Review by Pat Black
It’s time to cackle, it’s time to snicker, it’s time to shiver – here we are, then, with the Third Pan Book of Horror Stories.
Your Yucky Cover: This is one of the fluffier ones, depicting some sort of hairy beast sticking its head out of a crypt. It is not in the least bit scary or repulsive, and looks like something a child would cuddle into during a thunderstorm.
Herbert van Thal’s series had sold well into seven figures by the time volume three hit the shelves in 1962. The times were a-changing, though – this was the year of the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy predicting man would walk on the moon, four boys from Liverpool releasing their first hit single and a former milkman from Fountainbridge starring in a film called Dr No. For all these world-changing, banner events, the Pans didn’t quite reflect the zeitgeist. As in the previous two volumes, the fog of post-war austerity enshrouds the contemporary tales. Not helping in this matter is the fact that many of these stories were reprints from the “golden age” of Edwardian horror tales, several decades beforehand.
And to be honest, that’s the way I prefer it. Herbert van Thal isn’t interested in reflecting the times. It’s fun to give the book a bit of context, coming as it did at a time when Britain was shedding the tough skin hardened during the war. But all Mr van Thal wanted were the scares, and this is a fine addition to the series.
Horror stalwart Algernon Blackwood opens up with “The Strange Adventures of a Private Secretary in New York”. This is a lengthy piece, and none too straightforward either as the secretary in the title travels to a remote American country house to carry out a bit of underhanded business for his boss. The man of the house has some strange habits, though – not least of which is eating raw meat like an animal – and he has a manservant who is clearly up to no good. Not unlike the work of Ambrose Bierce, Blackwood’s stories sometimes require a bit of close reading. Sometimes you’ll wonder what it is you’ve just read, or whether you missed something, once you’ve reached the end. The atmosphere, as is so often the case with stories featuring strange old houses, was spot-on, although there was a whiff of anti-Semitism about the character of the Jewish servant.
Charles Birkin’s “The Last Night” looks at a tormented mental patient on her final evening at the facility, and a slightly unhinged psychiatrist who has unusual theories about the cause of pain in humans. What could go wrong?
“Meshes of Doom” by Neville Kilvington features a show-stopper of an opening line, but segues into a killer plant story after a botanist installs a rather nasty piece of foliage in spite of the blindingly obvious risks.
As a former owner of a feline friend I was jarred by “The Yellow Cat” by Michael Joseph. Here, a down-at-heel gambler finds his luck changes for the better after he takes in the scrawny creature in the title. He just can’t stop winning – and a gold-digging female admirer ups the ante. She doesn’t like the beast, and so, one drunken night… The cruelty on show here freaked me out far more than the almost psychedelic conclusion.
Charles Lloyd’s “Special Diet” looks at what happens when you let granny go mad in the attic, and leave her to try out special, iron-rich foodstuffs in her own time.
N. Dennett’s “Unburied Bane” puts us on a classic ghost story footing, and is one of the most atmospheric entries in the book. Here, a playwright and his wife check into an ancient farmhouse in the countryside, where all manner of awful things have transpired. The cackling old crone who lives there tells them about the skull of the witch they will find in their room, and how terrible things happen if the object is moved. And so…
The best title, next – “The Shifting Growth”, by Edgar Jepson and John Gawsworth. Shifting growth! Another medical horror, this one looks at an unusual tumescence which seems to have taken residence in the colon of a young girl, a champion swimmer and an otherwise healthy specimen. Her man implores his friend, an eminent surgeon, to have a look inside to see what’s there… It’d be wrong to spoil this one, but it’s a classic, with the tones of a really gloopy urban myth.
“Two Bottles of Relish” by the honourable Lord Dunsany – a big influence on HP Lovecraft and other writers of the weird and macabre – adds its own special sauce for the goose next. Our shifty, unreliable narrator tells us the tale of a local murder inquiry where a man seems to have done away with his girlfriend. Except, there’s no body to be found anywhere – no blood, nothing. The narrator’s flatmate, a chess-playing man of learning, is intrigued by the case and decides to carry out inquiries. The title of the story is a bit of a giveaway, but the conclusion is a little more subtle than you might expect.
We go all Southern, Gothic and thank-ya-ma’am now with “A Rose For Emily”, probably William Faulkner’s most famous short story. Wonder how he would have felt about that? Anyway, this is all very mannerly and spiteful as we wonder whatever became of poor, childless Rose in her big lonely old house. Surely she’s bought that big old load of poison to do away with herself? No?
Charles Lloyd bags a brace for himself with his second entry in this collection, “A Poem and a Bunch of Roses”. Here, a lass accepts an invitation to spend an evening with the widow of her lover. In her big house, in the middle of nowhere. Along with her crazed houselady and her giant, deformed son. Devilment, meet Darwinism.
The best-written tale followed next: HH Ewers’ “The Execution of Damiens”. A very Dunsanian “fireside chat” story here, featuring a German bloke recounting to his friends how he seduced the wife of the English country gentleman whose big, spooky house he’d been staying at as an eighteen-year-old student. The gentleman, a famous rake, doesn’t seem too bothered about this young buck squiring his lady – but issues the gravest warning to beware the room with the window…
This had florid, romantic stretches as the young man follows the object of his obsession. It might have worked just as well as a straightforward bodice-ripper, but it’s countered well by the ugly implications of the conclusion.
