like Tom who find themselves fighting integration by habit without question, to those who justify it with intellectual arguments, to extremists so revolted by integration that they are willing to spill blood.

Beaumont has opted for slow, deliberate plotting here, and I found some sections drew on too long focusing on one character or another’s internalized voice. But tension roils and slithers underneath with electric intensity, and there are some shocking moments of greatness—if not true suspense or thrills, then the chilling power of prejudice. The Intruder has all the subtlety of a tank—Cramer gets the townsfolk riled up with fears of black boys sitting next to their daughters at school, right before he starts necking with one such daughter, a sixteen-year-old girl. (This is one of several sleazy elements that remind me of its origin as a paperback thriller.) But there’s a certain power of persuasion at work here. The way the novel is written from the perspectives of various townsfolk, black and white, offers a collection of complex and human views that help ground the novel. Between that and Cramer’s nefarious true motive, The Intruder surpassed my expectations.

The Intruder has its tacky, sleazy elements and odd pacing elements that slow it down, but it does so many things right that it’s hard not to recommend it. As a portrait of race relations in the late ’50s, early ’60s, it veers back and forth between realism and hyperbole, but the book has an arresting power that grabbed my interest. It may be better at capturing the mentality of the era rather than any realistic events, but it evokes a vision of the South that’s downright chilling today. The Intruder ended up being a more complex and thoughtful novel than I anticipated. It’s a great read, and something of an underrated, forgotten gem.

Motion Pictures Dept: The Intruder was directed by guerrilla filmmaker and B-movie king Roger Corman in 1962, and was the first (and I believe only) film he made to lose money. In fact, it was re-released as Shame and I Hate Your Guts!, re-branded as exploitation films, trying to turn a profit that never came. It’s a shame, because the film is very good, a stark and vivid portrayal of racism that stays very close to the novel. What was cut are elements that reveal too much of Cramer’s background and intent, leaving his motives in the film more mysterious and menacing than in the novel.

The film stars a young William Shatner in his first leading film role as villain Adam Cramer, and he hams it up well as the nefarious instigator. Given Corman’s typical shoestring budget, Beaumont himself plays the high school principal, and his friends and fellow writers William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson play redneck thugs. Corman and crew assumed that Missouri was far enough “North” to shoot the film, but integration was still a heated topic, and tensions ran high between filmmakers and the locals. The cast and crew were run out of several towns by local law enforcement, and ended up filming from town to town, packing up and fleeing back to their hotel as soon as a shot was complete.

The Intruder is a bit rough around the edges, so raw and full of energy that it’s engrossing in its bluntness. It’s very much worth watching, especially if you’re a Corman fan. In fact, I’d call it one of his best if not the best he made, though I am biased towards Death Race 2000 and his Vincent Price/Poe films.

Book Details
Title: The Intruder
Author: Charles Beaumont
First Published: 1959
What I Read: Centipede Press hc, 2013
Price I Paid: $20 (sale)
MSRP: $16.99 pb / $4.99 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 1941147852 / B00ZGSIM9M

Advertisements