“Elegy” by Charles Beaumont
from Science Fact/Fiction, eds. Farrell, Gage, Pfordresher, Rodrigues
Scott, Foresman and Company, 1974
Originally published in Imagination, February 1953
Price I paid: $6.56
Ah, short and sweet, just the way I like ’em. Also, this one’s got kind of a twist ending so if you don’t want that spoiled, then, spoiler alert.
Charles Beaumont is a new author to me…or so I thought! The name was familiar and I couldn’t place it. I figured maybe I’d read one of his stories or books before and reviewed it and just couldn’t remember, but a cursory search of my own blog yielded no results.
Wikipedia had the answer, though, because of course it would. And it was a “well, duh” kind of answer, too.
Of course I’ve seen that name and font combination so many times! Dude wrote so many episodes of The Twilight Zone! A lot of great ones, too. His first episode, “Perchance to Dream,” was also the first episode not written by Rod Serling. He also did other classics like “Static” and “Long Live Walter Jameson” and “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.” Just a bunch of really solid entries in the franchise. I wish I could say that “Elegy” is one of them, because it was adapted, but I don’t think I’ve seen it yet! I intend to take care of that later.
He’s also credited with a few that he didn’t actually write, like “Living Doll,” and there’s where the tragedy hits. Beaumont died shockingly young (38) of some kind of degenerative brain disease that affected him for years. No one knows exactly what it was. It was so debilitating that it began to hurt the quality of his work, and fellow writers—mostly Jerry Sohl—would ghost write material and submit it under his name so that he could afford to eat and seek medical treatment. Beaumont reportedly insisted on splitting the money.
His work goes beyond The Twilight Zone, including numerous other short stories, film screenplays, and two novels. One of those novels, 1959’s The Intruder, is particularly noteworthy. He later adapted it into a screenplay, which was filmed by Roger Corman in 1962. It’s an incredible film. Personally I think it’s Corman’s best, and it’s an interesting outlier from the rest of his work. William Shatner stars as a racist demagogue who rolls into a small Southern US town about to undergo desegregation and begins to cause trouble. It’s a deeply uncomfortable watch and well worth it. (I see here that Charles Beaumont also has a small acting roll in the film, as do William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson.)
But I think that’s just about enough author backstory. Let’s talk about the author, uh, story!
“Elegy” is a tight and compact little story, clocking in at about five pages. I imagine they had to pad it out a bit for the teleplay.
It starts with a group of astronauts landing on an uncharted asteroid, named K7. I’m not sure why it has a name if it was uncharted. Maybe the astronauts named it when they saw it and decided to land? I’m just nitpicking.
They’re shocked to find a breathable atmosphere, fields of grass and flowers and wheat, a delightful little park, bridges over running water, happy little trees, quaint little buildings, and so on and such and such. It’s a paradise. They gape around in awe for a second before seeing their first person there, an old fella dozing under a tree who calls himself Mr. Greypoole. Greypoole seems delighted to see them and is quite hospitable. He talks to the astronauts in a way that makes it sound like he was expecting them, or, at the very least, like he expects them to know what’s going on.
It was at this point in the story that I was like “Oh, I’ve read this Martian Chronicle. Sorry, Charles, but Ray Bradbury beat you to ‘Mars is Heaven!’ by five years.”
But I was wrong wrong wrong
Greypoole invites the astronauts back to his place and offers them some wine. While he’s off collecting it, some of the crew decide to go out and explore. One of them finds a library, another a butcher’s shop, someone else discovers an interesting temple full of worshipers, and the last finds a hospital surgical theater in the middle of an operation. What makes the whole situation creepy, however, is that every person in every scene is completely and utterly motionless.
I wasn’t sure yet if I was supposed to be creeped out, although a more accurate statement would be that I was creeped out, I just wasn’t entirely sure why yet. My brain was rushing along trying to figure out the situation and nothing quite seemed to work because none of my guesses seemed danged creepy enough. Like, is this a time-stop situation? Or maybe everything is running really really slow, so the people seem frozen in place? Nothing seemed to fit.
In the meantime, the captain of the spaceship explains to Greypoole his side of the story. It seems that he and his crew might well be the last survivors of the planet Earth. They fled just before as a world-wide war was breaking out, and the signs were all pointing toward someone deploying a thing called the X-Bomb. Their journey was anything but happy, however, as there was internal strife and apparently they landed on Mars and then got kicked off again by the Martians. Desperate and low on fuel, they just happened to notice this asteroid and came in for a landing. And now here they are. They ask Greypoole if they can settle down here on K7 and live out their lives.
