Edited by Herbert Van Thal
317 pages, Pan Books
Pan’s People by Pat Black
When I was a little boy, video nasties were all the rage.
Video shops – bold enterprises back then, obsolete and boarded-up now – were places of fear for me. It didn’t matter if I came home with my video rental copy of Krull, a Scooby Doo anthology or the De Laurentis remake of King Kong; I wouldn’t be thinking about such safe entertainment at bedtime.
For this was the age of the appalling, grisly video box cover. Although the vast majority of these VHS penny dreadfuls would never appear on our television screen, the artwork on the display boxes would pause, rewind and repeat in my imagination well into the wee small hours.
There was the American Werewolf, snarling at us in profile (mid-transformation of course, though I didn’t know this at the time). Beside that, the creepy silhouette of the killer in Friday the 13th Part Two, bloody axe in hand. And Driller Killer – bearded guy, yes? Not very happy at the power tool growing out of his forehead, no? Phantasm showed us a screaming woman covering her eyes with both hands – except that her eyes were actually on her hands. And perhaps most memorably, The Hills did indeed Have Eyes – bulging, staring, malevolent eyes, lurking over a dark mountaintop in the VHS world’s most literal artistic interpretation.
And The Evil Dead. My God.
If video nasties have a literary equivalent, they’re sure to be found in old copies of the Pan Book of Horror Stories. The front covers of these anthologies – which I discovered as a ghoulish 12-year-old in the school library – bore the seeds of video nasty box art aesthetics. We were treated to heads in buckets, skulls festooned with insects, laughing skeletons, dangling eyeballs, melting faces, heads chopped off with cleavers... A truly appalling one with a little girl’s head used as a flower arrangement. I didn’t make that up. Glorious stuff for icky boys of a certain age, of course. I feel almost warm inside at the thought of one of these volumes, which featured a skull encased in lickable ice shavings.
What I found inside the Pans’ covers was like finally opening the box to those video nasties, sliding the cassette into the machine, pushing play... and having my worst imaginings confirmed, superseded and blown to cinematic proportions.
One story in that particular nasty-ice-cream-cone collection has stayed with me ever since – T.H. McCormick’s “Man With A Knife”, a medical thriller where a guy discovers that an eminent surgeon has a history of carrying out questionable amputations. He has a love affair with a nurse, who has a connection to the amput-happy medic, before the main character is without warning ambushed and beaten to a pulp by his quarry.
When our hero wakes up, he is being wheeled into surgery - and just as he goes under general anaesthetic, he recognises the eyes of the man behind the surgeon’s mask.
That was one of the tamer ones. There’s a wrongness to these books, not simply in terms of gore and grue, but more to do with the fact that the tales always erred in favour of people’s very worst qualities. You can read a ghost story, and you can even be frightened by it, but this doesn’t compare with the unease you might feel at the idea of someone causing you harm – and enjoying it. You might even, in your heart of hearts, harbour those tendencies yourself. They are part of life. You don’t need to look at a newspaper to know that nasty things happen to unsuspecting people every day. We all experience these things to a greater or lesser extent: it could be a vanload of neanderthals shouting abuse at a lone female jogger; it could be the subtle manipulations of a crafty office bully; or it could be a deranged killer sliding through an open window... maybe yours, tonight.
Sometimes, we get out of our predicaments and overthrow those who would seek to make us unhappy. It could be down to daring, luck or the intervention of good people. But for some of us, there is no hope. And the very best – or worst, if you prefer – of The Pan Book Of Horror Stories showed you that.
Fifty-one years after Herbert Van Thal collected the very first entry in the series, Pan is re-releasing it just in time for Hallowe’en. This is mainly thanks to the efforts of the British writer Johnny Mains, a fan of the series who recently published a tribute anthology, Back From the Dead, featuring classic tales from the Pan oeuvre and some brand new ones. From there, he was commissioned by Pan to find the copyright-holders to the original batch of tales ahead of its grand resurrection.
I can give you an exclusive on the re-release, because I already own the first Pan Book of Horror Stories – a now-40-year-old reprint which I picked up in a Bury St Edmunds charity shop in 1991 for all of 70p.
And so I crept through my cobweb-ridden loft, trying not to freak out as the eyes of my animatronic James Brown doll leered at me in the dark, and I dug among the graveyard of books for my copy.
And there it was. Front cover: a head, perhaps decapitated, perhaps simply uncovered as part of a submerged whole, sticking out of some rank-looking soil. Eyes open, if a little dirt-encrusted.
