The October Country: Oct. 19th: “The Sole Survivor” by Rod Serling

In celebration of the month of October, I’ll be sharing 31 of my favorite spooky, eerie and creepy stories, one per day. The stories will range over an array of genres: horror, suspense, science fiction, mysteries and dark fantasy.

The October Country

that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…

— Ray Bradbury

October 19:

The Sole Survivor by Rod Serling

Found In:

Rod Serling’s Night Gallery

Opening Line:

Ponderous yet stately; a giant floating city and yet with her vast decks converging into a single point at the bow, there was a suggestion of gracefulness and speed.”

Best known as the creator and host of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, Rod Serling is often overlooked as a writer. Reading his work, one is aware that the page is not the medium he is most comfortable in, and his writing has the feel of someone who always has at least one eye on the screen. This is not the worst handicap a writer can have. And it is generally overcome by Serling’s true gift, a talent many better wordsmiths often lack: storytelling.

The Sole Survivor begins at sea. An ocean liner spots a rowboat in the distance, a lifeboat. And, within, a woman. They have heard no distress signals, and there are few crafts anywhere in the vicinity, given that this is war time. The Captain and his Officer of the Watch, then, are puzzled. But the rules of the sea (and common decency) are clear: the ocean liner slows to pick up the survivor.

As it does, the Officer of the Watch makes out the name on the lifeboat.

The binoculars fell. He stood there, mouth open. “That’s quite impossible,” he said to no one in particular. “Quite impossible.”

Impossible,” the Captain said grimly, “or the product of someone’s perverted sense of humor.” He looked through the binoculars. “You’ll be entering this in the log after the Dog Watch this evening, Mr. Wilson. I’ll initial it.” He lowered the binoculars. “Without my official corroboration, they’d have you up in front of a Board of Inquiry for drinking on duty.”

The name on the lifeboat: Titanic.

But there are more surprises in store.

The woman, it turns out, is a man. He is merely dressed in a woman’s clothes. And he claims that he is indeed a survivor from the Titanic. Which is quite a story, given that the year is 1915 and the Titanic sank three years before.

Richards shook his head. “That’s not all that’s odd, sir. Her condition–”

The Captain turned to him and frowned. “What about it?”

She’s so barnacled, sir—all crusted up to the waterline. It’s as if she’d been afloat for–”

But the Captain won’t hear it. And rightly so. No one can survie three years in a lifeboat at sea. Such a thing is preposterous.

The ship’s doctor gives the surivor a good going over and reports to the Captain his findings. Primarily, that the man hasn’t eaten in a very long time, and that he is suffering from frostbite.

The Captain studied the ship’s doctor. “Frostbite? In the month of May? Let me ask you something, doctor—have you been on deck recently?”

The ship’s doctor nodded. “Yes, sir, I have.”

Have you seen any icebergs?” the Captain asked.

The ship’s doctor shook his head and smiled. “No, sir. Not a single iceberg.”

The captain leaned over the desk. Not a sarcastic man, he dredged up sarcasm to cover his own bewilderment. “You’d know an iceberg if you saw one?” he asked.

Eventually, the Captain himself meets with the survivor, who explains that he was a seaman on the Titanic, and that in a panic he stole a woman’s dress and muffler in order to gain access to a lifeboat. As his lifeboat descended, a cable broke, and the others in the boat went into the icy water. He was the only one who hung on and remained in the boat as the mighty ship went down.

A wild story, one not readily believed. In fact, the Captain is fairly certain the man is actually a German spy placed amongst them for some unknown plot. It is war time, after all. Stranger things have happened.

But the survivor has more to say.

You’re going to be hit by a torpedo,” the man said, “off the Old Head of Kindale. You’re going down in eighteen minutes flat.”

… “By God,” the ship’s doctor said finally. “By God, you are a German agent.”

The survivor stood up, swaying slightly, holding onto the night table for support. “I’ll tell you what I am, doctor,” he said. “I’m a Flying Dutchman, built of flesh, blood and bones. Damned and doomed. An eternity of lifeboats…rescues…and then–”

–And then forever being picked up by doomed ship’s,” the ship’s doctor said…

As it turns out, the name of the rescuing ship: Lusitania.

Serling has a natural gift for setups and payoffs, the kind of well-structured storytelling that is rarely found in American literature today. He has a knack for fascinating ideas and wicked twists and turns, the kind of cerebral storytelling that made The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery such hits.

The Sole Survivor is a fine place to start with Serling’s work. Perhaps not his best piece, but certainly the kind of story that churns the imagination and leaves a satisfied smile on the face.

More October Stories

For the month of October, you can download

Tyler Miller’s The Other Side of the Door 

FREE.

In celebration of my favorite month, I’m giving away my collection The Other Side of the Door. These are stories inspired by so many of my favorite writers: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson.

Stories like the award-winning Til Death Do Us, about a man who believes he’s gotten away with his wife’s murder…at least until her severed finger is delivered to him in a box. Somebody knows the truth…

Or another first-place winner: Not Dead, Not Even Past, the story of a small-town sheriff confronted with a string of suicides he can’t explain. Each of the victims share a disturbing trait: no matter how they died, all of them have lungs full of water.

I loved working on these stories, and I truly believe that you’ll enjoy reading them just as much as I enjoyed writing them. Check them out. For the entire month, they’re free. What have you got to lose?

Except a little sleep…

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