Farewell, George Romero

Filmmaker George Romero died on Sunday at age 77. I never met Mr. Romero, but I did do some work for him in the 1980s–specifically, for his television series Tales From the Darkside.

It happened this way: During its first season, the show bought the rights to my story “Slippage,” which had appeared in Twilight Zone Magazine. (The version which appeared in TZM had a large and confusing paste-up error, which I didn’t catch until after the story was reprinted in Karl Edward Wagner’s The Year’s Best Horror anthology. It’s a miracle that the story got the attention it did.)

When the episode aired, I was at once thrilled and disappointed. Thrilled to see my name on the screen, thrilled to think “Hey–I wrote a TV show!”–and terribly disappointed with the end result.

I knew almost nothing about the business side of television, mind you, and I was too much of a naif to understand the constraints within which the show was created. Darkside was a low-budget production which was sold straight to the syndication market–it had no network home, no regular time slot.

Nevertheless, I had my gripes. And when an opportunity came along for me to share them with the showrunners–I did. In detail. On paper.

The opportunity came when in the form of a call from the story editor, who was then putting together the second season. He was calling to ask, “Are there any more at home like ‘Slippage’?” The thing is, there weren’t. “Slippage” was the only horror story I’d written (and, arguably, still is).

But I had nothing to lose, so I sent him “Lifebomb,” which had just appeared in Analog. It only required a small cast and simple sets, and had a “be careful what you wish for” kind of twist at the end.

And as an oh-by-the-way, I naively appended to my cover letter my multi-paragraph critique of “Slippage.”

It must have read to them as though I was putting them on notice that if they bought “Lifebomb,” they should be more careful with it. By all rights, that ought to have abruptly ended my association with Tales From the Darkside.

But, somehow, it didn’t. They bought “Lifebomb,” and then–to my enduring surprise–they hired me to write the teleplay. Later, I pitched them an original teleplay, “Effect and Cause,” and they bought that, too. Finally, they hired me to adapt a Fred Pohl story into the episode “The Bitterest Pill.” (An impending Writers Guild strike may have played a role in some of that.)

So I ended up with all four possible kinds of screen credits on Darkside: story, story+teleplay, original teleplay, and adapted teleplay.

Some people (among them my mother) thought I did a lot more than that for Darkside–the reason being that horror writer Michael M. McDowell was also working for the show. (In fact, I was told that the producers found him when they were looking for the author of “Slippage”–and he made the most of it, writing many episodes and a third of the Darkside movie.) A lot of confusion ensued. At a Windycon, a fan asked me to autograph a copy of one of MMM’s Blackwater novels. Even the Writers Guild residuals department got us mixed up a couple of times.

If the screen credit just says McDOWELL, it’s him–if it says KUBE-McDOWELL, it’s me.

I extend my condolences to those knew George, especially other Darkside alumni. And I thank George for the opportunity he created for me, however unknowingly. I hope he had a soft landing, with no twist ending.