September 19, 2011


edited by Herbert van Thal
319 pages, Pan

Pan’s People Part Two:

Review by Pat Black

I can’t stay away from these. They make me cackle.

The second volume of Herbert van Thal’s fondly-remembered series of shockers was first published in 1960. It’s a slimmer book than the original, but what it lacks in depth, it more than makes up in quality. Some of the very best horror stories of all time lurk beneath the covers. I don’t hesitate to use the word “classy” regarding a book depicting such frightful and gruesome things; there’s enduring work by great writers.

Your Yucky Cover: A hand pushing up through the soil of what could well be someone’s garden – but with the added detail of a bloody eyeball clutched in the palm, somewhat squashed like an egg yolk. Horrible... although it’s like the front of an Enid Blyton book compared to what would come in later years.

Our opening tale, “Piecemeal”, comes from Oscar Cook, who penned “His Beautiful Hands” from the first Pan. This one features a fireside chat/gentleman’s club framing as one bloke tells another about a nasty revenge gained on a love rival by a cuckolded husband. Horrid - but it did give me a strange hankering for salted pork.

Next, George Langelaan’s “The Fly”. This is the tale that the silly Vincent Price creature feature and the beloved David Cronenberg remake are based upon. A French scientist hits upon the secret of matter transmission, and looks forward to revolutionising the world of human transport and shipping. But there’s a fly in the ointment - or rather, in the transmitter - and things get rather confused for the poor man in the story. The idea of having your atoms fused with a fly’s is horrible enough, but the mystery of Dandelo the cat provides an extra layer of grue.

William Sansom’s “The Vertical Ladder” follows a poor lad who accepts a dare from his friends to scale a ladder up the side of a disused gas tower. Can you say vertigo vertigo vertigo in an echo echo echo? The boy is nervous to begin with – so imagine how he feels when he’s near the top. And the wind’s blowing. And his limbs won’t move for him.

HG Wells appears next with “Pollock and the Porroh Man”, a colonial nightmare set in Sierra Leone where a British rake draws the ire of a witch doctor after stealing his woman. After a curse ensues, the white man takes the pragmatic, if brutal, step of having the witch doctor snuffed out in order to break it. But the nightmare is only just beginning, and for Pollock, things soon come to a head.

“The Inn” by Guy Preston is another portmanteau story, when a crazy person wakes a country doctor in the middle of the night and relates a strange tale. He’s just gotten away from the inn in the title, where a strange man and his foxy female companion attempted to take a liberty with him after he arrived there, lost, earlier that evening. It all starts to go wrong when the crazy man recounts how he went into another room in the inn to have a soak in a big, deep bath. This gruesome tale ends with a breathtaking chase along a rooftop, and still has time for one final shock – in Lovecraftian italics! – before the close.

Bram Stoker’s “The Judge’s House” comes a-knockin’ next. We follow a young student who leases out a deserted and somewhat shunned pile in the country so that he can prepare for his mathematics exams – they must have been looking after students back then, let me tell you. But something irrational intrudes upon his worship of pure logic; the house once belonged to a hanging judge, notorious for his love of the death sentence, and the rats in the walls are making an awful racket...

Something’s cooking in the kitchen in Stanley Ellin’s The Speciality of the House. One of the best-known of all the entries in the Pan Book of Horror Stories, this details a man being taken by his friend to an exclusive, strictly invitation-only fine dining club tucked away in the city, by the name of Sbirro’s. On the menu is Lamb Amirstan, a dish comprising the flesh of a special breed of sheep reared in the seldom-trodden mountains between Russia and Afghanistan.

Of course, it’s something a bit more sinister than that. But the joy of this story is in the subtlety, the language and the slow build-up, rather than in any sudden shock or surprise. And you’ll be more than willing to forgive the jarring depiction of the foreigners who work at Sbirro’s. More wine, saair?