The stories are listed in the alphabetical order of the authors’ surnames – rumoured to have been a mistake on the part of Herbert Van Thal when the book was committed to print. This may be why we open up with Joan Aiken’s “Jugged Hare”, a relatively weak kick-off featuring a cuckolded husband with a bow and arrow, his indolent wife and an architect whom she rather off-handedly decides to sleep with. The tone is sinister rather than outright horrific and doesn’t feature any murder, but dwells long on the excoriating spite and petty jealousies of a dead marriage.
Similarly, “Submerged” by AL Barker would have worked a lot better as a buttress between some of the nastier stories to follow. It’s a well-written piece about a boy who goes for a habitual swim in a lonely stretch of river amidst some English woodland, only for an arguing couple to blunder their way into his rural idyll. I was enjoying the opening of this tale as Barker describes the river bank, the flowers, the skies, the lazily moving water and the fact that the boy appears to have the whole world to himself... until I remembered I was meant to be reading a horror story. There’s a death in this tale, but it was less shocking to me than the author’s examination of the passive cruelty and egocentrism of childhood.
Still, third story in, Oscar Cook’s “His Beautiful Hands”, and now it’s a party. A once-common type of vignette we rarely see any more – a man passing on the story to a narrator, meaning we get it third-hand – this is a grisly affair packing revenge, illicit desires, rotting flesh and bits dropping off into very few pages. It concerns a violinist who goes to a salon to have his flawless hands massaged by a beautiful girl “with a touch of the East about her”... But her skills come at a heavy price. After such a slow-burning start, this is a jolt.
And it was merely an appetiser. Next up is “The Copper Bowl”, by George Fielding Eliot. When we enter the story, its French Legionnaire hero has resisted all kinds of tortures inflicted upon him by a Chinese mandarin not unlike Fu Manchu. The villain wants to find the location of a garrison of troops which has been disrupting his livelihood, and the situation is at deadlock until the Legionnaire’s girlfriend is introduced to the fray. She is stripped, and the eponymous copper bowl is firmly attached to her abdomen; hot coals are then placed on top. Nasty enough - but it’s what the torturers have left inside the bowl that provides the meat and drink of this story. Pure schlock, but it hits the mark and is one of the best-remembered entries in the series.
Despite the wonderful title, I didn’t think I would enjoy “Contents of a Dead Man’s Pockets”. The story of a man skirting round the fifth-storey ledge of an apartment block on Lexington Avenue, New York, in order to retrieve a career-making piece of paper blown outside by a breeze takes a little while to get going. But it’s worth hanging onto, as the descriptions of sudden vertigo and the skin-crawling feeling that the hero is going to end up as street pizza will cause even the bravest among us to break out in a sweat. If the plot seems familiar, that’s thanks to the Stephen King story “The Ledge” (it featured in the portmanteau movie Cat’s Eye), which treads a similar path. Gingerly.
Peter Fleming’s “The Kill” is a worthy addition to the lycanthropic canon, despite telegraphing its final scene from the first few lines of dialogue. Isn’t it strange that we can point to the definitive vampire novel – Dracula – despite the fact that it’s a fairly derivative take on the bloodsucker myth, but no-one has yet written the ultimate werewolf novel? Perhaps those pained transformations which scared the bejesus out of me on the front of the VHS boxes lend themselves better to moving pictures than print? Anyway, this is another one of those yarns which is told to us second-hand by a character in the story. We start with two men in a lonely, fog-bound railway waiting room; one of them tells the other the tale of his rich uncle, and a bastard heir cursed to roam the grounds of his estate by night as a werewolf, hunting down anyone who holds a legal claim over what is rightfully his. Although the language is stuffy and incongruent to the fireside-chat framing, “The Kill” has lots of atmosphere and a wonderful – if obvious – Roald Dahl-style twist.
Avast, me hearties – CS Forester drops anchor in this collection, possibly the most contemporaneously successful novelist to appear. But the Hornblower author’s “The Physiology of Fear” has nothing to do with swashbuckling adventure on the high seas, being a fearfully clipped discussion of the horrors of the SS, and the Nazi regime’s horrid attempts to marry science with base cruelty. A “good Nazi” doctor who is ordered to carry out atrocities in a death camp is horrified by his brilliant’s nephew’s research into the physiology of fear, and notions of racial stereotypes attached to his hypothesis. Although the medical experiments actually carried out in the death camps were far worse than the fictional one described here, the cold scientific style and the always-timely reminder of the insidious ways the state can interfere with people’s lives make for a troubling read.
