Wednesday, October 13, 2010
The Annotated Index to Tales of the Frightened
by Peter Enfantino
Back in 1957, Michael Avallone was writing short-shorts for a syndicated radio program called The Frightened, a show which spotlighted the voice of horror great Boris Karloff. At about the same time, Avallone was approached by book packager extraordinaire Lyle Kenyon Engel to edit a line of digest magazines, one of which was to be based on the Karloff show . Avallone jumped at the chance to put together what, in his words, "a nation of Weird Tales-denied readers had been waiting for." The old venerable warhorse (Weird Tales, not Avallone) had been put out to pasture just three years before and, aside from digests like Fantastic, Beyond (which had bit the dust in 1955), and Fantasy & Science Fiction, there really was a void for anyone seeking horrific yarns. Originally, the zine was to be called Boris Karloff's Tales of the Frightened, but at the last minute, the star got cold feet and the title was released as Tales of the Frightened.
Too bad that TOTF wasn't the zine to catch fire with the public as Avallone did a genuinely good job of selecting fiction for TOTF (especially for the second issue) and I'd love to have seen what would have shown up in a third issue. According to Avallone, poor sales was not what killed TOTF, but rather a strike at the company that distibuted the zine.
#1 sports a nice cover by Rudy Nappi, illustrating "The Curse of Cleopatra", one of two short stories Avallone contributed to the first issue, but for some inexplicable reason (lack of funds?) the second cover is simply a multi-colored list of the stories included. The two-issue run is fairly collectible, but can still be found (when it can be found) in the $8-10 per issue range.
Contents of the two TALES OF THE FRIGHTENED issues. All word counts are approximate based on average word count per column.
Vol. 1 No. 1 Spring 1957
The Curse of Cleopatra-Michael Avallone ** (7550 wds)
William Ramses, president of Firm Fit Foundations bra company, believes that his new seretary is actually Cleopatra. When he goes to a local antiquities dealer to see a ring reputed to have belonged to the queen of the Nile, his suspicions are confirmed.
Palpo picks up a jewel in an abandoned house in bombed out Nazi Germany. Next thing he knows, it starts growing. Arch Oboler's classic "Chicken Heart" radio story is much better than this.
The Glass Thread-Elsie Milnes *** (4850 wds)
Unusual story about a woman who believes her husband and her sister-in-law are plotting to kill her. Story gets better as the woman's paranoia deepens, eventually leading to madness and Poe quotes.
Incident in a Flying Saucer-James Harvey * (1250 wds)
UFO-movie parody tries to come off funny but ends up dopey.
Cat Woman-Gerald Gordon * (2450 wds)
Russ Gillespie is taken with the girl who comes to his apartment pleading for help. There's a cat down a well and Russ foolishly volunteers to rescue it. Pointless story has no suspense to it (especially considering that the punchline is telecast in the title).
The Stop at Nothing-Mark Danes ** (3500 wds)
Sam Potter receives a strange telegram informing him that his time is up and that he needs to take a midnight train that will stop at nothing. Suspenseful build-up that leads to, well, nothing. An anti-climax with a lame twist and no payoff. This is actually Avallone under the Mark Dane psuedonym.
Alias Napoleon-John Jakes * (3600 wds)
Carnival barker Jack Morris discovers that a Martian is living inside the Napoleon Bonaparte figure in the carnival's wax museum exhibit. Once discovered, the Martian discloses its plan of world conquest to Jack. Real dumb story from an author who would go on to sell millions of books in the 1970s with his bicentennial series.
Faith Killer-Winston Marks *** (2600 wds)
A pompous doctor mocks a faith healer and suffers her wraith. Just as fun and visual as one of Boris Karloff's Thriller TV shows.
Mistaken Identity-Ralph Williams ** (2650 wds)
Connor, on business, just wants to get a good meal but finds that restaurants in a small town close early. Well, except for that "special restaurant" that the hotel bellboy sends him to. The "mistaken identity" of the title closely resembles an old EC horror yarn called "Midnight Mess," wherein a man stumbles onto a restaurant for vampires and is eventually strung up and tapped like a keg.
