Witness Ms. Marilyn Venable. A venerable woman of 85 living in a retirement community in El Cerrito. A self-described loner with a passion for the printed page, burdened by thick glasses and a lifelong fear of breaking them somewhere, unable to get them repaired.
If this scenario sounds vaguely familiar, replace Marilyn with Burgess Meredith as the bookish little character, Henry Bemis. Trade "somewhere" for the bleak, black-and-white landscape of a man-made apocalypse, everything gone but the book stacks in the public library. Then throw in a pair of shattered spectacles, rev up a truckload of irony and travel into another dimension, of sight, of sound, of mind. At the signpost up ahead, your next stop -- one of the all-time classic episodes of ... "The Twilight Zone."
Yes, Marilyn is the author of "Time Enough At Last," a semi-autobiographical short story and one of several she originally had published in the magazine, "IF: Worlds of Science Fiction," in 1953. Rod Serling later bought it and reworked it for his television series. The episode aired in 1959, instantly becoming a cult gem, and it still tops lists of Zone favorites.
But most might only know the episode's "male" author, Lynn Venable -- Marilyn's best chance at disguising her gender and getting published in the midcentury man's world of sci-fi.
As an extreme Twilight Zone fan myself (I'm always immersed in the New Year's Eve/Day marathon that runs on SyFy Channel -- this year "Time Enough" airs at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday). I was thrilled when Marilyn sent me a fun note at Halloween with a couple of spooky haiku, plus a humble mention of her background as a "sci-fi/horror writer of the 1950s and 1960s," and as the author of "Time Enough." So we set up a chat at her senior residence a few weeks ago.
You can find a little about her online, but very little -- some of her other short stories, such as "Grove of the Unborn," "The Missing Room," or "Doppelganger." She's still annoyed with editors who put a happy ending on "Doppelganger, "which I never would have done," she said, getting mad all over again. "Someone once asked me, 'Why do you write these things? Why do you like to scare yourself?' I said, 'I don't scare myself. I scare other people.' "
Indeed, Marilyn was a rebel from the start. At age 5, she walked out on the first day of kindergarten back in New Jersey because she didn't want to take a nap. "I wasn't tired, and I wanted to go look at picture books instead," she said. Through the years, her teachers knew she had a gift for writing, but they didn't always like it. On an assignment for an essay of 500 words, she'd turn in a tome of 10 pages.
When she was 18, she married, moved to Texas and picked up her first sci-fi magazine in the grocery store. At that time, the magazines had large sections for letters to the editor where people would write in about the articles, and others would write in about the letters -- the online comment forums of yore. Marilyn was active in these give-and-takes, and her well-written letters caught the eye of literary agent Forrest J. Ackerman -- a big shot in the biz, known as "Mr. Science Fiction." He offered to represent her, and started selling her work for about $20 a pop.
In the Zone
That was a good rate, but it was truly a huge coup when Serling bought her piece -- for $500! A sheer fortune back then. She never did meet the man, and wasn't consulted on the show. "Once he bought it, it was his," she said. "No royalties or anything." She was pleased with the outcome, though, as he kept close to her original tale.
Not long after that, her sci-fi career fizzled. Ackerman ditched her because she didn't want to write as much as he demanded. So she got a job at a credit-bureau trade magazine and freelanced for everything from Sunday school newsletters to baby-care magazines. "That was known as the 'wet pants trade,' " she said, chuckling.
All the while, she kept reading sci-fi and horror. She's a huge fan of Stephen King, though she thinks he could trim his 1,000-pagers in half. She used to love Ray Bradbury, and even corresponded with him for a while. "Then he made the statement that the nuclear bomb saved us all from Communism," she said. "That made me so mad, I threw out all his books."
She still reads everything she can get her hands on, still keeps a journal, still sends letters to the editor. And sometimes writes haiku to me, which is great. I'll always make time enough to read them.
Contact Angela Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter @giveemhill.