LP Hartley’s Doppelganger-style story “WS” describes a writer who is stalked by a postcard-writing correspondent. It’s a promising idea but tries to tick too many boxes, and suffers for having that most banal of horror story plots - “Is it all for real, or is the main character a bit mad?” A supernatural element almost feels tacked-on at the end and detracts from the initial menace of the scenario, as “WS” encroaches upon the writer – named Walter Streeter - with the location of each postcard creeping closer and closer to home.
HP Lovecraft is in the house, y’all – or rather, his ghost is. It haunts Hazel Heald’s “The Horror in the Museum,” a creeper featuring the now-classic scenario of a man dared to spend the night alone in a waxwork chamber of horrors. The demons on display in this unusual museum relate to the Cthulhu Mythos, and include Lovecraft’s venerable old squid-head himself. Things go bump in the night, as you may imagine, and marbles are unaccounted for by the time the morning comes.
In the course of my research I’ve read several times that HP Lovecraft is thought to have been the true author of this story. This may be doing Hazel Heald a gigantic disservice, but it is true that Heald was someone who relied upon Lovecraft for “revisions” - as was Harry Houdini (and in the latter case, we can safely take “revising” to mean “ghost-writing”). There’s no proving the case either way, although the use of the adjective “cyclopean” aroused the strongest suspicions in me. Whether or not this is Lovecraft’s work or that of an honest, skilled writer given a basic polish, the tribute to Lovecraft’s legacy is clear from its inclusion in this collection.
Hester Holland’s “The Library” has a touch of doom about it from the very start. A young woman suffering after a love split decides to take a job as the live-in caretaker of a large country house, owned by a dotty old lady who spends each summer abroad. The lass becomes obsessed with seeing the house’s library, but has been forbidden from going there by her mistress. Soon, she becomes aware of odd vibrations being emitted by the lonely mansion in the woods, and is almost mesmerised into facing what lurks in the library. This one was a bit predictable – I’m tempted to say harmless – but serendipity has put it in a good spot as a palate cleanser in the wake of Hazel Heald’s melodrama.
“The Mistake” by Fielden Hughes is a neat twist on the premature burial story, putting the protagonist, a mental patient who cannot sleep, in a rather delicious moral pickle. The man is a former vicar who presides over the funeral of a man whom he loathed – “one of those strange cases of complete natural antipathy”. At the service, the vicar hears a faint tapping sound coming from inside the coffin... is it possible his nemesis is still alive? The twist in this tale was a bit of a non-event for me, and to be honest I’m not sure exactly what the final revelation means. But the lead character’s moral dilemma was terrific. Are we – like the vicar – capable of considering something utterly wicked, if the life of someone we could not stand were to be placed in our hands?
Another familiar name crops up next – Nigel Kneale, the creator of so many wonderful TV series and movies, including Quatermass. His “Mirror, Mirror” is far removed from outer space, though, preferring to explore the bug-eyed monsters of the mind under the mantle of a wicked stepmother theme. “Auntie” in the story addresses little Judith, a girl who tries to run away one day. Auntie tells little Judith that she must beware the world beyond the walls of her house, as Judith’s an ugly duckling – and Judith remembers how the other animals treated the ugly duckling, doesn’t she? Because Judith’s different... not like the other people beyond the wall...
Gads, I’m doing the voice now! Stop it! This was an effective chiller, getting worse exponentially as it carries on - a reminder that there are jealous, bitter, controlling monsters the world over.
Noel Langley’s “Serenade for Baboons” sees a gruff, no-nonsense Scots doctor trying to make a new life for himself in South Africa, but finding it difficult to convince the people in his town to come to him for assistance, rather than the local witch doctor. I liked the science-vs-superstition theme and the killer baboons scenario; the cop-out ending, less so.
Worse is to follow, with Hamilton McAllister’s “The Lady Who Didn’t Waste Words”. A guy is menaced on a train carriage by a strange gap-toothed woman with huge earrings, who only tells him: “Any words not in praise of the Lord are wasted words.” To be honest, the only wasted words were the ones that passed in front of my eyes here. It’s got one good, nasty moment, and a bit of panic in the darkness as the train goes through a tunnel, but aside from that it doesn’t make a blind bit of sense. It’s like a fragment, something you’d scribble down after having a vivid nightmare, but the dots are just too disparate to make sense when they’re joined.
