A Grain of Salt and a Shovelful of Earth: On The “Twilight Zone,” “The Grave,” and a Lack of Western Ghosts

My favorite episode of The Twilight Zone opens with a scene that even the narration admits ought to be the end. The audience sees a desolate, windswept village, one that the imagery of westerns has trained us to understand is somewhere in the Southwest, likely New Mexico. A man is gunned down in the middle of the dusty street, the shots fired by several of the village men hiding in doorways. After he falls, his body is carried into the jail, and a witness is sent to fetch the wounded man’s father and sister to be with him before he dies.

All of this happens in just a few moments, and is merely the prologue. As Rod Serling says in introduction:

Normally … this would be the end of the story. We’ve had the traditional shoot-out on the street and the Bad Man will soon be dead. But some men of legend and folk tale have been known to continue having their way even after death. The outlaw and killer Pinto Sykes was such a person, and shortly we’ll see how he introduces the town, and a man named Conny Miller in particular, to the Twilight Zone.

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But What Lurks Without? M. R. James vs. H. P. Lovecraft

It’s sort of strange how omnipresent H. P. Lovecraft is in horror conversations, even now. The legacy of his particular branch of weird is substantial — and, largely, a conversation we are saving for later on. Don’t worry, there is still a lot to say.

A less well-known figure holds a much closer place in my heart: M. R. James.

On the surface, it is strange to compare these two men. James was the father of the antiquarian ghost story. Lovecraft basically created the genre of cosmic horror. And yet, there really is a great deal of common ground. They were, in fact, contemporaries, and died within a year of one another (James in 1936, Lovecraft in 1937). Both wrote stories that took their sensibilities from earlier time periods. Both have had impacts on the horror genre that they never would have foreseen. Both were solitary men whose sexuality is a preoccupation of modern scholars. And, most importantly, both based their horror in a fear of the Outside, of the arcane, and of the forbidden.

Perhaps it’s best to start with some brief biographical notes.

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