L. Neil Smith's
Number 241, October 5, 2003

Feast or Famine

Lights Out—No, Wait! Keep Them On!
by Bob Wallace

Exclusive to TLE

Yes, it's true. I was once a little kid, in body and mind. Now, I'm physically an adult but inwardly, like many a child, still have the urge to smack irritating people in the keester with a projectile, preferably from a slingshot. A stinging pebble for the averge jerk, but for politicians and busybodies who can't keep their noses out of other people's business, an 80-mph cue ball.

But years ago, when I was half as tall as I am now, and about one-quarter the weight, I had, in addition to a slingshot (and a pellet/BB/dart gun), about twice as much imagination as I do now. It was a great thing, but not always such a good thing. I not only slept with the night-light always on, but also, turtle-like, pulled the blanket completely over my head, because, as all kids instinctively know, being hidden under a blanket is complete protection against all monsters conceivable and inconceivable, no matter from what wacked-out dimension or time or space they appeared. It was even protection against the ones that a) lived under the bed b) in the closet or c) very sneakily and toothily disguised themselves as clothes lying on a chair (which was really really not a fair thing for them to do!).

Even today I sleep curled into a blob, with the blanket completely over me. Actually I use three blankets. An Intergalactic Death Ray couldn't get through three. Better safe than sorry, I say. I've grown out of using night-lights, although I keep a big flashlight by the bed to disintegrate monsters. I still keep the closet door closed, and there are most definitely no chairs in the bedroom! I used to throw my clothes on the floor, until I realized they were moving around at night, creeping closer and closer to me ("Hee hee hee. We're gonna get you, mister."). Forget that.

This overactive imagination of mine, which today gives me heart palpatations even though I mostly have control over it, was something that ran my life when I was a kid. I saw monsters standing in my bedroom door, and driving a '64 Ford Galaxy 500. I once thought I saw a girl with two heads (she had a little head and two great big ponytails).

Movies? I used to go ballastic in the theater during horror films ("Where's his head?! It's not on his body!"). The worst, however, were radio programs. The reason? Imagining something is worse than actually seeing it. In real-time, you might say, "Yeah, a ten-foot-tall monster. I can deal with that." But in your imagination, you might think, "Gee, maybe he's a thousand feet tall!"

When I was about eight, and had an imagination that weighed more than I did, I lived in an ancient two-story farmhouse that looked like something Mortica and Gomez might have inhabited. The driveway was horseshoe-shaped (I imagined from the air it looked like a giant's tongue), with our house at the inside bottom of the U. There were a lot of old, large, gnarly trees, which of course turned into monsters at night, with the branches reaching out for me like claws (everyone else remembers the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz; I remember those cranky talking trees).

One night, after my parents parked their VW Bug, we didn't get out. They wanted to finish listening to a radio program on their tinny little one-speaker AM radio (back in those days car radios had punch buttons and little knobs you twiddled). I was in the back seat. I don't remember if my sister was in the car. She probably wasn't, because if she had been she would have knocked me over and kicked out the back window trying to escape. She was even worse than me when it came to imagining monsters, and still tells me when she was four she often saw a guy with a handlebar mustache and a knife walking down the hall toward her room. Even today she still doesn't like mustaches. And all her knives are butter knives.

The program my parents were listening to I will never forget. I can't, since I spent years searching for it, and now own a tape of Arch Oboler's "The Dark," which was an episode of the often eerie, but unfortunately long gone, Lights Out.

I had no idea what to expect sitting that night in the back seat of my parents' car, with the trees going BWAHAHAHA! and waving around while waiting for me to get out. I certainly didn't expect a radio program about two guys walking into a farmhouse out in the country, just like the one in which I lived. And probably with great big sinister trees. And—brrr!—at night.

Their walking into the farmhouse wasn't the bad part. That was what they encountered in the farmhouse—a slimy shadow that jumped on them like one of those big spiders in Eight-Legged Freaks— and turned them inside out! And outside in! The special effects were the lolapalooza that sent me over the edge—they consisted of a horrible, sucking, slurping sound that I later found out was a wet rubber glove slowly being turned inside out. Slurrrrrpppp. It was the imaginative equivalent of a firecracker going off inside of the car.

Boy, I'll bet Oboler cackled for years over that program! I know I would have. Who would have thought it possible—creating one of the biggest frights ever on radio with a rubber glove.

And of course our two unfortunates were yelling, "Shadow! Slimy shadow! Get off of me! Quit turning me inside out! Ouch!" Slurrrpppp. And then they were trying to talk with their outsides on their insides, and vice versa. "Mmmph! Mmmph! Mmmph!"

I had had enough. I was twitching. My brains were hyperventilating. It felt like my brains were going to turn inside out. Yikes! Then I would have had my brains on the outside of my head, like the mutant lobster-people in This Island Earth! I felt like my eyes were going to pop out of their sockets—arrghh! Like Ray Milland in The Man with the X-Ray Eyes! Ack! Gack! Enough!

I did not want to listen to this program anymore! I had this vivid image of these two guys staggering around, with all their organs on the outside (how did they see?). And why didn't they just run before this thing latched onto them? Later I thought they must have been the fathers of those stupid teenagers in horror films who go upstairs and open the closet door when they know perfectly well there's a knife-wielding, hockey-mask-wearing, teenager-killing maniac loose in the house!

I was within seconds of losing control and yelling, "Turn it off!" when God took pity on me and ended the program. I guess even today those two poor guys are wandering around someplace, still turned inside out and going, "Mmmph! Mmmph! Mmmph!" And that is why I keep the closet door shut at night.