“A Fragment of Fact” by Chris Massie is another one that feels like a filler. It’s atmospheric to begin with as the narrator, a cyclist, gets caught in a thick fog in the night. Tired out and very thirsty, he knocks on the first door he comes upon after spotting a lighted window in the gloom. A strange-looking, bearded man opens the door... I’m at a loss how to describe this one. Like the preceding tale it has a nightmarish quality to it, but I’m not sure what the hell it’s alluding to. This may be seen as a spoiler, perhaps not, but there’s a suggestion that the cyclist has stumbled upon the dwelling of some kind of shape-shifter or werewolf. But you can’t be sure. As a mood piece it’s pretty good but the atmospherics are at the expense of a decent narrative. What happens? What’s it all about? We never know.
Seabury Quinn’s “The House of Horror” puts us back on track, the story of two doctors on a call getting lost in the middle of a great storm. They come upon a mansion owned by an elderly man who bids the two physicians to attend to his daughter, a girl in the grip of delirium and apparently suffering from flu or encephalitis. The girl isn’t the man’s daughter of course, and she’s not really sick. For some reason, the windows of the house are framed with metal and shut tight. And then, the doors close of their own accord, locking the two medical men inside.
This one came across as a locked room mystery before it took a wander into the basement. Quinn’s hero, Jules de Grandin, is a sort of French Sherlock Holmes, with the narrator Dr Trowbridge being his Watson. This pair are famous for their appearances in Weird Tales and other classic pulp magazines as detectives of the supernatural. There’s a humungous plot hole in “The House of Horror” – why on earth would the nasty old man invite these two men inside in the first place, far less bid them to examine the captive girl, when he has so much to hide? – but apart from that, I admired its crude mechanics. There’s a problem, a villain, a “reveal” and a resolution, all of which was welcome given the oddities it followed in this book.
In the following story, Flavia Richardson’s “Behind the Yellow Door”, we see a strange example of synchronicity in the running order of the contents. The tale, which shares themes with both its immediate predecessor and the earlier story “The Library”, sees a young secretary arriving at a house to take up a new job. The mistress of the house, a renowned surgeon, has malevolent designs on her young charge, a purpose that dovetails nicely with the plight of the deformed daughter she keeps upstairs. What I liked best about this one was that the doctor’s fiendish plan isn’t allowed time to fester or become obvious to the reader; it’s made explicit for us, and comes soon enough to allow for a sense of hope to take hold, a feeling that the secretary might just get out in one piece.
To be fair, I was never heading to the bookies on the strength of this.
Make way for the superstar, though: CS Forester may be the Wayne Rooney of this collection, but Muriel Spark is its Messi. While we’ll never know why Dame Muriel was denied the Nobel Prize, we can certainly crown her entry, “The Portobello Road,” as the most beautiful piece in this collection.
It’s a ghost story, narrated by the departed, “Needle”. She’s a spirited woman (save your applause for the end, please) looking back on her life since the days she and three friends sat on a haystack in a balmy summer’s day in the Scottish Borders, in the very flower of youth. One of the four friends, George, goes off to Africa to work on a tobacco plantation, where he marries a mixed race girl who bears him two children. Only the narrator knows the truth of this, so when George returns to Britain with designs on marrying Kathleen, the quartet’s other girl, the wife and children he leaves behind in Africa pose something of a problem. As does the information poor Needle holds.
The issue of race is prominent here, casual prejudice being an unpleasant facet of the characters on show, although Needle does try to do the right thing in the end. But for me the over-riding themes were those very Scottish ones, presbyterianism and predestination. There’s certainly plenty of the latter in this story, leading to one moment of violence where poor Needle meets her end, becoming a ghastly pun in the process.
Spark, famously, converted to Catholicism in the 1950s, and this was said to have informed her decision to become a novelist owing to the overview her faith gave her on human existence. Certainly, she will have rejected Calvinist doctrine. We can see this rebellion in Needle’s stout refusal to live her life in any other way but the one that she sees fit, despite the grooves that her friends try to force her into throughout the story. Spark is playing with some massive themes, and has a lot to say about Scotland in the 20th century in the process.
This isn’t a cheap Saturday night shocker, preferring to tread a more measured path with a careful, wonderful turn of phrase. “The Portobello Road” has a terrible sense of unease and doom, and laments the hand that fate can deal us – and sometimes, the hand that we deal ourselves. It recalls another supernatural story by another famous Scot, Sir Walter Scott to be precise, “The Drovers”; where foresight, prophecy, poor luck and our own agency conspire against us. It is the best piece of writing to be found in this book.
In the same way a cabaret crooner will always have numbers like Mack the Knife or Moon River in his set list to keep the punters happy, the Pans always had a classic up their sleeve to appeal to the traditionalist. Later on, such chestnuts were usually Stephen King stories which the series’ fans had probably read several times before. In the first ever Pan, it’s Bram Stoker’s “The Squaw”.
