AUBURN — Despite normally writing at a slower pace, author Dale Elster hunkered in a recliner with his laptop and cranked out his entry for a Rod Serling writing contest in two days.
Elster's piece placed third in December in the Narrate Your Own "Twilight Zone" contest by the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation, which raises awareness of the work of Serling, a screenwriter and producer best known for the science fiction anthology TV series "The Twilight Zone." The show originally ran from 1959 to 1964 but has re-aired on TV for decades, notably for an annual marathon that runs on the Syfy channel every New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Serling was born in Syracuse and spent his early days in Binghamton.
In the style Serling narrated the beginning and ending of every episode, contestants wrote narration for their own "Twilight Zone" tale, with no additional information on the story allowed. The top three entries were performed by actor Stephen Dexter, who imitated Serling. Elster's contribution was "The Small Stuff," in which a man intensely afraid of bacteria faces off with a legion of germs, manifested as small soldiers, in his kitchen. He said he was honored by the foundation's acknowledgement, and that he is working on turning his narration into a fleshed-out story.
WATCH: Actor Stephen Dexter recites Dale Elster's contest entry as Rod Serling
Elster, a husband and father, also co-wrote the book "Deadsville," featuring 13 different horror pieces, and his horror fiction tales have been published in short story collections. He said Serling's work had a profound impact on him, and believes the TV maestro unintentionally influenced all of his narratives.
"The DNA for 'Twilight Zone' is really in pretty much everything I write," Elster said.
Elster was first exposed to Serling's world as a boy, seeing a rerun of the "Zone" episode "Where is Everybody?" — the series' first — in which a man wanders around an empty town. The episode's sense of isolation and black-and-white visuals captivated Elster, who said he had never seen anything like the show on TV before.
While Serling was known for including twist endings in his stories, Elster argued that Serling's themes — greed, equality, the nature of humanity and the concepts of right and wrong — have allowed his work to weather the test of time for more than 50 years. Elster believes Serling's messages are as relevant now as when they were first committed to paper.
Elster submitted his piece not long after discovering the contest through Facebook in July. While it sometimes takes Elster months to write one short story, he said the narration came to him rapidly. He tried to adopt Serling's "head space" to mimic the writer's style, hearing his own words through Serling's trademark delivery in his head.
The main character's extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder is at the heart of the story idea, Elster said, adding that he believes Serling would tackle the disorder if "The Twilight Zone" was being made today. The decision to make the bacteria into soldiers was influenced by the fact that Serling served with the U.S. Army in World War II, Elster said.
Steve Schlich, the foundation's webmaster and one of the contest's seven judges, said while many of the competition's 53 entries were excellent, Elster's kitchen-set war zone stood out through the strength of his writing and his ability to imitate Serling's style and word usage.
"I was delighted to see his piece get in the top three because his writing was so superior. He really captured Rod Serling's voice," Schlich said.
Schlich said the foundation wants to encourage people to write about socially relevant themes and "to reach people with truth," as he believes Serling did. Schlich hopes seeing the contest entries will inspire others to take to the written word themselves.
Elster, who works part-time at the Wegmans store in Auburn, was diagnosed with a blood clot disorder in 2004, and didn't work for around 12 years as a result. For a year following the diagnosis, he was largely bedridden, allowing him to focus on honing his craft. Elster said he believes writing is one of the things he is meant to do.
While Elster is happy with the notoriety that comes with the contest, he also couldn't wait to pay tribute to a man who helped lay the foundation for how he writes.
"Any chance that we get to honor Rod Serling is worth it," Elster said.