Occasionally I grin my evil grin and play that tape for innocent little kids. Every one of them does the same thing: their eyes bug out, they wave their hands at the radio, and they yell, "I don't want to listen anymore!" Ha ha! I was braver than I thought when I was little! At least I listened to the whole thing!

"The Dark" is not the only tape I own. I own some episodes of Quiet, Please and Suspense. Actually, I don't own them anymore, since they're on available on CD and I'm buying them. I sent the tapes to a fiend—uh, I mean friend—who said when he was little he would huddle under a blanket with a flashlight and read science fiction or else listen to radio programs (See? Blankets really are protection against everything.).

I sent the tapes to him in a big cardbox box. Why put three tapes into a big box, you might ask? Because I had to have room for the flashlight and blanket I sent him! I figured he'd need all the ammo he can use when he listens to "My Son John" and "Shadow of the Wings," which are stories about a father who brings his son back from the dead, and a sick little girl who sees something outside her window...something whose wings cast a shadow on her floor. At least I didn't send him probably the creepiest Lights Outs: "The Thing on the Fourble Board."

Ah...and some of the other tapes I own! Boris Karloff as a guy who bricks his wife up in a wall (but why then does she keep talking?) Edgar G. Robinson as a guy who's dead, but really ain't. There's one with some unknown actor who plays a catatonic who almost gets embalmed (more creepy-crawly special-effects: the embalming machine going SHOOKA SHOOKA SHOOKA.). It's all wonderful stuff, even if a bit unnerving at times.

Imagination is underrated. Albert Einstein understood its importance when he said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." He didn't say knowledge wasn't important, but meant without imagination you can't use the knowledge properly. If Einstein hadn't had such an active imagination he would not have been able to see in his mind's eye what it was like to ride a light beam, and the world would have waited a lot longer for his discoveries.

Imagination is an inherent part of creativity. It is what I call a Thing Beyond All Doubt (which is not related to any of H.P. Lovecraft's Things Beyond All Belief). If we want more inventions—and best of all, more fun—we need more imaginative and creative people, even if they are a little goofy and eccentric and maybe even hide under blankets at night. And the imagination is like a muscle; it has to be exercised.It's not going to kill an adult to go oof oof over a book every once in a while. Kids don't even have to go oof—for them it's easy.

Many people today moan and groan and whine and get their shorts all twisted up about the sorry state of our schools. Paying teachers more is the answer, they say. Or standardized testing. Or more computers in the classroom. Or smaller classes. Or whatever.

Yet, in many schools, if children show any active interest in using their imaginations, a lot of people throw fits. Look how many goofuses don't want kids reading the Harry Potter books. I've read them; they're harmless. Some aren't even that good. What's next? C.S. Lewis and the Narnia books getting banned? Uh, what? They already are?

Just exactly how do these busybodies believe children are going to exercise and develop their imaginations? I never see it discussed. Just about the only thing I hear is "More money" and "More federal control." Oh, yeah, just great. A bunch of bureaucratic dweebs running the schools. I'd rather deal with Gollum than a bunch of bureaucrats. Actually, I'd rather sic Gollum on bureaucrats ("Hey, what is that thing?" "Me? Gollum. You? Snack!"Crunch.).

A lot of times, the child who is imaginative is the nail that gets hammered down. Dav Pilkey, author of the best-selling Captain Underpants books (which sometimes get banned), spent most of his school days sitting in the hallway writing and drawing. His teachers told him he'd never amount to anything (and boy did he get some good revenge! His principal is now a character in his books, one who runs around in his tighty-whities thinking he's a superhero.).

School was boring when I was a kid, and it's even more boring now. I perfected the nifty little trick of falling asleep while sitting up, with a book propped open in front of me (I think the title was, "ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE"). I never fell out of the chair, not once.

Fairy tales and fables, which have been around since who-knows-when, aren't taught in school, even though it's how people educated children for thousands of years. They weren't even taught in school when I was little. We had Dick and Jane and Pony and Spot, all of whom I thought were the spawn of Satan trying to suck the brains out of my six-year-old head and replace them with the twin demons of Boredom and Hyperactivity. Good thing Ritalin (which is Luciferian for "You're All Doomed") didn't exist back then; class clown that I was, it would have been shoved in me by the tablespoon.

Anyone who knows anything about children knows all of them like to be read stories, and they don't want to be read stories about recycling and some fake hole in the ozone layer! Even adults like stories, which is why Stephen King is so popular, and why I listen to those scary tapes.

Some adults, who remind me of the Byrds' song "My Back Pages" ("I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now") know that in some ways kids are a bit wiser than adults. G.K. Chesterton, in The Ethics of Elfland wrote this: "When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: 'Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is.' Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies."

Bah—close the public schools down. Turn the lousiest teachers inside out and let them wander the countryside going "Mmmpph! Mmmpph! Mmmpph!" Read kids fairy tales and fables and myths. Let them read what appeals to them, even if they're comic books (I dare you to say something bad about Superman!). And if some of the stuff scares them, hey, so what? I actually kinda liked being scared in the back of that car, even if I nearly had a brain infarct. Everything seemed a little more real, more vivid. I remember very little from school, but I certainly remember that ding-dang frizzen-fruppen slimy shadow!

So, children, gather around the campfire, and for the next hour, sit quietly...you are about to the experience the awe and mystery...as you boldly go...Okay, I know I mixing my quotes, not to mention splitting my infinitives, but if you can guess what two programs those quotes are from, you get a gold star, one that you most definitely deserve. It shows you have imagination.


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