Old Snagglebuck-William G. Weston ***1/2 (4550 wds)
Little Bobby has a rotten sadistic son-of-a-bitch father whose own father was a necromancer. Now daddy is threatening to unleash a demon on Bobby if he doesn't behave. Well-written thriller works up to a ghoulish finale.
Scorpion-Hal Ellson *1/2 (2750 wds)
Not much suspense is built up in this tale of a Mexican prisoner who's placed in a cell with a scorpion to cure him of his violent habits. Ellson was a mainstay in the crime digests (and usually contributed much better stories than this) back in the 1950s and 60s, and also wrote some best-selling juvenile delinquent novels.
But a Kind of Ghost-John Wyndham * (6650 wds)
Sam Tineways finds a mysterious box embedded in the cliffs of a nearby beach. When he opens the trunk, he discovers the body of the goddess Hiltrude (here again played by Vanna White). One part romance, one part ghost story, all sleep-inducing, "Ghost" is like a 1950s retro-commercial. An intolerable bore from the otherwise respectable author of The Midwich Cuckoos, Day of the Triffids, and Out of the Deeps.
The Gardener-John Christopher ** (2800 wds)
The really weird tale of a wanderer and the strange characters that surround him in his boarding house.
The Unwatched Door-Richie McPherson ** (150 wds)
A suicidal woman dies and her doctor and husband remark that she "escaped through the only door they couldn't watch." Obviously there's not much you can do in 150 words, but the author gives it the old college try anyway.
The Frightened-Michael Avallone * (850 wds)
The sad short story of William Welles and the evil Mr. Sorko. Though credited to Karloff, the "Frightened" stories were actually written by editor Avallone.
The Singular Occurrence at Styles-Alan Henry **** (1800 wds)
Newsome Holder travels to England for the sole purpose of murdering someone, anyone. Holder wants to create a "singular" act, a murder so unique it will shock all who hear of it. After the murder, Holder steps into a bar and brags of his evil deed, only to be rebuffed as an ordinary killer. A very unique read, easily the best presented in Tales of the Frightened, topped off by a funny punch line.
Vol. 1 No. 2 August 1957
The Queen's Bedroom-Ledru Baker, Jr. **1/2 (9400 wds)
Rolly Andrews, a "treasure hunter" in Egypt, buys ancient artifacts for museums. When he meets Dr. David Barkley, an eccentric archaeologist, he knows he's stumbled onto something big. Barkley has discovered the long lost tomb of Queen Hetepheres and wants only to make this one last contribution to science before he dies. Andrews gets a bad case of the greedies and helps the old man to a heart attack, allowing the find to himself. Though the "mummy" story has been reworked a million times, "The Queen's Bedchamber" actually rejects the shambling mummy cliché we keep waiting for. Andrews' metamorphosis from good guy to baddie and then full circle back to "man with a conscience" (he eventually can't cope with his own guilt and decides to "discover" the Queen's tomb and use only the professor's name in the paper) is not usually what we get in stories of this kind. It should also be noted that there are no supernatural devices in the story, only the ominous shadow of the ancients.
The Man Who Thought He Was Poe-Michael Avallone *** (4850 wds)
Good solid follow-up to Robert Bloch's "The Man Who Collected Poe." George LeGrande has become so obsessed with Poe that he has changed his name to Roderick (as in Usher), furnished his home in decaying antiques, reads only dusty tomes, and, to top it all off, has decided to kill his unsympathetic wife, Agnes. Nice twist ending.
The Man Who Stole His Body-Mark Mallory *** (3250 wds)
Bizarre story of a doctor who assists an operation on his own body after he's run over by a truck. Check your brain at the door. Nonsensical title.
Mr. Tiglath-Poul Anderson **1/2 (6550 wds)
Harley buys three genies from the mysterious Mr. Tiglath and plans to rob the safe of his employer.
The Black Spot-William B. Hartley * (4000 wds)
Bizarre mumbo jumbo about a guy who stumbles upon a dead man with a bullet hole in his head (or is it a bullet hole?) and can't get the sight out of his mind. Everywhere around him are people with black spots on their foreheads.
