“The fastest typewriter in the east.” That’s the moniker that’s often bestowed upon Michael Avallone, a man who’s almost the walking definition of “prolific,” with more than two hundred published books to his credit—although not all are to his name, since Avallone has employed more than his share of pseudonyms over the years.
Although the majority of the author’s work falls outside of the horror genre, he has written several—more than a dozen, by his estimate—books which fall into the horror category. Scream Factory readers are most likely to be familiar with Tales Of The Frightened, the Satan Sleuth series, or perhaps The Beast With The Red Hands, which is one of Avallone’s pseudonymous efforts—in this case, the name “Sidney Stuart” is used. Most of Avallone’s horror-related titles appeared in the ‘70s, and in this edition of “What The Hell Ever Happened To…?”, we set out to track down Avallone, recap his horror career, and find out what he’s been up to in the last decade or so.
Elsewhere in this issue, Peter Enfantino discusses the aforementioned Beast With The Red Hands in the course of his overview of The Frankenstein Horror Series, a nine-volume series from Popular Library in the mid-70s. Avallone explains how he became involved with the series:
“My agent at the time, Jay Garron, came along and said that Popular Library’s going to do this Frankenstein series. To make a long story short, Jay said they want you to do a title and they’re giving you the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde theme. And that’s how I came up with The Beast With The Red Hands. The only guideline I was given was that it should follow the Jekyll and Hyde theme.”
Although there’s a persistent rumor that Avallone edited the Frankenstein Horror Series, he says there’s no truth to it:
“As far as I can tell, the editor of that line should have been James T. Bryans. Jim was the major editor at Popular Library during that period.”
Avallone had earlier used the Stuart pen name for his adaptation of the film, The Nightwalker, which was scripted by Robert Bloch. In this particular instance, the author regrets his decision to utilize the pseudonym.
“That goes to show how stupid you can be. I did that in 1963, and I didn’t want to ride on Robert Bloch’s coattails, so I used the pen name. And to this day, 1 say ‘what a stupid bastard I was. Look how much better it would be to have it say ‘Michael Avallone writing the Robert Bloch screenplay.’”
Although the aforementioned book is a source of hindsight frustration to Avallone, the writer whose work he was adapting—Robert Bloch—is the subject of far different emotions.
“[Bloch is] my greatest friend. I get a letter every other week from him, for the last 20 or 30 years now. He is the nicest big name alive today. You cannot do better than Robert Bloch. In fact, I dedicated The Coffin Things to him. And what a checkered history that book had. They had a second printing of it, they bragged about Francoi Truffaut going to do a film version of it—this was 1969, I think—but then funds got frozen in France and they never got back to it.”
Returning to the subject of pen names, despite the cloak of anonymity provided by a pseudonym, Avallone says he never ‘took it easy’ when writing behind another name.
“I always gave it my best shot, even when I was working under a pen name, because even with a pen name, the agent still knows who you are, and the publisher still knows who you are.”
In fact Avallone goes so far as to say that “I think The NightWalker and The Beast With The Red Hands are two of the best things that I’ve ever done.”
Although Nightwalker was published in 1964 and Beast in 1972, Avallone’s association with the horror genre actually goes back much further.
“Between 1948 and 1951, I wrote my head off doing horror and fantasy. Real genuine, Weird Tales-kind of stuff. Anthony Boucher (editor of F&SF at that time) always said I came close but I wasn’t quite good enough. Weird Tales told me that they had to use the same authors, issue in and issue out. It was a real tough market for a rookie to crack. They practically drove me out of the horror field because I wasn’t selling any of (my horror stories). I had about…27 stories. So I stopped that kind of short story output, and I started writing detective fiction; and I kept writing it, because it sold like crazy.
“And all of those stories that F&SF wouldn’t buy, I eventually sold them somewhere else. It’s true that I used four of them in Tales Of The Frightened, but I eventually sold the rest of them somewhere else.”