(Note, never at any point do any women seem to show up in this story? I’m assuming our astro-men want to just chill until they die one day and not repopulate humanity or anything. Or maybe they have futuristic technologies that wouldn’t be prudent to discuss in a 1953 short story.)
I wish I could say that the ending was a complete and total surprise, and it almost was. Beaumont himself kinda sorta spoiled it a few paragraphs before the big reveal, but it was still a pretty good one.
It turns out that this asteroid was the creation of some rich guy named Waldmeyer who wanted to create the ultimate cemetery.
All of the people the astronauts have thus far seen have been dead people!
(Turns out not all of them, some people there are just fake, for atmosphere.)
Waldmeyer’s whole deal was to offer people the perfect eternal afterlife doing exactly what they loved doing. Like, one guy had his whole office building replicated, with himself on an easy chair on the top floor, because he just loved work so much.
Greypoole explains that he is the caretaker of the cemetery, called Happy Glades. He mostly tidies up here and there but for the most part he doesn’t have much to do unless new “guests” arrive. He’s also mostly a machine, although he was once human. Now he only awakens when something pierces the self-sealing film that protects the asteroid from the rest of the universe and is somehow permeable only to spaceships.
And at last, Greypoole states that he cannot allow the astronauts to settle the asteroid. This is a place of peace, where people can rest for eternity. Living humans can never know true peace. After all, didn’t they flee a world that was killing itself? Didn’t they land on another world only to be so prejudiced against its natives that they got sent back to space? No, they cannot be allowed to stay here…alive.
At that point, one of the astronauts says he’s beginning to feel ill, and then the rest come down with it too. Turns out that the wine Greypoole gave them earlier was poisoned. But never fret! They will be interred here on this world, in the spaceship they came on, for eternity. Isn’t that nice?
Okay so the bit that actually gave the whole game away is that at one point Greypoole says that he has a “grave responsibility” and then chuckles to himself, so that’s when I realized that this place had something to do with death, at least. I was still convinced that maybe the whole point of K7 would be to stave it off somehow, like maybe time-freezing people before they died or something like that. I didn’t expect this to turn out to be a story about an asteroid full of corpses until it was revealed. So good job, Charles Beaumont! You freaked me out with that one.
There are a few ways to read this story and so obviously I’m going to start with the one that invokes capitalism. What, one might ask, is the point of this whole endeavor? What good does it do anyone, including the deceased, to have them somehow permanently preserved forever doing what they loved most in life? Isn’t it a complete and utter waste of resources?
It’s probably worth noting that the person who started this whole scheme was an incredibly rich guy. I don’t know that the story actually says he’s interred on the asteroid himself but I expect that he is. I also assume that carting people all the way out there and keeping the thing running isn’t cheap either. Ergo, only very rich people are on this asteroid cemetery. It is the absolute height of rich person narcissism to have such an enormous waste of resources to do something that doesn’t even benefit themselves.
All it is is a false sense of permanence in a universe where such a thing is impossible, isn’t it? Some kind of legacy. A refutation of the fact that you spent your whole life clawing for more and more money while other people starved to death in the street, and in the end, it doesn’t mean a thing. You can’t take it with you.
There’s also the whole “humans can never not kill one another” angle, and I’m less of a fan of that. Call me an optimist—maybe it’s just because I’m reading Kropotkin lately—but I think a vast amount of violence would be curbed with a system that allowed all people to survive and thrive without struggling for it. Maybe, for instance, if those resources weren’t spent on elaborate asteroid graveyards for the super-rich, along with hyperluxury automobiles, houses, clothing, and rocket ships.
This was a hell of a good story on its own, though, even if you don’t want to search it for a moral and instead just want to enjoy the twist and pervasive eeriness. Charles Beaumont is now another author I’d like to explore more. I see here that my library has Penguin’s collection of his short stories and I think I’ll start there. But also I’m interested in the novel that became The Intruder and I wonder how it holds up now, along with the movie. I’ll try to remember to let you know!
We’re coming in on the holidays here, and I just want to wish everybody a good and happy and safe Whatever You’re Celebrating! Take care.
(and maybe we can talk about our favorite Twilight Zone episodes down in the chat)