No-one deserves to die like that! (#SFWApro)

the-twilight-zoneSo I was watching an episode of The Twilight Zone last month and it got me thinking about endings (all rights to image reside with current holder).

The second-season episode A Thing About Machines deals with Finchley, an unpleasant, snide malcontent (Richard Haydn) who hates modern technology and doesn’t like people much anyway (he seems to be some kind of wit or critic professionally). Machines, it turns out, hate him and the way he mistreats them too. At the climax the machines in Finchley’s house rise up (the shaver slithering down the stairs is a neat moment) and drive him out; Finchley’s car chases him and he escapes into a swimming pool where he dies of a heart attack.

Coming right after the outstanding Nervous Man in a Four-Dollar Room, it’s disappointing, though it would be poor regardless of when it aired. The problem for me is simple: from what I saw, Finchley didn’t deserve to die. Oh, he’s not likable—he seems to be an unpleasantly mean-spirited dude–but not liking machines or even using them so harshly they break hardly seems like a hanging offense.

That’s not a fatal flaw in itself. Twilight Zone does lots of stories where the protagonist doesn’t deserve what happens: the victims of the parallel-world counterparts in Mirror Image, Roddy McDowell’s good-hearted astronaut in People Are Alike All Over. My short story Others Must Fail is all about bad things happening to good people. But the thing is (and the point of this post), when the show (or anywhere else) offers up an odious, unpleasant person coming to a bad end, it’s hard not to see the message as “they had it coming.” It’s possible to write about a horrible person who doesn’t deserve their fate — as Willa Cather put it, even the wicked suffer more than they deserve — but it’s not my default assumption. So instead I assume that the story structure is disproportionate, just as I didn’t think Ida Lupino in The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine deserved her miraculous happy ending.

To use another example, Fritz Leiber’s short story Belsen Express concerns a shallow, middle-class American in the 1950s who hates thinking of unpleasant things like the Holocaust. Sure, it was awful, and a lot of Jews died and stuff, but it’s not his concern—why can’t he stay in his nice coccoon of peaceful cluelessness? But it’s not to be: the echoes of the Holocaust penetrate his daily life until he drops dead of carbon monoxide poisoning, just as if he’d been one of the Jews sentenced to die. It’s very well executed (despite being, according to Leiber, his most rejected story), but rereading it a few years ago, I was discomfited by the death sentence inflicted on the guy. It’s obvious he didn’t do much for the Jews of Europe, but he’s also not someone who was actually there and closing his eyes to what his own country was doing. I felt that a wake-up call would have been more appropriate than a slow, unpleasant death. Leiber, obviously felt differently, and other readers may have too. But I still think that in writing this kind of supernatural vengeance, it’s better if the punishment fits the crime.

EDIT: In response to a comment, let me clarify. I’m fine with tragic stories and bad things happening to good characters. The problem with A Thing About Machines is that the protagonist is apparently supposed to deserve his fate, and I don’t think he does.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “No-one deserves to die like that! (#SFWApro)

  1. But it’s often more horrifying if it doesn’t. Discovering Irish fairy tales (and I’m sure this is elsewhere around the world outside sanitized Grimm/HCA stories) I discovered that good people are not always rewarded, and are often randomly selected for mayhem. Someone getting his just deserts is emotionally satisfying, but for the ring of truth and long-lasting appeal, sometimes the undeserved ending (particularly when dark) is stronger.

    • I agree with you that bad things happen to good people makes for great stories, but this particular TZ shows bad things happening to bad people, which sets up a different expectation. I will make an edit to clarify that. Thanks.

  2. Pingback: Another post on endings: Infinite Crisis (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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