Speaking of Tales Of The Frightened: “I put that together in 1956 for Boris Karloff [to read for radio broadcast]. I wrote 26 five-minute shows which were going to go into syndication, which simply means that at the beginning of the show Boris would start off with “are you one of the frightened?” And then it would be ‘station NGC presents Boris Karloff’s Tales Of The Frightened and then it would go into one of the tales. The company that I was working with tried to sell that series in conjunction with Chester Morris doing my Ed Noone story, “26 Riddles”; Vincent Price doing gourmet stuff; Russ Hodges doing baseball stuff; Lee Bowman doing “American Asian,” which was spy stuff; but they made the mistake of trying to package it all together as a ‘take it or leave it’ deal. The Karloff and the Chester Morris everybody wanted, because they were horror and detective [themes]. So I did those in 1956, and Boris recorded 13 of them; the other 13 were in the sock. The program faded, then about 1963, when I was writing books for Belmont Publications, I mentioned it to Sam Post, and he went through the ceiling. ‘You have 26 Boris Karloff stories?’ So anyway, Belmont was smart enough to package that book. I’ve got all five editions of the book.
“There was later a second volume of Tales Of The Frightened, but the stories in that volume were authored by Robert Lory, a situation which Avallone is reluctant to discuss: “I wasn’t offered the second volume simply because Lyle Engle turned into one of the biggest thieves on this side of the United States. There’s no use in even discussing that.”
Avallone was also involved with another project entitled Tales Of The Frightened — in this case, a short-run (two issues) magazine that he anonymously edited in the mid-’50s.
“I kept my name off of the masthead because I had two stories in each issue, and I figured at the time that it wouldn’t look good to be listed as editor with my own stories in the issues. But it was stupid not to [take credit for editing the magazine] because it would have been a great feather in my cap to be known as editor, especially since the first collection is now regarded as being top notch.
“The magazine was originally supposed to be called Boris Karloff’s Tales Of The Frightened. We packaged all the stories that wound up in the collection and sent them to Boris, and he didn’t like them. He thought half of the stories were not worth doing. And he said no to the magazine, even though he could have used the money at that point—but then he said yes to my collection.”
The magazine version of Tales Of The Frightened went under after two issues when its distributor encountered financial problems.
In addition to the aforementioned Belmont collection Tales of The Frightened, Avallone also wrote another collection of horror tales, entitled Where Monsters Walk, which was published by Scholastic Books. “That was a nifty collection, but for reasons that I cannot understand until this day, that collection did not sell well. [The collection] was classified as a juvenile, but I didn’t write down to my audience; I didn’t write for ten-year-olds or twelve-year-olds. There are lots of adults who love that book. I did a sequel to that book called Where Monsters Walk Again, but that’s still one of my unsold books.”
Avallone’s most recent effort in the horror genre was his novelization of Friday the 13th, Part 3-D: “That was a beautifully written book about one of the world’s worst movies. I was doing some work for Leisure Books at the time, doing a number of novelizations, and that just happened to be one of them.”
Avallone has also written several books which, although they were marketed as something other than horror, fall solidly into the horror genre. For starters, Avallone lists his Craghold series as “definitely horror”; there are four titles in the series—The Craghold Legacy, The Craghold Curse, The Craghold Creatures, and The Craghold Crypt— plus one unsold novel, called The Craghold Cross.
“[The Craghold books] technically could be called gothics, but they’re really horror because they’ve got cemeteries in them and vampires and so on. It’s straight horror, but with a wry twist.
“Some of my other gothic novels I would definitely categorize as horror. There’s Aquarius, My Evil; Warlock’s Woman, which I did under the Jean Anne Dupre name; The Scarborough Warning, which was by Edwina Noone; and The Vampire Cameo, by Dorothea Nile, which is a gothic that restores the Dracula legend.”
Avallone even edited a gothic collection which is borderline horror: “it was called Edwina Noone’s Gothic Sampler. I went to all the gothic authors I knew and asked them for stories. A gothic short story is very hard to find, but we came up with some, including one by Phyllis Whitney that was in Weird Tales about 20 years before that.”