Please be upstanding now for Agatha Christie’s “The Last Seance”. This is about a very tired medium, Simone, who is preparing to contact the dead daughter of a new client, the formidable Madame Exe. Simone’s friend, Raoul, is hoping to persuade her to stop taking on the ectoplasmic burden of raising the dead, owing to the physical exertion each séance entails. A man of science, he is also attempting to reconcile the apparently supernatural phenomena with the concrete properties of matter, weight and mass – something which greatly interests the medium’s sinister patron.

Vernon Routh’s “The Black Creator” is an amiable slice of hokum about an expert in plant life being lured to a strange island to do a job for a mad scientist. The villain hates beauty and will do anything to corrupt it – taking an especial pleasure in mutilation and suffering, as well as the odd bit of genetic tinkering. Examples of his handiwork haunt the grounds of the castle he lives in, weird half-human half-animal hybrids. So naturally, you fear the worst when our noble narrator meets Beatrice the sexy chamber maid.

Sadly this wasn’t the carnivorous plants tale I thought it would be; it is, however, a bonkers pulp-style story with more than a passing nod to HG Wells’ Island of Dr Moreau. It’s disturbing enough and ends with a nightmarish mock wedding, but I have to confess I found some details, such as the dog-faced security guard, unintentionally funny.

And perhaps it’s appropriate for a story about someone who wants to destroy beautiful things that there are parts where the lovely English language is corrupted. First off, a contender for the worst simile of all time: “Walking to the resident’s lounge was like treading on aerated foam rubber in an opulently perfumed and warmed stillness.”

You know, that’s just what I was thinking. It’s almost as if I was there.

Also, there’s a brilliant “literally” literal: “His hands were, literally, like giant hams.”

Yes, I know, meeow, saucer of milk for Pat.

Stephen Hall’s “By One, By Two, And By Three” was a long piece detailing a young Scot’s dabbling with witchcraft as a means of getting back at his disputatious, skinflint uncle, “a merchant from Glasgow”.

Vengeful Scotchmen and blood oaths! This felt like a home game for me.

It’s a chilly tale which turns into a kind of ripping yarns adventure once the summoned demon wreaks havoc among the story’s cast. There was something of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner in the gloomy young Presbyterian, stirred to an act of diabolical revenge which has unwanted consequences for everyone in the story. So let that be a lesson tae ye.

What do you call two connected stories these days? A duology? If so, Oscar Cook completes his duology in this Pan with “Boomerang”, featuring the same two storytelling chappies as in “Piecemeal”. This time the tale of infidelity and grim revenge is even more gruesome, and it’d be a shame to spoil the details.

Ah to hell with it, I will – earwigs.

Philip Macdonald takes to the skies next with his unology, “Our Feathered Friends”. This follows a young couple taking a stroll in some woodland, eager to return to nature. They do – but find themselves facing a fleet of delicate little green birds with long yellow beaks. The pair are rapt by the sounds of the forest and the curious little birds, until the blindingly obvious happens. Tweet that.

“Taboo” by Geoffrey Household details a hunting expedition in Eastern Europe where two men seek to bring down a supposed werewolf which has been causing bloody mayhem in a remote village where they’ve been on holiday. The stalking scenes in the woods are wonderful, but the story’s ultimate denouement adds a shiver of disgust to the suspense. This is the best story in the book.

“The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe is about Sparky the cat, who goes on lots of adventures with his buddies Nibbles the gerbil and Speedy the tortoise in the enchanted garden.

Oh - hang on, it’s not.

Scuttling in the rear is “Leningen Versus The Ants” by Carl Stephenson. This is another widely-anthologised classic, which was also filmed as The Naked Jungle starring Charlton Heston. Here, a plantation owner finds himself facing the might of a rolling carpet of flesh-eating ants, each the size of a man’s thumb, or a modest penis. This one moves more into derring-do territory rather than outright horror, with lots of grateful indigenous workers as Leningen goes into battle against the six-legged menaces.

I had no idea of the line-up for this collection when I bought it. I can now reveal that two out of the 15 stories featured in our Horror Stories World Cup last year, and perhaps another two could easily have participated.

Like all of the Pans, your only chance of picking them up (apart from the re-released first volume), is second-hand, but I do urge you to have a scout for this one.

Coming soon: volume three.

Sleep tight.

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