Confession time: I’m not fond of Dracula. At least, not of anything that happens after Transylvania. I acknowledge that it has strange and gruesome moments of horror that were decades ahead of its time, and – for better or Twilight – it has firmly staked vampire lore in our collective consciousness. But I found it dull once the ship ran aground at dear old Whitby and, worse still, I hated most of the characters. Chief among the prize collection of clowns in Van Helsing’s vampire-hunting gang is Quincey P Morris, the laconic American. The laconic American who’s so laconic that Stoker tells you every two minutes that he’s laconic, and whose every sarcastic utterance is met with peals of delight from the ladies or polite applause from the Victorian menfolk. When what he should really be met with is a hail of bullets.
There is a very similar character in “The Squaw”, a loudmouth outdoorsy frontiersman with a violent past in the old west, come to spend his money in even older Europe. He’s on the lookout for a few thrills and – it would seem to modern eyes – seeking to ruin the honeymoon of the young couple he latches onto. Perhaps we are supposed to like this brazen person; certainly Stoker meant for us to have affection invested in Dracula’s Quincey P Morris, given his heroic death. In the case of this story, I should say not. I doubt this could be attributed to any anti-American feeling, though, as Stoker’s day came well before any sniffy British prejudices could be formed based on the movies or television.
In a moment of almost sublime stupidity, the unquiet American in “The Squaw” manages to kill a kitten by mistake, incurring the wrath of its mother – a very Poe-esque black cat. The cat seems intent on gaining revenge on the American, much to his amusement. The whole business reminds him of a strange story involving a squaw who took an awful revenge on a man who did her some serious wrongs out in the plains, y’see; so guffaws the buffoon, to the apparent enjoyment of the newlywed couple in his midst, while the blood and brains of the kitten he killed leak all over the ground just feet away.
The party moves on to the Tower of Torture museum in Nurnberg, where all manner of nasty things are kept for tourists to gawp at. Most spectacular of all these instruments is the Iron Virgin, and, well, yeah, you can probably see where this is going. Which in no way spoils your enjoyment of the climax – I was nearly out of my seat applauding. Not only is “The Squaw” upsetting and surprisingly gory for a tale from this period, but I also detected a sly, proto-feminist slant from Stoker which pleased me enormously. Incidentally, the black cat in the story is the one hissing at you from the front cover of the book (reproduced from the 1959 original).
As we prepare to wrap up the party, then, we have “Flies” by Anthony Vercoe – a story of plain disgust, the likes of which the Pans would become notorious for. It’s night, and a cold, hungry down-and-out breaks into an empty London property to claim his squatter’s rights. But, waiting in the dark dark house is a dark dark room, and in that dark dark room is a dark dark box, and in that dark dark box is a corpse being fed upon by thousands of blowflies. Much like “WS” before it, there’s an element of the supernatural in this story which felt unnecessary; the scenario was disturbing enough on its own.
Penultimately, “Raspberry Jam” by Angus Wilson. A strange little kid spends a lot of his time with two elderly sisters, one a faded glamourpuss, the other stern and masculine. They’ve “been away”, you see, meaning they’ve been in a mental hospital, but they retain enough power and influence to get themselves released and to live in relative peace among a community filled with gossips.
Little Johnnie is fond of them, despite what his mother and aunts and uncles say, and one day he goes around to their house for a little tea party, where he has been promised his very favourite, raspberry jam. In its callousness, and in a senseless ending which you won’t see coming, this story had something of the Grand Guignol theatre about it. I was certainly horrified by the end.
Last guest to leave, it’s “Nightmare” by Alan Wykes. Bit of an odd note to finish on, a terror of psychoanalysis where a paranoiac has a revelation: that his fears not only limit him, but have come to sustain him in perverse ways. After being cured of his condition by a kindly doctor, the narrator begins to be plagued in his dreams by a hooded, faceless figure who glowers upon him with total malice. Those last couple of sentences are probably more intriguing than the story itself, which breaks connection with logic at crucial stages but signs off with a flourish.
That’s it – we’re done with the first Pan Book of Horror Stories. It has to go back in the loft, now, with the darkness and James Brown’s evil eyes. Very easy to slip and fall in my loft, you know – it’s one of those lofts where, with each step on the ladder, you hear public service announcements intoning: “Ninety percent of all accidents take place in the home.” It’d be funny, wouldn’t it, if I went up there and tripped over a book... And one of the loose wires looped around my neck as I fell...
You know what? I’ll keep the book out of the loft for the next wee while. I’ll leave it by my bedside, perhaps, my literary familiar. Face down, of course.