Avallone lists several more of his titles as falling into the horror genre:
“The Coffin Things, absolutely, and…I would definitely call Shock Corridor a horror novel, because what happens to the central character is horrible. He loses his mind because he went into a nut house to impersonate a maniac and he becomes one himself.
“The Killing Star, which sold [to a publisher] only in England, is an amazing serial killer novel, but I would call it a horror book because the killer does things to the six victims that the Nazis did to Jews, and leaves the Star of David on the door.
“There were also a couple of others…Mitzi was about a woman who sliced penises off — it sounds cheap when I say that, but there was more to it than just that. And The Nights Before Chaos was about a maniac who blew up X-rated book shops.”
Although it’s been a few years since Avallone has published a horror title, he still follows the genre closely, and has some strong opinions about the field. In particular, Avallone decries the popularity of some recent titles, feeling that they have benefited from well- funded packaging and promotional campaigns, whereas earlier books of equal quality were unjustly ignored.
“I’m not trying to take anything away from Silence Of The Lambs, because I loved it. But when somebody says to me why don’t you write something like The Silence Of The Lambs, I say’ I already did it — it was called The Beast With The Red Hands.’ But nobody’s read it, because of poor packaging, poor distribution— and the Sidney Stuart pen name didn’t help, either. The Avallone name on the books would have sold a few more copies.”
In the course of expressing his displeasure with the inequities of the publishing world, and with some of the authors who have achieved somewhat ‘unjust’ success , Avallone singles out the horror genre’s champion bestseller — Stephen King.
“One of the things that bothers me about Stephen King [is that] every book that he’s written is a lift of a classic theme. I could give you the progenitor for every one of them. For example, Carrie owes a great debt to Jerome Bixby’s “The Good Life,” and for Christine you can look at My Mother, The Car or the TV movie DUEL with Dennis Weaver. Now, it’s true King took these things and elaborated on them. But I’m not a Stephen King fan and he knows it.
“I’d like to read you a letter that I wrote about him once. This was printed in Mystery Scene about five years ago: ‘…who was that grubby little kid, back there in the late ‘60s, clutching copies of Tales Of The Frightened, The Coffin Things, The Vampire Cameo, The Felony Squad Shock Corridor, and yes, The Thousand Coffins Affair? Why, even in the ‘70s, wasn’t he boning up on the Craghold Hotel series, the Satan Sleuths, and The Beast With The Red Hands, and digesting all his Bloch, Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Bradbury, Bixby, Beaumont, Sturgeon for future recycling? When does everybody wake up and admit that this writer hasn’t written a single thing that was new?”’
As should be obvious, Avallone believes that King has benefited greatly from being in the right place at the right time, and from his repackaging of old themes. Avallone even feels there was a crossroads in his career where, with a little different approach, he could have been the one to achieve widespread popularity, instead of King.
In 1974, I did this crackerjack series for Warner Paperbacks called the Satan Sleuth series—Fallen Angel; The Werewolf Walks Tonight, Devil, Devil and two unpublished books, one called Vampires Wild and one called Zombie Depot. Warner convinced me that they couldn’t sell more than a certain amount of copies of these, and I was upset that they didn’t score bigger, because the covers were great, the packaging was great, everything.
“You can see by the dates: Devil, Devil came out in ‘75, which is exactly a year before King’s Salem’s Lot. Now here’s the difference: in the Satan Sleuth series, I made the classic mistake of ‘giving the lie’ to all my horror material. In other words, there are actually no vampires, there are no werewolves, there are no zombies — there are people doing a number on other people. Now I say to myself, why didn’t the books do better than they did? And the main reason that I can come up with is that the horrors in them are real, and not made up, not supernatural.”
The author also points to film adaptations as being crucial to the kind of mass appeal which King has achieved: “If any one of my 215 books had been made into a movie, it would be the difference between night and day—I would’ve become a household name.”
Avallone, who recently turned 68, is now basically retired, but is still attempting to sell a few books. “I’ve got 25 unsold manuscripts downstairs, covering all the genres.”
So perhaps Avallone’s incredible total of 215 books published will grow even higher. And the reputation of “the fastest typewriter in the East” will live on.