Jerry Sohl | Fawcett Books | 1965 | 174 pages
Suffering from a mental breakdown that has reduced him to a near-catatonic state, Clay Howard slowly recuperates at a private psychiatric facility north of San Francisco. Under an intensive drug therapy program administered by Dr. Matthew Cassel, Clay recounts a strange tale that will challenge his prospects of recovery, and ultimately push him to the brink of insanity.
Clay and Marjorie’s marriage was already troubled at the time of the accident. Losing control of his vehicle, Clay crashed headlong into another car, killing the occupants. Only a heroic medical effort saved Clay’s life, leaving him with an implanted steel mesh in his shattered skull. Seeking solace from Clay’s guilt, and a chance to repair their relationship, the couple head north on a road trip. Setting by chance upon the town of Eldrid, Clay wonders why—given the stereotype of the sleepy small town—all the residents somehow seem sleep deprived.
Clay experiences a bizarre phenomenon on his first night in Eldrid. Just before midnight, he watches all the town’s citizens slowly gather in the town plaza, load up in trucks, and drive off into the night. Seemingly under a sort of hypnotic trance, they are not responsive to questions, and follow a prescribed program of actions. To his surprise and horror, Marjorie also falls under this mysterious spell, and disappears with the others toward their unknown purpose.
Author Jerry Sohl wrote several episodes for The Twilight Zone, and the core mystery of Night Slaves sets a familiar tone for viewers of Rod Serling’s anthology series. Returning the next morning, Marjorie awakes with no recollection of her nocturnal escapades. Attempting to convince her of her actions, Clay realizes that by persisting in discussing the events of the previous night, Marjorie will suspect his mental health of failing.
During another evening of night-time excursions by the townspeople and his wife, Clay meets an alluring young woman who seems unaffected by the hypnotic marching orders. Calling herself Naillil, she tantalizes Clay with her physical charms, and the possibility of providing the answers to Eldrid’s mysteries. Night Slaves actually offers the prospect of parallel romances; in addition to Clay’s infatuation with the pixyish Naillal (as recounted in the flashbacks), Dr. Cassel struggles to contain his growing attraction to Marjorie, who reluctantly acknowledges to herself that Clay is no longer the man she married. Both relationships pose some troubling questions; Dr. Cassel’s dubious medical ethics regarding involvement with a patient’s wife, and Clay’s doubtful maturity, fixated upon a young girl with whom he breaks into drugstores at night to make illicit milkshakes.
As Clay’s retelling grows more elaborate, his mental competence continues to be an open question. In a virtual validation of all the world’s tin-foil hat crazies, Clay’s resistance to mind control stems from the inherent electromagnetic-resistant properties of the metal plates in his head. He even fashions a chain-metal hat for his wife, out of a metal link purse purchased in the drugstore, in an attempt to block the signal that commands her to go out each evening. The elaborate evidence provided by the doctor supporting the delusional nature of Clay’s accounts feeds into his paranoid suspicions of vast, powerful conspiracies at work.
The nature of Eldrid’s affliction is revealed early, proving not to be the anticipated “Gotcha!” ending conditioned by so many Twilight Zone scripts. The real twist comes in response to the fundamental question, “Is Clay crazy?” Even the divisive ending remains ambiguous; is it a final act of shocking despair, or gateway to transcendental happiness?
Night Slaves was adapted into a 1970 made-for-television movie starring James Franciscus and Lee Grant.