George Clayton Johnson (July 10, 1929 – December 25, 2015)

It’s late Christmas night as I’m writing this. My 17th 18th as a married man (I’ll take of my shoes next time to count), our 13th in our house, eleventh as parents, and my fifth as a published writer … a(n a)vocation I owe in no small part to The Twilight Zone and to a writer named George Clayton Johnson. He died today, just before three my time, and while I never knew him personally, never had the chance to share words, he inspired me. Johnson leaves the world today a little better understood and a whole helluva lot more entertained thanks to his work.

Ernest Truex as Charles Whitley in "Kick the Can".

Ernest Truex as Charles Whitley in “Kick the Can”.

I used to watch The Twilight Zone when I was in grade school, early grade school, on those summer nights where you left the windows open just to let the night breathe. It was on WGN. Channel 9. And when John Drury signed off, I knew I was in for something a little bit dangerous. “Kick the Can” was set on a night like that, warm but not hot, and the wind was just a gentle reminder that weather was a thing. That’s the episode about the retirees who sneak out of the rest home to remember what being young felt like, and stranger, more wonderful things happen. It was also pretty well handled in The Twilight Zone movie. George Clayton Johnson wrote that story.

The script takes some liberties with the source material, but still...

The script takes some liberties with the source material, but still…

He also co-wrote the novel Logan’s Run with William F. Nolan. Logan’s Run was one of the earliest sci-fi memories that I have. I caught the movie adaptation on TV in the late 70s or very early 80s during the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom, and I loved how dangerous it felt–how unfair and totally rational that method for population control was. It made me feel powerless, and angry. It made me feel challenged, but … alive.

Logan’s Run was among the first, but not the first sci-fi memory I have. That distinction probably goes to Star Trek, which I remember watching on weekend afternoons with my parents and brother, a hot slice of pizza and a Coke in hand. Did you know that Johnson wrote the first episode of Star Trek that ever aired? “The Man Trap“. The earliest collective memory the world has of Star Trek, and we owe it to Johnson.

Johnson on set with actress Gladys Cooper ("Nothing in the Dark")

Johnson on set with actress Gladys Cooper (“Nothing in the Dark”)

But it was in the Twilight Zone where I knew him best, and his best episode, in my opinion, was “Nothing in the Dark“, where the old woman refuses to let anyone into her condemned tenement because she’s afraid it’s Death coming to take her away. That episode has such an elegiac beauty, it sucks the menace right out of our own mortality. It was somehow scary and reassuring, not in an asked-and-answered give and take, but at the same time but on different strings, part of a chord. Working together.

The magic of Season is a real thing. It’s the most liminal time of the year. ‘This’ world … ‘that’ world. You get the sense they’re all the pretty much the same place. So it’s fitting, I guess, that Johnson, a writer I admired since before I could remember, crossed into that final frontier tonight, slipped into another dimension … in a manner of speaking, and he re-newed. But he’s not all that far away, and we can enjoy who he was through his work, whether we meet him at a full gallop in a world where sandmen keep the balance, seeking out new life forms and new civilizations, or just leaning by that signpost up ahead, the next stop … not the last stop.

Christian A. Larsen is the author of the novels LOSING TOUCH and THE BLACKENING OF FLESH, now available from Post Mortem Press.

2 Responses to “George Clayton Johnson (July 10, 1929 – December 25, 2015)”

  1. A nice tribute to a great writer.

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