Lovecraftian hero Frank Belknap Long appears next with his sea monster story, “The Ocean Leech”. The horrid beast dragging the seamen to their doom in this one appears to be a giant squid at first; but there was a strange kink in the tentacles owing to the weird rapture the translucent blood-sucker induces in its victims.
“An Eye For An Eye” sees yet another return to medical horror. Lord, these 1930s chappies didn’t trust their quacks. Say “Aaarggghhh” for me, will you? Charles Birkin’s own second story in this collection looks at how a servant manages to avoid a murder sentence for doing away with the daughter of his employer, a famous surgeon. When the piece of evidence which the court didn’t hear about lands in his lap, linking the acquitted man with his daughter’s ghastly murder, the surgeon gets himself to work.
If you’re wondering why the Charles Lloyd and Charles Birkin stories seem so similar in their tone, their themes of revenge and also their slight medicinal tang, then wonder no more – it seems that they’re the same guy. Four stories for the same anthology, all spread out like that, does seem a little excessive to me. There were a few other writers who would have given their eye teeth for a shot at publication in the Pans – possibly in as clean and clinical an environment as you could wish for, of course.
More Edwardian ghost trickery follows with William Hope Hodgson’s “The Whistling Room” – a case for his pulp hero, Carnacki the ghost finder. This was a rollicking adventure featuring a lot of the spiritual and supernatural concerns of the age… as well as a dash of absolute bollocks, as our hero sets up his equipment, casts spells and scientifically categorises a whistling demon which bedevils an Irish castle. Later, in an unintentionally hilarious scene, it manifests itself as a giant pair of lips in a pile of dust.
But now, my own lips smack, as we come to Sidney Carroll’s “A Note For The Milkman”. This perfectly nasty study looks at the world of a small, meek man with a plan – to do away with his pecky wife. But he has a rather unique way of going about it, relying on an ancient text which allows him to produce an untraceable, indestructible poison. But he can’t use it on the missus straight away, as that would draw too much attention. No, what he needs is a bit of a diversion… This one got to the nasty, sadistic heart of the Pans, and it did so with the minimum of grue. A tasty treat, and one to savour along with a nice refreshing cup of tea.
A celebrity cameo now from Edgar Allan Poe, in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”. This is the one where a mesmerist thinks it’ll be a good idea to hypnotise his friend, who is on the cusp of death, just to see what happens. The creepy intonations of the dying man are spooky enough, but Mr Poe has an almost triumphantly grim finale in store just before the curtain falls. Bravo!
Elliott O’Donnell’s “The Mystery of the Locked Room” was a little bland – well written enough, and no harm in it, except for the one meted out to the luckless servant girl who gets far too curious about her mistress’s locked room at the far end of the house. And going into a locked room is never a good idea in these stories.
Your mad scientist will see you now, in “Doctor Fawcett’s Experiment” by Raymond Ferrers Broad. Here, a bloke engages in a bit of murder and experimentation in order to create – I think – life from lifelessness, or a completely new species out of a big mix of, I dunno, let’s call it tissue. In all truth I’m not really sure what the doctor’s point is, and by the end of the story, neither is he, although we do know in advance that he is in a world of shit.
“The Caretaker’s Story” by Edith Olivier looks at a curious trope in the horror stories genre – the convention of a doomed person writing down their thoughts and feelings as death approaches, often in media res. We see this in the previous story, where Doctor Fawcett notes down his insane ramblings before confronting oblivion. In this one, where an old sailor with a guilty secret contracted to look after a seaside cottage meets a ghastly end, we go a stage further, with the man actually writing down what’s happening to him, presumably while it’s still happening. An idea that works beautifully in theory, but not in practise, you suspect. “Argh, I’m in agony, help! What’s that? Oh I got a fright there, goodness me!”
Reaching something of a crescendo in the old infidelity-revenge-mad scientists-bad medicine themes which dominate this collection, we have “Lover’s Meeting” by John Ratho. Here, the bored wife of a driven, determined scientist invites a man from her past to visit - “one that got away” before she was married. Awkward!
Anyway, the scientist husband seems to be the perfect gentleman, even going so far as to retire for the evening so as to allow the two old friends to catch up. But alas, the lover is a little far gone with drink, and pushes himself onto his old flame. The scientist husband doesn’t take too well to this, as you may imagine, and decides to involve the visitor to the house in exactly what he’s been doing in the basement.
Ringing the bell for us at the end, there’s HG Wells’ “The Cone”, a beautifully written story if we lay aside the sadism of the situation. Another cuckolded husband, an industrialist who owns some clanking, blazing hell-hole, comes across his friend and wife, whom we know are having an affair. The implications of the situation smoulder between the trio, with no-one having the nerve to state the obvious; this reminded me of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo movie, where the baddie ruminates on how easy it is to lure someone to their death, through a simple manipulation of the fact that some people cannot bear to be impolite. The industrialist then decides to take the philanderer for a wee tour of his facility, including a massive cone which can reach temperatures of 300C. Why, you wouldn’t last a minute if you fell on that… To me, this story was saying something about the rape of the land and the kind, poetic feelings it inspires, by the hellish-seeming fires of ugly but necessary progress, the clanking iron and choking fumes of turn-of-the-century heavy industry. That there’s a sticky end involved should surprise us none, though it pleases us plenty.
I’ve enjoyed this tip-toe through the (toothed) tulips for the third Pan. In a fit of pure booklust, I sourced volume four at the same time as I picked up number three. So stay tuned… and beware!