White Legs-Mark Dane (Avallone) * (4200 wds)
Mr. Carter's wife has been prodding him to see a psychiatrist about the strange dreams he's been having. In his dreams, Carter is a voyeur to thousands of beautiful female legs (right, just legs) which turn into giant tree trunks that fall and crush him (no foolin'). Dreadful story that reads like a Reader's Digest article on psychiatry, dream analysis, and boredom.
The Lucky Coffin-C. B. Gilford *** (5100 wds)
Emery Sim can't wait for his kindly rich old Uncle Sim to kick the bucket and leave Emery his vast fortune. But just when it looks like the old timer will finally follow that big exit sign, he buys a coffin (to prepare for his own funeral) that seems to have magical healing powers. Now Emery has to put on his thinking cap and devise a way to murder his suddenly-immortal uncle. Both amusing and chilling, "The Lucky Coffin" has a great twist ending reminiscent of "The Monkey's Paw."
Wise Beyond His Years-Claude Ferrari **** (1400 wds)
Creepy short-short about an old man who kidnaps a baby and uses it in a witchcraft ceremony. Very nasty little gem.
Span Trap-Sidney Porcelain * (3050 wds)
Mona Wilson tires of her worthless life and overdoses on sleeping pills. Once dead, she awakens on another plane or in another dimension (don't ask me which) or something, where she becomes a worker on a factory assembly line. Nonsensical bit of tripe becomes more unreadable with each page turned. This attempt at abstraction very much reminded me of the stories of David Bunch, which appeared in FANTASTIC in the early 1960s. Bunch would write absurd non-stories about nothing at all, and FANTASTIC readers would duke it out in the letters page debating whether Bunch was an artistic genius or a crafty charlatan (take a guess which side I stand on).
Duty-Tristan Roberts *** (1300 wds)
Good post-apocalyptic short-short about the last man and woman on Earth and their search for the power packs that will help them rebuild their city.
Dead End-Mack Reynolds * (400 wds)
Doctor searches for immortality through vampirism. Real short and real dumb, just like one of those vignettes they used to do on Rod Serling's Night Gallery. Mack Reynolds (who also wrote as Mack Mallory and Dallas Ross) was an incredibly prolific writer for the sf digests of the 50s and 60s. Though virtually unknown by sf fandom, Reynolds created several series (including The Cold War, Homer Crawford, Johnny Mauser, and Ronnie Bronston) for F&SF, Analog, and Future. He also collaborated with the great Fredric Brown on a handful of stories.
The Window-A. Bertram Chandler *** (6100 wds)
Lost on the streets of London, a man seeks shelter from the rain and happens to look into the window of a dark lodge. There he sees a human sacrifice performed by a group of robed cultists. When he flees to the police to tell his story, he is informed that the lodge is haunted by the ghosts of the Satanists. Actually it turns out that the window is a two-way porthole to the past. This revelation leads to a neat twist and an apocalyptic outcome.
Miss Bard's Lover-Elizabeth Luna *1/2 (5850 wds)
Mousy Miss Bard has a new tenant at her boarding house. A very strange one, she finds. One who has an unnatural obsession with Miss Bard's long flowing hair. Turns out that the new boarder is a serial killer who strangles women with their own long silky tresses. Miss Bard, by now in love with the nut, gives in to his wicked desires and dies in a fit of lustful agony/ecstasy. Oh brother! I swear I read something along these lines in True Confessions magazine. The psycho sexual finale would make great fodder for David Cronenberg.
A Tale From "The Frightened"-Boris Karloff * (850 wds)
Sylvester Dodge is being followed by a man with a deathly white face and a mysterious umbrella. I vividly remember reading this as an impressionable pre-teen (it was reprinted in Avallone's Tales of the Frightened paperback) and having the crap scared out of me. It's too bad I spoiled my own fond memories of the story by re-reading it thirty years later.
As an aside, someone has very nicely uploaded a batch of Karloff's readings of "The Frightened" on the web.